Special Convention Discussion: African American Equality

BY: Jarvis Tyner| April 5, 2010
Special Convention Discussion: African American Equality

This special report and another on African American Equality were solicited by the National Board to enhance the discussion of key racially and nationally oppressed peoples in our country. As special reports to the Board, these contributions exceed the normal word length of convention discussion contributions.

This article is part of the discussion leading up to the Communist Party USA’s 29th National Convention May 21-23, 2010. CPUSA.org takes no responsibility for the opinions expressed in this article or other articles in the pre-convention discussion. All contributions must meet the guidelines for discussion. To read other contributions to this discussion, visit the site of the Pre-Convention Discussion period.

All contributions to the discussion should be sent to discussion2010@cpusa.org for selection not to the individual venues.For more information on the convention or the pre-convention discussion period, you can email convention2010@cpusa.org.

Black America’s ongoing struggle for freedom

The CPUSA’s approach

From the founding of this nation until now, the fight against racism in general and the movement for African American freedom in particular have been central to the overall struggle for progress. The struggle for African American equality is a special question whose solution requires fundamental changes in the capitalist system. Without the strategic alliance of the African American people and the working class, neither can achieve liberation. 

Defeating racism is not the task of black or brown people alone – it is the task of the multiracial working class and democratic forces as a whole.  

The Communist Party USA is for the elimination of all forms of racial oppression and injustice. We are for an end to structural racism as it manifests itself in the economic, political, social, cultural, and ideological life of our nation. The party’s thinking and commitment to the struggle against racism and for full equality have evolved over 90 years of struggle and are in step with the prevailing views among the African Americans and other racially oppressed peoples. We take sharp exception to the prevailing views coming from the political right.

“Color-Blind Society” – a rightwing scam

Lately we have heard a lot of talk about a “color-blind society.” The far right advances the slogan to counter any effort by the African American freedom movement to eliminate racial discrimination and oppression. They take the preposterous position that any effort to expose racism is in itself racist.  

There can be no “color-blind” society without combating racist ideology. There can be no “color-blind” society without eliminating systemic racism from our national life. “Color-blind society” is just a slogan to hide the right’s deeply racist policies.

Black public figures under fire

Since Obama was elected, attacks in the media against black people have increased, as have hate crimes. The Southern Poverty Law Center warns that greater vigilance is needed. Bashing Obama has become a national pastime for Republicans, who see it as a way to regain their former political dominance.  

Hatred of the president pervaded the Tea Party Convention and the Conservative Political Action Conference. Speaker after speaker proclaimed how victimized they were by the nation’s first black president. Speakers were mobilizing the extreme right with racial hatred and anti-communist hysteria, to be the shock troops to help elect candidates to the right of George W. Bush. 

These ideas from the disastrous 30 years of right-wing rule are being recycled as if they are the solution to the deep-going problems we face today.  

A politically driven feeding frenzy is evident in the treatment of other black elected officials and prominent individuals, such as New York Governor David Paterson, U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, and Tiger Woods. And in the contrast between media reports characterizing the white man who flew his plane into an IRS building, killing two people, as confused and angry, and those calling the apprehension of the Nigerian would-be airplane bomber as a near-miss with Armageddon.  

Why so long? History

Clearly the problem of racial inequality has deep roots in our society and its continued widespread existence cannot be attributed to individual prejudice alone. The source of the problem is capitalism. The policy of racial oppression has been deeply rooted in the socioeconomic bone marrow of U.S. capitalism from its inception. An honest examination of history will clearly show that racism played a decisive role in the development and current functioning of U.S. capitalism.  

The indigenous peoples would not submit to slavery on their own land. The settlers wanted the land the Native Americans occupied. If whites believed they were violent savages who stood in the way of progress, almost any crimes against them including genocide could be rationalized. And that’s what happened.  

Enslavement of the Africans

During more than 300 years of slavery and Jim Crow the notion that Africans were inferior was promoted on all levels of society.

This poisonous racist ideology permeated the entire culture and was

used to rationalize the most brutal enslavement and segregation of

people of African descent.  

Profits from chattel slavery were strategic to the initial accumulation of wealth that made it possible for the U.S. to move from a predominantly agricultural economy to a modern industrial/financial capitalist economy.  

Ultimately the expansion of capitalism and establishment of the U.S. as a nation-state, one feature of which was a national working class, clashed with the expansion of slavery. 

The Civil War – the bloodiest war our country has ever been involved in – was over the spread of slavery versus the development of capitalism. With the North’s victory, U.S. capitalism reached a major milestone in its development.  

The annexation of Mexico was also rationalized by racism, as was the use of Asian indentured labor to build the railroads and make the expansion west possible.  

