Capitalist America: Racist Hell

Zimmerman Goes Free, Detroit Goes Under

Workers Vanguard

George Zimmerman was given a pass twice, first by the police, then by a jury, for the coldblooded murder of Trayvon Martin. With the racist vigilante again free to go about his business, protests flared up in cities across the country. It was impossible to mistake the message of the verdict in his trial: black life is as cheap as ever in capitalist America, where cops gun down youth in the streets with impunity and the vast majority are locked into the bottom rungs of the economy. This raw reality is playing out with a vengeance today in heavily black Detroit, the one-time Motor City that the auto bosses turned into a bankrupt industrial wasteland, at the cost of tens of thousands of decent-paying union jobs. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s recent gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is another blow at the democratic rights that black people have wrested through struggle.

As the Spartacist League wrote in a leaflet issued following the Zimmerman verdict (reprinted on page 15): “Here was a case study in the machinery of courts, cops and prosecutors whose job is to maintain and defend a system rooted in the brutal exploitation of the many by the few—a system built on a bedrock of racial oppression, from chattel slavery to wage slavery.” The expressions of anger and anguish at Zimmerman’s acquittal compelled President Obama—the current boss of that system—to comment on the situation in a “surprise” speech on July 19.

Many black people found solace in his remarks, especially the account of his personal experiences with race prejudice before becoming a Senator and his acknowledgement of “a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws.” A common refrain is that the first black president wants to do right by black people, but his “hands are tied” by hostile, mainly Republican, forces. The simple fact is that Obama has done the job that the main body of the ruling class selected him for: overseer for a capitalist profit system that criminalizes young black men and chews up the working people, spitting them out when their labor is no longer needed. Former president Bill Clinton also told black people that he felt for them as he put 100,000 more cops on the streets and ended “welfare as we know it.” This speaks to the role of the two parties of capital: While the Republicans openly declare their contempt for blacks, immigrants and the unions, the Democrats say they’re your friends…and end up doing the same thing.

Obama’s remarks came on the same day that the White House again rejected out of hand the idea that the federal government would rescue Detroit, where what remains of basic public services as well as the jobs, pensions and retiree health care benefits of city workers are on the chopping block. The Wall Street Democrat Obama—whose administration handed out trillions to the banks and tens of billions to the auto bosses—is showing an empty pocket to the city’s black masses.

“Justice” System at Work

For all his lecturing on “racial profiling,” Obama pronounced New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly “well-qualified” to run the Department of Homeland Security. Kelly is the architect of the city’s notorious stop-and-frisk program, which he designed “to instill fear” in young blacks and Latinos. He also set up the NYPD’s Demographics Unit, which has dispatched officers in the Northeast to spy on Muslims—fitting credentials for running the domestic “war on terror.”

Obama endorsed the propriety of the Zimmerman trial, throwing in a threat against protesters who might engage in “violence.” He also poured cold water on hopes about the outcome of the Justice Department’s review of the case, intoning that the legal code and law enforcement are “traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal level.” Democratic Party liberals and mainstream black leaders widely lauded Obama’s speech—as did the ever-obsequious International Socialist Organization (ISO), which wrote in “Why We’re Still Marching” (Socialist Worker, 1 August) that the imperialist Commander-in-Chief “spoke powerfully” about racism.

When PBS host Tavis Smiley broke the mold and blasted Obama’s talk as being as “weak as pre-sweetened Kool-Aid,” he was heaped with abuse. Radical academic Cornel West, a onetime Obama supporter, is also getting flak for a July 22 interview with Democracy Now!, in which he called the president “a global George Zimmerman” for the lethal drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen that have come to symbolize his execution of the “war on terror.”

For his sharp comments, West is persona non grata for Al Sharpton and his National Action Network, the NAACP and others organizing the 50th anniversary March on Washington events this month. A key purpose for the liberal establishment that sponsored the 1963 march, where Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech, was to keep the lid on the mass struggles for black rights that were shaking the country and to channel them into pressure politics for the benefit of the Democratic Party (see article on page 13).

While there is a dearth of class and social struggle today, thanks in no small part to the hat-in-hand labor bureaucracy and black bourgeois politicians, the bankrupt liberal strategy remains the same: pressuring the federal government and pushing the fortunes of the Democratic Party. Even as delicate criticisms of Sharpton and the NAACP are offered, the ISO’s “Still Marching” editorial expresses delight that such “mainstream groups” are organizing the protest, not least because it “will widen the mobilization, both for the Washington march and for anti-racist demonstrations generally.” They predict, correctly, that criticism of Obama will be verboten from the platform, but that’s no matter for the ISO—it’s going to be big!

With their calls for federal civil rights charges to be brought against Zimmerman, the liberals sow illusions in the same Justice Department that serves as the top cops of a system of rampant racist police terror, frame-up trials and overflowing prisons. In fact, at a time when state prison populations have declined as a whole, mainly due to budget pressures, the federal prison system has grown by 3 percent annually. Attorney General Eric Holder may well do something to block the openly racist voter suppression measures adopted in Texas and other states in the wake of the Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act. Such a step would simply be in the Democrats’ own interest. The black people, immigrants and other minorities denied the right to vote by these measures generally go Democrat.

For the Right of Armed Self-Defense

The Sanford, Florida, jury accepted George Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense, which was buttressed by the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Over 20 state governments, centered on the old Confederacy, have passed similar legislation with bipartisan support in recent years. We oppose such laws, which remove the guideline that a person in danger must seek to retreat before using deadly force. These laws thus sanction vigilantism. As we observed in “Trayvon Martin: Killed for Being Black in America” (WV No. 999, 30 March 2012),

Florida’s law “allows for the use of deadly force by anyone who claims a ‘reasonable belief’ that such force is necessary, without even attempting to disengage. And in racist America, a black kid in a hoodie is enough to claim ‘reasonable belief’ of danger.”

For that matter, so is a group of black youths listening to rap music. In November 2012, four teenagers at a Florida gas station were in a parked SUV, next to the car of Michael Dunn, a white man. After complaining bitterly of the “thug music,” Dunn opened fire on the SUV, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis. Since his arrest, Dunn has invoked the “Stand Your Ground” defense on the basis that he believed the teens had a rifle (they did not) and were threatening to kill him.

