Black Liberation: A Hemispheric Task

By George Ciccariello-Maher

Between Black America and Latin America, political differences and distances are often overstated, fragmenting the unity of political struggles in the process. Too often, the legacies of chattel slavery, on the one hand, and settler colonialism, on the other, are considered radically distinct, the gulf between the two experiences insurmountable. But if modern slavery emerged from the crucible of colonial domination only to assume a particularly sharp form between the Rio Bravo and the Great Lakes, we neglect that shared origin at our own peril. This is no exaggeration: chattel slavery—and the denial of humanity that it simultaneously requires and perpetuates—were quite literally products of colonialism.

The systematic denial of humanity to an entire group of people was first tested out on Indigenous populations shortly after the arrival of Columbus, legitimizing the rapacious brutality of the conquistadors. But even those who defended the humanity of the Indigenous— like Bartolomé de las Casas—did so while turning a blind eye to the mass import of African slaves to supplement Indigenous labor. When the U.S. embraced a slave renaissance fueled by the cotton boom, the threat of unified working-class resistance led to the hardening of racial categories into the sharp binary that we know today. Despite these divergent forms, however, racial dehumanization remains the rule from Chicago and Philadelphia to the highlands of Oaxaca and Chiapas and the barrios of Caracas, São Paulo, and elsewhere.

As W.E.B. Du Bois reminds us in Black Reconstruction, when the struggle against the U.S. slave economy exploded, Confederate secessionists gazed southward toward “a great slave empire in the Caribbean.” Even after the Confederates’ defeat, however, the knot binding slavery to colonialism was not fully undone. After an experiment with what Du Bois calls “abolition-democracy,” the brief period of Radical Reconstruction in which Black and white alike participated in politics on an equal footing and the welfare of both improved, Reconstruction was abandoned and Jim Crow gradually imposed. As a result, “The United States was turned into a reactionary force. It became the cornerstone of that new imperialism which is subjecting the labor of yellow, brown and black peoples,” or what Du Bois would call the vast “dark proletariat.” After all, if U.S. citizens had accepted the white dictatorship of Jim Crow at home, why not impose one abroad?

Imperial expansion was swift: within two short decades, U.S. troops would deploy to Argentina, Chile, Haiti, Panama, and Nicaragua, and the U.S. would seize Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. From that point forward a relentless dialectic unfolded. As the Cold War set in decades later, the specter of communism replaced the vagaries of “U.S. interests,” with suspicion falling anywhere that might serve as a Soviet “beachhead.” The Black community, too, was similarly suspect for the sympathies it harbored. This was not all empty paranoia either: communists Black and white had been among the strongest advocates for racial equality. Black militants—from Malcolm X to the Black Panthers— would adopt a socialist internationalism, and exiles— from Robert F. Williams to Assata Shakur today—would find much-needed refuge in Cuba and China.

All of this is to say, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket, 2016) is a book that matters for Latin America because the struggles of Black and Latin Americans have been tightly intertwined for nearly half a millennium. From the very beginning, with an introduction entitled “Black Awakening in Obama’s America,” Taylor evokes Robert Allen’s classic Black Awakening in Capitalist America, a prescient text in many ways, not least for Allen’s effort to grasp the condition and internal dynamics of Black Americans as a case of “domestic colonialism.” And like Allen’s book, Taylor’s is shot through with a commitment to socialist internationalism and the deepening global resonance of anti-capitalist solidarities.

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation is the best account yet of Black freedom struggles and the many barriers and containment strategies these struggles continue to confront in the present. The argument is rigorously materialist in its assessment of capital’s exploitation of Black labor in particular, but without sacrificing an attentiveness to the ideological. Despite all the talk of historic change—from the Civil Rights Movement to the election of a Black president—Taylor painstakingly shows just how much has stayed the same. Or rather, how change has become part of the same and how freedom was recycled into new forms of oppression.

Cementing continuities is the ideology of American exceptionalism, or what Du Bois called “the American Assumption,”—the myth of “boundless opportunity” against which slavery stood as “its most sinister contradiction.” And at the intersection of freedom and slavery stands that material force—Black rebellion— capable of shaking this ideology to its very foundations. This myth of American opportunity has built for itself many alibis, beginning with biological racism that was tasked with the hard work of reconciling freedom with its opposite. But as Black freedom dawned toward the end of the nineteenth century, the biological slowly gave way to the cultural—in particular, arguments about a “culture of poverty,” which contended that the problem lay not in racist institutions but damaged individuals and weakened families. Taylor’s first chapter, “A Culture of Racism,” is a blunt repudiation of this governing myth of twentieth-century America.

But Taylor also starkly illustrates the historical ebb and flow of such ideological arguments with a brutal counterposition of quotations from Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama in which the Texas cracker in 1965 recognized the structural sources of Black oppression in “ancient brutality, past injustice, and present prejudice” while the nation’s first Black president insisted in 2013 that “we’ve got no time for excuses” and advised Black Americans to forget about slavery. What caused this? Rebellious Black movements in the streets had transformed consciousness—Black and white alike—forcing Johnson’s hand in 1965, as in 2014 they would force Obama’s. Taylor provides a necessary reminder against those facile arguments today that insist riots produce only a conservative backlash: “There was a nuanced public response to the riots in the late 1960s, not just a backlash,” she writes. “The Black struggle,” especially around police brutality, “pushed mainstream politics to the left” by contradicting cherished myths about opportunity and meritocracy, drawing back the veil to reveal a very different and divided reality.

