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Any National “Conversation About Race” Must Include Black Radical Tradition

Famed intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, who embraced communism and fathered the Pan-Africanist movement after founding the NAACP. (Photo: Addison N. Scurlock)

Black radicalism has taught that any serious “conversation about race” must address the systemic racism that results in patterns of racial inequality in the judicial system, the national and global economies, policing, the education system, religion, popular culture and a war machine that predominantly kills non-Europeans around the world.

The acquittal of George Zimmerman, the half-white/half-Peruvian neighborhood watchman who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, by a predominantly white jury in Florida in July 2013 sparked calls in the media for a national “conversation about race.” However, what passes for most “conversations about race,” particularly in corporate media, which shape public perception, are narrow or wrong. Right-wing commentators such as Bill O’Reilly blame black people’s problems on “the disintegration of the African-American family” and other cultural pathologies, while liberal pundits typically point to conservatives as the sole racists in the country. Left out are black radical critiques of systemic racism. The marginalization of black radicalism has made honest conversations about race difficult to initiate – and erases a key piece of American history.

Defining Black Radicalism

Racism is a system of power that oppresses people of African descent and other non-European peoples within the United States and around the world. Systemic racism manifests itself in the judicial system, the national and global economies, policing, the education system, religion, popular culture and a war machine that predominantly kills non-European peoples around the world.

What passes for most “conversations about race,” particularly in corporate media, which shape public perception, are narrow or wrong.

The foundation of this system as it exists in the United States was laid down by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in which black African people were stolen from Africa by European colonizers to work as slaves. Slaves worked in mines, rice fields or construction or on plantations. Their labor would be used to produce commodities that were later sold in international markets for profit, which helped create modern global capitalism. Slavery was protected by robust political and legal systems that designated slaves as property to be bought and sold, rather than human beings. The system curtailed the rights of all African-Americans, including those who were not enslaved. Slaves were brutally treated with torture, lynchings, whippings, rape and other forms of cruelty inflicted upon them. This created a system of racial hierarchy that put whites on top and blacks – free and slave – on bottom.

Slavery transferred wealth from black labor to white property owners because African slaves were not paid for their work. For centuries, slavery allowed whites – including those who did not own slaves – to amass wealth for their communities, while blacks were politically and economically oppressed. This laid the foundation for a massive wealth gap between blacks and whites that persists to this day, more than a century and a half after slavery’s demise. A 2013 study by the Urban Institute found that in 2010, white families’ average wealth was $632,000, black families’ $98,000 and Latinos’ $110,000. Redlining (the practice of denying or making it difficult for residents in poor, non-white communities to receive financial services like getting a mortgage or insurance or borrowing money), gentrification, discriminatory lending practices, no access to credit, low incomes and the recent recession have all prevented – and continue to prevent – African-Americans from accumulating wealth in their communities.

Moreover, slavery had dismal repercussions for the African continent. A 2007 Harvard study by Dr. Nathan Nunn analyzed the impact of the trans-Atlantic and the older but smaller trans-Saharan, Indian Ocean and Red Sea slave trades on Africa’s economic development. Nunn found that “the slave trade caused political instability, weakened states, promoted political and social fragmentation and resulted in a deterioration of domestic legal institutions.” Additionally, the “countries from which the most slaves were taken (taking into account differences in country size) are today the poorest in Africa.” Nunn concluded, “if the slave trades had not occurred, then 72% of the average income gap between Africa and the rest of the world would not exist today and 99% of the income gap between Africa and the rest of the underdeveloped world would not exist.”

After slavery ended in the 1860s, racism still persisted through the establishment of Jim Crow laws, a system that legalized racial segregation in the United States. This lasted for about a century. Jim Crow has been replaced by a mass incarceration system that disproportionately imprisons black people for nonviolent drug offenses, even though blacks and whites use drugs at roughly the same rates. Oppressive policing reflects similar entrenched racism: Every 28 hours, a black person is extrajudicially killed by a police officer, security guard or self-appointed vigilantes such as Zimmerman.

Systemic racism manifests itself in multiple facets of society. Patterns of racial inequality exist in the judicial system, the national and global economies, policing, the education system, religion, popular culture and a war machine that predominantly kills non-European peoples around the world.

