By Mo Duale
The footage of George Floyd, Ahmed Arbery’s and the murder of Breona Taylor quaked public discussion for the last few months, dominating the internet and private conversations. With conversations ranging across systemic racism, police brutality, and excessive force – a sugar-coated phrase for state-sanctioned violence – defunding the said police, and so on. The conversation that interested me the most was, one we have all had, the legitimacy of the phrase “All Lives Matter” and the more colourful variants “Blue/White Lives Matter”.
Starting out as a slogan for the counter-protests, it has been pushed primarily by conservative and right-wing pundits. Their main argument largely revolves around “white people die from police brutality as well”, which has been met with criticism, not because white or other lives don’t matter, but because they are using those white lives murdered by the police as a “gotcha you leftist” moment and a way of dismissing and denying the existence of institutional racism.
By pointing out police brutality towards white people, logically, they should join the march against police brutality, but paradoxically they’re often marching against the BLM and siding with the police in question.
The working class of America, white and BAME, both, to highly disproportionate degrees, face the deficiencies of the capitalist system, such as high unemployment rates, lack of/subpar healthcare – as seen in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black communities and the higher risk of maternal mortality among black women -, homelessness, austerity measures that chip away at the welfare state during economic crises and most dramatically, police brutality. But what rifts these two groups apart? There is no short answer.
W.E.B Du Bois in his 1933 book Black Reconstruction in America, highlighted the existence of the two proletariats, one white and the other black, he wrote in 1935:
“The Black proletariat is not part of the white proletariat. . . while Negro labor in America suffers because of the fundamental inequities of the whole capitalist system, the lowest and most fatal degree of its suffering comes not from the capitalists but from fellow white laborers. It is white labor that deprives the Negro of his right to vote, denies him education, denies him affiliation with trade unions, expels him from decent houses and neighborhoods, and heaps upon him the public insults of open color discrimination”.
Du Bois shows us that the across the 13 American colonies, the landowning elite gave the poor white laborer a role of slave patrols, in an era where slave resistance and getaways were high, most notably the Haitian Revolution, the Richmond Rebellion in 1800, and the Charleston Rebellion. In order to stifle any type of revolt, Du Bois writes “The system of slavery demanded a special police force and such a force was made possible and unusually effective by the presence of the poor”.
This relationship between the white labourers and the black labourers, coupled with the ideas of scientific racism and white supremacy, crushed any prospects of solidarity between the two proletariats. This role gave the poor whites a special place and a role in the booming economic system that was the cotton, sugar, rice business, and of course the most essential ‘property’ at the heart of the empire, slavery.
Du Bois writes: “it gave him [the white man] work and some authority as overseer, slave driver, and member of the patrol system. But above and beyond this, it fed his vanity because it associated him with the masters. whites … If he had any ambition at all it was to become a planter and to own “[slaves].” He fancies himself, not as a part of a working-class, but as a temporarily embarrassed bourgeoisie. Hence why “Make America Great Again” resonates with the white proletariat. He does not seek unity with someone he considers inferior to him.
The white labourer was essentially given the role of a watchdog/sheriff with the formation of the early form of law enforcement and property protection in 1704. The law being enforced, and the property being protected had long been African Americans. After the civil war, the laws shifted ever so slightly and so did the title, and the sheriffs were again implementing “the enslavement and disenfranchisement of freed slaves”. This continued into the 20th century with the enforcement of Jim Crow and segregation laws. It is important to understand that the American police departments are not broken or deficient, on the contrary, they’re working as they should and have been for centuries. The primary objective being “Protect and serve property and capital”.
To the average white American throughout history, when asked, say that the policeman is a hero, a protector of society, and the upholder of the old French and American revolution’s motto, “liberté égalité fraternité ou la mort” (“freedom, equality, brotherhood or death”). But to your average African American, the policeman along with his master, not only lack these values, but they are insensible to it. As Frantz Fanon would put it “he represents not only the absence of [these] values, but also the negation of [these] values. He is, let us dare to admit, the enemy of values (liberty)”.
White labour movements and unions during the 1930s did not allow African American workers to gain membership in labour unions. Why would they? To a society that viewed black people as 3/5th up until 1868 with the ratification of the 13th and 14th Amendments, the idea that white labourers and a black labourer could join in arms to increase bargaining position was absurd. In fact, this division between the working classes was doing their capitalist counterparts a favour. It allowed employers to drive down all wages for white, black, and immigrant workers. The race factor proved an easy and effective tactic to foster an atmosphere of hostility.
Attempts at uniting the poor whites, blacks, and Latinos have been met with hostility. In Chicago Illinois, Fred Hampton, 21-year-old chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, formed the Rainbow Coalition, a union between the Black Panthers, Young Leftists (White Southern labour organisation), and the Young Lords (Latino civil rights organisation). The FBI took an interest and this interest took the form of COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program). Fred Hampton was murdered by Chicago PD in his sleep, with his pregnant girlfriend lying next to him. This effectively stifled the Rainbow Coalition’s progress by not only removing its head and founder but also by sending a clear message to any other workers’ coalitions promoting ideas of racial unity. Other forms of threats, infiltrations, assassinations, and acts of terrorism threatened and took the lives of many civil rights activists including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, to whom they sent letters trying to convince him to commit suicide.
The “All/White/Blue Lives Matter” carry the same baton carried by the anti-civil rights campaigners who cheered on the policemen with the billy clubs and the dogs at Selma, except now they wear red hats and tweet #whitelivesmatter. The white proletariat displays a certain level of selfishness and myopia that stifles its own progress as a class, with its racism and xenophobia.
What is to be done? In order to put the working classes of America and Europe on the right track, we must first address and fight the structures splitting the two proletariats. Taking a page of the Hampton and the Rainbow Coalition’s playbook of proletariat unity in order to achieve a safer and a more politico-economically democratic republic. That vision of a united proletariat seems distant in my mind eyes, the reality being, the rise of fascism and Trumpism is far more appealing to the white proletariat, because the simple ugly truth is, a future of a united proletariat seems distant because of the deep-seated racialism that is built into America as a political and an economic machine. Yet the optimist in me looks at the turn out for Black Lives Matter and that alone is enough of a second wind to keep marching. To summarise in the words of Karl Marx, “Labor in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin”.
Mo Duale is a final year Biomedical Science student at the University of Surrey.