Lawmaker: African-Americans battle backlash to challenges to power structure
Virginia State Senator Jennifer McClellan (left) and former New Orleans mayor Mark Morial (right). | left photo by Randi B. Hagi/; right photo by Juliet Linderman/AP

WASHINGTON—African-Americans are battling “a swift backlash” to their challenges to the U.S. power structure – a power structure and economy based on slavery, racism and Jim Crow – a top Virginia African-American legislator says.

State Sen. Jennifer McLellan said the current backlash, under the GOP Trump government and its GOP allies nationwide, is part of a recurring pattern of the white power structure turning to repression when its advantages are challenged.

“We have risen against it and there’s been a swift backlash – and that’s what we’re in right now,” she declared.

McClellan’s analysis came at a “town hall” during the Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference in mid-September. Other speakers were former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, economist Julianne Malveaux, former president of the Bennett College for Women, Dr. Patrice Harris, the first female African-American president of the American Medical Association, and Barry Johnson, head of the NAACP.

The four, plus moderator Jeannetta Cole of the National Council of Negro Women, reviewed the 400-year history of importation of enslaved people, their exploitation, brief political liberation after the Civil War, and subsequent renewed repression after Reconstruction ended.

The civil rights movement was supposed to end the political repression – economic repression never was ended – but Trump and the GOP are re-imposing it, the panelists said.

“When we fight we win,” starting with African-Americans leaving Southern plantations and slavery to fight with the Union Army during the Civil War, Johnson said. “So as we stand in this Trump era, we cannot give up hope.”  But he warned African-Americans “do not take up enough fights.”

Johnson was not specific, but some of the seminars at the five-day conference were, including one tackling environmental racism. Economic repression came up in the context of African-Americans exercising dollar power for themselves, for their community and to influence the wider economy.

No seminars addressed whether the whole economic power structure should be scrapped. Malveaux came the closest, stating “the foundation of” the U.S. “is predatory capitalism, not regular capitalism.”

“Our bodies” – meaning the centuries of toil by African-Americans – “are the basis of the bond market and of Wall Street. You would not have a U.S.A. if not for the work of African-Americans.” Then she noted the black-white wealth gap “is not much better now” in net household worth, “than it was in 1910.” And while the overall U.S. poverty rate was 11.8% last year, the official African-American poverty rate was 20.8%, Malveaux added.

“There’s been a suppression of our ability to survive and thrive,” she said. As for Trump’s role in the repression, she commented: “If you elect a clown, expect a circus.”

Morial, now president of the Urban League, concentrated on attacks on people of color’s political gains. He called attacks on voting rights in particular “diabolical, malicious and extreme.” How to battle those attacks were the subject of a panel discussion and a showing of the film Rigged during the conference.

The viciousness comes not just from Trump and the GOP, but in state legislatures and particularly from the U.S. Supreme Court, which emasculated the Voting Rights Act’s key enforcement section. Morial called that Shelby County vs Holder ruling, by the GOP-named court majority several years ago, “this generation’s Plessy and Dred Scott.”

In the infamous Dred Scott ruling in 1857, the Southern seven-justice court majority ruled African-Americans were not citizens and had no rights. After the 13thh Amendment to the Constitution overturned that, Plessy vs Ferguson in 1896 legalized “separate but equal,” which in practice was anything but equal.

“And suppression of African-American voters was the animating strategy of Russia in the 2016 election,” Morial said. That balloting saw Trump, aided by Russian bots, leaks, lies, and disinformation on social media, sway enough voters to defeat Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

“And guess what? They’re still active,” Morial said of the Russians. “We’ve got to be ‘woke’ and aware and not be bamboozled.”

That’s because the coming election will decide “who sits in the seats” to rule on issues ranging from continued school segregation to reparations for African-Americans. “If we don’t show up” at the polls next year, “we won’t have” power, he warned.

Those lawmakers also will decide on health care coverage, AMA’s Harris, a psychiatrist, said. They’ll determine “who’s underinsured and who’s uninsured” – along with services available to women of childbearing age. The maternal mortality rate for African-Americans is significantly higher than that of whites, she noted.

“And there are day-in-day-out assaults on black women that affect our organs, our bodies and our brains,” from higher exposure of blacks than whites to hazardous substances – and not just lead in drinking water. “In Atlanta, her hometown, we have a history of racial discrimination in housing and in health outcomes – and the correlation is almost one-to-one.” That’s led her to establish the Center for Health Equity at the AMA.

“You have to care about who decides” your fate, McClellan urged the crowd. Like all other Virginia state lawmakers, the Democrat faces the voters this fall, but her Richmond-area district is heavily African-American and Democratic. But it’s not just the president and U.S. Congress, or even state government. “It’s your local prosecutor” who decides who gets charged “and your local school board, which decides what gets taught.”

“Racism is dangerous, but race ignorance is dangerous, too.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).