Racism and resistance in the US after Ferguson

Issue: 146

Megan Trudell

In August 2014 unarmed 18 year old black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson in the St Louis suburb of Ferguson. Brown was shot six times including twice to the head, despite having his hands up in surrender, and left dead in the street for four and a half hours. The killing and the state of emergency and curfew that Democrat governor Jay Nixon then imposed sparked two weeks of uprising in the town. Again in November, when the grand jury verdict not to indict Wilson was announced, a state of emergency was imposed and the National Guard was called in to Ferguson. On both occasions protesters faced police who were using tear gas, rubber bullets, armoured vehicles and helicopters—and fought back. Over 300 people were arrested in all, including journalists trying to report on events as well as many of the movement’s activists. In the months since, Ferguson has become a byword for police violence and racism, and a symbol of revolt against institutional racism in the United States.

Since the killings of Brown, John Crawford in Ohio and Eric Garner in New York in summer 2014, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which started as a hashtag after the shooting of 17 year old Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2013 and the acquittal for his murder of George Zimmerman, a gated community neighbourhood watch coordinator, has mushroomed into a national phenomenon. In December last year 100,000 marched in New York after the grand jury decision not to indict the police officer who killed Garner. The slogans “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe” (the last words of Brown and Garner respectively) are now instantly recognisable symbols of the growing resistance to police violence in the US.

Events in Ferguson have exposed the iceberg of systematic police murder and assault against black people. In just three weeks in March 2015, police shot and killed a homeless man in Los Angeles; 18 year old Brandon Jones in Cleveland, Ohio; 27 year old Anthony Hill, a US Air Force veteran, in Atlanta, Georgia; Naeschylus Vinzant, 37, in Aurora, Colorado; and 19 year old student Anthony Robinson in Madison, Wisconsin. There have been daily demonstrations in Madison since Robinson’s death on 6 March. University of Virginia student Martese Johnson was badly beaten by Alcoholic Beverage Control officers outside a pub—an assault that has also sparked ongoing protests.

In this anniversary year of the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and the introduction of the Voting Rights Act, the civil rights movement’s acceptability as history is one thing, but—as the furore that greeted the cast of Ava DuVernay’s film Selma for wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts to the New York premiere in December ­indicates—contemporary resonances are quite another. The reality is that despite the real gains of the movement in the 1960s, Martin Luther King’s powerful indictment in 1963 that “the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land” remains true.

The protests are different from many riots against incidences of police brutality over the last few decades—what King called “the language of the unheard”. The rebellion in Los Angeles in 1992 after the murder of Rodney King was itself significant in its involvement of black, white and Latino people and exposure of police racism, but it remained localised. Some 20 years later the gradual changes in US capitalism over three decades have reached a tipping point at a national level that has the potential to coalesce into a movement for significant change—a transformation of quantity into quality.

The Ferguson events were rooted in the specific political, social and economic landscape of Missouri. But the uprising resonated with people in cities and towns across the US because of widespread experience of a combined assault on black Americans made up of unaccountable, ­government-backed police violence and killings; the increased militarisation of the police and extension of the war zone from Afghanistan and Iraq to Washington and Missouri; continued and intensified segregation and marginalisation; criminalisation and mass incarceration. The shattering of deeply held political hopes in Barack Obama to bring change, and the absorption of the political ideas and language of the anti-capitalist and Occupy movements have elevated the question of class to a central place in the demands and attitudes of the movement.

The police murders in Ferguson and New York and the protests that followed have exposed the “colour blind nation” rhetoric of the right for the facade that it is, have put systematic and regular state violence under the national and international spotlight and have—most crucially—provided the catalyst for the emergence of a new movement and new organisations demanding an end to the structures of racism in the US.

State violence

For a country in which a lot of black people are killed by police, it is very difficult to get precise data on numbers or patterns. The statistics that are available paint a grim enough picture, but are considerably lower than actual incidents. According to the most recent accounts of justifiable homicide—and police killings are almost always deemed justifiable—reported to the FBI, a white police officer killed a black person nearly twice a week in the US between 2003 and 2012.1

A recent Wall Street Journal investigation found that more than 550 police killings over a seven-year period were missing from the FBI records. The Ferguson police department, for example, reported one police killing in the 36 years between 1976 and 2012. The journalists write: “When 24 year old Albert Jermaine Payton wielded a knife in front of the police in this city’s southeast corner, officers opened fire and killed him. Yet according to national statistics intended to track police killings, Mr Payton’s death in August 2012 never happened”.2

Even with the under-reporting, racism is a major factor in arrests and police killings. According to the US Census Bureau, 28 percent of arrests in the US as a whole in 2010 were of black people and 32 percent of people killed during arrest between 2003 and 2009 were black—though black people make up only 13 percent of the overall US population.3 This figure conceals geographical disparities, however. In suburbs and cities with majority black residential areas the percentages are much higher.