Many liberals draw a straight line connecting opposition to “Stand Your Ground” with support for gun control. This amalgam is deadly dangerous for workers, black people and the poor. As Marxists, we support the right of armed self-defense and oppose gun control, the effect of which is to strengthen a monopoly of arms in the hands of the capitalist state—leaving guns in the hands of fascists, vigilantes and criminals as well as the cops. Working people must vigorously defend the right to bear arms, which is supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution. Both Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis were minors, with no right to carry a firearm. If either had been armed, he might still be alive today. Of course, in racist America, survival might well have ended in a lengthy prison term, or even a death sentence. For simply firing a warning shot into the wall of her home during an argument with her husband, Marissa Alexander, a black mother of three, was recently sentenced to 20 years in a Florida prison after a judge denied her “Stand Your Ground” defense.

The crucial importance of armed self-defense for the fight for black rights was captured in a New Yorker (29 July) article by Jelani Cobb, despite its conflation of “Stand Your Ground” with the right to bear arms. Cobb noted:

“There is a long history of African-American support for gun rights and the principle of armed self-defense. In 1957, after receiving threats of violence, Robert F. Williams armed the N.A.A.C.P. chapter that he led in Monroe, North Carolina…. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist Fannie Lou Hamer spoke publicly of the loaded guns that she kept under her bed, and members of organizations like the Deacons for Defense and Justice carried weapons with the goal of protecting civil-rights workers in the South.”

Self-defense against racist terror has historically been met with state repression, including through gun control measures. In the 1960s, such laws were passed in New York and California to specifically target Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. State bans were followed by gun control laws nationwide, especially after the ghetto upheavals that broke out following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.

Capitalist Profit Drive Killed Detroit

Key to bourgeois liberal mythology in America is the notion that racism boils down to bad laws and bad ideas, obscuring the truth that black oppression is materially based. As Karl Marx explained a century and a half ago in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), the “totality of relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which corresponds definite forms of social consciousness.”

The plight of Detroit throws into sharp relief the intertwining of black oppression and capitalist exploitation. When the city filed for bankruptcy on July 18, government spokesmen and the bourgeois press pointed the finger at mismanagement by city officials. This was a convenient alibi for the main perpetrators: the auto companies that first brought in waves of labor—white and black, native-born and immigrant—to slave away on the assembly line, and then mercilessly chucked them out when those plants did not produce sufficient profit. Motown was left to crumble away as the culmination of a decades-long process of deindustrialization—a series of decisions by the barons of capital to pursue profit-making elsewhere.

At its height, Detroit was the hub of the auto industry, and the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, forged through strike action in the 1930s, became the powerhouse of the labor movement in the U.S. But between 1947 and 1963 Detroit lost 140,000 manufacturing jobs. When profit margins increasingly narrowed in the 1970s as a result of Japanese competition, the Big Three began in earnest to carry out waves of plant closures across the Midwest, moving a good deal of production to low-wage areas in the open shop South and overseas.

Shortly after the wreckers’ ball had demolished Chrysler’s Dodge Main, and with it 30,000 jobs, the Spartacist League ran two candidates for city council in 1981 on a platform “For a Socialist Fight to Defend Labor/Black Detroit!” The campaign noted: “Here in Detroit we see the crisis of the entire capitalist system most starkly revealed, most advanced in decay, most anarchic in irrationality, most painful in social consequences. Detroit’s skilled proletariat would be the most valuable resource of a rational society—the class that can build a socialist America” (WV No. 287, 14 August 1981). Today, with only two auto factories and 27,000 manufacturing jobs remaining inside city limits, skilled and unskilled workers are trying to survive on low-wage McJobs, unemployment lines and soup kitchens.

Since 1950, Detroit’s population has gone from 1.8 million to 700,000 today, leaving an 82 percent black population that the capitalist rulers consider surplus. From the liberal Coleman Young in the 1970s to the not-so-liberal Dave Bing today, black Democratic mayors have presided over the attacks on the city’s residents. Adding insult to injury, white Republican governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager, black lawyer Kevyn Orr, to conduct a fire sale of city assets and slash costs to the bone, beginning with unionized labor. Orr’s main qualification to run the city is his having been part of Chrysler’s legal team during the auto bailout.

From the outset, the massive bailout of the automakers focused on how best to gut the UAW and bring wages and benefits down to the level in non-union plants. We opposed the bailout, warning that it “will be purchased through the further destruction of the jobs and livelihoods of working people” (“Bosses Declare War on UAW Workers,” WV No. 926, 5 December 2008). Indeed, plant closures and mass layoffs followed, clearing the way for hiring new workers and temps at half the pay of senior workers when production picked up.

The UAW leadership enthusiastically agreed to these massive concessions, as well as a no-strike pledge good for six years. At the root of the labor traitors’ capitulation is their support to the capitalist profit system—in particular the fortunes of the auto companies—and the “national interests” of U.S. imperialism. As UAW head Bob King told it during the 2012 elections, Obama had saved the auto industry with the bailout. With their program of class collaboration, the union tops have acceded to the proliferation of non-union plants, especially in the South—and now even Michigan has gone “right to work” like the Southern states. A first step in rebuilding the labor movement in this country will be to organize those plants, which means fighting head-on the color bar that has long served to divide workers and weaken their struggles against the bosses.

Such necessary struggles pose the need for a new leadership in the unions that is not beholden to the political parties of the class enemy. Such a leadership would use the weapons of the class struggle, not only to fight for jobs, better pay and conditions but also to wield labor’s power in defense of the unemployed and the ghetto and barrio masses. This is a crucial part of the fight to forge a revolutionary workers party dedicated to the overthrow of the decaying capitalist order, which consigns the black masses to entrenched poverty, unemployment, rotten housing, segregated education and police terror.

A revolutionary leadership would seek to mobilize the working class, with its militant black component, to fight against every instance of racist injustice. This perspective flows from the understanding that black freedom will finally be achieved only when the capitalist exploiters are thrown from power and labor rules this society. This understanding was first imparted to the American Communist movement by the Bolshevik Party of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, which had succeeded in leading the working class in smashing capitalist rule in the October 1917 Russian Revolution. It is in this tradition that the Spartacist League seeks to build a workers party that emblazons on its banners the call: Black liberation through socialist revolution! 

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Zimmerman Verdict — 21st Century Dred Scott Decision

There Is No Justice in the Capitalist Courts!

Spartacist League

George Zimmerman got away with the coldblooded killing of Trayvon Martin. Not even a slap on the wrist, nothing. The verdict is the 21st-century echo of Chief Justice Taney’s infamous declaration in the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision that black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Dred Scott was a fugitive slave, Trayvon Martin a black teenager walking home from a 7-Eleven store with a bag of candy and an iced tea. But for wannabe cop and racist vigilante George Zimmerman, the 17-year-old Martin was on the “white” side of the tracks in Sanford, Florida, one of the “punks” who “always get away.” So he stalked Trayvon like a fugitive slave and shot him dead. This is what they call post-racial America, where a black man sits in the Oval Office and black life on the streets is as cheap as ever.