As a political tradition, black radicalism would look at these phenomena and diagnose them as consequences of a racist power structure that oppresses black people. Its critique of white supremacy is radical in that it does not look at individual bigots, prejudiced beliefs, individual privileges or one political party as the root cause of black people’s suffering. The root cause of black people’s misery, to the black radical, is a racist power system, the purpose and design of which is to keep their people miserable. Reforming, improving or integrating into the racist power system is not enough for a black radical because the system is irredeemably rotten at its core. That is why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., near the end of his life, worried that black people were “integrating into a burning house.”

Black radicalism is more of a collective political tradition than a coherent ideology. It encompasses ideologies such as Pan-Africanism, black nationalism, Black Marxism and black internationalism with varying beliefs and goals among them. What unites the black radical tradition is the challenging of systemic racism, the liberation of African peoples, and the goal of achieving fundamental change. If anything, black radicalism is a tradition of African peoples’ resistance and self-determination.

Roots of Black Radicalism

The roots of black radicalism trace back to African resistance against European enslavement. Professor Cedric Robinson, in his book Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, writes about not just the well-known slave-led Haitian revolution but also slave rebellions in Brazil, the United States and other colonies. Some slaves ran away and formed maroon communities. Harriet Tubman, the famous African-American abolitionist who escaped slavery, helped hundreds of slaves escape to freedom. Even on the plantations, slaves resisted in subtler ways, such as refusing to do work, pretending to be sick, working slow, stealing from their masters or damaging property. Robinson also explains that “for the period between the mid-sixteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, it was an African tradition that grounded collective resistance by Blacks to slavery and colonial imperialism” and “it had been as an emergent African people and not as slaves that Black men and women had opposed enslavement.”1

This tendency emerged as a strategic response to the transnational nature of slavery’s oppression. Black Internationalism … emerged as a strategic response to the transnational nature of slavery’s oppression.

While slavery and colonialism worked to rob slaves of their African culture, they still retained parts of it. Slaves told folktales and fables that reflected various African oral traditions, incorporating symbols and themes rooted in African cultures. Slaves sang and danced with “field hollers” and “call and response” based on African musical forms. Enslaved women made quilts, rugs and baskets with African patterns. In addition, slaves fashioned gourds into musical instruments, such as drums and banjos, similar to those used in parts of Africa. Drumming was also as a secret method of communication for slaves, just as African drumming was used for religious and ceremonial functions, thus becoming a tool of resistance. African rhythms, drumming and oral traditions strongly influenced musical genres like blues, jazz, rock, R&B, samba, reggae and rap/hip-hop. Retaining bits of their African culture provided a strong sense of collective self that formed the basis of black resistance against their oppression.

Within black radicalism is the tradition of black internationalism. This tendency emerged as a strategic response to the transnational nature of slavery’s oppression. African slaves were brought to European colonies in the United States, the Caribbean and throughout much of Central and South America. A slave rebellion in one colony inspired slaves elsewhere to follow suit. The successful slave-led Haitian revolution inspired African slaves in the United States.

Black internationalism views African-Americans and other members of the African diaspora as a transnational people. It is true that there are cultural and experiential differences between African-Americans, Afro-Latinos, Afro-Caribbeans and Black Europeans. Even continental Africans have tribal and ethnic differences, which outside powers have exploited and which have contributed to horrific conflicts. But they do share obvious racial features, such as dark skin and kinky hair, cultural similarities, particularly in music, African ancestral heritage and shared collective oppression under European slavery, colonialism and racism.

Africans peoples’ transnational identity was recognized by the international community when the United Nations proclaimed 2011 as the International Year for People of African Descent. The year’s event page states:

“In proclaiming this International Year, the international community is recognising that people of African descent represent a distinct group whose human rights must be promoted and protected. People of African descent are acknowledged in the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action as a specific victim group who continue to suffer racial discrimination as the historic legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. Even Afro-descendants who are not directly descended from slaves face the racism and racial discrimination that still persist today, generations after the slave trade ended.” (emphasis added)

Thus, African peoples throughout the diaspora, despite their differences, share not just ancestral heritage and culture but political fates. It is this internationalist impulse that forms the basis of black political ideologies like Pan-Africanism, black opposition to imperialism and black support for Third World struggles.

