The following is an excerpt from comments by Bob Avakian in response to a question that was part of the Question and Answer Session following the 7 Talks. (In a few places things have been added, in brackets within the text, for clarity.)
Question: In your talks one of the threads among many is about the oppression of Black people being a foundational part of the way this society formed, the economic base, and the whole way this country developed: the things you have written and talked about—slavery and democracy and the New Deal and the Great Society programs, the conscious policies and the southern politicians.
Your talk on Minstrelsy and how the NBA is an extension of that was very heavy. [Editors' note: The talk referred to here is titled "The NBA: Marketing the Minstrel Show and Serving the Big Gangsters." The audio file of the talk is available online at bobavakian.net or revcom.us.] I am trying to understand this more because it is so intertwined with the society. Related to this is the point about the struggle of Black people being an Achilles heel for the system. Can you comment further.
In the first part of the nineteenth century de Tocqueville wrote volumes, which have been made famous, upholding the USA as a model democracy. Such a society, he said, with its extensive opportunity for individual enrichment and its large, prosperous, stable middle class, would be very resistant to revolution. But, he warned, if revolution ever did come to the USA, it would be in connection with the Black people. Today, 150 years or so after de Tocqueville wrote this, the masses of Black people are still enslaved, but that slavery has taken new forms—and the Black masses are in a different position too. They are now concentrated in the strategic urban cores in the U.S. and concentrated in the most exploited sections of the working class, with the least stake in upholding the system and preserving the present order. And they are joined in this position by millions of proletarians of other oppressed nationalities. In short, these special victims of U.S. imperialism are in a tremendously powerful position to play a decisive role in making de Tocqueville's warning a reality—with world-historic consequences far beyond anything de Tocqueville could have imagined.
BULLETS…From the Writings, Speeches and Interviews of Bob Avakian, RCP Publications, 1985, pp. 171-172
Bob Avakian: Well, you know, de Tocqueville [19th century French historian and writer, Alexis de Tocqueville], when he came to the U.S. and wrote his book based on his journeys in the U.S. a couple of centuries ago, talked about all the great attributes of democracy in this country, the "enterprise" of the people both in the general sense and in the particular sense of money-making—a lot of the sort of peculiar, but in his view largely positive, characteristics of people in this society. But one thing he said, speaking of the Achilles heel: there is one big fly in the ointment—the whole phenomenon of slavery which could yet be the undoing of this whole thing.
Things have changed a lot over the past two centuries in terms of the composition of the population, in terms of the composition of the proletariat, in terms of the character and "anatomy" of the proletariat—who's in it and where they are working and what their situation is, different strata and stratification within the proletariat, differentiation within the proletariat… The rolling on of the capitalist accumulation process and conscious policy leads to where a lot of Black people are forced out of these positions: the de-industrialization of the urban areas that is now such a marked phenomenon. There is a book by this guy Thomas Sugrue called The Origins of the Urban Crisis where he actually focuses on Detroit, which is a big industrial center where a lot of Black people worked in these big auto plants, like River Rouge and these other big plants. He talks about how the de-industrialization of the inner cities, especially for Black people, began as early as the late 1950s.
But then, you know, capitalism still has its needs internationally and within the U.S., so it brings in these waves of immigrants and exploits them and rewrites or blots out history and turns people against each other. It doesn't tell these immigrants, who see a lot of Black people who've been pushed out of these jobs and are hanging on the corner, "By the way, those people went through this whole process a couple of generations ago; now we've got them in a different position and we're bringing you in so we can exploit you because the dynamics have gone that kind of way and we've developed policy in relation to that." No, they don't tell them that.
Look, let's face it. There are certain things about Black people that a lot of employers don't like these days. There's a lot of defiance. Even though people are desperate economically there's also a certain defiance that's developed historically. It doesn't mean people don't want to work. Someone referred to how you go for a job and there are 500 people applying for the job and you have to try to sell yourself better than the other 499. Every time in a major city when they build a new hotel and announce jobs, thousands of people line up including a lot of Black people, so let's put this in its proper perspective. But there is a certain attitude among the [Black] youth a lot, having watched, for example, older generations going to work and doing all this stuff for "chump change," and getting nowhere with it, and then being flushed out of it…there is a certain "fuck that, I'm not doing that." That doesn't make them so pliant necessarily for capitalist exploitation. So that enters into the picture too. They've had a longer experience here. That doesn't mean they "don't want to work" but there is a certain attitude there, not taking a certain amount of shit. That's still there. Some of it's been beaten down temporarily, but there's still a lot of it there…
And let's face it, you go several generations where a majority of people in some inner city neighborhoods have never had a job, it has an effect. Not because they "didn't want to work" but because this is the workings of capitalism, working on them.
