Archive for category: Black Liberation
Good union jobs built America’s blue-collar black middle class. But the percentage of black workers in manufacturing has been halved since the 1970s, yielding poverty and precarity. We can’t achieve racial justice without a movement to win those jobs back.
Workers in an auto repair shop in 1969. (George W. Hales / Fox Photos / Getty Images)
As we face a global crisis in logistics, supply chains and manufacturing capacity have become impossible to ignore. Suddenly these topics are all over US political discourse, prompting even mainstream news outlets to begin to question the legacy of globalization and deindustrialization.
But while current crises have turned up the volume, the discussion about the decline of US manufacturing employment was already underway. A defining feature of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was a critique, however incoherent, of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and deindustrialization. That focus was arguably a major reason for his success.
Since Trump’s election, our major media institutions have mostly explored the loss of unionized, blue-collar manufacturing jobs as part of a broader attempt to understand the social and political angst of the so-called “white working class.” In this worldview, the future of blue-collar work is only of concern to white men. MSNBC host Joy Ann Reid expressed this idea when she described President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation as a “white guy employment act.”
Lost in this conversation is the tremendous harm that deindustrialization has wrought on working-class black communities, and how fundamentally important private sector unions were — and still are — in the building of a stable, blue-collar black middle class.
An excellent recent study titled “The Unmaking of the Black Blue-Collar Middle Class,” coauthored by William Lazonick, Philip Moss, and Joshua Weitz, begins to set the record straight. The study tracks the emergence and decline of black employment in major unionized industries like steel, auto, electrical, and rubber.
The destruction of these union jobs has been a critical factor in accelerating the precarity that is common for so many working-class black people. Racial inequality in the United States cannot be addressed in any meaningful way unless we deal with this fundamental issue.
“A Happy Coincidence”
The entry of black workers into the major industrial labor unions was difficult and uneven. Employers routinely took advantage of many unions’ discriminatory practices by using black workers as strikebreakers, which served to further weaken the prospects of broad interracial working-class solidarity.
However, the explosive emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s presented new opportunities. Black workers played major roles in unionization efforts and gained tentative footholds in mass production industries such as meatpacking, auto, electrical, and more.
The combination of World War II production demands and civil rights organizing produced further gains. Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters leader A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington movement successfully forced the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Committee, which was tasked with eliminating racial discrimination in wartime industries. The results were limited but meaningful.
The percentage of black workers in war production rose from 2.5 percent to 8 percent from March 1942 to November 1944. In a four-year period from April 1940 to April 1944, the employment of black men in the US civilian labor force jumped from 2.9 million to 3.8 million, and for black women 1.5 million to 2.1 million.
However, this progress was frustrated as the wartime industries demobilized.
A later surge in industrial employment for black workers was enabled by the parallel dynamics of a powerful labor–civil rights coalition and economic growth.
President John F. Kennedy signed the federal initiative Plans for Progress in 1961, which strengthened oversight of employment discrimination with federal contractors. By the time of the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the “Big Three” automobile companies (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) had signed Plans for Progress and committed to affirmative-action hiring of black workers. Following the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1965, federal inspections became routine and helped to enforce this pledge.
Labor scholar Herbert R. Northrup, in his work The Negro in the Automobile Industry, explains the fortunate timing of this civil rights legislation:
The rise in civil rights emphasis in the 1960s, by a happy coincidence, came at a time of great prosperity in the automobile industry. Moreover, it happened when a natural turnover was occurring in the industry. Many employees hired around World War II, or earlier, were seeking retirement under the liberalized early and regular retirement programs in the industry. . . . The need for Negroes to obtain jobs and the need of an industry for new workers were never better coordinated.
By the mid-1960s the auto industry was the second-largest employer of black semiskilled production workers, surpassing one hundred thousand in 1966. These jobs had among the highest wages and best benefits packages in the country. In short, these jobs were fundamental to creating middle-class living standards for blue-collar black workers without college degrees.
