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Arabs and Muslims–and sometimes those who simply appear to be Arab or Muslim–are bearing the brunt of a series of hate crimes caused by institutional racism.

Originally posted here

Islamophobic vandalism found last week covering a grave in Evergreen Park, Illinois
Islamophobic vandalism found last week covering a grave in Evergreen Park, Illinois

THE UGLY fruits of institutional racism against Arabs and Muslims are becoming more apparent every day–with terrifying results for already embattled communities.

In the wake of the shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., a series of ugly attacks have been carried out against several mosques and Islamic While Sikhs are not Muslims, Sikh men wear turbans, and so they and their temples have become frequent targets of racist threats and violence.

Such attacks are not carried out in isolation, however. They come in the context of increasingly toxic rhetoric from right-wing Republicans bent on demonizing Muslims, bolstered by a far-right Islamophobic hate industry. But the Democrats are implicated, too. While the party establishment may not engage in openly racist rhetoric, Democratic politicians are largely content to allow the right’s demonization of Arabs and Muslims to go unchallenged. That’s because there’s bipartisan support for the “war on terror” that was used to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, and few Democratic politicians are willing to risk being seen as “soft on terror.”

So it’s little wonder that anti-Muslim bigots and thugs think they have a green light.

An August 14 Salon.com story noted eight violent incidents in just 11 days, including paintball attacks, a homemade chemical bomb and arson. In one grotesque act of vandalism, women threw pig’s legs in the driveway of the proposed Al-Nur Islamic Center in Ontario, Calif.

In another incident, which came to light after the Salon story was published, racist anti-Islam graffiti was discovered defiling the gravesite of a Muslim man in Evergreen Park, Ill. The gravestone has been defaced at least six times in the last 16 months, according to authorities.

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JUST AS with any other struggle against racism, the deciding factor in stopping anti-Muslim and anti-Arab violence will be a movement that stands in defense of those oppressed communities. But to succeed, the movement will need to challenge not only neo-Nazis like Oak Creek shooter Wade Michael Page, but the powerful political forces that incite such violence.

Among the leading hate-mongers is Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Bachmann–who seems to think a jihadist spy is hiding behind every door–recently charged that prominent figures including Huma Abedin, an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress, had shadowy ties to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. According to Bachmann, the Muslim Brotherhood is working for “America’s demise” though an attempt to influence the federal government.

Bachmann has been joined in her accusations by various current and former GOP congresspersons, as well as commenters and heads of conservative groups.

In such a climate, those of Middle Eastern or Arab descent–or people who might simply be deemed to “look” Middle Eastern or Arab, including South Asians–easily become targets.

It’s no surprise, for example, that several of the recent anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate crimes were centered in suburban Chicago and came just days after Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh held a town hall meeting where he “warned” a crowd of his mostly white supporters:

I’m looking for some godly men and women in the Senate, in the Congress, who will stand in the face of the danger of Islam in America without political correctness. Islam is not the peaceful, loving religion we hear about…[T]here is a radical strain of Islam in this country…trying to kill Americans every week.

For Walsh and other politicians, this kind of rhetoric is the crassest kind of dog-whistle politics–a way of mobilizing racist sentiment to boost the right’s voter turnout. This approach means never having to answer any meaningful questions about the things that matter most in people’s lives: how can we fix the economy, pay for health care, create good jobs and schools.

Four days after his comments, the impact of Walsh’s racism became clear. In Morton Grove, Ill., David Conrad began shooting an air rifle at the mosque next to his house as 500 congregants were gathered inside for evening prayers. And just two days after that, a soda bottle filled with household chemicals designed to explode and make a loud noise was thrown at an Islamic school in Lombard, Ill.

As journalist Ghazala Irshad, who attended the Morton Grove mosque as a child, wrote, “My baby sister wonders if she will have to wear a bulletproof vest during Eid prayers. If this isn’t terrorism, then I don’t know what is.”

Joe Walsh may be a right-wing crank, but he is an incredibly powerful one–in his position as a member of Congress, he sits on the Committee on Homeland Security.

As the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Aymen Abdel Halim told ABC 7 Chicago, the words of people like Walsh are directly responsible for letting bigots off the leash:

What we’ve seen is a trend during election times where there’s this rise in anti-Muslim sentiment, there’s this Islamophobic rhetoric that gets spewed out by various public figures and public officials, and we feel that contributes to these acts of violence. We need our public officials to stand up against it. We need them to come out and say these acts are not okay. Sure, there might be some issues that [Muslims] need to address, however, an entire community, 1.5 billion people, are not to account for any crimes whatsoever of a few.

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THE RIGHT-wing assault on Arabs and Muslims isn’t just promoted by Washington hacks like Walsh. Politicians like him take their cues from an organized Islamophobia industry spearheaded by virulent racists like Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer.

Geller and Spencer–two of the most prominent opponents of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” in New York City in 2010–are currently funding pro-Israel bus ads in San Francisco which read: “In the war between the civilized man and the savage, you side with the civilized man.” A court has cleared the way for the ads to appear on New York’s MTA system as well.

In a positive sign, a public outcry forced San Francisco’s transit authority to counter with its own large disclaimers on buses, reading, “[San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency] policy prohibits discrimination based on national origin, religion, and other characteristics, and condemns any statements that describe any group as ‘savages.'”

The transit agency has also announced that money from the sale of the ads will be given to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, and several unknown “artists” havecountered the ads by pasting the words “Hate Speech”–and more–over them.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes and hate groups in the U.S., the last several years have seen a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes as a result of the kind of rhetoric from Geller and others:

Anti-Muslim hate crimes soared by 50 percent in 2010, skyrocketing over 2009 levels in a year marked by the incendiary rhetoric of Islam-bashing politicians and activists, especially over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” in New York City.

Although the national statistics compiled by the FBI each year are known to vastly understate the real level of hate crime, they do offer telling indications of some trends. The latest statistics, showing a jump from 107 anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2009 to 160 in 2010, seem to reflect the consequences of a rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric from groups like Stop Islamization of America…It was the highest level of anti-Muslim hate crimes since 2001, the year of the Sept. 11 attacks, when the FBI reported 481 anti-Muslim hate crimes…

It’s not provable precisely how hateful rhetoric from public figures drives criminal violence. But anecdotal evidence suggests the link it a tight one.

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BUT DISCRIMINATION against the Muslim and Arab communities is not solely a feature of the right.

