The Struggle for African American Freedom Continues

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The following is the text of a speech Jarvis Tyner, executive vice-chair of the Communist Party USA, delivered to the Trade Union Council as part of his tour of the United Kingdom in October 2006. Originally published in Political Affairs magazine: .

It is an honor for me to participate in your Black History Month celebrations [October is Black History month in Britain - ed.] and I want to thank the Trade Union Council for inviting me to the UK.

The fight against racism is even more urgent today. There is nothing more important on the agenda of the progressive forces worldwide than the fight to end the scourge of racism from our planet. By racism I’m not just talking about a set of bad ideas and beliefs. I’m talking about a system of oppression; ideas that when put into practice lead to terrible suffering, inequalities, violence, war and genocide.

Now George W. Bush doesn’t want to talk about this issue. Interestingly his so-called “War on Terror” does not include ending racism, which has been a source of enormous terror throughout history. Today a growing number of people in the US believe his war on terror is really a war on the people.

Throughout history, racism has always been a weapon of mass destruction. In my country it justified genocide against the Native American Indians and the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans. W. E. B. Du Bois pointed out that 13 million Africans died in the capture, kidnap and transport to slavery in the new world. After slavery and the overthrow of Reconstruction, the south was ruled by KKK terror and thousands were lynched and murdered. From 1887 to 1927 about 3,500 Black people were lynched 95 percent in the South.



Racism and War

Racism has always been used to justify imperialist aggression and the most horrible acts of violence and genocide in history. And believe me it is being used thoroughly used by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and Rove to promote the war in Iraq.

Anti-Arab, anti-Muslim bigotry, is basic to their ability to carry out the war. They are doing great damage to the democratic spirit of many good people who are being fed this racist confusion to win their support. Racism has always been a weapon of mass destruction.

We have to understand that the struggle against racism must be a basic part of the anti-war movement. The same goes for basic class issues. This war is draining the US of billions of dollars that should be used for education, health care and job creating people-serving government programs.

The African American people are paying a special price for this war. It is our schools that are in the worst condition. It is our communities that have the worse housing crisis. It is our people that have the highest unemployment rate.

Official figures put Black unemployment at 9.2%, Hispanic 5.3% and white at 4.1%. But a correct count which would include those who are jobless but want to work, plus who are working part-time but want full-time work) will bring the over all figure up to 8.3% and up to 16% for Black workers.

If you break those figures down more the situation is Depression like. For Black teens the rate is in excess of 50%. Even official rates of unemployment for Black male teens is 32% and for Black males ages 18-29 its 18%.

The slogan “Money for jobs not for War” really resonates in the Black community. That slogan has become accepted in most working-class communities especially after Katrina but it has a special impact among Black folks.

Speaking of the impact of racism, when Bush launched his shock-and-awe invasion of Iraq the US was still in a state of hysteria about the 9/11 terrorist attack and Bush had majority support. But even during those rather trying times the same polls showed that African Americans rejected his war by almost 70%.

In 2004 89% of Black voters who came to the polls voted against Bush. Even thought they had deep concerns about terrorism they rejected Bush’s phony war.

Knowing that he had very little support among Black voters, the Republicans launched a well financed national effort to suppress the Black vote.

If it had not been for this, Bush would have lost in 2000 for sure and when you look at what the Bush people did in Ohio in 2004 to stop Blacks from registering and voting he would have lost then as well.

Now, that says a lot. Think about it; if Bush would have lost in 2000 or 2004 going by what Gore and Kerry are now saying against the war, we would likely not be in Iraq quagmire today. This is the price we are all paying because of racism.



Katrina

The way the Bush administration handled the Hurricane Katrina tragedy should put to rest any doubts about how deeply racist they are.

Kanye West the hip hop star went on national live TV and was supposed to ask for relief for the people in New Orleans instead he told the story of the media reportage which everyone knew about. When they showed a white couple wading through the water with food the media said they were a family that found food but when they showed a Black couple wading through waist high waters with food they called them “looters.” West went on to say that “George Bush doesn’t like Black people.”