As Lazonick, Moss, and Weitz observe:
Most of these workers had no more than high-school educations but had sufficient earnings and benefits to provide their families with economic security, including realistic expectations that over the coming decades their children would have the opportunity to move up the economic ladder to join the ranks of the college-educated white-collar middle class.
This all occurred at a time when the auto industry was experiencing a period of rapid growth. For example, between 1961 and 1966 total employment at the “Big Three” ballooned from 693,186 to 953,585.
Contrary to persistent and misguided stereotypes about the racial demographics of union membership, the above-mentioned dynamics led to the overrepresentation of black workers in the union movement. By the early 1980s, black workers were 9.2 percent of the total labor force, but 14.2 percent of auto workers and 13.7 percent of union members.
Similar trends in black employment occurred in other manufacturing industries such as steel and consumer electronics. By 1966, the steel industry had become one of the largest employers of black male manufacturing workers.
The Civil Rights Movement was keenly aware of the possibilities that these dynamics unleashed. It was during this same period that movement leaders like A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King, Jr launched the “Freedom Budget” for all Americans.
The vision came out of a basic understanding that civil rights gains would be rendered largely meaningless if black people continued to remain at the bottom rung of the economic system. After winning the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, an immediate pivot toward addressing issues of systemic poverty would be needed.
The program of the Freedom Budget amounted to a social democratic transformation of US society, with good union jobs at the center. It called for full employment through the creation of jobs in areas of social need such as housing construction, public school construction, environmental remediation, and all manner of public works projects.
Bayard Rustin envisioned an economic mobilization on the scale of World War II, writing in a 1968 book titled The Anatomy of Frustration:
In World War II we did not ask whether people were too black, or too old, or too young, or too stupid to work. We simply said to them this is a hammer, this is a tool, this is a drill. We built factories and sent these people into the factories. We paid them extraordinarily good wages and in two months they created the miracle of making planes that flew. We can find a peacetime method for doing this.
This vision was not merely a pipe dream. It was inspired by the very tangible gains black workers had already made in both overall manufacturing employment and the labor movement.
Things Fall Apart
The defeat of both the Freedom Budget and the social democratic tendency in US politics forestalled the possibility of building on the progress black workers had made in the 1960s. As long as major investment decisions remained in the hands of capital, postwar economic gains would remain precarious.
As countries that had been destroyed during World War II began to recover and compete economically with the United States, the postwar settlement began to unravel. For black workers, the rise of the Japanese manufacturing industry and the response by their US counterparts was particularly decisive.
As Japanese companies in steel, auto, electronics, and tires became more productive, US companies tried to compete by cutting wages and laying off workers. Black workers were hit the hardest. Even so, the presence of unions, especially in the auto industry, helped stop the bleeding.
As the authors of “The Unmaking of the Black Blue-Collar Middle Class” explain, “Management-union agreements also gave priority to recently laid-off employees when staffing new plants. These agreements dampened the negative impact of plant relocation on many black auto workers.” But this only offered marginal relief from a long-term downward trend.
Worse still, Japanese auto companies deliberately avoided urban areas with large black populations when locating to the United States. This virtually shut out black workers from reaping any economic benefits from these industrial transformations. As the study explains:
Thus, in a key mass-production industry in the 1980s, blacks lost their jobs in unionized plants while they were largely excluded from participating in the new middle class blue-collar employment opportunities being offered by the Japanese transplants.
In the mid-1980s, the auto industry experienced a short-term recovery, and black employment reached a high of 168,000 in 1986. But since then, the industry has only been in steep decline. In 2009, black workers had under 60,000 jobs in the auto industry, just 33 percent of its peak level in 1978. In manufacturing overall, the percentage of black workers dropped from 23 percent in 1979 to just 10 percent in 2007.
For many black communities, these once-stable union jobs have been replaced by grinding poverty, unemployment, and mass incarceration.