It is also fueled by the Democrats’ wars abroad and tacit demonization of Arabs and Muslims, as well as the Democrats’ hesitancy to stand unapologetically in defense of the rights of those oppressed communities.

As Deepa Kumar notes in Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire:

Domestically, [President Barack] Obama has attacked Muslims and Arabs by continuing Bush’s policies of torture, extraordinary rendition and pre-emptive prosecution. American Muslims continue to be harassed and persecuted by the state. The drama of “homegrown terrorism” was only heightened under Obama in 2009, paving the way for the far-right-wing Islamophobic warriors.

In fact, state surveillance, harassment and intimidation of Arab and Muslim communities by law enforcement has been a wholly bipartisan effort that continues across the U.S. Mosques have been spied on, and FBI officials have sent in informants to pose as converts and attempt to bait mosque attendees with talk of “jihad” and “Osama.”

This week, an Associated Press report noted:

In more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations and cataloguing mosques, the New York Police Department’s secret Demographics Unit never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation, the department acknowledged in court testimony unsealed late Monday.

The Demographics Unit, according to police, was supposed to serve as an “early warning system” for terrorism. Instead, it served as a system for harassment. And it was a model for other police departments across the U.S.

Civil liberties attorney Jethro Eisenstein described it as “a terribly pernicious set of policies. No other group since the Japanese Americans in World War II has been subjected to this kind of widespread public policy.”

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THE COMPARISON is an important one. During the Second World War, when Japanese Americans were interred as part of official wartime policy, the effects of institutional anti-Japanese racism were similar. Bigots circulated “Jap hunting licenses.” A 1944 Gallup poll showed a significant portion of the U.S. population (13 percent) was in favor of the extermination of all Japanese people–every man, woman and child.

Today, Arabs and Muslims similarly have been declared Public Enemy Number One in the war on terror, with occasional trumped up terrorism prosecutions like that of theNewburgh Four, or Tarek Mehanna–people who are clearly not terrorists by any conventional definition, but who can be entrapped or railroaded by zealous government prosecutors looking to score cheap political victories.

A 2010 Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans hold an unfavorable view of Islam. And in a Washington Post-ABC News poll the same year, 31 percent of respondents said that mainstream Islam “encourages violence.”

And while there may not be “Muslim hunting licenses” today (at least not in “polite” society) racist thrill seekers can now participate in a re-enactment of the killing of Osama bin Laden (in the comfort of St. Paul, Minn., for those who don’t want to go to Pakistan)–all for the bargain price of $325.

As part of the experience, former Navy Seal Larry Yatch, who runs the shooting gallery, tells his would-be soldiers to aim for “anything above the moustache to below the turban.”

Think about that. A former Navy Seal selling an “adventure” to people in which they get to shoot at and “kill” a turbaned man, wearing Middle Eastern clothing, for sport.

Are we really so surprised when the lines between official rhetoric and policies bleed over into acts of racist hate that terrorize communities and even take lives?

Since a gunman opened fire on a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in July, both Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have made separate visits to grieving victims and their families. But for the families of those killed at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, there have been no similar visits–from the Obamas or from Mitt Romney.

“Why wouldn’t they, at some point, make a stand? Make a stand for everybody out there who’s ever been robbed, or gunned down or has faced this hatred,” asked Amardeep Kaleka, whose father was killed in the attack on the gurdwara.

He added:

If this was a Christian church and it was a Sikh shooter, I’m pretty sure we’d have a different response if the same exact situation happened. That’s pretty sad, because we’d have undeniable recourse and actions from the government, or at least a show of support. Here we barely have any support from the federal government or even the local government.

Kaleka is right. There is a not-too-subtle message being sent: some victims are worthy of official grieving, some are not. Some lives are worth more than others.

This kind of climate raises the real possibility of further attacks. We need to do everything we can to counter this climate of hate by taking on the politicians that help fuel it and standing in solidarity with our Muslim, Sikh and Arab brothers and sisters–as well as any other community that becomes a target.

In 1967, Martin Luther King published a book called Where Do We Go from Here? that set out a proposal for “Phase Two” of the movement.

Originally posted here

THIS YEAR, the holiday celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday has taken on a special significance. For millions, King’s struggle to smash racial barriers finds its highest symbolic fulfillment in the inauguration of the first African American president.

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COLUMNIST: BRIAN JONES

Brian Jones
Brian Jones is a teacher, actor and activist in New York City. He is featured in the new film The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, and his commentary and writing has appeared on MSNBC.com, theHuffington PostGritTV and theInternational Socialist Review. Jones has also lent his voice to several audiobooks, including Howard Zinn’s one-man playMarx in Soho, Wallace Shawn’s Essaysand Noam Chomsky’s Hopes and Prospects.

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One can hardly set foot on Harlem’s main artery of 125th Street without seeing literally hundreds of posters (in windows, or for sale from sidewalk vendors) depicting Obama and King together. No doubt, King’s name and King’s words will be on the lips of many who cross the inaugural stage.

It’s a good thing that King is the object of so much official praise. But we should never forget that this wasn’t always the case. Although he was assassinated in 1968, the campaign to acknowledge King’s special contribution to this country with a national holiday wasn’t won until 1986.

In the last year of his life, King actually became the source of much official derision, particularly after his public denunciation–at the Riverside Church in Harlem in April 1967–of the war in Vietnam. King, breaking with many of the more timid civil rights leaders, spoke out forcefully against what he called, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”

Did the liberal Democratic Party establishment leap to King’s defense? Did they praise his courage?

King speaks in support of the Memphis sanitation workers to an overflow crowd at the Mason Temple ChurchKing speaks in support of the Memphis sanitation workers to an overflow crowd at the Mason Temple Church

Not exactly. Consider the reaction to the speech by then-President Lyndon Johnson, who fumed in the Oval Office: “What is that goddamn nigger preacher trying to do to me?”

In 1957, Time magazine had named King its “Man of the Year.” After his 1967 speech, it ran an article called “Confusing the Cause,” which chastised King for daring to speak about something other than civil rights. The article called King a:

drawling bumkin, so ignorant that he had not read a newspaper in years, who had wandered out of his native haunts and away from his natural calling.

Dr. King was murdered exactly one year after the speech at Riverside Church. In that last year of his life, he campaigned for radical, social-democratic reforms that are still far beyond what the Democratic Party is prepared to accept.