Civil War Victory and Subsequent Repression of Black Radicals

The end of slavery in the United States was one important victory for African-Americans and abolitionists. Reconstruction’s abrupt end after the Civil War and the inauguration of Jim Crow created new political challenges for African-Americans.

One challenge was addressing economic oppression experienced by African-Americans after slavery. Civil rights groups not only challenged legalized racial segregation but also incorporated economic justice in their agendas, as professor Risa L. Goluboff explains in her book The Lost Promise of Civil Rights. According to Goluboff, it was a “particular combination of racial subordination and economic exploitation that made the political economy of the rural South unique.”2 The tenancy system in the South during the late 1800s involved black farmers and sharecroppers, who wanted economic independence, living on the land of usually white landowners, who wanted subordinate black laborers. Workers paid landowners with money made from the crop or a share of it. If not, they worked as wage laborers. But wage workers and farmers were kept in debt by landowners.3 The point of Jim Crow segregation, along with vagrancy and other laws, was to “keep African Americans subordinate and to keep labor cheap.”4 Thus, black workers in the South were not just concerned about racial segregation but also about economic disenfranchisement. Additionally, blacks were terrorized by whites through lynchings and other forms of brutal violence. Ida B. Wells, a black radical journalist, used muckraking journalism and her rhetorical skills to expose and speak out against lynching.

In the Northern and Western industrial economies, there was no legal regime of racial segregation as in the South, but blacks were marginalized in other ways. Black workers often were not adequately compensated for their work. Businesses avoided hiring blacks, and white managers were often indifferent to the concerns of black workers. Racism from white workers made work environments hostile to black workers.

Black workers and organizers demanded not just legal nondiscrimination but also better wages and full employment. The economic plight of African-Americans, along with organizing by the Communist Party, made many black thinkers and activists turn to communism, including Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes. Famed black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois embraced communism and fathered the Pan-Africanist movement after he founded the NAACP. In 1920, Du Bois advocated “the careful, steady increase of public democratic ownership of industry, beginning with the simplest type of public utilities and monopolies” in a collection of essays called Darkwater, thereby supporting a core tenet of socialism – workers’ control of production. He also wrote in the same piece, “Perhaps the finest contribution of current Socialism to the world is neither its light nor its dogma, but the idea back of its one mighty word – Comrade!”

Another issue was the link between oppression of African-Americans in the United States with European colonialism abroad. Generations of enslavement, racial discrimination and other forms of domestic oppression made many African-Americans empathize with other dark-skinned, colonized peoples as fellow oppressed comrades – especially their brothers and sisters in Africa. Thus, many black people viewed themselves as a Third World people and questioned American nationalism. Indeed, slavery not only built American capitalism but also allowed its empire take off quicker than others. Black internationalism politicized this sentiment.

During the 1898 Spanish-American War, many black soldiers in the Philippines befriended the natives and were angered when white troops called the Filipinos “nigger.”5 Those black soldiers defected from the US and joined Filipino rebels in their fight for independence from American imperialism. Jamaican political leader, entrepreneur, orator, and journalist Marcus Garvey advocated black nationalism, in which people of African descent throughout the diaspora would return to Africa to set up their own independent nation. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914 to promote black political and economic independence and the ship company Black Star Line in 1919 to foster commerce between black communities. The Black Star Line shut down in 1922 as the organization struggled with poor management, financial troubles, charges of mail fraud against Garvey and sabotage by J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Investigation, predecessor to the modern FBI. In 1946, DuBois, the NAACP, National Negro Congress (NNC) and others petitioned the United Nations to redress governmental oppression of African-Americans as a human rights violation.6 African-American author Richard Wright attended the 1955 Bandung Conference, where newly independent Asian and African countries pledged mutual cooperation and opposition to colonialism and neocolonialism by any nation. This led to the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement. African-American revolutionaries were inspired by Third World liberation movements, including successful revolutions in Cuba, Algeria and Ghana. Malcolm X, whose black nationalism fused with Third World liberation, visited Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and Che Guevara. He also publicly opposed the Vietnam War before it was popular to do so. Shortly before his assassination in February 1965, Malcolm X delivered a speech linking the struggles of African-Americans with Third World liberation movements:

“There’s a worldwide revolution going on. … What is it revolting against? The power structure. The American power structure? No. The French power structure? No. The English power structure? No. Then what power structure? An international Western power structure. An international power structure consisting of American interests, French interests, English interests, Belgian interests, European interests. These countries that formerly colonized the dark man formed into a giant international combine. A structure, a house that has ruled the world up until now. And in recent times there has been a revolution taking place in Asia and in Africa, whacking away at the strength or at the foundation of the power structure.”