The Remaking of the Blue-Collar Black Middle Class
The chatter in political circles about racial justice has become ever more frantic, and yet at the same time increasingly unmoored from the underlying economic conditions of most black people’s lives. These conditions are only getting more abysmal. As we experience crippling inflation and stare down the barrel of a Federal Reserve–induced recession, the situation has become dire for all workers.
If the Left is serious about fighting racial inequality, then it needs to make the issue of family-sustaining union jobs in both the public and private sector a central priority. Efforts to rebuild the US industrial manufacturing base will need to be a component of this.
A worker-centered Green New Deal offers an opportunity to expand blue-collar manufacturing employment in an environmentally sustainable way. The needs in building public transit, retrofitting buildings, the expansion of clean energy, and much more are vast. Even just maintaining and improving existing infrastructure like roads and bridges is long overdue.
Pursuing these projects also offers the opportunity to massively expand building trades apprenticeship programs and include more workers of color. Campaigns to fully fund robust Career Technical Education programs in every public school are the kinds of initiatives we can envision.
There are still many existing private sector union fights that heavily involve black workers. The logistics industry is huge, ever-growing, and diverse. We don’t make much stuff in this country anymore, but we sure do move a lot of it. United Parcel Service (UPS) is the largest private sector employer in the country, employing over 340,000 unionized workers represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The UPS contract expires in August 2023, and a central goal of the union is to raise the standards for the disproportionately black and brown part-time workforce.
As “The Unmaking of the Black Blue-Collar Middle Class” demonstrates, labor unions have been instrumental in creating stability for non-college-educated working-class black people. Any strategy for racial justice that does not fight for full employment and a strong labor movement is not worthy of the name.
Revolutionary organizations provide avenues for addressing the issues that are affecting communities, welcoming conversations that build trust and respect through political education, group process, consensus, and mass building. Members of revolutionary organizations are principal participants and decision-makers working towards change. If this isn’t happening in an organization, then that organization is not interested in building “another world”. That organization is not for you. . . .
Happy Juneteenth! To celebrate we’re looking back at the short but deep friendship of John Brown and Harriet Tubman, who gave their lives to the abolitionist cause.
Harriet Tubman in the late 1860s. (Wikimedia Commons)
May 9 was the birthday of the abolitionist John Brown. To the extent that his soul is marching on, he is 222 years old.
I spent a little time reading about Brown’s brief but deep friendship with the liberator Harriet Tubman. According to W. E. B. Du Bois’s Brown biography, Brown and Tubman met in April 1858 in St Catharines, on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, while Brown was planning his raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Tubman, for her part, had freed herself from a Maryland plantation nearly a decade earlier and had been shuttling fugitives north in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act. Her reputation preceded her.
Brown was raised Calvinist and Tubman spent time in the Methodist church, but by the time they met, they had both arrived at theologies of liberation beyond anything their pastors would have preached. Reading contemporary descriptions of Brown and Tubman, I recognize a common strain of fearlessness and intense spiritual conviction — so intense, in fact, that friends and enemies questioned their sanity. “Neurodivergent” wasn’t a word or category at the time, but in retrospect I have to wonder.
A portrait of John Brown by Ole Peter Hansen Balling, 1872. (Wikimedia Commons)
Brown believed he had been called by God to set captives free, so that this “slave-cursed Republic [could] be restored to the principles of the Declaration of Independence.” Depictions of Brown, even from friendly sources, tended to play up his wild, unkempt look. He was a John the Baptist figure in the public imagination, living on the edge of society and preparing the way.
Tubman, for her part, rejected the slave gospel taught on plantations, which urged enslaved people to obey their masters, and embraced the Old Testament stories of deliverance. She lived out those stories so fully on the Underground Railroad that people called her “Moses.” She had her own mystic side, but tended to keep quieter about it unless she was among trusted friends.
