Jul 2, 2017

Ending Racism Requires Us to Take Up Class Struggle, To Shift the Material Conditions That Gives Race Practical Meaning

By R.L. Stephens / jacobinmag.com
Ending Racism Requires Us to Take Up Class Struggle, To Shift the Material Conditions That Gives Race Practical Meaning

Pierre Fulton was black. He was poor. He had struggled his entire life. He had been in trouble with the law as a youth. Armed robbery, drug distribution, and gun possession were all on his record. It was now 2015 and Pierre was thirty. He had turned his life around. He got a job at a distribution warehouse. There, he became friends with a coworker, a man twenty years his senior — a friendship forged by poverty, with all its setbacks and humiliations.

One morning in April 2015, they met at a local Hardee’s for breakfast. The two men pinched pennies for the meal, a fleeting comfort. They shared a ride to a local church, securing their week’s groceries from the free food program. Food is intimate, and the physical burden of going without is matched by the social stigma of being in need. To have a friend to carry the load, a bond free from shame, is a lifeline.

Despite the circumstances, Pierre found strength in his “dear friend,” saying, “he helped me to become a better man and showed me the value of hard work.” As they left the church, Pierre rode in the passenger seat as his friend drove his recently purchased used car. He’d just bought it a week prior, and so he was excited to give Pierre a lift. The weather was gloomy, but the two were still planning to have a cookout later that day. What happened next would be immortalized on video.

A squad car rolled up, playing Everlast’s “What It’s Like” so loudly that it overpowered the mic on the dashcam.

God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in his shoes. Cause then you really might know what it’s like to sing the blues. Then you really might know what it’s like.

The officer strolled to the car. He asked for the license and registration. From the tone of his questions, it was clear he suspected the car was stolen. The officer took the license and returned to his car. Pierre’s friend opened the door. The officer told him to get back in his seat, and at first he complied. Everlast continued to play.

God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in his shoes. Cause then you really might know what it’s like to sing the blues. Then you really might know what it’s like.

Pierre’s friend opened the door once more, this time, he made a break for it. His name was Walter Scott, and as Pierre would later tell reporters, “he did not deserve to die.” Walter ran. He ran out of Pierre’s line of sight. The cop, Michael Slager, pursued him, gun drawn. Slager shot him as he ran, on camera. Pierre heard the pop of each round fired into his friend. Seven shots in quick succession. BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! A pause, and then a final shot rang out, eight bullets pierced Walter’s back. Pierre helplessly sat in the car, listening.

Walter Scott’s life mattered, to Pierre and so many others. Officer Slager slaughtered him, an act as casual as it was brutal. Devastated with grief, one mystery remained for Pierre, “I’ll never know why he ran.” At Slager’s trial, the fact that Walter ran became a central issue, with the defense retorting, “Why did he choose not to respect the request to stay where he was? That’s something that I hope you consider.” Walter Scott was put on trial for his own murder.

The murder of Walter Scott was racist. The honorable Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes, “If watching this video doesn’t convince holdouts that racism exists, nothing will.” Yet what comes after acknowledging racism exists? What we need is an accurate theory of how racism functions.

Within weeks, Charleston had become home to the Scott killing and Dylann Roof’s racist mass murder of black churchgoers. In response, one local paper claimed an interracial afterschool pen-pal program “combats racism through friendship.” However, Officer Slager had a black partner and Dylann Roof’s close friend was black. Neither killer was deterred by their respective interracial relationships.

Even when people speak to the systemic quality of racism, the analysis often remains mired in individualism. “Systematic racism is White racism in action,” writes A. R. Shaw following Officer Slager’s acquittal in December 2016. For Shaw, white racism manifests in small ways, which go ignored and thus “it grows into a larger problem.” This articulation of systemic racism nonetheless rests on individualism, as if racism is merely the sum total of personal attitudes and actions.

“To diagnose police officers’ lethal fears as racist, juries and prosecutors would also have to diagnose their own fears of black bodies as racist,” writes American University professor Ibram X. Kendi in a June 2017 piece for the New York Times. Professor Kendi presupposes that “confessing racism is the first step toward anti-racism.” Kendi’s focus on white sensitivity and personal morality mirrors the concept of “anti-blackness,” which itself owes much to the axioms and rhetoric of afro-pessimism.

Professor Michael P. Jeffries’s defense of Black Lives Matter in a 2014 Boston Globe article argues anti-blackness “is not simply about hating or penalizing black people. It is about the debasement of black humanity, utter indifference to black suffering, and the denial of black people’s right to exist.” In this worldview, acknowledging black humanity and expressing sensitivity to black suffering takes on a revolutionary significance. But Walter Scott’s murder cannot be reduced to a white lust for black suffering. Asad Haider, writing for Lana Turner, argues that under anti-blackness “history is reduced to an effect of a purported white enjoyment of black suffering.” Haider rejects this formulation, contending that race should instead be anchored in political economy.

