Intro to Afro-American Studies
Power and the U.S. Political System
Toward a Paradigm of Unity in Afro-American Studies
|LOGIC OF CHANGE||Social Cohesion||Traditional Africa||-||Slavery||-||Rural Life||-||Urban Life|
|Social Disruption||-||Slave Trade||-||Emancipation||-||Migrations||-|
|UNITS OF ANALYSIS||Ideology||A1||B1||C1||D1||E1||F1||G1|
Black people have always viewed politics and the struggle for political power as one of the most important paths to liberation. Black voters have been important in the election of major white officials for a long time, especially at the national level since the 1960s. There has also been an increase in the number of Black mayors and other elected officials, and more appointments at the federal, state, and local levels. But the problems that Black people face in the United States - unemployment, inflation, decaying cities, poor health care, police brutality, and many others - are no closer to solution now than they, were before the increase in Black political officials. In fact, the situation for the masses is getting worse not better.
How are we to approach the political dimension of the Black experience? Generally, legal relations - the law and the government (state) - reflect existing power (class) relations. That is, the law, has always served the interests of that class which dominates or rules the society at any particular time. Government is an arena of the struggle for power and wealth that is going on at all times. The government served the slaveowners and under capitalism it serves the capitalists. These fundamental laws of U.S. politics can help us to understand the role that the government has historically played in (and against) the struggle for Black liberation.
In the political arena, this struggle has changed forms as the main political problem facing Black people has changed. During the slave experience, Black people fought to be defined by the political system as human. In the rural period, the main political fight was for civil rights (for voting, office-holding, etc.). During the, urban period, Black people have had legally defined equal opportunity but still face a disproportionate burden of poverty and racist discrimination in all areas of life.
SLAVERY: THE STRUGGLE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Because slavery was so important to the economic development of this country, the protection of the institution of slavery for the slaveowners and the regulation of the slaves assumed the highest priority of governmental bodies - federal, state, and local. Thus, beginning with Virginia in 1661, many colonial state governments passed laws which defined Black people as sub-humans. They put them into the same category as "working beasts, animals of any kind, stock, furniture, plate, books, and so forth," as Maryland's law stated. These laws recognizing the slavery of Blacks passed in southern states, like South Carolina (1682) and Georgia (1749), and in northern states - Massachusetts (1641), Connecticut (1650), Rhode Island (1652), and New York (1665).
The absolute necessity of controlling slaves through laws of repression is best illustrated by the slave codes passed by northern and southern states. These codes regulated many aspects of slave life - travel, marriage, religion, etc. The most important function, however, was to maintain the slave production system of forced labor.
The interest of state traders and slaveowners was reflected in all of the laws of the period. When the Declaration of Independence was drafted in 1776, New England slave-trading merchants joined with southern slaveowners to delete a passage condemning slave trading, despite the opening assertion that "all men are created equal." Similarly, when the U.S. Constitution was drawn up in 1788,it was clear that there was a greater concern for property rights than human rights.
Three different provisions in the Constitution upheld the institution of slavery, thereby reflecting the interest of slave traders and slaveowners: 1) the importation of slaves was legalized for at least twenty more years, after which Congress could, if it wished, pass a law prohibiting it; 2) fugitive slaves had to be turned over to slaveowners who claimed them; 3) Blacks in slavery were to be regarded as three-fifths of a person. This "three-fifths compromise" grew out of a dispute between outherners and northerners over representation and taxation. The South wanted to count slaves for purposes of increasing representation in Congress, but it did not want to count them for purposes of determining direct taxes. Northerners saw this as an obvious attempt to increase the power of the South while escaping its fair share of taxes. The three-fifths compromise which resulted served the political and economic interests of whites from both region. All of these provisions strengthened the rights of the slaveowners and laid the legal basis for the dehumanization of the masses of Black people. (After the 1793 invention of the cotton gin spurred cotton production and increased the need for slave labor, a significant, though unsuccessful, movement developed to amend the Constitution and permit slave trading after 1808.)
