“Our country has changed,” wrote Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts in the majority decision striking down the section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that gives it teeth. In a five-to-four ruling, the Court effectively found its “pre-clearance” provision, i.e., prior approval from the Justice Department to fiddle with voting rules, too onerous for those states subject to it.
The gutting of the Voting Rights Act, which in its own words was meant to “enforce the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution,” is nothing but a punch in the face to black people. Part of the legal consolidation of the democratic gains that black people won, gun in hand, in the Civil War, the Fifteenth Amendment granted the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But following the defeat of Reconstruction, it became a dead letter in the states of the old Confederacy, which employed poll taxes, literacy tests and other dirty tricks—backed up by the lynch-rope terror of the Ku Klux Klan and local police (often intertwined)—to keep black people from casting their ballots. It took a mass movement, and no small sacrifice of lives, to crush Jim Crow segregation in the South and wrest reforms such as the Voting Rights Act from the ruling class.
Signaling how little racist capitalist America has changed, the states that had fallen under federal oversight celebrated the Supreme Court decision by immediately gearing up their machinery of voter suppression. Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia rushed to implement new voter ID laws that will redound against not just black people but many others at the bottom of society—Latinos, the poor, the elderly. In Arizona, where authorities have gone to great lengths to one-up the Obama administration’s anti-immigrant crackdown, state attorney general Tom Horne railed that the Voting Rights Act “humiliates Arizona by making it say ‘Mother may I’ to the federal government every time it wants to change some remarkably minor laws.” Meanwhile, North Carolina and other states are moving to drastically cut early voting and eliminate same-day registration.
The Court’s ruling should come as no surprise. Chief Justice Roberts is but one of those on the Court who were schooled in the legal doctrine of “strict constructionism,” which in plain English means rolling back rights that black people and others have gained through struggle. Roberts has been devoted to this pursuit since his days as a Justice Department lawyer under Ronald Reagan. Commenting on Roberts’ and Samuel J. Alito’s confirmation hearings, we observed: “Theirs is not a mere ‘judicial philosophy’ but the expression in the legal/judicial realm of the call that the ‘South will rise again’” (WV No. 864, 17 February 2006). For Senate Democrats at the time, the reactionary views of these Bush nominees were not an issue. Despite Democrats’ rancor over the Voting Rights Act decision, Barack Obama and his party have done their part to downplay the enduring character of racial oppression, not least through Obama’s much-lauded comment in 2008 that the civil rights movement took black people “90 percent of the way” to full equality.
The reality is that by every measure—employment, income, housing, education—the yawning gap between white and black America persists to this day. Nearly 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, black people are still blown away on the streets of this country simply for their appearance, as was 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last year. Today his vigilante killer is on trial, but only because nationwide protest prompted his arrest. Across the country, the police routinely stop, frisk, beat and jail black youth, although not to the satisfaction of NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently lamented that “we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little.” Mass incarceration has left some 13 percent of black men with felony convictions. If ever released, most of them continue to be stripped of basic rights, including the franchise.
The “end of racism” nonsense plays into the hands of right-wing reactionaries as they go about instilling their view that oppressed minorities deserve nothing, ever. Take Justice Antonin Scalia sneering in February that pre-clearance is the “perpetuation of a racial entitlement.” Cut of the same cloth was the Supreme Court’s recent seven-to-one ruling that puts another nail in the coffin of affirmative action—also a gain, however minimal, of the civil rights movement. The case was kicked back to a lower court for consideration under a new standard that will make it even harder for universities to consider race in admissions. The ongoing racist purge of higher education and skyrocketing tuition costs cry out for a fight for free, quality, racially integrated education for everyone, through the university level.
These judicial feats turning back the clock have been very easy to carry out. Why? Time and again, the capitalist Democratic Party politicians who pass for leaders of the black masses have diverted justified anger back into electoral politics, as have the bureaucrats atop the trade unions. The resulting low ebb in social and class struggle has put wind in the sails of the decades-long effort to roll back the gains of the civil rights movement, not to mention the ongoing war on labor that has hit black workers, most recently in the public-sector unions, especially hard. Historically comprising a reserve army of labor to be maintained, albeit minimally, for the American bourgeoisie, today the black ghetto poor are increasingly considered to be an expendable population.
