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It’s Not Race or Class — It’s Race and Class: An Interview with Roderick Bush

We Are Not What We Seem
WE ARE NOT WHAT WE SEEM: Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century by Roderick D. Bush
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Roderick Bush is an Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at St. John’s University in New York.  He is the author of We Are Not What We Seem: Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century (NYU Press, 1999) and an activist.  Mr. Bush grew up in the US’s Jim Crow South and moved to Rochester, NY in 1959.  He attended one of the premier Black universities in the US — Howard University in Washington, DC — during the height of the Black Power movement at the school.  He went on to begin work on his doctorate at Kansas University, but he left the program to become a full-time political activist.  After several years, he returned to academia in 1988, hoping to find what he called “the Long March” towards liberation, only to discover that the Movement had dissolved and that there were no organizations carrying the struggle onward.  Professor Bush is currently working on a book entitled The End of White World Supremacy: Black Internationalism and the Problem of the Color Line, to be published  in the Fall of 2007 by Temple  University Press, and with Melanie E.L. Bush on a book which they have tentatively entitled Tensions in the “American” Dream: The Imperial Nation Confronts the Liberation of Nations.  Earlier this year, we exchanged a couple of emails and I asked him to send me a copy of his book to review.  After reading the text, I felt that the best way to get the analysis and message of the book out there would be an interview.  What follows is a somewhat lengthy exchange.  I encourage readers to take the time and read the entire piece.  It’s provocative, educational, and useful.  Plus, it’s a good read.

Ron Jacobs:  What is the state of radical politics among US blacks today?  Is there a grassroots element not tied to the Democratic party?  Part of me thinks that the fact I am asking this question means that there is no such element that is visible, but, given the fact that the current political and media reality in this country ignores most everyone but the wealthy and their sycophants, I think it is important to ask it.

Rod Bush:  Black folk have long occupied the Left flank of U.S. politics, even when not recognized as such by white radicals, as Du Bois pointed out in Black Reconstruction in America some seventy years ago.  White radicals have mostly sympathized with the anti-racist struggles of Blacks, but have often worried about the potential for divisiveness within the larger social class struggles defined by the nature of the capitalist system.  Racism was seen as a product of capitalism, therefore the struggle against racism must ultimately target the capitalist system, thus there is a danger in focusing too much on the particularity of Black oppression.

There is now some talk among scholars and radical activists about a Long Civil Rights Movement, which extends the movement backwards in time from its traditional beginning with the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the struggles of the 1930s and 1940s.  That is simply not long enough, not by a long shot.  I will argue for a radically different periodization in my comments here.  This is relevant to your question, but let me answer you directly first.

Black radical politics are part of the fabric of U.S. life and will remain so for the foreseeable future.  Why?  Because the African slave trade and the displacement of the Native Americans was foundational in the establishment of the capitalist system and the geoculture or commonsense in which people understand their relationship to one another.  This means the development and elaboration of a set of stratification processes based on race, with Blacks on the bottom and Native Americans (or indigenous people) next.  This stratification order was elaborated into a system of world white supremacy, which replaced the religious-based competition of  the pre-capitalist world.

There have certainly been changes in the status of Black folk in U.S. society, but racism remains in a rearticulated form as has been theoretically argued by Omi and Winant in Racial Formation in America.  Omi and Winant’s theory of racial formation is important because it historicizes racial discourse in a very clear way, and presents the 1960s as a site of what they call a “great transformation” of racial discourse and relations of force between the white world and people of color.

We tend today in hindsight to underestimate the challenge to the status quo mounted by the 1960s movements.  But I agree with Immanuel Wallerstein and others who view that period as the site of a world revolution.  Revolutionary movements have tended to be so tightly wedded to the seizure of state power as a strategy for social transformation that they have largely not given due recognition to other challenges to the power of  capitalism which I view as a historical social system.  It was in part the challenge mounted by the movements of the 1960s worldwide which destabilized the prevailing liberal geoculture that had co-opted the dangerous classes since the 1840s.  It was then in these circumstances that the trajectory toward social democratization was sharply curtailed and a counter-insurgency regime came to power to reign in what Samuel Huntington referred to as “an excess of democracy.”

While the Nixon administration continued to adhere to some of the principles of  the New Deal, by the 1980s the Thatcher/Reagan tandem had dramatically changed the course of the core states.  Reaganomics led to a  policy of disinvestment and withdrawal of the state in the inner city areas where Blacks resided.  This devastated these areas as the conservative forces used the ensuing reactions of residents of the inner city to this devastation (dramatic increases in participation in the informal economy and reliance on public benefits) as a justification for their policies of disinvestment and the withdrawal of the state in favor of supply-side remedies (code for the transfer of resources to wealthy property holders).  At the same time they used this as a strategy to mobilize the more privileged sectors of the population (especially whites) who resented the incursion into their privileged status by these dishonored groups.  The line of argument was why those (read whites) who had played by the rules should be penalized to benefit the lazy and criminally inclined (read Blacks) who did not want to play by the rules but obtain handouts in the form of affirmative action, public relief, etc.

