Race, class and social conflict in the United States

This lecture was delivered at the Socialist Equality Party (US) summer school, held August 1 through August 6, by Niles Niemuth, a writer for the World Socialist Web Site.


The American ruling class is promoting racialist politics and racial division to undermine the class unity of the working class amidst the rise of social inequality to ever greater heights, the eruption of mass protests over police violence and the growth of the class struggle in the US and internationally. The push to present every social problem in the United States as a racial issue is a reflection of the deepening crisis of world capitalism and an effort by the Democrats, the trade unions and the pseudo-left to stave off a united, independent working class offensive against the capitalist system.

This ruling class initiative comes after more than four decades of unrelenting attacks on living standards and working conditions, which has fueled the rise in the stock market and the wealth of the ultra-rich and upper-middle class. The aim is to confuse workers and young people and redirect their opposition to inequality behind the Democratic Party, a bourgeois party of Wall Street and war, whose historic roots reach back to the dark days of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

The two years since our last school have been a period of intense and growing class struggle in the United States and internationally. Looking at the US situation, there was the GM strike in the fall of 2019, involving 50,000 autoworkers at 50 plants across the US. That was followed by the wildcat strikes by autoworkers in Europe, Canada and the US in March 2020, which temporarily shut down the auto industry and led to broader lockdown measures as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

Workers walk the picket line during a demonstration outside the GM Warren Tech center on Friday (Credit: World Socialist Web Site)

So far this year there have been significant walkouts. At Volvo Trucks in Virginia, workers, with the assistance of the Socialist Equality Party (SEP), formed a rank-and-file committee in an effort to oppose a sellout by the United Auto Workers (UAW). Workers repeatedly rejected union-backed contracts at Warrior Met coal, Allegheny Technologies (ATI) and Frito-Lay. Health care workers across the country have protested and gone on strike to demand better working conditions, under conditions where the full brunt of the pandemic catastrophe has been placed on their backs by the hospital chains.

It is in this context that profoundly anti-Marxist, anti-scientific and anti-working class conceptions developed within academia and by the pseudo-left over the last five decades are being pumped into the country’s bloodstream, with the financial backing of tens of millions of dollars from major foundations and big business.

“White privilege,” “systemic racism,” “intersectionality,” “critical race theory” are the buzzwords and concepts of the day. This is addressed in more detail in the lecture by Tom Carter. These conceptions are based on the rejection of an objective, scientific approach to history and the dismissal of the revolutionary history of the United States and the class struggle, as seen in the “1619 Project,” which is discussed in the lecture by Tom Mackaman.

The SEP rejects identity politics based on race, gender or sexuality as reactionary. Such an approach to politics, which dismisses the fundamental class character of society, benefits only the privileged upper-middle class and the ruling class, while dividing the working class.

The working class in the United States is perhaps the most heterogeneous in the world—drawn from Europe, Asia, Africa, North, South and Central America. The fight for socialism requires the unification of the working class—comprised of people of every skin color, ethnicity, nationality, language, gender and sexuality—in the US and internationally. Under conditions of globalization, in which all countries have been drawn together in the process of production, there can be no national solution to the problems workers face in any one country, let alone among a minority segment of one nation’s population.

The origins of racism lie not in the “DNA” of white Americans. Rather, they are rooted in capitalism itself and its historical development over the last four centuries. Racism and concepts of racial difference have been and continue to be promoted by the ruling class to divide the working class and protect the capitalist order.

And contrary to the claim of “1619 Project” architect Nikole Hannah-Jones, African Americans have not fought back alone in the struggle for democratic rights. The impulse in American history has been for unity from below and division from above. From the colonial period and the time of slavery to the Civil War and through to Jim Crow and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, blacks and whites have worked, been exploited and fought back side by side, while the ruling class has sought to use race to divide and pit workers against each other.

The great question of the working class movement has always been the conscious fight against and tearing down of divisions imposed by the ruling elite, and the combating of backward tendencies that take root among workers. This is a fight that has always been led by socialists, opposing all efforts to split and divide the working class.

Objective class divisions cut across every grouping. A black worker has more in common with a white worker than he or she does with the black elite. Reviewing the question of wealth inequality among racial groups recently on the World Socialist Web Site, we exposed the myth of the “racial wealth gap” and showed that there has been a pronounced growth in the wealth of the black upper-middle class.

Those who complain about the racial wealth gap are privileged members of the upper-middle class, the “next nine percent” below the richest 1 percent. While seeing their net worth grow substantially along with the inflation of their stock portfolios, these social layers jealously view the ultra-wealthy above them, the top 1 percent and top 0.1 percent. They deploy identity politics grievances in an effort to attain a greater share of the pie for themselves.

In fact, wealth inequality is greater within racial groups than between them, and when it comes to the bottom rungs of American society there is no racial wealth gap to speak of, since, regardless of their skin color, millions own nothing or are deeply in debt. As much as half of the US population, 160 million people, has zero or negative net worth.

The promotion of racialist identity politics over the last two years

The first indication of a shift into higher gear by the ruling class in promoting racialist politics was the promotion of racial reparations for slavery at a hearing in June 2019, with testimony by Senator Cory Booker and Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others. A one-time fringe demand, raised by black nationalist groups, and introduced year after year to little avail by Democratic Representative and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member John Conyers since the 1980s, has been adopted by the Democratic Party mainstream. The aim of focusing on reparations was to make race a central pillar in the 2020 presidential election campaign.