Over 80 years of Jim Crow (legal apartheid) meant black workers made less than white workers, but white workers also made less than they would have if the working class was unionized and united. Racism and poverty went hand in hand. With Jim Crow came sharecropping, a feudal-like system which kept black and white landless peasants tied to the land and subsistence farming for a lifetime. Jim Crow could not be sustained without violence: lynch mob rule, corrupted Klan-run local and state police, the chain gang, the assassin’s bullet and denial of the right to vote. Meantime the capitalist class reaped tens of billions annually in extra profits from this racial oppression.  

Those blacks who made the great migration north still faced a very difficult life. Most lived in extreme poverty, confined to racially segregated communities with slum housing, poor services, unemployment, underemployment, inferior schools, high poverty, shorter life spans, police brutality, always in debt, last hired and first fired.  

These conditions could only be so universally implemented, so common to all African American families across the country because of systemic, institutional racism which pervades every aspect of American life and the system of US capitalism from its economic base to its superstructure. For most of U.S. history racial segregation was legal and therefore was the rule. It was engrained in the basic thought patterns of most people of all races and nationalities including people of color.  

Resistance and Historic Victories

The system of oppression is one side of the equation; the other side is tremendous resistance by the oppressed and exploited.

 From the time they were captured, imprisoned, forced to endure the murderous middle passage and taken off slave ships in chains, the slaves resisted in a thousand ways. They refused to work, went on hunger strike, mounted armed revolts – most of which were violently crushed. Their resistance was key in destabilizing the slavocracy. Ultimately they fought for and won the right to bear arms and fight in the Civil War, though they were paid less and issued inferior equipment. They fought courageously in the most dangerous battles, suffering higher casualty rates than the white Union soldiers. 

The role of Marxists

Our party called the defeat of slavery the completion of the bourgeois democratic revolution, because as long as slavery existed, U.S. democracy was fundamentally flawed.  

In Capital, Karl Marx coined the phrase that “Labor in the white skin will never be free as long as labor in the black skin is branded.” That idea rings as true today as it did during the fight against slavery.  

Before the Communist Party was formed in this country, individual communists were active participants in the fight against slavery and Jim Crow, and the fight for unity during the earliest days of the U.S. labor movement. 

During the Great Depression the party organized black and white workers, farmers and sharecroppers in the Deep South.  

The popular slogan, “Black and white unite and fight!” moved masses of working people into the struggle against racism all over the country. In the 1930s and 40s the party helped to save the Scottsboro Boys, Angelo Herndon, Willie McGee and many others. The party went south and through organizations like the Southern Negro Youth Congress and the Southern Conference for Human Welfare as well as its work to help organize the Congress of Industrial Organizations (the CIO), the party was part of a new wave of civil rights struggles there. That period was dramatized in the movie, “The Great Debaters,” starring Denzel Washington.  

This was dangerous and courageous work. Many were jailed and beaten and some were murdered at the hands of the racists. But some of the real heroes of our party, including James W. Ford, Henry Winston, Jim and Esther Jackson, Claude Lightfoot, Mildred McAdory, Ed and Augusta Strong, Dorothy and Louie Burnham, John Pittman and Benjamin Davis, came from the South and/or honed their considerable political skills as political organizers working in the South.   .  

Their work helped set the stage for the upsurge of the 1960s which did win the outlawing of segregation. Comrades representing all races and nationalities did magnificent things under very difficult circumstances, in the fight against powerful forces. They took Marx’ basic understanding of class unity and inspired a whole political era, shaped by active, militant, multiracial class struggle. 

And today the carnage continues

Today’s economic crisis is rooted in yesterday’s racial and class oppression. So is the tradition of struggle among the African American people. As a people and a movement African Americans have been strategic in the fight for democracy and basic change. The fight against slavery opened the door to advancing the overall fight for democracy and helped give impetus to the development of the trade union, women’s and populist movements.  

The organization of industrial workers during the New Deal period, including the 1937 Little Steel strike led by Gus Hall, could not have succeeded without an all-out struggle against racism. Back then, when white workers went on strike the companies would bus in unemployed black workers from the south to break the strike. They would be fired after the strike was lost. But in the Youngstown, Ohio Little Steel strike, the strikers promised the black workers that if they refused to cross their picket line they would get jobs if the union won. It worked and black/white unity won the day. 

The great sit-in movement which started in Greensboro in 1960 helped to break the grip of the McCarthy repression. The civil rights upsurge of that era set the stage for the peace, women’s, youth and seniors’ movements, and built alliances with labor, the Mexican American and Puerto Rican movements.  

It linked the fight for civil rights to the disarmament movement and the movement to end the war in Vietnam. It deepened the strategic alliance of the labor movement and the African American liberation movement. The Memphis Sanitation workers, the United Farm Workers and the Poor People’s Campaign come to mind.  

