Our primary question is, who is the modern proletariat and what role does it play as a class? The answer is simple: It is primarily women, children, and alien labor. Those who are colonized.Butch Lee and Red Rover, Night Vision: Illuminating War and Class on the Neo-Colonial Terrain
On August 9, 2014, St. Louis Missouri Police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Black teenager Michael Brown. He was 18, lying in the summer sun, and I was 19, soon to begin my sophomore year of college. The streets soon erupted in protest at Brown’s death and the blatant disregard local officials showed to his family. Like many Black people my age, from cities and towns that seemed too small and placid for much capital-A activism, I spent the next few days in a stupor, glued to social media. I devoured every piece of information I could. In this, Michael Brown’s story is forever a part of my history. I know I am not alone in this.
In that flurry of conjoined interest, activity, and organizing for people across the country, Ferguson was born. A new proper noun crystallizing the inherently plural social memory of Brown’s life and death, Wilson’s acquittal by the grand jury, and the weeks of protest and violent police repression across the country. If, in the popular imagination, our present economic crisis becomes another Great Depression, and COVID-19 becomes a replay of The Spanish Flu, the most recent wave of protests against police violence might easily become understood as another extension of Ferguson.
Yet, the overlapping social, political, and economic crises of the past few months should, once again, reveal the limits of the white supremacist, capitalist common sense we live within. Much like those other all-encompassing proper nouns of Black American history, The Civil Rights Movement and Slavery, Ferguson appears in singular, cast in stone. Names like these become markers of a specific and limited chain of historical association. Slavery means a generalized “Deep South,” plantation system, and civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr.’s final, singlehanded correction of this peculiar institution. In the process, both Harriet Tubman’s escape from that mid-Atlantic Union state, Maryland, and Johnnie Tillmon’s challenge to King on poor women’s issues are both left out of frame. These moments become about race, and often, nothing else.
In confronting this present moment, we cannot afford to make the same mistake.
With an understanding of what Cedric Robinson calls the Black Radical Tradition, I believe we can begin to break up these cemented historical images and embrace the plurality of ways African-descendent people of various identities have responded to their distinct social conditions with visions for other worlds. Alongside the Black Panther Party and the Freedom Rides, this vision of Black radicalism includes Black women’s welfare rights activism, Black communist internationalism, and the localized anti-capitalist solidarities Black activists built with other oppressed and exploited communities.
The lesson for the contemporary anti-racist left is thus clear. The revolutionary potential of this moment, right here and now, will only be found in addressing its multiple contradictions. We can face all of this moment’s implications, or we can file this moment away as another entry in the dustbin of “exceptional,” yet past radical moments.
For example, while it is worth considering the conditions of Black workers amid the worst economic crisis of our lifetime, it is difficult to do so without considering all of the ways Black workers are made vulnerable to capitalist exploitation. First, given that Black workers are often the “first fired and last hired” during economic downtowns, it is hardly surprising that this crisis is hitting Black and minority workers especially hard, throwing many people out of the workforce while increasing the demands on those who have kept their jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms this suspicion. According to their analysis, in April less than half of the Black adults in the United States had a job, a considerable increase to an already high unemployment rate during “normal times.” As with the 2008 financial crisis, we also have reason to suspect that this vulnerability to unemployment is likely to last far beyond these next few months. Using survey data gathered from an array of businesses, the Becker Friedman Institute has already predicted that roughly 42% of COVID-19 related layoffs will lead to permanent job losses. Altogether then, Black workers with and without formal unions are engaged in a racialized labor struggle to secure their position in the labor market.
We can also associate this vulnerability with the clear and present danger faced by those Black workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response. Researchers at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) and at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) have both issued reports demonstrating the overrepresentation of Black Americans, and people of color more broadly, within those occupations now designated as “essential.” Most of these workers do not have a college degree, receive less than the average hourly wage of non-essential workers, and are not protected by a union contract. As EPI concludes, “Strikingly, some of the most high-risk industries have the lowest unionization rates, such as health care (10%) and food and agriculture (8%).”
Here, we should recall Chris Smalls, a Black worker and organizer at an Amazon facility in Staten Island, New York. When the notoriously anti-union company refused to provide proper protections while hiring more and more part-time workers in the cramped warehouse, Smalls and others organized a walkout for which Smalls was fired and smeared. Ironically, the company claimed that the real danger was the walkout, a multiracial labor action, not the company’s calculated refusal to protect this multiracial group of low-wage and part-time workers.
