Pro-Black, Pro-Indigenous, Cooperative Economics
Pro-Black, Pro-Indigenous, Cooperative Economics
June 11, 2019 / 6319 AFK
Some proportion of corporations that support racial equity should be explicitly pro-black people, pro-indigenous people and democratic. In the United States, the need for anti-racist, democratic businesses that are pro-black and pro-indigenous comes from the institution of legal whiteness and the necessity of self-reliance among black and indigenous peoples.
For the sake of this thesis, pro-black/indigenous means two things. First, it means that an enterprise is "successful" if and only if it empowers black and/or indigenous people specifically. Many mission-driven organizations that strive for racial equity, economic justice, inclusion and diversity define success by disproportionately serving particular racial groups and not others. This is sometimes intentional, sometimes unintentional, sometimes fair, sometimes unfair, sometimes more effective and sometimes less effective. For reasons of realism and humanity - described momentarily - a pro-black/indigenous enterprise would intentionally maintain this institutional bias for a long, finite period of time.
Second, pro-black/indigenous mean that the unifying factor of the enterprise is primarily intention, not racial identity. Human nature is such that people tend to be more interested in empowering their identity group. However, some people evolve beyond this. In particular, some white people learn how they benefit from the institutional and cultural legacies of legal whiteness in the US and the Americas at the expense of "others". And some of those white people also choose to educate themselves, their families and their friends about racism. And some of those white people regularly take on tasks that dismantle racism in their workplaces, empower black people, empower indigenous people or all of the above. White workers who educate themselves on racism, take steps to end racist systems and empower racially oppressed people are also engaged in anti-racist, pro-black/indigenous action.
In North America, the distinction between “white” people and non-white people was first established in the 1600s by colonial legislatures, like Maryland's, and eventually by the US federal government in the 1790 Naturalization Act. This radical, racial distinction created a legal class of person called, "white". From the colonial era to the 1960s, only this racial class of person received or could participate in full legal rights, land grants, subsidies, public sector services, private sector loans, insurance, investment assets, certain professions, certain neighborhoods and the full benefits that citizens should enjoy. White women were also denied fair enfranchisement, albeit to a lesser extent than black and native people. Whiteness was the legal basis for stealing lives, health, land and labor from black and native people. During these, recent centuries, the American private and public sectors were born and shaped underneath this legal structure of white nationalism. Legal whiteness created the governments, courts, laws, companies and corporations, business norms, policies, media, language and anthems that comprise American culture.
Many people suspect that legal whiteness may have been established by the primarily white, capital-owning class on both sides of the Atlantic, in order to divide and weaken the overwhelming power (in terms of numbers) of the colonial working class. Sociology professor, lawyer and author, Dr. Jacqueline Battalora explains that non-white people were legislatively stripped of the legal equality that they once had, giving rise to social discrimination, economic discrimination and color-based, chattel slavery. Struggling, white workers then felt encouraged by their petty superiority to the new underclass of non-whites and by their shared, racial identity with the primarily white, capitalist class, despite having much more in common with their brown-skinned, fellow workers. This incentivized the white worker class to uphold racist genocide and labor exploitation with strategic silence, inaction and action. Dr. Battalora explains this foundational phenomenon with Philippe Matthews in this interview.
While non-white people are no longer denied the rights and privileges of citizenship by law, the legacy of hundreds of years of legal whiteness persists. Even after the Civil Rights Movement, many primarily white corporations in the US private sector, such as New York Life, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Aetna, US Life and Wachovia continue to hold assets generated by stolen lives, land and labor. JP Morgan Chase is the sixth largest bank in the world, at $2.2 trillion in assets. In 2005, they acknowledged that part of their corporate assets came from accepting 13,000 enslaved, black people as loan collateral. Apparently not in mockery, they atoned for these stolen lives and this stolen wealth by writing an apology letter and giving $5 million to a nonprofit. Primarily white corporations, communities and households have inequitable access to resources that primarily black and native corporations and communities lack. Primarily white businesses have received disproportionate, racist support for centuries and they continue to receive it. Achieving a racially equitable private sector will require a period of disproportionate support for the racial groups most harmed by historic, racial apartheid and current, racial inequity. This will be necessary until racial equity in net wealth is achieved.
Self-Reliance in Lieu of Redress for Economic Theft
This pro-black/indigenous orientation is not motivated by racial pride, but by realism and humanity. First, realism tells us that - while we might as well ask - adequate reparations for explicitly anti-black and anti-native genocide are unlikely to be implemented in the private or public sectors under their current paradigms of management. In the public sector, asking state and federal U.S. legislatures for racial equality has not had inspiring results. And in the private sector, for the most part, corporate culture is too committed to maintaining an apolitical, race-neutral veneer (frequently confused with "politeness," "professionalism" or "cultural fit") to implement anti-racist systems. This is unfortunate because it takes institutional anti-racism to heal from institutional racism, not just diversity and inclusion in racist, private corporations.