 

WHAT ELSE TO READ

Brian Jones expands on the final months of the civil rights leader’s life in “Martin Luther King’s last fight,” published in theInternational Socialist Review.

Michael Honey’s Going Down Jericho Road tells the story of the Memphis sanitation strike, vividly rendering its dynamics and King’s role in it.

One of the best biographies of King isBearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, by David Garrow. King’s last years are the subject of At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68, the final volume of Taylor Branch’s multi-part biography.

For an overview of the struggle against racism in the U.S., from slavery to the present day, get Black Liberation and Socialism, by Ahmed Shawki. For more on the development of the civil rights struggle specifically, read Jack Bloom’sClass, Race and the Civil Rights Movement.

 

In 1967, he published a book called Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? I spent the last week re-reading it. It’s a dense, wide-ranging text, and a powerful polemic (rendered in the magnificent prose for which he is famous) for what King called “Phase Two” of the movement.

Readers of the book will find that King presents a radical analysis of the origin and nature of racism, and a perspective for future organizing that would, if carried out, shake American capitalism to its core.

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BY THE time King sat down to write this book, the civil rights movement had won the major legislation it sought. King recognized that those victories hardly changed the real structure of racism in America, but they did create a mass transformation in consciousness:

To sit at a lunch counter or occupy the front seat of a bus had no effect on our material standard of living, but in removing a caste stigma, it revolutionized our psychology and elevated the spiritual content of our being.

But “Phase Two” of the movement would have to challenge economic inequality:

[D]ignity is also corroded by poverty…No worker can maintain his morale or sustain his spirit if in the market place his capacities are declared to be worthless to society.

Compared to the cost of creating real equality, the civil rights victories were “cheap”:

The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap. The limited reforms have been obtained at bargain rates. The real cost lies ahead. The stiffening of white resistance is a recognition of that fact.

The discount education given Negroes will in the future have to be purchased at full price if quality education is to be realized. Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication of slums housing millions is complex far beyond integrating buses and lunch counters.

That “resistance”–the white backlash–against the gains of the civil rights movement began before the ink had dried on the chief pieces of civil rights legislation, signed into law by Johnson in 1964 and 1965. Further, Northern liberal politicians who funded King’s campaigns to desegregate the South were the very ones presiding over the segregated slums in the North:

When, in the last session of Congress, the issue came home to the North through a call for open housing legislation, white Northern congressmen who had enthusiastically supported the 1964 and 1965 civil rights bills now joined a mighty chorus of anguish and dismay reminiscent of Alabama and Mississippi.

So while King thought that riots were counterproductive, and he disagreed with the popular slogan “Black Power,” he rejected the logic of blaming the victim and identified racism as the real root of the problem:

The persistence of racism in depth and the dawning awareness that Negro demands will necessitate structural changes in society have generated a new phase of white resistance in North and South.

Based on the cruel judgment that Negroes have come far enough, there is a strong mood to bring the civil rights movement to a halt or reduce it to a crawl. Negro demands that yesterday evoked admiration and support, today–to many–have become tiresome, unwarranted and a disturbance to the enjoyment of life. Cries of Black Power and riots are not the causes of white resistance, they are consequences of it.

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KING MOVED his family to Chicago and led a campaign there against the manifestations and institutions of Northern racism, but his nonviolent tactics were unable to wrest major concessions from city officials.

A sense of frustration had set into the Black ghetto, evidenced by the urban riots that swept hundreds of American cities from 1965 to 1968. Once, King even spoke before a Black audience and was booed. That night, he tossed and turned, trying to understand what was happening to Black consciousness:

Why would they boo one so close to them? But as I lay awake thinking, I finally came to myself, and I could not for the life of me have less than patience and understanding for those young people.

For 12 years, I, and others like me, had held out radiant promises of progress. I had preached to them about my dream. I had lectured to them about the not-too-distant day when they would have freedom, “all, here and now.” I had urged them to have faith in America and in white society. Their hopes soared.

They were now booing because they felt that we were unable to deliver on our promises. They were booing because we had urged them to have faith in people who had too often proved to be unfaithful. They were now hostile because they were watching the dream that they had so readily accepted turn into a frustrating nightmare.

King warned that the legacy of racism in America would not be easily or quickly overcome. He recalled the tendency of the country to take “one step forward on the question of racial justice, and then take a step backward,” and drew an historical parallel with the freeing of the slaves:

In 1863, the Negro was given abstract freedom expressed in luminous rhetoric. But in an agrarian economy, he was given no land to make liberation concrete…As Frederick Douglass came to say, “Emancipation granted the Negro freedom to hunger, freedom to winter amid the rains of heaven. Emancipation was freedom and famine at the same time.”

What did this history demonstrate to King?

All of this tells us that the white backlash is nothing new. White America has been backlashing on the fundamental God-given and human rights of Negro Americans for more than 300 years.

Interestingly, King stopped short of asserting racism as a universal or permanent feature of American society. He argued, instead, that its origins lay in the economics of the African slave trade. Racism was the result, not the cause of slavery:

It is important to understand that the basis for the birth, growth and development of slavery in America was primarily economic…It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some rationalization to clothe their acts in the garments of righteousness. And so, with the growth of slavery, men had to convince themselves that a system which was so economically profitable, was morally justifiable. The attempt to give a moral sanction to a profitable system gave birth to the doctrine of white supremacy.

It follows from this understanding of the social roots of racism that, just as it was made, racism can be unmade. Furthermore, the logic of the struggle for economic equality, King argued, naturally leads to the question of multiracial struggle:

Racism is a tenacious evil, but it is not immutable. Millions of underprivileged whites are in the process of considering the contradiction between segregation and economic progress. White supremacy can feed their egos but not their stomachs.

King worried that the slogan “Black Power” cut Blacks off from their potential allies:

In the final analysis, the weakness of Black Power is its failure to see that the Black man needs the white man, and the white man needs the Black man. However much we may try to romanticize the slogan, there is no separate Black path to power and fulfillment that does not intersect white paths, and there is no separate white path to power and fulfillment, short of social disaster, that does not share that power with Black aspirations for freedom and human dignity. We are bound together in a single garment of destiny.

Racism actually retarded the organization of poor whites to challenge their own poverty:

There are, in fact, more poor white Americans than there are Negro. Their need for a war on poverty is no less desperate than the Negro’s. In the South, they have been deluded by race prejudice and largely remained aloof from common action. Ironically, with this posture, they were fighting not only the Negro, but themselves.