Congress, the President, the Supreme Court, and governmental bodies at the state and local levels all served the interest of slaveowners. The Supreme Court, which was dominated by southerners, was particularly useful to slaveowners in the pre-Civil War period when their power was being challenged. In 1859, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott decision that Black people "had no rights that the white man was bound to respect." This decision ruled that slaves who managed to get to one of the non-slave states were not free, but should be returned to the slave master. It also deprived free Blacks (both in non-slave and slave states) of citizenship rights under the U.S. Constitution. This decision led to attempts to enslave free Blacks and resulted in increased resistance to slavery.
Frederick Douglass, who had been invited to give a Fourth of July speech in 1852, outlined what a sham U.S. democracy really was:
In 1776, British colonialism was the main problem facing the American
colonies and this united northern industrial capitalists and merchants
with the slaveowners of the South into the common cause of the American
Revolution. By the 1850s, however, this had changed. The invention of the
cotton gin in 1793 had revitalized the Cotton Kingdom; cotton production
increased from 3,000 bales in 1770 to 1.35 million bales in 1840 (a bale =
1,000 pounds). Also between 1790 and 1830, northern industry, especially
cotton textiles, made rapid advances because of new inventions and
production techniques. The South, however, continued to prefer England as
the market for its cotton and as the source of manufactured
goods. This restricted the growth of northern factories and of the
northern industrial capitalists.
Thus, two wings of the ruling class representing two different kinds of property and social systems - slave and industrial - came more and more into open conflict. This economic conflict was the basis of the slavery-related political struggles during the pre-Civil War period. The conflict involved such important issues as whether the tariffs (fees) charged on imports and exports would be high (so northern textile capitalists could keep the South's cotton in the United States and keep British manufactured goods out). Another question was whether new states admitted into the union' would be slave states (which would increase the political power of the South) or free states. This latter issue was at the root of several important political compromises which sought a peaceful solution to this growing conflict. But such compromises (e.g., Missouri Compromise in 1820) were insufficient. Only the Civil War could resolve whether the northern industrial capitalists or the slaveowners of the South would dominate the federal government and use it as an instrument to further their very different and opposed economic interests. The northern industrial capitalists won.
THE RURAL PERIOD: THE STRUGGLE FOR CIVIL RIGHTS
Emancipating the slaves was an historical and political necessity, the only way in which the northern capitalists could defeat their slaveowning enemies in the Civil War. But solving one problem often leads to other problems. While emancipation gave the North important Black allies in beating the South, it also upset the labor system in the South and unleashed a powerful movement to establish full democratic rights. Genuine democracy (not bourgeois or capitalist democracy where everyone can vote but the rich continue to rule) would have restricted some of the activities of the wealthy northern capitalists. Thus, reestablishing a system of labor in the South became one immediate aim of government during the Reconstruction period. Reconstructing a political system under the firm control of the northern capitalists became the other.
The "Black Codes" clearly illustrate how state and local governments reestablished the labor system. The purpose of these "Black Codes" was to institute new conditions of exploitation as similar to slavery as possible. Mississippi was so bold as to almost completely re-enact its old "Slave Code." W. E. B. DuBois summarized the workings of the Black Codes in Black Reconstruction in America:
While the federally
sponsored Freedmen's Bureau conducted essential relief work among free
slaves, its most important function, spelled out in Congressional
legislation, was to organize and regulate a system of labor contracts,
within the context of the
While this exploitative labor system was being established in the South, northerners were busy trying to consolidate their political victory. The importance of the ex-slaves to the North's strategy was reflected in the three Reconstruction Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These amendments abolished -slavery (the 13th), put the federal government behind the rights of the freed slaves (the 14th), and guaranteed Black males the right to vote (the 15th). A close reading of these amendments - for example, section 3 and, 4 of the 14th amendment - reveals that the amendments were also aimed at consolidating the defeat of the slaveowners by disfranchising and barring from office the leaders of the Confederacy or anyone who had voluntarily aided the Confederacy and by refusing to pay any of the debts the South had incurred during the war.
During this Reconstruction period, Black people fought for and won many democratic rights. Blacks voted and were elected to federal, state, and local political offices. Laws creating the first tax-supported public education system and other progressive measures were passed in legislation where Black people were in a majority (South Carolina) or played a leading role.
