Elections 2022 Series Part 2
The Republic of Black Suffering
On Being Four, Five, Seven Generations beyond our Lifetime from Recovery...but we Voted
This is Jon Jeter for Black Republic Media at Black Republic Media dotcom with the second in a series on elections and the African American community.
Only the do-nothing Democrats can snatch defeat from the jaws of defeat and swear it’s a victory as was the case following last week’s midterm elections. Joltin’ Joe Biden led the cheers for the Blue team despite the fact that the Grand Ol’ Party took the House and is still even money to retain half of the seats in the U.S. Senate depending on the final vote tally in Georgia where a moron, Herschel Walker, meets a mannequin, Raphael Warnock, in next month’s runoff.
Should the Republicans maintain parity in the Senate, it would mean that they would control both chambers of Congress if they take back the White House in 2024, with a Republican Vice-President casting the tiebreaking vote in the event of a deadlocked parliament. But in the meantime, puzzle me this, Family: If the Biden administration couldn’t get a Goddamn thing accomplished when it controlled both legislative bodies, what in the hell is it going to accomplish with only the Senate?
The question is of course, rhetorical.
The pretense that there are moral victories in politics is akin to Michael Spinks claiming victory over Mike Tyson because the ass whooping he got wasn’t nearly as bad as everyone anticipated.
More important than the Dems’ cognitive dissonance, however is that whichever party wins, the American people —and Black people especially–lose.
That is because neither party has articulated a plan to pay reparations to Blacks—which could help resuscitate a moribund economy–or dismantle a wholly privatized health care system in which African American babies die before their first birthday at three times the rate of white newborns. Nor has either party expressed any interest in downsizing the U.S. police state which kills unarmed African Americans at nearly four times the rate than it does whites.
Regardless of which faction of the duopoly ultimately comes out on top in the midterms, the water in Flint, Michigan, by most accounts, remanis poisoned, the nation’s public schools don’t teach our children so much as lobotomize them– when they’re not ratting them out to the police– and the federal sentence for selling crack cocaine is 18 times that for powder cocaine, despite the fact that there is no substantive difference between the two, other than that one is associated with Blacks and the other whites.
And so it goes in the America that never was yet must always be, if I may borrow from Langston Hughes.
In fact, for both political parties, the consensus seems to be that what ails the country most is not that we live in a kleptocracy that has, over the past 40 years systematically robbed American workers of their buying power, but rather any acknowledgement of American apartheid or its casualties.
Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who has signed legislation banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools, immunizing from prosecution drivers who plow into street protesters, restricting women’s right to an abortion, and flown Venezuelan immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard said in his victory speech last week after voters overwhelmingly reelected him:
Liberals and conservatives alike have co- opted the term “woke” which was coined by Blacks to encourage a certain level of vigilance of the social, political and economic forces that conspire against our community. It is nothing to hear news pundits and analysts attribute the Democrats’s electoral losses to wokeness when in fact, it is clear that they are not woke enough, trailing behind their constituents on issues such as health care, labor organizing, wages, climate change, criminal justice reform and military spending.
In theory, elections are the sine qua non–the indispensable act– of our democracy, we the people rising up to have our say. In reality, modern elections legitimize what is, on its most molecular level, a criminal enterprise, requiring voters to choose between rival mafia families battling over the same turf and rackets. Both will break your break your legs if you’re late with this week’s payment.
I first began to question the “lesser- of- two evils” trope 30 years ago when I was a 27- year-old City Hall reporter for the Detroit Free Press. It was Election Day, 1992, and in those days before the world wide web and smartphones, a throng of mostly Black voters had assembled on the first floor of the city-county building to await the results of the presidential poll.
We had, to be sure, a dog in that fight; after 12 years of Republicans in the White House, virtually everyone was pulling for Bill Clinton, despite his almost compulsive race-baiting appeals to the so-called Reagan Democrats, or as Black folks like to call them, white people.
When CNN finally called it for Slick Willy, the room erupted in high-fives, hugs and even prayer, if memory serves.
One of the celebrants that evening was a local politician, Arthur Blackwell, the chair of the Wayne County Commission at the time, and the son of the first Black mayor of Highland Park, an enclave of Detroit. As the jubilation began to wane, I remember the broad smile disappearing from Blackwell’s face as he seemed to anticipate the cataclysm that would befall African Amerians over the next 8 years, and into the 21st century.