Black activists like Bayard Rustin opposed US militarism, including the war in Vietnam. King opposed the Vietnam War later in his life. The Black Panther Party, along with its breakfast program and armed self-defense wing, had an office in Algeria that many black revolutionaries would retreat to.

In the 1930s and ’40s and during the late ’60s Black Power movement, black radicalism thrived as a political force to be reckoned with. Black activists tied their claims for civil rights to economic justice and Third World liberation. Debates about black nationalism, communism, internationalism, reformism and Third World revolution were fairly common among black thinkers and activists. It was a vibrant element within left-wing and African-American politics because it provided radical fuel to the civil rights and antiwar movements. However, a multitude of factors decapitated the movement.

Cold War politics played a considerable role. UC Irvine professor Sohail Daulatzai, author of Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom Beyond America, explained to Truthout that the Cold War was a “coded race war. It was about the darker peoples being subject to US and Soviet Cold War aims.” While the United States and Soviet Union never directly attacked each other, the Third World was their proxy battlefield. Fearing newly independent Asian and African nations would embrace communism or go their own route, the United States projected power in those regions through direct and indirect military interventions. The United States also pursued a diplomatic war. The Soviet Union and the Third World lambasted the United States for its racist treatment of African-Americans. To counter, the United States made concessions to the civil rights movement and passed desegregation laws in return for black support for its anti-communism efforts. Thus came desegregation in the armed forces and diplomatic corps. Groups that petitioned the UN to redress America’s violations of African-Americans’ human rights were branded “communist and un-American” by the FBI.7 The United States defeated the petition in the UN. Daulatzai said this was “part of the chess game that the United States played to project out to the rest of the world, especially the Third World, that it was racially progressive.” He added, “Ultimately, US expansion into the Third World was about undermining real national liberation.” That also played out domestically by weakening the black liberation movement. McCarthyist witch hunts during the 1950s targeted outspoken leftists all of colors, including African-Americans. For example, Hughes had an FBI file. Thus, the mainstream civil rights movement strategically dropped economic justice and internationalist demands to focus on eliminating legalized racial discrimination, which they had a better chance of winning. In 1964 and 1965, they did win with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Acts, respectively. But even King became frustrated with integrationist efforts because they did not tackle poverty or militarism.

There was a real move toward electoral politics by elements of the black petit bourgeoisie. That split itself off from the more radical elements of the black liberation movement that were under severe repression from the state.

Through surveillance and infiltration, the FBI and its counterintelligence program, known as COINTELPRO, severely repressed the black radical movement. The FBI spied on and amassed long files on black leaders such as King and Malcolm X. Black political groups like the Black Panther Party and black student unions were infiltrated by FBI spies. Agents wiretapped phones and sent false letters to those in the movement, including one to King encouraging him to commit suicide. Informants and provocateurs sowed division, distrust and paranoia among black radical groups. Government surveillance covered the entire African-American community, including even the study of what music black people listen to. The repression even reached the level of political assassination, when Chicago police, under FBI direction, shot and killed Black Panther organizers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark on December 4, 1969. While COINTELPRO decimated the Black Panther Party, militant offshoots sprang up, such as the Black Liberation Army, which committed violent acts, like robberies and murders, for insurrectionist purposes. However, these actions achieved little. Many black revolutionaries were imprisoned or forced to flee the country. Notable examples are Mumia Abu Jamal, who remains in prison after being convicted – under highly contested circumstances – of murdering a police officer in 1981 and Assata Shakur, a Black Panther leader who escaped prison and fled to Cuba, where she has lived in political asylum since 1984. In 1977, Shakur was convicted for the 1973 murder of a New Jersey state trooper. However, she was shot in the altercation, and her role in the murder is still heavily disputed. The Obama administration recently placed her on the FBI’s most wanted terrorists list.