Did this mean forgetting about racism and “moving on” to a purely economic movement? No–quite the opposite:

It is, however, important to understand that giving a man his due may often mean giving him special treatment. I am aware of the fact that this has been a troublesome concept for many liberals, since it conflicts with their traditional ideal of equal opportunity and equal treatment of people according to their individual merits…

A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.

That “something special,” King argued, would be a massive reparations program–an Economic Bill of Rights:

However much we pool our resources and “buy Black,” this cannot create the multiplicity of new jobs and provide the number of low-cost houses that will lift the Negro out of the economic depression caused by centuries of deprivation. Neither can our resources supply quality integrated education. All of this requires billions of dollars which only an alliance of liberal-labor-civil-rights forces can stimulate.

In short, the Negroes’ problem cannot be solved unless the whole of American society takes a new turn toward greater economic justice.

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WE SHOULD never forget that King died trying to build a movement to get those billions. He was assassinated in Memphis, where he had come to support sanitation workers on strike for union recognition–the very kind of struggle he felt was central to “Phase Two.”

America has elected an African American president–something that would have been impossible only a generation ago. But King’s words remind us of a further “turn” that America has yet to take. A new generation will have to take up this challenge.

In the final pages of Where Do We Go from Here? King calls on a bit of Biblical poetry to urge his readers to build the kind of determined movement that could make their dreams a reality:

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal opposition to poverty, racism and militarism. With this powerful commitment, we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.”

Amen.

A new round of attacks from Barack Obama’s defenders is aimed at anyone who expresses criticism of the administration’s record after two and a half years.

Originally posted here

AS GEORGIA death row prisoner Troy Davis approached execution on September 21, a growing chorus of voices began to wonder aloud whether the nation’s first Black president would intervene to stop a legal lynching.

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KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR

Keeanga-Yamahtta TaylorKeeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review. She is a frequent contributor on the subject of race and class and has written extensively on the struggle for housing justice. Her articles have also appeared on the Black CommentatorCounterPunch and Gaper’s Block Web sites.

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Davis had already been strapped to the gurney in Georgia’s death chamber–and the Supreme Court had begun its hours-long haggling over his appeal for a stay of execution–when White House Press Secretary Jay Carney issued a statement explaining that it was “inappropriate” for the president to say anything at all about the case because this was a state execution.

It was a sobering display of cowardice. We’re supposed to believe that the most powerful political office in the most powerful nation in the world–one that led a war on Libya, that illegally bombs Pakistan with unmanned drones, and that is responsible for assaults in Afghanistan that slaughter wedding parties and unarmed children–was powerless to intervene to stop the murder of an innocent man in Georgia.

Then again, in those rare moments when Barack Obama addresses Black America these days, he always manages to find his tough side. Whether it’s blaming Black fathers for not being men or blaming Black mothers for feeding their children fried chicken for breakfast, Obama never misses an opportunity to blame Black America for the state of Black America.

This past weekend was no different. In an embarrassing show of arrogance, Obama launched into an attack on his Black critics–three days after Davis’ execution and before his body was even in the ground.

President Barack Obama

At a speech in front of the Congressional Black Caucus, Obama chastised the crowd, telling listeners: “Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying.”

That’s an unbelievable statement from a man who hid in the White House while demonstrators around the world had their “marching shoes” on trying to save Troy Davis’ life.

Moreover, if there’s grumbling and crying among the section of the U.S. population that was most enthusiastic in supporting Obama’s campaign for the presidency, it’s because the combination of his policies and inaction has fueled a deepening economic and social disaster throughout Black America.

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THE STATISTICS are truly startling. The official Black unemployment rate, at a 27-year high of 16.7 percent, is only the tip of the iceberg. For African American men, joblessness is even higher, at 19.1 percent. For Black youth, it is 46 percent.

The impact of these catastrophic levels of unemployment can’t be understated. They underline the disproportionate impact of the economic crisis in Black communities across the country. While the news media claim that the U.S. has been out of recession for more than two years according to official standards, Black America is suffering an all-out economic depression.

From spiking unemployment, to rising poverty levels, to a historic collapse of homeownership, any economic gains made by African Americans in the last two decades is being wiped out.

In 2010, the median annual income for Black households was $32,068, down 3.2 percent over the year before–compared to an overall median income of $49,445 across the U.S. The proportion of African Americans who lack health insurance rose to 20.8 percent last year. Some 27.4 percent of Blacks were living in poverty in 2010, according to Census Bureau, more than twice the figure for whites.

Earlier this summer, a study was released that charted the collapse of African American wealth. In 2009, the median net work of Black households fell to $5,677 compared to $113,149 for whites. For African Americans, this was a 55 percent drop from 2005, when Black wealth was still an anemic $12,124.

The wave of foreclosures sweeping Black communities is mostly to blame for this decline in Black wealth.

The sub-prime lending mania of the 2000s resulted in Black homeowners being steered toward expensive, predatory home loans, regardless of income levels or credit standing. And now, declining income and unemployment are leaving homeowners that made it so far unable to make mortgage payments that are excessively high because of the sub-prime loans. And as a consequence, the epidemic of foreclosures in Black neighborhoods is driving down the value of remaining houses.

Yet even as the crisis for Black America grows worse, an increasingly vocal group of prominent African American supporters of Obama are denouncing any expectation that the president should be accountable to the Black population that put him in the White House.

When Black media personality Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornel West organized a 16-city tour to highlight the crisis of poverty growing across the U.S., they were pilloried in the African American media.

In a country with the highest total number of poor people since the government began keeping statistics 51 years ago, and where a record 45 million people survive on food stamps, a “poverty tour” should have been uncontroversial. As Tavis Smiley said of the intention for the tour:

We have to make poor people a priority. When we prioritize something in Washington, they do get done. We prioritize bailing out Wall Street, and it gets done. We prioritize funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it gets done…It’s time for the president to do something about it.

Black liberals should have been lining up to participate in the poverty tour. Instead, West and Smiley were denounced as everything from being jealous and spiteful to being gay lovers for daring to speak out against the inaction of the Obama administration.

By the late summer, even the Congressional Black Caucus was speaking out as Obama set out on a Midwest tour to discuss his proposals for job creation and reviving the economy–and neglected to stop in a single Black community, skipping Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland to name just three of the cities with large populations of jobless Blacks.

