The police murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man from Minneapolis, has led to mass protests around the globe. From New York to Paris, protesters have marched to demand an end to police brutality, racial inequality and the indifference of politicians to both.
The present movement, however, is unlike any in recent memory. In the past, protesters would demand that charges be laid against individual police officers, or that policing be “reformed.” But despite their best efforts, nothing ever changed. Police continued to murder, justice remained elusive, and racial inequalities stayed firmly in place.
In the time since, a revolution in political consciousness has taken place. The murder of George Floyd marks a turning point. Protesters no longer demand minor reform, but the end of policing altogether. The problem is not this or that officer, but “systemic racism” itself. The system cannot be fixed, because it was designed to cause harm. Promises from officials have become meaningless. They had their chance, but failed to deliver. Now, only a root-and-branch transformation will suffice.
But what exactly would ending “systemic racism” entail? Here, confusion still reigns. In the absence of a stable definition, each person has given the term its own meaning. The Democrats interpret it one way, corporations yet another. In the streets itself, multiple definitions exist, while more continue to be produced.
However, as with any phenomena, only one definition can be correct. Clarity is essential. If the nature of something isn’t understood, how can it be dealt with? The truth is, it can’t.
In order to end systemic racism, the movement must set itself the right tasks; but to do that, it must first understand the nature of what it’s up against.
Marxism offers a powerful tool in understanding the foundations of racism. More importantly, it puts forward ideas on how to fight it.
In essence, Marxists share the view of Malcolm X, when he said “You can’t have capitalism without racism.” Marxists argue that racism is an organic feature of capitalism. As such, it cannot be eradicated without also ending capitalism.
But why then is racism a product of capitalism? And if so, what can be done about it?
Does systemic racism exist?
To most protesters, the existence of systemic racism is not in doubt. However, politicians like Donald Trump contest this claim. They argue that, while there may be racists in society (“a few bad apples”), the system itself is not racist.
In their view, all are equal before the law. The racist laws which did exist (segregation, for example) have since been struck down. Equality has been achieved.
However, equality on paper does not always mean equality in reality.
In 1936, Joseph Stalin heralded the Soviet Union’s constitution as the most democratic that ever existed. Does this mean there was democracy in Stalin’s Russia, because it said so on paper? One can venture a guess as to what Mr. Trump’s answer would be.
In fact, while legal protections prohibiting racial discrimination have been obtained in the last half century, racist practices continue at all levels of society.
In the United States, racial minorities continue to be murdered by police, imprisoned, and denied jobs at rates far higher than in the general population. These practices are not unique to the U.S. In Canada, racial minorities face similar challenges, particularly its Indigenous population. In many Indigenous communities, even clean drinking water is hard to come by—a basic right enjoyed by most other Canadians. In Europe, refugees from Africa and the Middle East are often denied basic rights, struggle to find work, and are subject to abuse by racist politicians (Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen) and their supporters.
If it were the case of only a handful of racist employers, or a handful of racist police officers, the denial of systemic racism may have truth to it.
However, it is not just one or two employers, but thousands that practice discriminatory hiring, whether consciously or unconsciously. It is not just one or two police officers, but thousands of police forces, across all countries, that imprison, brutalize and murder racial minorities at a disproportiante rate.
Such figures alone prove the existence of systemic racism, whether or not its cause is understood.
Defining systemic racism
Things become more complicated when trying to define systemic racism.
In light of recent protests, many liberal and reformist politicians have adopted the term. In doing so, they hope it might convince protesters that they are, in fact, concerned about racism—and that they alone have a plan to end it.
In their view, systemic racism is defined as a result of either “bad” policies, or particularly reactionary state officials (e.g. Trump). The solution, meanwhile, is to introduce “good” policies (e.g. banning chokeholds), or to replace reactionary officials with “progressive” ones (e.g. Joe Biden).
There are, however, a few problems with this description.
First, racist practices have continued under both liberal and conservative administrations. In the United States, police brutality never stopped under Barack Obama, a Democrat president. In Canada, Indigenous people are harassed by police as much as before (if not more), despite its leader being Justin Trudeau—a Liberal and avowed believer in “reconciliation” with Indigenous people. In recent weeks, many of the cities which have deployed police to rough up protesters are run by Democrats.
These officials, like a shifty mechanic tasked with repairing a broken car motor, have treated the hood to a nice wax, while leaving the motor itself untouched.
Second, policies have changed in the past, while racism remained intact. In the last half-century, most explicitly racist laws have been extricated from the books in most North American and European countries. This development, of course, was made possible by the movements of the civil rights era and represented an enormous victory.
However, racism still exists in these countries, despite radical changes to the legal system, particularly in the United States. The policies proposed today are, by comparison, far less sweeping than those introduced during the civil rights era.
