Race, class struggle and organised labour in the age of Wisconsin

Published on Pambazuka News, by Ajamu Nangwaya, April 21, 2011.

While the recent protests in Madison, Wisconsin, may have given America’s working class ‘hint at the possibility of resistance’, the historic absence of support for ‘racialised’ sections of the working class exemplifies the stronghold of white supremacy over the US labour movement, writes Ajamu Nangwaya.

Madison, Wisconsin, may have given organised labour – or the labouring classes – a hint at the possibility of resistance in the streets of America. Or should the credit go to the children of Caliban[1] in the streets and squares of Egypt? Can you imagine the role reversal implied by the prospect of the children of Caliban’s teaching those of Prospero, the great civilizer, the art of being human or striving for moral autonomy … collective personhood?

Many commentators have asserted that if there had been no revolt in Egypt, and no forced departure of the pharaoh-like Hosni Mubarak, there would not have been mass protest action in that oh-so-white of a state Wisconsin. It is simply amazing to think that the fair citizenry of Wisconsin would require an external political stimulus to challenge their exploitation; the racialised section of the United States’s working-class has been bearing the brunt of the racist, sexist and capitalist battering of the welfare state structures since the 1980s without much sympathy from their white working-class counterparts.

But predominantly white Wisconsin is up in arms when the chicken comes home to roost in their own backyard! Martin Luther King was quite right when he declared, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.’ We can only hope that white workers come to realise that white supremacist beliefs and practices only weaken the working class – to the advantage of the small capitalist elite.

The political and economic elite in the United States is ruthlessly using the after-effects of the Great Recession as a pretext to further weaken the economic, social and political conditions of the working class. It was the actions of the captains of industry and commerce and their politicians that were responsible for the massive job losses, near collapses of major financial firms, housing foreclosures (which largely affected racialised urban communities) and overall ‘bust’ of the capitalist business cycle … //

… White supremacy has been a reliable tool, used to set white workers against Africans and other racialised workers in the United States, from the days of chattel slavery up to our current period of wage-slavery. Marx’s 1867 assertion remains valid today: ‘In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded’.[10]

The class struggle and a united working-class movement in the United States (and Canada) will remain ‘paralysed’, deformed and underdeveloped if the commitment to the elimination of white supremacy does not become a strategic goal of organised labour and the general working class. Would the outpouring of solidarity with Wisconsin workers be the same if the target was a group of largely racialised public sector workers?

Ford captures the issue at stake – the role of race and white supremacy in limiting the class struggle in the United States:

‘Wisconsin is, in a sense, a near-ideal terrain for a showdown with the Tea Party brand of Republicanism. The actors in the drama are overwhelmingly white, putting the raw class nature of capital’s aggression in stark relief. With relatively few Black scapegoats to complicate the issue, white folks must confront the bare facts of the way late-stage capitalism tramples ordinary people as it careens from crisis to crisis.

‘Or, maybe not. White supremacy is a dynamic ideology that has always been central to the domestic functions of American Exceptionalism, distorting not just race relations but all other social relations, as well. Once the foundational Nigger has been invented and given life in the public mind, with all his purported logic-bending and society-polluting defects, his[/her] characteristics can be imputed to other targeted groups – a ready-made demonization kit. Public employees in general and teachers in particular now find themselves Niggerized as lazy featherbedders, no-count malingerers, fellow travelers with welfare queens and other human malignancies that must be excised so that the free market can work its wonders.’[11]

The task facing us class-struggle and anti-oppression advocates is to be ‘ruthlessly’ frank and firm in our commitment to challenge and eradicate white supremacy within the labour movement, the general working-class and the structures of wider society. It was encouraging to know that the question of race and centring the interest of the racialised working class surfaced within the conversations of the Madison resistance – albeit in a fairly marginal space.[12] The objective reality facing organised labour and the working class in general is the need for a full integration of a principled anti-racist practice into the heart and mind of the resistance against capitalist domination. (full long text).

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