This caused a tremendous up roar. The media, no doubt administration inspired, dragged out every Black person they could to say, “No, The president is not a racist.” This did not work however.



What is reality?

The Bush administration knew that the levees could not hold back more than a category 3 storm and they didn’t fix the levees. In fact the Bush administration cut the money for strengthening the levees.

They also knew that a storm of that intensity would eventually come and it would completely flood the predominantly Black and poor areas of the city. And still they did not fix the levees.

In fact the state, local and federal governments were all grossly negligent but the federal government has the resources enough to save the thousands of lives that were lost. But they failed to act and thousands of people died as a result. Kanye West was right!

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) put the people in the Super Dome football stadium and the convention center and didn’t give them food and water and more people died.

In the middle of this debacle, Bush came into the area and congratulates the head of FEMA Michael Brown on national television. The infamous statement he made in his Texas twang was, “Your doin’ a heck- of- a job Brownie”

After thousands had to be evacuated and some were packed into the Houston Astro Dome (another football stadium) Bush’s mother (Barbara Bush) came to visit the place and standing before thousands people made homeless by her son’s neglect, sleeping on cots on a football field makes the statement that, “these people are happy to be here because its better then where they lived before.”



Does Marie Antoinette come to mind?

Like the slave masters who didn’t understand why the slaves suffered so when their children were taken away, Barbara Bush doesn’t understand that when these Black working-class families lost their homes, their jobs, their communities their lives were literally in ruins.

But Mrs. Bush, the woman who was the wife of one president and raised another, looks at the world through the racist lens of the white ruling class. That’s George W’s mother! His grandfather, Prescott Bush was a friend of Hitler and was prosecuted for trading with the Nazis.

Katrina was a turning point for a lot of Americans. When they saw the TV pictures of all those Black folks screaming for someone to help them; when they saw the people trapped on their roof tops, the bodies lying in the streets and floating in the water and the children who couldn’t stop crying, who may be traumatized for life; when they saw the elderly with no life support who were literally taken their last breaths – they saw the reality of structural racism in America. Many understood for the first time that something was drastically wrong in America and this administration was moving things in the wrong direction. Many asked, “How could they spend so much money in Iraq and fail to provide for the thousands of flood victims?

It was at this point that the polls started to show a sharp decline in support for the president and the war. Katrina shook the conscience of the nation. It was a wake up call for a lot of people. It illustrated the centrality of the fight against racism in the overall fight for democracy, peace and economic justice.



African Genocide and Racism

And speaking of role of racism, there is no question in my mind, if what is happening in Darfur was happening to white people the world’s capitalist powers would not tolerate it. But the lack of decisive action to end this problem and similar problems on the African continent suggest that there is a lot of racist indifference. Or what if the AIDS crisis in Europe was on the level of Africa? Or if 55,000 US kids were dying very day from preventable diseases?

When the New York cops shot Amadu Diallo, the African immigrant, 41 times, they said they thought he had a gun. It was his wallet. In my opinion they saw Diallo’s race and that’s why they thought a wallet was a gun.

Racial profiling must be stopped. The signal for that kind of police behavior comes from the top. Rudolph Giuliani was mayor then and his policies encouraged police brutality. Some cops where reportedly said that they could get away with this because it was “Giuliani time.” This racist thinking afflicts too many of the authorities in the private and public sectors and causes high unemployment and the loss of many innocent lives.



Coming Election

The coming elections could mean a big change. US voters have an opportunity in the coming elections to reverse the extreme policies of the Bush administration. The midterm election for Congress will on November 7th, which is only about 3 weeks away. The entire House and a third of the US Senate are up and almost all predictions are that Bush, the Republican Party and the ultra right in general will suffer a big defeat.

The outcome of this election will hopefully reflect the widespread discontent among the US people. The accumulated effects of the war, their attempt to eliminate Social Security, Katrina and the environment is weighing heavy on the minds of the voters. After, all the lies and deceptions – all the hypocrisy and demagogy and all of the corruption scandals and now the Congressional sex scandal the people are poised to vote them out. New splits are developing on the right.