As Rep. Maxine Waters put it, “The unemployment is unconscionable. We don’t know what the strategy is. We don’t know why on this trip that he’s on in the United States now, he’s not in any Black community. We don’t know that.”

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BUT INSTEAD of decrying these conditions and pressuring the administration to act, Obama’s apologists have been on the attack. In the last few weeks, three prominent commentaries accused Obama critics of being everything from communists to racists to being out of touch with most Blacks.

For example, Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy, in an article written for CNN titled “Why Obama’s Black critics are wrong,” claims that the “Black rank-and-file,” by contrast, understands the pressures Obama is under, including:

the limits of his authority and the power of the forces arrayed against him, including a large, albeit amorphous, strain of racial resentment. Pained by the economic recession, they refrain from blaming Obama and instead direct their ire at those who not only saddled the first Black chief executive with such a harrowing task of cleanup, but also obstruct him relentlessly and often with barely disguised contempt.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic, blames “Team Commie” for the relentless and “unfair” criticism of Obama:

[B]eing taken seriously involves actual work. It means a poverty tour that doesn’t just bark (Obama the black mascot) but bites (voter registration in swing districts.) If you don’t like the current iteration of America, you need to remember that you are America. The failure to build a more progressive America isn’t merely a testimony to dastardly evil, it’s a testimony to the failure of progressives.

Apparently in Coates and Kennedy’s world, the American presidency is the least powerful position in the world, clearly trumped by the power of “progressives.”

There is no accountability demanded of an administration that dithered in the face of the worst economic crisis in three generations–including during the two years when Democrats controlled both houses of Congresses with a super-majority in each.

Not to be outdone, Nation columnist and former Princeton Professor Melissa Harris-Perry claims that the growing skepticism about the sinking Obama administration is rooted in racism–not of reactionary Republicans, but of white liberals who supported Obama in 2008. In an article titled “Black president, double standard: Why white liberals are abandoning Obama,” Harris-Perry compares white electoral support for former President Bill Clinton in his second term to Obama’s in the lead-up to his reelection campaign. As Harris explains the weakening support for Obama:

I believe much of that decline can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a Black man for president did not prove to be salvific for [whites] or the nation. His record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically reelected. The 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent. If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.

Of course, racism is a constant feature of American politics. Continuing African American support for Obama in spite of his refusal to address the economic unraveling of Black America is in large part the result of the brazen racism of the Republican Party and its commitment to see his administration fail. From one lawmaker calling Obama a liar during a State of the Union address to another referring to the president as a “tar baby,” the racism of the Republicans is out in the open.

But the claim that weakening support for Obama is the result of racism among his base supporters in 2008 is dishonest at best.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE CRUMBLING support for Obama isn’t difficult to understand–in fact, it’s easy. Obama ran for the presidency with the slogan “Yes, we can.” But the unspoken slogan of his presidency has been, “No, we won’t.”

It was the Obama administration that has doggedly continued occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq at a cost of more than $2 billion a week–while never admitting that ending those wars could curtail the U.S. government’s budget woes.

It was the Obama administration that pre-emptively offered up cuts in Social Security and Medicare during the debt-ceiling debate this summer as part of a plan to reduce the deficit by as much as $4 trillion.

It was the Obama administration that proposed a budget which cut heating aid for the poor during one of the most brutal winters in memory. And it was the Obama administration that imposed a wage freeze on a federal workforce that is disproportionately made up of Blacks and women.

Obama abandoned his campaign promise to end the Bush-era tax breaks for the super-rich to make a deal with Republicans last December. And his administration is strong-arming state attorney generals into accepting a settlement with the five largest mortgage lenders over their illegal robo-signing procedures that have led to millions of illegal foreclosures.

These are just a few of the bitter pills that people have choked down in the last two and a half years that raise the question: “Is this what we voted for?”

There are other questions that ought to be asked.

Is it really unrealistic to expect the first African American president of the United States–who during his campaign regularly invoked the legacy of the abolitionist movement against slavery and the Southern civil rights movement–to take a stand against the racism, discrimination and injustice that contorts Black life in the U.S.?

Is it just utopian to believe that a Black president could at least make a statement about Troy Davis when almost 1 million people signed petitions to save his life, when a Republican former head of the FBI and a former president spoke out, and when tens of thousands of people around the world rallied and demonstrated to save his life?

If that is utopian and too much to ask, then we must all ask ourselves another question: What is the point of having elected him in the first place? If Obama is as politically impotent as his supporters claim he is, then what was the point of expending time, money and energy on electing him in the first place? And why expend it again in 2012?

Despite the attempts of Kennedy and Harris-Perry to paint criticism of Obama as coming from either liberal white racists or a “sliver” of Blacks, a Washington Post poll found that while overall African American support for the administration remains at 86 percent, Blacks who have “strongly favorable” views of Obama have fallen from 83 percent five months ago to 54 percent today. Similarly, only 54 percent of Blacks think favorably of Obama’s economic policies, compared to 77 percent a year ago.

The Obama administration and its defenders are worried that struggling Blacks won’t come out in the historic numbers as they did for his first election. But ordinary African Americans will have to fight for their own “Black agenda”–since whoever represents the two parties in the next election will have little to say about the conditions in Black America.

Race and racism are center stage in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination as the South Carolina primary approaches. But as Lee Sustar explains, this issue has been a central factor in U.S. politics for many decades.

January 25, 2008 | Issue 659
Originally posted here

THE ISSUE of race and racism emerged openly at the heart of U.S. politics in the Democratic presidential campaign in January. But as any serious student of U.S. history knows, racism is always beneath the surface of U.S. politics.

The trigger for the current debate was a comment by Sen. Hillary Clinton that “Dr. [Martin Luther] King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.” This was taken by many African American politicians and longtime activists as denigrating the entire Black liberation movement.

Certainly, Obama’s campaign owes its existence to that movement. The fact that an African American is today a serious contender for the presidency is part of the legacy of those who defied the violence and humiliation of American apartheid in the Deep South.

But as Martin Luther King Day approached, Obama chose to highlight the historic impact of another figure in U.S. politics–Ronald Reagan.

“I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” Obama told journalists. “He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.

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WHAT ELSE TO READ

Ahmed Shawki’s Black Liberation and Socialism provides an excellent overview of race and class in U.S. history, with several chapters devoted to the recent past.

Jack Bloom’s Class, Race and the Civil Rights Movement examines the role of class divisions within the African American struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.

