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Racism and revolution in the United States

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Issue 2707
The hopes invested in Barack Obama were soon shattered
The hopes invested in Barack Obama were soon shattered (Pic: Armed Forces Inaugural Committee)

As America burned with rage at the murder of George Floyd, media commentators begged protesters to get off the streets and instead use “democratic” methods to vent their anger.

But Cornell West, one of black America’s most foremost public intellectuals, took to CNN to denounce those methods as a fraud. “The system cannot reform itself. We’ve tried black faces in high places,” he insisted.

The alternative, he said, was “revolution” and “by revolution what I mean is the democratic sharing of power, resources, wealth and respect.”

West’s call would have found a ready echo in the late 1960s as black ghettos across America exploded every summer. Police racism, black unemployment and poverty, and slum housing brought people on the streets.

Back then, the establishment was almost exclusively white. So ideas of overthrowing the system mixed easily with those of electing black people to replace the whites that sat at the top.

Even the most radical groups, such as the Black Panther Party, combined their commitment to revolution with the ideas of reforming the system. They put together a host of social programmes, and fought election campaigns, while at the same time patrolling racist police with their guns clearly visible.


The strategy of electing black people to high office began as a supplement to the struggle. But as the combative 1960s gave way to recession and repression in the 1970s, it became ever more important.

In March 1969 there were 994 black men and 131 black women who held office around the country. By May 1975 this figure had more than tripled to 2,969 men and 530 women.

And, as the number of black people in high office rocketed, so the movement on the streets grew smaller. Now, if you wanted something done, instead of relying on the power of your protests and organisation you could go to a black mayor, a senator, or congressman.

Another effect of the strategy was the enlargement of the black middle class. Not only were there black people in high office, but their children could now attend the elite institutions once closed to them.

They could sit on the boards of global corporations, and live in houses in areas once reserved for wealthy whites alone.

The Black Panthers
The Black Panthers
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The strategy reached its peak with the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

It’s difficult to overestimate the effect of Obama becoming the first black president in a land that a little over a hundred fifty years before might have had him chained as a slave.

Expectations were sky high, and driven by Obama’s open-ended slogans, “Hope” and “Change”.


Mainstream commentators now talked about the US being a “post-racial” society. But it wasn’t long before cracks began to appear.

Many poorer black people in particular now asked, how is that we have a black president, a black attorney general, and black police commissioners but we can’t get cops charged with murder when they kill unarmed black people?

Why is it that black American’s are imprisoned at six times the rate of whites? Why are white men with criminal records as likely to be hired as black men with no criminal record?

How come the wealth gap between black and white people continues to grow? And, why has the gap between poor blacks and rich blacks been growing even faster?

Reclaim Martin Luther King the radical
Reclaim Martin Luther King the radical
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Questions such as these cut deep into the idea that electing black officials was the answer for the most oppressed.

If Obama, with all his sophistication, cleverness and charm couldn’t change the racist nature of the United States wasn’t this proof that something more systemic was to blame for racism, rather than the skin complexion of the person supposedly in charge?

That point would have been well understood by the black radical Malcolm X, who in 1964 pointed out that, “You can’t have capitalism without racism.” And Martin Luther King had argued in 1967, “We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others.”

Both came to understand that racism is endemic to capitalism, not an aberration that can be removed by reforms and better education. That’s because capitalism depends upon divide and rule for its survival.


Those now fighting on the streets of Minneapolis and beyond face the armed might of the state—a machine whose main purpose it is to defend the system. The militarised police, with their pepper sprays, automatic weapons and tanks can appear to us as too strong to be defeated.

But revolution has its own arsenal.

In offices, factories, schools, hospitals and transit systems work millions of people without whom the system cannot function. The task now is to spread the anger and spirit of resistance that exists on the streets into the workplaces.

Those whose lives are being decimated by the economic violence of our rulers must hear the argument that the same system that is ready to sacrifice their lives for the god of profit, is the same system that uses vicious racism to keep us divided and downtrodden.

The age old prejudices that allow some workers to feel superior because their skin colour can be broken. As 40 million Americans join the dole queue, never has that spurious claim been so easily proved to be worthless.

A revolution is no easy task, but the ranks of those who want to fight for it have been swelled by a wave of revulsion at the racist police murders—and the vicious system of exploitation the cops defend.

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