The acquittal of Zimmerman—by a jury without a single black person on it—was no aberration in the American justice system. On the contrary, that system worked according to script. Here was a case study in the machinery of courts, cops and prosecutors whose job is to maintain and defend a system rooted in the brutal exploitation of the many by the few—a system built on a bedrock of racial oppression, from chattel slavery to wage slavery.

The only unusual thing was that Trayvon wasn’t gunned down by a cop, the fate of so many young black men in this country. The Zimmerman verdict coincided with the release of the movie Fruitvale Station, based on the last day of Oscar Grant’s life. A 22-year-old black man, Grant was shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit cop on New Year’s Day, 2009, as he lay handcuffed and prone on the floor of the Oakland station. The movie stands out for depicting Oscar Grant as a human being with all the strengths and frailties of a young black man in capitalist America. This cuts against the grain of this society, where black youth are written off as violent predators, as suspects who are guilty until proven innocent.

It wasn’t George Zimmerman on trial in that Florida courtroom, it was Trayvon Martin. His “crime” was being black in America. After killing Martin, Zimmerman was released without charges by the cops. Only six weeks later did a state prosecutor file an indictment. The same prosecutor had just won a case against a 31-year-old black mother, Marissa Alexander, who was given 20 years for firing a warning shot into a wall when threatened with violent attack by her husband. There was no such zeal when it came to prosecuting Zimmerman. It wasn’t that the prosecution didn’t have a case. The truth is that this wasn’t their field of expertise, which is railroading black people to prison.

The judge ruled that race, the central issue in the case, could not be raised in court. But racist fear and loathing of black people was at the core of the defense case. By repeatedly pounding a dummy into the courtroom floor as “evidence” that it was the lanky teenager who assaulted the far heftier Zimmerman, they turned “the victim into the predator and the predator into the victim,” in the words of black academic Robin Kelley. Contempt and derision for the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, the young black woman who was talking to Martin on his cell phone while he was stalked by the “creepy-ass cracker” Zimmerman, oozed from the courtroom to the media.

When the verdict was announced, black preachers and Democratic Party politicians scrambled to contain the outrage, appealing for peace. Replying to the call for calm, Gary Younge wrote in his London Guardian (14 July) column: “Those who now fear violent social disorder must ask themselves whose interests are served by a violent social order in which young black men can be thus slain and discarded.” The role of the preachers and bourgeois politicians is to serve the interests of the rulers of this society by maintaining people’s illusions in the “justice” system. This is what’s behind Al Sharpton’s call for protests at federal courthouses on July 20 to pressure the Justice Department to bring a civil rights case against Zimmerman.

Attorney General Eric Holder may be a black man, but he is the top cop in the vast state apparatus—the police, courts and prisons—whose purpose is to enforce the subjugation of the working class and the oppressed to the capitalist exploiters. As Richard Pryor so incisively put it, “You go down there looking for justice; that’s what you find: just us”—that is, prisons overflowing with black people. As for the kind of investigations the Obama/Holder Justice Department are fervently pursuing, these are mainly aimed at silencing “whistle-blowers” like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden for exposing U.S. imperialism’s dirty wars, drone attacks and torture chambers targeting brown-skinned peoples around the globe as well as their domestic spying apparatus. The savagery perpetrated against Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and detainees at Guantánamo is but a concentrated expression of the systematic brutality of the cops and prisons on U.S. soil.

Obama, the Commander-in-Chief of U.S. imperialism who keeps a list of people for targeted assassinations abroad, used the Zimmerman verdict to piously ask “if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence.” Actually, if Trayvon Martin had been armed he might be alive today, although he would also most likely be behind bars. Zimmerman invoked Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which, like similar laws in other states, allows for the use of deadly force by anyone claiming “reasonable belief” that such force is necessary. In this country, any black kid in a hoodie is enough for someone to claim “reasonable belief” of danger. By eliminating retreat as a criterion for self-defense, these laws are a license to kill. And as shown in the case of Marissa Alexander, black people are not allowed such ground to stand on.

At the same time, defending the right to bear arms is vital for the self-defense of working people, black people and the poor. Gun control is a means of enforcing a monopoly of violence for the capitalist state, leaving guns in the hands of cops, criminals and racist vigilantes while the rest of the population is defenseless. Gun control kills, and as the whole history of this country shows, it kills black people in particular.

It took a bloody Civil War, the Second American Revolution, with 200,000 black troops, guns in hand, to smash the chains of black chattel slavery. But the promise of black freedom was soon betrayed by the Northern bourgeoisie, which allied with the Southern propertied classes against the aspirations of the black freedmen. It will take a third American Revolution—a proletarian socialist revolution that breaks the chains of capitalist wage slavery—to finish the Civil War.

Many of those protesting Zimmerman’s acquittal have spoken out against “the system.” But this has little meaning absent the understanding that the working class is the only force with the social power and class interest to get rid of a system rooted in the exploitation of labor and the forcible subjugation of black people at the bottom. No doubt many view the notion of the workers fighting in their own interests and in the interests of black people and all the oppressed as wishful thinking. Responsibility for this can be laid at the doorstep of the trade-union misleaders, who for decades have allowed the unions to be hacked to pieces while turning a blind eye to the plight of the ghetto and barrio poor. The labor bureaucrats’ accommodation to the rulers’ onslaught flows from their allegiance to the capitalist profit system and to the “lesser evil” Democrats, whose job, no less than the Republicans, is to maintain that system.

But there are real battalions of organized labor, like the overwhelmingly black longshore unions in the Florida ports of Jacksonville, Miami and Tampa. Their labor is essential to the profitability of U.S. imperialism. In this lies their social power to take on the capitalist rulers. In turn, such workers provide a critical link to the defense of the black poor.

The key to unlocking this power is the fight for a class-struggle leadership of labor based on independence from and opposition to the capitalist state and its political parties. The Spartacist League/U.S. is dedicated to forging a multiracial revolutionary workers party that will lead the exploited in wresting the wealth of this country out of the hands of the greedy and corrupt capitalist owners. When the power of the ruling class and its state apparatus is shattered, this wealth will be deployed for the benefit of those who produced it—not least the descendants of the black slaves whose labor was a cornerstone on which American capitalism was built. In an egalitarian socialist America, Justice Taney’s racist decree will be buried once and for all and the cause of black freedom will finally be realized.

