Jun 24, 2019
Democrats in the U.S. Congress have introduced a bill to form a commission to study authorization of reparations or compensation to descendants of slaves for all the suffering imposed throughout the period of U.S. slavery. This includes its lingering effects, peonage and institutional racism and violence. They have also included a demand for a public apology to the descendants of slaves.
In fact, a reparations bill has little chance of passing, since the Republican-controlled Senate will block anything the Democrats present this year.
Nor does it seem reasonable that the Democratic Party, which historically was the party of slavery, the party that fought to reimpose slavery on freed slaves in the South, will ever be the party that frees society from the stigmas of slavery.
The current Democratic Party has had its foot on the necks of black and white workers for the 150 year period following the Civil War. When they were not the majority party in office, still they maintained the rights of the most bigoted, racist, exploitative capitalists to rule, hand-in-hand with the Republicans.
They have had plenty of time and opportunity to pursue and secure reparations – especially when they dominated both houses of Congress and the White House. It never happened. Why should we believe it will happen now?
This year marks an important anniversary. Exactly 400 years ago, in 1619, the first black people were ripped out of Africa and brought to Jamestown, in what was then the colony of Virginia, to work as slaves.
Thus, the birth of the capitalist class in North America represented a human catastrophe on two continents, in America and Africa.
The institution of slavery was at the very basis of wealth and power, and not just for the slaveholders. By 1860, that is, the start of the Civil War, almost the entire U.S. economy revolved around slavery. This wealth came first of all from what the slaves themselves produced. To the capitalists, the value of the slaves themselves was worth “more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together,” wrote Yale historian David W. Blight. On top of that, the capitalists profited from mortgages on the purchase of slaves. They sold insurance policies against the untimely death of a slave and the loss of potential profits. Slavery also helped finance government operations, since slave sales were taxed and notarized.
The Civil War might have ended slavery. But to uproot slavery, the capitalist class would have had to impose a major land reform, by breaking up the old plantations and turning them over to small farmers, both black and white. It also would have entailed enormous investments in infrastructure and social spending, such as public education and health care, that is, what was being done in the North.
Instead, in the decades that followed the Civil War, the political representatives of the capitalist class in the North eventually allowed the former slaveholders to control most of their old landholdings and gain their profits by keeping a large labor force to work the land as cheaply as possible. That fell to the ex-slaves, who were pushed into a system of sharecropping and forced convict labor. To keep that labor force on the land, another system of terror was established, that went by the name of Jim Crow, which depended on lynching and terror, imposed by both law enforcement authorities and the KKK.
Beginning a little more than a century ago, black people began the Great Migration, when a big part of the black workforce made its way out of the South and migrated into all the big urban centers in the North and West. Government officials, civic associations, and banks pushed black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. They were awarded the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets.
This discrimination was rooted in federal law. The laws that were enacted during the New Deal of the 1930s excluded farm and domestic labor from Social Security old age retirement benefits, which meant that 70 per cent of all black workers were not covered. Nor were most black workers eligible for unemployment insurance. Through redlining, the federal government, banks, and insurance companies excluded black people from federal subsidies for home mortgages and loans, while they were charged more for insurance. And starting in the 1990s, when finance companies finally opened up the mortgage market to black people, the banks and mortgage companies ripped black people off with sub-prime and reverse mortgages that led to record numbers of foreclosures and homelessness.
Thus, the greatest poverty and the most unemployment continues to be concentrated amongst the black population. And so has the greatest violence, from police shootings to mass imprisonment.
Other parts of the working class have certainly been brutally exploited and oppressed. And certainly, immigrant groups that have come to this country were slated to work the worst jobs and often had to endure virulent discrimination. The difference was that their children and grandchildren were able to gain the legal and social status that black people have been historically excluded from.
So, the greatest violence is still reserved for the part of the working class which is made up of black people. The repercussions from America’s history of slavery continue to strike the black population right up this day.
But in the process of imposing these brutal and barbaric conditions in order to increase their profits, the capitalist class has also produced its own grave diggers, those who have every reason to not just oppose, but to overthrow capitalist society.
History is filled with the organizing of black people to revolt, despite the harshest, most impossible conditions. The history of slavery is the history of slave revolts, including the raising of slave armies under Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey. During the Civil War, hundreds of thousands escaped the plantations in what was a mass general strike by the slaves, and fought in the Northern armies. Lincoln recognized that the ex-slaves were the key to the defeat of the Confederacy.
After the Civil War, it was the ex-slaves who led the way, forging an alliance with the poor white farmers to impose sweeping reforms on the ex-planter class, including public schools for the first time in the South.
And, though the capitalist class brought this brief period of radical Reconstruction to a close through terror and Jim Crow, the black population continued to fight back, including during the populist movements in the South of the late 19th century.
During the 20th century, the black migration reached into the cities of the North and West, that is, the very heart of the modern capitalist system, the centers of economic and political power. And while the capitalists and their government tried to segregate them into ghettos, it only led black people to organize, whether in the form of the Marcus Garvey movement, or in the decades during and after World War II against segregation and racism.
These movements culminated in the urban rebellions of the 1960s. No other movement in U.S. history achieved the scope and depth of these rebellions. Their revolutionary potential was illustrated by the fact that the revolts extended into the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, through smaller rebellions, such as by the fragging of officers and outright mutinies.
These revolts illustrated that the most oppressed layers of the working class could bring other parts of the working class behind them. That meant they might not only have been able to impose temporary reforms, but might have overthrown capitalism itself.
The potential for revolution was there. But what was missing was a revolutionary organization for black workers, that could transmit to those fighting a clear understanding of where their actions were taking them, that in reality their fight was part of a broader class-wide fight against the capitalist class, a fight that could only end with the victory of either the capitalists or the workers.
Without that revolutionary working class organization, that movement could only be thrown back.
Today, we have been living through a long period of retreat and demoralization. But the worsening attacks of the capitalist class that fall most heavily on black workers will eventually provoke new revolts. What must be done to prepare for those revolts is to build what was missing before: a revolutionary party of the working class.