Race, Solidarity, and the American Working Class

Edward Carson I Labor Issues I Analysis I June 22nd, 2017

The search for solidarity has escaped white, black, and brown working class people, in part, due to white people's historical reluctance to embrace shared experiences that cross racial boundaries. Because of recent political news, mass rallies by Black Lives Matter, and the growing concerns about the economic gap, I aim to resurrect past and present conversations about the "working class." As we know, it is not monolithic. In order to confront working class issues, society must mend the color line through class, which is complex, as the American race question is the real problem.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, expresses the unchanged dimensions of the American color line and class-consciousness among the working class:

"Solidarity is standing in unity with people even when you have not personally experienced their particular oppression. The reality is that as long as capitalism exists, material and ideological pressures push white workers to be racist and all workers to hold each other in general suspicion. But there are moments of struggle when the mutual interests of workers are laid bare, and when the suspicion is finally turned in the other direction - at the plutocrats who live well while the rest of us suffer." [1]

Black lives do matter, but many accept arguments that society operates under the guise of color blindness, a falsity that permits modern day atrocities to black and brown Americans. This argument stands in the way of interracial workers forging unity. Black Lives Matter further elicits a reaction to the present-day injustices that were not wholly resolved via 1960's de jure legislation. Thus, the movement has sought to bring all people together in solidarity against systematic racism and brutality.

Working class people should be unified across racial lines; however, the lack of solidarity and the division capitalism promotes regarding class and race continues to divide them, as noted by the rise of Donald Trump, the 2016 Republican Presidential winner. If the white, black, and brown working class were fully unified - they might grasp their intersectional identities and achieve an understanding of themselves as a wholly marginalized people, often comprised of multiple identities: LGBTQ, people of color, women, etc.

The past and present reflect white people's belief in their own understanding of racism, not the real experiences faced by people of color. Often, they have defined racism in a "neoliberal" sense of saving black people from their own community problems. Rudy Giuliani, following the killings of five police officers in Dallas, referenced how he has saved more lives than Black Lives Matter. He, as well as others, such as Republican National Convention speaker David Clarke, a Milwaukee Sheriff, who too spoke against Black Lives Matter, failed to note the waves of cyclical oppression in cities like Baltimore, a conclusion of America's past Jim Crow policies. White people fail to understand the ubiquitous degree of privilege they hold, a precursor to being an ally to black and brown people. The rejection of "white privilege" is an acceptance of interracial solidarity.

Black Identity and Solidarity

Without privilege and facing racial oppression, American Negroes have long sought solidarity, but without it, focused on their own struggle and revolution. As Malcolm X wrote in Message to the Grassroots,

"The Negroes were out there in the streets. They were talking about how they were going to march on Washington… That they were going to march on Washington, march on the Senate, march on the White House, march on Congress, and tie it up, bring it to a halt, not let the government proceed. They even said they were going out to the airport and lay down on the runway and not let any airplanes land….That was the black revolution."

This revolution was absent of racial solidarity, in part, due to white resistance and disinterest, growing Black Nationalism, and societal failure to grasp the extent of white racism within the working class.

Before the second civil rights period, 1954 - 1965, black Marxist, who pondered their approach to fighting capitalism and Jim Crow in the early 20 th century, witnessed the pervasiveness of racial injustice and the pronouncement of white supremacy as ubiquitous forces in post-bellum America. Thanks to the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), black folk sought to address their oppression in a country shaped by de facto racism and Jim Crow. Through such challenges, Negro solidarity continued, though Carol Anderson's book, Bourgeois Radicals, discusses the NAACP's attempt to distance itself from radical Du Bois, whose writings offered a Marxist analysis in the United States and an international call for colonial independence.

Du Bois witnessed the rise of Marcus Garvey and his paradigm, which sought to use capitalism in promoting Black Nationalism in the 1920s. Du Bois, who joined the Communist Party USA in 1961, adopted a Marxist perspective early in his training to challenge racism, while Garvey's use of capitalism was his means of addressing the race problem. And though there was solidarity in addressing the advancement of blacks, Garvey's capitalism offered a contentious anti-Marxist narrative to Du Bois's integrationist approach. After all, it was Du Bois who opposed Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Compromise, even though he shared a desire with them in eradicating Negro oppression.