The next stage of the relationship of Black people to the U.S. government during the rural period was based on the changing interests of northern capitalists. The North had used their alliance with the ex-slaves to consolidate their victory over the southern slaveowners. The main problem now facing them was the disruption of the smooth and peaceful operation of capitalist exploitation by the newly enfranchised Blacks and a growing radical movement among workers, farmers, and small manufacturers. Thus, northern capitalists ended their alliance with Black people in the Hayes-Tilden Sellout of 1877. Federal troops were withdrawn from the South and political power was given back to the ex-slaveowners. This time northern capitalists were overseeing the entire process. As William Z. Foster pointed out:
In the late 1800s, the federal government gave over a billion acres of publicly-owned land to the railroads and to mining and land corporations but only a few acres to homesteaders. Millions of dollars of public funds were distributed to wealthy bondholders. Black and white farmers fought against this increasing domination of big business which resulted in low prices for farm products and high prices for transportation and manufactured goods. This farmers' revolt led to the Populist Movement, which elected local, state, and federal officials and almost won the U.S. presidency in 1896. These officials supported such radical policies, as public ownership of monopolized railroads, telegraphs, and telephones, an income tax system, and reforms to benefit workers.
The high level of militant unity which developed among Black and white farmers during the rural period was a significant threat to the ruling class. Thus, all branches of government participated in the repression of Black people and in maintaining them as a super-exploited sector among the workers on the farms and in the factories of the South. The Civil Rights Acts of 1870-71 were repealed in 1894. Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled in PIessy v. Ferguson that segregation was legal under the rubric of separate but equal. It thereby legitimized the discrimination against Black people enacted by state governments in the South (e.g., the poll tax, grandfather clause, and the all-white primary - see Chapter 5).
Ralph Bunche, in his analysis of the political status of Blacks, described the effects of these moves to disfranchise Blacks:
Some, of course, continued to struggle. The main fight of Black people during the rural period was to restore their fundamental civil rights, a struggle that continues today (as we will discuss further in Chapter 14).
THE URBAN PERIOD: THE STRUGGLE FOR EQUAL RIGHTS
The migration, urbanization, and proletarianization (factory work) of Black people beginning during World War I led to a dramatic transformation of all aspects of Black life. Black people became highly concentrated in urban areas and involved in most sectors of the industrial economy. Thus, a new basis for the political development of Black people was laid. Because U.S. imperialism needed Black workers in the northern industrial economy, the federal government was compelled to end the more blatant forms of oppression. However, it left the content of oppression intact. Black people were given some civil rights on paper, but they had to continue the fight for full equality in practice in the political and economic system. This became the main focus of struggle during the urban period.
Because of the mass
protest movements and revolutionary struggles during the Great Depression
(see Chapter 16), the federal government was forced to institute a system
of social insurance (unemployment insurance, welfare, social security,
etc.) and to recognize the right of workers to organize trade unions. Both
of these benefited Black people who were mostly workers. Black people
initiated plans for a massive March on Washington Movement to protest
discrimination just as the United States geared up for World War II. A.
Philip Randolph outlined the goals of the March on Washington Movement:
For Randolph and others, the method of achieving these goals involved struggle on the part of the masses: "Therefore, if Negroes secure their goals, immediate and remote, they must win them and to win them they must fight, sacrifice, suffer, go to jail and, if need be, die for them. These rights will not be given. They must be taken."
Because these protests weakened the attempt of U.S. imperialism to fight a war and grab a bigger share of the world, the federal government reacted with a series of executive orders to reduce racist discrimination: the Fair Employment Practices Committee (1941), the President's Committee on Civil Rights (1946), and the integration of the armed forces (1948). The mass protest activities continued, and limited measures restricting discrimination in housing and ending the all-white primaries also resulted.
Other avenues were also pursued. In 1951, the United Nations was petitioned on behalf of Black people in the United States:
these efforts set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement and the massive
political protests that forced a flurry of governmental action,
starting with the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court which
declared that discrimination against Black people was unconstitutional.
The 1960s was a high tide of struggle in the Black liberation movement. Two distinct trends developed among Black people in the political arena: one was reformist, the other revolutionary. The Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and the voter registration projects funded by monopoly capitalists increased the number of Black voters. This led to a greater emphasis on a reformist program for Black liberation. Electing Black politicians was seen as the most important way to achieve freedom for Black people. The number of these politicians increased on the local, state, and federal levels and such organizations as the Congressional Black Caucus and National Black Political Assembly were formed.
