When Black Movements Win, Everybody But the 1 Percent Wins
Donald Trump and the right wing refer to Black protesters as “thugs” and “looters” guilty of “treason.” In contrast, liberals offer support for the protests, urging white people to become “allies” to the movement.
Though their rhetoric is starkly different, there is a dangerous overlap between the Trumpian and liberal views. They both imply that concessions won by Black protesters will hurt white people. Trump tells whites to defend their interests, while liberals urge them to make altruistic sacrifices.
The corporate media never challenge the underlying and pernicious myth that anti-racist struggle is a zero-sum game in which the oppressed gain at the expense of other non-elite sectors of the population.
Black revolutionaries have long rejected this myth. They have understood that when Black protesters win material gains, almost everyone but the white elite benefits.
Black abolitionist David Walker highlighted this truth in his iconic 1829 Appeal. The document was a call for Black insurrection against slavery and white supremacy, but Walker understood that poor and working-class whites also had a stake in that revolution. White supremacy not only subjugated people of color, it also facilitated the exploitation of the white 99 percent, who would benefit from a coalition with the Black working class. Walker envisioned a future in which white and Black working people “will all live in peace and happiness together.”
However, Walker also understood that Black people must lead the struggle. Though white abolitionists had criticized Thomas Jefferson and other racists of the day, Walker warned against relying on whites to do the heavy lifting: “Let no one of us suppose that the refutations which have been written by our white friends are enough — they are whites, we are blacks. We, and the world, wish to see the charges of Mr. Jefferson refuted by the blacks themselves.” Walker knew that without Black people at the helm of the struggle, the movement’s demands or strategies might not reflect their interests. For instance, many white critics of slavery advocated the deportation of freedpeople to Africa, a solution that Black abolitionists like Walker vehemently rejected.
Diverse figures within the Black radical tradition — from W.E.B. Du Bois to Martin Luther King Jr. to the Combahee River Collective — have expanded upon the dual insights of Walker’s Appeal. That understanding is also apparent within the movement that burst into the national spotlight after the 2014 murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and which reentered the public consciousness after the murders of George Floyd, Tony McDade and Breonna Taylor earlier this year. The platform of the Movement for Black Lives advocates changes that would benefit society as a whole in numerous ways.
White people must appreciate all that they have to gain from the success of the Black movement. Altruism is rarely enough to produce committed activists when people must incur physical, material and social risks to join a movement. Solidarity, not altruism, is the only viable foundation for the struggle to achieve collective liberation.
Diversity and Power Within Movements
Historically, victories by Black protesters have benefited working people of all races. This is because Black victories require the dismantling of both economic and racial hierarchies, and therefore open pathways for more people on the oppressed side of the system.
The reverse is not true: Victories by white working people often exclude Black, Latinx and other nonwhite groups, or even intensify their oppression; concessions delivered to relatively prosperous groups need not benefit the more oppressed groups below them. The most famous U.S. example is the New Deal, which granted Social Security and labor rights to most workers but denied those rights to farmworkers and domestic workers. Black and Latinx workers were concentrated in these sectors, thus intensifying their oppression and delaying their acquisition of those rights (some of the New Deal’s exclusions are still on the books today).
How, then, do we ensure that a victory benefits the entire working class? The New Deal demonstrates that anti-discrimination must be in the forefront of any struggle, to ensure that the demands of the most oppressed are answered. That means that a movement and its leadership must not only reflect the full diversity of the workforce, but must intentionally over-include those most oppressed. White leaders cannot be trusted to represent a Black constituency. Black men cannot be trusted to represent Black women. No American can be trusted to represent those suffering the effects of U.S. imperialism. Movements can only answer the needs of those at the bottom by positioning them as decision-makers.
When they do so, the whole 99 percent benefits. This pattern is clear in some of the most important victories of the Black movement.
Take, for example, race-based affirmative action, which draws major opposition because it allegedly harms qualified white applicants.
The poster child for affirmative action in higher education was the open admissions program instituted at the City University of New York (CUNY) between 1970 and 1976, after a long campaign led by African American and Puerto Rican students. The program guaranteed a spot in the CUNY system to all high school graduates in New York City, leading to a 75 percent increase in enrollment in 1970. The movement had also called for raising the percentage of Black and Latinx students to align with their percentage in New York public schools. Its demands had therefore been both universal and race-specific: it insisted on increased public spending to benefit the entire population of New York City public schools, coupled with affirmative action to address racial exclusion.
The results of the program reflected this dual emphasis. Before 1970, less than 10 percent of CUNY students were Black or Latinx, but in 1972, 28 percent of all open admissions spots went to Black students and another 10 percent went to Latinx students — still not equal to their percentage of the New York population, but much closer. Note, though, that 57 percent of the newly created spots went to white students. Thus, open admissions did not deny admission to any qualified white students; instead, it actually opened up CUNY to tens of thousands of whites.
The white beneficiaries of open admissions included not just working-class kids but also large portions of the middle class. Since many of the newly admitted whites would otherwise have attended private colleges, it saved their parents tens of thousands in tuition dollars while giving them access to the academically more rigorous CUNY system. Furthermore, the huge infusion of resources needed to accommodate the 75 percent increase in enrollment created many new professional and administrative positions, which were overwhelmingly filled — because of ongoing discriminatory practices — by white professionals.