In Ferguson the black population makes up 67 percent of the town, and black people are four times more likely to be arrested than their white neighbours.4 A white paper prepared by a free legal service just weeks before Michael Brown was killed accused the police and courts in several St Louis towns, including Ferguson, of stopping a disproportionate number of black drivers, fining them and then imprisoning them when they couldn’t pay.

In the state of Missouri black Americans account for 86 percent of all traffic stops, are twice as likely to be searched and have an arrest rate double that of white drivers stopped, despite the fact that drugs or other contraband are more likely to be found on whites, according to the Missouri attorney general.5 Moreover “despite these defendants’ apparent poverty, courts frequently levy exorbitant fines, sometimes more than three times a person’s monthly income, without considering the person’s ability to pay and how it may affect his or her life”. Prioritising payment of fines can mean people losing their homes or their cars—and therefore their jobs. Non-payment of fines or continuing to drive without a licence are punished with imprisonment. Little wonder that the report’s authors claim “defendants are incarcerated for their poverty”.6

Much has been made in the media since the protests about Ferguson’s “exceptionalism” both in terms of black population and police racism—a position reinforced in a US Department of Justice report in March 2015 which “found” racism and the drive for profit in Ferguson’s police department and court system, triggering the resignation of Ferguson’s chief of police—but, as one report puts it: “When it comes to racially lopsided arrests, the most remarkable thing about Ferguson might be just how ordinary it is”.7 The USA Today report found that at least 1,581 other police departments across the country “arrest black people at rates even more skewed than in Ferguson” including “in cities as large and diverse as Chicago and San Francisco and in the suburbs that encircle St Louis, New York and Detroit… At least 70 departments scattered from Connecticut to California arrested black people at a rate ten times higher than people who are not black”.8 It is not only poor black Americans who are victims of police racism: a 57 year old Indian man visiting his new grandchild was left paralysed by police in Alabama as recently as February 2015. But those living in majority black, poor areas are most likely to be stopped by traffic police or be on the receiving end of increasingly militarised drugs raids.

When the St Louis rapper and activist Tef Poe, one of the founders of the Hands Up United project, told the BBC’s Sarah Montague: “the police are at war with us”, it was no exaggeration. He was speaking in the aftermath of the protests in Ferguson during which demonstrators were attacked with rubber bullets, tear gas and wooden baton rounds, but in doing so was highlighting a much wider situation. The war on drugs initiated in the early 1980s under Ronald Reagan set in train the increasing militarisation of the police, a process dangerously intensified in the years since 9/11. As one writer has put it: “The ‘war on terror’ has come home—and it’s wreaking havoc on innocent American lives”.9

Surplus military equipment from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is being transferred to local police forces. Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams are routinely using battering rams, flashbang grenades, which can cause temporary blindness and deafness, assault rifles and armoured personnel carriers to break into homes and terrify and suppress communities—disproportionately black communities. Paramilitary policing is used not as an emergency measure, but routinely as part of drugs raids or to search properties. Federal programmes through the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice provide grants for equipment supposedly in the interests of fighting “domestic terrorism”. SWAT teams undergo military training to inculcate a soldier’s mentality and act as an occupying force, especially in black neighbourhoods.

According to a 2014 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “42 percent of people impacted by a SWAT deployment to execute a search warrant were black.” The report found that military equipment has been passed to 63 law enforcement agencies in eight states and included “bomb suits, night-vision goggles, drones, shock-cuffs, rifles, cell phone sniffers, facial recognition technology, forced-entry tools, biometric devices, utility trucks, APCs, helicopters, GPS devices, and personal protective armour”.10

In Keene, New Hampshire, the police force received over $200,000 to purchase an armoured vehicle. The justification? In the words of one council member: “Our application talked about the danger of domestic terrorism, but that’s just something you put in the grant application to get the money. What red-blooded American cop isn’t going to be excited about getting a toy like this? That’s what it comes down to”.11

The vast majority of SWAT teams are deployed to individual homes, not terrorist threats, and their violent tactics have resulted in serious injury and death. In 2013 in Atlanta a 19 month old baby was seriously injured when a flashbang grenade from a botched raid was thrown into his crib; in 2011 in Tucson, Arizona, a 26 year old ex-marine was shot 60 times by a SWAT team who wrongly believed he was selling drugs; in 2008 in Lima, Ohio, a 26 year old woman was killed and her 14 month old son was injured when a team looking for her boyfriend broke through her door and started shooting. In 2010 a seven year old girl was shot and killed in Detroit. None of these people were white.

