Jan 15, 2017
On January 16, people around the country celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The holiday symbolizes the tremendous fight made by an earlier generation – a vast mobilization that won gains not only for the black population, but for all working people in this country.
More and more, however, many of those gains are being reversed. Yes, segregation laws may no longer be present, and a large black middle class still exists. But for the black workers and poor, the situation is becoming steadily worse.
Not only are fewer jobs available than in the 1950s, when the movements pushed forward; the jobs that do exist have increasingly moved away from the traditional working class areas, and especially from areas where black workers reside. Education and training needed for jobs have been drastically slashed in most cities, big and small. Social programs won by the movements of the sixties and earlier periods, which at least provided a weak safety net for people without a job, have also been slashed. Every part of the working class has suffered, with black workers taking the biggest hit.
American capitalism’s answer to the lack of decent jobs and quality education is to throw unemployed youth in prison – mass incarceration. Democrat and Republican politicians together passed crime bills establishing more lengthy prison sentences for petty “crimes” committed by young people. Minor traffic violations or shoplifting or minor drug offenses became the triggers to send millions to prison. And black people ended up in prison the most, out of all proportion to the number of crimes they committed.
These laws created what’s been called a “playground-to-prison pipeline,” providing cheap prison labor to big corporations and huge profits for companies contracting to build and provide services to the prison system. Overall, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world, even though it doesn’t have higher rates of crime than many countries. And incarceration has hit the black community the hardest.
There may not be much of a Ku Klux Klan today. Public lynching may have disappeared. But in many cities, the cops and courts have imposed legal lynching on the poorest communities.
American capitalism depends on racism. It has always maintained a section of the working class forced to work for lower wages. That could only harm the rest of the working class, whether or not other workers realized it. When the black population can be forced to live and work under worse conditions, white workers’ living standards run up against a wall also. When immigrants without papers are forced to work for minimum wage – and often much less – everyone else’s wages are blocked. Every year, a larger and larger share of the wealth that all workers produce is stolen by the capitalist class – because a divided working class can easily be victimized.
There is no other answer to the situation we face than the one carried out by the original mobilization of the black population. The gains that were won came through struggles. Those who struggled may have begun the fight, hoping just to “influence” the rulers to change. But ultimately the struggle led to the urban rebellions that shook the ruling class of this country. Forced back against the wall, the rulers of this country ceded a much higher standard of living to everyone – for awhile.
It’s those gains the ruling class began to take back, almost as soon as the mobilization receded.
To win real, permanent change that benefits the whole working class, and especially those today who are pushed back the furthest, the fight this time cannot stop halfway. It cannot leave in place a class system, with racism at its very base.
The fight we have to make today is a fight to impose what every part of the working class needs, to take control of the situation away from the capitalist class that harms us all today, and use that control to build a society whose aim is the complete fulfillment of everyone, that is a socialist society.