The Republicans and their cronies have been bankrupting the federal treasury on behalf of their wealthy friends. They are probably the biggest influence peddlers in government since the days of Boss Tweed. There is a growing gap between the economic and social conservatives in the Bush electoral coalition. Paul Krugman of the NY Times says Bush’s coalition is falling apart. Rightwing evangelicals are abandoning the Bush coalition because of the congressional sex scandal and the fact that he did not fulfill promises he made to them. Bush is so unpopular now that Republican candidates don’t want his public support.

What will it mean? If the Democrats win (let’s be optimistic, the majority in both houses – 6 in the Senate and 24 or 25 in the House) they will be in a position to change the political agenda of the Congress and the nation. For example, there are a number of resolutions that call for the withdrawal from Iraq that could pass.

It is time to end this war. The truth is that the US lost the war the day we entered Iraq. Bush’s demagogic cut-and-run charge against the majority who want to leave, means stay and continue the carnage. The consequences of staying are far worse than the consequences of leaving. Even their people are saying they need 4 more years. The truth is, US troops could be there for decades.

They have a strategy in Iraq. They want to establish a US military presents in the region. They want to keep control of Iraqi oil and to do that US and other occupation forces will be there for years. The British chief of command was right; the presence of the occupying forces is making things worse. A number of US generals are openly critical of the policy as well. After the elections the American people will have openly spoken and the mandate predictably will be “start the process of withdrawal now”!

Rep. John Conyers, Black congressman from Michigan, will become chair of Judiciary Committee and the word is, he has articles of impeachment (of Bush) in his back pocket. There will also be a number of investigations into the reasons for going to war and the conduct of the war. Vice President Cheney’s energy scandal that nearly wrecked the economy of California during their first term will be investigated. The outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame because her husband disagreed with the administrations reasons for going to war will be looked at again and so will the price gouging of the oil companies. They will be able to investigate all the administration’s (conscious) incompetence around the Katrina disaster.

With their closeness to, Halliburton and Bechtel, there is a whole lot of dirt under the Bush rug. Rumsfeld, who is a weak link, will likely be forced out. Besides, the military and a lot of Republicans don’t like him. A lot of groups are already putting on pressure for serious action to help meet the many crises in Africa.

Keep in mind however, that Bush will still be president for 2 more years and will likely use his veto. But if the Republicans lose in 2006 the stage will be set for a bigger defeat for them in the 2008 presidential election.



What will it mean for the struggle against racism?

It will be enormous. The civil right s movement can go on the offensive. For example, all of the ultra right racists that Bush appointed to the Civil Rights commission will be under sharp attack. And all the efforts of the anti-labor rightists on the National Labor Relations Board could be stalled and even overruled. They could possible win some big concessions for the victims of Katrina; to help them get back their homes and be properly compensated.

All the major and minor civil rights organizations are fully involved in voter registration and education. The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists always plays a big role in getting out the crucial Black vote. The Congressional Black Caucus is calling for an all out effort to defeat the GOP. The Black churches are mobilizing. NAACP is education and registering voters. They are working with the AFL-CIO and many of the Change to Win Unions to rally Black, Latino and labor households. Immigrant movements are in motion to bring out the maximum vote because the Republican majority in congress with some Democrats help passed a bill to build an 800-mile fence along the Mexican border. That measure is based on anti immigrant, especially Latino immigrant racism. It must be repealed.

As indicated above the Republicans have a strategic approach to suppressing the Black vote. In one election after another, they have been working to split and weaken the Black vote and keep it from getter to the polls.

People are going to court to stop the use of the Diebold voting machines (which can be rigged) and are in use in mainly Republican controlled states. There will be an efforts to buy off some Black ministers to not support the Democrats. But after two major election-year experiences people are much more vigilant. Preventing vote theft by the Republicans will be a major struggle. If Harold Ford wins in Tennessee he will be the first black to be elected to the US Senate from the South since Reconstruction. If Bernie Saunders wins in Vermont (and he is expected to win) he will be the first openly socialist member of the US Senate. This could all happen.



