Before “Karen” and “Becky” there was “John”

BY:Joel Wendland-Liu| June 4, 2021
Before “Karen” and “Becky” there was “John”


Amy Cooper, nicknamed “Central Park Karen,” returned to the spotlight last week. She filed a lawsuit against her employer for firing her after a video surfaced on social media showing her calling the police when birdwatcher Christian Cooper (no relation) reminded her that she was allowing her dog to poop in a restricted area of the park. Amy Cooper retaliated to Christian Cooper’s intervention by calling the cops, saying a Black man was threatening her life.

All observers of the video understood that Amy Cooper had used racist white privilege to wield state power through the police against a Black person and that this action endangered Christian Cooper’s life.

Let’s stop this narrative briefly. Christian Cooper was concerned that an interaction with police over the dispute endangered his life. This concern reflects the reality of systemic racist police mistreatment of Black men. It needs a critical understanding of the connection between systemic racism and the coercive power of the state. It cries out for radically new approaches to public safety that do not involve the police.

Okay, back to “Central Park Karen.” After her actions went viral on social media, Amy Cooper was arrested and charged with making a false report. After she apologized for her racist action, took a class on racial equity, and went to therapy, the Manhattan district attorney’s office dropped the charges.

They did so also because Christian Cooper generously refused to participate in the prosecution, preferring instead to redirect public attention to the fascistic denial of political power for communities of color. “I am far more outraged by the U.S. Congress, which continues to deny the mostly Black and Brown people of the District of Columbia statehood and the representation every American deserves, than by anything Amy Cooper did,” he said in a statement.

“Central Park Karen’s” actions reveal how white individuals weaponize the police to protect white supremacy, how their stories about events produce danger for people of color.

The name “Karen” for a white woman of this ilk traces to social media representations of numerous similar incidents. One media analyst linked “Karen” to the generic “Becky” popularized by the 1990s Sir Mix-A-Lot video, “Baby Got Back,” which (using gendered and highly sexualized motifs) criticized white cultural standards and their inherent anti-Black notions of beauty.

But before “Karen” and “Becky,” there was “John.” Notably, Black Communist Party leaders Henry Winston and Claude Lightfoot, writing in the 1950s and 1960s, both evoked a fictitious “John” to highlight the white backlash to the anti-racist, working-class unity for which the Party had long fought.

In his book Ghetto Rebellion to Black Liberation (1967), which analyzed the wave of Black urban uprisings as setting the stage for Black liberation, Chicago-based Communist Party organizer and intellectual Claude Lightfoot told a story about “John” to theorize how white racism operated in relation to monopoly capital.

Lightfoot saw white racism as a context-based pattern of behavior that produces oppression and deepened exploitation rather than as an essential or a static feature of being white. “John’s” story reflects this dynamic. “John” worked in Chicago’s meat-packing plants during the 1930s and 1940s and had joined the industrial union struggle. He supported the inclusion of Black workers in the workplace and the union. “He was able to see the need for unity of the workers, both Black and white,” Lightfoot wrote. “He realized this was a condition for his own participation in the ‘affluent society.’” He fought alongside Black workers and had come to regard them as militant fighters not only for themselves but also on his behalf.

Even though “John’s” actions were objectively anti-racist, he failed to fully shed racist ideologies and beliefs. A few years after the war ended, John’s outlook moved in a new direction. The Party and its anti-racist influence had been expelled from the union through McCarthyite tactics and policies. At the same time, racist federal housing programs and business practices created new avenues for white people to access wealth through homeownership. He bought in, with a new house in the suburbs. He was set; life was good.

But then, Black people renewed their demand to access that good life, too. They wanted to live in the suburbs, to enjoy fine homes, have good incomes, send their kids to college, save for retirement. They began to call for an end to racism and racist segregation. They demanded equal participation in political power, to be seen and treated as equals across the board.

Instead of supporting this new upsurge in struggle, however, “John” got angry. He bought into the racist narrative about what happens if Black and white people live near each other. He thought his neighborhood would be run-down and become infested with crime. He didn’t want Black children in his schools. He joined the Republican Party, voted for Goldwater, and demanded the police do something about the Black mobs.