The reality of Black life in the 1960s was not one of individual failings or cultural pathologies but of the systematic, structural oppression of Black Americans—and as Taylor points out, survey data at the height of the rebellions in 1967 shows that even some 40 percent of whites understood the problem as a structural one. But this shift in white consciousness, in Taylor’s unparalleled rendering, only retained its ideological traction so long as the material vehicle of the movements in the streets continued. As the movements receded, the analytic frame of national debate shifted once again from structures to individuals, facilitated by a conscious turn to “colorblind” language that took hold as a recycled version of the American Assumption, in which the absence of overt racism served as proof of equal opportunity.

Nixon himself understood that crushing Black militancy was key to pacifying workers, students, and women as well, but he did so by denouncing a colorblind “criminality” and expanding policing powers as he slashed social welfare budgets—an attack on all poor people disguised as an attack on the undeserving—paving the way for Reagan to do the same. “By the end of the 1970s, there was little talk about institutional racism or the systemic roots of Black oppression. There was even less talk about the kind of movement necessary to challenge it,” Taylor writes. If government officials deployed colorblind ideology to wage a material war on Black America and beyond, this ideology would find a crucial vehicle in the Black political and economic elites that emerged in the wake of the 1960s.

But the emergence of what Taylor calls—following Amiri Baraka—“Black faces in high places” coincided with much Black labor becoming irrelevant to capital accumulation, generating an inevitable clash between these new elites and their increasingly “disposable” constituents. This tension—exacerbated by the emergence of a small but vocal Black economic elite—means that the Black community is “frayed” at best, and that at worst there exist “two Black societies … separate and unequal.” The “unprecedented display of Black political [and economic] power appears to mean very little in the lives of ordinary Black people, who wield almost no power at all,” and even reinforces mythical claims that capitalism works and that the U.S. is indeed the land of opportunity.

All of this helps us to explain an apparent paradox: why did the election of the first Black president give rise to a wave of Black rebellion? For the same reason that the 1965 Watts Rebellion exploded a mere five days after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law: because much was promised and little changed. Not only did police violence continue unabated—beginning with Oscar Grant in the first hours of the first day of 2009—but in many ways, the lives of ordinary Black Americans “have become worse.” Taylor points to median Black income (down 10.9 percent under Obama), a tripling in the racial wealth disparity, and Black unemployment numbers under Obama—39 percent in Wisconsin, 34 percent in Michigan, 46 percent in Minnesota—that burst with resonance after the recent 2016 presidential election.

In this story about change and continuity, the two coexist in the present under the names Ferguson and Baltimore. Ferguson, where the murder of Mike Brown sparked riots in 2014, was so galling because—as a majority Black city governed by rapacious white leadership and police force—it stank of the old Jim Crow. But Baltimore, where the killing of Freddie Gray sparked a mass rebellion less than a year later, is almost entirely Black-run: “When a Black mayor, governing a largely Black city, aids in the mobilization of a military unit led by a Black woman to suppress a Black rebellion, we are in a new period of the Black freedom struggle,” Taylor astutely observes.

At this crossroads of past and present, Taylor skillfully charts out the prehistory, development, and challenges facing #BLM, drawing Hurricane Katrina, the 2011 execution of Troy Davis, and Occupy Wall Street into a shared trajectory of radicalization that has indelibly marked our present. But just as Abolition and the Civil Rights Movement drew others into their radical orbits, so too today: in the words of Donna Murch, “a beautiful black storm against state violence is brewing so dense it has created a gravity of its own.” The movement tends to be young, female, queer, decentralized and anti-capitalist, and is besieged by some of the same forces of prior generations: the state, foundation funding, the lure of elections.

Taylor’s most important contribution is to return power to its most fundamental source: to grassroots struggles in the streets. These struggles, in their fierce autonomy, forced the state to respond. Obama’s rhetoric eventually shifted, but only as a result of the mass rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore. As Taylor demonstrates: “Black people’s progress has always been propelled by the strength of the movements of the mass of ordinary Black people.” This shift is not limited to leaders, either. In a repeat of the 1960s, militant Black rebellion shifted white attitudes as well: the percentage of whites who view police killings as isolated incidents dropping from 58 to 36 in a single year. Such suggestions ground the powerful call for solidarity with which Taylor concludes, the kind of solidarity that can only be built through struggle in the streets.

Throughout Taylor’s account, the question of the Third World seeps in through the cracks, clamoring for attention. While widely criticized, media references to “refugees” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina spoke to a lived reality, which Danny Glover recognized when he wrote that the hurricane didn’t turn New Orleans into a Third World country but instead “revealed” one. A decade later, Ferguson activist Johnetta Elzie spoke at once of the connection she felt with Gaza during the 2014 bombardment and the shock she experienced at seeing Ferguson “become Gaza.” After Mike Brown was killed, his body was left in the street, prompting one observer to insist that “Dictators leave bodies in the street.” And when protesters confronted a heavily militarized police force in those same streets, the comparison only rang truer.

