We are in the middle of one of the most inspiring protest upsurges in the United States in decades. Mass demonstrations against racist police violence have swept the country since the police murder of George Floyd, demanding an end to state murders of unarmed black people and racial inequality more generally.
Protesters have persisted in the face of vicious police rioting and repressive curfews. The number of protests has waned in recent weeks, as all protest upsurges eventually do. But they are still going strong throughout much of the country and have produced a massive ideological shift, making defunding the police a mainstream policy proposal. Elected officials in some cities, with varying degrees of sincerity, are arguing for or have already pledged to cut police budgets.
The protests have inspired many white Americans to reflect on the persistence of racism in the United States and their role in changing it. One common framework for reflection involves asking how white people can be good allies to people of color.
This framework seems to suggest that, while white people have a moral obligation to assist people of color in anti-racist struggles, we who are white have no interests of our own at stake in these struggles. So white people must be moved to anti-racist action through feelings of obligation, guilt, or sympathy. At its worst, the white allyship framework promotes introspection and quasi-spiritual self-improvement as political action.
Black people in the United States have faced and continue to face horrible forms of oppression that white people don’t. Yet thinking of white people’s role in anti-racist struggle solely in terms of allyship is myopic. White people have sometimes taken part in significant black freedom struggles in the past not just out of altruism or a sense of moral duty. They saw the moral imperative to fight racial oppression as bound up with broader projects of collective liberation — projects in which they, too, had a stake. They were moved, in other words, by solidarity.
Revolutionary Solidarity in Haiti and France
Take the story of the Haitian Revolution, as an example, recounted by C. L. R. James in his classic The Black Jacobins and dramatically illustrating the power of solidarity. The revolution in the French colony of Haiti (then called Saint-Domingue) began with an uprising of the enslaved in August 1791. This revolt took place against the context of the ongoing revolution in France.
The enslaved black people of Saint-Domingue won their freedom through years of protracted, bloody struggle against the white plantation owners, as well as French, British, and Spanish troops who attempted at different points to crush the rebellion.
Given the forces they were up against, the Haitian slaves’ victory over so many European imperial colonizers and invaders is one of the most incredible achievements of recent history. The slaves themselves were the principal protagonists in overthrowing slavery. As James writes, the “revolutionary troops” led by Touissant L’Ouverture, and not the “perorations in the Legislative [France’s governing body] would be decisive in the struggle for freedom.”
But the victory of the Haitian revolutionaries was also aided by the revolutionary action of the French masses. In 1792, the internally divided French government, which had not yet entered its more radical, Montagnard phase, sent armed forces to Saint-Domingue to help quell the enslaved peoples’ rebellion. By early 1793, these forces had nearly crushed the uprising.
But in the meantime, the French masses had deposed and executed the King, provoking Britain and Spain to declare war on the revolutionary regime. These events helped turn the tide. They forced a diversion of French troops away from their assault on L’Ouverture’s army to defend the coasts against British and Spanish invaders, and they allowed L’Ouverture to make an alliance with the Spanish against the French.
In the course of these events, the cause of the Haitian rebels and that of the French revolutionaries came to be fused in the minds of the more radical militants. As a Jacobin-aligned governor of the colony said: “The slaves of the New World are fighting for the same cause as the [revolutionary] French armies.”
Local French authorities in Saint-Domingue were forced to declare the abolition of slavery, in an attempt to win the formerly enslaved to their side in the struggle against the counterrevolutionary powers. The abolition of slavery was finally made official and extended to all colonies by the French government on February 4, 1794.
Robespierre and the left-wing Jacobins (the Montagnards) had won control of the National Convention, and their voting for abolition reflected not only longstanding personal convictions, but the revolutionary mood of the French people. James writes:
It was not Paris alone but all revolutionary France. ‘Servants, peasants, workers. the labourers by the day in the fields’ all over France were filled with a virulent hatred against the ‘aristocracy of the skin.’ There were many so moved by the sufferings of the slaves that they had long ceased to drink coffee, thinking of it as drenched with the blood and sweat of men turned into brutes … At that time slavery had been overturned only in [Saint-Domingue] of all the French colonies, and the generous spontaneity of the Convention was only a reflection of the overflowing desire which filled all France to end tyranny and oppression everywhere.