The revolt in Ferguson had widespread fury at police racist killings at its heart. The images from the protests of the military hardware in use by the police were shocking and exposed the intensification of police militarisation to the world. But what the events in Missouri also lay bare is a web of discrimination and punishment that is not specific to St Louis but that impacts daily on the lives of black men and women in cities and towns across the country. Segregated housing and schools institutionalise poverty and disadvantage, those who are black and poor are more likely to be arrested, are less likely to be able to pay fines and therefore more likely to be imprisoned. The poor, especially if they are black, are criminalised and exiled in their own land.

Poverty and segregation

Over 11 million black Americans live in poverty, and are nearly three times as likely as their white counterparts to be poor, although the gap has narrowed to some extent since the mid-1970s. Nearly a third of black Americans live below the poverty line and 42.5 percent of single parent households headed by black women are poor.

Poverty is not a new feature in the lives of black Americans, far from it. But it is now biting hard into areas that were industrially stable, unionised working class communities a generation or so ago. Factory closures across the previously industrialised “rust belt” states since the 1980s have pushed whole communities into poverty and destroyed unionised jobs—as with the closures of Chrysler and Ford plants in St Louis, and all of Emerson Electric’s manufacturing plants at Ferguson. Emerson once employed several thousand local people but is now reduced to a workforce of 1,300 at its headquarters. The last plant closed around 2000 with the loss of 1,000 jobs as the company relocated to non-union parts of the US and overseas. Over 47 percent of young black men between 16 and 24 in St Louis are unemployed; many of those working are employed in low-wage, non-unionised service jobs. Community-wide unemployment has hit individual cities’ tax bases, driving down social spending further. The recession has forced many into foreclosure.

This is a pattern repeated across the deindustrialised states: for example, the former industrial powerhouse city of Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013 and has cut off water supplies to 27,000 residents unable to pay their bills, hitting black and other minority citizens hardest. Dayton, Ohio, one of the US’s most segregated cities, was badly hit by the devastation of manufacturing industry, and is where 22 year old John Crawford was shot and killed by a police officer in a Walmart store.

Poverty is reinforced and exacerbated by segregation in housing and education. In the 50 metropolitan areas with the largest black populations nationwide, “there is none where average black exposure to neighbourhood poverty is less than 20 percent higher than that of whites, and only two metros where affluent blacks live in neighbourhoods that are less poor than those of the average white”.12

Segregation in US cities is often attributed to “white flight”—whites leaving areas when blacks move in because of racism. A detailed report for the Economic Policy Institute into the history of public policy in housing and schools in St Louis makes it clear that white racism is only a partial explanation, and one that exonerates the state and political establishment from its central role in structuring racism over decades:

In St Louis these governmental policies included zoning rules that classified white neighbourhoods as residential and black neighbourhoods as commercial or industrial; segregated public housing projects that replaced integrated low-income areas; federal subsidies for suburban development conditioned on African American exclusion; federal and local requirements for, and enforcement of, property deeds and neighbourhood agreements that prohibited resale of white-owned property to, or occupancy by, African Americans; tax favouritism for private institutions that practised segregation; municipal boundary lines designed to separate black neighbourhoods from white ones and to deny necessary services to the former; real estate, insurance, and banking regulators who tolerated and sometimes required racial segregation; and urban renewal plans whose purpose was to shift black populations from central cities like St Louis to inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson.13

The report’s author, Richard Rothstein, argues that although many of these measures are no longer policy, they “continue to determine today’s racial segregation patterns”. And they were compounded by the rolling back of public housing in the 1970s and 1980s—as black Americans who lived in public housing that was being torn down were relocated to suburbs like Ferguson in a spatial resegregation of US cities along more “European” lines, ie with the poor outside the city walls. In 1980 Ferguson was 14 percent black; by 1990, 25 percent; by 2000, 52 percent; and by 2010, 67 percent.

