Genocide and the Necessity for Black Leadership
We are in the middle of genocide of black people, people of African descent. This is not the sort of genocide that we have been alert to in the past, where millions of people are decimated over a relatively short period of time in a small geographic and political region. No. This genocide is moving along at a steady, relentless pace, moving faster and faster with many focal points. But make no mistake: there is a “systematic program of action intended to destroy a whole racial or national group” (Webster’s New World Dictionary). Hundreds of millions of people of African descent are being killed before our eyes.
Everywhere on this planet the darker skinned people are the poorest, the least empowered politically and economically, the most reviled, the most feared. In the continents in which the disasters of slavery and colonialism were most intense for Africans, black people have been particularly devastated. Africa is now a continent in tragic ruin.
In the US, while the labor of enslaved Africans created the massive early wealth that allowed it to become the primary world power today, those black people who survived the massacres of the Middle Passage, slavery, and the post-reconstruction Jim Crow era went on to be permanently shoved to the bottom of the American barrel. The people who are descendents of Africans enslaved by the US have a huge prison population, the worst education and health care, systematic disenfranchisement from the vote, the highest unemployment, deep alienation from society, and constant harassment.
Former slaves have been fighting for their freedom against America from the beginning of the American slave trade to the present. Black workers have always been in a qualitatively different position in the struggle than have other workers, white or immigrant. This experience has made many black working people more acutely aware of capitalism’s evils and potentially the most revolutionary and least likely to compromise. Throughout history, black folks have led anti-government, anti-slavery and anti-capitalist struggles, including slave revolts, the Underground Railroad, Reconstruction, sharecropper and other union organizing, and revolts within the army in Vietnam, to name a few. The civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s was not a fight of mostly middle class blacks; it was a fight of primarily poor black folks; and it was a fight for freedom that ignited a movement that was shut down early in its development, killed by US government intervention both overt and covert. Hundreds of violent urban rebellions erupted in the late 1960s, when it became clear to poor black people that the system would elevate a few to middle class status and condemn the vast majority to fascist ghetto conditions and powerlessness.
Beginning during the earliest days of slavery, a deliberate effort was made to create conscious racism against people of African descent, an effort that has been reinforced with new and modern twists in each generation. This has made racism the main cause for weakness in the working class in particular, including both native-born white and immigrant workers: many white workers (and now also Latino workers) have been won to very racist, anti-black attitudes which prevent them from developing a true class conscious and egalitarian outlook, or a fighting spirit. As long as racist attitudes prevail, there is no chance of creating an egalitarian movement and society. Black people, especially poor, “ghetto” black folk, are the most oppressed, reviled, attacked, imprisoned, degraded and feared people in the country.
Because black poor and working people have the clearest vision about the enemy, the most revolutionary potential, and the least to lose, other working and oppressed people need to look to them for leadership in the common struggle, to unite with them, and to consciously and overtly oppose racism. When that happens, and only when it happens, the slave masters will truly be in dire straits and our people will finally have real hope.
The New Slaves and the Old Slaves: New Orleans
This is the context into which immigrants – the new slaves – step when they come across the US border. This is the context in which we must understand the current immigration reform movement, and in which we must place and plan our organizing efforts. To achieve justice, equality and unity, we must recognize that we are one people: that the movement against modern-day slavery of immigrants must come under the umbrella and leadership of the former slaves. There can be no separation.
Although a great deal of lip service is given in the progressive community to “black-brown unity,” it has proven exceedingly difficult to achieve on the ground. Let’s look at what this is, and then why.
Let us be clear: the writers of this working paper want to put these questions to all honest progressive people for discussion. We are not writing an abstract piece. This paper comes out of nearly two years of attempting to build the type of unity we want to see, in the context of the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane and flood in New Orleans. Two things became immediately clear when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. One is that all levels of government abandoned poor and working black people in the face of the hurricane – they left black folks to die, and then removed them from the city, never to return. Our estimate is that this was a deliberate, planned use of the opportunity Katrina provided, and it led us to see that the US has become genocidal. The second thing that became clear was that there was already a plan in place to replace the black labor force in New Orleans with temporary, cheap and (hopefully) pliable “guest worker” immigrants: slave labor. Immigrants from Central and South America were in New Orleans within days, cleaning up the toxic ruins in bare feet, without protective gear, health care, decent housing or any sort of rights.
With these facts evident to us, we began exposing the situation of immigrants immediately, within the process of organizing a movement for the right of return of black New Orleans residents, led by those most impacted: poor black people. We began organizing what was to become the New Orleans Survivor Council (NOSC). At the same time, we conducted a speaking tour to bring the travesty of New Orleans to the rest of the country and raise funds and support for that organizing, and in those speeches, we consistently pointed out the use of immigrant slaves and the need for organizers to work with them.
The organizing among black New Orleans residents got an immediate response from those few people who were able to remain or return early to the vicinity of the city. By January, the first meeting of the NOSC was held, with 300 in attendance. A support and organizing coalition (People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, PHRF) led this work and controlled the money from the fundraising tour. By April of 2006, the NOSC felt itself ready to begin controlling the money raised in the name of poor black people and asked PHRF for oversight of the funds. PHRF responded by firing the staff that was organizing the NOSC. They took the money and ran. This was the first major internal attack on what we were by now calling “bottom-up organizing.” We have briefly described these events because we feel they were echoed later in the work with immigrant organizers.
In response to the speaking tour, some immigrant organizers came forward and moved to New Orleans. Initially, they saw their work as separate from the work with poor black folk. We met intensively with them, however, and eventually developed an understanding that organizing of immigrant day laborers and guest workers would be seen as a part of organizing the oppressed New Orleans community fighting for the right of return. This meant that immigrant workers would be oriented to the situation they’d been brought into: that they were brought essentially as slaves, a cheaper source of labor for the clean-up and for the jobs that black workers held before they were evacuated from the city. Part of that orientation would be an understanding of the historic fight against past slavery and the ongoing fight against the current racism that created the very context in which they now found themselves in New Orleans. Flowing from this orientation was the need for the immigrants to become a part of the community under the leadership of that community itself, i.e. poor and working black people.
Upon entering any new political environment, newcomers take leadership from the most oppressed people already on the ground. Historically, enslaved Africans sought protection and support from, and formed alliances with indigenous Native Americans as they were learning the political landscape in America. In the case of the new immigrant workers in New Orleans, the necessity to create alliances with and take leadership from poor blacks on the ground was apparent to all.
The new immigrant organizers agreed to this broad understanding of the work and how it would be organized. We agreed that black and immigrant workers are fundamentally one people, oppressed by the same masters. We agreed that the historic context required recognition of the need for black leadership. Although the organizing was separate, we projected that the immigrant organizing would come under the umbrella of the New Orleans Survivor Council, the safe space for growing bottom-up leadership to rebuild New Orleans by and for the people themselves. The plan was to bring black and immigrant together consistently to develop a fighting unity and also to form fast personal friendships.