Second, black workers and native workers recognize our own, obvious humanity. Private enterprise and governments used racially targeted dehumanization to carry out sustained theft, trauma and genocide against black and native people. This caused and causes actual harm to people. In order to ignore or minimize the harm of genocide, as governments and corporations do, we would have to internalize racism enough to deny ourselves and our ancestors our own humanity. In the absence of adequate reparations from the institutions that benefit or benefitted from genocide, our humanity is still worthy of urgent, racially targeted self-healing, as defined by black and native people. We maintain this right to self-healing as part of our human right to self-determination, even at the risk of excluding those who are not interested in empowering black and native people specifically.
A significant proportion of the financial assets that are held in the private sector, and in some historically white households, originated in massive, economic theft. That theft was focused specifically on taking black and native communities' lives, land and labor over generations and centuries. Human enslavement is common in history, but color-based, life-long, heredity slavery coupled with legal, white ethnic nationalism is not. Without an unlikely, anti-racist enlightenment in the US, it's improbable that indigenous and black communities' land, wealth and sovereignty will be adequately restored by the institutions that legally hold those assets. So, descendants of enslaved Africans and indigenous people have a legitimate prerogative to prioritize our own economic, environmental and social reparation.
White workers endure economic oppression from the capitalist class while simultaneously benefitting from racial privilege. Capitalists control the wages and conditions under which white workers work. White workers' wages are suppressed in order to maximize shareholders' returns. Capitalists' corporations pollute the air and water of white workers as well. While enduring this oppression, white people also benefit from racial privileges - better mortgage terms, better employment opportunity, family wealth that originated from racially restricted subsidies, racially restricted real estate, racially restricted jobs, etc. Some primarily white families possess wealth that originated from enslavement or from conducting business with enslavers. And almost all real estate wealth in the US would be impossible without violent land theft from indigenous peoples. Primarily white businesses and families have enjoyed centuries of legally unfettered access to systems of economic and political enfranchisement at the expense of those who were not full citizens of the white nationalist state. In the US, private and public sector institutions have shaped their norms, cultures and practices around meeting white people's needs specifically, while screening or proactively oppressing non-white people. These are privileges of whiteness. White workers who - knowingly or unknowingly - benefit from racial privilege without also taking steps to end racial privilege oppress non-white people. They tend to maintain the racial oppression of black and native workers by remaining silent and inactive about racism or by actively supporting it.
In addition to the economic advantages of whiteness, there are also social tools of grassroots oppression that damage the black and native worker class. Centuries of upholding a legal construct as dehumanizing as white nationalism until the 1960s required the development and maintenance of a grassroots culture that dehumanizes those of us who were not and are not "full," white citizens. The contents of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, modern racist media tropes, racially offensive sports teams and mascots are evidence of that grassroots culture. As a result, non-white people are unconsciously perceived as social antagonists by most people, as the research of Stanford psychologist, Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt has revealed. Only some white workers deliberately employ grassroots, racist culture, but all white workers benefit from the bias it creates.
Like white workers, black and native workers also endure economic oppression from the capitalist class. Unlike oppressed, white workers, we also endure economic and racial oppression from the capitalist class and from the white worker class. So even as capitalism oppresses workers of all colors, there is still significant economic and racial inequity and injustice between the white worker class and the black and native worker class. "Class-first" socialists would say that ending the economic oppression of capitalism is a greater priority than ending the oppression of racism. However, overcoming the social inequities of capitalism before overcoming the inequities of racism comes with the high, probable risk of achieving a racist, socialist society. This is arguably what happened in Cuba. And in the US, the Progressive Era was arguably the peak of the white labor force’s power in the country’s history. White socialists, labor unions and workers made substantial gains for the rights of white workers during this time. At the same time, white workers responded to the Great Migration of black people out of the American south with grassroots anti-black terrorism, and grassroots anti-black labor rules. As the AFL-CIO acknowledges, "In the "Red Summer" of 1919, 38 separate race riots occurred, all of them white mobs attacking blacks... Across the country, more than 100 people died that summer, while scores of black homes and businesses were destroyed." Systemic racism needs to be destroyed before or along with class oppression.
Racial inequity, oppression and division between black, native and white workers diminishes our collective power as an economic class of workers. Capitalists' financial interests include keeping the costs of business, such as paying workers or eliminating pollution, as low as possible. If workers in an enterprise or industry are well-organized, then sometimes they can use the power of their organization to secure higher wages, benefits and generally better working conditions. Often these things are not in the capitalist's financial interests. Racial division between the worker class empowers members of the capitalist class who own the industry or company on which those workers depend for their livelihoods.
Some white people are demonstrating their commitment to racial equity instead of coasting on the harm of white privilege and allowing systemic racism to persist through racially privileged silence and inaction. Listen to white anti-racist educators, Dara Silverman and Chris Crass explain how racism and sexism damage society.