What can banning chokeholds, though still a positive reform, do to eradicate racism compared with the legal end of segregation (which also didn’t end racism)?
For others, including some academics, racism is defined as something ingrained in some, if not all white people. This explanation also has its limits.
If true, this definition still doesn’t explain why racist beliefs are maintained, much less how they originated or what to do about them. Science has so far yet to discover a “racist gene.” In fact, for much of humanity’s existence, racism didn’t exist in the form it does today, if at all. Racism is, in that sense, a relatively recent phenomenon.
Where, then, does racism originate?
The origins of modern racism
The origins of modern day racism are not to be found either in biology or in policy, but in the birth of capitalism itself.
In the U.S., anti-black racism can be traced back to the transatlantic slave trade, which accompanied the birth of both U.S. and British capitalism. In the early days of slavery, a firm distinction hadn’t yet been drawn between black slaves and white indentured servants. As such, rebellions involving both were not uncommon—with Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 being one of the most well known.
In response, the U.S. ruling class developed racist theories to “prove” the inferiority of blacks, doing so to drive a wedge between their subjects, undercut rebellion and to justify their enslavement.
In other countries, racism took on different forms, owing to the particular needs of their respective ruling classes.
In Canada, anti-Indigenous racism was amplified by the ruling class shortly prior to Confederation in 1867. The purpose here was to justify the dispossession of Canada’s Indigenous population, clearing a path for the transcontinental railway.
The North-West Mounted Police (NWMP), a forerunner to the RCMP, was established in 1873 to facilitate this process. The NWMP was modelled after Britain’s Royal Irish Constabulary, its purpose being to suppress Irish dissent. Canada’s version played a similar role, albeit in relation to its Indigenous population. The RCMP has merely carried the traditions of its predecessor into the modern age.
In these examples, racism finds its origin in the same place; that is, in the ruling class of both countries. In each case, its purpose is to divide their subjects and to facilitate the expansion of capitalism. In other countries, similar reasons can be found.
In the ensuing years, the capitalists made repeated use of racism, codifying it in law, funding racist “science” and broadening its scope. In North America, immigrants from most countries faced harsh restrictions on their legal rights, each justified for different, entirely baseless reasons. Italians were “criminals,” the Irish were “drunkards,” and so on. In each case, it allowed the capitalists to drive down wages, while creating a seemingly infinite set of divisions in the working class—paralyzing it (or so they hoped).
The principle, however, remained the same as before: divide and rule for capitalist gain.
The post-civil rights era
The 1950s and ’60s brought forth the civil rights era. The ruling class could no longer justify much of their openly discriminatory laws as attitudes changed. In numerous countries, mass protests involving people of all skin colours and faiths forced the capitalists to abandon their earlier policy. In the ensuing years, the ruling class was forced to strike the most explicitly racist laws from the books, for fear of provoking revolution.
In general, the deeper racism’s roots for a particular group, the longer it took to establish full legal rights. In the U.S., segregation targeting blacks was not abolished until 1964. In Canada, Indigenous people did not gain the right to vote until 1960. Incredibly, people forget that this was just over half a century ago. Still, by the end of the millenium, legal rights had been established for most racial minorities.
Racism, however, did not vanish. Inequities remained.
In the U.S., segregation continued, driven by economics instead of by law. As such, the cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement continued. In the media, racist tropes continued to be churned out, albeit in a more coded form. Police forces retained their old powers and personnel. The laws they enforced, while “colour blind” on paper, disproportionately fell on racial minorities. The list could go on.
In the post-civil rights era, racism altered its form, but ultimately remained in place. Why?
The civil rights movement, despite its achievements, did not result in the overturn of capitalism, nor was that its stated goal. The capitalists, however, still required racism to operate.
Racism acts as a powerful tool to divide and rule the population: a tool allowing the capitalists to depress wages, bolster the presence of police, undermine social movements, and shift the blame for their failures to marginalized groups. The capitalists therefore sought to maintain it, albeit in a modified form due to shifts in public opinion.
The treatment of migrant workers are a simple example of how this works today. In North America, most migrant workers are denied both voting rights and the right to join a trade union. They are also paid at rates far below the average worker, creating artificial frictions with the domestic workforce. The influx of migrant workers is used to justify the expansion of border patrols and local police forces, particularly in the United States. Finally, the capitalist-funded media and politicians circulate rumours about these migrants, completing their exclusion.
How is this justified by the ruling class? Migrant workers, they argue, were not born here, therefore they must be treated differently. But is this not racism?
The example here is migrant workers. However, the same methods are used, to varying degrees, towards all racial minorities in capitalist countries. Black neighbourhoods must be policed because they are “hotbeds of crime,” Indigenous workers earn less because they are “lazy,” and so on.
