The Oppression of Black People and the Revolutionary Struggle to End All Oppression
Editors' Note: This is the second in a series of excerpts from writings and talks by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, which deal with the bitter reality—and the fundamental source—of the oppression of Black people throughout the history of the U.S., from the days of slavery down to the present time, and which point to the revolutionary road to ending this oppression, and all forms of oppression and exploitation. The article was originally published in the Revolutionary Worker #894, February 16, 1997.
This system has decisively and fundamentally failed—betrayed—Black people at crucial turning points in its history. And in particular we can identify two crucial turning points after slavery was defeated in the Civil War. In the period after the Civil War, during the very short-lived experience of Reconstruction—this was a period that lasted really for only about ten years, more or less from 1867 to 1877—the federal army, the Union army, remained in the South after the war as the enforcers of very real and significant reforms that were carried out, both in the economic base and in the political superstructure.
Today you see the Spike Lee films, and they have a reference to "forty acres and a mule"—this was the promise of land (and the basic means to work the land) that was made to Black people during the Civil War. Land ownership was at that time crucial for Black people to have as some kind of economic "anchor" and basis for them to resist being forced back into conditions of virtual if not literal slavery, of serf-like oppression, on the southern plantations. Along with "forty acres and a mule," other economic and political rights were promised to Black people. And in fact during the brief period of Reconstruction, while the full promise of these rights was never realized, there were significant changes and improvements in the lives of Black people in the South. The right to vote and to hold office, and some of the other Constitutional rights that are supposed to apply to the citizens of the U.S., were partly, if not fully, realized by former slaves during Reconstruction. And in fact some Black people were elected to high office, though never the highest office of governor, in a number of southern states.
This was very sharply contradictory. The armed force of the state, as embodied in the federal army, was never consistently applied to guarantee these rights, and in fact it was often used to suppress popular struggles aimed at realizing these rights. But there was a kind of a bourgeois-democratic upsurge in the South during this period, and it not only involved the masses of Black people but also many poor white people and even some middle class white people in the South. During these ten years of Reconstruction, with all the sharp contradictions involved, there was a real upsurge and sort of flowering of bourgeois-democratic reforms. This was not the proletarian revolution, but at that time it was very significant.
In 1877, all this was reversed and betrayed. The bourgeoisie had gotten what it needed out of this situation: it had consolidated its hold over the country as a whole; it had consolidated its dominant position economically and politically within the South as well as the North and West.
Many of the old plantation owners were now beginning to move back in and take control of their own plantations, now involving exploitation in basically a feudal (or semi-feudal) form, and millions of Black people in particular were forced into sharecropping and similar relations of exploitation and were reduced to a serf-like condition, which was enforced by a whole system of legal and extra-legal terror. At the same time, banking and other capital from the North had bought into much of the southern economy and was intermingled with the plantation system, as well as other facets of the southern economy, on many different levels. So this whole bourgeois-democratic upsurge that marked Reconstruction was beginning to be a serious threat to the bourgeoisie, as well as to the southern planters. The northern-based capitalists had less and less interest in protecting, or even tolerating, this upsurge. They certainly didn't want to see it continue to grow and perhaps get out of their control more fully.
So in 1877 something very dramatic happened. The federal army was withdrawn from the South and the masses of Black people were stripped of even the partial economic and political gains they had made and were subjugated in the most brutal ways and once again chained to the plantations, only now essentially in peonage instead of outright slavery. And the federal troops that were withdrawn from the South were immediately used in two ways: one, to crush major strikes of what at that time was essentially a white labor movement; and two, to carry further the genocide against the Indians and to finish the job of driving those who survived into these concentration camps of poverty called "reservations" and force them to stay there. Here, once again, we see a very dramatic example of how the ruling class divided and conquered different groups of people it oppressed. And one of the sharpest examples, and real tragedies, of this is how some Black people became Buffalo soldiers fighting the Indians at the very time that Reconstruction was being betrayed.