Reforming the racist private sector is ultimately the responsibility of white people. Black and native people have exhausted all means of education, advocacy, activism, self-defense and forgiveness in pursuit of racial equity. In the US, white people hold a disproportionate share of private economic assets and are currently the demographic majority. White people who want an end to racial injustice in the private sector can use their racial privilege to advance anti-racist policies and systems in their own workplaces. In order for this to happen, there would need to be many white workers who are willing to take financial risks on behalf of their black and native class peers. Such an unlikely act of decency would only occur once a critical mass of the white, worker class understands that their true power comes from anti-racist solidarity with black workers, indigenous workers and workers of all colors. Until then, it would be worthwhile for black and indigenous people to reduce our efforts to reform racist systems in the private and public sectors and instead, create anti-racist, acapitalist enterprises.
Pro-Black, Pro-Indigenous, Democratic Enterprise
Encouraging corporations, governments and the general public to become educated about race and pursue anti-racist reform is a mostly exhausted approach. But for the sake of mitigating racist harm, it is still worthwhile. A less-exhausted approach is for black and native people to create our own business enterprises without replicating capitalism. For example, a pro-black/indigenous, democratic enterprise could share decision-making power with low net worth and low income residents of Indian reservations and formerly redlined communities to protect them from negative externalities of corporate activity (i.e. illness-causing pollution, ecological degradation). These enterprises can define their needs - which are finite - by putting formulaic ceilings on their net income and net assets. Then, any retained earnings beyond those needs could be redistributed to said communities through stockholder dividends.
A pro-black/indigenous enterprise would not replicate the capitalist model in which a few investors (often non-worker investors) control the decisions about other people's work and what it produces. Capitalist management is authoritarian, top-down and anti-democratic, robbing black and native workers of our self-determination. It empowers the few over the many. Even when black and native individuals are included in a business' owner class, a capitalist enterprise still takes democratic power away from its black and/or native worker class, who could otherwise democratically own and control their own enterprise. The capitalist model extracts labor's economic surplus and redistributes it upwards, even when that means holding black and native workers' wages below the cost of healthy living. So, black ownership of the fruits of other black people's labor should not be mistaken for progress for anyone but those few, black capitalists. At best, capitalism among oppressed people is an intermediate step to generating the capital needed for an eventual transition to a non-exploitative relationship between workers. In reality, the capitalist business model of anti-democratic ownership and management has a terrible success rate of 3-5% after five years. And when it does succeed, capitalism and black capitalism are not a rising tide that lifts all boats, but a model for directing the energies of workers toward the enrichment of a few investors. Why would an economic system that was built on a foundation of slavery, genocide and legal "white" personhood become the mechanism of our liberation? Capitalism is anti-democratic, has a terrible business success rate, creates classes of people with opposing interests in the same business and gives away our self-determination as workers to the investor class. These are very old, well-known problems, so black and native workers need not expect this system to reform itself to the point of spontaneously empowering the very racial classes which it was designed to oppress. In the spirit of self-determination, a pro-black/indigenous enterprise would use the structure of something like a worker-owned, democratic firm. Several anti-racist companies implementing this power-sharing and surplus-sharing arrangement would do a lot more for racial healing and progress than have colonialism, capitalism or capitalism's philanthropy.
Like people all over the colonized world, people in the US continue to live in a deeply racist society. The median wealth of black and Latinx households is trending toward zero dollars over the next thirty years. The current US President is a notorious bigot and liar, who earned 60+ million votes and nearly 60% of white voters. It took deliberate, radical, racially unjust systems to bring about these conditions and it will take deliberate, "radical", racially just systems to free ourselves from them. Systemic racism will not vanish with time, volunteers and elections alone. If systemic racism is to be eradicated, it will be because anti-racist workers, employees and managers of all colors either force or create anti-racist workplaces ourselves.
There are at least two paths for black people and indigenous people who seek to heal and liberate ourselves from oppression in the forms of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, capitalism and pollution. One path is to continue pursuing reforms within existing, racist systems in the private sector, which would require anti-racists to take some amount of power. However, due to the lingering inertia of the United States' white nationalist laws, even incremental, anti-racist reforms in the private or public sectors do not succeed without white people's buy-in. So, only when a certain proportion of white people are ready to risk something in order to bring about racial justice, would striving to take over capitalist corporations' power become a viable path to racial equity. Another path is to reorganize our labor into micro democracies that create their own revenues. This creates our own power. There have been incremental, reformist, anti-racist victories, but we should also acknowledge the overall, historical inadequacy of reformism in securing racial equity in wealth and power in capitalist corporations. After generations of reform, black and native wealth isn’t even moving in a desirable direction. Anti-racist, democratic, pro-black/indigenous management of businesses presents significant potential to create the liberated, self-determining power that black people, indigenous people and all people deserve.