On the frontlines, Black women are especially vulnerable to the long and short-term effects of COVID-19 because of their overrepresentation among “care” workers. CEPR’s report concludes, “About one-half of all workers are women, but nearly two-thirds (64%) of frontline workers are women.” Women are especially overrepresented in frontline health care, childcare, and social services work, thereby increasing their risk of infection. Medical experts have already begun speculating that some COVID-19 patients may “suffer long-term damage, including lung scarring, heart damage, and neurological and mental health effects.” According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Protection, as of April, more than 9,200 health care workers had already been infected. Even if this population of Black women workers are likely to keep their jobs while the pandemic continues, they may find themselves unable to work sooner than other, less vulnerable workers, endangering their long-term earnings and personal and community well-being.
These occupational hazards to Black workers should be added to those they face in public and private spaces across this country. In the last two months, as the pandemic has intensified economic and political inequality, police forces have either murdered or enabled the murder of many Black workers including Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and David McAtee. We should take a moment to sit with these people, their lives, and their positions within this system of human sacrifice.
- Breonna Taylor was an EMT and frontline healthcare worker at University of Louisville, Health. The police burst in as she and her boyfriend were sleeping because they were suspected to be selling drugs.
- George Floyd was an on and off truck driver and restaurant security guard in Minneapolis who lost his job because of the pandemic. He was arrested on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill.
- Ahmaud Arbery was attending South Georgia Technical College and pursuing a career as an electrician. His white supremacist killers accused Arbery of trespassing at a nearby construction site.
- Tony McDade was a former professional boxer in Tallahassee, whose trans experience no doubt influenced both his vulnerable economic position and his having been jumped by other men before police killed him.
- David McAtee ran a small barbecue restaurant in Louisville where he was serving food to community members at a gathering separate from the already ongoing protests.
In each of these cases—as has been the case in nearly all the high-profile cases of police violence, police brutality, and police enabled white supremacy—those marked for death are overwhelmingly poor people. They are vulnerable to the whims of the market, the boss, the landlord, and the creditor. They are members of the fragmented American working class.
I say fragmented because, as Black and Indigenous socialists have long argued, the working class has always been divided in various ways by naturalized social distinctions like race, gender, and nationality. In W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, for example, he describes the conflict between two American labor movements of the 19th century—Abolition, “the movement to give the black worker a minimum legal status which would enable him to sell his own labor,” and Free Soil, “which proposed to increase the wage and better the condition of the working class of America,” by improving the conditions for new immigrant and poor white workers, especially in the “new” colonized territories. In this formulation we should not forget the Indigenous peoples who fought against genocidal warfare both in America and in Africa, or, otherwise, attempted to integrate into this “free” labor system only to have their land and labor stolen from them anyway. Here, the social construction of ‘race’ is made to appear as the real source of fragmentation between these groups and, through this politically constituted fragmentation, the ruling class is able to justify further violence and dispossession against dehumanized populations.
The American working class still bears these fragmentations which can, as Stuart Hall writes, become “sectional struggles, articulated through race,” which “continue to appear as the necessary defensive strategies of a class divided against itself, face-to-face with capital.” When race, gender, and nationality are sectioned off from class struggle they often take this form, fueling moves to secure, ever more fervently, their fragment’s place in a larger system based on human sacrifice. The white neofascists and the woke POC capitalists have this feature in common. And, as geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes in her work on prisons and environmental racism, it is the multiracial, gender and sexually diverse, and multinational working class that is made all the more vulnerable to “premature death.”
It is in this vein that we can understand the link between Black labor politics, police brutality, and all the forms of “domestic” violence which target women, children, the elderly, and the LGBTQ community. The African American working class may be fragmented within itself, but its class position necessarily enables its overlapping social segments to find both conflict and solidarity in building movements around issues like police violence, mass incarceration, and environmental racism. The African American working class, in its diversity, also overlaps with other racial and ethnic groups, including those who face additional barriers as immigrants and refugees. The Black Lives Matter movement has, since its inception, paid careful attention to these various fragmentations and attempted to create a radical “Black politics” attentive not just to struggles against police violence and white supremacist vigilantism, but also encompassing struggles against violence against LGBTQ people, and for housing justice and immigration policy reform.
Yet, class remains an under-focused element of this formation even as police and prison abolition become more popularly accepted. If we take a brief look at three of the above victims of police and police-sanctioned brutality, it is evident that, even if they were with us today, their lives would still be fundamentally marked by their intersecting economic and social conditions.
If Breonna Taylor had lived, for example, she may very well have still been one of the many Black women working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response. For workers like her, facing permanent injury, psychological trauma, and disablement during the regular course of their days, singular solutions centered only on police use of force and locking up her killers, won’t address the broader conditions that made her premature death possible.
Similarly, if George Floyd had lived, he would still be searching for part-time temporary work like so many of those low-wage workers who are currently being forced to risk their lives or make do on meager public benefits. As with the Lehman Brothers collapse a decade ago, George Floyd may have been one of the many Black workers who will struggle to find a job over the course of the next several years even as white American workers start to recover lost wealth and opportunities.
