by Karyn Pomerantz, 9-12-2021
This article reviews the revolutionary politics of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a Marxist, anti-racist scholar, author, and activist. It presents her positions on class, racism, and capitalism, and the critical need for working class unity.
Over the last ten years, tens of thousands of people have rebelled against racist police murders, immigrant deportations, climate disasters, Covid-19 catastrophes, and incarceration rates that disproportionately endanger black and brown workers. People are asking about the causes of oppression and strategies and solutions to end them. Explanations range from the exploitative practices of capitalism, bad legislation to misbehaviors of poor people. Strategies include voting, building organizations to fight specific injustices, decentralized and uncoordinated organizing, unionizing, cooperatives, community control of the police, and communist parties. People call for abolition to defund and eliminate the police and prisons and end all forms of injustice. Many believe in white privilege and blame all whites for racism.
In a time of these identity politics, leaderless protests, and decentralized organizing, Taylor’s call for organized, multiracial, revolutionary struggle provides a more realistic course of action that can achieve working class power. Her works are worth understanding and applying.
The editors strongly recommend reading her publications and listening to her presentations on YouTube. She has written 3 major books, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, and How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective.
This blog has promoted multiracial organizing that fights the system of capitalism. Take some time to read the posts on “white privilege,” exploitation, and “It’s Time to Name Names: Capitalism and Imperialism” at https://multiracialunity.org/category/capitalism-and-imperialism/page/3/ . (If you’d like to get together and discuss these topics, come to our biweekly discussion group and email us for the details).
Racism Enriches the Few and Exploits the Majority
Racism cannot exist without capitalism, and capitalism cannot survive without racism. Taylor uses Marxist theory to explain this relationship. She reviews the development of “whiteness” under the early colonial powers. In a nutshell, plantation owners needed many laborers to produce the tobacco and cotton crops that fueled the economic superiority of US agriculture and industry. They chose African workers and violently enforced the separation of indigenous, black, and white people. These rich landowners created the concept of whiteness to maintain the separation of people who greatly outnumbered them. Before this, people were identified by their national origin or religion. To create this concept of a white race, the ruling elites unified British and Irish, Jewish and Christian people, and plantation owners and poor farmers under the common characteristic of white. They bribed white workers with wages and a higher social status (DuBois’ “psychological wages”). White workers did not benefit but believed the lie that they were superior. While they avoided enslavement, white workers suffered high rates of unemployment and poverty, unable to compete with unpaid labor.
Taylor reminds us that today white workers experience high rates of economic insecurity and poverty. Because they comprise large percentages of the US population, they suffer higher numbers of people incarcerated, killed by police, and impoverishment. Some health indicators, such as mortality rates among middle aged white men, are increasing due to their worsening economic conditions and substance use. However, black and Latinx people have higher disproportionate rates of these problems that are often more severe.
“It is important to point out how Blacks are overrepresented among the poor, but ignoring white poverty helps to obscure the systemic roots of all poverty. Blaming Black culture not only deflects investigation into the systemic causes of Black inequality but has also been widely absorbed by African Americans as well. Their acceptance of the dominant narrative that blames Blacks for their own oppression is one explanation for the delay in the development of a new Black movement, even while police brutality persists (From #BLM, p. 49).”
Racism also creates huge profits by paying workers of color less and maintaining poorer services, such as health care, housing, and education. The ruling class uses racism to keep workers divided and blaming one another for their problems. It would be impossible for this small ruling class to govern without these divisions.
Taylor’s Recommendations include:
Building Multiracial Working Class Solidarity
While the ruling class maintains segregated housing and education, uprisings ignited by police murders around the country in 2012 were strongly multiracial, intergenerational, and multiethnic. This broke from the typical segregated movements where black activists fought for racial and economic justice, Latinx for immigration reform, and whites for peace. Taylor insists that working class unity is a necessity even while it remains primarily potential rather than real. Among antiracists, she advises stressing our commonalities:
“In the context to demonstrate how oppressions differ from one group to the next, we miss how we are connected through oppressions – and how these connections should form the basis of solidarity, not a celebration of our lives on the margins (From #BLM, p. 187).”
