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Tom Hansberger is a philosophy lecturer and graduate student at Marquette University and a co-chairman of the Milwaukee chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
On May 25, 2020, four Minneapolis police officers arrested a Black man named George Floyd for allegedly counterfeiting a check. Derek Chauvin, a white officer, then knelt on Floyd’s throat for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, long after Floyd lost consciousness, killing him.
Minneapolis, the United States and the world have erupted in protests. Their outrage is completely appropriate and their demands are just: an end to police brutality and racism, defunding police departments, reinvesting in communities and the dismantling of the American police state.
As a Latino, I implore white people to support protests and amplify demands here in Milwaukee that advance us toward those goals, like the demands of the African American Roundtable.
Some white people may be newcomers to this struggle and it is important to remember that this is just the latest battle in the war against “The New Jim Crow.” The increased number of white people who have participated in the protests is a good sign, but over 400 years of racism will not be defeated in a month. How do we uproot such a powerful force?
To answer this question, Black activists since W.E.B. Du Bois have turned to socialism. Du Bois understood that whiteness represented a kind of “racial bribe;” comparatively better conditions for white workers in exchange for their cooperation with a racial hierarchy. Race forms a tool for wealthy elites to divide the working class, preserving their power and perpetuating racism all at once.
For this reason, Malcolm X declared that “You can’t have capitalism without racism!” and Fred Hampton exhorted us to fight racism with multiracial solidarity and capitalism with socialism. The call to defund the police is a part of this radical history because the new generation of grassroots Black activists has taken inspiration from Angela Davis, a famous Black socialist activist who was the target of racist attacks by Ronald Reagan in the 70s.
The Black socialist tradition helps us identify the most powerful people in our society who have an interest in stoking racism: capitalists. Socialists recognize capitalists as people who generate their income from other people’s work. Racism is valuable for capitalists because it prevents their employees from cooperating with each other to end their exploitation. Encouraging working white people to distrust their Black peers undermines working class solidarity. The stronger racism is, the weaker the labor movement and working class will be.
That’s why wealthy capitalists have always used Trumpian tactics to encourage the spread of racism for profit. Amazon’s April firing of Christian Smalls is an obvious, recent example. Smalls, who is Black, was leading a unionization effort in a Staten Island Amazon warehouse. In notes from a private meeting with Jeff Bezos, Amazon attorney David Zapolsky wrote that Smalls would be a good target for Amazon’s anti-union campaign because “He’s not smart, or articulate.” Zapolsky’s characterization of Smalls obviously reinforces racist stereotypes of Black men, weaponizing them in the service of Bezos’s greed. Bezos may donate to Democrats and make empty statements in support of Black lives, but the way he treats his workers shows that racism is a capitalist phenomenon, not a partisan phenomenon.
By strategically deploying and reinforcing racism, capitalists like Bezos remain free to prey upon Black poverty. Black workers’ poverty is reinforced by the criminal justice system in the United States, which makes it much more difficult for felons to find steady work even as it reincarcerates many convicted felons for their failure to get and keep a job. It is almost common knowledge that 53206, on Milwaukee’s northwest side, is one of the most incarcerated ZIP codes in the entire United States.
When the risks of joblessness are so high, Black and Brown workers are forced to accept unhealthy working conditions and poverty wages. This effectively inhibits organizing and drives down workplace standards, even for white workers.
In this light, we can better understand why it is so difficult to end racism in the United States when the wealthiest, most powerful people in our society do so much to keep racism alive. Any reforms that leave them in control will inevitably be undone, repurposed or ignored as racism reasserts itself. But we can make an important step toward a more egalitarian America by recognizing that white and Black people have common interests, and a common enemy, in the workplace. Since the vast majority of Americans must work for a living — many of them for a small group of employers — our shared interest in the empowerment of the working class provides the broadest, strongest foundation for an “us that includes all of us,” as Michelle Alexander put it.
Workplace organizing has proven results in this struggle: the Black Educators’ Caucus of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association successfully organized workers and the community to demand that Milwaukee Public Schools cancel contracts with the Milwaukee Police Department. Their victory will materially benefit students by redirecting city resources toward education and undermining the infamous school-to-prison pipeline. Labor unions have the potential to unite Black, Brown and white co-workers to ensure that our communities are not only free from police harassment, but also that they have fair wages, health care and good public services.
To follow the lead of Black Educators, white people should organize institutions that empower working people and put racial justice at the heart of their mission: labor unions, people’s assemblies, churches and community organizations must become champions of racial justice to give the Black liberation movement the power to transform our society for the better.
Many white people are using their greater social power on the streets in solidarity with Black people. It is my hope that white people will make a habit of shielding their Black neighbors against police violence, engaging in ongoing mutual aid and using their comparatively greater wealth and power to achieve freedom with ‑ rather than freedom from ‑ their Black neighbors.
These skills will also be necessary for the next step in combating racial inequality: organizing at the roots of racial capitalism to ensure that Black, Brown and white working people are (finally) treated equally.