The Limitations of the New Antiracist Movement

In spite of Trump’s evident erratic administrative style and his disastrous mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. president continues to have significant support among whites, especially whites with no college. This suggests that at the present time in the United States there are significant ideological obstacles to the formation of a national popular consensus for progressive social change. Progressives and liberals can attain narrow electoral majorities, with the blue states having a slightly larger representation in the national government than the red states. But a narrow electoral majority is not sufficient for the forging of the national consensus necessary for overcoming the present destructive political and cultural division of the nation.

Although the entire world has been moved by the movement in the United States against racism and police brutality that was provoked by the cold killing of George Floyd, the new anti-racism movement is not likely to provide the ideological conditions for the forging of a national consensus. The problem here is that the anti-racist frame of reference is insufficient as an explanation, and it is divisive.

The analytical limitations of the anti-racist perspective are evident in its taking of racism and slavery out of the larger context of historical and global processes. From the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries, the peoples of the world were conquered and colonized by seven European nations-states; and subjected to various forms of forced labor, one of which was African slavery in the Americas, particularly the Caribbean, Brazil, and the U.S. South. Beyond these slave regions, there was forced labor in other forms, in which “serfs,” peons, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers were obligated by various mechanisms to produce agricultural products for hunger wages, in a system of economic superexploitation accompanied by political oppression, often brutal. This global project of conquest, systemic superexploitation, and political oppression of the peoples and nations of the world functioned to obtain the cheap raw materials that were the foundation for the commercial expansion and economic development of the West.

The descendants of this process of conquest include Afro-descendants in the America as well as Africans, Asians, Native Americans, Latinos, the Irish, and Eastern Europeans. Today, the moral and political agenda of all of these peoples has to be the transformation of the economic and political neocolonial structures that are the legacy of European colonial conquest and domination. The focus should be on our common interest in transforming neocolonial structures, which in addition to being essentially undemocratic, have become unsustainable. The anti-racism perspective, with its limited focus, prevents us from seeing the necessary political road.

The action of toppling statues of slaveholders and slave traders accomplishes little in the way of political education or concrete changes, and it intensifies divisions among the people. Why not issue demands for a city referendum on the monuments, to be preceded by public debates and discussions, and supplemented by Internet dissemination of videos and printed material on the different historic economic functions of the North and South in the world-economy, giving rise to political conflict; among other related themes? Why not put forth a proposal that the offending monuments be placed in the city museum, with regular presentations by persons capable of explaining the creation of the monuments and their removal in their different historical contexts?

Another dimension of the analytic limitations of the anti-racist frame it its tendency to gloss over the concrete changes in the United States since 1965, including the ending of blatant forms of discrimination in regard to voting rights, education, employment, and housing. The socio-economic inequalities between blacks and whites today are to a considerable extent a consequence of the historic pre-1965 discrimination, economic inequalities that were never addressed by the nation, which turned its back on the social and economic rights of all of its citizens, regardless of color. It is simplistic to attribute racial inequalities today to current racial discrimination and white racism, an oversimplification that undercuts white support. A more serious analysis of racial inequality is needed, in order that concrete proposals can be formulated, and politically effective alliances can be formed.

In the days immediately following the killing of George Floyd, there were many prominent voices joining in the denunciation of white racism and of police brutality. Is it the case that the analytically limited and politically divisive anti-racist perspective is being disseminated by the political establishment?

In the current historic moment, the channeling of the progressive movement toward opposition to white racism indeed is in the interests of the U.S. political establishment, which has its back against the wall. Its neoliberal project and wars of aggression, launched in response to the sustained structural crisis of the world-system and the relative U.S. economic decline, have boomeranged. Neoliberalism and wars of aggression have led to the emergence of progressive political figures who want to return to a new version of the pre-1980 social and economic protections for the people, who have attained a level of popular support. At the same time, they have provoked an uncontrollable migration from the Third World to the core zones, which has given rise to the emergence of fascism, which white support for Trump represents. The impact of the pandemic is yet another boomerang effect, as a limited and weakened state has rendered the nation unprepared to contain the disease. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the popular rebellion from both the Left and the Right.

The anti-racism movement is a good tonic for the situation that the elite today confronts. Anti-racism gives the liberal ideology the moral upper hand over fascism, enabling containment of the latter. At the same time, anti-racism channels the progressive rebellion in a direction that does not threaten the interests of the elite, precisely because it leaves aside the issues of neocolonialism, imperialism, and the social and economic rights of all citizens. Moreover, it leaves the people divided and unable to forge consensus. Perhaps the moderate wing of the political establishment is stoking the anti-white racism rhetoric in order to attain political advantage. Trump engages the battle, with a cultural campaign from the Right; while the progressive wing is outmaneuvered.