Rothstein points out that government policy provided the material basis for racism:

White flight certainly existed, and racial prejudice was certainly behind it, but not racial prejudice alone. Government policies turned black neighbourhoods into overcrowded slums and white families came to associate African Americans with slum characteristics. White homeowners then fled when African Americans moved nearby, fearing their new neighbours would bring slum conditions with them.14

Moreover, St Louis was not extraordinary in this regard, and Ferguson is by no means an isolated example: “Every policy and practice segregating St Louis over the last century was duplicated in almost every metropolis nationwide.”

This is centrally important. The US is a racist society and racism is a key barrier to the potential unity of black and white workers. What Rothstein illustrates is that racist ideas are underpinned and reinforced by institutional racism. Segregation, impoverishment and criminalisation all contribute to a view of black people as dangerous, violent and unlawful, a view perpetuated by popular media.

In education the picture is similar. Some 60 years after segregation in schools was legally overturned, the fact of segregation remains for many poor black children. According to one educational association:

across the United States, low-income black children’s isolation has increased. It’s a problem not only of poverty but also of race. The share of black students attending schools that are more than 90 percent minority grew from 34 percent in 1989 to 39 percent in 2007. In 1989, black students typically attended schools in which 43 percent of their fellow students were low-income; by 2007, this figure had risen to 59 percent.15

Where there is greater residential segregation, these figures are naturally skewed even further. Rothstein says that “several elementary schools in Ferguson today are 90 percent African American and no elementary school is less than 75 percent African American; educational performance in such racially isolated settings is inadequate”.16

The ugly truth is that the legislative leaps forward of the civil rights movement are not only being attacked head on—as in the Supreme Court ruling in 2012 that struck down federal protection of minority voting rights in Southern states as outdated and unreflective of the “nation’s racial progress”, opening the possibility that segregated, racist states can now change their election and voter registration rules without sanction—they are also being hollowed out of any actual meaning; the language of equality, rights and progress disguising its material opposite.

The fear and sense of precarity that comes with such an appalling condition of life for millions of black Americans is compounded by the very real and present threat of incarceration, particularly for men, and the costs, economic and emotional, for black women of losing partners, fathers, brothers and children into the prison system.


By 2010 black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be locked up in federal, state and local prisons and jails, although imprisonment rates for women are also rising fast—currently over 2 million, with black women outnumbering white women at nearly three to one. Michelle Alexander puts the figures into their brutal context in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness: “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, DC, our nation’s capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighbourhoods) can expect to serve time in prison. Similar rates of incarceration can be found in black communities across America”.17

Across the US as a whole, one in three black men—compared to one in 17 white men—will be jailed at some point in their lives if current rates of imprisonment continue. A report by prison reform group the Sentencing Project in 2013 argues that “the source of such disparities is deeper and more systemic than explicit racial discrimination. The United States in effect operates two distinct criminal justice systems: one for wealthy people and another for poor people and minorities”.18 So a formal “colour blindness” and a language of constitutional rights that apply to all “obscures the systemic concerns that ought to be raised by the fact that the prison population is overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately black”.19

At every stage of the “justice” process black men are more likely to be arrested, convicted and imprisoned than whites. Black and Latino men receive higher sentences than whites for the same crimes, especially if they are young and poor. One study cited in the Sentencing Project report showed that black Americans received sentences 5.5 months longer than whites and “blacks with incomes of less than $5,000 were sentenced most harshly of all, receiving sentences that were on average 6.2 months longer than other defendants”.20

Black Americans are more likely to receive a death sentence than whites. At the beginning of 2013 over 3,100 prisoners were on death row; 42 percent of these were black.21 Both capital punishment sentencing and execution are heavily affected by the race of the victim as well as that of the perpetrator—to a staggering degree: “Since 1976, the United States has executed thirteen times more black defendants with white victims than white defendants with black victims”.22

The initiation of the war on drugs under Reagan has been a major factor in the increased imprisonment of black Americans: “Since its official beginning in 1982, the number of Americans incarcerated for drug offences has skyrocketed from 41,000 in 1980 to nearly a half-million in 2007”.23 Despite the fact that black Americans made up around 13 percent of drug users in the period 1997-2005, they were 36 percent of those arrested for drug offences and 46 percent of those convicted.