On allyship, she writes:
Allyship versus solidarity “underemphasizes the material foundation for solidarity and unity within the working class. Instead, the concepts of unity and solidarity are reduced to whether one chooses to be an “ally.” There is nothing wrong with being an ally, but it doesn’t quite capture the degree which Black and white workers are inextricably linked. … solidarity is not just an option; it is crucial to workers’ ability to resist the constant degradation of their living standards. Solidarity is only possible through relentless struggle to win white workers to antiracism (From #BLM, p. 215).”
Taylor along with authors Vijay Prashad (Washington Bullets), Jonathan Metzl (Dying of Whiteness), and Heather McGhee (The Sum of Us) strongly affirm the necessity of united struggles. Prashad proclaims that as a member of the working class, an attack on any worker regardless of their characteristics attacks him as well. Solidarity is not performative or charitable; it is critical to achieve equity.
Rejecting the Concept of “White Privilege”
Epidemiological data document the different rates of poverty, life expectancy, Covid-19 deaths, and many other health indicators between black, Latinx, Asian, indigenous, and white people with white people always the best. People often think that white people benefit from racism, and many authors blame white people for the oppression of others: if only whites would surrender their privilege would others lives improve. People like Robin diAngelo in White Fragility make fortunes training white people to accept their culpability. Other books like Me and White Supremacy rarely ask who benefits from racism or cite examples of solidarity.
Taylor rejects this view and documents multiracial struggles. In “Is There a White Skin Privilege,?” she writes:
“… if “white privilege” exists, then there are millions of ordinary white workers who have yet to figure out exactly how to cash in. The fact is that the majority of people without health care, the majority of the unemployed, the majority of the homeless and the majority of those who live in poverty are white. These numbers don’t reflect benefits or privilege. They reflect exploitation and oppression.“
The disparity that exists between white and non-white workers is the result of racism and discrimination–not white privilege–by employers, landlords, mortgage lenders, city governmentsc and the federal government.
Racism harms all workers, including white workers, by driving down wages and living standards for the entire working class. It is the ruling class that has always been the true beneficiary of racism. (April 2006. http://socialistworker.org/2006-1/584/584_08_Privilege.php).”
She recalls the unified black and white campaigns and strikes in the 1970s that the Nixon and later administrations broke with racist policies and ideology. The ruling class destroyed the War on Poverty programs of the 1960s-70s, increased black incarceration, and ramped up racist theories to quell any opposition. They successfully convinced enough white workers to blame blacks for their poverty, unemployment, and housing insecurity while many white workers accepted their better economic and social status.
Developing Organizations to Build a Movement
Taylor rejects the current approach of spontaneous, decentralized protests without any coordinated planning and action. Many organizers reject formal leadership to promote democratic, inclusive groups. She quotes DeRay McKesson, an activist in Black Lives Matter, who writes that:
“…you don’t need structures to begin protest. You are enough to start a movement (From #BLM, p. 175).”
Taylor and others reject his reasoning. Barbara Ransby, an antiracist feminist leader, responds:
“If we think we can all “get free” through individual or un-coordinated small group resistance, we are kidding ourselves (From #BLM, p. 175).”
Yet neither Taylor in this book or others advocate for organizing a global communist party that can lead coordinated struggles, test strategies, and create a new society based on sharing and equity.
While acknowledging the need for organizations to coordinate struggles, she reminds us that blacks comprise only 13 percent of the US population, making it impossible to win “freedom” and justice without uniting with others in a movement for social change.