“Yeah,” he said, “that’s cool but really it don’t matter. We can have a Democrat or a Republican in the White House, the president can be Black or white, or the Dow Jones can go up 500 points or down 500 points, niggaz will still be poor.”
Indeed, University of California-Irvine law professor Mehrsa Baradan would validate Blackwell’s assertion in her 2017 book, The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap, which found that African Americans today account for 13 percent of the U.S. population yet own but one percent of all assets nationwide, or roughly the same percentage as we did on January 1, 1863 when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Some economists have put today’s figure as high as 2.6 percent but the point remains the same: Black poverty, Black suffering, and Black death persist because whites, by and large, are at best indifferent to, and at worst deeply invested in, the afterlife of American slavery.
Think about it for a second: with African Amerians experiencing a defining moment of racial terror, anf Black bodies dropping in the streets like leaves in a dry season, Biden’s response was to transform the U.S. Capitol into a cross-burning Klan meeting and lead lawmakers at this year’s State of the Union address in a raucous chorus of “Fund the Police! Fund the Police!”
This was not a one-off, but rather echoed a 2015 Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee memorandum advising candidates for the House of Representatives to placate local Black Lives Matter activists by agreeing to “personal or small group meetings,” and “listen(ing) to their concerns” but steadfastly refuse to “offer support for concrete policy positions.”
What’s seldom said in the media or virtually any public discussion is that the U.S. was founded as a European settler colony and so it remains. The relationship between whites and Blacks is, on a molecular level, no different than it was during chattel slavery: whether the principal commodity is cotton, cars or consumer credit, African Americans produce enormous amounts of wealth for speculators who are overwhelmingly white.
For all intents and purposes, the settler colonial state is a pyramid scheme with the wealthy soaking the white middle class and the white middle class, in turn, soaking Black people through labor market policies which mandate that the best jobs go to the whitest, not the best; correctional facilities that employ young whites in dyng, peri-urban communities while turning a tidy profit for Wall Street investors; a housing market which deploys everything from redlining to subprime mortgages to defraud Black homeowners, reducing them to renters similar to apartheid South Africa’s criminalization of African homeownership; and even collegiate and professional sports which conspire to cheat young African American athletes out of their fair share of the wealth that they create.
It is hardly coincidental that the “blackest” professional sports leagues– the NBA and the NFL– prohibit players from turning pro upon their high school graduation, allowing a parasitic class of mostly white coaches, corporations and sportscasters to feast on their talent, while the “whitest,” professional sports –Major League Baseball and the NHL–do not.
I am going strictly from memory since a Google search failed to find the story, but I distinctly remember reading a newspaper account nearly 20 years ago of an African American basketball player at Auburn University who was found to have violated NCAA rules by accepting money from a booster. The cash did not go towards some date with a pretty coed, or down payment on some fancy wheels but to help his mother pay the rent on which she was in arrears and at considerable risk of eviction. His sanctioning was reminiscent of the Black Codes, which manacled the freedpeople to their slave owners.
“The fact of the matter is that as long as you are in a society, man, where you have private ownership of means of production, somebody is going to own that ass. . . See, it’s not no one, two ways about this thing.”
This is Darryl “Waistline” Mitchell, a retired Detroit autoworker, and a founding member of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a cadre of Marxists who formed in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in an effort to organize the workplace much as the Black Panthers endeavored to organize the street.
He is 73.
“I guess the question is suffering, you know what I’m saying? . . .(15:54)And I want to contextualize it a certain way because obviously as Blacks we live better than a lot of people throughout the colonial world. I mean that’s just factually true. You have colonials throughout Africa, Asia, still parts of Latin America that’s living under horrible conditions, worse than the brothers and sisters in some backwards areas of Mississippi. I’m saying it like that because our plight remains that of those who have been colonized under the bourgeois capitalist system and our status as colonials still remains. That’s legacy and that’s part of the struggle we face that’s gonna require not just unraveling the old social relations but literally creating a new system.”
If you have to go work for the other man instead of the brother man you (are) in trouble.You’re in trouble because of the way that society developed. See we face white people because of the color question but then again what we actually face are the various nationality groups that grew up and developed in Europe. When they arrived in America they began another development of what we can properly call the ‘Anglo.’ They became not just Irish, Hungarian, Slavic, Polish, Ukrainian, they started becoming Anglo Americans.”
And so we face on the one hand the color question which is the outward feature of the colonial question. We are treated as colonial subjects and it’s not going to go away until we have a radical reorganization of society but it’s the establishment of other institutions in society that other people cannot exercise control over.”