The demonization of young Blacks in the public discourse led almost inexorably to the elaboration of a counter-hegemonic discourse among Blacks which emphasized the assertion of identity politics against the insulting rhetoric against them in the public discourse.  The Left (including much of the Black Left) railed against “identity politics” as a mystification of oppression, an essentialist obscuring of the deeper structural roots of racial oppression.  The centrist elements in the Black Power movement who had not been widely targeted in the counterinsurgency against the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s had largely relied on a strategy which emphasized identity and pride more than the need for overall structural change in the society.  They were in the best position to lead the movement which emerged in the 1980s.  Minister Louis Farrakhan and Reverend Jesse Jackson were the best known leaders of that genre who came to the fore in the 1980s.

By the late 1990s, the Black Left which had been massively repressed during the late 1960s and early 1970s rebellion called for the formation of a Black Radical Congress.  While those sections of the Black Left directly identified with Marxism suffered the same disillusionment that most in Marxist organizations faced during the 1980s (the so-called “crisis of Marxism”), there remained a number of small revolutionary nationalist organizations who despite being the main focus of the counterinsurgency of the late 1960s and early 1970s were able to remain in place (including the National Black United Front, the African People’s Socialist Party, the National Democratic Uhuru Movement, the December 12th Coalition, the Patrice Lumumba Coalition, the New African Peoples Organization, NCOBRA, the New Panther Vanguard, and the Malcolm X Grassroots Organization).  It was these organizations who were able to contend with the centrist nationalist movements such as the Nation of Islam for influence among the Black masses.  But Farrakhan had benefited from the boost that he got from being an alternative to Malcolm X’s revolutionary nationalism and later to Jesse Jackson’s call for a Rainbow Coalition (a much tamer version of the Rainbow Coalition initiated by Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, but was nonetheless initially viewed as dangerous by centrist political officials).  Farrakhan like Jackson was skilled in oratory, but his sharper rhetoric had greater resonance with Black youth who were held in utter contempt by much of the white public.  Jackson admonished them to keep hope alive; Farrakhan argued that the white man’s system offered no hope, that they had to “do for self.”

Even Huey Newton had indicated that he had some difficulty contending with cultural nationalists and religious nationalists despite his undisputed claim on the honor of the Black Street because of his courageous stand against police abuse of the Black community.  This is a question that we have yet to interrogate thoroughly.  It seems obvious to me that Malcolm X got it right.  Maybe also Paul Robeson.  Possibly Du Bois.  But Left Black Nationalism has not done as well as would have been predicted by those of us who thought that the concepts of Weber and Marx could explain the power of a working-class nationalism based in the most excluded parts of the working class, as the Comintern projected in the 1920s.  Did Martin Luther King, Jr. by refusing the seductiveness of nationalism come close to Malcolm’s power in the Black imagination?

Has Marxism been a mixed blessing for African American social movements?  From the time of W.E.B. Du Bois, Hubert Harrison, Cyril Briggs, Claude McKay, and others, Marxism has enlarged the analytic capability of Black intellectuals.  But despite the very careful attention that Marxism gives to building mass movements, and to locating the power of transcendence in the working classes of oppressed groups, the Black Left has consistently been sidelined in the competition with centrist Black leaders who either curtailed their strategies to what is approved by the white power structure, or who effectively used rhetorical militance to engage the Black masses but who had no ambition beyond the framework of the capitalist organization of society.  This is of course no minor caveat!

The Black Radical Congress seemed to have the promise to restore the prestige and effectiveness of the Black Left through the elaboration of a much more sophisticated and inclusive analytic framework and an openness to the larger world similar in some ways to the Black Panther Party.  But the organizers of the BRC were ambivalent about  Black nationalism and finally split with a large segment of revolutionary nationalist activists in New York who sought participation in the Congress.  And a significant number of the cadre of revolutionary nationalists organizations remained aloof of or critical of the BRC.  Yet the Black Radical Congress is still the home of the largest collective of forces within the Black Liberation Movement at this time — especially notable is the involvement of Black Workers organizations like the Black Workers for Justice.

The Black Radical Congress started in 1998 as a united front of Black radicals to set a Black liberation agenda for the 21st century.  The BRC recognized diverse tendencies within Black radicalism (socialism, revolutionary nationalism, and feminism) and opposed all forms of oppression (racism, class exploitation, patriarchy, homophobia, anti-immigrant prejudice, and imperialism).  The BRC rejected racial and biological determinism and thus did not see Black capitalism or Black patriarchy as solutions to the problems facing Black people.  Like Du Bois, Wells-Barnett, Cooper, Graham, Briggs, Robeson, Malcolm X, and others, the BRC situated the African American struggle in a global context.