Du Bois says of Tubman: “When a girl she was injured by having an iron weight thrown on her head by an overseer, an injury that gave her wild, half-mystic ways with dreams, rhapsodies and trances.”
Nineteenth-century society was not always kind to eccentric white male abolitionists, but it could be absolutely cruel to black women with traumatic brain injuries. Writing for the Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project in Ms magazine earlier this year, curator Michelle D. Commander spoke to the lifelong effects of Tubman’s disability:
In the aftermath, she experienced a series of near-debilitating headaches and seizures as well as enlightening visions. Dismissed by whites as a so-called half-wit, Tubman remained quite circumspect about sharing the content of the premonitions she experienced that prompted her to strategize pathways to liberation for herself and others. Tubman took seriously these moments of acute intuition by engaging in conjurations, using disguises to facilitate her movements across treacherous conditions, and embracing a code of silence as she moved covertly throughout slave territory to freedom and back again, rescuing scores of family members and other enslaved people during her own expeditions.
She shared her visions with friends. She claimed that her heart would flutter when danger was near, a sort of premonition that saved her from her enemies. She said she had inherited her power from her father, who predicted the weather and the Mexican-American War.
Tubman would later recall to a friend that she had dreamed about meeting Brown before she ever saw him. Like a lot of prophetic visions, this one only made half sense until after it had been fulfilled. From Du Bois:
A dreamer of dreams as she was, she ever “laid great stress on a dream which she had had just before she met Captain Brown in Canada. She thought she was in ‘a wilderness sort of place, all full of rocks, and bushes,’ when she saw a serpent raise its head among the rocks, and as it did so, it became the head of an old man with a long white beard, gazing at her, ‘wishful like, jes as ef he war gwine to speak to me,’ and then two other heads rose up beside him, younger than he — and as she stood looking at them, and wondering what they could want with her, a great crowd of men rushed in and struck down the younger heads, and then the head of the old man, still looking at her so ‘wishful!’ This dream she had again and again, and could not interpret it; but when she met Captain Brown, shortly after, behold he was the very image of the head she had seen.
Brown was awestruck when he met Tubman. He introduced her to friends as “General Tubman” and called her “one of the best and bravest persons on this continent.” Drawing on what geographer Nik Heynen called her “deep spatial knowledge and access to clandestine resources,” she helped plan the Harpers Ferry raid and recruited formerly enslaved people in Canada to join the cause.
John Brown believed he was protected by God, and that might explain some of his naïveté. He thought that once his small band of guerrillas occupied the armory in present-day West Virginia, news would spread and inspire a mass uprising of enslaved people who would run to the armory and pick up guns. When he tried to recruit Frederick Douglass to the cause, Brown reportedly said, “When I strike, the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall need you to help hive them.”
Douglass said no. Even Tubman did not participate when the day arrived. In October 1859, the raid failed thanks, in part, to some grave tactical errors on Brown’s part. Tubman’s vision came true: A great crowd struck down the two younger heads — Brown’s sons Oliver and Watson, who died in combat — and then the state came for the head of the bearded old man. Brown was captured and put on trial for treason.
Some of Brown’s defenders tried to portray him as mentally unfit, hoping that the state of Virginia would spare him from execution. Frederick Douglass rejected that explanation in the November 1859 Douglass’s Monthly with a scathing front-page rebuttal titled “John Brown Not Insane”:
Such an age would have sent Gideon to a mad-house and put Leonidas in a strait-jacket. Such a people would have treated the defenders of Thermopylae as demented, and shut up Caius Marcus in bedlam. Such a marrowless population as ours has become under the debaucheries of Slavery, would have struck the patriot’s crown from the brow of Wallace, and recommended blisters and bleeding to the heroic Tell.
Tubman said of her friend John Brown, “He done more in dying than 100 men would in living.” But Tubman went on to live another fifty-three years, and she did more in living than Brown did in dying.
The title page of John Brown by W. E. B. Du Bois.