Lessons from the Legalized Murder of Trayvon Martin

Nina Westbury

The sad but unsurprising acquittal of George Zimmerman has uncovered the racial oppression that remains the bedrock of American capitalism even under a black President. It is a cruel irony that just a few weeks ago, a narrow Supreme Court majority gutted the Voting Rights Act by citing a dramatic improvement in racial equality since the Civil Rights Movement. A jury has ruled that in Florida, it is legal to kill young black men (17-year-old Martin was not a “boy,” as paternalistic guilty liberals have repeatedly stated) if one thinks they’re “scary.” This finding is only notable since it applies domestically. Abroad, drone strikes have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of black and brown people with little fanfare, beginning under the Bush administration and ramping up under President Obama. As political polarization intensifies and elites are unable to resolve the capitalist financial crisis, formal “post-racialism” is falling by the wayside so that bigotry can again be used as a tool to garner support for austerity at home and recolonization in Africa.

Thinking about all of the injustice surrounding the case of Trayvon Martin today, I couldn’t but help but think about Muammar Gaddafi. Why? The Socialist People’s Libyan Jamahiriyah, the state of the masses outlined by Gaddafi, was a world leader in racial equality and human rights for people of color.

A world-historical hero in our time, taken from us before our own eyes. Never forget.

Libya, with its borders drawn by the old colonial powers, has a large black African minority. Muammar Gaddafi launched the September 1 Revolution inspired by his Egyptian counterpart, the Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser. Despite this, Gaddafi’s Green Book highlighted the important contributions of blacks to world history and predicted they would become the dominant people of the world. Seeing how Arab nationalism was being used by corrupt neoimperial regimes to manipulate their citizens, Gaddafi called on the Libyan government to abandon this ideology in favor of a radical vision of a united African continent. The Brother Leader, a Bedouin Muslim, became a pan-Africanist. His efforts toward African unity led traditional elders to coronate Gaddafi as the symbolic “King of Africa.”

King of Kings.

Gaddafi was made fun of for his famous bodyguards, who were all female and many of whom were black. But this was actually a beautiful action: showing the nation that Gaddafi was committed to women’s empowerment to such an extent that he put his life in their hands. It was a wonderful rejection of ugly stereotypes. Where others saw weakness in these individuals because of their gender or skin color, Gaddafi saw strength.

Under the socialist government, Libya sustainably developed to the point that it became the most developed country in Africa and the standard of living outranked countries including Brazil, Russia, and China. People from elsewhere in Africa flocked to the country for jobs, education, and opportunity. A tiny minority of monarchists, al Qaeda extremists, and corporate neoliberals set out to overthrow the Libyan system of socialist direct democracy in February 2011 as part of the “Arab Spring” color revolutions. The Jamahiriya put up a valiant resistance to a 2011 military campaign launched by NATO, the most powerful military alliance the world has ever known. The Libyan government went so far as to arm its people. Ultimately, however, a country of 5 million inhabitants could not withstand the constant shock-and-awe bombing and targeted killings engineered by Western powers. NATO’s quislings on the ground engaged in racial terror, committing depraved acts of terror against majority-black towns like Tawergha and dark-skinned political prisoners. Gaddafi was murdered by “Islamists” who rejected his pleas for Quranic compassion.

The first black President of the United States said in response to the Zimmerman verdict, “we are a nation of laws.” Not a nation of social justice or equality or diversity. A nation of law-and-order, of militarism, of fear and paranoia. After four years of authorizing drone strike murders of brown-skinned adults and kids, Obama has ditched the lofty racial rhetoric that propelled him to his office. Black Americans have not had allies in the bourgeoisie since the defeat of Radical Reconstruction.

The legalized killing of Trayvon Martin symbolizes the deranged nature of the capitalist system, of which racism is an important pillar. Undoing that system by standing up to oppression at home and abroad is the key to ending institutional racism and building an egalitarian world.

Mass Incarceration and Black Oppression in “Colorblind” USA

The New Jim Crow and Liberal Reformism

Workers Vanguard

Over 40 years ago, Black Panther militant George Jackson wrote in a letter from a California prison: “Blackmen born in the U.S. and fortunate enough to live past the age of eighteen are conditioned to accept the inevitability of prison. For most of us, it simply looms as the next phase in a sequence of humiliations” (Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, 1970). Since then, incarceration on a scale unexampled in the annals of American history has taken root, with black men by far the largest group in the prisons and jails, which hold some 2.3 million people. Many are victims of the bipartisan “war on drugs,” which has fueled a vast expansion of both police powers and the prison population. Taken together, the total of those locked up or on parole or probation is greater than the population of any U.S. city other than New York.

Over the past year, prisoners from California to North Carolina have engaged in hunger strikes against the appalling conditions in America’s overcrowded dungeons, fighting to wrest some vestige of humanity from their jailers. Eventual release is not the end of the abuse, as basic constitutional rights, including the right to vote and to bear arms, are stripped away and one door after another is slammed shut—jobs, public housing, social services—except the one leading back inside prison walls. In addition to the threat of incarceration, black youth daily face harassment and brutalization at the hands of the cops. In 2011 alone, nearly 700,000 people, 87 percent of them black or Latino, were victimized by the New York Police Department’s “stop and frisk” offensive. Tens of thousands in NYC have been saddled with criminal records for simply possessing small amounts of marijuana.

By vividly depicting the devastating “collateral consequences” of the caging of black America, Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness has tapped into deeply felt anger at the shattered lives and become a bestseller. A liberal civil rights lawyer, Alexander writes that she has been newly awakened to “the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy in the United States.” Acknowledging that she is a part of a thin layer of more privileged blacks who benefited most from the civil rights movement, Alexander to her credit argues strongly against the prevalent disdain for the impoverished ghetto masses among blacks of her social standing.

The New Jim Crow also cuts against the myth that the U.S. has become a “colorblind” society, a central theme of the 2008 Obama campaign. Indeed, for “post-racial” liberals, his capturing the White House was proof positive of the dawning of a new era, never mind the cop terror and prison hell, unemployment, home foreclosures, desperate ghettos and prison-like inner-city schools that define life for masses of black people in capitalist America, now with its black overseer. Despite expressing some disappointment in the current administration, Alexander clings to the message of “hope,” titling one section of her book “Obama—the Promise and the Peril.”