Following in these ideological footsteps, the 1619 Project was published in the August 2019 edition of the New York Times Magazine rejecting the revolutionary heritage of the American Revolution and Civil War, dismissing Abraham Lincoln as garden-variety racist and recasting all of American history as driven by racial antagonism—that of whites against blacks. Hannah-Jones’s thesis is based almost entirely on the writings of Black Power proponent Lerone Bennett Jr., the executive editor of Ebony magazine for five decades. Her staunchest defender is the Stalinist and academic fraud Gerald Horne .

Despite the criticism of the 1619 Project’s thesis by leading American historians and a stealth edit after its exposure by the World Socialist Web Site, the New York Times continues to back Hannah-Jones and promote the project. The 1619 Project has been pumped up with millions of dollars in funding and a Pulitzer Prize. It has been spun into a book coming out this fall, a documentary to be screened on Disney-owned Hulu and a curriculum for use in schools.

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet gave the game away in internal remarks to Times staff members about making race the focus in the 2020 election year, which were leaked to Slate. Baquet explained:

[R]ace and understanding of race should be a part of how we cover the American story… one reason we all signed off on the 1619 Project and made it so ambitious and expansive was to teach our readers to think a little bit more like that. Race in the next year—and I think this is, to be frank, what I would hope you come away from this discussion with—race in the next year is going to be a huge part of the American story.

The WSWS published our initial response to the 1619 Project in September 2019, followed by a series of interviews with preeminent historians of the United States: Gordon Wood, James McPherson, Richard Carwardine, James Oakes, Adolph Reed, Clayborne Carson and Victoria Bynum. We were the only outlet that presented a left-wing, socialist critique of the racialist falsification of American history in the 1619 Project, uniquely providing a platform for renowned historians to present their perspectives and criticisms.

Then came the murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Notably, that officer, Derek Chauvin, had three police accomplices. They included a white cop and a black cop who helped him pin Floyd to the pavement, and an Asian American, who held back a horrified and angry multi-racial crowd as Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes.

Video of the murder in broad daylight, in the midst of the initial surge of the COVID-19 pandemic, went viral online, sparking an eruption of protests against police violence and racism in Minneapolis which rapidly spread across the country and internationally. The multi-racial, multi-ethnic protests were the largest and most widespread protests in US history, with as many as 25 million participating. Demonstrations were held in cities large and small, in rural and urban areas.

Over 13,600 arrests were made between May 25 and June 6, 2020. Journalists were targeted for attack and arrest by the police. Plainclothes federal agents and police in unmarked vehicles grabbed protesters from the street. President Donald Trump came close to invoking the Insurrection Act to mobilize the military to suppress the protests and seize dictatorial power.

The Democratic Party, the pseudo-left and the unions worked overtime to redirect the intense opposition to police violence and racism into racialist politics. The New York Times published Hannah-Jones’ argument for racially based reparations in June 2020, just a month into the protests.

Demands for the removal of Confederate monuments were turned into attacks on monuments of Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Union commanders in the Civil War. Hannah-Jones quipped that she would wear it as a “badge of honor” if the protests were dubbed the “1619 riots.” Riding the wave of the racialist protests, Black Lives Matter brought in $90 million in donations in 2020, including substantial pledges from major corporations and foundations. The trade unions promoted a “ Strike for Black Lives ,” which drew the support at best of only a few thousand union functionaries, with the UAW calling on workers to participate in a token eight-minute-and-forty-six-second “ stand down ” on June 19, Juneteenth.

Meanwhile, as the presidential campaign developed, black Democrats showed their true reactionary colors. Many city-level politicians endorsed or flirted with the campaign of billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the mastermind of the racist “stop and frisk” program, enticed by the prospect of millions of dollars from his self-financed campaign and philanthropic organization. Even former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and vice presidential hopeful Stacey Abrams, a proponent of identity politics who has argued that blacks and whites have “intrinsic racial differences,” covered for Bloomberg and his billions.

As the party establishment’s preferred candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, seemed to be floundering, Representative James Clyburn stepped in with a racial appeal to black voters in South Carolina to prop up Biden’s campaign and block a possible victory in the primaries by Senator Bernie Sanders. With his nomination secure, Biden selected Kamala Harris as his vice president. Harris ticks multiple identity boxes as the first black/Asian American and the first woman to hold the office, while brandishing reactionary credentials as the former attorney general of California, who defended the state’s inhumane prison system.

There are a number of other developments that I can mention only briefly, but which were significant: the controversy over New York University’ endorsement of racially segregated dorms for black students; the cancellation of Adolph Reed’s speech to the DSA because of his alleged “class reductionism”; the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, which stripped one the worst racist pogroms in American history from its class context; the declaration of Juneteenth as a national holiday without any examination of the significance of the emancipation of the slaves and its revolutionary implications for the present; growing demands for racial quotas in art from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to Amazon and the Met Opera; and, most recently, the intense furor over “critical race theory.”

Marxism vs. Black Nationalism

In countering the middle class racialist politics of the current moment there are important lessons to be drawn for the party and the working class from the debate over petty-bourgeois black nationalism and racialist politics as it developed in the 1960s and 1970s.

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