Since Barack Obama was elected president, corporate media have declared that the color line is no longer relevant. Not so fast! said three activists of color speaking at a Black History Month forum in Harlem. They resoundingly agreed that the decades-long struggle for civil rights is not suddenly over and that racism is still rampant in the United States.
A diverse, overflow crowd attended the February 20 event sponsored by the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) and Radical Women (RW) on “The Myth of a Post-Racial Society.”
Critique of the Obama administration
The crowd cheered when panelist Kenyon Farrow exclaimed, “Just because Obama, a Black man, ascended to be President, it doesn’t mean all the centuries of slavery and Jim Crow are null and void!” Farrow, a queer Black activist, writer, and Executive Director of Queers for Economic Justice, questioned Obama’s failure to make structural changes. He described the “impact of the prison-industrial complex on Blacks: 2.4 million people are in prison and approximately half of those are people of African descent.”
Farrow blasted Obama’s selection of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. Duncan ended community control of schools in Chicago and callously claimed that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing to happen to the education system in New Orleans.” Why? Because it opened the door to private charter schools!
“Blacks have also been hardest hit by the economic crisis,” said Farrow. “They were only offered sub-prime loans, even with credit scores that qualified them for standard loans, leading to the largest loss of wealth in 150 years for the Black community. And the unemployment rate for Black folks in the cities is 20 to 30 percent. Yet we’ve seen no major speeches or policy changes by Obama addressing these harrowing realities!”
A wide racial divide
Panelist Norma Abdulah is a retired school teacher and longtime Harlem civil rights leader. “Commentators said that the willingness to elect one Black man means that now all human beings could be treated as they deserved,” she began. But, she continued, “I’m here tonight to tell you I don’t believe it!”
Shouts of affirmation greeted Abdulah’s evidence that “we are not a race-neutral society”: the death of Amadou Diallo and many other Black and Latino men and women at the hands of the New York police; the decades-long incarcerations of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, and others for murders they did not commit; the conviction of the New Jersey 4 (young Black lesbians jailed for the “crime” of self-defense against racist, sexist and homophobic violence); and, finally, the more than 13 million U.S. children, mostly Brown and Black, who are born into poverty.
Abdulah explained, “Our society has not wiped out the wide and vicious racial divide. Being economically deprived, politically disenfranchised and socially disrespected are very much a product of race. Racism is an integral, inseparable part of capitalism. Exploitation, and the super-profits made by paying less to people of color and women, is absolutely vital to the survival and entrenched power of the corporations.
“Being ‘color blind’ is wrong because blinding ourselves to the reality of racism and remaining neutral on the necessity of fighting against it will never bring an end to racism.” Instead, she said, while “ridding ourselves of racism will not be easy or automatic, racism is not inevitable — it came into being with capitalism and will perish with socialism.”
A member of Radical Women, Abdulah explained that RW and FSP recognize that no one is immune to society’s influences and this is why the organizations have a Comrades of Color Caucus that provides leadership on people of color issues and fights racism and its impact internally as well as externally.
Fighting on all fronts
The third panelist, Emily Woo Yamasaki, a leader of the Comrades of Color Caucus, drew applause when she stated, “This society is not post-racial, any more than it is post-sexist or post-homophobic!”
Using Obama’s election to give the illusion that racism has ended, Yamasaki feels, is a carefully crafted tactic to quash the fight against racism and against the capitalist system itself. “The powers-that-be want us to believe that people of color just need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and live the bourgeois dream.” This dangerous credo puts all the attention on individual efforts and success instead of structural change for the whole community.
Yamasaki was deeply influenced by Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Barbara Smith and other Black feminists in the Combahee River Collective. Their 1977 statement of purpose, she said, included the theory that “those who are multiply oppressed” — by race, gender, sexuality, and class — would of necessity destroy all systems of oppression. They advocated socialist revolution that is feminist and anti-racist.”
“Who knows how much closer we might be to socialism today had the most militant, anti-capitalist Black leaders — women and men — not been killed, jailed or otherwise derailed,” said Yamasaki. She reminded the gathering that Martin Luther King was assassinated at the very moment when he was linking the fight for racial equality with opposition to the Vietnam War and support for striking Memphis sanitation workers. She described the direction King and others were heading — from demanding justice and full integration to labor solidarity and anti-capitalism — as Revolutionary Integration, a theory conceived in the 1960s by founders of the FSP. Revolutionary Integration holds that Black leadership is key to working-class revolution in the United States.
Farrow closed with the declaration that this is a “dangerous moment for the struggle against racism where the myth of a post-racial society is being used to squelch concerns about racial and economic justice.” Abdulah proposed that “to get to a society with freedom and justice, we need to shine a bright light on racism, and struggle in multi-issue solidarity.”
Yamasaki concluded, “We need to build on the legacy of the civil rights movement — incorporate feminism and an active leadership of Black women and queers with a bold, uncompromising anti-capitalist approach to bring the ongoing struggle for ‘Freedom Now!’ to its logical revolutionary conclusion.”
All branches of the FSP held Black History Month events that featured local activists speaking on this same theme. In each, acknowledging the destructive reality of racism was paired with the determination, in the words of the powerful traditional anthem by James Weldon Johnson, to “march on ’til victory is won.”