Criminalising and incarcerating people for being black and poor is a central feature of institutional racism in US society. Under cover of “colour blind” constitutional rights, the police and court system removes those rights in practice. As Alexander writes:

Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labelled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.24

The effect on individual lives of this savage combination of oppression, violence and poverty is devastating:

Adult blacks are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites. Adult blacks living below poverty are two to three times more likely to report serious psychological distress than those living above poverty. Adult blacks are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness and worthlessness than are adult whites. And while blacks are less likely than whites to die from suicide as teenagers, black teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than are white teenagers (8.2 percent vs 6.3 percent) African Americans of all ages are more likely to be victims of serious violent crime than are non-Hispanic whites, making them more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.25

And it must be remembered that these are only reported figures. Many, many more black men and women struggling with the impact of poverty, racism and violence are likely to suffer degrees of mental distress and hopelessness. That this maelstrom explodes into rage is no surprise. What makes the current moment different is the politics of the last decade in the US.

Black Lives Matter

The key added ingredient to the current events is disillusionment with Obama, who has not remotely delivered for black Americans, and along with him those black middle class politicians for whom civil rights provided access to federal, state and juridical positions and wealth. It is worth remembering just how significant Obama’s election was in the US, and the upswell of enthusiasm and hope that went along with it. The Obama election campaign in 2008 inspired sections of the US population to become politically engaged and to make their collective voices heard often for the first time. A record number of black Americans voted, 95 percent of them for Obama. There was a palpable sense that change was possible among those at the bottom of US society.

But as a recent survey states:

While demographic change happens slowly, attitudes can change quickly… since 2009, there has been a fading of the heightened sense of progress that blacks felt immediately after Obama’s election in 2008. Today, only about one-in-four African Americans (26 percent) say the situation of black people in this country is better now than it was five years ago, down sharply from the 39 percent who said the same in 2009… Among whites, the share that sees improvement in situation of blacks also fell, from 49 percent to 35 percent, in the last four years.26

After Ferguson the reality of what that disappointment in Obama means for young, black Americans was powerfully conveyed in a scathing open letter to the president from Tef Poe:

When an assault rifle is aimed at your face over nothing more than a refusal to move, you don’t feel like the American experience is one that includes you. When the president your generation selected does not condemn these attacks, you suddenly begin to believe that this system is a fraudulent hoax—and the joke is on you…

Police often kill us (every 28 hours in this country, in fact) and go unpunished. Who holds them accountable if even our president has no official commitment to do so? As a community of young, responsible and politically engaged black people, we have collectively decided that we will hold them accountable ourselves. We are committed and will continue to fight in a very fearless and openly broadcasted display of hope and audacity.27

Me and my friends are young. We voted for you because initially you spoke our language. We believed you would be more of an activist than a typical suit-and-tie teleprompter politician.

The protests in Ferguson, New York and across the US have also exposed the right wing fiction around race in the US, the deception of “colour blindness”—that race discrimination belongs to the historical past and that institutional racism no longer exists. The war on drugs and ­accelerating police militarisation were accompanied by attacks on affirmative action programmes and language in the 1980s, when the drive to roll back the gains of the civil rights movement intensified. So-called “colour blind” policies, that start from the premise that all Americans are equal, whether under law or in housing and school provision, have stripped away consideration of racial oppression and its effects.

Rather than black Americans and minorities being treated as groups who need specific assistance—welfare, bilingual teaching, positive discrimination and so forth—the “new racism” denies the existence of discrimination on the basis of race and asserts that policy be directed at the individual, not the oppressed group. The upshot has been the rolling back of affirmative action programmes and assistance for poor black and minority Americans, an insistence on individual merit and effort to overcome social obstacles, and the reversal of liberal civil rights legislation. Black conservatives contributed to this ideology—economist Walter Williams in his 1982 book The State Against Blacks opposed affirmative action programmes as obstacles to black economic advancement, which he regarded as best left to the unfettered free market.

The Reagan and Bush (the first) administrations appointed black conservatives like Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and lower federal courts, opposed race-conscious electoral boundaries, attacked “welfare queens” (supposedly promiscuous black women who lived on benefits) and demonised black men as criminals. For example in the 1988 presidential election campaign Bush used TV ads to lambast his Democrat opponent Michael Dukakis for the provision of weekend leave to convicted criminals in Massachusetts after a black prisoner William Horton didn’t return from leave and raped a woman a year later.