In other words, the hypothetical “John,” perhaps influenced by and even tempted to join the Communist Party in the 1930s, had become a middle-aged man who used his racial privilege to call upon the coercive power of the state to manage the Black threat to what he had come to regard as a good life. Thus, he allowed himself to be manipulated into identifying racially with the owners of monopoly capital who exploited him for their profit and power.

His overt racist actions created the objective conditions for the submission of his class to domination by monopoly capital.

In Henry Winston’s parable, the “John” was a former communist. In his 1951 pamphlet, “What It Means to Be a Communist,” Winston deployed his “real-not-real” John to discuss the labor bureaucrat who left behind his roots in the Communist Party for personal gain and personal power in the union.

Winston offers no specific details about the likely racial identity of “John,” and while his actions do not seem overtly racist, they do help solidify objective conditions that promote white supremacy.

Initially, John had fought for the unity of the workers in his union. He relied on his Party comrades to help design strategy and tactics for winning the union through new strategic relations with the communities that composed the workforce. The Party’s policy had empowered the union in contract struggles. “He is a man who reads Lenin,” Winston mused, “and considers himself a man of principle and a Communist in a true sense.”

As anti-communism sharpened after World War II, however, “John” became prone to class compromise, ignoring the Party’s role in shaping a strategic industrial policy. He believed that his own brilliance and personal leadership drove his successes in the labor movement.

Eventually, his relation to the Communist Party grew harder to justify and blocked his upward mobility in the union. So, he dropped more principled members of his leadership team, taking on the anti-communist demagogues and the class collaborationists to help propel him to new victories in the next leadership elections. Soon, he spouted the same anti-communist lies, and to prove his loyalty he turned against his comrades and “named the names” to his new FBI friends.

The consequences of these “Johns’” actions are manifest in history. Their betrayals leveraged some personal wealth, even some political power. But the systematic expulsion of the Communist Party, which had produced a militant, strategic perspective that empowered workers through the fight to end white supremacy, weakened the whole working class as a multi-racial, multinational, multi-gendered class.

These two stories show how actions of some workers emboldened and empowered sections of the capitalist class that relied on white supremacy to shape a national policy of deindustrialization and privatization (commonly referred to as neoliberalism). Politicians who support privatization typically support systemic racism and are notoriously anti-union. They have dismantled or blocked many pro-worker policies: living wages, health and safety protections, collective bargaining, the right of association, and non-discrimination policies.

Not only did John’s actions directly weaken workers’ ability to protect each other from racist abuses, it meant the capitalist class eventually cut jobs, reduced all wages, and denied broad swaths of workers access to social benefits like low-cost higher education. The general condition of all workers today is evidenced in stagnant wages, declining unionization rates, ongoing financial stress and anxiety, political powerlessness, and deepening social inequality.

But before we get too focused on the hardships of white workers who, because of their grandfathers’ choices made three generations ago, are now down and out, we should remember that the racial unity that Communists called for wasn’t simply a slogan. It was a call for workers and their class organizations to address the particular experiences of racism and oppression that Black and Brown people face. It was a call for white workers to change their attitudes, their forms of work, and their relationships with co-workers of color who they had been trained to see as outsiders. It was a call for workers’ organizations and institutions to open their doors and reshape their leadership and membership.

In addition, it was a demand to view nationally and racially oppressed peoples as the working class’s strategic allies. Workers and their organizations had to build new relationships with communities of color beyond the workplace to fight racist oppression in all areas of social and civic life: racist job and wage discrimination, housing segregation, educational segregation, the denial of access to healthcare, environmental racism, and racist police terror and mass incarceration. This was a broad political program of action, not just a slogan. And it worked.

Communists had called on all workers to join the struggle against white supremacy. That is the work that won the (uneven) success of the industrial union movement, making the “affluent life” possible for workers.

Today, that same struggle in its newest forms and aspects is the only path away from Trumpian fascism and its equally debilitating twin, neoliberalism. Submission to white supremacy and capitalist class power is a fools’ errand. Don’t be a fool.

Image: Screenshot of video taken by Christian Cooper, Melody Cooper (Twitter).


    Joel Wendland-Liu teaches in higher education. He uses critical race theory and Marxism in his research and award-winning teaching. He is the author of The Collectivity of Life and numerous scholarly articles. He is a member of the AAUP and is deemed “dangerous” by Campus Watch, a right-wing, pro-white supremacy blog that is funded almost completely by right-wing billionaires and millionaires who control the Republican Party.

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