The Whitewashing of Economic Justice
Why Black Progress Has Been So Narrowly Redefined
Hubert Harrison (pictured to the left, 1883–1927) is a name you may not be familiar with. He was a West Indian-American writer and political activist who worked out of Harlem and is directly credited with giving rise to the New Negro movement and directly inspiring radical intellectuals from A. Philip Randolph to Marcus Garvey. Among many things, he advocated for class consciousness, secular humanism, social progressivism — and he was also a socialist. For a couple years he was deeply involved on an organizational level with the Socialist Party of America (1912–1914)before moving on to other things.
I start this article off with him to show those who may not know that many of the ideas that are attributed to later individuals and groups were actually being advocated for many, many years earlier by radical progressives who have long been forgotten. Ideas that need to be brought back to the forefront due to an attempt by many in the community to dismiss the call for economic justice as a “white issue.”
In 1917, Harrison wrote an article entitled ‘What Socialism Means To Us.’ I advise everyone to read it. In it, he makes comparisons between chattel slavery and wage slavery —
To-day, fellow-sufferers, they tell us that we are free. But are we? If you will think for a moment you will see that we are not free at all. We have simply changed one form of slavery for another. Then it was chattel-slavery, now it is wage-slavery. For that which was the essence of chattel-slavery is the essence of wage slavery. It is only a difference in form. The chattel-slave was compelled to work by physical force; the wage-slave is compelled to work by starvation. The product of the chattel-slave’s labor was taken by his master; the product of the wage-slave’s labor is taken by the employer. — Hubert Harrison, 1917
Harrison talks about how during the Civil War, Southern capitalists (a.k.a. Planters, a.k.a. slave owners) profited off of chattel slavery, but that the Northern capitalists profited off of wage slavery. He says that the Civil War was fought by the South to maintain the chattel slave system, but that it wasn’t fought in the North for some moral belief in black equality. Lincoln himself in a letter to Horace Greeley in 1862 stated that the goal in the war was to save the Union, but was not to either save or destroy slavery!
Under the old system the capitalist owned the man; today he owns the tools with which the man must work. These tools are the factories, the mines, and the machines. The system that owns them owns you and me and all the rest of us, black, white, brown, red, and yellow. We can’t live unless we have access to these tools, and our masters, the capitalists, see to it that we are separated from what we make by using these things, except so much as is necessary to keep us alive that we may be able to make more — for them. This little bit is called wages. — Hubert Harrison, 1917
Later, Harrison explains the economic reasons behind white supremacy. He states that this hatred is fueled by the supremacist need for Blacks to stay in their place. This is true even until this day. That when a white person sees a black person doing better than them, essentially this fuels jealousy and jealousy fuels hatred. Harrison states that when Blacks know their place, they are liked by the larger white society. However, he also points out that in every instance where there is a downtrodden class of workers at the bottom, that class has been despised by the class that lives off their labor. Being that black slaves were the exploited working-class of America for so long, white supremacy had to justify the exploitation of our ancestors! It was also a convenient way to make sure the white working class never aligned with the black working class as a group to demand an equal system which would mean the elite, bourgeoisie class would lose out.
So the aristocratic white bourgeoisie uses white supremacy to pit black workers against white workers. In many ways, this can be seen in the rhetoric of Donald Trump today! Muslims and immigrants are the new racist scapegoats to take people’s attention off of the gross excesses of American plutocracy. People chant, “Make America Great Again” and “drain the swamp” while the swamp is more filled now under Trump than it ever has been! Trump hasn’t drained any swamp, but you can’t tell his supporters that…and if you do, they’ll deflect.
Hubert Harrison’s definition of socialism —
Socialism stands for the emancipation of the wage-slaves. Are you a wage-slave? Do you want to be emancipated? Then join hands with the Socialists. Hear what they have to say. Read some of their literature. Get a Socialist leaflet, a pamphlet, or, better still, a book. You will be convinced of two things: that Socialism is right, and that it is inevitable. It is right because any order of things in which those who work have least while those who work them have most, is wrong. It is inevitable because a system under which the wealth produced by the labor of human hands amounts to more than two hundred and twenty billions a year while many millions live on the verge of starvation, is bound to break down. Therefore, if you wish to join with the other class-conscious, intelligent wage-earners — in putting an end to such a system; if you want to better living conditions for black men as well as for white men; to make this woeful world of ours a little better for your children and your children’s children, study Socialism — and think and work your way out. — Hubert Harrison, 1917
This is why I began this article with the writings of Hubert Harrison. One has to understand what socialism is before we can talk about why discussions of economic justice are being whitewashed. After leaving the Socialist Party of America, Harrison would go on to become the editor for the Negro World, the newspaper of Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) that had 500,000 subscribers at its height. Garvey, in turn, influenced both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr who both spoke favorably of him.
Why have the histories of black radical progressives and black socialists been suppressed in the community? The history of the 1960’s itself has been largely whitewashed and that’s part of the problem — Harry Haywood and Gwendolyn Hall exposed this in 1966. They talk about the conflict of interests, which is class-based, between the oppressed black masses and the black bourgeoisie who wanted to lead them…many of whom were capitalists or aspiring capitalists. It has been this Black upper class that has been fostered and established post-Civil Rights. Not to say that every Black person that has made it was put into that position, some folks have worked hard for what they’ve obtained. However who’s legacy lives on, the black capitalist or the black socialist?