For a more general overview of the civil rights movement, Manning Marable’s Race, Reform and Rebellion and Harvard Sitkoff’s The Struggle for Black Equalityare good starting points.

An excellent account of the radicalization of the African American student movement can be found in Clayborne Carson’s In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. For an early but still relevant analysis of the Black Power movement, see Robert Allen’s Black Awakening in Capitalist America.

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“I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown, but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think…he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was [that] we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”

Why would the country’s most prominent African American politician praise the supposed political genius of Reagan, who played the race card all the way to the White House?

Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., where the Ku Klux Klan had murdered three civil rights workers in 1964. In his speech, Reagan declared, “I believe in states’ rights”–the euphemism used by white racists in the 1960s to defend Jim Crow segregation in the South.

Reagan frequently resorted to racially charged stereotypes–the “welfare queen” driving a Cadillac and the “young buck” buying steak with food stamps. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 that ended legal racial discrimination in voting, was, according to Reagan, “humiliating to the South.”

In the Reaganite worldview, the “excesses” of the 1960s and 1970s cited by Obama included the struggle to end legalized racism, not to mention other social movements–against the Vietnam War, and for women’s rights, and gay and lesbian liberation.

Certainly, this can’t be news to Obama. His public appreciation of Reagan is part of a calculated attempt to appeal to “swing” voters–Republicans fed up over the economy, the war, White House incompetence and corruption.

This overture to the right is typical of Obama’s political career. He has positioned himself to the right of the generation of African American politicians that emerged from the civil rights and Black Power movements. The product of an interracial marriage, Obama has been deemed by some pundits as a “post-racial” politician.

The fact, is, however, that no African American in the U.S. can completely avoid the legacy of 500 years of slavery, racism and oppression.

Nevertheless, the relationship between race, class and politics in the U.S. has been transformed in the 40 years between the assassination of Martin Luther King and Obama’s candidacy. Understanding those changes helps provide a framework for understanding both the powerful appeal of Obama’s campaign to millions of people, as well as his moderate politics and the very limited horizons of his call for “change.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE PASSAGE of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 marked the transition from a civil rights movement centered on the South to a Black Power revolt in U.S. cities.

The act was signed into law five months after Martin Luther King’s famous march in Selma, Ala., and five days before the Los Angeles Black ghetto of Watts exploded over an incident of police brutality. With segregation now outlawed, the movement had to reorient on economic and social demands.

As a leader of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X had criticized Martin Luther King’s moderation at various points. But in the last year of his life before he was assassinated, Malcolm went further, embracing revolutionary politics and identifying the African American movement with Third World liberation struggles.

Malcolm’s development in turn influenced the Black Panther Party and other groups who saw revolutionary socialism as the means to achieve Black liberation in the United States. “Black Power” became a popular slogan in the movement.

But just what Black Power meant depended on who was talking. While the slogan implied socialism to the Black Panther Party, it meant economic opportunity for the Black middle class that had long been limited by legal segregation in the South and racial discrimination everywhere in terms of employment, housing, obtaining loans for business and much else.

The Democratic Party establishment sought to harness the “Black Power” demand to its own ends. In 1967, Louis Martin, an African American deputy chair of the Democratic Party, recommended that the Johnson administration try to “achieve ‘Black Power’ in a constitutional, orderly manner.”

Martin wanted Black Democrats to “take a more active role in community leadership and not leave the kind of vacuum which is usually filled by civil rights kooks.” He hoped that Black elected officials would provide the Democratic Johnson administration with a “link to the Negro community and…effectively bypass the Rap Browns and Stokely Carmichaels [both radical leaders] and even the Martin Luther Kings (none of whom have been elected to anything).”

However cynical, Johnson’s overture to Southern Blacks was intolerable to the party’s Southern wing. Most white Southern Democrats backed George Wallace’s segregationist presidential campaign of 1968, which received 8 million votes.

Richard Nixon’s Republican administration deepened the split within Democratic ranks by attempting to block civil rights legislation, and white Southerners overwhelmingly voted for Nixon in his landslide victory over George McGovern in 1972.

This was the origins of the Republicans’ “Southern strategy”–appealing to white conservatives in a backlash against the civil rights movement.

Instead of openly defending segregation and white supremacy, the racists repackaged their message around issues of “crime,” “welfare fraud” and affirmative action as “reverse discrimination.” It’s been effective ever since, giving the Republicans an electoral lock on much of the South since then.

Meanwhile, Louis Martin’s strategy of expanding the base of African American officeholders quickly bore fruit. The number of Black elected officials increased fourfold to 1,860 between 1967 and 1971. In many cases, Black activists weren’t intentionally co-opted by the Democratic Party. They had to fight their way in, challenging racist Democratic political machines in Northern cities.

The perspectives of the new radicals and the Black Democrats coexisted uneasily at the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., on March 10-12, 1972. Attended by over 8,000 people, the convention marked the first large-scale gathering of the various currents in Black politics: radical nationalists, cultural nationalists, socialists, Maoists and Black Democratic elected officials, including the host, Mayor Richard Hatcher.

The preamble to the National Black Political Agenda written for the convention was radical. It read in part: “The profound crises of Black people and the disaster of America are not simply caused by men, nor will they be solved by men alone.

“These crises are the crises of basically flawed economics and politics, and of cultural degradation. None of the Democratic candidates and none of the Republican candidates–regardless of their vague promises to us or to their white constituencies–can solve our problems or the problems of this country without radically changing the systems by which it operates.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, then director of People United to Save Humanity (PUSH), went on record in support of a future break with the Democrats, but said the “Black political movement was too young” for such a move, and instead urged Blacks to seek “delegate power” at the Democratic National Convention that summer.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

JACKSON’S APPROACH prevailed as the movement dissipated in the 1970s. By the 1980s, African Americans had captured City Hall in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and other cities, and had held senior positions in key congressional committees.

This represented an advance for the Black middle class, which could use the dismantling of Jim Crow and new laws against discrimination in order to advance in politics and business and, often, escape segregated neighborhoods as well. But the advance within the system for a minority of African Americans was a retreat from the radical goals of the 1960s movements.

Jackson’s presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988 highlighted these contradictions of the Black political establishment even as it showed that growing numbers of white working-class voters were prepared to support Black candidates.

In 1984, Jackson tapped African Americans’ anger at Ronald Reagan, and he swept the Black vote despite the opposition of most prominent African American politicians. By 1988, Jackson had forged an alliance with key Black politicians, who, even if they didn’t care for Jackson’s approach, concluded that if they couldn’t beat him, they’d have to join him.