Alexander details the racist backlash to the struggles of the civil rights movement, which resulted in the end of the Jim Crow system of legal segregation in the South. Taking the place of naked white supremacy were racist government policies, such as the 1970s “war on crime” and the subsequent “war on drugs,” which were sold to the population in coded language. She also makes a connection between black people being “trapped in jobless ghettos” and being “hauled off to prison in droves.” But while Alexander provides effective and compelling anecdotes and statistics detailing the second-class status of the millions ensnared in the prison system—what she calls the “New Jim Crow”—her wet noodle of a prescription is “movement building” to pressure the government for reform.

This liberal strategy has time and again misled those who seek to fight the evils of the racist capitalist system into reliance on the very government and political parties that oversee that system. Not surprisingly, Alexander’s approach is echoed by the reformist International Socialist Organization (ISO) and other left groups that have embraced her as their latest muse. In Socialist Worker (19 October 2011), the ISO crows that its Campaign to End the New Jim Crow coalition will push for “a fundamental shift from a punitive model to a healing and transformative model of justice.”

We await the ISO’s prediction of when pigs will fly. Organized violence in furtherance of the rule and profits of the bourgeoisie is the very purpose of the state machinery—the cops, courts, prisons and military. The ISO’s shameless sowing of illusions to the contrary is a measure of the fidelity of these “socialists” to the capitalist order. For her part, Alexander asserts that over the last three decades “the nature of the criminal justice system has changed.” Not at all.

The simple truth is that the mills of capitalist “justice” will continue, as always, to grind out victims for the penitentiary from among the castoffs of a system rooted in exploitation and racial oppression, and that the state will use its repressive force—including deadly force—against those victims. As Marxists, we support struggles for whatever reforms can be wrested from the capitalist rulers, including not least the fight to abolish the racist death penalty. But justice will be done only when the capitalist order—with its barbaric state institutions—is shattered by a proletarian socialist revolution that establishes a planned economy with jobs and quality, integrated housing and education for all, thus smashing the basis for black oppression.

The Perpetuation of Caste Oppression

The ISO brags that its Campaign to End the New Jim Crow will jump-start a “movement that challenges the racist ideologies which have helped produced [sic] these conditions.” But black oppression is not the product of bad ideas. It is materially rooted in and central to American capitalism, which was built off the blood and sweat of black labor, from chattel slavery to the assembly line.

The enduring color bar has proved invaluable to the capitalist masters in dividing workers and weakening their struggles against the bosses. It has also served to retard the political consciousness of the American proletariat by obscuring the irreconcilable class divide between labor—white, black and immigrant—and its exploiters.

Originally, the myth of an inferior race was created to ensure a stable, self-reproducing supply of labor on the Southern plantations, where slavery was the central productive relationship. The “markers” of African descent were used to transform blacks into a permanent and perpetually vulnerable group relegated to subordinate status based on their skin color.

The Civil War smashed the slavocracy. But the promise of black equality was soon betrayed as the Northern bourgeoisie, driven by its profit motive, reconciled with the former slaveowners. The Compromise of 1877, under which the last Union troops were withdrawn from the South, brought a close to Radical Reconstruction, the most democratic period ever for black people in the U.S. There would be no “40 acres and a mule” for the emancipated slaves, who were driven back onto the land as sharecroppers and tenant farmers.

As the U.S. developed into an emerging imperialist power, the Jim Crow system was codified throughout the South, leaving its imprint on the rest of the country as well. When blacks escaped their miserable conditions in the South, which were enforced by police-state control and Ku Klux Klan terror, by flocking to Northern industrial cities, they became a crucial part of the proletariat. At the same time, they faced all-sided segregation and discrimination, backed up no less by the state’s repressive apparatus.

The legacy of the defeat of Reconstruction is that the black population in the U.S., although not returned to slavery, was solidified as a specially oppressed race-color caste. To this day, black people face discrimination, in different degrees, regardless of social status, wealth or class position. The caste oppression of black people is shown not just by the mass incarceration of ghetto youth. For example, even Henry Louis Gates Jr., although a noted professor and personal friend of Obama, was arrested for trying to enter his own house three years ago.

Our Marxist understanding of race-caste oppression flows from the fact that black people have historically been a vital part of the American economy while at the same time in the mass forcibly segregated at the bottom. The Spartacist League advances 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 Marxist 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.

The Civil Rights Movement and Its Demise

The anti-Marxist ISO seems to have discovered “racial caste” since reading The New Jim Crow, headlining its review of the book inInternational Socialist Review (September-October 2010) “How the Racial Caste System Got Restored.” But for the ISO, and Alexander, the term caste is reserved for those directly subjugated by a particular “system of control”—identified today as simply mass incarceration—that can be eradicated within the framework of capitalism. This turns the nature of black oppression on its head.

The ISO and Alexander’s singular focus on mass incarceration as the embodiment of racial oppression has a purpose: it poses the fight for black freedom as a matter of “dismantling” that system, much as the civil rights movement dismantled Jim Crow. But mass black incarceration is both a symptom and a means of enforcing the special oppression of black people that is fundamental to American capitalism (see “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration: Black Liberation and the Fight for a Socialist America,” WV No. 955, 26 March 2010; reprinted in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 21, February 2011). While the liberal-led civil rights movement could successfully challenge de jure segregation in the South, it could not challenge de facto segregation and black inequality in the U.S. as a whole.

In the face of mass protest, the bourgeoisie eventually acquiesced to legal equality in the South. Jim Crow had grown anachronistic—the mechanization of agriculture had largely displaced sharecropping. At the same time, blacks had become a significant part of the working class in Southern as well as Northern cities, such as in the steel industry in Birmingham, Alabama. Jim Crow also was an embarrassment overseas as U.S. imperialism postured as the champion of “democracy” in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the industrial and military powerhouse of the non-capitalist world.

One factor helping to fuel the ISO’s dreams of building a popular movement for prison reform is that there are voices among the bourgeoisie complaining that the constant expansion and maintenance of the vast complex of prisons is just too costly, particularly at a time of massive budget shortfalls. But even if some sentences are scaled back and the prison population trimmed, it will no more achieve equality for black people than did the abolition of official Jim Crow.

Indeed, the civil rights movement was defeated in the mid 1960s when it came North, where it ran straight up against the conditions of black impoverishment and oppression woven into the fabric of American capitalism: mass unemployment, rat-infested slums, crumbling schools, rampant police brutality. These conditions could not be eradicated by Congress passing a new civil rights act.