During the Civil War she served as a nurse at Port Royal, South Carolina. She lobbied (unsuccessfully at first) for President Abraham Lincoln to form the first regiment of black soldiers. She served as an armed scout and spy in the Union Army, without pay. After the war she worked to secure a higher quality of life for emancipated black Americans, fought for her own pension from the US government, joined in the suffragist fight to secure the vote for women, and gave her time to her African Methodist Episcopal Church congregation in Auburn, New York.
If you ask an American for one fact about John Brown, they might know about the failed raid on Harpers Ferry and the role it played in sparking the Civil War. If you ask about Harriet Tubman, they’ll probably know something about the Underground Railroad.
But when I think about these two stubborn, radical, prophetic friends and the world they both wanted, I think about a plantation raid that Tubman led on Combahee Ferry in South Carolina, three and a half years after Brown’s execution.
The raid took place on June 1 and 2, 1863, five months after the Emancipation Proclamation, when word had still not reached many people living under South Carolina’s slave regime. Tubman was joined that day by the Union’s Colonel James Montgomery, a Midwestern abolitionist radical who had once fought alongside John Brown and had even planned a raid to rescue Brown while he was awaiting trial in Virginia. In fact, Tubman later told a biographer she would only agree to lead the raid if Montgomery was appointed commander of the expedition:
Gen. Hunter asked her at one time if she would go with several gunboats up the Combahee River, the object of the expedition being to take up the torpedoes placed by the rebels in the river, to destroy railroads and bridges, and to cut off supplies from the rebel troops. She said she would go if Col. Montgomery was to be appointed commander of the expedition. Col. Montgomery was one of John Brown’s men, and was well known to Harriet.
On the day the raid began, Tubman guided Union gunships through the swampy lowlands, relying on the same practical knowledge she had used to navigate Maryland’s Eastern Shore along the Underground Railroad. Through word of mouth and covert operations, she had learned the location of Confederate torpedoes along the Combahee River.
Starting from a Union stronghold at Port Royal, Tubman led an infantry unit of a hundred fifty African American Union soldiers from one plantation to the next, proclaiming their freedom while burning rice mills and seizing rice, cotton, and livestock. Word went out ahead of her, and plantation owners fled before she could arrive. Confederates sent reinforcements, but they arrived too late and retreated.
Tubman in 1887 (far left), with her husband Davis (seated, with cane), their adopted daughter Gertie (beside Tubman), Lee Cheney, John “Pop” Alexander, Walter Green, “Blind Aunty” Sarah Parker, and her great-niece Dora Stewart at Tubman’s home in Auburn, New York. (Wikimedia Commons)
Partly due to her tactical genius, and partly due to the course of the war at that point, Tubman’s vision came true at Combahee Ferry in ways that Brown’s vision did not at Harpers Ferry. When the Union forces razed the South Carolina plantations and sounded a steam whistle, enslaved people really did come swarming to freedom — Tubman’s crew liberated about seven hundred fifty people in all. Many of the men joined the Union military and fought for the cause of freedom, much as Brown had predicted.
“It was a glorious consummation,” reported the Commonwealth, a Boston newspaper.
Tubman’s friend and biographer Sarah H. Bradford describes a chaotic and joyful scene on the banks of the river: people came running from the fields, a woman rushed out of a kitchen with a pot of rice still steaming in her hands, children were climbing on their parents, and pigs and chickens made a racket while crowds erupted in call-and-response song.
“We laughed, an’ laughed, an’ laughed,” Tubman said.
During Reconstruction, a radical vision remained in and around Port Royal. Radical black Republicans fought political battles for land redistribution, held strikes in the Combahee rice fields, and rewrote South Carolina’s constitution to guarantee a free and liberal education for all children. In his Short History of Reconstruction, Eric Foner writes that black landholders in the South Carolina low country were some of the only freedmen to receive General Sherman’s promised “forty acres and a mule,” and they put up a militant resistance when white landlords tried to evict them:
On more than one occasion freedmen armed themselves, barricaded plantations, and drove off owners attempting to dispossess them. Black squatters told one party of Edisto Island landlords in February 1866, “you have better go back to Charleston, and go to work there, and if you can do nothing else, you can pick oysters and earn your living as the loyal people have done — by the sweat of their brows.”