Such a movement can fight for reforms to learn how to struggle and what leaders deserve trust. She cites how voters elected black mayors, national legislators, and City Council members, a hollow victory as they served Wall Street interests and broke promises to reduce police brutality as NY Mayor deBlasio showed by denouncing stop and frisk in his campaign but not as mayor. Black politicians, including those in the Congressional Black Caucus, lined up behind President Clinton’s tough on crime bill that increased the size of police forces and incarceration rates. To win expensive congressional races, they accepted money from major corporations, including oil, auto, alcohol, and tobacco companies. Ideologically, these black politicians (joined by white colleagues and liberal supporters) promoted electoral politics and moderation as the answer. When Al Sharpton, leader of the National Action Network, tried to speak at a protest in Washington, DC after Michael Brown’s murder, the young activists kicked him off the stage. As Taylor notes:
“… not only did the Ferguson rebellion expose the racism and brutality of American policing, it also exposed Black officials’ inability to intervene effectively on behalf of poor and working class African Americans (#BLM, p. 106).”
Instead of electoral campaigns and random protests, she promotes alliances with unions and economic disruption. They have the power to shut down production as the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU) did when refusing to unload arms during the Korean War and containers from an Israeli ship in 2021 in Oakland, California. Organizing with workers in transportation, communications, and IT industries can disrupt business as usual to win reforms like higher wages, parental leave, and global vaccine access.
Taylor also lambasts the funding of nonprofit organizations. Foundations like Ford and Soros pour millions into NGOs eager for money but end up being restrained by the funders’ goals. During the 1960s, the Kennedy Administration instructed the Taconic Foundation to fund civil rights organizations to replace their militant campaigns for economic improvements with voter registration drives. The Garland Foundation funded the NAACP which shifted its programs to political education. Ford contributed $175,000 to Cleveland’s voter registration in 1967. Today this “NGO industrial complex” is alive and well. (See Incite! The Revolution Will Not Be Funded for many examples and analysis).
Creating a Future Liberated Society
Taylor calls for liberation but is not totally clear whether this means a violent capture of the state, replacing it with workers’ control under a communist society. She is known as a socialist and often explains and defends Marxist ideas.
In her introduction to the influential How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (2017), she praises the Collective for adopting a Marxist perspective while rejecting identity politics. In none of the writings I read was there a call for a communist party as the organization needed to lead and govern. It may be that working in academia that censors and punishes teachers who stray from liberal politics or who promote Palestinian rights could temper her political statements.
However, in her article in socialistworker.org (Race, Class, and Marxism, https://socialistworker.org/2011/01/04/race-class-and-marxism), she is much more open about the need for communist revolution:
“Today, the need for a revolutionary alternative to the failures of capitalism has never been greater.
Thus, the question of Black, Latino and white unity is not abstract or academic, but must be a concrete discussion about how to collectively go forward. Millions of white workers are meeting their Black brothers and sisters on the way down. Tens of millions of white workers are stuck in long-term joblessness, without health insurance and waiting for their homes to be foreclosed.
Genuine Marxist organizations understand that the only way of achieving unity in the working class over time is to fight for unity today and every day. Workers will never unite to fight for state power if they cannot unite to fight for workplace demands today. If white workers are not won to anti-racism today, they will never unite with Black workers for a revolution tomorrow. If Black workers are not won to being against anti-immigrant racism today, they will never unite with Latino workers for a revolution tomorrow.
This is why Lenin said that a revolutionary party based on Marxism must be a “tribune of the oppressed,” willing to fight against the oppression of any group of people, regardless of the class of those affected. And this is why, despite the anti-Marxist slurs from academics and even some who consider themselves part of the left, the idea that Marxism has been on the outside of the struggle against racism in the U.S. and around the world defies history and the legacy of Black revolutionaries who understood Marxism as a strategy for emancipation and liberation.
The challenge today is to make revolutionary Marxism, once again, a part of the discussion of how to end the social catastrophe that is unfolding in Black communities across the United States.”
It is important to add that white, indigenous, Latinx, and Asian working class communities around the world also suffer these catastrophes with different intensities: the destruction of the planet and human lives due to climate disasters, Covid-19 and other developing pandemics due to dangerous profit-driven food production, and imperialist wars waged for resources and cheap labor. It is critical to follow Taylor’s urgent call to abolish capitalism and re-order society to serve a multiracial, international working class.