Centuries of white supremacist narratives repeated as daily homilies by politicians, the news and entertainment media, the Academy and even churches in the U.S. have reduced social relations in the popular white imagination to a stark, binary calculation. Black suffering equals white prosperity. Research even suggests that whites are often reassured by news reports of police attacking Blacks.
Or as the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal wrote in his 1944 tome, The American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, whites’ anti-Black racism is fundamentally grounded in jealousy, an unspoken belief that capitalism is a zero-sum game, and that African Americans would overtake them in a free and fair competition for jobs, housing and status. Moreover, the poverty in which most African Americans live, and the phalanx of microagressions and police violence that defines workplace culture and appears on social media almost daily, demonstrate to other ethnic groups that there is both safety, and material value associated with anti-Blackness.
Said Mitchell of the Silicon Valley neighborhood where he recently moved to:
This area is extremely multinational where I’m at. The specific neighborhood I’m in is increasingly Chinese, you know, and I find that remarkable. There are very few Black people here. Lots of Mexicans and I am always on my Ps and Qs, I’m always alert, when I walk up and down the street. And I am not saying this jokingly. Because it took abut a year and a half for the police to stop following me. It took almost two years for neighbors to quit calling the police on me and they only stopped calling the police on me because every day of my life when I want to take a walk I ut on the exact same gray jogging outfit; I got three of them. So I’m quite serious about the color factor.”
You described the political impact and the emotional content of colonial enslavement and entrapment from our point of view but they’re very clear that in order for them to preserve their position the colonial status of Blacks in particular in this country must be preserved at all costs, that calling the police on Blacks means that the police won’t be called on them. They understand that clearly.”
. . . even with the police shooting us down like dogs, man. And what’s peculiar about our position in America is that our ruling class will not accept surrender from us. It is imperative that they murder us as a way of life (21:48). . (21: 56) I mean they shoot you with guns, man, the police, they beat you to death, they put a bullet in your ass.”
Two gruesome catastrophes exactly 80 years apart shine a light on this Republic of Black Suffering.
The early spring sun warmed the air on March 25, 1911, when a fire broke out in a blouse-making factory on Fifth Avenue, just north of Washington Sqare in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Within minutes, the entire eighth floor of the ten-story Asch Building was engulfed in a wall of smoke and flames so high and hot that onlookers on the street below had to retreat.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory employed roughly 500 employees, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant women as young as 14, who worked nine hours a day five days a week and seven hours on Saturday, producing a blouse popular with working women, known as a “shirtwaist.” The fire began just as the workday was ending, likely when someone tossed a cigarette butt in a scrap bin overflowing with two months worth of cuttings.
The first alarm was sounded at 4:45 p.m., and onlookers, drawn by the column of smoke and the clamor of fire wagons, rushed to the Asch Building. What they saw was a hellish scene, redolent of Dante: the trapped employees panicked, with dozens jumping to their death, and dozens more could be seen screaming for help from the ninth floor as the flames closed in on them. Firefighters frantically cranked a rescue ladder, which rose slowly skyward, but only extended as far as the seventh floor, just short of its mark on the 8th floor. Still, more employees plunged into an open elevator shaft, while nearly two dozen more fell to their deaths attempting to climb down a decrepit fire escape.
When it was all over, 146 workers lay dead–123 of them women– many of them bundled into pine coffins for their relatives to identify, a task made exponentially more difficult by the soot that blackened the corpses.
Critically, the survivors would explain that the sweatshop’s owners had managed to turn the garment factory into an abattoir by routinely locking the doors to prevent employee theft; additionally, a dilapidated fire escape collapsed, and the conflagration blocked the workers’ access to the freight elevator.
Yet traumatized New Yorkers refused to resign themselves to the suffering of these immigrant women, or to write off this disaster as simply an unfortunate act of God. It took some doing but labor organizers, Socialists and feminist activists pressured New York City’s political machine, Tammany Hall, to investigate, leading to nearly three dozen new laws expanding the rights of workers, implementing worker safety regulations, and beefing up building codes.
Within two years of the fire, half of all textile workers nationwide belonged to a labor union, and the raft of legislation passed by New York lawmakers became the template for a nation in the throes of its Progressive era. What’s more, one of the witnesses to the fire, a young Frances Perkins, would go on to become Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary, and the lessons she learned in the aftermath of the fire would inform some of the New Deal administration’s most progressive policies.
