Fighting racism is at the heart of our struggles

For the past six years, millions of Americans have been battling the Bush administration and its policies of pre-emptive war, economic austerity, usurpation of democratic rights and racism.

Yet a sober look at the political landscape yields an inescapable conclusion — though the movement has grown in breadth and depth, though this administration is greatly weakened and though some victories have been won, Bush and his right-wing counterparts in Congress continue to drive the nation’s political agenda.

Given these circumstances, nothing is more compelling than the struggle for higher levels of political and organizational unity against the administration’s policies. Only a more united movement can reverse the calamitous course our nation is on.

Such a struggle is a many-sided process. But at its heart is the struggle against racism. At every progressive turning point in our history, rejection of racist ideology and practices by white people and multiracial unity were absolutely necessary conditions for advancing the interests of the movement as a whole.

Racism is one of the main (it could easily be argued the main) fault lines of our nation’s politics, economics, culture and history. It is also the most enduring. It brings billions of dollars and enormous advantages to the owners of capital. It sustains the rule of the capitalist class. It mingles with other backward ideologies — nationalism, anti-communism, male supremacy and “war on terror” — to legitimize exploitation, wars of aggression and denial of democratic rights.

Racism is more than an ideology that claims that racially oppressed people are inferior to white people. It is also embedded in the institutional structures and practices of capitalist society. Both as ideology and practice, it adapts to changing conditions of struggle and popular sentiments.

Racist codes words, symbols and narratives have been among the main tools the ultra-right has used to ascend to and consolidate power over the past two and a half decades.

Indeed, nothing disarms and fractures the working-class movement and its strategic alliance with the racially oppressed to the degree that racism does.

Racist ideology causes white workers to confuse friend with foe and foe with friend. It disfigures their political understanding and obscures the underlying causes of their exploitation as well as the super-exploitation and oppression of their racially oppressed brothers and sisters. And it impedes the realization of maximum unity, which is imperative given the massive concentrations of capitalist class power that the people’s coalitions are up against in our country.

The struggle against racism is not simply a subset of the many-layered and interconnected struggle for democracy, but the most important element of these struggles. Seeing the fight against racism as just one among many democratic tasks is tantamount to conceding victory to the Bush administration and the transnational corporations.

The challenge for white activists is to bring every bit as much political passion, will and understanding to the fight against racism and its influence in the working class and people’s movement as did the white abolitionists in the Civil War or white workers organizing basic industry in the Depression years or white students in the modern civil rights movement.

Marx wrote of the necessity “to awaken a consciousness in English workers that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is no question of abstract justice and humanitarian sentiment, but the first condition of their own social emancipation.”

Marx, I think, wasn’t dismissing humanitarian concerns. Rather he was calling attention to what wasn’t adequately understood by the British working class of his day — that the winning of their freedom from class exploitation and oppression depended on the solidarity that they extended to Irish people in their struggle for national freedom from British colonialism. Adapting this observation to our contemporary political landscape, we can say that the fight against racism and for full equality today is the first condition for the advancement of the interests of every section of the U.S. working class.

Of course, the ideologues gathered in right-wing think tanks go to extraordinary lengths to obscure this fact. These scribes of reactionary politics say that great progress has been made in getting rid of racism, that we live in a post-civil-rights era, that race-conscious remedies foster dependence and poverty and alienate white people, and that individual initiative and responsibility are the sure paths to individual and group uplift.

While this narrative is different in some respects from earlier rationalization of racism, its aim is the same: to convince white people that the racially oppressed are themselves responsible for the conditions in which they live and that white people have no compelling self- and class interest in joining people of color to fight racial oppression.

The stakes are high. And the task of the left and progressive movement is to convince the broadest section of white workers and people that they have a material as well as an ethical stake in engaging in this struggle.

Sam Webb (swebb@cpusa.org) is Communist Party USA national chair.