The revolutionary French masses came to fight for the abolition of slavery — not out of a sense of pity or disinterested moral obligation, but because they had come to see their own destiny as tied up with the enslaved. As James says, the poor and working classes of France “felt towards them [enslaved Saint-Dominguans] as brothers, and the old slave-owners, whom they knew to be supporters of the counter-revolution, they hated as if Frenchman themselves had suffered under the whip.”
The white slave owners of Saint-Domingue had always opposed the French Revolution, which represented an assault on their property rights and political power. In 1793, they actually took the side of the invading British — who had promised to restore slavery — against the revolutionary French government. These counterrevolutionary efforts incited the French masses against the “the aristocracy of the skin,” which the common people associated with the hated French nobility they had just deposed.
Thus the slave owners’ opposition to the revolution made it easy for the French masses to see the connection between their own liberty and that of enslaved Saint-Dominguans. And as James notes, the planters’ counterrevolutionary conspiracy also gave the Montagnards strategic reasons to abolish slavery.
“[The] [abolition] decree, by ratifying the liberty which the blacks had won,” James writes, “was giving them a concrete interest in the struggle against British and Spanish reaction.” France’s revolutionary leaders (rightly) predicted that the formal abolition of slavery would recruit the former slaves to their side.
It was up to the enslaved people of Saint-Domingue to make the legal abolition of slavery a reality on the ground, through several more years of war with European armies who wanted to return them to bondage. Facing the possibility of death or torture at the hands of a vicious enemy, the formerly enslaved freed themselves through courageous armed struggle. But they also weren’t alone.
At the high point of the French Revolution, the French masses joined the Haitians to push forward the fight for abolition. And they did so because they saw their freedom and that of the black people of Saint-Domingue linked together by the struggle to defeat their common enemies.
Mass Antislavery Politics in the United States
Multiracial solidarity is a big part of the story of slavery’s destruction in our own country, too. As in Haiti, it took a violent war to end slavery, during which the actions of black people themselves were central to the process that led to their emancipation.
As W. E. B. Du Bois famously argued, the Union victory was hastened by a “general strike” of hundreds of thousands of enslaved people in the South, who deserted their plantations to assist and join the Union war effort.
But understanding why the Civil War occurred in the first place requires us to look to the mass antislavery movement that brought Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party to power. It was the Republican capture of the federal government that provoked Southern secession, and as historian Matt Karp writes, the party achieved this “[by] linking the moral battle against slavery to the material concerns of millions of Northern voters.”
The ideological connection that the antislavery movement and Republican Party forged between the material interests of ordinary white Northerners and the freedom of enslaved black people helped make it possible for many Northern whites to find common cause with the enslaved and, again, to perceive a common enemy.
Republicans’ mass appeal rested in large part on developmental and egalitarian economic policies that ran counter to the interests of the slave-owning class, including tariffs and federal infrastructure spending. Their central economic proposal, Karp says, was “a homestead act by which the government would give away millions of acres of land for free.”
This policy, opposed by the pro-slavery Democratic Party, was justified by its advocates with the argument that citizens should be able to live on and work their own land for themselves, as “free laborers,” rather than be subject to the domination of landowners or industrial capitalists.
As Karp notes, it also depended, wrongly, “on an assumption that the North American West rightly belonged to Euro-American settlers, not its indigenous inhabitants.” The denial of prior inhabitants’ rights to the land was a justification for a different racist monstrosity — the displacement and mass murder of indigenous peoples, which could never be justified.
Southern opposition to the Act, led by the region’s enormously wealthy oligarchs, allowed Republicans to portray the slave owners as proponents of land monopoly and plutocracy, and hence as opponents of liberty for both white and black people. In doing so Republicans provided a material basis for Northern white solidarity with enslaved black people against the “slave aristocracy.”
Many Northerners also saw the pro-slavery laws passed by Congress as direct attacks on their own freedom, revealing the dominance of the slaveholding class over the political system. The House of Representatives passed a “gag rule” in 1836 barring from consideration any petition or resolution regarding slavery. Many viewed the law as an attack on their political liberties; it encouraged antislavery activism and actually resulted in a significant increase in petitions to Congress.
In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which forced private citizens to aid in the capture and return of enslaved fugitives. Defiance of the act was punishable by fine or imprisonment. The law was met with outrage and civil disobedience in the North: even many who had been less sympathetic to the abolitionist cause saw the act as the product of a “slave power conspiracy” to subject Northern whites as well as enslaved blacks to the power of the slave owners. Like the gag rule, the Fugitive Slave Act heightened antagonism to slavery.