I think the BRC has much promise, but it cannot maintain its ambivalence about Black nationalism, because Black nationalism has been the strongest statement of agency for ordinary Black people, not because of their narrowness and lack of sophistication, but because of the prominence of anti-Black racism within the white population as a whole, now reflected in the so-called necessity of a color-blind approach in the arena of public policy.  Rhetorically much of the Left seems divided between those who assume that the post-1980s period has entailed the victory of capitalism on a world scale and the start of a new American Century and those like myself who see a systemic crisis of historical capitalism, the decline of U.S. hegemony, and the end of white world supremacy.  The 1980s was in fact the early stage of these multiple crises, which brought about the hard line on every front in the U.S.  This era of systemic crisis has brought an abrupt halt to the liberal promises of inclusion.  Our sisters and brothers who have been excluded from educational and economic opportunity are now being referred to as a hapless and helpless underclass who have no hope of entering the good (not great) society.  Liberalism held out hope that all would eventually enter the kingdom of the good society, but now such hope has been vanquished along with the liberal promises.  Now we have a cold-blooded reaction calling for zero tolerance of our very existence.

It was the dismal 1980s which gave rise to hip hop, which was both a form of economic activity in a shattered economy and a form of communication among inner city youth.  We might better understand the cultural significance of hip hop by looking briefly at Tricia Rose’s analysis of the phenomenon.

In Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, Tricia Rose articulates the concept of the hidden transcript whereby oppressed people use language, dance, and music to mock those in power, express rage, and produce fantasies of subversion.  The communal knowledge bases thus produced serve as the cultural glue which fosters communal resistance.  For Rose, hip hop artists are constantly involved in struggling to destabilize hegemonic discourses and attempting to produce counter-hegemonic interpretations.  They are engaged in discursive “wars of position” against the dominant discourse.  This is ongoing work and hip hop music is the most sustained attack on the dominant discourse coming from the black community or any oppressed group in America.  Thus Rose cautions against dismissing forms of hip hop music which have no obvious “political” subject.  Power and resistance, she argues, are exercised through signs, language, and institutions.  The institutional policing of rap music is precisely a site of contestation which we ignore at our peril.  The struggle over access to public space, community resources, and interpretation of the black experience constitutes rap’s hidden politics.

The other promising signs include the resilience of a smaller set of organizations such as the Black Workers for Justice, the Black Telephone Workers for Justice, the African People’s Socialist Party, the Peoples Democratic Uhuru Movement, the December 12th Movement, the Black United Front, the Patrice Lumumba Coalition, Harlem Fightback.

Ron Jacobs:  What about nationalism?  It’s been a while since I’ve heard much from the Nation of Islam and other such formations.  Is there action on that front?

Rod Bush:  Black solidarity has long been a theme of the cultures of African peoples in the United States, stemming from the establishment of truly unique form of labor control in human history: racial slavery.  In British North America, various peoples of Africa were placed in hostile environments and subjected to a humiliating form of scorn and derision which denigrated our humanity, intelligence, culture, and beauty.  The degradation of the humanity of African people among whites perpetuated the separation of the ordinary field hands from the dominant white culture, who remained essentially African in their culture.  Among the free Blacks (and later the Black middle class), the sense of oppressive humiliation generated by this status has historically been countered by an oppositional historical identity grounded in some notion of Pan-African identity.

It is for this reason that nationalist consciousness has been a constant in the social psychology of the African American people, differing over time and place in its mode and expression.  The white public has little knowledge about this movement, except as it is refracted through the lenses of a hostile and self-justifying corporate media.  Malcolm X, Minister Louis Farrakhan, The Nation of Islam, and the Black Panther Party are the icons of this movement. 

“Hate whitey” is the common currency in which these movements are conceived by most of the white public from the media coverage of these movements.  From the perspective of most Black power militants, we were part of a vigorous and vibrant movement that took the nation by storm, descendents of a grand and glorious tradition that came down from W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey.  This movement burned brightly for a decade, setting fire to a whole generation of Black youth.  Powerful and vibrant organizations flourished briefly.  But these organizations were destroyed or severely decimated by the most brutal repression and intrigue on the part of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.  But why such extensive repression?  Here we have tended to be more descriptive than analytical.  Black Power militants have not really resolved this issue.  In the chapter on the future of Black liberation in We Are Not What We Seem, I finally came face to face with this issue, which I had not heretofore seen as so central, though I lived through much of the turmoil of this period.  I cannot say that I am satisfied with how I dealt with this issue.  Omali Yeshitela of the African Peoples Socialist Party speaks most clearly about the military defeat of the Black revolution, but for most others the talk about revolution was figurative.  I strongly disagree as I have indicated earlier in this discussion.

Nonetheless, there was a feeling about the power of the people that so infused most of us that, when we looked through the eyes of U.S. society at that movement from the 1980s, we were profoundly discomforted by the projection of Minister Farrakhan as the spokesperson for Black radicalism.  What had happened?

