Volume 5, No. 5, May 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The riots gripping 130 cities (at last count) in the US in the wake of the death of an Afro-American man, George Floyd, at the hands of police are the logical and dialectical outcome of the history of racism in the US, which constitutes one of the pillars on which the US achieved its present day prominence. In fact, the uprising of black and white people throughout the US constitutes the latest struggle to complete the unfinished agenda of the democratic revolution.
The ‘history’ of the Americas that came to us until relatively recent revisionist re-definition, consisted of the ‘discovery’ of America by Christopher Columbus, a Portuguese explorer in the service of the Spanish monarchy that had only in the late 15th century reconquered Spain from the Muslim Empire that had ruled there for some 850 years. It was the quest for a western sea route to the fabled riches of India that led to the unwitting ‘discovery’ of a continent unknown to the Old World till then. Columbus, on arriving in the West Indies, thought he had reached India, hence the name the Caribbean islands acquired. America existed before Europeans landed there, with the ancient Aztec, Mayan and other civilisations flourishing.
The European landing on the shores of America triggered a process that needs summing up. Essentially, the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese treated the Americas as an empty space, and with this contemptuous view of the indigenous peoples and their ancient civilisations, set in motion an incremental wave of settler colonialism that expanded by forceful displacement of the indigenous peoples from their lands and homes. Along the way, massacres, marginalisation, and eventual ghettoisation on so-called ‘reservations’ became the fate of these unfortunate peoples. This is how the ‘West was won’, not the romanticised and fictionalised version provided by Hollywood and other US cultural and historical sources.
In what became the US through an incremental expansion of settler colonialism westward onto so-called ‘virgin’ territory, the early economy was plantation based. To provide cheap labour for working these plantations, Britain and other European powers exploited the African slave trade to populate the new colonies with armies of black human beings treated brutally like chattels. The American War of Independence in the 18th century was the outcome of the settler colonialists chafing under oppressive taxation and depredatory tax collectors for the British crown. But independence for the US was exclusively a white affair, with even the founding fathers counted amongst the ranks of slave owners despite their high flying rhetoric about the Rights of Man, etc.
The American civil war may ostensibly have been fought against slavery (and Abraham Lincoln deserves praise for the principled stand he took) but the real, underlying reason was not just humanitarian but hard headed economics. The North had begun to develop industry, which required formally free wage labour, not slavery. The South therefore began to be seen more and more as an autocratic ancien regime that was becoming an inefficient anachronism.
But despite the North’s victory and the formal abolition of slavery, the culture of oppressive racial discrimination (especially in the recalcitrant South) remained a fact of life. The Jim Crow culture (lynching of black people), segregation of people of colour, their high rate of unemployment, ghettoisation in the cities and white supremacist violence (at the hands of, for example, the Ku Klux Klan) as well as the violence of the so-called ‘modern’ state and its institutions (a militarised police in particular), remained the lot of black people right up to the 1960s civil rights movement led by tall figures such as Dr Martin Luther King (assassinated in 1968). Despite civil rights legislation in the 1960s and the advancement through education and upward social mobility of people of colour, the underlying hangover of past racism never really disappeared. If such advancement can be described as one step forward, two steps back, this is because the new found place in society being acquired by the generations of black (and other non-white people) after the 1960s evoked a backlash, now open, now hidden, from white supremacists and other right wing zealots.
Essentially US President Donald Trump’s constituency is this rabid white right wing, which tragically includes sections of the white working class. The reason for this anomaly is the incessant propaganda of Trump and his predecessors of the same ilk that non-white people had ‘stolen’ white jobs. Actually what had been happening since the 1970s was the incremental development of a worldwide system of global supply chains stretching from low wage countries in the developing world to the developed West. Trump’s ‘quarrel’ with China is on this score, although his ranting and raving has not succeeded in bringing jobs back to the US from China or any other part of the developing world. Such is the logic of profit-maximising capitalism.
The rise of the right (including neo-fascist movements) in the US and the developed world has facilitated the existing racist and fascist, militarised culture of the US police. George Floyd is not the first black life to be snuffed out by this rabid police, nor is he likely to be the last. Had ‘citizen journalism’ typified by the spread of the cellphone camera not been extant, his death would not arguably have aroused the rage it did. Given the long litany of black lives snuffed out in this manner, Floyd’s death proved the tipping point beyond which right-thinking people in the US said “Enough!”, emblazoned “Black Lives Matter” on their banners and came out for justice, racial equality and against police brutality (which ironically was on display in the streets against peaceful protestors and fuelled a violent fight back). Protests in solidarity with the US protestors have broken out in Europe, Canada and other parts of the world. This is a heartening display of internationalist anti-racist solidarity.
As to the outcome of the struggle in the US, Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and threats of deploying the military if the police and National Guards cannot quell the protests have had the following results. Trump’s insensitive, insulting, violence-laden pronouncements may have been music to the ears of his fanatical right wing supporters, but the rest of the country is appalled at what is emanating from the man they helped place in the White House. This may have serious implications for his chances in the November 2020 presidential elections, particularly as the first signs of Republican unease at his extremism is beginning to come to the fore. The deployment of the military idea, for example, has been shot down by US Defence Secretary Mark Esper and some high military officers.
Whatever the political fate of Trump, there is little doubt the uprising has delineated the terrain of the struggle against racism and for the completion of the unfinished democratic revolution in the US.