In the past, the struggle was defined by many intellectuals as being between the nationalist sector of black America and the bourgeois sector of black America which included the NAACP, MLK and other associated groups. Some have pointed out that even the nationalist sector came out of early 20th century bourgeois attempts that morphed into something else. What is undeniable however has been the success of integration and with it, the propagation of capitalist thought in the black mainstream.
This, however, is changing. Due to the failures of capitalism and the realization by many that they are in fact enslaved by their need for a wage (as Hubert Harrison pointed out) — people are once again looking at socialism.
Think about this, The Atlantic ran an article almost a month ago with the headline, ‘Americans Are Pretty Skeptical That Hard Work Will Pay Off.’ In the article a poll is cited where it was found that 74% of Americans believe poor people work hard, but that they won’t be able to work their way out of poverty due to a lack of economic opportunity. This blows a giant hole in the myth that the Top 1% are in the position they’re in purely because they worked hard to get there — a common statement made by those trying to justify the excesses of plutocratic capitalism.
We know from studies that 19% of income inequality is predetermined by gender, race and whatever wealth your parents have when you are born. So a lot of people are in the Top 1% due to their being born into wealth, and many are poor or middle class also because they were born into it.
The Atlantic also ran an article July of 2016 which proved that between the 1980's and 2000’s, it became less likely that a worker — a wage earner — could move up the economic ladder. People are working harder for less at a time when CEO pay is soaring while middle-class wages have been stagnant for 40+ years. Lower-class wages have actually decreased since the early 2000’s as seen in the chart below.
The chart below shows how in 1980, the typical CEO made 30 times the typical worker, however today it has skyrocketed to nearly 300 times the typical wage earner!
This chart spells it out even more. It shows that from the end of World War 2 till 1973, hourly wage compensation tightly followed productivity. So as more goods and services were produced per hour, wages went up. In a fair system, you’d expect that. You’d expect to receive more money due to you and your co-workers putting out more things for the company to make money off of. However, since 1973, there has been a clear divergence away from that. Productivity has dramatically increased to higher highs, while wages have only marginally gone up.
Economic inequality is not a “white issue” and to say so is to ignore not only the data but ignore the fact that black workers are already behind when compared to their white counterparts and need all the economic help they can get. I’ve written several times about the issue of economics with regards to the black community (here, here, and here) and I’ve referenced an article written for The Nation which is titled, ‘The Average Black Family Would Need 228 Years to Build the Wealth of a White Family Today.’ I’m here to tell you that at the rate we’re going, the racial wealth gap is getting wider and wider and the time it’ll take to close it (in terms of years) will only get longer…the charts above and others like it prove it.
This gets to the heart of the meaning and purpose for this article. Since Bernie Sanders came onto everyone’s radar due to his 2016 run for President, there has been a carefully coordinated attempt by both black and white bourgeoisie writers and columnists to distance his economic message from the black masses of workers…the ones who should be more inclined to adopt his message than any other group quite frankly. They have falsely labeled his talk about Wall Street and economics as “white issues.” This completely ignores the history of the black radical tradition and dangerously oversimplifies the threats facing the black community which aren’t just racial, but economic as well. Why? Clearly, some folks feel threatened by exposing economic injustice.
The status quo has made some folks in the black bourgeoisie very rich and there are those who, as stated above, strive to be in that club. Some strive for this more than they strive for the empowerment of a majority of black people. It’s these folks who will echo the false capitalistic notion mentioned above that if we just pull ourselves up by our non-existent bootstraps, then we will make a better life for ourselves.
Sadly, black progress has been redefined with very narrow standards for success. Black progress now simply means having black faces in positions of power whether it’s the face of a black President like Barack Obama or a first black CEO of a Fortune 500 company that remains 99% white-owned and controlled. We’ve allowed ourselves to falsely believe that just because one of our group got their foot in the door, then that somehow culturally trickles down to the entire group. While we had all of the “first black this” and “first black that” going on…black wages stagnated or dropped. So no, black faces in high places does nothing for the black masses at large — it does something for that one black person. Does it mean something? Possibly yes it does, but the time for just being happy with symbolic gestures is over.
With productivity being where it is, it is not wrong or immoral to demand more of the wealth that has been accumulated from our collective labor. That is only fair. Black socialists, black progressives, black Marxists, etc. need not feel ashamed that we demand more and if more if not given, then we will simply advocate for a new economic system altogether (and many already are). If the titans of industry refuse to make capitalism more fair for the average worker and provide a living wage at the very least, then you will continue to see the resurgence of socialism as is being witnessed today. This unbalanced system cannot and will not last since it is simply unsustainable.
We are seeing the rejection of neoliberalism around the world as the global system of capitalism continues to fail to live up to its lofty expectations. The only question is when will the dam break? We’ve lived through the 2007–2008 economic crisis already, if it happens again and is worse…what will the new excuse be for maintaining a clearly broken and unjust system.
Black progress won’t come solely from social advancement, but political and especially economic advancement as well. So can we stop whitewashing economic justice please? Thank you ahead of time.