When I returned to the academy in 1988, the Black sociologist William Julius Wilson was all the rage.  In his 1978 book The Declining Significance of Race, and his 1987 book The Truly Disadvantage, he had changed the discourse about race among U.S. intellectuals.  When I had left the academy in the early 1970s to devote my energies to the Black Liberation Movement, the scholarly work on race and racism seemed to be at the top of its form, uncompromisingly anti-racist.  I was shocked by the revisionist interpretation advanced by Wilson which I viewed as attempting to undercut conservative hegemony on the discussion of race by tactically de-emphasizing racism and emphasizing the need for class unity.  Wilson’s implicit call for class unity was not dissimilar to the approach of many Marxists from that period.  Indeed, I had met Wilson in a taxi on the way to the World Congress of Sociology in Mexico City during the early 1980s.  At that time the centrist liberals (sometimes with a nationalist persona) had displaced the Black Power militants from hegemony within the Black community, so I was ready to hear someone to talk about the need for class analysis.  I viewed Louis Farrakhan as a part of that rising strata, but he was not prominent at that time.  I was a San Francisco-based militant based in the Black and Latino working classes, moving toward elaborating distinctions between working-class nationalism and petty-bourgeois nationalism and incorporating an understanding of working-class feminism in my worldview.  The élan of 1960s and 1970s radicalism was still a part of my own persona.  The full-fledged cultural wars which emerged during the Reagan counter-revolution had not yet developed.  But by 1988 it was in full flower, and the radical Left everywhere seemed to be on the ropes.

Politically I understood Wilson’s point but thought that, in the context of the later 1980s, any analysis which did not deal with the demonization of Blacks in the nation’s public discourse could not speak to the Black street, although it might be functional for debate about social policy among scholars and public officials.

I was ecstatic when Black youth began to pick up on Malcolm X, but was dismayed when Minister Farrakhan argued that the establishment was seeking to valorize a dead hero in order to distract them from a living movement of which he was the leader.  Here he was aided by Spike Lee’s movie which had portrayed Malcolm X as confused and disoriented after he left the Nation of Islam.  Amiri Baraka had been right.  Spike Lee was not capable of doing the movie on the life of Malcolm X!

Both Jesse Jackson and Minister Farrakhan in my view had been a part of  the centrist liberal strata who had displaced the radicals from the leadership of the Black community.  The success of the civil rights movement had allowed some access to the members of the Black middle class but had worsened the plight of the Black working class.  The end of liberal hope invites a consideration of the idea that one must do for self.

Ron Jacobs:  You write about the shift in working class from national boundaries to a global class.  Can you explain how this occurred and what it means for working-class and anti-capitalist struggle?

Rod Bush:  The 19th-century workers movement contained elements who were implacable foes of a capitalist system which they believed would increasingly undermine the very foundations of social life as it ground workers beneath the wheel of a heartless profit-making juggernaut and others who hoped that the social struggles of workers would result in humanizing the capitalist system.  During the 1840s, workers rose up in rebellion against this system, culminating in what has been called the revolution of 1848.  When this revolution was defeated and order was restored, the upper strata pursued a policy not of reaction but of liberal reform, to co-opt the danger of popular revolt.  The package extended to workers included an extension of suffrage, the protection of the weak in the workplace, the beginning of redistributive welfare, and the building of educational and health infrastructure for citizens.  This liberal reform program was combined with the propagation and legitimation of the notion of the white man’s burden in the wider world, the civilizing mission, the “Yellow peril”, and a new anti-Semitism which Wallerstein argues served to incrustate the European lower strata within a national identity that was right-wing and non-liberatory.

This social democratic compromise constituted the golden age of world capitalism from 1945 to 1970, particularly in the United States which was the hegemonic power in the world-system during this period.  While the events of this period reinforced the idea of liberal nationalism and liberal internationalism, the ending of the period of easy accumulation in 1967-73 signified the start of a long period of economic stagnation coinciding with the onset of the decline of U.S. hegemony with the defeat in Vietnam and the decline of white world supremacy.  Capitalism had always been a world-system, but in the 1980s capital embarked upon a strategy of neo-liberal globalization as a response to the social and class struggles of the 1848-1968 period which had narrowed the options of capital.  This strategy involved the overt use of the competitive threat posed by lower cost labor reserves on a global scale.  The purpose here was to undercut the power of the working classes of the core states, by curtailing the public pressure for increased social democratization represented in the United States by the civil rights movement, the war on poverty, the women’s liberation movement, and the proliferation of liberation movements from various social groups within the U.S. population.

This is a complicated issue which I simply cannot cover in detail here.  Briefly the struggles of this period led to the limited inclusion of the intermediate strata from these excluded groups but the deepening of the poverty of the lower strata of most of these groups.  But the neo-liberal counter-revolution which argued that there was no alternative was more of a bluff than a reality.  It seemed more effective because it coincided with the loss of liberal hope and thus the collapse of antisystemic movements which had moved to the center.  The organizational structure of the antisystemic movements were mostly in ruins.  It has been replaced by the movement for global democracy, represented by the World Social Forum (emphatically NOT an ANTI-globalization movement).

Ron Jacobs:  Can you also elaborate on if and why the internationalization of the working class renders workers movements that align themselves with national political parties (US Democrats, British Labour, German SPD, etc.) essentially powerless to effect genuine, positive, and lasting change for workers in their home countries?

