by Ellen Isaacs
Should June 19 be a day to celebrate the end of chattel slavery, sob about the delayed emancipation of 200,000 slaves in Texas, rage over the 150 year continuation of racism, or resolve to continue the fight to end racist wage slavery and war? Despite the urge of black Americans to seize a day to celebrate their own freedom and empowerment, there are many reasons why the events remembered on this day obscure the many anti-racist battles that have been and must be fought by workers.
Two years before June 19, 1865 came Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which excluded slave states that were not in rebellion against the Union – Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri – and Texas, which was not a battleground. In fact, many planters and other slaveholders decamped to Texas with over 150,000 slaves in tow, in order to escape the raging Civil War. In June, 1865, after the surrender of General Robert E Lee and the Union victory in New Orleans, word finally came to Galveston, Texas that the slaves were free. In fact, the 13th Amendment, officially ending slavery throughout the country, was not passed until December, 1865.
Moreover, Abraham Lincoln, lionized as the liberator of slaves, was no believer in the equality of blacks. In 1858, Lincoln said, “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races…” Lincoln favored setting up colonies for blacks in Africa and Central America and requested funds from Congress to deport freed slaves. His main motive for fighting the Civil War was preservation of the unity of the United States, not abolishing slavery.
Other history we do not learn about or celebrate is that of the multitude of rebellions against slavery, many of them interracial, from the 1600s to the 1800s. In their book The Many–Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Reducer document many of these. Among them are the Barbados rebellions in 1649, which united Irish and African slaves; Bacon’s rebellion in Virginia in 1676, which united slaves and white indentured servants; the New York City Conspiracy of 1741, which united African Americans, white indentured servants, sailors, and Irish immigrants; Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831; and John Brown’s multiracial antislavery campaign culminating at Harper’s Ferry. Of course, the most successful was the Haitian rebellion, which abolished slavery and colonization on that island by 1804.
Racism Never Ended
At the end of the Civil War, freed slaves became wage laborers on former plantations, sharecroppers, or domestics. For a short time, their well-being was protected by federal troops during Reconstruction from 1865-77. Once this protection was withdrawn, white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan flourished, often made up of local law enforcement. This Jim Crow era was characterized by the open murder of thousands of black workers, rampant imprisonment, impoverishment and indebtedness of former slaves and total segregation.
Although many of these abuses were gradually mitigated through mass migrations of black workers to the North through the end of World War II, court decisions, and then the Civil Rights Movement, racism has continued to flourish in the all parts of the U.S. Today wage differentials between white men and black and Latin workers add up to almost $800 billion dollars a year, nearly half of annual corporate profits. Differences in social spending on such services as education, health care and housing add up to hundreds of billions more dollars, making it clear that American capitalism would be hard put to survive without racism. Black workers continue to be incarcerated at five times the rate of whites and be murdered disproportionately by police, accounting for 63% of those killed (223 deaths in 2017) while comprising 13% of the population. No cop has ever been convicted for murder of a black American. Schools, hospitals, and neighborhoods are just as segregated today as they were 50 years ago.
All Workers Are Hurt by Racism
It is popular today to talk about “white privilege”, as if white workers created racism (even though many may harbor racist ideas), benefit from it or should be paralyzed or separate themselves because of guilt. In fact, anti-black racism was purposely and methodically created in the U.S. of the 1600-1700s to justify slavery and separate white indentured servants and poor farmers from Black slaves. (see https://multiracialunity.org/2016/05/22/the-road-not-taken-by-lerone-bennett/). Before that there had been social mixing and intermarriage between whites and non-whites. Racist propaganda continues unabated today, from pseudo-scientific theories of racial differences to racist stereotypes in the media and tolerance of white supremacist groups and utterances by politicians.
What the ruling class fears is us recognizing is that the lowered standards for wages, health, education, housing bring down the standards for everyone, even as black, Latin and other minority groups continue to be super-exploited. Even more important, the separation into different schools, job categories, unions, and neighborhoods keeps us divided when only multiracial mass action would enable us to fight back effectively. Ultimately, as we have seen, capitalism relies on racism for profits and to minimize rebellion. US rulers also rely on racism to win workers, white, black and immigrant, to fight foreign wars for markets and resources by painting Muslims, Arabs, Asians and others as inhuman enemies.
It is heartening to witness the mass uprising against the separation and incarceration of immigrant children, which has actually forced a minimal change in Trump’s policies. But we must use this power of the unity of millions of workers to outlaw racism once and for all and build an egalitarian society. That will be the proper day for celebration.