In short, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire signaled a tectonic shift in American society.
But compare the 1911 fire to the grease fire that swept through a chicken processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina on the morning of Sept. 3, 1991, as workers returned from the Labor Day holiday.
A single mother of two, Arnette Zimmerman, was on the deboning line that morning when she heard the first screams. She thought nothing of it; occasionally, snakes slithered into the plant and out almost as quickly without doing any harm.
But when the screams continued, Zimmerman opened a partition and saw plant workers running toward her, chased by what appeared to be a black ball of fire. A hydraulic line had broken near a deep-fat fryer, leaking fluid which ignited, forming a fast-moving fireball with heavy, black, hydro-carbon-charged smoke so dense and suffocating that it could disable a person in one or two breaths.
The lights flickered, then went out for good, plummeting the windowless plant into darkness. Much like the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the 90 employees inside the Imperial plant that day panicked. Chaos ensued as there was a mad rush for the door. But as was the case in Greenwich Village 80 years earlier, the doors had been locked by the sweatshop owners to prevent employee theft. They held hands and prayed in the darkness.
By the time fire and rescue personnel arrived, 25 employees had perished–18 women, 12 African Americans– orphaning 49 children. Investigators would say later that if the plant had a sprinkler system, an evacuation plan, and marked, unblocked doors, there would have been few, if any, fatalities. Reporters at the time described the plant a “death trap.”
Zimmerman would survive but the trauma took an emotional and physical toll on her. She told reporters on the 30th anniversary of the fire last year that she had two surgeries on her back, four on her neck, and has been hospitalized four times at psychiatric facilities.
The national press corps parachuted in and reported that state safety inspectors had never visited the Imperial Food Products factory in its 11 years of operation. Heading into a presidential election year, Congress held hearings nine days after the conflagration, promising reform.
“Let’s make the guarantee of a safer workplace for all Americans the legacy of the Hamlet victims,” said Representative William Ford, a Michigan Democrat who chaired the Education and Labor Committee at the time.
A year later, at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, the Reverend Jesse Jackson told the nation, “If we work together, and if we keep Hamlet, North Carolina, in our hearts and before our eyes, we will act to empower working people.”
And here is what happened next:
State regulators fined Imperial Foods $800, 000 for 83 safety violations and went on to hire dozens of safety inspectors. But no one was ever charged crimnally, and the new inspectors represented only a fraction of what was needed to inspect nearly 150,000 workplaces across the state, and North Carolina officials have struggled over the years to maintain even that meager staffing level.
And while a state safety inspector had never visited the Imperial building before the fire, U.S. Department of Agriculture food-safety inspectors were there practically every day to check on the quality of the chicken, and actually acknowledged that they had approved locking a door, ridiculously, to keep flies out.
Under pressure from Congress, USDA officials insisted the agency had no responsibility for workplace safety, but ultimately relented, and in early 1994, signed an agreement to train inspectors to report “serious workplace hazards affecting plant employees” to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA.
But a North Carolina newspaper reported last year that in the 27 years since the agreement was signed, there is no record that the USDA forwarded to OSHA a single, complaint involving worker safety, anywhere in the nation.
The differing responses to the Triangle and Imperial fires underscores the white settler’s indifference to any suffering but their own, and the unresponsiveness of North Carolina’s state government to Black death reflects African Americans’ estrangement from the country of our birth.
If we use alienation in the sense to mean to be pushed outside, to be cast aside to be excluded and to evolve a feeling that you simply never fit in and you are victimized by events. Alienation in that sense is part of capitalism and colonialism. It is never going to go away. Ever. Until we overthrow the legacy of systems. Until we establish a new form of society where no one has control over the institutions and the social life of people.There is no other avenue forward or available. See, it’s not a question of achieving equality. It’s a question of destroying structures in such a way that questions of equality can no longer arise. If you have to fight for my equality then I am unequal than a motherfucker. Shit. I am tired of trying to fix that shit; I want to discard that shit.”
“And so does Black suffering become a bad habit for America?”
“Shit, it’s a horrible habit. It’s built into the fabric . . . It’s insidious because it’s built into unconscious actions. It’s woven into the social, cultural, and intellectual life of society. We’re talking about being under conditions where it’s going to take 5, 7, 8 generations living under a different kind of system just to get rid of this muck that comes out of class society, out of privilege, out of property, right, over thousands of years of debasement of human beings. You know it’s going to take us awhile to overcome that, even after we achieve the immediate goals of housing, clothing, medical care for everybody, you know the basics, right. Then, it’s still going to to take four or five generations, man. You and I will never see an end of suffering in our lifetime, that simply isn’t possible. And I don’t mean suffering in the abstact sense of longing, I mean getting beat down, not having the minimum of things to ensure your decency, literacy, cultural striving.”
