Why You Can’t Understand Black History Without a Critique of Capitalism
Many of our Black history idols have been immortalized for their work against racism carried out by whites, from the federal government on down. They have been applauded for their magical strengths and abilities to overcome insurmountable odds. Their legacies are contextualized through brief chapters in k-12 history classes, where examples of racism are narrowed down to physical harm and explicit parameters that describe what Black people could and couldn’t do “a long time ago”. As a result, many of us were socialized to understand Black history in a way that has been whitewashed or sanitized. The stories we are fed as young people that immortalized, or mainstreamed, our Black figures of inspiration conveniently left out important details, such as the anti-capitalist leanings of their work.
We are in a time where need the full story of the experiences and perspectives of our ancestors, and we need to reclaim those radical beliefs so that we can create space for true progress not just against racism, but also against capitalism.
Dr. King’s Radically Reconstructed Dream
King’s infamous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech has easily (and incorrectly) been re-framed by White America as a testament to our post-racial society with pull quotes that animate little Black children holding hands with white ones and freedom ringing throughout the South. However, years later and months before his death, King also issued less flowery, less beautified visions for a future America:
“In these trying circumstances, the black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing the evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced…”
Racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism work simultaneously to create a complex web of oppression that not only stabilizes capitalism but also makes it stronger. King saw that, and King was killed.
Dr. King’s legacy of nonviolence was used to silence his broader mission and advance American ideologies of exceptionalism and meritocracy after his death. But as the understanding goes, you can kill a person but you can’t kill an idea. The Black Power Movement that grew out of the Civil Rights Movement nudged more radical ideologies to the forefront. The Black Panther Party, established in 1966, really amplified incisive anti-capitalist rhetoric that inspires many of today’s revolutionaries. However, the contrast in how both Dr. King and The Party are remembered is sharp.
The Black Panther Party’s “Threat” to “Democracy”
The militancy of the Black Panther Party is what drew folks into support the organization or provided the image that would ignite its opposition. The Black Panther Party was not only demanding an end to inequality but also naming capitalism as the root of the problem. The Party saw more to police brutality than the physical harm done, they saw it as a symptom of capitalism. Because of them, we can understand police to be simply the muscle, or “the gun”, of the establishment. In a November 1969 edition of The Black Panther, the Black Panther Party’s newspaper, a member named Candy describes the true use of police:
“No there are no limits to the means the capitalist will employ to increase his wealth. He’s pit different racial groups against one another… He’s enslaved one group of people, and tried to terminate another (the Indians)… From this basic understanding, we can see who the police are to “protect and serve”. They are in our communities to protect and serve the interests of this capitalist, exploitative state. They have no conception of what it would be to protect and serve the people, because they are merely an extension of the state… This means that they must not allow for any disturbances of the status quo, which could be detrimental to the interests of the capitalist state.”
The Black Panther Party was demonized and infiltrated, their members were targeted, and in many cases, killed by the FBI. The government framed anything that was anti-capitalist as a threat against democracy. But what is democracy if dissenting opinions are deemed unacceptable? What is democracy if it is powered by a capitalist state?
Bigger than Police Brutality
Today, we have a very visible fight against police brutality. And with additional resources such as the Movement For Black Lives Policy Platform and the numerous reading lists that have been produced by organizations and individuals, we are seeing what the Black Panther Party saw and we are resurrecting Dr. King’s true mission for equity. The fight against police brutality is more than that, it is a fight against the evils of capitalism and oppression – as it has always been.
The Freedom Fighters that came before us recognized the criminal enemy as institutional racism and the capitalist system. The establishment used their forces to co-opt, demonize, and kill those Freedom Fighters as an attempt to put out the ideological fires started and deflect from the root issue.
As we reflect on how our past connects to our present, we must continue to push forward the more radical, anti-capitalist beliefs of those that came before us and those that came before them. The Movement for Black Lives, The Women’s March, movements that express solidarity with immigrants, Muslims, differently-abled folks, LGBTQIA folks, trans folks, economic and environmental justice…all seem single-issue in action, but the reality is our we are not fighting to reform single-issues. Like those that came before us, we are fighting against capitalism – the root of all of our issues.
Image from Eastbay Times