Through all these struggles the party helped to build broad unity of all the key forces. The campaign to free Angela Davis was the largest international campaign on behalf of political prisoners at that time. And her complete exoneration gave great impetus to the fight for democracy and against repression.  

When the Black Panthers were under sharp attack, when the Wilmington Ten were framed up on charges of arson and firebombing, it was the Communist-led National Alliance against Racist and Political Repression that led the national and international campaign for their exoneration.  

Through all these efforts the party grew substantially among African Americans, Latinos and whites.  

The 29th Convention can make a real contribution to strengthening our party’s standing in the black community.  

Finding the right tactics

First, an anti-Obama strategy is not a winning strategy, especially in the African American community where over 90 percent have a very positive attitude towards the president.  

But there is a deep concern about the worsening economic situation and the rightwing attacks on the president. I think the winning approach is around the fight for jobs. We have a big role to play here.  

“Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory said in a recent program that the majority of U.S. people oppose Obama’s health care reform. I don’t think that is accurate, because when people are asked about various provisions in the bill, they are for them. But Gregory made a very telling point when he asked White House health czar Nancy-Ann De Parle, “Where were your million people marching in Washington?” So far, the movement that elected President Obama has not been a big enough factor in the fight for the president’s program. That must change. 

I frankly reject the notion that it is Obama’s fault these racists are gaining some traction among some rightwing elements. They are well-financed, very vocal, very active and very aggressive. Obama made some mistakes and misestimated the right’s determination and unscrupulousness. The McCain/Palin rallies were like Klan rallies. Once Obama and Biden won these elements saw their pro-big business, anti-working class, racist ideological framework losing mass support and they hoped the health care issues would unite their side and lead to a total defeat for Obama.  

But the question still needs to be asked, “Where was the Obama coalition?” 

Ben Jealous was on target when he wrote in The Nation, “too many instances in the past twelve months we have powered down, left the field for the bleachers and chosen to play armchair pundits rather than continue leading.” He calls that the “greatest failure” of the past year.  

In his acceptance speech after receiving the NAACP’s President’s Award, Van Jones put it another way. He said, “Barack Obama volunteered to become captain of the Titanic when the ship was sinking. Today the ship is still sailing.”  

I think the correct tactic is to put our main fire against the right. And when the movement disagrees with the president. it should do it more as one disagrees with a coalition partner rather than as we did with Bush.  

As I said at a National Council meeting last year, Obama opened the door to a potential new progressive era. If you want that progressive era to become a reality, why would you beat up on the guy holding the door to a potentially great future?  

Walking through the door

The problem is that we are only beginning now to walk through the door.  

United Steel Workers leader Leo Gerard’s recent call for a civil rights-style movement for jobs is walking through the door. The new “Jobs for America Now” movement with its 60 organizational affiliates, its actions at Whirlpool and the unemployed actions now taking place in a number of locations across the country – I think that’s walking through that door.  

A new unemployed movement will put the focus on class issues and class unity and can move the right out of center stage and put the emphasis on unity and solidarity.  

It looks like the Obama version of health care reform will pass. Building a movement to strengthen it is walking through the door.  

Growing voices are calling for a march on Washington for jobs. Such a march could draw a huge crowd. It would be hard to do in an election year but it could activate the democratic forces around the midterm elections. That would be another important way to walk through the door. That’s what we communists need to emphasize.  

The Congressional Black Caucus recently objected to a $15 billion jobs bill because it was really a tax bill and said nothing about protecting black and Latino consumers from fraudulent loans and mortgages. The CBC members held up the vote on the bill, and took the fight to the White House, where they had some sharp exchanges with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. I believe they are still negotiating. The CBC was also walking through the door. 

What kind of jobs bill do we envision?

The center piece of the fight for jobs should be a massive government run public works program to rebuild the nation’s vital infrastructure (roads, bridges, water and sewage systems, flood control, parks and recreation facilities).  It would also include schools, health care facilities, public housing, mass transit all with an emphasis on green development.  It should include retrofitting all government buildings including public housing with the latest in green technology.  All of this to be meaningful and not discriminate against those who are facing the worse situation must have a strong affirmative action provision.

We need to link ending the wars and war spending to the jobs issue. We need to heighten the fight against racism and for affirmative action in general.  Any jobs program that doesn’t have provisions to make sure those who are in the deepest crisis get jobs in proportion to their severe conditions and special needs would be discriminatory and weaken the fight. If the goal is to lower unemployment to 7 percent, it’s going to take a bigger effort to do that for the residents of Harlem and Detroit than those of New York City’s wealthy Gramercy Park.  