It is crucial to defend voting rights and every other gain for black people, other minorities and the working class. Depriving the oppressed of basic democratic rights is a declaration that it is open season on them. At the same time, a serious defense of those rights would involve mobilizing not votes for “lesser evil” representatives of the class enemy but rather mass struggles against the racist capitalist rulers. Such a fight for the rights of the oppressed would prove a powerful leaven to the class struggle of the working class as a whole.
Racial Oppression—Bedrock of U.S. Capitalism
Following the defeat of the South in the Civil War, the former slaves were liberated—codified in the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery—and extended such basic rights as the right to vote and hold office. This period of Radical Reconstruction was the most democratic in American history, with black rights enforced in the South at rifle-point by the interracial Union Army. Among the measures adopted were the Fourteenth Amendment—which conferred citizenship on “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” an important protection for immigrants as well—and the Fifteenth Amendment.
Ultimately, though, the Northern bourgeoisie in pursuit of its class interests went on to betray Reconstruction, making common cause with Southern landholders to ensure the maintenance of private property in the means of production. This turn was exemplified by the Compromise of 1877, after which Union troops were ordered back to their barracks, opening the road for Jim Crow to ride in on the Klansman’s horse. The black population, although not returned to slavery, was solidified as a specially oppressed race-color caste.
With the mass migration of blacks from the South to the industrial cities of the North—initially around the time of World War I—the bourgeoisie increasingly fostered anti-black racism, making the color bar a dividing line that has served to obscure the fundamental class divide in society. To this day, racist poison plays a central role in blocking the development of class consciousness in the American proletariat. As a result, the U.S. is the only industrial country where the workers have not had their own independent political party, even a reformist one. The legacy of black chattel slavery is behind much in the U.S. political system that is anti-democratic, e.g., the Senate, which is designed to favor less populous rural and Southern regions by granting each state equal representation.
Although the courageous struggles of the civil rights foot soldiers were instrumental in ending Jim Crow, the bourgeoisie had its own reasons for acquiescing. The system of legal segregation in the South had become outdated with the mechanization of agriculture and the growth of a black proletariat in the region. It was also a blemish on the U.S. image abroad. In countering American bourgeois propaganda that praised the virtues of “democracy,” the Soviet Union made hay of scenes of police dogs mauling and truncheons pummeling black men, women and children in the South. As Louis Menand related in the New Yorker (8 July): “American Presidents were trying to run a Cold War. They could live with Jim Crow when it was an invisible regional peculiarity, but once conditions were broadcast around the world they experienced an urgent need to make the problem go away.”
The strategy of Martin Luther King and other liberal civil rights leaders was to appeal to the “conscience” of the capitalist rulers, pinning their hopes on the beneficence of their courts and the Democratic Party in Washington. The ruling class was willing to make concessions in the sphere of democratic rights. But it would not and could not redress the abject material conditions besetting the black masses. The civil rights movement met its defeat when it came North, where it confronted the conditions of black impoverishment and oppression woven into the fabric of American capitalism: rat-infested slums, crumbling schools, mass unemployment and rampant cop terror.
The great Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, co-leader with V.I. Lenin of the 1917 Russian Revolution that brought the proletariat to power, described this dynamic in his 1922 report “The Position of the Republic and the Tasks of Young Workers”:
“The bourgeoisie makes concessions to the working class: universal suffrage, social and factory legislation, national insurance, the shortening of the working day. The bourgeoisie makes a retreat step by step; where necessary it grants a reform; when possible it puts on the pressure again and then makes a retreat. Why? It is manoeuvring; the ruling class is fighting for its rule, for the exploitation of the other class. Of course the reformists suppose that bit by bit they will remake the bourgeois system into a socialist one. And we reply to this: rubbish!—while power is in the hands of the bourgeoisie they will measure out each reform but they know up to what point they can grant a reform. And just for this purpose they have the power in their hands.”