So all these things play into it too.
There will never be a revolutionary movement in this country that doesn't fully unleash and give expression to the sometimes openly expressed, sometimes expressed in partial ways, sometimes expressed in wrong ways, but deeply, deeply felt desire to be rid of these long centuries of oppression. There's never gonna be a revolution in this country, and there never should be, that doesn't make that one key foundation of what it's all about.
This is the complexity—we have to understand the complexity of even the proletariat today. That's why I always talk about mobilizing all positive factors. That defiance is a positive factor, even though it comes along with some things that are not so positive, some lack of discipline and other things—even people's conditions are so chaotic it's hard for them to get organized sometimes. These are the realities. The bourgeoisie imposes shit on people, then they attribute the effects of the conditions they have imposed on people—they say that's the result of inherent faults in the people…
So a lot of these questions are very tricky, we have to be very scientific about this. But it's a very complex thing where there are a lot of positive qualities mixed in with negative qualities and we have to learn how to mobilize and synthesize all the positive qualities and use those to overcome the negative ones that exist.
When you work regularly and you're caught up in this "work ethic" and you work hard all the time, even though you are viciously exploited, that has a conservatizing influence also. Everybody who's been in this, who's had any experience with that, knows and is familiar with that.
So you can just look at that negative aspect—or you can look at the positive aspect and try to figure out how to mobilize it toward our objectives.
With all that, with all this system has subjected Black people to, and yes, with the growth of a Black middle class more extensively and its [the system's] attempts to use sections of that Black middle class for not only conservative [purposes] but even to mobilize it even as a reactionary social base, especially through the instrument of religion and Christian fascism, it does remain a fact that this system is fundamentally in conflict with the basic interests even of the Black middle class strata and certainly of the masses of proletarians and other impoverished and exploited and oppressed millions of Black people in the inner cities. It cannot do away with the oppression of these masses of people—and even of the middle strata.
You know it's still true what Malcolm X said 40 years ago: "What do they call a Black man with a PhD? A nigger." This is still America. That's why the phenomenon of "Driving While Black" doesn't just apply to people who are poor. In fact, in some ways, in the eyes of white supremacist police and enforcers of the system, having a better car, if you're in the middle class, is a provocation: "Look at that uppity nigger, driving that BMW in here." That's an invitation to be pulled over and minimally harassed.
Determination decides who makes it out of the ghetto—now there is a tired old cliché, at its worst, on every level. This is like looking at millions of people being put through a meatgrinder and instead of focusing on the fact that the great majority are chewed to pieces, concentrating instead on the few who slip through in one piece and then on top of it all, using this to say that “the meatgrinder works”!
Bob Avakian, "The 'City Game'—and The City, No Game," Revolutionary Worker, No. 201, April 15, 1983
This is built into this system and they do not have any answer to this other than to mislead people, to subject them to conditions of insult and oppression and to brutalize them as necessary to enforce all that. Even programs that have genocidal implications. When you're already imprisoning a huge section of Black people in the country, there's a logic and it's being formulated now in beginning ways consciously as policy that's being articulated; there's a logic that, "Why should we spend all this money housing all these people who are harmful to society in a prison?" Pat Robertson openly talked about the implications: "Let's get a different penal system and kill off a lot of these people. Let's publicly flog people who commit minor crimes"—this is literally what he said—"and let's kill the ones who put a 'stain' on society."
So there are genocidal implications to this too. They don't have an answer to this, they have a people [Black people], of tens of millions now—they don't have an answer, even for the middle class, that can get rid of all this oppression and all this daily insult. And that's part of a bigger mix, within the proletariat and more broadly in society, but it is an explosive contradiction for them [the ruling class]. That's why it keeps exploding, it's dry timber lying around—whenever a match hits it, it goes up. Or not whenever, but often.