As black revolutionary leaders and organizations successfully were repressed, many of those groups’ foot soldiers returned to their communities with little hope. Deindustrialization decimated manufacturing jobs that black workers relied on. As a result, the former foot soldiers of black radical groups formed street gangs, which is how the notorious Crips and Bloods came to be.8 The rise of crack-cocaine trafficking in the inner cities during the late 1970s and 1980s made gang life more lucrative. However, those drugs are not indigenous to black communities. CIA-backed Contras funneled crack-cocaine from South America to America’s inner cities to raise extra funds for their war against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 1980s. This led to the 1980s crack epidemic that ravaged black communities. Under the guise of the “War on Drugs,” the prison system and draconian police tactics expanded, leading to the arrest, harassment, incarceration and murder of large numbers of predominantly black and brown people.

“Our dismal economic condition has silenced us,” Margaret Kimberely, a columnist for Black Agenda Report, said in an interview. “The jobs black people depend on are gone.” Deindustrialization is not the only phenomenon that hurt black labor. Recent austerity measures have slashed many government jobs that African-Americans rely on. African-Americans are 30 percent more likely to hold public-sector jobs than the general workforce. As of August 2013, the official black unemployment rate is 13.4 percent, compared with 6.7 percent for whites. Meanwhile, African-Americans make up nearly 40 percent of the prison population, even though they are 13 percent of the national population. Kimberley added, “We don’t even have the stability to marshal our forces because if half your people are in jail and no one has jobs, that really just decimates the population. It makes it very difficult to galvanize around anything substantive.”

Ajamu Baraka, a human rights defender with roots in the Black Liberation Movement, explained to Truthout that after the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, “there was a real move toward electoral politics by elements of the black petit bourgeoisie. That split itself off from the more radical elements of the black liberation movement that were under severe repression from the state.”

Professional and upper-middle-class African-Americans composed much of the mainstream civil rights movement. As a class, they were more concerned with eliminating legal barriers to integration within mainstream society rather than tackling deeper problems like inequality, poverty, or militarism.9 Tactically, they focused on legal battles and, later, electoral strategy rather than radical grassroots organizing. As black radicalism was crushed, this reformist element of black politics won. Mainstream black politics hitched itself to the Democratic Party. Integration, narrow multicultural diversity and piecemeal reform became the dominant goals. Now black people overwhelmingly vote Democrat and most mainstream black commentators support the Democratic Party. But this also meant that black politicians, including those in the Congressional Black Caucus, embrace corporate money and neoliberal policies. As a result, the country’s first black president, Barack Obama, embraces many policies that harm African peoples domestically and abroad – cutting food stamps, privatizing education, domestic surveillance, police militarization, globalized extrajudicial killing and perpetual war.


The decimation of black radicalism has made a national conversation about race difficult in the age of Obama. Obama and the Democrats are held up as anti-racist vanguards, even as they implement policies that hurt the black community. This is no accident. It is the inevitable consequence of the repression of black radicalism, a tradition that has long opposed imperialism, systemic racism and capitalism. But it’s not all doom and gloom. The black radical tradition continues to exist in outlets like Black Agenda Report, Pambazuka and elements of the movement against mass incarceration and other struggles. It’s weakened, but still continues. The prospects of increasing black radicalism’s impact are dim. The assimilation of black political leaders such as Obama into the power structure have led many to confuse black representation with black liberation, even though they are not the same. That makes systemic racism harder to challenge. But as long as black intellectuals, activists, journalists and others keep their radical tradition, culture and history alive, black resistance politics will not go away.


1 Robinson, Cedric J., Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, The University of North Carolina Press, 1983, 2000, p. 169-171

2 Goluboff, Risa L., The Lost Promise of Civil Rights, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2007, p. 77

3 Ibid., pp. 58-59

4 Ibid., p. 79

5 Zinn, Howard, A People’s History of the United States, First Perennial Classics edition, HarperCollins Publishers Inc., New York, 2001, p. 319

6 Normand, Roger and Zaidi, Sarah, Human Rights at the UN: The Political History of Universal Justice, Indiana University Press, 2008, p. 162

7 Ibid., p. 163

8 “Bastards of the Party”

9 Goluboff, The Lost Promise of Civil Rights, pp. 175-176

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