The civil rights struggles in which the black masses courageously confronted the white-supremacist police states of the South profoundly shook U.S. society. In the mid 1960s, the fight for black freedom intersected growing opposition to U.S. imperialism’s counterrevolutionary war in Vietnam, helping fuel broader political radicalization. The role of Martin Luther King Jr. and other liberal black misleaders was to channel social protest back into the fold of the Democratic Party, enforcers of racist capitalist rule no less than the Republicans. Under both parties, the federal government mobilized its police and judicial machinery to assassinate and imprison black militants. In his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here? King urged America’s rulers to “seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of Communism grows and develops.” King bemoaned the “sad fact” (for him) that many had been driven to “feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit.”

The ISO and sundry other reformist outfits cover up for King by deceitfully portraying him as increasingly “revolutionary” in the period before his April 1968 assassination. In a Socialist Worker article (19 January 2009) on King’s 1967 book, the ISO’s Brian Jones reverently claims: “In that last year of his life, he campaigned for radical, social-democratic reforms that are still far beyond what the Democratic Party is prepared to accept.” Alexander likewise cites the “revolutionary potential” of the “human rights movement” that King championed at the end of his life. Lamenting that King’s “poor people’s movement” never came to fruition, the ISO and Alexander see this as a model for protesting “the New Jim Crow.” King spoke out in moral opposition to the war in Vietnam and went to Memphis in April 1968 to support black union members. But while various leftists portray such activity as a turn to the working class, the fact is that King remained a pro-Democratic Party reformer and opponent of militant struggle against capitalist rule.

Black Democrats and the “War on Drugs”

The ISO’s call for a “new civil rights movement” has also been raised by the likes of Democrats Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, given particular impetus with the execution of Troy Davis last September and again with the murder of Trayvon Martin by a racist vigilante in Florida earlier this year. Both cases touched a raw nerve with black people. As they always have, Jackson and Sharpton acted to quell this outrage by funneling it into electoral politics and appeals to the federal government for “justice.” The ISO sang the same tune, arguing after the Trayvon Martin murder for “federal investigations of local police murder and brutality cases” (socialistworker.org, 30 July).

Alexander writes that some “black activists” were “wittingly or unwittingly…complicit in the emergence of a penal system unprecedented in world history.” With Sharpton and Jackson it was very wittingly, as they both spent years championing the “war on drugs,” a fact that goes unmentioned in her book. As noted in Christian Parenti’s Lockdown America (1999), Jackson long ago called for the appointment of a “drug czar” and more funding for local police, ranting that “drug pushers are terrorists.” He got what he wanted, today bragging on his Web site that he advocated the drug war way before it “became accepted public policy.” Sharpton, for his part, led “community” vigilantes against reputed pushers in the 1980s. And both Jackson and Sharpton have for years fulminated against guns in the ghettos. Seizing guns and other means of self-defense is as much a driving force of the NYPD’s racist “stop and frisk” policy as the “drug war.”

While we would favor any measure mitigating the drug laws, no amount of tinkering will change their reactionary nature or racist enforcement. We call for the decriminalization of drugs, just as we call for abolishing all other laws against “crimes without victims”—prostitution, gambling, pornography, etc. By taking the profit out of the drug trade, decriminalization would also reduce the associated crime and other social pathology that have led much of the black population to support drug law enforcement. Upholding the right to self-defense, we strenuously oppose the capitalist rulers’ attempts to disarm those they exploit and oppress. No to gun control!

The ISO’s dream of a “new civil rights movement,” one that can “fix” a “broken system,” is premised on the tired liberal notion that the Democratic Party can be pressured into acting in the interests of working people and the oppressed. The ISO may now be somewhat embarrassed about it, but they were among those who enthused the loudest over Obama’s victory four years ago. Brian Jones wrote inSocialist Worker (6 November 2008) on election night: “Huge numbers of people are energized by the fact that, yes, we can elect a Black president. What we get from this president depends mostly on what happens to this energy, and less on the president himself.”

What working people, blacks and other minorities “got” from the Obama White House was a continuing assault on union gains, mounting job losses, deepening immiseration, the evisceration of civil liberties under the “war on terror” and record numbers of deportations. Despite much talk of shifting tactics, the Obama administration has committed more, not less, money and resources to drug law enforcement, which will only deepen the misery. Meanwhile, U.S. imperialism has rampaged around the world from Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya.

Black radical academic Cornel West, who wrote a foreword to The New Jim Crow, is trying to keep the hope alive, calling in a New York Times (25 August 2011) op-ed piece for support to “progressive” bourgeois politicians. West concluded, “Like King, we need to put on our cemetery clothes and be coffin-ready for the next great democratic battle.” He’s right about one thing: the coffin is exactly where the road of Democratic Party pressure politics leads.

A Class-Struggle Perspective

In the ISO’s articles promoting a “new civil rights movement,” the working class barely registers on the radar screen. This is in keeping with their tailing of Alexander, who writes at length about the repressive measures adopted in the 1970s that mainly targeted black people but has not a word to say about the many thousands of workers, black and white, who engaged in hard-fought strikes in that period.

Black workers, who have for years had a higher rate of union membership than white workers, have been particularly hard hit by the onslaught against the labor movement kicked off by the 1981 smashing of the PATCO air traffic controllers union and the deindustrialization that has devastated cities across the Midwest and Northeast. The war on labor has been accompanied by an ongoing wholesale assault on the gains of the civil rights struggles, from busing for school integration to affirmative action in the universities. Even voting rights are increasingly under attack, as seen with the rash of voter ID laws and the massive disenfranchisement of felons.

As the last hired and first fired, black people were always overrepresented in America’s reserve army of unemployed, to be tapped when the economy needed them and discarded when it soured. But the country’s rulers increasingly see the black ghetto poor as expendable, with the prison cell substituted for the paycheck. The ongoing economic crisis has only compounded this situation. In mid June, over half the blacks in NYC who were old enough to work had not held a job since the start of the year. As Karl Marx put it inWage Labour and Capital (1849): “Thus the forest of uplifted arms demanding work becomes ever thicker, while the arms themselves become ever thinner.”

With the black ghettos simply written off, the bourgeoisie’s drive to imprison ever-increasing numbers of black youth reflects a sinister impulse to genocide. The great black comedian Richard Pryor once commented about the prisons, “Go in there looking for justice, and that’s all you find—just us.” If anything, that reality is even more staggering today. This lends added urgency to the observation in our seminal 1967 document “Black and Red”: “The fight must be fought now to maintain Negroes as part of the working class.”