Rod Bush:  The social democratic compromise or social compact in the language of Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward that I spoke of earlier is essentially a nationalist deal.  The nationalism of the core states is essentially conservative — they seek to defend the privileged position of the core within the larger world-economy.  It is a deal with capital and seeks to defend one’s interests against those outside of one’s state borders.  This undercuts the idea of proletarian internationalism and allows for competition between workers to bolster and not weaken the power of capital.  While the traditional workers movements and national liberation movements believed in internationalism, their political struggles were often focused on their own states.  But since capital has embarked on its strategy of neo-liberal globalization, they themselves have constructed the terrain that makes it easier for antisystemic movements to organize on a global scale.

Ron Jacobs:  As the nature of the US class society becomes more and more apparent, how does the role of race play into that?  I mean, to me, the most obvious example of the wide gap between the rich and the poor and African-Americans and wealthy whites is what happened in New Orleans after Katrina.  However, this cathartic event merely showcased something that existed beforehand and continues to exist today.  Is race the primary divider in this country or class at this juncture?

Rod Bush:  In We Are Not What We Seem: Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century, I argue that “race or class” is or should be a non-issue, that race and class are inextricably intertwined.  It seems to me that we might learn from an analysis of those forces among the New Negro radicals of the early twentieth century who supported the Race First perspective.  Hubert Harrison, a member of the Socialist Party since 1909, resigned in 1914 because of the party’s lack of commitment to Black workers and their racist treatment of him.  Nonetheless, Harrison remained a socialist from the time that he discovered Marx to the end of his life.  Hubert Harrison kept the socialist faith, but American socialism did not keep faith with Hubert Harrison.  Harrison criticized a report by a leading party member which argued that race feelings were a consequence of biological evolution and not social circumstances.  “Class-consciousness must be learned, but race consciousness is inborn and cannot be wholly unlearned. . . .”  The report went on to say that “[w]here races struggle for the means of life, racial animosities cannot be avoided.  Where working people struggle for jobs, self-preservation enforces its decrees.  Economic and political considerations lead to racial fights and legislation restricting the invasion of the white man’s domain by other races.”

A section of the Black radicals then decided that it was necessary for Blacks to respond with their own sense of racial solidarity since the socialists were acting on the basis of the naturalness and desirability of white solidarity.  Harrison was a reluctant Black nationalist, the last resort of a Black socialist in a racist land.  Harrison had long waited for a better day when the white socialists would truly open their arms to their class sisters and brothers in the Black world, but feared that such a day would never come.  In the meantime, Black people had to defend themselves, and the standard defensive ideology in a racist land is an ideology of racial nationalism for one’s own race.

Harrison wrote:

Any man today who aspires to lead the Negro race must set squarely before his face the idea of “Race First.”  Just as the white men of these and other lands are white men before they are Christians, Anglo-Saxons, or Republicans; so the Negroes of this and other lands are intent upon being Negroes before they are Christians, Englishmen, or Republicans.

Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.  Charity begins at home, and our first duty is to ourselves.  It is not what we wish but what we must, that we are concerned with.  The world as it ought to be, is still for us, as for others, the world that does not exist.  The world as it is, is the real world, and it is to that real world that we address ourselves.  Striving to be men, and finding no effective aid in government or in politics, the Negro of the Western world must follow the path of the Swadesha movement of India and the Sinn Fein movement of Ireland.  The meaning of both these terms is “ourselves first”.

Clifton Hawkins agrees that Harrison’s conversion to the Race First position stem from his experiences within the Socialist Party and the white Left milieu of that time.  These experiences, Hawkins argues, disillusioned Harrison with cross-race organizing not only because of the pervasive racism of whites, but because of the defensive race consciousness of Blacks.  Hawkins quotes Harrison as follows: “Behind the color line,”  Harrison sadly acknowledged, “one has to think perpetually of the color line, and most of those who grow up behind it can think of nothing else. . . . Race, not class, was the organizing principle of American life.”  By 1916, Hawkins argues, Harrison embraced  the American [my emphasis] doctrine of Race First.  This is clearly a defensive position

Ron Jacobs:  I have attended (as have you, I imagine) many actions against the US war in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Although there is a fair number of people of color at these protests, I often wonder why there aren’t more.  After all, the economic draft that puts men and women in the frontlines still impacts communities of color at a higher ratio than it does the white population.  I know that polls show an overwhelming lack of support for these wars in the Black community.  Why is it not reflected in the streets?

Rod Bush:  Political action among the masses occurs in context.  The slogans of the activities matter, but even more important is the involvement of Black community leaders who are rooted in those communities.  There is also a question of what else is going on at the time.  What are the prospects for success, what kind of feeling of hope exists within the community.  What are organized forces doing, such as churches and other organizations with cadres and ongoing political programs and campaigns?  Look at the December 12th Movement in New York, the Uhuru Movement in St. Petersburg, the Organization of Black Struggle in St. Louis, the Black Workers for Justice in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the Black Telephone Workers for Justice in New Jersey.  Of course, the control of resources by the Democratic Party is much more significant than in the past.