Structural Racism or institutional racism

An all-round attack on structural racism is needed if the damaging effects of the Bush policies are to be reversed. Earlier I mentioned the unemployment figures but now I want to briefly mention some of the other forms of structural racism. The criminal justice system is completely stacked against African American males especially. In the US today there are regularly about 2 million people in prison, which is the highest incarceration rate in the world. While Blacks, age 16 and over, are about 3% of that age group (27 million total) at any given time they are about 800,000 of the 2 million prison population. Black men are the largest group of prison inmates in the US. If they were counted as part of the unemployed then only 53% of Black males 18 and over would have jobs.

In 2003, the official jobless rate for black men in New York City actually reached 50%. This is economic racism.

The situation became serious when Reagan came into office (1980). That marked the beginning of a new corporate, racist offensive. That’s also when the crack cocaine epidemic started. When Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush (former head of the CIA) was put in charge of the so-called war on drugs, cocaine use reached epidemic proportions. And that was the basis for what became a 3-fold increase in the prison population.

They created special penalties for possession of crack and located the marketplace for it in black communities. Crack started out as a black drug but spread to Latinos and whites and every other racial group. But because the market place was in the Black community that’s who suffered from the violence and that’s who ended up going to jail. Sixty percent of street crime is drug related.

For first offense crack users, they made jail time mandatory. But if an upper class powder cocaine user first offenses meant probation. This is how they were able to criminalize almost a whole generation of Black youth.

This is structural racism. There are more examples in the school system, the foster care system, in housing, in health care and in social benefits in general. Black people are discriminated against in the prices they pay and the quality of the goods and services especially when they shop in their communities. There is what is called environmental racism where most of the hazardous waste dumps in the country are located in or near poor Black communities. This is structural racism and the labor and peoples movements must force all levels of government to eliminate it.

The question has to be posed? Why is the Black movement in the US not as dynamic and visually dramatic as before? I think it has to do with the ebb and flow that all movements go through. I think the murder of principled leaders like Dr. King, and Malcolm X and the buying off of others are also factors.

I think it’s the impact of the ultra right corporate, racist offensive. This meant that there would be even more stubborn resistance of the ruling class to the righteous demands of the people. The right wing has had the ideological offensive for two decades or more. It has had an impact. Basically the civil rights movement has been on the defensive ideologically. They’re out to remove the fight against racism from the moral agenda of the nation.

I believe it’s related to the shock of the structural crisis and the great loss of jobs due to globalization. This has disrupted and broken up traditionally areas of Black political power. New Orleans has to be added to that list.

Some important things have been won but in the high councils of governments and business racism is “in your face” as Bill Lucy, the head of the Coalition of Black Trade Union described it. Basically, “we get no respect” because they know that with Bush in the White House and the Republicans dominating Congress; they can get away with it.



Typical arguments by the neo cons are:

1. You’ve already won legal equality why are you demanding more? Since we are for a color blind society affirmative action is not fair to whites. If black and other minorities demand more you are asking for special treatment i.e. “reverse discrimination.” (Based on that deception, the victims of racism become the racists.)

2. Besides, they argue, more demands for civil rights means tax increases and that would damage the economy resulting in more Black joblessness as well.

3. Neo cons argue Black people and poor people need to become entrepreneurs, invest their money and get rich and that’s how they will get out of poverty and overcome discrimination.

4. They say that there is a moral crisis in the Black community and its damaging the whole country. “Fathers need to take care of their babies,” “Black youth need to stop all that gangbanging and sexual promiscuity and calling women b’s and w’s.” “They need to just say no to drugs and sex” and stay in school and behave themselves. Bill Cosby has become one of the main proponents of this view, although he has shifted away.

On the surface most decent people would not disagree with some of the things they raise. Many of our greatest civil rights leaders have and continue to raise similar criticism but within the context of a struggle to end racism.

However, as an ideological package what the right are really saying is, “the greatest enemy of Black people is Black people”.

