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'Diversity' and the fight against racism

By: 
Peter Hogarth

November 20, 2015

In her article in Salon.com, “Diversity is for white people: The big lie behind a well-intended word,” Ellen Berrey rightly criticizes the now-ubiquitous buzzword “diversity.” Citing the many boardrooms and corporate spaces which have incorporated the language of diversity while robbing it of any of its racial justice and transformative roots, Berrey notes that “rather than a righteous fight for justice or effective anti-discrimination laws, we get a celebration of cultural difference as a competitive advantage.” Diversity has been a way for whites in power to get off the hook, while racial segregation runs rampant across workplaces.

However, Berrey’s hints at an alternative reveal the limits of racial justice from a liberal reformist political perspective. She chastises leaders for their "belief that, to manage race successfully, white constituents need to see inclusion as in their own self-interest." But it is this very material reality—that defeating racism is in the interest of the whole working class—that socialists see as the real way to end racism.

Racism and capitalism

There is a complex link between racism and capitalism. Capitalism depends on racism as both a source of exploitation and as a means to divide and rule. Racism is essential to drive a wedge between workers who have every reason to ally together, but who are perpetually divided to the benefit of the ruling class.

Racism is not, as it sometimes seems, as old as time immemorial, but is a modern idea developed initially to explain and justify the enslavement of Africans. The concepts of "race" and "racism" arose and became part of the dominant ideology at the dawn of capitalism in the 1500s and 1600s. As Marx notes in Capital, the extermination of the indigenous people in the Americas, the African slave trade and colonialism are inextricably linked to the rise of capitalism: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of the continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins are all things that characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production.”

After surviving a racist attack from a white worker, the African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass explained how slave owners used racism to divide poor whites from the Black slaves they should be uniting with: “Both are plundered, and by the same plunderers. The slave is robbed, by his master, of all his earnings, above what is required for his bare physical necessities; and the white man is robbed by the slave system, of the just results of his labor, because he is flung into competition with a class of laborers who work without wages. The competition, and its injurious consequences, will, one day, array the nonslaveholding white people of the slave states, against the slave system, and make them the most effective workers against the great evil. At present, the slaveholders blinds them to this competition, by keeping alive their prejudice…The impression is cunningly made, that slavery is the only power that can prevent the labouring white man from falling to the level of the slave’s poverty and degradation. To make this enmity deep and broad, between the slave and the poor white man, the latter is allowed to abuse and white the former, without hindrance.”

Capitalism is a system that is based on the exploitation of the many by the few. Racism divides the people and keeps the exploited working class with its multitude of races, genders and nationalities from uniting to demand a better share. Furthermore, oppression is used to justify and explain unequal relationships in society that enrich the ruling class that live off the majority of society’s labor. Thus, a real challenge to racism will also mean challenging the economic system as we know it.

Equity in an unequal market

So when Berrey says that “politicians promoted small-scale homeownership housing programs for the middle class in the name of diversity—but these race-blind programs were altogether insufficient for addressing the displacement of the low-income, majority black and Latino renters getting railroaded by condominium conversions” and castigates herself and other white people for “our inclination to live near people like us (i.e. white) or to put in a good word with the boss about our friends (i.e. probably white)” she is missing the point and obfuscating the source of inequality and racism.

When market forces dictate who lives where, there is no cure for the phenomenon of gentrification. People will be displaced and prices will go up. What seems to always be missed in conversations about gentrification is that without guaranteed housing for all, there will always be homeless and people will always be priced out of markets when they become in-demand—which disproportionately affects racialized people.

Further, when Berrey points out that “even in the hands of the well-intended, diversity leaves us without a language for making sense of ongoing racism or deliberating effective policy responses,” she is criticizing the limiting ideas about what anti-racism or equity can even be in a world whose logic is based on the profit-motive and the needs of the market. Under capitalism, equity has come to mean increased opportunities for a small portion of people from marginalized groups to exploit an ever-present underclass, which in our world is disproportionately racialized, female and disabled.

Berrey is correct when she states: “We need fewer cheerful logos and more effective action. Like an honest reckoning with racist housing policies that have robbed people of color of wealth. Like affirmative action policies at work and in universities, which have effectively moved people of color up the economic ladder. Like support for collective union bargaining. Like the decriminalization of recreational drug use and addiction.” These suggestions are light years ahead of what corporate diversity advocates would suggest as the solution to racism and inequality, but ultimately fall short of true racial justice. Without guarantees of universal and free access for everyone to healthcare, childcare, housing, education and guaranteed income, everything meant to combat racism can seem tokenistic and ephemeral.

Black Panthers

To effectively challenge racism, it is instructive to look at what the Black Panther Party, the largest revolutionary socialist party in the history of the United States, had to say about how to defeat racism. What follows is the Black Panther Party 10-point program, a guiding document for the organization that dedicated itself to the defense and advancement of Black communities in the United States during the 1960s. The program’s demands are completely incompatible with capitalism and would demolish racism and benefit the entire working class:

What We Want Now!

1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.

2. We want full employment for our people.

3. We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities.

4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.

5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.

6. We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.

7. We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.

8. We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.

9. We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.

10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.

Watch the movie The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, at HotDocs cinema

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