All black people suffer racism. So it can seem common sense that all black people have a shared interest in fighting it and must lead that struggle.
Variations on this idea have come to be known as black nationalism.
Here the term black is used in its political sense, to describe everyone who suffers racism because of their perceived skin colour.
Many anti-racists use the term in this way. It’s also common to hear activists talk about black and Asian people.
Alongside “common sense” black nationalism there has been a revival of more organised forms that try to weld a political framework onto this sentiment.
For them, the ideas of “white privilege” best explain racism.
Privilege theory says that all whites benefit from a racist society because they receive “unearned advantages”. For example, because black people face higher rates of unemployment than whites, white workers are said to gain.
The practical conclusion is that only black people can truly fight racism, and that the best that whites can do is own up to their ill-gotten gains.
Socialists don’t believe that white workers benefit from racism. Instead, we insist that the working class as a whole loses out when it is divided.
That’s why we battle under the banner of “Black and white unite and fight”. That crucial difference doesn’t mean that socialists and nationalists cannot unite—quite the opposite.
Socialists fight for maximum unity in the fight against racism, and have always worked alongside people with very different ideas.
Supporters of black nationalist ideas often accuse socialists of sidelining race in their determination to concentrate on class.
But any socialist who doesn’t join the fight against racism allows workers to be divided and so undermines any chance of advancing workers’ interests.
Part of the attraction of black nationalism is that it appears radical, revolutionary even.
The demand for “black power” seems to directly challenge a world where most of those with power are white. In fact, black nationalist ideas span a wide spectrum.
They take in some black Labour MPs who have a stake in the system, but also community activists.
They also include groups such as the Nation of Islam, which wants blacks and whites to separate. In practice most such nationalists look to reform capitalism, hoping for a capitalism without racism.
Even those groups that demand revolution find their strategies for achieving it cannot overturn the system.
All forms of black nationalism are weaker in Britain than in the US, for good reasons. First, Britain is far more racially integrated. This can be seen in workplaces, housing, schools and personal relationships.
A glance at groups of young people in inner-cities shows you that most contain African-Caribbean, white, Asian, Turkish people and so on.
That mix makes it difficult to insist semi-spontaneous mass events, such as those that characterised the Black Lives Matter campaign in Britain, must be “black-led”.
Organisers who won’t allow them to be multicultural, won’t get large numbers of young people to attend.
After the killing of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, north London, in 2011 there were calls for a black-led movement.
But it would have been hard to exclude Mark’s white mother and other relatives. Second, compared to the US, Britain has a relatively strong radical left. This has been able to prove in practice its strategy of black and white unity.
The two factors mean the space available to hardline black nationalist groups is small.
Marxists have also been able to point to theoretical weaknesses in the nationalist tradition.
Oppressions such as racism shape and distort people’s lives. They restrict us from an early age and shape us in ways that are both conscious and unconscious.
The experience of oppression leads many people to question the world and to resist. It is why many people become radical.
Black nationalists argue only those who experience oppression truly understand it. But what does this mean?
Presumably, at a minimum, they mean that all black people share notions of what racism is, where it comes from, and how to fight it.
But oppression does not breed such a single response.
It is true that all black people in Britain face racism.
But the nature of the prejudice they face, how they understand it and what they propose to do about it varies.
And, because there is no single response to oppression, the starting point of the nationalist response to racism is flawed.
One of the key reasons for the variance is that black people are divided by class.
For example, the life of Asian Tory business secretary Sajid Javid has doubtless been affected by racism.
He knows the percentage of people from ethnic minorities on low incomes is double that of whites.
But his position in society, and his yearly pay of £134,565, means he is committed to the status quo.
If the movement against racism must be black-led, are we saying that any black person is better than any white person at fighting racism?
Would Javid be a better leader than the white Carole Duggan, the campaigning aunt of Mark who police killed in Tottenham?
But it is not about looking for a white or black leader.
Socialists argue that black and white should work together because it is the best way to fight against racism and all oppression.
People from oppressed minorities have taken leading roles in political movements again and again.
Black tailor William Cuffay, for example, came to lead the largely white Chartists in London in the 1840s.
Restricting the leadership of movements to radical black activists isn’t a guarantee of success.
Many black-led movements against racism have seen the most socially advantaged layer end up in charge while the black working class is largely excluded.
Socialists are in favour of an anti-racist movement with black people at its core and in its leadership.
This isn’t because we think that only black people truly understand racism. It’s because we want our movement to look like the society that we want to create.
And we want people to gain confidence from seeing and hearing black working class leaders.
The second Marxist challenge to black nationalism is strategic.
Those nationalists who do notice class see it as merely one among many forms of potential disadvantage.
When socialists see class they see the potential power of workers to transform the world.
In any serious battle against the system we must expect the full force of the police, courts, and media to be used against us. Think of the state’s response to 2011 riots, and ask, what do we hit back with? Our answer is that the same state that oppresses black people also pushes austerity and exploitation.
Millions of working people, black and white, are suffering from poverty pay, miserable housing and decimated benefits—and they are angry.
Socialists want to spread the struggle from young people on the streets to other activists and, ultimately, to the workplaces.
United working class power is the only way to deal a sustained blow to the system. But if you’re a black nationalist that road is closed to you because it involves a multiracial rather than an exclusively black response.
That weakness leads to defeat, which in turn leads many towards dead-end strategies.
The choices are limited. For reformists, the struggle is to put more black faces in “power”. For separatists, the key is to move away from “white society”. For adventurists, the aim is for groups to try and capture the excitement of riots. The system can easily accommodate all of these challenges—and so racism remains.
For revolutionary socialists, class is the only way to unlock the problem. Only the power of a united working class can beat racism and the system that produces it.
Making this a reality involves a fight against prejudice among white workers, proving to them that unity is in their interests.
In doing so, it is vital that socialists give no ground to chauvinistic ideas.
And, it also involves winning working class black people to the idea that they are part of a powerful force that can change the world.