The Congressional Black Caucus is a coalition of Black Congresspersons who basically accepted the U.S. political and economic system. Louis Stokes, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, clearly articulated its reformist position:
Their purpose was to "move not against the current, but in fact with it, in seeking to make democracy what it ought to be for all Americans." Congressperson Ron Dellums (D, California) is the only registered socialist in Congress.
The National Black Political Assembly was rooted in a very different set of assumptions. Convening in Gary, Indiana in 1972, delegates from grassroots organizations declared: "A Black political convention, indeed all truly black politics, must begin from this truth: The American system does not work for the masses of our people, and it cannot be made to work without radical fundamental change." For those attending the National Black Political Convention, the United States was "a society built on the twin foundations. of white racism and white capitalism." They maintained that "the only real choice for us is whether or not we will live by the truth we know, whether we will move to organize independently, move to struggle for fundamental transformation, for the creation of a new direction, towards a concern for the life and the meaning of Man." The National Black Political Assembly which emerged from this convention, however, eventually betrayed its origins and these truths. It made the crucial error of allying itself with Black officials, who had exhausted their capacity to lead. The National Black Political Assembly ultimately merely served as a bridge to lead people back into electoral and reformist politics.
Despite increasing numbers of
Black politicians, there has been no real long-term improvement in
conditions facing Black people. E. Franklin Frazier explained why in his
study of the Black bourgeoisie:
At best, reformist politicians and electoral politics seek to achieve Black liberation without fundamental changes in U.S. capitalism and capitalist democracy, a system in which the few rich continue to rule. Electoral politics prevents the masses of people from seeing that those capitalists who dominate the U.S. economy also dominate the political process, regardless of which political party is in office.
For reformists, the ballot and the courts offer the solution to the problems of Black people. Dr. Ralph Bunche of Howard University warned in 1935:
He went on to amplify his point:
He also explained exactly why the courts failed to provide justice:
It was on this basis that the revolutionary sector of the Black liberation movement emerged and struggled for basic and fundamental changes in U.S. society and attracted widespread support in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Black Panther Party was perhaps the most visible in the struggle during those years. By 1970, the Panthers were calling for a new constitution:
The Black Panthers did not just propose the formation of a new constitution. Throughout this period, they engaged in an all-encompassing revolutionary struggle. The government's reaction was to set about to systematically destroy the Panthers, killing some, imprisoning others. The 1970s witnessed increasing governmental repression.
More recently the Bakke case and other cases involving attacks on affirmative action reveal that the government is again orchestrating the efforts of the ruling class to reverse the gains of the Black liberation struggle. Learning the lessons of the last years of struggle (especially since 1954), more and more Black people now see the dead-end nature of reformist politics. More and more Black people also see the futility of relying on the existing government to solve the many problems facing Black people, problems which that same government has helped to create. It is our view that only a fundamental and basic revolutionary change in the existing political system will guarantee the democratic rights and freedom that Black people and the masses of people in the United States have fought for since the American Revolution.
1. What protection did slaves get from the U.S. Constitution? How and why was slavery supported?
2. What were the three Reconstruction Amendments? What obstacles to voting did Blacks face during the rural period?3. Compare the political meaning of the March on Washington movement (1941), the genocide petition to the United Nations (1951), and the Constitutional Convention called by the Black Panther Party (1970).
4. What are the strengths and weaknesses of an electoral approach to Black liberation? Why has an increased number of Black elected officials not ended the exploitation and oppression that the masses of Black people have faced?
I. Rod Bush edl, The New Black Vote: Politics and Power in Four American Cities . San Francisco: Synthesis Publications, 1984.
2. Walton Hanes, Jr., Black Politics. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincot, 1972.
3. Albert Karnig and Susan Welch, Black Representation and Urban Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
4. Ira Katznelson, Black Men, White Cities. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Michael Preston, Lenneal
Henderson, and Paul Puryear, eds., The New Black Politics. New
York: Longman, 1982.
SNCC , early 1960s