We also need to give more support to the movement for justice and amnesty for immigrants. If the right wing wins that fight it will be a setback for the working class as a whole and a boost for the extreme right.  

The party and the YCL

Our party has a great history in the fight for African American equality. While the party is showing some modest growth it is far from enough. The YCL is rebuilding and needs much help from the party to succeed. If the party is going to dramatically increase its size and influence we have to get serious about building the YCL.  

What do we need to do?

  • I think we need to be more active and visible among black folks. We need to bring back a regular People’s World/Mundo Popular column on the African American struggle.
  • Eventually, we need to consider an online African American journal.
  • On the college tour we should make a special effort to reach out to the predominantly black schools with party and YCL speakers.
  • We need study groups and seminars on issues confronting the black community.
  • Many ideas and district experiences should be shared and emulated.
  • A special committee is needed to come up with a document on African American struggle for the convention. It should be a discussion and party- building document with an approach to struggle and action.
  • We need to hear about experiences comrades have had with the special brochure, “An Invitation to African Americans.”

Finally, the legacy of slavery and continued structural racism has not gone away with the election of Obama and the new Congress. One of the realities of the current moment is that the crisis of capitalism has deepened, It’s not just the policies of the ultra-right Republicans that brought this country to ruins, it’s also the long-term impact of the decline of the U.S. capitalist system. I think most workers are glad that in these hard times Obama is in the White House and not McCain and Palin. We have a president who’s close to labor and has solid support from big majorities among racial minorities. His political future, his ability to win reelection, is tied to activating a base.  

Obama’s coalition was demobilized while the right wing was powering up its racist-red baiting attack machine against the first black president. Obama wanted healthcare reform with a public option; he didn’t have the votes. He wanted to end the war sooner; he didn’t have the support. He wanted a bigger jobs bill and stimulus package; he didn’t have the votes. As we face the critical midterm election we need to work to elect a Congress with a smaller Republican minority.  

As we said in the beginning:

Racism is the problem. And our party is for the elimination of all forms of racial oppression and injustice. We are for an end to structural racism as it manifests itself in the economic, political, social, cultural, life of our nation.  

That’s what we are fighting for. And we think it is achievable under socialism. How far we can go before socialism we don’t know until we get there, but we are going to fight like hell to get there.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/seattlemunicipalarchives/ / CC BY 2.0



Addendum: Basic Data on African American Today


US Census, as of July, 2008

Number of Black residents in US

41.1 million (increase of 500,000 from 2007)

Percent of total US population



Projection for 2050

Number of Black resident in US

65.7 million

Percent of total US population



 Data by States for African Americans, 2008

18 states

at least 1 million Black residents

23 states including: NY, IL, GA, MI, PA,

                                OH, MD, MO

Black residents are largest minority group:



States and Counties, 2008

New York

3.5 million (state with largest Black population)

Cook County, IL

1.4 million (county with largest Black population)


38% of residents are Black (largest percentage)


32% of residents are Black


67,000 increase in Black residents (largest increase)


64,000 increase in Black residents

North Carolina

45,000 increase in Black residents


41,000 increase in Black residents

Data by Age for African Americans

Under 18


Over 65



Voter Turnout, 2008

All ages

65% (highest of any racial or ethnic group)

Ages 18-24

55% (highest turnout of that age group)


Data by Income for African Americans

Median income

$34,218 (a decline of 2.8% from 2007)

Working class

over 90%


24% (near 50% for children)

Health care     

19% have no health insurance


Data by Unemployment for African Americans

Official rate

17% (double that for white workers)

Adults real rate

25% (including discouraged and part time)

Youth real rate



Data by Incarceration of Black Males

Of All Prisoners

50% of 2.4 million incarcerated in the US

Ages 25-29     

10.4% of Black males are in prison





    Jarvis Tyner is executive vice chair of the Communist Party USA and a long-time member of the party's national board.. He was a founding member of the Black Radical Congress and served on its national coordinating committee for five years.

    Tyner was born in the Mill Creek community of West Philadelphia in 1941 and graduated from West Philadelphia High School. He joined the Communist Party USA at the age of 20. After several years working in various industrial jobs in the Philadelphia area, where he was a member of the Amalgamated Lithographers and the Teamsters union, he moved to New York in 1967 to become the national chair of the DuBois Clubs of America, and later founding chair of the Young Workers Liberation League. He was the Communist Party USA candidate for vice president of the U.S. in 1972 and 1976, running with party leader Gus Hall.

    As a leader of the CPUSA Tyner has been an active public spokesperson against racism, imperialism and war. He has written numerous articles and pamphlets and appears on the media, campuses and in other public venues advocating for peace, equality and the socialist alternative. He currently resides in the Inwood section of Manhattan, N.Y., is married and the father of four adult children and one grandchild.


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