The “Super Tuesday” primary of March 8, 1988, dominated by Southern states and designed to favor a conservative candidate, mobilized the Black vote for Jackson. Of 21 primaries, Jackson placed first or second in 16, and became the frontrunner in terms of delegates. This was followed by a victory in the Michigan party caucuses, with 55 percent of the vote. He ended the race with 7 million votes, 30 percent of the total.

Jackson’s success rattled the Democratic establishment. Yet on the other hand, the Jackson campaigns marked the final stage in the transition of African American politics from being dominated by social struggles to becoming–in the view of party leaders–just another Democratic voting bloc.

A voting bloc that needed to know its place, that is. Democratic powerbrokers reacted to Jackson’s success by forming the Democratic Leadership Caucus (DLC), a group dominated by Southerners who wanted the party to distance itself from Blacks, organized labor and women’s groups and develop closer ties to Corporate America.

A former DLC co-chair, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, implemented a “Southern strategy” of his own to win over white conservatives in his 1992 bid for the White House and in his re-election. Clinton’s tactics included denouncing the rap artist Sistah Souljah at an event sponsored by Jesse Jackson; presiding over the execution of mentally disabled Black man, Ricky Ray Rector; and staging a photo op at a Georgia penitentiary work gang of hundreds of Black men.

Once in office, he presided over “anti-crime” legislation that left more African American men in prison than in college. He also collaborated with the Republican Congress to abolish the federal welfare system, something Ronald Reagan could never have gotten away with.

At the same time, however, Clinton cultivated allies in the Black political establishment, which was ever more distant from the struggles that had propelled it to prominence.

Clinton’s race-baiting politics were part of an overall turn to the right by the Democrats. While they remained to the left of the Republicans, the Democrats have embraced the post-Reagan formula of free market economics, a dramatically reduced welfare state and the projection of U.S. military power abroad.

To be sure, Black elected officials tend to be more liberal than the average Democrat, reflecting the preferences of their voting base. But most are completely caught up in politics as usual.

As journalists Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman point out, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation receives big donations from auto, oil, tobacco, alcohol and junk food companies, which has effectively silenced the caucus on issues ranging from public health to alternative energy.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE BLACK political establishment’s drift to the right isn’t a question of personal failings, however. It’s part of a trend towards greater class divisions among African Americans over the past 20 years.

Enter Obama. As a member of the post-civil rights generation, the one-time community organizer tailored his politics to fit the new political reality. As he said of his days as a college activist in his (second) autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, “I would find myself in the curious position of defending aspects of Reagan’s worldview. I couldn’t be persuaded that U.S. multinationals and international terms of trade were single-handedly responsible for poverty around the world; nobody forced corrupt leaders in Third World countries to steal from their people.”

Thus, Obama’s first high-profile campaign was an attempt to unseat Rep. Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther, from his seat in Congress in the 2000 elections. “Part of what we are talking about is a transition from a politics of protest to a politics of progress,” Obama said then.

He lost badly, but won new and influential backers. After winning his U.S. Senate seat in 2004, he regularly took pro-business positions, including voting for a bill that caps jury awards in wrongful injury lawsuits used to hold big business accountable for faulty products.

Meanwhile, Obama quickly became adept at raising campaign cash for others–and himself. He’s been able to match the vaunted Clinton fundraising machine, thanks in part to big money from hedge-fund managers and key players across Corporate America.

Yet for all his efforts to locate himself in the mainstream, Obama inevitably must contend with the question of race and racism in his personal and political life. And the prospect of an African American president in a country built on slavery and racism is exciting for millions of people–not just African Americans, but others who see a vote for Obama as a vote to put the U.S.’s sordid history of racism behind us once and for all.

But the symbolism of an Obama presidency, however powerful, wouldn’t uproot racism’s legacy.

The commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson put it his way: “An Obama presidency would be a racial step forward in the sense that it shows that enough whites can and will look past race to make a Black, especially an exceptional Black, their leader.

“It would not, however, show that they are willing to do the same for the millions of Blacks that cram America’s jails and prisons, suffer housing and job discrimination, and are trapped in failing public schools in America’s poor, crime ridden inner cities. Their plight and how they are viewed and treated will remain the same after Obama takes office. A President Obama won’t change that.”

 

The teachers’ strike was the polar opposite of what passes for “politics” in the U.S.

Originally posted here

Chicago teachers march with thousands of supporters during their strike

Chicago teachers march with thousands of supporters during their strike

THE CHICAGO Teachers Union (CTU) put the power of struggle back on the table after their nine-day strike won against politicians and education officials who tried to vilify them.

Rank-and-file union members were united, determined and active in standing up to the offensive against teachers and public education that has swept through cities around the country, leaving behind privatization and hamstrung unions. Instead, the Chicago teachers fought back, and they convinced a strong majority of Chicagoans to support them.

Their contract isn’t perfect, and the stage has been set for new struggles to come. But in the face of a decades-old assault on unions and workers, the teachers scored a tremendous victory in holding the line and more against Rahm Emanuel and the corporate school deformers.

Now we are seeing the consequences of that victory. Many workers across the country were watching the CTU, and the strike inspired them–and reshaped, to greater and lesser extents, how they view their own struggles.

In a few places, the teachers’ strike begat more teachers’ strikes. A few weeks after the CTU suspended its walkout, teachers in the Chicago suburb of Evergreen Park hit the picket line. “I think [Chicago teachers] let us know we can do this,” Melissa Rehfield, an aide at Northeast School, told the Southtown Star. While the CTU strike was underway, teachers in Lake Forest, north of Chicago, also walked out.

Workers outside the schools also took inspiration from the CTU strike. In Elwood, Ill., warehouse workers went on strike against Wal-Mart after the company retaliated against workers who were protesting dangerous working conditions and non-payment of overtime. The small group of three dozen strikers found enthusiastic support at the mass rallies in support of the teachers. The Wal-Mart workers won the principal demand of their 21-day strike and returned their jobs–with full pay for the time they were out.

And for those who didn’t go on strike, the CTU strike had an effect in presenting a new way to address the drive for austerity and cutbacks gripping states and cities around the country. The Chicago teachers showed the alternative: Don’t accept concessions and belt-tightening as the only “realistic” course, but draw a line in the sand and organize to fight back.

