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How I Became a Socialist

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The corporate elite drew its own conclusions from the riots. They understood that to contain social unrest, it was necessary to cultivate a layer of black businessmen and politicians. The concept of "black capitalism" was promoted, famously by President Richard Nixon [1969-74], whose administration also carried out the biggest federal expansion of "affirmative action."

Racism was still a potent force, and many workers looked to the election of Detroit's first black mayor, Coleman Young in 1973, and the hiring of black police officers as a real gain.

However, I never was drawn to black nationalism and identity politics. I was attracted by a desire to understand the broader world and didn't view it through the prism of race. We were all proud of entertainers and singers like Sarah Vaughn and Jackie Wilson, and felt black contributions were not being recognized. However, I knew that race was not the fundamental issue. The problems I faced were also faced by my white friends and their parents who lived in the same neighborhood and went to the same schools. I saw corruption among the black politicians just like the white ones.

Only later did I realize how the corporate powers would cynically utilize race to control social struggle, by putting prominent blacks in charge of the same exploitation and profit-taking once overseen by whites.

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I saw this with Mayor Youngwho ran the city until 1993. Despite his claims to represent black people, he cut city services, attacked striking workers with the police and served the interests of the auto corporations, no less obediently than the big business politicians who were white.

I would come to realize later that the essential division in American society was class, not race, and that we had to build a political movement that united the entire working class against every effort to divide and weaken workers, whether through race, religion or nationality. This would be a very fundamental reason why I became a socialist.

As a youngster, I loved to go through piles of National Geographics magazines in my grandparents' basement, the two daily newspapers, plus the Michigan Chronicle. I watched the news every night and was fascinated by science and the possibilities evoked by science fiction like Star Trek. In sixth grade I called myself a philosopher, and asked my mother my purpose in life. I came to the conclusion that the purpose of living was to help solve social problems.

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Virtually every resident of our street was an autoworker. The growth of the auto industry, part of the post-war boom, made Detroit into the center of American capitalism, a city where workers could earn a decent wage with decent benefits.

Demolition of Dodge Main

But in 1979, when I turned 11, we heard devastating news. Chrysler Corporation announced a $1 billion loss, threatened to file for bankruptcy and called for government help: we felt immediately that the future of my family and thousands of others were in doubt.

I, and many in my generation, witnessed dozens of Chrysler plants close over the next few years, including those where my family members worked: Dodge Main was shut in 1980 and Detroit Trim in the late 1980s. Tens of thousands of workers in Detroit lost their jobs almost overnight. My grandfather had to commute to Trenton Engine, an hour's drive each way, for an entire year to keep a job at Chrysler. My mother insisted I concentrate on my studies because no one could count on a job in the plants anymore.

Chrysler workers protest plant closings, wage concessions in 1980

This was the beginning of a massive attack on the working class. When I turned 13, the Reagan administration broke the strike of the PATCO air traffic controllers by firing all of the workers and replacing them with strike breakers.

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This was followed by a series of strikes in the 1980s that were systematically isolated by the unions and ended in defeat.

Striking PATCO air traffic controllers in 1981

I had seen for myself that the UAW was not protecting the Chrysler workers, and that the AFL-CIO had done nothing for the air traffic controllers. All around me, unions were being broken, people were losing their jobs. Right up the street from my childhood home, Cunningham Drugs workers were being locked out and their union broken.

The conditions of workers were being driven into the ground.

How could you make sense of these events?

Half a million workers marched on Washington in September 1981

I met the Young Socialists 1984, when I was 16. The YS was the youth movement of the Workers League, the predecessor of the Socialist Equality Party. I was intrigued by their explanation of current events within a historical perspective and a coherent philosophy. I was particularly attracted to their call at that time for a Labor Partya party of the working class and their understanding of the nature of the profit system.

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Nancy Hanover writes for the World Socialist Website which is published by the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI).

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