What the bourgeoisie grants it also can take away. As the chipping away at the gains of the civil rights movement shows, reforms under capitalism are eminently reversible. The same is true for gay rights, now widely considered on firmer footing after another five-to-four Supreme Court ruling last month that declared unconstitutional a key provision of the anti-gay federal Defense of Marriage Act signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996. That decision came amid increasing support among the bourgeoisie and more widely in society for extending to same-sex couples the institution of marriage—one of the means by which the ruling class exerts social control.
The only way to win social equality is to put an end to the capitalist system of exploitation. With black people historically a vital part of the American economy while at the same time in the mass forcibly segregated at its bottom, we advance the program of revolutionary integrationism. Fighting against all forms of discrimination and segregation, we understand that the liberation of black people can be achieved only through integration into an egalitarian socialist society. This perspective is counterposed to both liberal integrationism, which holds that black equality can be achieved within the confines of American capitalism, and black nationalism, which despairs of the possibility of overcoming racial divisions through united class struggle.
Liberalism and the American Nightmare
Adding a heavy dollop of cynicism to its reactionary ruling, the Supreme Court directed Congress to come up with a new, improved method of pre-clearance, well aware that lawmakers are unlikely to agree to any standard. But if you believe the NAACP and other liberal types, it is time to appeal to the “better angels” among the Congressional Republicans. Democratic Party mouthpiece Al Sharpton—one of the organizers of the August 24 “National Action to Realize the Dream” events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington—has pledged to “mobilize nationwide to put the pressure on Congress to come up with stricter voter protection laws.”
The predictable reaction of top officials of the unions, many of which have endorsed the August 24 events, is to similarly preach faith in the politicians who look after the interests of racist American capitalism. In his statement on the Voting Rights Act decision, AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka declared: “We call on Congress with leadership from President Obama to live up to the ideals of our democracy by protecting and ensuring the right to vote for all.” “Our” democracy is a society where the capitalist exploiters call the shots, offering up the electoral shell game to mask their class dictatorship. Barack Obama, the first black man elected president, took office at a time when the ruling class sought an effective Commander-in-Chief after the Bush-Cheney years, one who could sell the lie that rapacious U.S. imperialism was a bastion of democracy. He has delivered for them, advancing such American “ideals” as shredding democratic rights and expanding the surveillance state, pursuing the Afghanistan occupation and Libya bombing, deporting masses of immigrants and launching a crusade against teachers unions.
The real game for Sharpton, Trumka & Co. is to bolster the fortunes of the Democratic Party. Racist voter suppression impacts black, Latino and student populations that in the main vote for the Democrats. As such, it is advantageous for the Republicans to carry out a naked assault on voting rights, although this backfired in 2012 when the black voter turnout rate was higher than that of whites, impelled in part by outrage over attempts to suppress the vote.
The outright bigotry of the Republican Party allows the Democrats to take for granted support from black people, and in the recent past it has also thrown a lot more Latino votes in their direction. As Malcolm X once wrote: “‘Conservatism’ in America’s politics means ‘Let’s keep the n—ers in their place.’ And ‘liberalism’ means ‘Let’s keep the knee-grows in their place—but tell them we’ll treat them a little better; let’s fool them more, with more promises.’” Although he lacked a revolutionary working-class perspective, Malcolm was a scathing truth-teller, pointedly referring to the original March on Washington as the “Farce on Washington.”
Chattel slavery was abolished on the battlefields of the Civil War, the Second American Revolution. But a lot of unfinished business remains. It will take a Third American Revolution to do away with the system of wage slavery in which the oppression of black people is materially rooted. To this end, workers and the black masses must be broken from the grip of the Democratic Party. Workers need their own party, a revolutionary party capable of leading the struggle for an egalitarian socialist society, ushering in the dawn of black freedom.