Jean Hardisty, writer and analyst of right-wing and authoritarian trends in the US, puts it like this: “By asserting that ‘colour blind’ policies represent a just distribution of social goods, the right steals a goal of the civil rights movement, pretends it has now been reached, and provides a comforting message for many white voters”.28

This ideology has provided the cover behind which civil rights legislation has been gutted; policies and programmes aimed at addressing institutional racism have been under attack since the Civil Rights Act was passed and have largely, by the time Michael Brown was gunned down, been reversed or made toothless. Certainly, a denial of the reality of systemic discrimination in federal, state and judicial institutions while they grind on assaulting, arresting, imprisoning, killing, impoverishing and segregating black Americans is terrifyingly Orwellian. The fact that many black judges, politicians and policy makers are complicit in the process has helped to break down ideas of black solidarity and exposed the fissures of class in US society to many.

The wreckage of civil rights priorities has also driven a wedge between young activists and older civil rights leaders. Tef Poe, in the interview cited earlier, makes clear his respect for the likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson for the struggles that they waged and the support they have given to the cause of black liberation, but argues that “civil rights was about a movement for heterosexual black men to assume a place of leadership and establish legislation to combat racism and discrimination”. It says much about the distance between old and new leadership that at a Washington Justice For All March in December 2014, organised by Sharpton’s National Action Network and other civil rights organisations, young women activists from Ferguson were refused speaking rights and had to grab the microphone in order to address the crowd, and Sharpton has been vocal in criticising the “violence” of the Ferguson protesters.

Young, black Americans have grown up in the midst of the contradiction of voting enthusiastically and organising for the first black president, in conditions of recession, burdened with student debt and further radicalised by Ferguson. They understandably feel a “deep-seated frustration that the hell that Black communities are catching has happened on Black people’s watch”.29 As Poe says of Obama: “His skin colour is black; his allegiance is to the system”.30

In response to calls for a “national conversation” about race from the just-retired, black attorney general Eric Holder, Poe illustrates the anger and determination of the Ferguson movement and sends a message that the US establishment, black and white, should be profoundly anxious about: “The problem in America is we have been having the conversation since Fred Douglass… It’s time for action.”

The demands formulated by some of the new organisations that have emerged from Ferguson address the question of economic and social rights, not just civil rights, directly. One, Ferguson Action, states:

We Want an End to all Forms of Discrimination and the Full Recognition of our Human Rights; We Want An Immediate End To Police Brutality And the Murder Of Black, Brown and All Oppressed People; We Want Full Employment For Our People; We Want Decent Housing Fit For The Shelter Of Human Beings; We Want an End to the School to Prison Pipeline and Quality Education for All; We Want Freedom from Mass Incarceration and an End to the Prison Industrial Complex.31

Taking aim at institutional racism means confronting capitalism, and for such confrontation to begin to be on the agenda means moving beyond both the legislative framework of civil rights and the limitations of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s—tremendously significant and destabilising to US capitalism as those were.

One of the most exciting aspects of the new movement is the potential for black and white unity, and the leadership role played by black women. The central weakness of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, despite the revolutionary ideas of the Black Panthers and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the Detroit car plants, was that, with the white working class appearing to be bought off by the long boom economic conditions, the politics of separatism were more attractive than unity with white workers.

The situation is different today. Capitalist restructuring and the destruction of jobs and communities across the US have affected white Americans alongside black, and the white working class is no longer in a position of significant economic advantage. Black and white workers have suffered in the recession, have lost homes and jobs, have seen their towns wrecked. Black Americans are worse off, no question, but the growth area in poverty has been among whites. As I have written in this journal previously, “wage and benefit cuts and concessions have hit the entire working class and eroded ‘privilege’, and in the process, the disjuncture between the organised working class and sections of the oppressed and new movements no longer has the material roots that existed in the 1960s. This opens up the possibility for big confrontations to overcome divisions—crucially those of race—among US workers”.32

This doesn’t mean that connections are automatic or easy. Racism is useful for the capitalist class precisely because of its effectiveness in dividing any potential threat to the system, and the US ruling class has backed, encouraged and bankrolled a vicious racism for hundreds of years. Nonetheless, gradual changes in material conditions, ideas and forms of resistance are there. The movement for racial justice in the US cannot but be affected and informed by the sediment of previous struggles. In Seattle in 1999, in the immigrant movement of the “unorganised” in 2006, in the New York transit strike in 2005 and the Chicago teachers’ strike in 2012, the anti-war and the Occupy movements, connections between black and white activists, students and workers have been made. The protests in the aftermath of the Brown and Garner verdicts were striking in their involvement of white demonstrators, and the ideas of unity are not anathema to those fighting oppression—there is, rather, an impulse in any social movement towards it. In particular, the Occupy movement made common currency of the class divide and economic inequality in the US, and the police repression against demonstrators showed that such treatment is not reserved for black Americans, but is meted out to any who seem to threaten the status quo.