And if Tony McDade had lived, he would still be a Black, trans-masculine person who was only released from prison in January. Given his ten-year sentence and felony record, McDade may have very well been among the many recently released people of color who end up unemployed, homeless, and facing reincarceration. Surviving one interaction with the criminal justice system because of minor police reforms and body cameras does not negate a person’s increased vulnerability to premature death in lost wages, lost family connections, and lost health and safety over time.
Police violence is then clearly interrelated with other forms of uneven violence visited upon the fragmented American working class, including violence against women, children, the elderly, and the LGBTQ community. According to the Human Rights Campaign’s count, at least 15 transgender people have already been murdered this year. Several, such as Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells and Riah Milton were Black trans women. And several others, such as Serena Angelique Velázquez Ramos and Layla Pelaez Sánchez were Puerto Rican trans women.
As with Black Lives Matter activist Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salai, these women and so many other vulnerable Black women were assaulted and killed by other working class people, including those in their own racial and ethnic communities. In fact, due to the stay-at-home orders, it is in those very communities, families, and households that so many poor and working class women, children, and elderly people are currently experiencing higher incidences of domestic violence and abuse.
This is why Boston Black Feminist group, the Combahee River Collective concluded their 1979 pamphlet on gendered violence in the Black community with the following statement, “As Black women who are feminists we are struggling against all racist, sexist, heterosexist and class oppression. We know that we have no hopes of ending this particular crisis and violence against women in our community until we identify all of its causes, including sexual oppression.”
Black feminist prison and police abolitionists and Black feminist socialists have argued since long before the most recent uprisings that addressing all of the causes of racial and gendered violence goes far beyond criminalization and investment in more policing. Not only has more policing only pushed more Black women and LGBT people into conflict with law enforcement even when trying to report violence against them, but police and prisons actually do very little to “protect” Black women from interpersonal violence, much less investigate that violence after the fact. What criminal justice approaches have accomplished instead is foreclosing the opportunities for community-based solutions that would promote democratic power among oppressed people, build solidarities across various class fragments, and begin to socialize care, love, and community functions beyond the nuclear family unit.
This form of community-based, democratic organizing is one central aspect of what Cedric Robinson described as The Black Radical Tradition. Long before there was a “Europe” or an “Africa,” African peoples already lived and experienced diverse forms of life and traditions of resistance within their own social contexts. Thus, European colonialism not only exported capitalism across the world by force, it forced the inter-pollination of radical and mundane traditions amongst oppressed people, producing, in the crucible of New World slavery, both a Black race and a Black Radical Tradition. As Robinson concludes one chapter on the subject of African history, “The peoples of Africa and the African diaspora endured an integrating experience that left them not only with a common task but a shared vision.”
For Black radical intellectuals like the W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and C.L.R. James, Marxism served as an important touchstone in their political consciousness and analysis. Yet, in the end, they each found Marxism was most useful in turning them back toward this already existing tradition of radicalism expanding from the slave ship coup, to the mountain maroons, to the plantation revolt and the all-Black Union regiment. As Robinson describes it, this Black Radical Tradition, while necessarily difficult to capture, can be distinguished by its internal focus on the life worlds of African peoples. Rather than the bloody reign of terror white reactionary capitalists have imagined, historically, Black radicalism has minimized brutal vengeance and rejected the seemingly all-powerful force of capitalist development.
In short, in their movement building against capitalist empire, Black radicals have long insisted on “the impulse to make history in their own terms.” Black feminist abolitionists, socialists, and left organizers of all stripes have drawn on this tradition and similarly insisted on visions for a better world beyond the “age of human sacrifice” we currently live within.
Thus, in the Black Radical Tradition, all anti-racist leftists, Black or otherwise, can take the lesson: this world has no inherent shape but what we give it. All these conditions can be remade anew through our shared responsibility to preserve our collective being, our survival in the face of crisis.
In short, we can survive together or not at all. This is the promise of a movement which organizes for what Gilmore has called, nonreformist reforms, “changes that, at the end of the day, unravel rather than widen the net of social control through criminalization.”
If Marx and Engels were correct in their declaration that “What the bourgeoisie…produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers,” Cedric J. Robinson’s work makes it overwhelmingly clear that the most revolutionary of these grave-diggers are the colonized people—the women, the children, the minorities, the immigrants, and the people of color. Only a movement which embraces and is based among those grave-diggers will ever be able to move beyond profit-centered reformism or a liberal focus on “changing hearts and minds” to build a new and better future.
Yvonne Bramble is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. She researches government computing systems and Marxist geography with a specific focus on the computerization of welfare programs in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1971 and its effects on low-wage women workers. She has a deep distrust of the tech industry and an abiding love for all dogs.
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