From Outrage to Action: Defending Civil Rights Today


5-23-05, 2:02 pm

The movement of African Americans for full social, economic and political equality has always been decisive to the struggle for democracy and the advance towards socialism. This has been so since the days of slavery. Today as in the past, this courageous movement, which ebbs and flows like all movements, continues in alliance with the working class and the oppressed. Today it is on the cutting edge of the movement to bring to an end the disastrous policies of the current Republican administration.

With the theft of the election in 2000, and in light of the questionable results in 2004, the prospect of four more years of Bush should not be taken lightly. It will mean more serious attacks on the well being of all working people and on democracy itself. In the sharp struggles ahead, African Americans will play a leading role, as they always have historically.
To understand the leading role of the African American struggle, one has to only look at the last election. Contrary to right-wing propaganda Black voters are not naïve, misinformed or easily manipulated by Democrats. Nor are they opposed to political independence and candidates of the left. In fact they are among the most sophisticated and independent of all voters. They are very conscious of the need for Black representation and have changed the face of US politics in that regard. Yet they do not vote strictly along racial lines but vote the issues especially when it comes to class and race. They are willing to vote and work inside and outside of the two party system. Black voters are among the most consistent of all progressive voters. When the right danger is great they know how to vote defensively and give critical support to candidates they don’t fully agree with. Like all voters, they have to be informed about the issues and mobilized but are among the most unified and consistent when it comes to voting against racism and for their basic class interests.

In 2004 despite major efforts to suppress their vote, African Americans cast 89 percent of their ballots against Bush, higher than any other group. Republicans clearly understood the power of that vote and spared no effort to keep Blacks from the polls. Supporter of Bush claim they acted to prevent voter fraud and that such efforts had nothing to do with race. However, to suppress the votes of African Americans, a people subjected to centuries of racial oppression can only be called racist.

What factors made the 89 percent vote possible? First, African Americans have a long history of fighting against racism, and for the right to vote. And while every generation has to be won to this idea, the culture of 'fighting for your rights' goes back to slavery and is deeply imbued in the spirit of the people as a whole. Everyone over 35 was alive when fire hoses, dogs and racist mobs were used to stop the civil rights upsurge. This experience had and continues to have an enormous impact on the American people. For African Americans it represented a sea change in the way we lived and thought. This great battle was not just a short lived rebellion or a fight for a hamburger – it was a fight for survival – for freedom. These inroads were carefully calculated and targeted. The election was so close that even a slight increase in Black votes for Bush made a big difference. For example, nationally the African American vote went from nine percent for Bush in 2000 to 11 percent in 2004. In Ohio, a critical state in the 2004 race, Black votes for Bush reached 16 percent or about 90,000 ballots. Bush won the state by 120,000. If Kerry would have received the same percentage of Black voters in Ohio as Gore did in 2000 and the Black vote had not been suppressed, he would likely have won the presidency. Even a small shift in the highly disciplined Black vote made the difference.

These results should be a lesson for Democrats also. The Black vote must not be taken for granted. And more must be done to prevent its suppression. A fighting stance against racism is the only way to win stronger support from African Americans. It is also the only way to win more white voters away from racism.

Condoleezza Rice, Clarence Thomas and other appointees were part of these efforts to build a Black conservative constituency. Fundamentally all of them are firm believers in capitalism and do not see the vast inequalities and injustices including racial oppression are rooted in the economic system. For them racism is not systemic: it is a problem of individual prejudices of whites and individual failings of Blacks. In their minds all progress comes from corporate profits: people come second. This leads to an accommodation with racial oppression and an alliance with the most racist anti-working-class elements. One never hears any of them speak of racism or discrimination and all are opposed to affirmative action even though in every case it helped them advance their careers.

They are in the Bush administration to shield it from the charge of racism. The fact that they are made wealthy for their betrayal is a strong material incentive.

In order to counter this Black sector of the right a full assessment needs to be made of their main organizations, leading personalities and think tanks. What are their main campaigns, their financial sources and their main ideological beliefs?

The presence of Rice, Powell and other non-white members of the Bush cabinet is to give the image of anti-racism; of equality. But this is just an image because this administration’s basic policies are racist.

The Bush people hope that a few Black faces in high places will deceive the people. One could imagine they hope people will be so impressed by the articulate TV images that the content of what is being said will be ignored. It surprises no one that there are non-white articulate spokespersons. Being articulate is not the point. There are thousands of able Black and Latino leaders who could do those jobs. Why haven’t more been appointed in the past is rooted in the system of racist oppression.

The problem has always been the racism of the government, not the lack of qualification. But every Black or Latino who’s been put up by the administration does not have to be accepted, especially if they are politically reactionary. In fact, from the point of view of African Americans, it’s an insult to put up a Black nominee for a high position whose politics are diametrically opposed to the politics of the vast majority of Black people. Generally, most African Americans feel little race pride about these appointees because they do not act in the people’s interests. They are instruments of a racist policy. When has Rice spoken out about racism? Never! It’s true Powell on occasion did speak up but his opposition was never serious enough to openly defy his boss. Harry Belafonte was correct in calling him as a 'house Negro.' Front people for the right, be they Black, white or Latino have to be exposed and criticized for their complicity with racism.