Because there is accumulation of these daily outrages and insults, and finally—it's interesting—you take the 1992 rebellion. I've spoken to this before. Why did that break out the way it did? Not just because of a cumulative, day after day adding up of insult and injury but—here's an interesting thing to understand, an important thing to understand–-it's because expectations were raised and then smashed. There's nothing particularly unique about the Rodney King phenomenon, nothing at all—except it got caught on videotape. And then the masses of people, Black people and others, but particularly Black people, felt, "Now we're finally gonna see something happen here, because finally we caught these motherfuckers! Somebody was there with a videotape! This goes on all the time and they always excuse it or just deny that it happened—but here it is, and they can't deny it and can't excuse it."
I remember hearing stories about how the youth would go up to Westwood by the UCLA campus and go out in the street and taunt the police: "What are you gonna do now, motherfucker, we got you on tape now." [ Laughter]
And then they had the trial and what happened? They said, "Well, who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes? Yes, there's that beating on the tape, but don't you see how Rodney King is `controlling the situation?' All he has to do is lie there and they'll stop beating him." Of course, when he did lie there, they didn't stop beating him.
[Then] they went to Ronald Reagan land, Simi Valley, and got a jury out of a neighborhood that a lot of cops live in.
By the way, one of the reasons that OJ Simpson did get acquitted, whether he actually committed this crime or not, is because of the rebellion, just to show the interconnection of things. Because they didn't dare do in that trial what they did in the Rodney King trial and move it out of the inner city to a suburban area where they could get a more favorable jury. They ended up with a jury from the inner city. And here's what infuriated a lot of people, by the way, just as long as we're going at it. I know I'm not supposed to talk so long [ laughter]—I'll try to be brief on this point and bring it to a conclusion. They got a jury that infuriated a lot of people by doing what jurors are supposed to do: They listened to the evidence and said, "Well, there's reasonable doubt here—clearly the prosecution has fabricated evidence and we have perjury on the part of some of its key witnesses, so there is reasonable doubt." What an outrage! But they wouldn't have had a jury that even did that—it's not, by the way, for good or for ill, that Black juries won't convict Black people of crimes, they do it all the time—but in this case they did what they were supposed to do, according to the legal procedures, and that became a big outrage.
But that would have never happened had it not been for the rebellion. They would have had the trial somewhere else. So sometimes the masses lose sight of even their own accomplishments. It's not that OJ Simpson is such a great guy or that I know he's innocent—or guilty for that matter. But it was a verdict that did correspond to what the verdict should have been, and it never would have happened had it not been for the rebellion.
But why did the rebellion happen? Because expectations were raised and then dashed and smashed. That became just too much. "Even when we've caught you motherfuckers on tape, you still gonna go ahead and do what you do. Well, fuck you."
This is after years of accumulation of outrage and insult… Not that we want to just tail behind all these things—even while we uphold them firmly. I meant everything I said in the statement I issued at the time about what a beautiful thing this [rebellion] was. But it's not what we need to get rid of the daily insults and outrages. We need a revolutionary movement.
And it's not that this movement could be or should be limited to Black people. But there will never be a revolutionary movement in this country that doesn't fully unleash and give expression to the sometimes openly expressed, sometimes expressed in partial ways, sometimes expressed in wrong ways, but deeply, deeply felt desire to be rid of these long centuries of oppression. There's never gonna be a revolution in this country, and there never should be, that doesn't make that one key foundation of what it's all about. Even while it's not limited to that and we can't think this is the same as the 1960s, even in terms of the position of Black people and what spontaneously that leads them to do, or just romanticize something like the [1992 Los Angeles] rebellion and think that's enough. We have to build a revolutionary movement and take it where it needs to go.
And when the time is right and we can bring a revolutionary people of millions onto the stage, we have to go for power—state power—so we can change all these things and get rid of all this and move beyond all this: not just the oppression of Black people but that [as one of] the key things.
We have an answer for this that the bourgeoisie does not and cannot. And this has to be brought home to people—not just to Black people but to all oppressed and exploited people and to the broad people of all strata as a crucial part of our revolution.
