More than half a century ago, shortly before his death, Malcolm X spoke boldly of the entangled relationship between racism, poverty, and the geopolitical conditions of his time:
I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice, and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation . . . it is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of black against white, or as a purely American problem. Rather, we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.
Yet even today, it is easy for us to forget, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by the Minneapolis police, that this fatal atrocity was not just a matter of brutality against black communities. Instead, what the world witnessed was the barbarous enactment of racism, as part of a wider system of exploitation.
There is no question that those of us who have struggled for freedom, justice, and equality over the course of decades celebrate with immense gratitude the efforts and triumphs of the Black Lives Matter movement. That movement has mobilized on the street the social imagination, political resistance, and disruptive power of people long overwhelmed by racism and other institutional forms of oppression — forms that interconnect inextricably to maintain the power of government and the control of wealth by the very few, in this country and around the world.
To fully comprehend the magnitude of the current moment, we must direct our attention to building solidarity across communities. That requires us to highlight the “original sin” of the United States.
Contrary to the claims of many, the original sin did not singularly concern slavery — as barbaric as that economic enterprise was to the lives of black people.
The original sin was unquestionably the establishment of a colonizing settler state on indigenous land, along with the introduction of forced labor and slavery. That original sin has historically permeated the very fiber of every US institution, in the same way the scent of a skunk defies erasure.
Moreover, the forced removal and genocide of the First Nations, along with the atrocities associated with slavery, established a pattern of white supremacy — not as an add-on to an otherwise healthy system, but rather as a fundamental feature of Western imperialism. As such, the empire that came to be known as the United States was built squarely upon the ruthless removal of populations, the enslavement of black people, the colonial annexation of desired territories, and the extractive exploitation of low-paid workers.
It was precisely his recognition of these fatally oppressive social and material forces that compelled Martin Luther King Jr to organize the Poor People’s March on Washington in the spring of 1968. The purpose of the march was to call for economic justice for poor people in the United States, demanding economic and human rights for poor Americans of all racial backgrounds.
The Poor People’s Campaign sought to unite all oppressed communities on the basis of their common experiences of hardship and around a national solution that could benefit them all. Toward that end, Dr King wrote the following:
People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say: “We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way . . . and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.”
Unfortunately, shortly before the Poor People’s March on Washington was due to be held, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated.
Today, we face a myriad of consequences related to Dr King’s unrealized dream. Aggressive community policing directly tied to racism and class struggle is a prime example. Colonial America mandated guns for the white population, so that they could take part in the policing and suppression of African slaves, as well as the annihilation of the First Nations. In fact, ordinances prohibited the sale of guns to members of the First Nations; it was a traitorous offense subject to hanging.
In this country, policing came to be associated with whiteness and the protection of property and wealth. Law enforcement was constructed around the “original sin,” condemning the populations that were the principal targets of early law enforcement to be under constant surveillance and suspicion, right up to the present day.
As such, acts of police violence against African-American and Latino communities over the years have often been pardoned as lying within the call of duty, or else dismissed as the action of one deranged individual. This form of officially sanctioned state violence, however, must be directly linked to a structure of racialized economic repression that was established to guarantee the stability of the US capitalist economy — an economy that requires the political marginalization and economic impoverishment of a large percentage of the world’s population.
Historically US racism and state violence has extended beyond our borders. Over the last century, ruthless forms of political, economic, and military intervention in Latin America, Asia, and other parts of the world have created dire economic conditions for millions of people — many of whom were left with no alternative but to leave their countries of origin, whether to escape death squads or to find a means to care for their families.
For Latino immigrants, their journey to the north has often exposed them to more violence, in the form of the policing tactics used by Border Patrol agents. For those who remain in their countries, the hidden practices of US transnational corporations, sanctioned by free trade agreements, have exploited a cheap labor force and perpetuated inhumane working conditions that are akin to slave labor.
Beyond economic questions, populations of color in the United States have been presented as “the other” in a variety of ways. The Latino community does not consist of one monolithic people, although it is frequently treated as such (Cuban exiles excepted). However, Donald Trump’s reference to “Mexicans,” when he first announced his bid for the presidency in 2015, turned out to be nothing more than a generic term for immigrants from Latin America. Latino communities within the borders of the United States are primarily perceived as nonwhite and questionably human — a history they share with black Americans.
Those Mexicans who were annexed — along with their land — by the United States in 1848 were supposed to have been classified as “white,” according to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. But nothing of the sort happened, with the rare exception of Spanish Creoles. Mexicans and Native Americans saw their lands expropriated, treaties violated, and populations relocated.
They suffered the constant violence of racist vigilantes and law enforcement and were forced into a system of racial segregation and subordination. Their existence was shaped by their direct experience of racialized capital — a system where racism is essential to economic exploitation.
Puerto Ricans were also the victims of colonial annexation that ignored demands for sovereignty. Instead, the island became a colony of the United States. Although it has been renamed as a Commonwealth, its status undermines any semblance of self-determination. With their lands and economy destroyed, Puerto Ricans in the thousands migrated to the mainland where they became part of the mainstream’s “other,” segregated into barrios, restricted to unskilled positions, trapped in failing schools, and subject to rampant police violence.
Clearly, the experiences of African Americans and other racialized groups are not identical. But neither are the experiences of Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Latin American immigrants, despite the fact these populations are all classified as Latino. Nor are the experiences of wealthy African Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, or Latin American immigrants the same as their working-class counterparts.
There are significant overlaps across the common experiences of working-class communities that, as King understood, can serve as the foundation for both a national and international campaign of strategic unity. This is surely something that all left and progressive activists from within our respective communities should be pondering at such an important historical moment of crisis.
As the Black Lives Matter movement gains impetus in this country and abroad, all people who seek freedom, justice, and equality can celebrate its inspirational momentum. It has the capacity to generate calls for social and material change for black communities and to reignite not only resistance, but also our capacity to dream.
Yet we must not lose sight of the fact that this important movement against anti-black racism is occurring in the midst of a historic pandemic. That pandemic has amplified the excesses and inhumanity of capitalism, with its horrendous impact on the lives not only of African-American communities, but also of Latino, First Nations, and other oppressed populations worldwide, who have to suffer the atrocities of capitalist greed and indifference.
Beyond our virulent histories of genocide, slavery, and colonization, the brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of police and the appallingly high rates of COVID-19 infection and death among people of color can serve as an impetus for building unity between social movements in this country and around the world. Struggles against state-sanctioned police brutality and mass incarceration of colored bodies must also be linked to the militarization of the US-Mexico border, the inhumane caging of immigrant children, and the crowded deportation centers that have led to the viral spread of COVID-19.
As we celebrate the remarkable feat of bringing masses of people onto the streets worldwide, let us recall that the greatest moments of political change have always sprung from the commitment of everyday people to work in solidarity to overcome our common suffering. Establishing strategic unity across our interconnected struggles is the political vision required today for communities who have long endured the merciless impact of racialized capital.
More than ever, strategic unity is essential to ameliorate the torment of working people in this country and abroad. Such unity can open the way to rebuilding the labor movement and putting forward a challenge in the electoral arena, where pivotal battles are being fought over whether this country continues on its path toward neofascism, or embraces a transformative political direction of social and economic justice.