Many writers and activists are clear about the need to pull race and class together. Michelle Alexander writes, with a swipe at black career politicians who have bought into “colour blindness”: “If we want to put an end to the history of racial caste in America—we must lay down our racial bribes, join hands with people of all colours who are not content to wait for change to trickle down, and say to those who would stand in our way: Accept all of us or none”.33 And Poe is explicit: “Whites who are racist are tools in a greater agenda—the agenda of the top 1 percent of wealth in America”.34

Any prospect for revolutionary change in the US will require a united working class fight against the institutional racism at its core; and that will involve conflict within unions—US unions have a historically poor record on racism—as a force that can connect the dots of organising non-unionised workers and immigrant workers with the struggle against oppression. Making one united battle out of the struggles of the organised working class and those of the oppressed requires a will on the part of both and will not be a straightforward process. Racism can be and is whipped up to blame “violent” black Americans—very much part of the “colour blind” rhetoric of blaming the victim for being bad parents, delinquent teenagers, runaway fathers, “welfare queen” mothers, and other slurs—and that shouldn’t be underestimated; activists can be and are being treated as a national threat by police forces around the country.

Left isolated, it would be easy to see that the ideas of black nationalism, though a much smaller force than was the case during the 1970s, could grow in influence among a young black population whose hopes of avoiding the “school to prison pipeline” are receding every year. A rejection of the dominant “cultural” depiction of black Americans and an emphasis on pride and community protection are positive in the current climate in the US. Nationalists like Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, despite being routinely castigated in the media as “reverse racists” who are pulling the strings behind protests like those in Ferguson, connect with and articulate the rage and disillusionment that many black Americans feel much more effectively than does the more moderate (and often dismissive) attitude of, for example, Al Sharpton.

However, if black nationalism gains new ground, it will not look the same. Black Lives Matter, for example, states that it:

goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight, cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all. Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centres those that have been marginalised within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.35

This is tremendously significant in linking the struggles of black people who are also facing other forms of oppression and in rejecting the road of individual black advancement, but it can also prefigure new forms of separatism. The language expresses the influential ideas of intersectionality—that individuals can face multiple forms of intersecting oppressions36—and, as such, can lead in a direction based on individual identity and separate struggle from whites. Nowhere are white activists or united class action mentioned. A rejection of individual advancement can risk reflecting it in a theorising of strategy based on individual oppression, and thus feed into and shape new forms of black nationalism.

While socialists must, and do, defend black nationalism against a racist state, it would be a wasted opportunity if such ideas were to dominate the new movement. It is true that white workers in economic conditions of the 1970s were not easily won as allies for militant black activists and ­revolutionaries like those in the Black Panthers and the Revolutionary Union Movements—although the struggles of the latter did organise black and white car workers alongside one another for a time. But it is also true that the ideas of separatism and black-only organisation made what was already a wide gap unbridgeable. The inseparability of the struggles against racism and capitalism, racism being a creature of a class-divided world, makes separate struggles, however heroic and inspiring, ultimately unwinnable.

The ideas of revolutionary socialism, of black and white uniting to overturn a system whose barbaric priorities are only too clear after Ferguson, were not absent from those earlier struggles, but had too few voices, too little weight and not enough purchase 40 and 50 years ago. Socialists today will need to counter ideas of privilege, intersectionality and separatism with those of collective struggle and an insistence that racism benefits only the ruling class and not whites as a whole. Although the number of revolutionary socialists is still small, the connections are much easier to make than was the case in the 1960s and 1970s. There is no boom; the American dream is exposed as a mirage to millions; civil rights and individual advancement for some black Americans has not lifted the majority out of poverty or protected the millions living under the “new Jim Crow”. Police violence, incarceration and segregation are inseparable from questions of poverty and class disparity—pulling on the issue of the increasingly militarised state unravels the question of systematic discrimination and class punishment, the exploitation and oppression central to class rule; there is a powerful material argument that the struggles against racism and capitalism are intrinsically linked, which makes it easier for Marxist ideas of class unity across race to gain a wider hearing and win greater influence.