Racism is class politics in motion. This dynamic is fundamentally “practical.” So, how do we do a class-based racial analysis of the Walter Scott killing? In May 2017 Officer Slager pled guilty and admitted responsibility for Walter’s murder. Against seemingly insurmountable odds, an officer would be held criminally responsible for killing someone, and a black man at that.

Yet the nagging mystery remains, why did Walter run? Like race itself, Walter was practical. He owed over $18,000 in child support, and a bench warrant for his arrest was issued in 2013. He was poor. He was desperate to avoid what amounted to debtor’s prison. He ran. He died. Each stride, ginger and pained with the ravages of age, was the practicality of class politics in motion.

Welfare reform aggressively stigmatized and criminalized child support payments. In 1996 Bill Clinton boasted the welfare reform bill was “the most sweeping crackdown on deadbeat parents in history.” He argued, “With this bill, we say to parents, if you don’t pay the child support you owe, we will garnish your wages, take away your driver’s license, track you across state lines and, if necessary, make you work off what you owe.” Welfare reform was presented as a race-neutral policy. Yet race had long been a practical tool in the concerted ruling class effort to destroy welfare, a class-based remedy to poverty.

Martin Gillens’s book, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy, details the dismantling of the system. According to Gillens, until 1964, mainstream media outlets offered sympathetic portrayals of welfare policy which primarily used images of the white poor in their coverage. Beginning in 1965, not only did media portrayals of welfare become much more negative, but the images used in these stories became overwhelmingly black as well. Despite black people making up about 29 percent of the nation’s poor from 1967–1992, black images were used in 57 percent of the media stories about welfare during this time. In 1972–73 media portrayals were overwhelmingly negative. That year images of black people accounted for over 75 percent of media stories on welfare. Clinton’s attacks on the welfare state in 1996 used this well-worn playbook.

True to form, Lillie Harden, a poor black woman from Bill Clinton’s home state Arkansas, was a public face of welfare reform policy in 1996. Harden was invited to stand over President Clinton’s shoulder as he signed the bill. She spoke of her excitement about moving off welfare and into a low-wage job. Six years later she had a stroke. Though she had received Medicaid while on welfare, her low-wage work made her ineligible for the program. Worse yet, the job provided no health care.

Harden could not afford the $450 per month cost of her medicine. In a final bit of desperation, she asked a journalist, Jason DeParle, to “ferry a message back to Clinton, asking if he could help her get on Medicaid.” Harden would report that her transition from welfare to low-wage work “didn’t pay off in the end.” She died at fifty-nine.

Hillary Clinton, not one to be relegated to the sideline, took an active role in the defense of President Clinton’s disastrous policy, doubling down on the “deadbeat” rhetoric. In 2002, the same year Lillie Harden had her stroke and was drowning in medical bills, then-Senator Hillary Clinton remarked, “these people are no longer deadbeats.”

Stuart Hall warns, due to its function in class relations, that race has “consequences for the whole class, not simply its ‘racially defined.’” There are more white welfare recipients than any other racial group. Race-specific rhetoric targeted at black people gutted white folk’s benefits too. This tactic is not just limited to welfare, it’s now extended to public-sector workers as well. A story for Pacific Standard concluded that the characterization of public-sector workers as “lazy, government-supported do-nothings” is a near seamless transition from the racist stereotypes long-employed against welfare recipients. As was the case with welfare, and now even public-sector employment, race is a practical threat to race-neutral class-based remedies. The class struggle must be deepened in response.

The racism that killed Walter Scott was a manifestation of a class-based assault on the masses, both black and white. Of course there’s an issue of proportion. Black people are more likely to be poor, to be victims of violent crime, to be killed by police. However, a disproportionate effect does not neutralize the broad class-based nature of the overall attack on the public sector that shaped the conditions leading to Scott’s murder. It’s also the case that the racism of their interaction cannot be reduced exclusively to Slager’s assumed state of mind. Racism is systemic, and the system itself is defined by the relations of production, that is — class politics.

Black communist Claude McKay, in a letter to the editor printed in W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Crisis in July 1921 had a class-based analysis of racism. He wrote,

when organized white workers quit their jobs, Negroes, who are discouraged by the whites to organize, are sought to take their places. And these strike-breaking Negroes work under the protection of the military and the police. But as ordinary citizens and workers, Negroes are not protected by the military and the police from the mob.

In response to these conditions, McKay fought for socialism as a means of providing a material response to racism that was rooted in collectivity and not individualism. He advanced an emancipatory class politics that engaged the specificity of race as a practical tool of struggle, and not a reifying fetishization of race ideology. Furthermore, as McKay’s anecdote illustrates, any class struggle which does not deal with the contradiction of racism leaves itself vulnerable to being undermined. The rollback of welfare and now public-sector employment also reveal this dynamic.

Solidarity is the only solution. Ending racism requires us to take up class struggle, to shift the total social terrain that gives race practical meaning.

R. L. Stephens is the A. Philip Randolph Fellow at Jacobin.

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