Revolution #172, August 9, 2009

Systemic Racial Profiling… And A System of Oppression

Among those who oppose discrimination and racial profiling of African-Americans, some argue that focusing on an incident involving Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a prominent Harvard professor, detracts from confronting the real issues involved in opposing racism.

A case in point is an Op-Ed piece that appeared in the New York Times, entitled, “Obama, Gates and the American Black Man,” by Glenn C. Loury (July 25, 2009). Loury’s piece correctly criticizes Obama for “lecturing the black community on the need for better family values” while “he barely uttered a word about the ways in which public policies—policies over which he might exert no small influence—have resulted in the hyper-incarceration of poor black men.”

And Loury argues: “Overrepresentation of blacks among lawbreakers is the result as much as it is the cause of our overrepresentation among the imprisoned—a fact about which the conventional racial narrative has too little to say. Nevertheless, this is a principal source of the tension in interactions between the police and black men like me.”

But then, Loury writes with regard to the arrest of Henry Louis Gates: “Certainly, the contretemps [a contretemps is an event that happens, but is out of step with the times] shed no relevant light on the plight of the millions of black men on society’s margins who bear the brunt of police scrutiny and government-sanctioned coercion.”

The Gates Affair, however, is not a “contretemps.” It is not an incongruous throwback to another era. It is stark reflection of the actual present day reality, including what is behind the “plight of millions of black men on society’s margins who bear the brunt of police scrutiny and government-sanctioned coercion.”

It is true that a section of Black people have been allowed into positions that were denied to Black people for centuries, and some have achieved some privileges in this society. Even in a period when inner-city African-American youth have faced lives of increasing desperation, incarceration and death, the number of PhDs awarded to Black people increased from 787 in 1987 to 1,688 in 2005.

But there are three salient points here:

One is that the percentage of PhD graduates in 2005 who were Black was 6.4% while Black people comprise 13% of the population—Black people still graduate with PhDs at about half the rate of whites. And Black people remain almost completely excluded from access to PhDs in math and physics (source: Harpers Index cited at

Second, what Malcolm X said about what they call a Black man with a PhD is still true. As we reported in Revolution last week, Professor Gates was not the first Harvard professor subjected to racist police abuse—in 2004, Dr. Allen Counter, who has taught neuroscience at Harvard for 28 years, was stopped on campus by two Harvard police officers who accused him of being a robbery suspect, and threatened to arrest him when he could not produce identification.

And most fundamentally, while some doors have opened for Black people, this has gone hand in hand with conditions getting WORSE for millions of Black people in this so-called “post-racial” society. Marc Mauer, of The Sentencing Project—which analyzes trends in incarceration—told the Christian Science Monitor in 2003, “For the generation of black children today, there’s almost an inevitable aspect of going to prison.”

Black people in America, as a people, face systematic oppression in all kinds of forms. And poor Black people, concentrated in the inner-cities, face particularly brutal, violent oppression on a daily basis. But pitting the struggle against the oppression of Black people of different classes and strata against the fight against the extreme oppression of the masses of Black people is missing the point and does real damage. Both of these crimes flow from the capitalist, white supremacist system in America and both can only be overcome by making revolution.

Loury decries what he calls an “all-too-familiar narrative: ‘Here we are, 45 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with a black man in the White House. And yet, it is still the case that a distinguished Harvard professor, standing on his own front step, can be treated like a common criminal simply because he’s black. Obviously it is way too soon to declare that we have entered a post-racial era ....’”

But a distinguished Harvard professor, standing on his own front step, was treated as a common criminal. Yes, because he’s Black. In a society where one in every nine young Black men is in prison, it is obscene to declare this is a “post-racial era.”

The Role of Police

At the same time that Loury speaks out against police abuse against Black people, he also writes: “[W]hile I have had my ‘problems’ with the police, when I consider the realities of contemporary society I have to acknowledge that they have a tough and often thankless job to do. The institutions I am wont to denounce—the police, courts and prisons—are the principal means by which we as a nation have chosen, through our politics, to deal with the antisocial behaviors of our fellow citizens.”

That is a dangerously wrong understanding of the actual role of police. The role of the police, the courts, and the other institutions of this capitalist state is not an expression of the will of the people, and the police are not out on the streets with guns to deal with “antisocial behaviors of our fellow citizens.” The police enforce—at gunpoint—social relations essential to the functioning of the capitalist system. As we go to press, news sources in Detroit are reporting that police shot a 78-year-old man who refused to be evicted from his apartment near downtown Detroit (as we go to press, the police have not released the identity of the man, and he is hospitalized).

This man was not shot because he was “anti-social” (a neighbor told TV station WWJ, “from what I know, when I’ve seen the guy, he’s always laughing, he’s jolly, he laughs and talks with everyone”). He was shot by the Detroit police because this capitalist system would unravel if people who need housing but cannot pay their rent or mortgage were allowed to live in their homes and not get thrown out on the street.

And just as police enforce the property relations of capitalism, they enforce the social relations that allow this system to function. And those social relations include, foundationally, the subjugation of the vast majority of Black people—of different classes and strata—as a people.

What Is the Problem?

Loury, and others who oppose racism, but who object to focusing attention on Gates’ arrest as a distraction from the struggle that needs to be waged miss what the Gates arrest reveals about how broad, how sweeping, how systemic the subjugation of Black people is. And how profoundly racism is embedded into the very essence of everything America is about. There is no way that, under this system, Black people can achieve real equality.

Pitting the oppression of Black people—as a whole—against the extreme oppression and greater suffering faced by the masses of poor Black people—and diminishing the importance of the Gates Affair because Professor Gates is relatively well off and has a lot of recognition… whatever the intentions, leads to an ideological dead end.

“The First Shall Be Last and the Last Shall Be First”…
Or the Emancipation of Humanity?

There seems to be much confusion, including on the streets of the inner cities, over how to understand the controversy around the Gates arrest. Outrage against Gates’ treatment is in some cases blunted by resentment of Gates’ relatively privileged position. One Black man in Boston, for example, told Revolution distributors, “Now Gates knows a little bit of what it feels like to be a Black man in this country.”

In this light, the special issue of Revolution, “The Oppression of Black People, The Crimes of This System and the Revolution We Need,” deserves to be studied deeply and circulated widely. (Revolution #144, October 5, 2008)

As the issue explains: “[W]hile the revolution must address and heal the many scars of the past, it must aim higher than ‘the first shall be last and the last shall be first,’ or higher even than ‘equality’—it must aim to get past the conditions where there is a ‘first’ and a ‘last’ and where people measure their situation against that of other people. This revolution’s aim must be a truly communist society in which a guiding principle would be ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.’”

And, that special issue of Revolution goes on to explain: “If the revolution does not set its sights to these goals and these heights, then things will turn back to one form of exploitation or another, and the outmoded and oppressive institutions that go with exploitation will regenerate. The nightmare will continue.”

Humanity needs revolution and communism. It needs emancipators of humanity, who, from that perspective inspire and lead people to take on every instance of oppression and injustice, from the perspective of fight the power, and transform the people, for revolution.

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