The radical vision didn’t belong to John Brown, any more than it belonged to Harriet Tubman. It didn’t even belong to Senator Robert Smalls, the black Union war hero from Beaufort who led South Carolina’s radical Republicans into state and national politics. The vision outlasted them all.
I live near Charleston, and every time I travel to Beaufort, I drive through the ACE Basin, a nearly pristine coastal wildlife refuge surrounding the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers. Driving south on Highway 17, I cross the Combahee River on the Harriet Tubman Memorial Bridge. It’s a long, low stretch over a particularly gorgeous section of the river, and at its southern end I see a marker commemorating the raid.
The next time I cross the river, I’ll be thinking about another one of Harriet Tubman’s visions. This was an early recurring dream, from before she escaped the plantation.
In this dream, Tubman would fly like a bird over fields, towns, rivers, and mountains, until she hit a boundary she felt she couldn’t cross. Sometimes in the dream the boundary was a fence, and sometimes it was a river. When she arrived at this boundary, she would feel herself losing strength and sinking down.
And just as she began to sink, she would see women dressed in white on the other side. And they would put out their arms and pull her across.
I am not in the business of interpreting other people’s dreams, but I will sit and think about this one for a long, long time.
California is the first state in the U.S. to establish a reparations task force for Black Americans. On June 1, the Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans issued a 500-page document that traces the history of white supremacy from slavery to Jim Crow through the present. It calls for “comprehensive reparations” for Black people harmed by a historical system of state-sanctioned oppression.
“Segregation, racial terror, harmful racist neglect, and other atrocities in nearly every sector of civil society have inflicted harms, which cascade over a lifetime and compound over generations,” the report says.
“The California Reparations Commission’s first report is historic,” Chris Lodgson, Lead Organizer with the Coalition for a Just and Equitable California, told Truthout. “It details the atrocities and human rights violations committed against African American Freedmen in California.”
This report does not include detailed proposals for reparations. It “lays the foundation for the Commission’s work over the next year, which is developing the Reparations Plan, including direct financial compensation, land, and more,” Lodgson said.
From 1619 to 1865, slavery was sanctioned by the U.S. Constitution and statutory laws. More than 4,000,000 Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States, deprived of their life, liberty, citizenship, economic opportunity and cultural heritage. After the abolition of slavery, federal, state and local governmental entities continued to condone, perpetuate and profit from white supremacy. As a result, African Americans today suffer from economic, health and educational inequality.
On September 30, 2020, the California legislature enacted AB 3121, which established the Task Force and charged it with conducting an “inquiry into the ongoing effects of the institution of slavery and its legacy of persistent systemic structures of discrimination on living African Americans and society in the United States.”
AB 3121 mandates that the Task Force recommend appropriate remedies, including compensation, rehabilitation and restitution for African Americans, particularly descendants of people who were enslaved in the United States. The bill requires that the Task Force address how its recommendations “comport with international standards” provided by “various international protocols, laws, and findings.”
“From colonial times forward, governments at all levels adopted and enshrined white supremacy beliefs and passed laws in order to maintain slavery, a system of dehumanization and exploitation that stole the life, labor, liberty, and intellect of people of African descent,” the report finds.
Indeed, 160 years after slavery was abolished, “its badges and incidents remain embedded in the political, legal, health, financial, educational, cultural, environmental, social, and economic systems of the United States of America.” The Task Force cites “[r]acist, false, and harmful stereotypes” that continue to plague African Americans today.