But the larger point I am emphasizing is that here was a situation involving a major turning point in U.S. history where the question was posed very decisively: Can Black people and will Black people actually be "absorbed," or integrated, or assimilated into this society on a basis of equality? Will not only slavery, but the after-effects of slavery, be systematically addressed, attacked and uprooted…or not? And the answer came thunderously through—NO!—this will not be done. And there was a material reason for that: it could not be done by the bourgeoisie without tearing to shreds their whole system.
Instead they re-chained Black people—not in literal chains, but in economic chains of debt and other forms of economic exploitation and chains of both legal and extra-legal oppression and terror. So this was one major turning point where the system fundamentally failed and betrayed Black people. And everyone, not only Black people, but proletarians of all nationalities and the masses of people broadly, should understand this very clearly—with a dialectical and historical materialist stand, method and viewpoint.
Sharecroppers' Blues and Affirmative Action
The other crucial turning point in which the system once again failed and betrayed Black people was in the period after World War 2, with the upsurge of the Civil Rights Movement. Here was a situation where changes in the world economy and world "geopolitics," as well as changes within the U.S. economy, brought about a very dramatic and rapid upheaval in the situation of millions of Black people.
Everybody knows about the mass migrations of Black people from the southern plantations, particularly during and especially after World War 2. During the 1950s and 1960s, millions of Black people moved from southern plantations to the urban areas, particularly of the North but also in the South. And as we pointed out in Cold Truth Liberating Truth, the very system which first held Black people in literal enslavement, and then held them in serf-like exploitation in sharecropping and other forms—the same ruling class for whom this was profitable because of the particularities of the bourgeois mode of production in the U.S.—this same system and ruling class turned around after World War 2 and drove them off the land, with no consideration for all the labor that they'd put into this land, and everything they'd produced out of it.
Now today you hear all this shit attacking affirmative action—"Well, it's not fair, my child went and took an SAT and got a high score but then they lost out in getting admitted to the college of their choice, because some Black person with a lower SAT score got admitted, blah, blah, blah." When I hear this kind of ignorant railing and whining I am reminded of something I saw on a videotape of the PBS series "The Promised Land," which focused on the migration of Black people from Mississippi to Chicago and their experiences in both the North and the South.
This series told the story in general historical terms—examining the social phenomenon I'm talking about, the mass migration of Black people to the North after World War 2. It focused on people who migrated from Mississippi to Chicago—this mass migration also led people to Detroit, to Cleveland, and so on. But it also portrayed this history in personal terms. Several people were interviewed and recounted stories that showed how and why they left the South and what they encountered in the North. And the story one Black man told really struck me, particularly in light of all this nonsense being whipped up against affirmative action.
This man talked about the way the sharecropping system worked. Not only was there the "normal" and ongoing exploitation of the sharecroppers, but they were swindled on top of that. Under the sharecropping system, the land would be owned by The Man, and he would advance you the seed and the other things you need to plant and harvest for that year. Everything was basically owned by him, including the land the sharecropper lived on and farmed—and at the end of the year there'd be an accounting. You would turn over the harvest to him, and then you'd get back a certain amount. In this case it was sort of modified sharecropping, where you wouldn't get your payment "in kind," that is, in the very things you had grown and produced, but you'd get it back in the form of money. That's the way the sharecropping system worked in the southern U.S. at the time, and from this you can see why you just couldn't get up and leave if you were dissatisfied and felt exploited and cheated—you were in debt from the beginning to the end of the year. You were always in debt.
So, not only was there this ongoing exploitation that was built into, institutionalized and legitimized in the sharecropping system as such, but there was also outright swindling. After all, the same Man who owned everything, also kept the books—and he also owned the store when you had to buy everything and so on. And he was always cheating the sharecroppers, on top of exploiting them viciously in the first place.