Toward the end of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Taylor returns to the colonial question, suggesting—too quickly, in my view—that the lens doesn’t quite fit, in part because the exploitation of Black labor is no longer the “motor of American capitalism” that it was when cotton was king. The implication, however, is that Blacks were colonial subjects only when they were useful. However, in reality, many colonial regimes are less about exploiting labor than about extracting resources and dispossessing inhabitants of their land— an explanation that accounts in part for the very introduction of slavery to the Americas and the disposability of Indigenous peoples. While it’s true that Black Americans don’t comfortably fit the colonial mold—in part because their position as both internal to and excluded from U.S. democracy has given integrationist strategies priority over separatist ones—following the colonial contour can shed some light.

Frantz Fanon, one of colonialism’s sharpest critics, famously described the colonial order as a system of geographic separation that he termed “Manichaean” for the absoluteness of the ethical division it established between good and evil. In an era marked by deepening residential and educational segregation, in which Black people are routinely judged to be preemptively guilty of their own deaths, such Manichaeism resonates. For Fanon, moreover, it is the police and the military that brutally uphold this geographic segregation in the streets. This is increasingly the case as American police become, in Taylor’s words, “storm-troopers for gentrification,” stopping and frisking entire populations with military-provided tanks and water cannons waiting in the wings.

Moreover, Taylor’s astute analysis of the “pivot” from biological racism to the “culture of poverty” finds a direct analog in what Fanon dissected as the “so-called dependency complex” of the colonized—indeed, Fanon would underline the importance of this “pivot” in his 1956 speech “Racism and Culture.” It’s no surprise that, as Taylor shows, the liberal anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who coined the term “culture of poverty,” believed the phenomenon could be found from “Mexican villages” to “lower class Negroes in the United States.” In both cases, otherwise sympathetic liberal social scientists provided an alibi for white supremacy by locating the “problem” in the individual rather than in the social structure. And just as Taylor returns to structural arguments to pull the rug from under the “culture of poverty,” so too did Fanon chart a return to the structure of colonial domination itself.

In Latin America, geographic segregation has long been the norm. So-called “marginals” have worn it even in their given name, while wealthy white elites ensconce themselves in militarized urban fortresses, with militarized police marking the border between the two. Police in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro alone have killed an estimated 8,000 people in the past decade—the majority of them Afro-Brazilians. In Venezuela, despite efforts by Chavismo to transform policing, rising violent crime has led to a recent return to deadly hardline policing in the barrios. In Mexico, the number killed and disappeared is wholly unfathomable, as cartels, police, and the federal government all murder dark-skinned forgettables indiscriminately— apparently, it takes 43 student-teachers disappeared in a single 2014 incident in Iguala to spark sustained outcry. And when NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton was invited to export racist policing to Caracas and Rudy Giuliani to Rio and Mexico City, the thin line between internal and external colonies all but disappeared.

While more complicated systems of racialization have meant that Black identity in Latin America has only recently broken into the mainstream, it was way ahead in fostering a “colorblind” postracial myth: mestizaje, or in Brazil “racial democracy,” the insistence that since Latin Americans are mixed and that racism couldn’t possibly exist. As in the U.S., however, this myth was a veil concealing very real structures of discrimination and exclusion. At the same time that Reagan was rolling back social welfare and criminalizing the poor, neoliberal structural adjustments were being imposed across Latin America through the leverage of a debt crisis that Reagan himself had created. Thus, while Black Americans were being pushed out of the economy, up to half of Latin Americans were suffering the same fate, condemned to the underground informal economy.

In the Global South as in the North, the explosion would come from these excluded and written-off sectors, and it would also have much to do with raised expectations. Venezuela, for example, was far from the region’s poorest country, but one in which dire poverty coexisted with extravagant, oil-fueled luxury. As in Taylor’s account, change was only possible through mass action—and indeed, rioting in the streets. The ensuing explosion from those marginalized to the barrios at the intersection of race and class—the 1989 Caracazo rebellion against neoliberal structural adjustment—came as a shock to elites who, like Obama, have struggled to catch up.

Similar explosions in Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina helped to propel leftist leaders into power, as these movements themselves have also struggled with the questions Taylor poses so well: how to shift from “moment to movement” and from “protest to politics;” how to return structural explanations to center stage, and how to engage with the dangerous lure of state political power without falling prey to the pitfalls of pragmatism. How, in short, to move from rebellion to refashioning the powers governing our everyday lives? In the Americas North and South, it is radical movements rebelling in the streets that have the power to throw structures of race and class “into chaos.” And with chaos comes great opportunity.

George Ciccariello-Maher is an associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University and currently visiting researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. He is co-editor of the Duke University Press book series Radical Américas and author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution (Duke University Press, 2013); Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela (Jacobin-Verso, 2016); and Decolonizing Dialectics (Duke University Press, 2017).