Slave Codes “reborn as the Black Codes, and then as the Jim Crow laws” segregated Blacks and whites “in every aspect of life.” They were emblematic of “a national desire to reinforce a racial hierarchy based in white supremacy.”
In 1852, California enacted a fugitive slave law that was crueler than the federal fugitive slave law “and this made California a more proslavery state than most other free states,” according to the report.
Racial terror which “pervaded every aspect of post-slavery Black life” precluded African Americans from earning wealth and political influence equal to that of white Americans. Lynchings in the South weren’t just isolated hate crimes, but rather “part of a systematic campaign of terror to enforce the racial hierarchy.”
“Today, police violence against and extrajudicial killings of African Americans occur in California in the same manner as they do in the rest of the country,” the report notes.
The Task Force report documents the political disenfranchisement of African Americans, stating that California’s voter suppression laws provided a model for those in the South. It also discusses housing segregation through redlining, zoning ordinances and California’s “sundown towns,” which required that African Americans leave by dusk or face violence.
In addition, the report highlights separate and unequal education. Whereas slave states denied nearly all enslaved people an education, the North and Midwest segregated their schools, limiting or denying access to freed African Americans.
Brown v. Board of Education held in 1954 that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Nevertheless, Congress and the courts erected barriers to integration of schools. California is the sixth most segregated state in the country for African American students.
The report also details racism in the environment and infrastructure. Residential segregation has led to poor-quality housing for African Americans, “exposing them to disproportionate amounts of lead poisoning and increasing risk of infectious disease.” California follows the national pattern, where Black people are more likely than white people to live in overcrowded housing and near hazardous waste sites. Redlining, racially restrictive covenants and racial violence led to the exclusion of Black Californians from access to clean water in the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley.
Another consequence of racist government policies and practices is the pathologizing of the Black family. As of 2019, while Black children comprised only 14 percent of American children, 23 percent of them were in foster care. This is not because Black parents mistreat their children more often than whites, but is rather a result of racist systems and poverty. The disparities in foster care are even higher in California than the national average.
The report cites control over creative cultural and intellectual life, where federal and state governments failed to protect Black artists from discrimination. They have allowed whites “to steal Black art and culture with impunity” and deprived Black creators of valuable patent and copyright protections. California has criminalized African American rap artists and allowed rap lyrics to be introduced as evidence in cases involving “street gang activity.”
Employment discrimination against African Americans did not decrease from 1989 to 2014, according to one meta-study cited in the report. Today, California’s two primary industries — Hollywood and Silicon Valley — employ disproportionately fewer Black people.
The report also documents the inequities in the legal system, citing the “tough on crime” and War on Drugs era, when politicians criminalized African Americans in order to win elections. That criminalization is “an enduring badge of slavery” and has led to over-policing of Black neighborhoods, the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration of African Americans. “Like the rest of the country, California stops, shoots, kills, and imprisons more African Americans than their share of the population,” the report says.
Mental and physical harm and neglect are also highlighted in the report. It states that “race-related stress may have a greater impact on health among African Americans than diet, exercise, smoking, or low socioeconomic status.” Black Californians are more likely to get diabetes, be hospitalized for heart disease, die from cancer, and suffer from psychological distress, depression, suicide ideation and other mental health afflictions than white Californians.
Finally, the report describes the wealth gap between Black and white Americans, both nationally and in California. It details the history of exclusion of African Americans from Social Security and the G.I. bill and discrimination in the federal tax structure.
The report sets forth recommendations for future deliberation by the Task Force. The recommendations include deleting language in the California Constitution that allows involuntary servitude as punishment for crime; enactment of legislation prioritizing education, substance use and mental health treatment and rehabilitative programs for incarcerated people; compensation for work performed while in prison; and prisoners’ right to vote.
Additional recommendations involve making it easier to hold law enforcement officers, including correctional officers, accountable for unlawful harassment and violence; governmental acknowledgement and apology for political disenfranchisement; legislation to prevent redistricting that dilutes the voting power of Black Californians; elimination of anti-Black housing discrimination policies; and low interest rates for qualified Black mortgage applicants in California.