Now one year later, the father of the man telling this story, after having worked all year, went in on the day of accounting and asked for his money for the year. And the plantation Man cheated him. He inflated the cost of everything—all the farm supplies and the food and clothes for the family he had forced the family to buy from him. And then he said, "Here's what you're owed now." It was a ridiculously miserable little sum. The Black sharecropper had been swindled on top of exploited. But, that wasn't all. The Man then told him, "Yes, this is how much you're owed, but I can't pay you this year, because I'm using it to send my son to college." Now if that ain't affirmative action for white supremacy, I don't know what it is! And the sharecropper who had been cheated, on top of swindled, on top of exploited, said, "You mean to tell me I worked all this time trying to feed my children and put shoes on their feet, and now you tell me I can't even do that because you're going to send your son to college with the money that I'm supposed to have earned out of doing all this."
So, I don't want to hear any more of this shit about affirmative action being an unfair advantage for the oppressed.
Betrayal in the Promised Land
But getting back to the period of the Civil Rights upsurge, beginning in the mid-'50s and on into the '60s. Once more there is a crucial turning point. We had slavery and we had Reconstruction and that was betrayed. Then there was the whole serf-like, sharecropping plantation system that followed after slavery, with the KKK and all the rest of that terror. But in the '50s and '60s something new was coming on the agenda—the question of real equality and equal rights for everybody, and abolishing this segregation and Jim Crow and all this discrimination.
That's the demand that was being raised at that time—that's the question that was "up" at that time. And what happened? Well, certain formal aspects of Jim Crow laws and outright legal segregation, certain overt "apartheid" principles that denied Black people even formal equality under the law, where the word of a Black person was not equal to that of a white person in legal proceedings, and so on—these things were abolished.
But the question only has to be asked, in order to answer itself: Was anything approximating full equality realized by Black people—did the system open up and make this a reality?
NO! Despite all the tremendous and heroic struggle and sacrifice by masses of Black people (and others who supported them) in this period, the answer was still NO!
Once more the system that for centuries had chained them to the southern plantations, now kicked them off the land because of the changes in southern farming and the U.S. economy overall, together with changes in world economics and geopolitics.
For this system, this massive Black farm labor was no longer necessary, as such, but had become superfluous. So millions of Black people went into the cities, where they were segregated and super-exploited in the lowest sections of the proletariat.
Another dimension of this situation was brought out very powerfully in a speech by Carl Dix, where he talks about his own experience working in a steel mill in the Baltimore area. When he got hired on there, he was immediately shunted right into the shit job in the foundry where all the Black workers were concentrated. And he was talking to this older Black worker—here's another story that shines some light on this affirmative action question and so-called "reverse discrimination!"—and this older Black worker told Carl about how he'd been there 25 years and was still stuck in this same miserable department, with the hardest work and the lowest wages and the least security, even though he had his 25 years seniority. And he further went on to tell Carl about how he had trained all these white people that came in, who then on the basis of the training he gave them were promoted and got these higher paying and more skilled jobs; yet he never got out of that lousy department. Now, if that ain't affirmative action for white supremacy, what is it?! So, I don't want to hear, once again, any more of this reactionary assault on affirmative action, because we're the longest way from having equality, to say nothing of unfair advantage for the oppressed, whatever that would mean.
The fact is, as Cold Truth Liberating Truth puts it, discrimination is not working "in reverse"; it is working in the same direction, the same ways it has always worked throughout the history of the U.S.: to promote and enforce white supremacy and male supremacy.
Now, looking at this in broad historical terms. Here were these major turning points—after the Civil War and then again after World War 2, with Reconstruction and then with the Civil Rights Movement—where the question was sharply, directly, and decisively posed: will the system give everybody equal rights? And the system answered NO! It was not simply a matter that the ruling class would not do this, but more profoundly it was the fact that they could not. They could not because it would have torn up their whole system, it would have undermined their whole economic base and their whole superstructure to do this.