Republican appeals to white Northerners’ economic and political freedom went hand-in-hand with increasingly strong moral denunciations of slavery and its perpetrators. Partly through the party’s electoral campaigns and propaganda efforts, both a sense of shared interests with enslaved people and a moral hatred of slave owners came to be established in the minds of millions of Northern voters.
Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase’s comments during the 1856 election were typical of Republican rhetoric, which made the continued existence of slavery a threat to the freedom of all Americans:
[T]he popular heart is stirred as never before, for the issue is boldly made between Freedom and Slavery — a Republic and a Despotism! … The chain-gang and Republicanism cannot coexist, and you must now elect whether you will vindicate the one at whatever cost, or whether you will yield to the other.
Sentiments like these led to the election of an antislavery government. That election in turn put the country on the road to a social revolution, in which black and white Americans fought side-by-side to defeat the Confederacy and abolish slavery.
Socialists, Labor, and the Civil Rights Movement
The movements which brought about abolition in Haiti and the United States provide particularly dramatic examples of the power of solidarity. But we don’t need to look so far back in time to make the point. The US Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century was led by many activists, including socialists and labor organizers, who connected the struggle for black liberation with wider fights for economic justice.
Black workers led the struggle for civil rights in the 1940s, through participation in militant unions belonging to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and especially the most left-wing unions, led by members of the Communist Party. Radical unions like the United Public Workers of America fought against discrimination and for full rights for their black workers.
Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America fought against racist police and voter disenfranchisement in Jim Crow–era North Carolina. Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union of San Francisco also fought racial discrimination against its black workers in the 1940s.
Many of these Communist-led unions were destroyed by McCarthyism and the Red Scare in the 1950s, significantly setting back struggles for racial justice. Even so, many leading activists of the Civil Rights Movement later on continued working to forge multiracial coalitions, by connecting anti-racism with broader redistributive demands. Paul Heideman writes:
At the grassroots, organizers like Ella Baker or Bayard Rustin came out of the Old Left, and knew full well that legal equality without redistribution would be a hollow victory. The 1963 March on Washington was built with crucial assistance from the United Autoworkers, and the march’s full title was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The policy objectives of this tendency in the movement were summed up in the Freedom Budget, a proposal that attempted to translate the Civil Rights Movement into a campaign for full employment and public works.
Martin Luther King Jr, best remembered for his passionate moral speeches against racism, was a supporter of the Freedom Budget. Toward the end of his life, King declared the need for “democratic socialism” and began organizing a Poor People’s Campaign to demand economic justice. (He was assassinated before the campaign began, when he traveled to Memphis to support a strike of black sanitation workers.)
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, radical activists like those involved in Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers also sought to reconnect anti-racist struggle to workplace militancy. The League fought racism in the auto plants and within their own union, while building multiracial solidarity with other workers around their shared interests.
Civil rights activists of various stripes refused to separate anti-racist struggle from class struggle. Many of the movement’s successes in fact depended on linking struggles against racism with economic demands, within the workplace or outside of it. And movement leaders like King realized that the movement for racial equality would not make further progress without tackling economic equality. That vision of anti-racism linked the interests of black Americans with poor and working-class whites.
An Injury to One Is an Injury to All
White people have a moral obligation to help dismantle white supremacy. But it would be wrong to see anti-racism only as a moral imperative. Now, as in the past, poor and working-class white people have a shared interest in fighting racism and destroying its material infrastructure.
Policies and institutions responsible for the severe oppression of black people and other people of color hurt the entire working class. Our massive, heavily militarized police forces kill black people at higher levels than whites, but kill the poor of all races at higher rates than the rich; mass incarceration locks up black people at much higher rates than whites, but it also locks up an enormous number of white people and represses labor organizing; xenophobic immigration restrictions also make it harder for workers to organize. That means working people of all races have a material stake in defunding the police, dismantling mass incarceration, and ending repression of immigrants.
The emancipatory potential of anti-racist demands for the working class as a whole is nothing new, of course. As Jamelle Bouie documents, the black freedom struggle in America has long been bound up with struggles against the dominance of capital and for economic redistribution.
Those who participated in great freedom struggles of the past did not lose sight of their common plight and common enemies. Neither should we. White people can act in solidarity with people of color to fight racial oppression and to work toward collective liberation.