Despite bearing the brunt of racist cutbacks and job losses, black workers continue to be a strategic component of the U.S. proletariat, which has the social power and historic interest to sweep away the decrepit capitalist system and its murderous police and prison apparatus. The all-sided attacks of the last four decades underscore the point made by Karl Marx at the time of the Civil War: “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” By the same token, the failure of the union misleaders to mobilize labor’s power to combat black oppression has only further encouraged union-busting.

Under revolutionary leadership, black workers, who form an organic link to the downtrodden ghetto masses, will play a vanguard role in the struggles of the entire U.S. working class. It is the purpose of the Spartacist League to build a workers party that links the fight for black freedom to the struggle for proletarian state power.

Trayvon Martin Case: Black Oppression and Gun Laws in America

No to Gun Control! Down with Racist Vigilantism!

Workers Vanguard

On February 26, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was gunned down in cold blood by a racist vigilante in Sanford, Florida. For six weeks, state authorities allowed the killer, George Zimmerman, to walk the streets. Amid an outpouring of nationwide protest sparked by Martin’s parents’ desire merely to see Zimmerman forced to answer charges in court, he was finally indicted for second-degree murder on April 11 and jailed. With Zimmerman’s arraignment scheduled for May 8, he has been released on a $150,000 bond.

After Zimmerman’s arrest, the liberal bourgeois press breathed a collective sigh of relief, concerned that black people, for whom this country remains the same “American nightmare” described by Malcolm X nearly 50 years ago, weren’t buying the myth of a “post-racial America.” Black New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who has often compellingly described the racist workings of the criminal justice system, declared: “The wheels of justice are finally turning…. In this case, America seems to be finally getting it right because equal justice under the law is one of her greatest ideals” (“Justice for Trayvon,” 13 April).

There is no justice for the black masses in racist America! Like countless black men, women and children before him, Trayvon Martin was the victim of a capitalist system that was built on slavery and is maintained on a bedrock of black oppression. Since the beginning of the year, the list of black people killed by cops includes Ramarley Graham in the Bronx, Stephon Watts and Rekia Boyd in the Chicago area, and Dane Scott Jr. in Oklahoma. This time it was wannabe cop Zimmerman, rather than the police themselves, who targeted Trayvon and pulled the trigger. We can’t predict the outcome of Zimmerman’s trial—if one actually takes place. But until America’s capitalist rulers are swept away by proletarian socialist revolution, there will be no justice for Trayvon Martin nor for the multitudes of black and Latino youth, who on a daily basis are stalked by the cops, stopped, frisked, beaten and, if they survive the encounter, framed up and railroaded to prison hell.

It took some weeks before Trayvon’s killing was widely known. Then what followed was an outpouring of goodwill for the family and protests tying the killing to the racist victimization of black youth everywhere. His parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, made the rounds of news shows. Hip-hop/reggae artist Wyclef Jean composed a song for Trayvon. Hoodies were widely worn on campuses and even in churches to protest racist profiling. Sympathetic accounts were initially splashed on newspaper front pages across the country, some of which alluded to the routine cop terrorization of ghettoized youth.

But more recently, a vicious racist backlash has been gaining steam. Efforts to portray Trayvon Martin as a thug proliferated, starting with the release of school records showing that he had been temporarily suspended for having some marijuana residue in a baggie inside his book bag. The Web site of right-wing columnist Michelle Malkin posted a picture, falsely identified as Trayvon Martin, of a shirtless black teen with his boxers hanging out of his pants flipping the bird to the camera. Meanwhile, reactionary media mouthpiece Ann Coulter has denounced press coverage of calls for Zimmerman’s arrest as “a lynch mob.” Amid the media blitz equating black youth lifestyles with criminality, an eighth-grade teacher in Michigan was fired for encouraging students to plan a wear-a-hoodie-to-school day in honor of Martin and advocating they raise money for his family.

Gun Control Kills Blacks

Providing some high-toned fuel for the racist backlash was a Wall Street Journal (6 April) opinion piece, “The Exploitation of Trayvon Martin,” by black conservative Shelby Steele, who argued: “America has greatly evolved since the 1960s. There are no longer any respectable advocates of racial segregation.” His conclusion: “Blacks today are nine times more likely to be killed by other blacks than by whites,” so why not “a movement against blacks who kill other blacks”? Bill Cosby chimed in by telling CNN that the debate over Trayvon Martin’s killing by a neighborhood watch volunteer should be focused on guns, not race.

These despicable comments by Cosby, who likes to lecture black people that they’re responsible for their own oppression, were echoed in one way or another by a cadre of liberal pundits and black Democratic Party politicians railing against the proliferation of guns. Liberals are especially trying to steer opposition to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, under which Zimmerman claimed self-defense, into assaults on the Second Amendment right to bear arms. This view was expressed by labor bureaucrat George Gresham of SEIU 1199 in the “Union Matters” column in the Amsterdam News (12 April), in which he called to put on trial “Florida’s shoot-first ‘Stand Your Ground’ law and the dangerous prevalence of handguns in our nation.”

In “Trayvon Martin: Killed for Being Black in America” (WV No. 999, 30 March), we explained why as Marxists we oppose Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, “which, in removing retreat as a criterion for self-defense, sanctions vigilantism, including murder.” At the same time, we stressed that “the working class and the black population must zealously defend the Constitutional right to bear arms, a product of the Revolutionary War against British colonial rule.” Upholding the right to armed self-defense, Marxists oppose gun control laws, which are a means to enforce a monopoly of violence in the hands of the capitalist state. Gun control leaves guns in the hands of cops, criminals, vigilantes and Klansmen. Gun control kills, and it kills black people in particular.

In the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, the most democratic period for black people in America’s history, many recalcitrant Southern state governments tried to outlaw possession of firearms by blacks. In response, the federal Freedmen’s Bureau widely distributed circulars that read in part, “All men, without distinction of color, have the right to keep arms to defend their homes, families, or themselves.”

The Northern bourgeoisie, acting on its class interests, went on to make peace with the Southern planters, and blacks were forced into backbreaking labor on the land as sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Following the end of Union Army occupation of the South during Reconstruction, naked white-supremacist rule was restored. Jim Crow segregation was enforced by police-state repression, supplemented by the extralegal terror of the Ku Klux Klan. As race-terror swept the South in the late 19th century, anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells wrote:

“The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense.

“The lesson this teaches and which every Afro American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”

—quoted in Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 (Jacqueline J. Royster, ed. [1997])

Black self-defense has historically been met with frenzied state repression. The earliest 20th-century gun control laws were passed in states like South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi as a way to disarm blacks in the face of KKK terror.