By the 1950s, the United States government saw a need for change regarding its race problem, due to the Soviet Union and voices from organized movements, such as the International Labor Defense. Black American communists, such as William Patterson, Claudia Jones and Esther Jackson, propagated the left's message questioning American democracy. The United States championed the 1954 court ruling Brown v. Board of Education, which chipped away at Jim Crow, but did not fully resolve legal segregation; it was a clear response to the accusations made by the Soviet Union and American radicals regarding America's race problem. [2]

Marxism and Racial Unity

According to Marxism, the first focus is on class; hence, a desire to unify the oppressed proletariat. Karl Marx assumed class struggle would address the race question. However, both are contentious forces in the United States. This, unfortunately, has historically created troubled interest for white and colored workers in unifying, often because capitalism and white supremacy have maintained a symbiotic relationship. Blacks have long suspected that white working class people were exploited and fed lies about the Negro, in an attempt to prevent solidarity. As Du Bois wrote in The place of Negroes in the crisis of capitalism in the United States,

"This newest South, turning back to its slave past, believes its present and future prosperity can best be built on the poverty and ignorance of its disfranchised lowest masses-and these low-paid workers now include not only Negroes, but Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and the unskilled, unorganized whites. Progress by means of this poverty is the creed of the present South… The Northern white worker long went his way oblivious to what was happening in the South. He awoke when the black Southern laborer fled North after World War I, and he welcomed him by riots… They excluded Negroes. It is taking a long time to prove to them that their attitude toward Negroes was dangerous. If Negro wages were low in the South, what business was that of New England white labor?"

Angela Davis, who ran for the vice presidency of the United States on the Communist Party ticket in the 1980s, and recently authored, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement, reminds us of the universal struggle shared by black and brown folk, as she echoed Du Bois's observation that the "problem of the twentieth century is that of the color line." Davis contends "Racism, in the first place, is a weapon used by the wealthy to increase the profits they bring in by paying Black workers less for their work".

Du Bois and Davis touched on the unique struggles of being black and American. They remind blacks that white bourgeois power and racism are instruments to suppress their blackness and social condition. This promulgated Negro distrust of whites, driving later concerns about the Communist Party USA (CP), as reflected in the writings of Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, who critiqued their struggles with the left, due to the reluctance of white communists and the CP to fully address race. Wright showcased his frustration in his essay I Tried to be a Communist.

Those fears should have been allayed by the historical solidarity and support the CP expressed in fighting the racial injustices toward the falsely accused Scottsboro Boys of rape. Not even the NAACP supported them, withdrawing from the case in 1932. Later, in 1955, it was the CP who sought justice for the slaying of Emmett Till, who was murdered in Mississippi by white supremacists.

The Struggle for Unity in Labor

With such efforts at building solidarity by black, brown, and white communists, challenges persisted. A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, pointed to the complexity of America's racial binary relationship, as he noted, "Salvation for a race, nation or class must come from within. Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted."

Randolph, like Du Bois, Washington, and Garvey, sought first to take care of the Negro race - then use that to advance the race within white America. The commonality of race consciousness and black identity usurped class. Negro awareness of white working class differences was a grave barrier to achieving unity over capitalism. Randolph's approach moved closer to solidarity with whites, as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) granted the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters a charter, but the color line was not mended in a fashion that promoted class-consciousness. Manning Marable's book, Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945 - 1990, noted that "The purge of communists and radicals from organized labor from 1947 through 1950 was the principal reason for the decline in AFL-CIO's commitment to the struggle against racial segregation." [3]

Blacks observed white union members still struggling with racial solidarity in the trade union movement decades later. In the 2008 election, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spent weeks encouraging white workers to support Barack Obama, saying, "While there are many reasons to vote for Obama, there's only one really, really bad reason to vote against Barack Obama. And that's because he's not white."

Racism has long divided the working class, and today is no different. Many white working class people voted for Donald Trump. And much like 2008, race was a reason. While some will salute a strong economy, in truth, wages have flattened for the working class. Because of this, and because white workers have grown suspicious of the burgeoning black power call by Black Lives Matter, the search for solidarity continues to escape a racially divided country, as noted by the current political climate.

Edward Carson is an independent historian who teaches courses on race, religion, United States history, and African American Studies in the history department at the Brooks School, a residential school in North Andover, Massachusetts. He is the current chair of the Communist Party USA Boston. The title of his working manuscript is " W.E.B. Du Bois's Editorial Influence on Western Negro Migration ."


[1] Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2016), 215.

[2] Daniel Rubin, "James and Esther Jackson: Shapers of History," People's World, December 16, 2006, http://www.peoplesworld.org/james-and-esther-jackson-shapers-of-history/ .

[3] Manning Marable, Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945 - 1990 (University Press of Mississippi, 2007), 28.