Ron Jacobs:  As you know, there is a large immigrants rights movement in the US.  Although much of its leadership is tied to the Democratic Party and represents the hopes of that segment of the US power elite, there are some radical, even revolutionary elements.  In terms of the globalization of capital and its role in maintaining the “underclass” in the US, what do you see as being at stake for the rulers and how do you appraise the challenge to the corporate world from this movement?

Rod Bush:  The issue of immigrants rights is central to breaking the barriers to solidarity among workers.  Within a context which accepts the reality of competition between workers as a fact of the natural order of things, one may argue that restriction benefits the members of the domestic work force at the lowest levels.  But it is capital which seeks to reduce their costs by employing workers at the lowest wage and who have the least protections to the extent that they are able to do that.

In order to think through how we might all think about this issue, I would encourage people to review debates in the pages of New Politics and New Labor Forum around Stephen Steinberg’s article “Immigration, African Americans, and Race Discourse” (New Politics, Winter 2006) and (New Labor Forum, Spring 2006).  Here Stephen Steinberg throws down the gauntlet on immigration, insisting on a standard of social justice consistency as few on the Left have been willing to do.  At the end of the civil war, he argues, there were 4 million emancipated slaves who were in theory free to meet the great demand of labor in the North and the West.  Why did they not have a fair opportunity for those jobs?  He is not the first to point out the dubious practice of social scientists in the U.S. who thought this a great mystery.  But for Steinberg the answer to the mystery is simple: the immigration of some 25 million Europeans to the United States between 1880 and 1924.  When immigration was cut off by the First World War, it triggered a massive migration of Blacks to cities in the North and the West, resulting in the most significant economic advance for Blacks since the abolition of slavery.  He then quotes from an editorial in a 1916 issue of the New Republic to the effect that “The average Pole or Italian arriving at Ellis Island does not realize that he is the deadly foe of the native Negro. . . . It is a silent conflict on a gigantic scale.”

He then asks if history is being repeated with the influx of 25 million legal immigrants since 1965, which have made African Americans superfluous at the very moment of their victory of Jim Crow racism and segregation.  Here, he argues, is another missed opportunity to integrate Blacks into the economic mainstream.  Instead of dealing with this longstanding promissory note, immigrant virtues are extolled and invidious comparisons are made to Blacks who are portrayed as culturally deficient and lacking the pluck that has allowed immigrants to pursue opportunity.  And too, the immigrants are friendly and deferential unlike the unruly, abrasive Blacks, whose attitudes antagonize whites. 

Steinberg systematically takes on a number of immigration scholars whose work he argues systematically define racism out of existence, and posit the defective culture of Blacks as the reason for their continued exclusion.  Blacks are said to have adopted an adversarial culture, lack social capital, are obsessed with race and racism, and have problems of self-presentation.

Steinberg paints a stark figure and argues in the final analysis that an optimistic projection is that new immigrants may provide renewed inspiration and leadership in the ongoing struggle to erase the vestiges of slavery.  But the weight of history is more ominous, as I learned in political education classes utilizing the work of James Boggs in the early 1970s.  One way in which immigrants have avoided pariah status was to dissociate themselves from African Americans and their plight.  “Tragically and ironically,” he points out, “it is one way that immigrants ‘become American.'”

Steinberg’s position is salutary, but as Ron Hayduk indicated in response to Steinberg, immigrants will grow in number and disperse throughout the United States, so “it is not a question about whether the millions of immigrants in the United States will be incorporated, but how they will be incorporated.”  Which takes us back to Steinberg’s stance, which I share with no reservations.

But Wallerstein argues that despite the controversy over immigrants everywhere, they are indeed integral parts of the workings of the capitalist [my emphasis] world-economy.  They are willing to take jobs that are necessary to the economy, and they contribute to pension funds for the over-65 demographic group which is growing in the rich countries, who must in fact increase immigration in order to sustain a working-age population which contributes adequate funds to the pension funds. They maintain the worldwide system of differential labor costs upon which the stability of capital rests.  Wallerstein has also argued that we live today in an age of transition, that capitalism has entered into its moment of structural crisis.  I am suggesting that Steinberg’s position is the only position that we can take if we are to promote this transition toward a more democratic and egalitarian society, rather than contribute to the emergence of a historical system which rests on the continued exclusion of those who speak truth to power and stand up for justice.

For me the debate reveals that we need to think more seriously about the issue of timing.  We are entering into a crucial time in the trajectory of historical capitalism.  Wallerstein is one scholar who has been critical of the ability of socialist states to change the world, as they had envisioned in their two stage strategies (first seize state power, then change the world) and is now talking a quite different tune.  In discussing the movement to the Left in Latin America, Wallerstein pointed out that, although Left intellectuals and some left movements are unhappy with what is not being done in the Latin American countries where Left or Left-leaning governments have come to power, the United States is more unhappy with what they have done.  What this demonstrates for Wallerstein is that the U.S. no longer has control (economic, political, or diplomatic) of its own backyard.  This is an ominous sign.  Wallerstein compares this process to an old Chinese torture called Ling chi, a death by a thousand cuts.

