“We have come to the nation’s capital to cash a check……. America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
Martin Luther King, Jr. used those words to explain why the March on Washington was necessary. He - and the quarter million others - did not go all that way to describe a dream. They marched to demand that the nation keep a promise.
That promise enshrined in the Constitution, King reminded us, was the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But in the actions of the US government, history shows that this promise pertained only to white people, particularly whites of the owning class. In 1776, only propertied white men could vote, and the 1790 Naturalization Law declared that only “a free white person” could become a citizen. The DNA of a racist capitalist society is clearly visible at the nation’s birth.
What was new in the US version of capitalism was that classes would not be determined by birth. They would be determined by race. The pursuit of white happiness was predicated on non-white unhappiness. White immigrants of whatever class origin were given the opportunities to become capitalists. That required government hand-outs, since no one can create wealth by hard work alone: access to both natural resources (such as land) and capital (money to buy farm tools) is needed before those raw materials can be converted to wealth. Financial gifts to whites—free land for homesteads, tuition-free public college educations, cheap loans to buy homes, farms, and businesses—helped some become capitalists, and others to at least have a
shot at becoming fnancially secure. For people of color? Nothing. Ineligible by law or excluded in practice from government help, they were to constitute a permanent working class; in harder times, “surplus” labor, in better times, the poorest paid workers, in the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs.
A Hundred Year March to Washington, 1963This plan was never accepted by African Americans. They have always been in motion to throw off their literal and fgurative shackles. While they fought for racial equality, because of their position in the economy, their struggle was also a class struggle.
Differing ideas about what kind of capitalism was correct for the US became the basis for war. The North wanted the new lands in the West and Southwest taken from the Native Americans and Mexicans to be developed on an industrial model using waged labor, while the South wanted those lands for plantations using enslaved labor. In 1863, almost a century after the founding fathers made that promise about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, challenging the Southern way of life.
The most progressive Americans at that time had a “dream” that a Union victory would usher in a color-blind society, so that both whites and Blacks would be given the opportunity to become part of the capitalist class. To make that possible, it was understood that African Americans had some catching up to do. They needed natural resources and capital of their own: 40 acres of land, and a mule to farm it with. After the Civil War, for ten remarkable years, African Americans leapt into the upper levels of the working class (they were the ones after all who had skills, since they were the ones who had done all the work), 1000 new schools were opened in the South with enthusiastic enrollment, and Black businesses and farms began operation.
But what looked like “the bright arc of the moral universe” turned out to be just a little frecracker. Free Black labor was not to be tolerated. In 1877, politicians compromised” away the gains of the decade of Reconstruction, and home rule returned to Southern states. Thus began Jim Crow’s century of maintaining African Americans in their place as the lowest strata of the working class.
It would take another hundred years of struggle to move the nation to action again. In 1963, the long simmering Civil Rights movement culminated in the March on Washington, and the nation had a second chance to become color-blind. Discrimination and segregation were outlawed, as were egregious voting requirements placed on Blacks. Lyndon Johnson’s executive order requiring affrmative action in hiring increased the share of better jobs for non-whites. Remarkable gains were made: Black poverty fell from 55% in 1959 to 32% in 1969. Into the 70's, the percentage of African Americans with high school diplomas nearly tripled, and the percentage of Black college graduates quadrupled. It seemed that the democratic reform goals in which capitalism would be maintained, but people of all races would have a chance to get ahead, would be accomplished.Back to the Future
But once again, progress lasted little more than a decade. Free Black labor was still not to be tolerated. The existence of a group designated as the lowest sector of the working class in perpetuity had become solidly embedded in white consciousness and necessary for the continuation of capitalism as the US knows it. White workers have been made to feel that they are “better” than Black and brown workers, so that they identify more with white capitalists than with their fellow workers; white solidarity trumps working class unity. By the 1980's, the waters of justice stopped rolling down, as new ways of enforcing the racial hierarchy were invented. The war on drugs, on its face race neutral, became a tool for a renewed war on African Americans. To take just one example, Congress passed a sentencing law that created a 100:1 sentencing disparity
between traffcking crack vs. traffcking powder cocaine. With racial profling and the targeting of youth of color, today, one in three Black men can expect to go to prison in his lifetime. And discrimination persists: the percentage of the Black unemployed, surplus laborers, remains twice as high as that of whites, just as it was in 1963. The arc of the moral universe fzzled again.
Today, the brief gains of the 1960's and 70's are gone. Black poverty is three times the white rate of poverty; and while half of Black children live in segregated neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, only one out of ten white children live among others that are that poor. Racial disparities are growing - the disparity in fnancial assets held by white families compared to Black families quadrupled in the last generation. Already, 8% of the Black population has lost the right to vote due to felony conviction, and now the Supreme Court has taken the bite out of the Voting Rights Act by allowing states to do their own thing. As in the 1877 Compromise when federal troops were withdrawn from the South, withdrawing federal oversight of states on voting rules gives a green light to Southern states nostalgic for the days of open and legal white supremacy.Marching in 2013
At the 1963 March on Washington, economics was very much on people’s minds. It was a march for “jobs and freedom.” It was well understood that without economic supports from the government such as had been afforded to whites, freedom would be meaningless. As one sign put it, “Civil Rights plus Full Employment equals Freedom.” The nine other speakers demanded economic investments in the African American community in the areas of housing, education, employment, and wages.
Fast forward to 1968. Martin Luther King, recognizing that freedom was not yet won, was preparing to launch a Poor People’s Campaign, demanding an economic bill of rights for all American workers. Such a bill of rights, including a demand for a guaranteed job for everyone willing to work, would pose a challenge to the US capitalist model. Understanding that this model was also impoverishing more and more white workers, King envisioned a multi-racial working class movement, the uniting of the workers of the world. A bullet stopped this progress cold.
Today, there are economic and demographic changes that give hope. With the ability to hire workers anywhere in the world, US capitalists have been so successful that they no longer feel they need to throw any crumbs to the US white working class; even white college graduates fnd themselves part of the “surplus.” Class mobility today is lower than at perhaps any other time in the US, and lower than in European countries. Disillusioned young whites have begun to see their commonality with people of color as in the slogan, “We are the 99%.” And for the frst time, more babies of color than white babies are being born in the US. In 30 years, it will be whites that are the “minority” group.
African Americans still have no jobs and no freedom, so we march again, knowing that it is the people’s actions that inform the “arc of the moral universe.” We socialists, we too, have a dream: we have a dream of a world where neither nature nor labor will be exploited, and where all our children are judged not by the contents of their pocketbooks, but by the content of their characters. We pledge allegiance to that world, and we will keep our shoulders to the wheel for equity and freedom until it bends toward justice.Published by
Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad
August 24, 2012