There are whole numbers of right-wing books on race. John McWhorter a Black writer comes to mind. His book; “Losing the Race” says it all. And Abigail Thorenson, who was appointed to the Federal Civil Rights Commission by Bush is a proponent of the view that Black people have become sociologically inferior.

In essence what they are saying is not fundamentally new: it is old racism in a new package. They are the grand apologists for capitalism and racism.

Their slanders must be rejected. African Americans are not a culturally bankrupt people. We love our children and respect the institution of marriage, and have always had to fight to preserve our families. In fact during slavery we saw our children sold down the river and we fought, in vain to keep them. We are not opposed to women’s equality. Going back to Fredrick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, our movement has consistently been aligned with the women’s movement.

During slavery, when it was illegal to marry, we married secretly and fought to hold that family together. It was illegal for us to learn to read and write so we risked our lives to become literate. There is a long history of struggle for the right to a quality non-segregated education. It was during the Reconstruction governments after the Civil War that the first public schools where established in the US. People gave their lives fighting for this.

Today they push our young people out of school. They criminalize them with drugs. Then they put them in prison and ruin their lives. If our kids make it though the under funded, under staffed ill-equipped and still largely segregated public schools, the cost of college tuition is beyond most of our means. Globalization has taken away the jobs we had; jobs we had to fight to get in the first place because of discrimination. We joined and supported unions. We made gains, but they exported those union jobs to low-wage non-union areas and workers on both sides suffered. Whole communities, whole towns have been wiped out because of globalization.

You cannot raise a family on US minimum wage of $6.50 an hour. All of this is a crushing blow to family stability and the healthy rearing of children. The people who approve of, and pay to make most off the rap/hip hop videos (especially the most misogynist, violent and racist ones) are usually white male capitalists representing big corporations.

It is not Black culture they are pushing but capitalist culture wrapped in a Black façade. All they want to talk about is how great the economy is and how many jobs they’ve created with their conservative economic policies.

On the real state of the economy, we say, yes some jobs have been created but poverty has been steadily growing through the last two decades and real wages have consistently fallen. Underemployment is not the answer. We had full employment under slavery. How about some good paying, steady jobs so we can raise our families? When it comes to the fight against racism we can say with great confidence we know the enemy and it is not us. There is a lot of talk of the need to get back into the streets. Rev. Jesse Jackson is always pushing: “We need more street heat.” And when we get more political breathing room by defeating the Republicans this November I am confident we will.

A lot of you here know the problem. I am standing before an audience of organized worker. You know the problem. Would you elected your boss as your shop steward? Would you vote for your landlord to be on the rent board? If the answer to those questions is “no” then you know the problem!

The United States is a capitalist country. Its wealth and power depends on exploitation of the working class and institutional racism at home and imperialist penetration abroad. This is why there are still 4 million Americans who are homeless, 47 million with no health care, 37 million living in poverty. This is why we have hunger in a land of plenty.

Black people in the US are over 90% working class and have the highest percentage of trade union organization than any other racial or ethnic group: 20%. We have historically brought more militancy to the working class and trade union movement. We have brought power and resources of the trade unions into the civil rights struggle. It was Martin L. King who brought the largest number of labor unions into the fight against the Vietnam War.



We will be free!

We are dealing with a crisis of capitalism not a crisis of Black people. Bush struts around the world like he is king. But he is basically a wealthy spoiled brat. He never had to work for anything; it was given to him. As Ann Richards put it, like his father “he was born with a silver foot in his mouth”.

He is a former cocaine user and alcoholic, which makes him a good liar.

We the African American people made it through the middle passage and survived 300 years of slavery and 80 years of Jim Crow terror. Believe me no blue blood pip-squeak with a fake Texas twang is going to stop us from reaching our historic destiny. As the popular rhythm and blues song goes “Ain’t no stopping us now”! We are on the move and we know how to fight and we know who to fight. And that is why we will be free.



Jarvis Tyner is executive vice-chair of the Communist Party USA and can be reached at jtyner @ cpusa.org.