Regarding the labor movement, we may indeed get Steinberg’s optimistic scenario.  We all know that, although capital simply wants less expensive and more pliable labor, historically, in the course of time, newly incorporated labor inevitably assume the standards and stances of more established labor forces.  But at this time in history as the scale of immigration to the core zones is anticipated to increase dramatically, an immigrants rights movement can dramatically accelerate the pace of change and thus strike at the Achilles Heel of capital, the danger of working-class solidarity on a world or even regional scale.

I am encouraged by the “Open Letter to Our African American Sisters and Brothers” in the Black Scholar from Elizabeth Martinez and long list of important Latino intellectuals and activists.

Ron Jacobs:  On the same theme, how do you perceive the effect that the emergence of this element of the working class might have on the Black movement?

Rod Bush:  From the centrist liberals to the radicals, most sectors of the organized Black Movement support immigrant rights today, although this was not always the case.  Darryl Michael Scott has done a very interesting study of how the great Black labor leader, A. Philip Randolph, articulated immigration restrictionism and argued that others of his time among the Black leadership cadre held similar positions.

In August of 1924, Randolph argued, “Instead of reducing immigration to 2 percent of the 1890 quota, we favor reducing it to nothing. . . . We favor shutting out the Germans from Germany, the Italians from Italy .  . . the Hindus from India, the Chinese from China, and even the Negroes from the West Indies.  This country is suffering from immigrant indigestion.”  Randolph made clear that his reason was economic and social.  “It is time to call a halt on this grand rush for American gold,” he said, “which over-floods the labor market, resulting in lowering the standard of living, race-riots, and general social degradation.  The excessive immigration is against the interests of the masses of all races and nationalities in the country — both foreign and native.”

Ron Jacobs:  I hope the two join together and thereby create an effective and (hopefully) militant challenge to the rulers, not only here but worldwide.  Looking back on history and keeping in mind the reality of today’s reality, what chance do you think there is of such a thing happening?  Why?

Rod Bush:  I think that we need some historical perspective to see clearly what is happening before our very eyes.  Samuel Huntington, who has frequently been a Nathan Hale for the ruling class, has put his finger on the problem in his new book, Who Are We?  But let me try to lay out the story from our perspective.

The incorporation of the Americas was the constitutive act of the formation of the modern world-system, which was a capitalist world-economy.  It involved first the subordination of the Americas as a periphery to the Western European core states.  The political subordination of additional peripheries included the colonization of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific, and finally the incorporation of East Asia.

Native American land dispossession has continued to be at the heart of the subjugation of the Native American population.  Steinberg argues in The Ethnic Myth that the treatment of the Native Americans set a precedent for the treatment of the Mexicans who were the next group to be engulfed (displaced) by a land-hungry social enterprise that had been established on the Eastern Seaboard and had declared its manifest destiny to spread to the cover a territorial landmass continental in scope.  The United States had doubled its territorial domain in 1803 with the purchase of Louisiana from the French, but the Mexicans were less accommodating.

The U.S. provoked war with Mexico in 1846 and, after seizing Mexico City, forced Mexico to cede half of its national territory, what are now the U.S. states of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Texas.  The moral and ideological justification for the displacement and conquest of Mexico was the same as that used for the Native Americans.  The Mexicans were held to be a degenerate and backwards people who wasted land and resources.  Politicians were heard to argue that no nation had a right to hold land virgin and rich, yet unproducing.  The Mexicans, whose population was augmented by a steady flow of Mexican nationals from the south, became an integral part of the regional economy.  They were not isolated on reservations.  They provided cheap labor for the agriculture, ranching, mining, and industrial interests in the region.  Immigration policy has functioned to allow an influx of Mexican labor as needed.

Some now see it as an irony that it was the inability of Mexico to control the influx of U.S. citizens into their territory which undermined Mexico’s ability to retain its territory, but that today the problem is reversed, and it is now the Mexicans who are defined as illegal aliens.  But there is little sense of irony for others.  Samuel Huntington provides the most strident voice when he asserts that this situation is a most serious threat to the United States.

He says in his book: “The persistent inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages.  Unlike past immigrant groups, Mexicans and other Latinos have not assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture, forming instead their own political and linguistic enclaves — from Los Angeles to Miami — and rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that have built the American dream.  The United States ignores this challenge at its peril.”

Huntington argues more frankly than most that Mexicans and Mexican Americans have a historical claim to U.S. territory.  Unlike other immigrants, Mexicans arrive from a neighboring country that has suffered military defeat at the hands of the United States, and they settle in a region that was originally part of their homeland  Huntington is disturbed by this peril.