If there were no racism, such divisions would seem absurd to everyone. Why should one worker be treated differently than another? Don’t we share the same interests?
Racism envelops these divisions with a “natural” aura, justifying it and supplying it with a feeling of permanence. In fact, these divisions are neither natural nor permanent, as history proves. However, maintaining them keeps the working class divided, and thereby provides stability to capitalist rule.
Is every capitalist racist?
In the wake of Floyd’s murder, numerous firms, from Amazon to Tim Hortons, issued tweets denouncing racism. Ben and Jerry’s, an ice cream maker, called for an end to white supremacy. NASCAR prohibited Confederate flags at its racing events. In the early 1900s, this would have been unthinkable.
Of course, corporate statements do nothing to end racism. Still, they do reflect changes in attitudes over the past century—including among members of the ruling class.
However, while individual capitalists may claim to oppose racism, it does not make the capitalist system any less racist. Why? Because both the ruling class and capitalism as a whole benefits from it. It is therefore against their interests to enact fundamental change.
Having first invented racism, the capitalists are obliged to harness it, consciously or unconsciously, for their own ends. If not, they risk losing out to less “moral” competitors, or facing the wrath of those they employ.
The actions of one capitalist to “fight” racism are soon negated by three others—and one might even be his future self. One pays migrants lower wages to reduce costs, another blames job losses on affirmative action, while another stokes racial divisions to undermine a union drive in his factory. In each case, racial inequities and intolerance are driven deeper, providing yet more ammunition for the future. The cycle is self-perpetuating.
The ruling class may disagree with the actions of their predecessors; they may join a protest, or issue a tweet denouncing racism. However, they feel no shame in reaping advantages from the system their predecessors created—let alone planning to overturn it.
Racial divisions become even more important to the capitalists in a period of revolution.
No belief is so ancient, and no group is so backwards, that the capitalists will not resurrect it to hold on to power. Therefore, these forces must always be held in reserve—and nurtured accordingly.
For that reason, capitalist officials are often reluctant to prosecute even the most brazen murderers in the police force. The loyalty of the police, and in particular its most backwards layer, must be maintained should it ever be called on to “restore order.”
In 2020, racism thus remains an integral component in capitalism—both for its operation and for its defence. This was true at capitalism’s birth, true throughout the pre- and post-civil rights era, and will remain true until capitalism is overthrown.
The role of the working class
The solution to racism begins with the working class.
The working class, unlike the capitalists, derives its strength through unity between workers of all skin colours, faiths, genders, etc. This is best observed during a strike.
In a labour dispute, divisions along these lines play an actively harmful role, the main beneficiary of which is the boss. As such, the primary divisions on the picket line are along class and not racial lines. If not, the strike would go down in defeat, such that it would leave all of its participants worse off—irrespective of skin colour.
Of course, that does not mean that individual workers do not hold racist beliefs, whether overtly or in a “casual” sense. Moreover, such beliefs must be actively combated, as they represent a cancer in the labour movement.
However, racism is not an organic product of the working class, which strives towards unity, but the legacy of filth handed down by the capitalists. Racism is poison; and a powerful one at that. However, no poison is so potent that it can forever hold back history.
In the course of mass struggle, prejudice begins to break down. In every revolution, no matter how deep those beliefs, this process can be observed. In that moment, all workers are faced with a common enemy—the capitalists. Yesterday’s divisions start to lose their significance. The revolution, as if a mirror, permits the workers to see their true reflection; and in that reflection is one and the same class.
However, this alone is not enough. If capitalism remains, then, to paraphrase Marx, “all the old crap revives.” In its place, a new society must be built—socialism.
Socialism: a new material foundation
In a socialist society, the capitalists are no longer in power. In their place, society itself is put in control. The large banks, factories and shops are placed under public ownership, accompanied by workers’ and community control. In due time, production, no longer hampered by profit, can be sharply increased, and bring an end to the artificial scarcity that existed under capitalism. The state, a product of this scarcity, soon loses its purpose, as does its military and police. In time, as society reaches a state of superabundance, people can at last govern themselves—becoming free. In that process, the need for any divisions becomes superfluous. Its material base disappears.
Does this mean that racist beliefs die as soon as capitalism disappears? Marxists have never argued this.
Prejudice has deep roots. It may therefore survive well after its creator has left the scene. Old beliefs could take years, if not generations, to fully eradicate.
However, socialism at last provides the arena to stomp out racism; and not only racism, but sexism, homophobia, and so on. Racism has material roots. It must therefore have a material solution.
In a socialist society, humans can at last relate to each other, not as competitors, but as real human beings. In this society, new, more human conditions will be created, leading also to better humans.
In time, racism will become a distant memory of a cruel past society—a transient moment in human history. From that moment, real human history, cleansed of the filth of class society, can begin.