Other recommendations include elimination of racial bias in standardized testing; free tuition to California colleges and universities; college scholarships for Black high school graduates; and requiring that curricula be inclusive and free of bias.
The report advocates a “K-12 Black Studies curriculum that introduces students to concepts of race and racial identity; accurately depicts historic racial inequities and systemic racism; honors Black lives, fully represents contributions of Black people in society, and advances the ideology of Black liberation.”
In order to address the racial injustice in the criminal legal system, the Task Force recommends the elimination of “discriminatory policing and particularly killings, use of force, and racial profiling of African Americans.” In addition, it recommends eliminating racial disparities in police stops and criminal sentencing, the over-policing of predominantly Black communities, and the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans, as well as addressing implicit and explicit bias in the criminal legal system.
The report includes recommendations for compensation of “individuals whose mental and physical health has been permanently damaged by anti-Black healthcare system,” including forced sterilization, medical experimentation, police violence, racist sentencing disparities, environmental racism, and psychological damage from race-related stress.
Finally, the Task Force recommends the implementation of “a detailed program of reparations for African Americans.”
Comprehensive Reparations Plan to Be Issued Next Year
In March, the Task Force voted to limit reparations to descendants of African Americans living in the United States in the 19th century. There is a split in the Task Force about whether to include direct cash payments.
If the call for reparations for African Americans is ultimately successful, it will be unprecedented. As Nikole Hannah-Jones notes in her book, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, the only Americans who have ever received restitution by the government for slavery were white enslavers compensated after the Civil War “for their loss of human property.”
The purpose of the legislation is:
To address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.
But the future of HR 40 in the Senate is not so promising. Instead, supporters are urging President Joe Biden to issue an executive order that would establish a reparations commission. So far, Biden has refused to respond.
The Reparations Movement Is a Continuation of the Civil Rights Movement
In his keynote address at the 2006 reparations conference at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, Conyers said, “The reparations movement is grounded in the civil rights movement and the social justice movements of the 1960s – 1980s.” That struggle has continued in response to the public execution of George Floyd and the ubiquitous police murders of Black people.
In the international arena, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a report in June 2021, calling for reparations for victims of systemic racist police violence. She wrote, “Reparatory justice requires a multipronged approach that is grounded in international human rights law,” noting that reparations include not only monetary compensation, but also formal apologies, institutional and educational reforms, and memorialization “linked to truth, justice and guarantees of non-recurrence.”
Bachelet cited the April 2021 report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Descent in the United States, for which I served as a rapporteur.
Ultimately, as Margaret A. Burnham says in her forthcoming book, By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners, the collective call for a system of reparations must go beyond efforts toward individual healing. It must also engage wide-ranging social transformation and expose the historical underpinnings of racial violence in this country.
Real change requires not just reforms, but also tackling the entire system of white supremacy.
The age of classical colonialism in Africa changed the course of history. Exploited trade agreements and pseudo alliances between African nobility and European merchants led to heightened warfare, looting, and genocide across the continent. No mineral or raw material was safe, from gold to palm oil to diamonds. The transatlantic slave trade emptied the continent of capable hands, bodies, and minds to the tune of 12 million Africans. The developing European capitalist class burned their way across Africa from all sides, exploiting every contradiction and weakness they could find. Then came the 1884-85 Berlin Conference, which was an exercise in . . .
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“Attention, MOVE. This is America. You have to abide by the laws of the United States.” This was the ultimatum given through a Philadelphia police megaphone to a group of Black activists trapped in their home in the early morning of 13 May 1985.
On Thursday, the three leaders of Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation addressed the controversy that has surrounded the organization over the last month. When it was revealed in April by New York Magazine that BLM founder Patrisse Cullors secretly purchased a $5.8 million mansion in Southern California,…