As Ron Takaki said in his 1993 book, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, the war against Mexico had reflected the U.S. quest for a passage to India in obeisance to the “divine command to subdue and replenish the earth.”  In doing so they would finally bring civilization to the “Yellow” race, including the Chinese who would be imported as cheap labor to build the transcontinental railroad.  Railroad owners viewed them as quiet, peaceful, industrious, and economical, but also wanted them to be permanently degraded caste labor, forced to be foreigners forever (the first to be so prohibited via the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882).  In the white imagination, the Chinese took on racial qualities that had been assigned to Blacks: dark skin, thick lips, morally inferior, childlike, savage, lustful — only “a slight remove from the African race.”  Amalgamation with the Chinese would lead to “a mongrel of the most detestable that has ever afflicted the earth.”  The Chinese exclusion act set the precedent for the National Origins Act of 1924 which prohibited Japanese immigration.  The mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II was a continuation of more than 100 years of racial aggression against people of Asian descent.  But the 19th-century expansion of an imperial and racist enterprise in the United States would soon join the rest of the pan-European world in a fight to maintain white world supremacy in the face of a counter-hegemonic force among the residents of the dark world.

President George W. Bush is fond of talking about the dark corners of the Earth.  But the rise of the dark world is a formidable force in challenging the existing relations of force in the capitalist world-economy.  Not all of this is revolutionary, but it will certainly shatter the status quo.

We might do well here to paraphrase Malcolm X: “the chickens are coming home to roost.”  I too am an old farm boy and like to see the chickens come home to roost.

Ron Jacobs:  I’m listening to some Curtis Mayfield right now and am struck by how much the stuff he sang about thirty-forty years ago is still right on.  On a similar note, in your book, We Are Not What We Seem, you write: “So long as racism remains the main ideological pillar of historical capitalism, the Black liberation movement will continue to play a vanguard role in the United States, as was indicated by the promise of the Black Panther Party.”  Would you say that racism is still the main ideological pillar of capitalism today?  If so, why do you think so?  Also, how do you see a vanguard role coming about, if you see one at all, that is?

Rod Bush:  Racism continues to be the main ideological pillar of capitalism, even as the public perception may be that racism is much less legitimate than it has been in the past.  On the scale of the capitalist world-economy, ethnicization facilitates the reproduction of the labor force, provides for the socialization of the young into the economic roles appropriate for their group, and has encrusted the ranking of occupational roles in an easy code for income distribution, clothed in the legitimacy of “tradition.”  It is for this reason that following Wallerstein I argue that racism is the ideological justification for the hierarchization of the workforce.  But if racism is central to the construction and reproduction of appropriate workforces, these workforces must be managed by local cadres, who however have to be created, socialized, and reproduced.  The primary ideology used to create such cadres is universalism.

Why?  Because the workforces of historical capitalism are drawn from and are located in every corner of the world-economy, cadres must be created, socialized, and reproduced across the ghettos of the capitalist world-economy.  They had to be taught the requisite cultural norms and engaged in such a way as to eliminate competing cultural norms.  These cadres were also westernized or in the case of internally colonized groups bourgeoisified, so that they were separated from their masses and less likely to revolt, or organize their masses to revolt.  Wallerstein argues that this was a monumental miscalculation, but the logic of this position seemed unassailable.

Scientific culture was a form of socialization of the cadres of the world division of labor.  It was a means of class cohesion.  It created a framework within which it was possible for individual mobility to thrive without threatening the very real hierarchal workforce allocation.  Indeed, Wallerstein argues that meritocracy reinforced hierarchy.  The emphasis on the rationality of scientific activity shaded from public view and most of all public understanding the irrationality of the endless accumulation of capital.  Those cadres from the peripheral zones and internal colonized populations tended to be ambivalent toward this ideology of universalism, alternatively viewing it as a tool of true liberation and empowerment of their populations, as means of personal mobility for themselves within the world-system, and as a trap set by the elites of the world-system to trap them as a subordinate group within the world-system with no means of even seeing the truth since they have been suckered into using the “master’s tools.”  We know that Marx used a similar tactic (with the same dangers) in distinguishing his views from other nineteenth-century socialists’ by using the designation “scientific socialism.”  It is in this way that Wallerstein argues that “anti-systemic movements have often served as intermediaries of the powerful to the weak, vitiating rather than crystallizing their deep-rooted sources of resistance”.

But beginning in the twentieth century and with increasing power since the 1960s, the theme of civilizational assertion and cultural resistance has been increasingly important in the theorizing of the anti-systemic movements and its intellectuals.  Wallerstein argues that the basis of this shift in ideology among the anti-systemic movements is the increase in recruitment of strata more economically and politically marginal to the functioning of the system.  “Compared with the profile of the membership of the world’s anti-systemic movements from 1850 to 1950, their profile from 1950 onwards contained more from peripheral zones, more women, more from ‘minority’ groups (however defined), and more of the work-force towards the unskilled, lowest-paid end of the scale.”

There is thus a cultural crisis wherein the anti-systemic movements are questioning the premises of universalist ideology, such that the movements are taking seriously the search for civilizational alternatives.  Furthermore the whole intellectual apparatus which came into being during the fourteenth century is being slowly placed in question.  And the pace of the questioning is accelerating as we speak.  I take very, very seriously Kelvin Santiago-Valles’ admonition that we need to draw on and think through subaltern theorizing in order to pursue theoretically informed historical research as part of contributing to emancipatory struggles.  And such theorizing must itself be based in such emancipatory struggles.


Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch‘s new collection on music, art and sex: Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at <rjacobs3625@charter.net>.



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