Recently Robert Johnson, the chief executive of Black Entertainment Network put out a call to a number of prominent Black capitalists to come to a summit to discuss African Americans’ relationship to the Democratic Party. The meeting was supposed to be held in secret. When NAACP chair, Julian Bond, got word and made public the purpose of the summit, Johnson canceled it. Republican money was no doubt behind the effort. But the Bush forces remain determined and as indicated earlier, the ideological soil is fertile.

Witness the recent campaign of well-known comedian Bill Cosby to openly criticize the behavior of African American youth. Cosby makes no effort to deal with systemic racism. In addition, there is a network of right-wing 'reporters' who are being paid to promote the administration’s programs. Syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams received almost a quarter of a million dollars to push Bush’s 'No Child Left Behind'; a program which is designed to leave millions of children behind. But when it came out that Williams, was being paid he was fired from his TV job. The Black press and radio however, is still pushing Bush’s program.

While it is doubtful that Bush and his Black compradors can win this battle, they can nevertheless do a great deal of damage. Progressive and left forces in the Black community and beyond need to be alert to what is going on and organize a fight back on the ideological and political front to defeat this effort by wealthy Black capitalists to rationalize the racist assault on Black working people.

It seems clear from the foregoing that the election experience is the framework from which to assess where the movement is at. The starting point is that the 89 percent against Bush was achieved through the labor/African American alliance.

Indeed, key to building the African American freedom movement is its strategic relationship with labor. Over 2.5 million Blacks are in the labor movement. In fact one out of five Black workers are unionized. There is a long standing working alliance between the trade-union movement and the African American liberation movement. That alliance has been mutually beneficial. Obviously Black workers have played a key role in bringing about and maintaining this relationship.

Organizations like the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) are invaluable in building the alliance. Black churches are part of this coalition as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). During the last election everywhere one went in the battleground states you saw large numbers of Black union workers giving their all in the effort to educate and mobilize voters. This strategic alliance is key to moving the whole democratic movement forward.

In the post-election period, there are even more issues that unite African Americans and labor. The policies of George W. Bush have raised the necessity to build new and broader coalitions in general. From resisting efforts to privatize Social Security to rejecting Bush’s nominees of federal judges, the coalitions are developing. In 2003 Bill Lucy, the head of CBTU, referred to Bush’s re-nominations of Charles Pickering and Priscilla Owen to the US Court of Appeals 5th Circuit, as 'bold, in-your-face-politics of arrogance and insensitivity.' And that is the style of the current administration: in-your-face racism. The only answer is: in-their-face united street heat.

Almost all of the major civil rights organizations have gone on record against Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security. Most are also questioning his war in Iraq. Most African Americans continue to oppose the war. African Americans are prominent in the fight against Bush’s nominees to the federal bench. Most of the Black left was a part of this great fight.

Needless to say, in the post-election period, the struggle continues. The NAACP is the largest civil rights organization in the country. Their membership is well over 500,000. In the 2004 election, they were mobilized to educate and register voters. Because the chairman of the NAACP, Julian Bond was courageous and outspoken against Bush’s policies, the administration turned loose the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on them threatening their tax exempt status. No US administration has ever gone after the NAACP like Bush. They are out to destroy the financial base of the nation’s largest civil rights organization. This is an example of a racist administration enraged because Black leaders dared stand up to them. If this is an example of Bush’s concept of 'freedom' and a 'colorblind society' the people don’t want it.

The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) was right in the thick of things last election along with the AFL-CIO, including supporting local labor candidates some of which came out of its local chapters.

With the founding of the Black Radical Congress in 1998 the path toward a new level of unity of the black left and the left in general was created. The effort was initially very successful and continues to function in a few areas around and attracts a good amount of interest on the Internet. It has yet to reach its full potential especially in local areas.

The idea of left unity is still a powerful idea. Black left unity is at its best when it is in the context of building broad people’s unity in struggle. The problem with the US left in general including the Black left is that it conceives itself too narrowly. It does not see itself as part of the broad, spontaneous unaffiliated mainly working-class left. They do not relate to the working-class and trade-union movement to the same degree as they relate to the intellectual/academic based left. The role and potential of the left is not realizable in the African American people’s movement if it is not highly connected, highly active, leading forces at each stage of the revolutionary process.

We are at a stage where it is necessary to defeat the extreme right-wing threat to humanity, to democracy, the well being and survival of our people. The struggle of the African American people is playing a leading role in this. The movement is still in motion despite attempts to intimidate and derail it. The African American people are ready to take this struggle to a higher level but the clarity and strong left leadership necessary to help bring this about is still in formation. How this process of struggle can be stepped up is what we need to figure out. To quote Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, 'My people are in motion, I just have to run and catch up with them.'

--Jarvis Tyner is a national vice chair of the Communist Party USA.