Regardless of the internal conflicts of the political establishment, the anti-racist discourse is not the necessary road for the people. A more politically intelligent strategy would be to seek to build a popular coalition that seeks political power.

If I could speak to the people of the United States, I would say that our slogan has to be, “Power to the people.” Our goal ought not be “speaking truth to power” or “pressuring power,” but taking political power by ourselves and for ourselves, governing in our own name, seeking to accomplish our emancipation.

In order to take political power, we need to form a nationwide leadership group in which all the sectors of the people are fully and equally represented, composed of people who have a life commitment to the freedom and rights of their particular sector, but who understand that the attainment of these rights can only be accomplished through the emancipation of all the people.

When I say the people, I mean all of the people, except for the 1% who form the elite. Black, brown, white, and Native American; and men and women. Including the white middle and working classes, whites who have never attended college, white students, and white professionals. No sector of our people is to be excluded from the call to social movement and to revolution. There can be no freedom for some without the full participation and freedom of all.

Our leadership group has to write an alternative narrative on the nation, a nation founded on the promise of democracy. At the nation’s founding, of course, the promise of democracy was not fully formulated; and it was only partially implemented. The story of our nation includes the struggles of blacks, women, workers, and immigrants to be included in the promise of democracy; and the call of the original nations for recognition of the treaties that the government of the United States has signed with them. To retell the story of our nation is to tell the powerful story of the social movements formed by our peoples, seeking to be included in the promise of democracy, but at the same time expanding and deepening the meaning of that promise. To retell the story of our nation is to remind ourselves of the insights of the greatest leaders of our peoples.

The retelling of the American story has to include coming to terms with slavery, explaining the political-economy of slavery and its functionality in a determined historic moment, for the nation and for the world-system as a whole; and its dysfunctionality in another. And it involves a retelling of the civil war, which was a consequence of a conflict over control of the state between the elites of two different economic systems.

The retelling of the American story has to include coming to terms with American imperialism. We have to recognize that U.S. foreign policy has been consistently imperialist, and we have to commit to bringing it to an end, not only because it contradicts our democratic values, but also because a world-system based on competing imperialist powers is no longer sustainable. The great ecological and political challenges of our time require cooperation and solidarity, not competition. The peoples, states, and nations of the world must work together to transform a neocolonial world-system, built on a foundation of colonial domination, to a world order based on mutual respect and mutual beneficially trade and on the peaceful resolution of differences.

There were moments in which our people saw the need to bring imperialism to an end. The black power and student anti-war movements of the late 1960s proclaimed it. You can find it in the writings and speeches of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., especially in the last year of their lives. One of our slogans has to be, “Down with imperialism!”

We in the United States have to envision pursuing our national interests in a post-imperialist, post-colonial, and post-neocolonial world. We have to learn to use our great technological capacities in ways that enable us to develop our economy in a form that contributes to the development of a more just and sustainable world.

Our leadership team has to formulate a platform, a specific plan of action and set of proposals, addressing the concrete needs of the people. Universal health care, affordable and high-quality education for all, affordable and ecologically sustainable systems of transportation, affordable and sustainable patterns of energy consumption, and so on. The leaders have to listen to the people, who know and express what their concrete needs are.

Our leadership team has to educate. It has to respect the people. It has to forgive the racist, ethnocentric, sexist and xenophobic ideas that an unjust social order has taught them. We do not accuse, we educate. We do not dismiss, we teach. We do not shout, we explain. We do not shock, we invite. We have to educate. We have to see our revolution as a great national project in people’s education.

So we need leadership. Leadership that possess historical and global consciousness and political intelligence. Leadership that guides the people to political power, taking political power from the hands of a political establishment that has demonstrated its moral and intellectual incapacity to govern, placing political power in the hands of the delegates of the people.

Through a manifesto, a platform, and the education of our people, a committed and politically intelligent leadership can forge strong electoral majorities that make possible national consensus and the passing of appropriate constitutional amendments and corresponding laws that affirm: the social and economic rights of all citizens, including nutrition, health care, education, and housing, regardless of color, ethnicity, gender, gender orientation, gender identity, religion, or capacity; affirming as well the necessary role of the state in the protection of social and economic rights; and affirming respect for the sovereignty of the all nations of the world, great and small.

Charles McKelvey is Professor Emeritus, Presbyterian College, Clinton, South Carolina.  He has published three books: Beyond Ethnocentrism:  A Reconstruction of Marx’s Concept of Science (Greenwood Press, 1991); The African-American Movement:  From Pan-Africanism to the Rainbow Coalition (General Hall, 1994); and The Evolution and Significance of the Cuban Revolution: The Light in the Darkness (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).