There is no guarantee that this victory will be followed by more of the same–no doubt our side will face setbacks in the future as we try to turn the tide. But we can say now that the CTU strike represents a sharp departure from business as usual for the labor movement. The CTU organized its members for a fight; it reached out to the working class as a whole for support; it challenged a national leader of the Democratic Party; and it won.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

WHAT LESSONS should labor and other activists take away from the teachers’ strike?

First of all, that union members were engaged at every step in the struggle. Preparations for the strike began more than two years before when the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators won a sweeping victory in local elections and took over the top positions of the union. The new CTU leaders began systematically building strong leaders in every school in every part of the city.

That grassroots strength showed itself last spring when CTU members stunned Emanuel with a 90 percent strike authorization vote. In fact, among teachers who cast ballots, an incredible 98 percent supported authorizing a walkout. As a strike appeared increasingly inevitable, union members were active with informational pickets at schools and events around the city to raise awareness of the issues.

During the strike itself, virtually every union member was involved every day–starting with morning pickets at schools around the city and continuing at mass rallies and marches later in the day. When the city finally backed off its all-or-nothing agenda and CTU leaders reached a tentative agreement, the union’s 800-strong House of Delegates decided to continue the strike into a second week so every teacher could discuss and debate the contract.

Every development, before and during the strike, reflected the union’s commitment to democracy and grassroots empowerment. The lesson for all was: Why can’t every union operate this way? Why not the government, too?

The organization and mobilization of the whole union was a critical factor in winning public support. The teachers didn’t have big advertising dollars. They didn’t have lobbyists. They certainly didn’t have the support of political officials, their wealthy backers or the media.

What teachers did have–and what proved to be the deciding factor in this fight–was solidarity.

The unity of the teachers won over many parents of Chicago Public schools students, even though the strike posed difficulties in their personal life. The CTU also devoted significant resources, from long before the walkout, to reaching out to community organizations and other potential allies.

Last winter, the CTU was part of the fight–ultimately unsuccessful–to stop the city from closing or “turning around” 17 schools, all of them on the poorer and disproportionately Black and Latino West and South Sides. And during the strike, the union continually focused attention on the broader issues of education justice–even though state laws barred it from making these the focus of the strike.

As a result, the teachers were seen by many parents and community activists as allies in the struggle against what the CTU called in one report “apartheid in Chicago schools.”

As a result of all this, the teachers had strong majority public support for a strike. This is no small matter. The scapegoating campaign against public-sector workers, and teachers in particular, was supposed to have turned public opinion permanently against any militant action by teachers’ unions.

Rahm Emanuel’s arrogance during negotiations during the walkout no doubt stemmed from his certainty that public support would be with him if the teachers dared to strike. He and other political leaders believed that the scapegoating campaign against public-sector workers, and teachers in particular, had convinced most people that the teachers were selfish, and the union cared only about its members.

But Rahm was wrong. From the beginning, a majority of Chicagoans said they trusted the teachers far more than the city about schools. Two out of three parents of Chicago school kids supported the CTU in their action–an unprecedented sentiment in a citywide teachers’ strike. Among Blacks and Latinos, support for the union was even stronger.

Ultimately, the CTU succeeded in resurrecting the best traditions of the labor movement: That a strike by a group of workers is part of the struggle for working-class people in general–because an injury to one is an injury to all, and a victory for one is a victory for all.

By striking, Chicago teachers provided an up-until-now missing voice in the debate over the future of public education and the austerity drive in U.S. cities and states. As historian Mark Naison said of the Chicago struggle, “Nowhere else has a teachers’ union said, ‘Enough is enough.’ This is ground zero of resistance to corporate education reform.”

Beyond the debate about school deform, the teachers began to shift the national discussion about the recession and who should pay for it. The CTU strike threw into question the accepted logic of rulers around the world–that there is no other option than austerity for workers, while the banks and big business continue to profit.

“The strike transformed the teachers from powerless to powerful” is how former Republican education official-turned-school deform critic Diane Ravitch–someone who knows a lot about transformation–described it.

John, a teacher at a South Side school in Chicago, put it another way:

I’ve been a delegate for 11 years, but I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve had some success in getting people involved, maybe to do some lobbying or advocacy, but the level of unity and participation in this is incredible. Sure, there are some things in the contract that I wish were better, but we can go back to work stronger and better prepared to organize and fight again.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE TEACHERS’ strike was the polar opposite of Election 2012 and what passes for “politics” in the U.S.

With the Democrats and the Republicans defining the limits of mainstream political debate, elections become about choosing between two candidates who differ in their rhetoric and sometimes even on the details of their proposals, but who share more in common when it comes to priorities and basic policies.

This became clearer than ever during the Chicago teachers’ strike, since the union was going up against an all-Democratic city political establishment. There was no difference at all between the two mainstream parties when it came to the teachers’ struggle–both were against it.

The Democratic “friends of labor” had nothing to offer labor during the teachers’ strike–in fact, they led the attack on one of the more important remaining bastions of union power in the CTU. Yet we’re told that people on the left who take politicis seriously have to vote for Obama and the Democrats anyway, in order to avoid the “greater evil” from winning. It’s hard to think of anything less serious than this.

In 1900, the Socialist leader Eugene Debs described how Democrats of the time turned a blind eye to plight of workers, like a strike of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, miners crushed by federal troops:

We hear it frequently urged that the Democratic Party is the “poor man’s party,” “the friend of labor.”…If the Democratic Party is the “friend of labor” any more than the Republican Party, why is its platform dumb in the presence of Coeur d’Alene? It knows the truth about these shocking outrages–crimes upon workingmen, their wives and children, which would blacken the pages of Siberia–why does it not speak out?

We’re taught that the important decision in society are made by the experts–the government officials, their advisers, their corporate think-tanks. The job of ordinary people is to vote for the person they believe will best represent them–and it ends there.

The Chicago teachers’ strike–like many labor battles before it throughout U.S. history–provided a different vision of what “politics” should be: Not a phony debate among elite candidates or an expensive attack ad, but ordinary people discussing, organizing and mobilizing at the grassroots so they can become a force powerful enough to turn their beliefs and demands into reality.

This is real politics for socialists–the politics of class struggle–and it’s where social change comes from.

We also know that our side faces many challenges in the struggle to come. It’s time to apply the lessons of the Chicago teachers’ strike to those fights–in our unions, our workplaces, our schools and our neighborhoods.