First of all, we have to recognize the material reality of this. And then act on it. [ Applause]
How This System Has Betrayed Black People: Crucial Turning Points
by Bob Avakian
(originally published in the Revolutionary Worker [now Revolution] #894, February 16, 1997)
This system has decisively and fundamentally failed—betrayed—Black people at crucial turning points in its history. And in particular we can identify two crucial turning points after slavery was defeated in the Civil War.
In the period after the Civil War, during the very short-lived experience of Reconstruction—this was a period that lasted really for only about ten years, more or less from 1867 to 1877—the federal army, the Union army, remained in the South after the war as the enforcers of very real and significant reforms that were carried out, both in the economic base and in the political superstructure.
Today you see the Spike Lee films, and they have a reference to "forty acres and a mule"—this was the promise of land (and the basic means to work the land) that was made to Black people during the Civil War. Land ownership was at that time crucial for Black people to have as some kind of economic "anchor" and basis for them to resist being forced back into conditions of virtual if not literal slavery, of serf-like oppression, on the southern plantations.
Along with "forty acres and a mule," other economic and political rights were promised to Black people. And in fact during the brief period of Reconstruction, while the full promise of these rights was never realized, there were significant changes and improvements in the lives of Black people in the South. The right to vote and to hold office, and some of the other Constitutional rights that are supposed to apply to the citizens of the U.S., were partly, if not fully, realized by former slaves during Reconstruction. And in fact some Black people were elected to high office, though never the highest office of governor, in a number of southern states.
This was very sharply contradictory. The armed force of the state, as embodied in the federal army, was never consistently applied to guarantee these rights, and in fact it was often used to suppress popular struggles aimed at realizing these rights. But there was a kind of a bourgeois-democratic upsurge in the South during this period, and it not only involved the masses of Black people but also many poor white people and even some middle class white people in the South. During these ten years of Reconstruction, with all the sharp contradictions involved, there was a real upsurge and sort of flowering of bourgeois-democratic reforms. This was not the proletarian revolution, but at that time it was very significant.
In 1877, all this was reversed and betrayed. The bourgeoisie had gotten what it needed out of this situation: it had consolidated its hold over the country as a whole; it had consolidated its dominant position economically and politically within the South as well as the North and West.
Many of the old plantation owners were now beginning to move back in and take control of their own plantations, now involving exploitation in basically a feudal (or semi-feudal) form, and millions of Black people in particular were forced into sharecropping and similar relations of exploitation and were reduced to a serf-like condition, which was enforced by a whole system of legal and extra-legal terror. At the same time, banking and other capital from the North had bought into much of the southern economy and was intermingled with the plantation system, as well as other facets of the southern economy, on many different levels. So this whole bourgeois-democratic upsurge that marked Reconstruction was beginning to be a serious threat to the bourgeoisie, as well as to the southern planters. The northern-based capitalists had less and less interest in protecting, or even tolerating, this upsurge. They certainly didn't want to see it continue to grow and perhaps get out of their control more fully.
So in 1877 something very dramatic happened. The federal army was withdrawn from the South and the masses of Black people were stripped of even the partial economic and political gains they had made and were subjugated in the most brutal ways and once again chained to the plantations, only now essentially in peonage instead of outright slavery. And the federal troops that were withdrawn from the South were immediately used in two ways: one, to crush major strikes of what at that time was essentially a white labor movement; and two, to carry further the genocide against the Indians and to finish the job of driving those who survived into these concentration camps of poverty called "reservations" and force them to stay there. Here, once again, we see a very dramatic example of how the ruling class divided and conquered different groups of people it oppressed. And one of the sharpest examples, and real tragedies, of this is how some Black people became Buffalo soldiers fighting the Indians at the very time that Reconstruction was being betrayed.
But the larger point I am emphasizing is that here was a situation involving a major turning point in U.S. history where the question was posed very decisively: Can Black people and will Black people actually be "absorbed," or integrated, or assimilated into this society on a basis of equality? Will not only slavery, but the after-effects of slavery, be systematically addressed, attacked and uprooted…or not? And the answer came thunderously through—NO!—this will not be done. And there was a material reason for that: it could not be done by the bourgeoisie without tearing to shreds their whole system.