An article by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker (23 April) aptly points out, “In the nineteen-sixties, gun ownership as a constitutional right was less the agenda of the N.R.A. [National Rifle Association] than of black nationalists.” In 1965, the New York City Council passed a bill especially to keep Malcolm X from carrying a carbine for his protection; he was assassinated shortly afterward. In 1967, the California legislature banned the carrying of a loaded gun after a demonstration by the Black Panthers, who were legally carrying guns, at the state capitol in Sacramento. The Panthers had been patrolling the Oakland ghetto, where police terror was rampant.

The state’s ban was followed by gun control laws nationwide, especially after the ghetto upheavals that broke out following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. As Lepore notes, gun control, “along with a great deal of subsequent law-and-order legislation, was intended to fight crime, control riots, and solve what was called, in the age of the Moynihan report, the ‘Negro problem.’ The regulations that are part of these laws—firearms restrictions, mandatory-sentencing guidelines, abolition of parole, and the ‘war on drugs’—are now generally understood to be responsible for the dramatic rise in the U.S. incarceration rate.”

“Stand Your Ground”: License to Kill

Florida’s Stand Your Ground law eliminated the historic requirement that in order to claim self-defense, a person facing deadly force must first try to remove himself, if feasible, before himself using such force. Passed in 2005 amid a campaign to “get tough on crime”—code for targeting black people—the law is an open invitation to just the kind of racist vigilante violence that killed Trayvon Martin.

To see the racist intent of Florida’s law, one need look no further than its authors. The law was drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing think tank founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, who was also a founder of the Heritage Foundation and, with the reactionary religious bigot Jerry Falwell, co-founder of the Moral Majority. ALEC has been the driving force behind the voter ID laws that are intended to overwhelmingly disenfranchise black people and the poor and has played a key role in expanding the burgeoning prison population, pioneering mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders and “three strikes” laws.

Over 20 state governments, centered on the states of the slaveholders’ Confederacy, have passed such laws, with bipartisan support. In doing so, they certainly did not have black self-defense in mind. A case in point occurred in 2005 in Georgia, a “Stand Your Ground” state. John McNeil, a black man, was rushed in front of his home by a white man who had been threatening his family with a knife. McNeil fired a warning shot but his assailant continued toward him. McNeil fired again and killed him. Initially, he was not charged in the killing. But prosecutors went after him a year later, and now McNeil is serving a life sentence.

In Florida and other states, possessing firearms is illegal for minors as well as for adults who have been convicted on drug charges or were, as youths, judged delinquent on such charges. Under racist U.S. “law and order,” these categories are overwhelmingly applicable to black people. Since he was under 18, Trayvon Martin had no legal right to be carrying a firearm, and thus no right to use one in self-defense. If he had been armed during his encounter with George Zimmerman, he might be alive today. But in this racist society, his survival may also have been a ticket to prison and possibly death row.

Material Roots of Black Oppression

Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have seized on Trayvon Martin’s killing to trot out the call for a “new civil rights movement,” towing the reformist “socialists” in their slipstream. For decades, Jackson and Sharpton have promoted themselves as spokesmen against racist abuse and police attacks in order to douse the flames of struggle and divert anger among black people into Democratic Party electoral politics and illusions in the capitalist “justice” system. And this is precisely their intention in regard to protests over the Martin killing. Jackson declared at a press conference last month, “I would hope that movement would turn into Trayvon Martin voter-registration rallies.” Sharpton chimed in by telling a convention of his National Action Network on April 11, “We must make the justice system work. Otherwise the movement is for nothing.”

Singing the same tune are the reformists of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). In an article headlined “Building a New Movement for Racial Justice” (Socialist Worker online, 18 April), the ISO calls for organizing to demand “justice and accountability when African Americans are brutalized—or worse—by police.” The hard fact is that the police are “accountable” only to the capitalist ruling class that employs them to repress the working class, black people and other minorities through organized violence.

Sharpton, Jackson and others have likened Trayvon Martin’s killing to the 1955 lynching in Mississippi of 14-year-old Emmett Till for the offense of appearing to whistle at a white woman. The lynching became a catalyst for the civil rights upheavals that rocked the Jim Crow South and reverberated throughout the U.S. As we explain in depth in the article on page 6 of this issue, the heroic struggles to break the color bar were channeled by the liberal civil rights leadership into reliance on the capitalist courts and the Democratic Party. Legalized Jim Crow was dismantled, but this development did not—and could not—address the poverty, unemployment, rotten housing, segregated education and rampant cop terror that afflict the bulk of the black population. These conditions are materially rooted in the U.S. capitalist system, in which the mass of the black population is segregated at the bottom of society.

Black oppression will be smashed only when the capitalist profit system is overthrown by the multiracial working class and replaced with a planned, socialist economy, in which the productive wealth of society will be used to satisfy human needs. Opposing this revolutionary perspective, liberals and reformists reduce the struggle against racist violence and misery to simply combating racial prejudice and stereotypes—i.e., the ideological reflections of black oppression. Thus, at an April 11 panel discussion in Chicago with Jesse Jackson’s Operation Push and others, the ISO’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor declared: “The stereotypes about Black youth that are generated from officially sanctioned racial profiling and from the overrepresentation of young Black people in the criminal justice system because of racism and corruption among police and in the courts has [sic] created the conditions under which something like the murder of Trayvon Martin and the murder of so many others happened” (Socialist Worker online, 16 April).

Such liberal notions were refuted more than half a century ago by American Trotskyist Richard Fraser. In his 1953 lectures titled “The Negro Struggle and the Proletarian Revolution” (printed in “In Memoriam: Richard S. Fraser,” Prometheus Research Series No. 3 [1990]), Fraser noted that for bourgeois moralists the source of the exploitation of labor was “the greed of the capitalist.” Karl Marx, he pointed out, proved that “it was not greed but property relations which make it possible for exploitation to exist.” He continued:

“When applied to the Negro question, the theory of morality means that the root of the problem of discrimination and white supremacy is prejudice. This is the reigning theory of American liberalism and is the means by which the capitalists throw the responsibility for the Jim Crow system upon the population as a whole. If people weren’t prejudiced there would be no Negro problem. This contention is fundamentally false.”

Fraser concluded: “Education against prejudice has its importance in the Negro struggle. But only the destruction of the economic and social foundation upon which prejudice is built will eliminate it. This will be accomplished only by the socialist revolution.” The Spartacist League is committed to forging the revolutionary workers party that is necessary to achieve this goal.