A powerful, organised, multiracial movement that locates the source of racism in the same place as the priorities of the 1 percent would be a tremendous step forward in a revolutionary challenge to US capitalism. We shall have to see how the new moment of “quality” develops, but what is becoming increasingly clear is that the Ferguson movement has the potential to be just that.


1: Johnson, Hoyer and Heath, 2014.

2: Barry and Jones, 2014.

3: US Census bureau figures—go to www.census.gov/en.html

4: Koplowitz, 2014.

5: Missouri attorney general’s figures: http://ago.mo.gov/VehicleStops/2013/reports/161.pdf

6: Harvey and others, 2014.

7: Heath, 2014.

8: Heath, 2014.

9: Kane, 2014.

10: American Civil Liberties Union, 2014, pp5, 11.

11: American Civil Liberties Union, 2014, p26.

12: Logan, 2011.

13: Rothstein, 2014, p2.

14: Rothstein, 2014, p2.

15: Rothstein, 2013.

16: Rothstein, 2014, p31.

17: Alexander, 2012, p6.

18: United Nations Human Rights Committee, 2013, p1.

19: Cole, 1999, cited in United Nations Human Rights Committee, 2014, p2.

20: United Nations Human Rights Committee, 2013, p13.

21: United Nations Human Rights Committee, 2013, p13.

22: United Nations Human Rights Committee, 2013, p14.

23: United Nations Human Rights Committee, 2013, p14.

24: Alexander, 2012, p2.

25: See Mental Health America, “African American Communities and Mental Health”, www.mentalhealthamerica.net/african-american-mental-health

26: Pew Research Center, 2013.

27: Tef Poe, 2014.

28: Hardisty, 1999.

29: Eddie Glaude Jr, quoted in Jones, 2014.

30: Tef Poe interviewed on Hardtalk, BBC, 19 February 2015. Go to www.handsupunited.org.

32: Trudell, 2006, p77.

33: Alexander, 2012, p258.

34: Tef Poe interviewed on Hardtalk, BBC, 19 February 2015. Go to www.handsupunited.org.

36: See Choonara and Prasad, 2014, for a Marxist analysis of intersectionality and privilege theory.


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American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 2014, “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing” (23 June), http://tinyurl.com/nneqyrk

Barry, Rob, and Coulter Jones, 2014, “Hundreds of Police Killings Are Uncounted in Federal Stats”, Wall Street Journal (3 December), http://tinyurl.com/ox2z4rb

Cole, David, 1999, No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System (New Press).

Choonara, Esme, and Yuri Prasad, 2014, “What’s Wrong with Privilege Theory?”, International Socialism 142 (spring), http://isj.org.uk/whats-wrong-with-privilege-theory/

Hardisty, Jean, 1999, “Affirming Racial Inequality: The Right’s Attack on Affirmative Action”, http://tinyurl.com/q7xr2ox

Harvey, Thomas, John McAnnar, Michael-John Voss, Megan Conn, Sean Janda, and Sophia Keskey, 2014, “ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper” (November), http://www.archcitydefenders.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/ArchCity-Defenders-Municipal-Courts-Whitepaper.pdf

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Kane, Alex, 2014 “11 Shocking Facts About America’s Militarized Police Forces”, Alternet (27 June), http://tinyurl.com/phu2a24

Koplowitz, Howard, 2014, “Ferguson Missouri Crime Stats 2014: Blacks Arrested 4 Times As Much As Whites”, International Business Times (14 August), www.ibtimes.com/ferguson-missouri-crime-stats-2014-blacks-arrested-4-times-much-whites-1658846

Logan, John, 2011, “Separate and Unequal: The Neighborhood Gap for Blacks, Hispanics and Asians in Metropolitan America”, Brown University (July), www.s4.brown.edu/us2010/Data/Report/report0727.pdf

Pew Research Center, 2013, “King’s Dream Remains an Elusive Goal: Many Americans See Racial Disparities” (22 August), www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/08/22/kings-dream-remains-an-elusive-goal-many-americans-see-racial-disparities/

Rothstein, Richard, 2013, “Why Our Schools are Segregated”, Educational Leadership, volume 70, number 8 (May), http://tinyurl.com/kkmlwc3

Rothstein, Richard, 2014, “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles”, Economic Policy Institute (15 October), http://s3.epi.org/files/2014/making-of-ferguson-final.pdf

Tef Poe, 2014, “Dear Mr. President: A Letter From Tef Poe”, Riverfront Times (1 December), http://tinyurl.com/pty9szo

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