Instead they re-chained Black people—not in literal chains, but in economic chains of debt and other forms of economic exploitation and chains of both legal and extra-legal oppression and terror. So this was one major turning point where the system fundamentally failed and betrayed Black people. And everyone, not only Black people, but proletarians of all nationalities and the masses of people broadly, should understand this very clearly—with a dialectical and historical materialist stand, method and viewpoint.
The Civil War represented in a sense a completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the U.S., but this did not mean it established, or that the northern capitalists meant to establish, freedom and equality for Black people in relation to white America. Lincoln, like Jefferson, and other representatives of the bourgeoisie before and since, considered everything from the point of view of his nation above all, and in the concrete conditions of America in the nineteenth (and twentieth) century this has meant maintaining Black people as a subjugated nation.
Bob Avakian, Democracy: Can’t We Do Better than That?, Chapter 4: “The USA As Democratic Example…Leader of the Pack” (Chicago: Banner Press, 1986)
Sharecroppers' Blues and Affirmative Action
The other crucial turning point in which the system once again failed and betrayed Black people was in the period after World War 2, with the upsurge of the Civil Rights Movement. Here was a situation where changes in the world economy and world "geopolitics," as well as changes within the U.S. economy, brought about a very dramatic and rapid upheaval in the situation of millions of Black people.
Everybody knows about the mass migrations of Black people from the southern plantations, particularly during and especially after World War 2. During the 1950s and 1960s, millions of Black people moved from southern plantations to the urban areas, particularly of the North but also in the South. And as we pointed out in Cold Truth Liberating Truth, the very system which first held Black people in literal enslavement, and then held them in serf-like exploitation in sharecropping and other forms—the same ruling class for whom this was profitable because of the particularities of the bourgeois mode of production in the U.S.—this same system and ruling class turned around after World War 2 and drove them off the land, with no consideration for all the labor that they'd put into this land, and everything they'd produced out of it.
Now today you hear all this shit attacking affirmative action—"Well, it's not fair, my child went and took an SAT and got a high score but then they lost out in getting admitted to the college of their choice, because some Black person with a lower SAT score got admitted, blah, blah, blah." When I hear this kind of ignorant railing and whining I am reminded of something I saw on a videotape of the PBS series "The Promised Land," which focused on the migration of Black people from Mississippi to Chicago and their experiences in both the North and the South.
This series told the story in general historical terms—examining the social phenomenon I'm talking about, the mass migration of Black people to the North after World War 2. It focused on people who migrated from Mississippi to Chicago—this mass migration also led people to Detroit, to Cleveland, and so on. But it also portrayed this history in personal terms. Several people were interviewed and recounted stories that showed how and why they left the South and what they encountered in the North. And the story one Black man told really struck me, particularly in light of all this nonsense being whipped up against affirmative action.
This man talked about the way the sharecropping system worked. Not only was there the "normal" and ongoing exploitation of the sharecroppers, but they were swindled on top of that. Under the sharecropping system, the land would be owned by The Man, and he would advance you the seed and the other things you need to plant and harvest for that year. Everything was basically owned by him, including the land the sharecropper lived on and farmed—and at the end of the year there'd be an accounting. You would turn over the harvest to him, and then you'd get back a certain amount. In this case it was sort of modified sharecropping, where you wouldn't get your payment "in kind," that is, in the very things you had grown and produced, but you'd get it back in the form of money. That's the way the sharecropping system worked in the southern U.S. at the time, and from this you can see why you just couldn't get up and leave if you were dissatisfied and felt exploited and cheated—you were in debt from the beginning to the end of the year. You were always in debt.
So, not only was there this ongoing exploitation that was built into, institutionalized and legitimized in the sharecropping system as such, but there was also outright swindling. After all, the same Man who owned everything, also kept the books—and he also owned the store when you had to buy everything and so on. And he was always cheating the sharecroppers, on top of exploiting them viciously in the first place.