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery In The New World, the historian David Brion Davis contends that ownership, historically, has not defined the relationship between master and slave. What defines the arrangement, he posits, is the vassal’s “perpetual condition of dishonor,” which provides the “master class with a resource for parasitic and psychological exploitation.” This, Davis argues, imposes on the slave a type of “social death” leaving him “wholly excommunicated from civic life,” not unlike livestock (the etymology for the word “chattel” is derived from the Latin word for both “capital” and “cattle”).
Davis quotes the Greek 6th-century reformer Solon, who explained his decision to abolish slavery: “All the common people,” Solon said, “are in debt to the rich.”
What Solon said in ancient times holds true today, and of all of America’s tribes, none are more indebted to the rich than us, the sons and daughters of Africa.
The reason for this is rather straightforward: the white settler exercises near total control over Black folks, as they did during slavery, and in the main, few have our best interests at heart. And much of their power lay in their ability, as Toni Morrison once said, to narrate the world. Hence, Nike’s Founder, Phil Knight, who has pocketed billions by exploiting teenage girls and women across the developing world, can claim some moral superiority over the Brooklyn Nets star guard, Kyrie Iriving, who posted a link to a silly documentary repeating silly tropes about Jews and devil-worship. Likewise, many of the same whites who have lit into Kyrie for his anti-Semitism have no problem with supporting the avowed neo-Nazi brigades in Ukraine.
“I came to you to tell you this: If you do not purge yourself of white- skinned privilege and fight the state that tries to enshrine it, it will destroy you as a human being. . . And to black people here I say to you that if you do not understand the necessity for you to make a commitment to the liberation of your people you will be destroyed by that same power. . . So you see we have a common interest; you must save your humanity and we must save our very lives.”
I’ve told you about the Triangle Shirtwaist and Imperial Foods fires, but there is another deadly fire that informs our understanding of American democracy, its failures and its potential.
Google the actor’s name and you will be regaled (or mortified if your mores tend to the Victorian) by tales of her libertine appetites, her breakout performance in the Hitchcock classic Lifeboat, or her half-camp, half vamp villainess in the 1960s Batman television series. Wikipedia references her patrician mien —dahling not darling– her crusade to get to know Gary Cooper (biblically if not especially well) and her elegantly debauched riposte to Chico Marx’s prurient proclamation over the punch bowl at a dinner party.
(“Hello Ms. Bankhead,” he said.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Marx,” Bankhead replied. There was a pregnant pause and then:
“You know I really want to fuck you,” Marx blurted out.
“And so you shall my good ol’ fashioned boy,” was Bankhead’s unhesitating retort.)
The rebellious daughter of an aristocratic Southern family, Bankhead made a point of appearing on stage and screen with African Americans such as Canada Lee, helped raise cash for exploited sharecroppers and championed anti-lynching legislation. It was her advocacy for liberal causes that led organizers to recruit her for a 1947 rally in support of a black, Chicago steelworker, James Hickman, who was on trial for fatally shooting the slumlord who set fire to his apartment, killing his four youngest children. Concluding the remarks that were prepared for her that autumn afternoon, she said:
“So long, however, as there exists anywhere on Earth one minority that is treated with contempt, that is herded into black slum areas, that is abused and insulted, so long will we have violence, hate, brutality, savagery. So long as there exists a Jewish problem, or a Mexican problem—or a problem of any minority—so long will one form of violence beget another. I am proud to be one of the humble gladiators in this struggle against narrow prejudice and stupidity. I am glad to lend my efforts so that there shall be no more James Hickman tragedies.”
In his terrific retelling of the case, People Wasn’t Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Housing and Murder in Chicago, the author Joe Allen wrote that the mostly black audience of 1,200 people responded to Bankhead’s remarks with tears and raucous applause, causing her to ad lib for an encore:
“I love the Negro race.”
This brought the house down and the rainbow coalition of African Americans, Leftists, and trade unionists went on to win Hickman’s release and a crackdown on abusive landlords, and prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that when whites give a damn about someone other than themselves, America can be the bright and shining city on a hill that we’ve always dreamt of.