The same dynamics operated during the struggle for public school integration in the South. White supremacists argued, without evidence, that school integration would hurt white students. But as Gavin Wright shows in Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South, the desegregation of public schools “led to substantial gains in educational attainment and earnings for black southerners, with no measurable adverse educational effects on white students.”
The Black movement also dramatically increased federal funding for Southern education during Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. The highest levels of funding went to areas where the Black movement was most disruptive. Yet white students also benefited from Black protest, since Head Start and other new programs enhanced educational opportunities for all students. And War on Poverty programs produced no reductions in budget or quality for the schools white students attended.
Jobs and Wages
Southern elites had likewise stoked fears that the integration of the Southern workforce would hurt white workers. But as Wright demonstrates in Sharing the Prize, gains for Black workers usually coincided with gains for white workers.
Quantitative research by economist Michael Reich has shown that racial inequality translates to lower wages for Black workers and also lowers wages for whites. The reason is that Black-white wage inequality “weaken[s] workers’ solidarity and bargaining strength.” Greater racial equality is associated with more solidarity between Black and white workers, and thus stronger unions.
Again, Black revolutionaries have always understood this point. In 1969, the Black feminist Frances Beal wrote that, “the entire labor movement in the United States has suffered as a result of the super exploitation of black workers and women.” This “super exploitation” ultimately “works to everyone’s disadvantage,” and so “the liberation of these two groups is a stepping stone to the liberation of all oppressed people.”
The history of union organizing confirms both the shared interests of all workers and the need for diverse working-class leadership. The auto industry offers a clear example of how anti-racist unions lift up all workers and, conversely, how the abandonment of anti-racism ultimately harms all.
The United Auto Workers (UAW) was originally a pioneer of anti-racism in the labor movement. Its early organizing included a massive effort to recruit Black workers, which was led by Black communists. The UAW of the 1940s was a relatively democratic union, as reflected in numerous instances when the rank-and-file successfully pushed leaders to fight rather than acquiesce to the bosses. During the war, Black members got the UAW to demand an end to job segregation and unequal wages. The resulting solidarity between Black and white workers enabled the rank and file to stage hundreds of strikes — usually in defiance of the leadership’s wartime “no-strike pledge” — which assured that workers shared in the soaring wartime profits.
By the mid-1950s, however, the UAW’s anti-communist white leaders had suppressed the interracial democracy that had allowed for earlier victories. The result was a union that bought short-term benefits for white workers by selling out Black workers. When the auto companies began moving production from the Detroit area to white suburbs and the segregated South, the UAW barely resisted, and even denied resources to local chapters that tried to resist. As the jobs moved to the suburbs, white workers were able to move with them, while the Black workers were stuck in Detroit — blocked by racist loan programs, realtors and government policy. The union was thus consenting to a transfer of jobs from Black to white workers. When the jobs later moved south, the UAW was abandoning both Black and white workers in the Detroit area, in exchange for modest wage increases in the short term for those workers who kept their jobs.
When Black workers in the Detroit area began organizing in the late 1960s against dangerous conditions and racist supervisors, they encountered fierce opposition from the union leadership. The Black radicals explicitly fought for both racial equality and the “uplifting of the working class as a whole.” And indeed, the strikes they organized stood to improve conditions, pay and job security for all workers. On the other hand, the defeat of the Black insurgents laid the foundation for five decades of union-negotiated givebacks that have hurt all auto workers.
The defeat of militant anti-racism has also spelled doom for numerous other unions. As goes the Black worker, so goes the whole working class.
The same logic applies to the movement against police terror. Ending police violence against people of color will also end police violence against whites. From 2013 through the end of November 2020, U.S. police had killed at least 8,658 people — hundreds of times more (total and per capita) than in other wealthy countries.
In an attempt to discredit Black protest, Trump recently declared that police kill “more white people” than non-whites. The statement is almost true, since about half (49 percent since 2013) of the victims of police violence are white. But Trump’s conclusion is disingenuous: it neglects the much higher per-capita rates at which Black, Indigenous and Latinx people are killed, and it implies that because whites are also brutalized, there’s no reason for non-whites to be angry. It’s like saying Black people have no right to protest Trump’s homicidal response to COVID-19 because the virus also kills white people.
Yet Trump’s comment did inadvertently reveal that whites share an interest in stopping police violence. If the movement achieved a 50 percent decline in police murders, thousands of white lives would be saved.
Moreover, if the demand to defund the police is even partially successful, it will produce manifold economic benefits for working people of all races. Defunding the police by even 50 percent would free up $58 billion a year to be spent on public education, health care, community-run violence prevention programs and a Green New Deal, in the process creating hundreds of thousands of professional, administrative and industrial jobs that pay living wages.
Your Liberation and Mine
Australian Aboriginal organizer Lilla Watson famously said to non-Aboriginal supporters, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” The lesson for non-Black observers of the recent protests is clear: most non-Black people will benefit from the Black resistance, and should join not just as well-meaning “allies” but as partners in rebellion.
This shared interest doesn’t mean we all have the exact same experiences. The voices of the most oppressed should always carry special weight on the questions that affect them. When movements do that, all workers benefit.