Now one year later, the father of the man telling this story, after having worked all year, went in on the day of accounting and asked for his money for the year. And the plantation Man cheated him. He inflated the cost of everything—all the farm supplies and the food and clothes for the family he had forced the family to buy from him. And then he said, "Here's what you're owed now." It was a ridiculously miserable little sum. The Black sharecropper had been swindled on top of exploited. But, that wasn't all. The Man then told him, "Yes, this is how much you're owed, but I can't pay you this year, because I'm using it to send my son to college." Now if that ain't affirmative action for white supremacy, I don't know what it is! And the sharecropper who had been cheated, on top of swindled, on top of exploited, said, "You mean to tell me I worked all this time trying to feed my children and put shoes on their feet, and now you tell me I can't even do that because you're going to send your son to college with the money that I'm supposed to have earned out of doing all this."
So, I don't want to hear any more of this shit about affirmative action being an unfair advantage for the oppressed.
Betrayal in the Promised Land
But getting back to the period of the Civil Rights upsurge, beginning in the mid-'50s and on into the '60s. Once more there is a crucial turning point. We had slavery and we had Reconstruction and that was betrayed. Then there was the whole serf-like, sharecropping plantation system that followed after slavery, with the KKK and all the rest of that terror. But in the '50s and '60s something new was coming on the agenda—the question of real equality and equal rights for everybody, and abolishing this segregation and Jim Crow and all this discrimination.
That's the demand that was being raised at that time—that's the question that was "up" at that time. And what happened? Well, certain formal aspects of Jim Crow laws and outright legal segregation, certain overt "apartheid" principles that denied Black people even formal equality under the law, where the word of a Black person was not equal to that of a white person in legal proceedings, and so on—these things were abolished.
"The advanced workers of the oppressed nationalities can and must be a tremendous force for proletarian revolution themselves and a spark and lever to awaken and activate others among the proletariat, and even among the petty bourgeoisie, to political and revolutionary activity and struggle."
Bob Avakian, “There Really Are, Among the Masses in This Country, the Potential Forces for Revolution,” Revolutionary Worker, #110, June 19, 1981
But the question only has to be asked, in order to answer itself: Was anything approximating full equality realized by Black people—did the system open up and make this a reality?
NO! Despite all the tremendous and heroic struggle and sacrifice by masses of Black people (and others who supported them) in this period, the answer was still NO!
Once more the system that for centuries had chained them to the southern plantations, now kicked them off the land because of the changes in southern farming and the U.S. economy overall, together with changes in world economics and geopolitics.
For this system, this massive Black farm labor was no longer necessary, as such, but had become superfluous. So millions of Black people went into the cities, where they were segregated and super-exploited in the lowest sections of the proletariat.
Another dimension of this situation was brought out very powerfully in a speech by Carl Dix, where he talks about his own experience working in a steel mill in the Baltimore area. When he got hired on there, he was immediately shunted right into the shit job in the foundry where all the Black workers were concentrated. And he was talking to this older Black worker—here's another story that shines some light on this affirmative action question and so-called "reverse discrimination!"—and this older Black worker told Carl about how he'd been there 25 years and was still stuck in this same miserable department, with the hardest work and the lowest wages and the least security, even though he had his 25 years seniority. And he further went on to tell Carl about how he had trained all these white people that came in, who then on the basis of the training he gave them were promoted and got these higher paying and more skilled jobs; yet he never got out of that lousy department. Now, if that ain't affirmative action for white supremacy, what is it?! So, I don't want to hear, once again, any more of this reactionary assault on affirmative action, because we're the longest way from having equality, to say nothing of unfair advantage for the oppressed, whatever that would mean.
The fact is, as Cold Truth Liberating Truth puts it, discrimination is not working "in reverse"; it is working in the same direction, the same ways it has always worked throughout the history of the U.S.: to promote and enforce white supremacy and male supremacy.
Now, looking at this in broad historical terms. Here were these major turning points—after the Civil War and then again after World War 2, with Reconstruction and then with the Civil Rights Movement—where the question was sharply, directly, and decisively posed: will the system give everybody equal rights? And the system answered NO! It was not simply a matter that the ruling class would not do this, but more profoundly it was the fact that they could not. They could not because it would have torn up their whole system, it would have undermined their whole economic base and their whole superstructure to do this.