The landscape of the United States is littered with physical testimony to the nation’s origins as a White settler colonial outpost of land pirates who exterminated and enslaved their way to global capitalist empire. Purging the evidence of historical crimes is a great catharsis, especially for the victims of America’s “Manifest Destiny.”
However, this intrinsically righteous project can be subverted into a kind of ritual national cleansing that leaves the essential nature of the current regime not only intact, but rejuvenated and exuberant – “born again,” this time as the planet’s unassailably “exceptional” nation.
Blacks and their progressive allies will be thanked for (once again) cleaning up Uncle Sam’s racist, imperial act. Such is precisely the goal of US corporate rulers and military chieftains, who were quick to disassociate themselves from Donald Trump’s defense of the old stone symbols of White power. Global hegemony requires a different symbolic repertoire.
The national Democratic Party – to which almost all the personalities depicted in the besieged statues belonged, and which was the White Man’s Party for most of the nation’s history before switching places with the GOP two generations ago – is most anxious for a symbolic national makeover.
Firmly controlled by Wall Street and Silicon Valley, the party offers nothing of substance to its Black and Brown constituencies; symbolism is its electoral stock in trade.
National “unity” has always been the watchword of the bipartisan War Party: unity behind the mission of global domination. The US armed forces led in the process of racial integration, the better to subdue the non-White populations of the world.
Corporate capital takes on whatever ethnic and racial camouflage is necessary to envelop the planet in its tentacles. Stonewall Jackson is no asset to the imperialist Project for a New American Century. Neither is Robert E. Lee a good fit for corporate governance treaties like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The Black political misleadership class, having no agenda beyond maintaining its own presence and self-dealing opportunities on the peripheries of power, traffics entirely in symbols. They are eager to enlist in every national “unity” project sponsored by corporate interests, to highlight their purported “strategic” presence within power structures. In their world, Black faces in high places is an end in itself; politics is the manipulation of symbols, which are substitutes for power.
In their appeals to corporate power, Black misleaders invoke national “unity” as a euphemism for color-blindness. Rather than cultivate Black communal power, they ask for a place for themselves “at the table” of the rulers – no agenda required.
For example, in the fall of 2010, the NAACP led a “One Nation Working Together” rally at the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington. Nearly 200,000 people showed up, but even Wade Henderson, of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called it “a march without a plan of action.”
Speakers endorsed the Democratic Party’s general campaign positions. Only Harry Belafonte made any mention of the multiplying wars Barack Obama was waging. His remarks were considered bad form in the context of national “unity.”
For the next six years, the NAACP and other established Black civic groups claimed to be grappling with formulating a broad Black political agenda. They failed to produce even a semblance of an agenda, because that would entail making demands on the Democrats in power, including the Black president. Instead, these misleaders acted as annexes of the Democratic Party and called for national unity in the face of Republican racism – their default, useless position.
In the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s defeat, Black Democrats quickly joined in the manufactured anti-Russian hysteria. This can be understood both as a visceral willingness to believe anything negative about the loathsome Orange Menace in the White House, and as an appeal for national unity against the racist hordes in Trump’s base, who were somehow allied with the Kremlin.
The result, however, was to place Black politicians, including Barbara Lee and John Conyers, in an alliance with the War Party. Regarding Trump, Lee wondered, “Where do his loyalties lie?”
Almost the entirety of the U.S. ruling class is eager to treat the racist statues battle as a question of national unity – although they will draw the line, as has Trump, at George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other Great White Men that did not wear the Confederate States uniform.
It is, of course, vital, in mass political education terms, to point out the monstrous social crimes and contradictions embodied in the monuments. It is also important to win victories that people can see with their own eyes, as the statues tumble or disappear in the night.
No long-term benefit
But if the historical crime is not linked to demands for the righting of present-day wrongs, there will be no lasting benefit to the people’s struggle. Rather, the movement will have removed a blemish from the face that the U.S. presents to the world, without effectively challenging current structures of oppression.
That’s a win-win for the bipartisan War Party, the Democrats and international capital, and is the perfect kind of symbolic victory treasured by the Black political class, but will produce meager and diminishing returns for Black empowerment.
Frederick Douglass’s dictum applies generally: “Power concedes nothing without a demand – it never has and it never will.” Protests that focus on the racist personalities and structures of the past must demand remedies for oppressions of the present.
In Baltimore, where the mayor pre-empted protesters by dismantling and hiding racist monuments in the dead of night, activists have erected a tent city to demand housing and jobs, and a $2 billion equity fund to finance ongoing reforms.
No food or shelter
“Taking down those monuments is good, that was right, but meanwhile it doesn’t help anybody get food and shelter,” said Rashid Abdul-Aziz, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle tweeted, “Take down racist statutes along with racist statues.”
In Philadelphia, the statue in question honors a more recently deceased White villain.
Frank Rizzo, the former police commissioner and mayor who died in 1991, was a Northern version of Birmingham’s Bull Connor. Rizzo’s statue was recently spray painted with the words “Black Power,” allegedly by Diop Olugbala, of the Black Is Back Coalition.
A coalition has come together to demand not only the removal of Rizzo’s statue, but that the city council consider legislation for Black community control of the police – which would be a fitting reverse-memorial for the despicable Rizzo.
Glen Ford is executive editor of BlackAgendaReport.com. E-mail him at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.