For many centuries, the powerful have helped control their working poor by elevating some of the oppressed to wield the whip. The Romans had the Vigiles, poor men and often ex-slaves who patrolled the streets and fought fires; the Nazis had the Judenrat to carry out their orders in Jewish communities: southern US slave owners knew the advantages of black overseers. In the last 60 years, the US has empowered black politicians to help maintain its regime of racism and inequality.
By Ellen Isaacs
As the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 60s and 70s grew and were followed by the black power movement, the Democratic Party feared that a black political party independent from Democrats and Republicans might come into being. Thus the Democrats themselves embraced black politicians in order to co-opt the struggle. Between 1967 and 1971, the number of black elected officials increased fourfold to 1,850.
In a move some hoped would counteract this trend, the National Black Political Convention convened in Gary, Indiana in March, 1972. Militant nationalists, socialists, and black elected officials belonging to the Democratic Party, including the chair Gary mayor Hatcher, were all in attendance. Little actual debate was allowed on the convention floor, and those who proposed a break with the Democrats were accused of undermining black unity. Soon after the convention ended Hatcher and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) renounced activist stands like support for Palestinian liberation. Democrats, who were hungry for victory after Watergate, and Presidential candidate Carter were willing to ally with black politicians, who quashed any movement for an independent black party as they hoped for more influence in Washington.1
Higher Numbers Have Not Raised the Anti-Racist Quotient
The number of black members of Congress is now 60, 57 of whom belong to the CBC. However, since its founding in 1969, its sources of funding and politics have moved radically, ever closer to the center. Many members are recipients of large corporate donations, directly and via the CBC Foundation, whose board of directors has a majority from companies like Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Ford, and Toyota. This may be why in 2014, only seven members voted against giving heavy military equipment to the police. Hakeem Jeffries, the current Democratic House Minority Leader is backed by Microsoft, T Mobile, and financial/insurance/real estate companies, so it’s no surprise he supports hedge fund–backed groups like Democrats for Education Reform, an organization promoting charter schools. Although he has fought redistricting that disenfranchised black voters and racist police brutality, he has refused to sign a letter demanding support for public housing in the Build Back Better Act, has not supported the Green New Deal and does support Israel and oppose the BDS movement.2
At present there is also a large corps of black mayors, including Houston, Newark, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, DC, and New York City. There has also been a black president, Secretary of State and many other high federal officials. But we have not seen workers empowered, police abuse modulated, health care or education improved, employment or housing elevated or racism decreased. In fact, schools are more segregated than before the civil rights movement even in so-called liberal cities like New York, the wealth and income gaps between blacks and whites are as high as ever and the police murders of unarmed blacks continue unabated.
Adams Comes to New York City
Despite the record of compromise and capitulation, illusions and hope persist that a leader with black skin will fight against racism and on behalf of the working class. Such is the case today under Eric Adams of New York City, raised in poverty in Brooklyn and a campaigner against racism in the NYPD as a cop himself. For many that was enough to believe that he had the interest of the disadvantaged at heart. They were willing to overlook the flagrant conflicts of interest evident when he became Brooklyn borough president and then a state senator, accepting donations from wealthy developers with interest in zoning changes he sponsored, maintaining ties to a company doing business at a racetrack that he was supposed to be regulating and hiding his ownership of a co-op in New Jersey that was likely his primary residence.3
As soon as Adams took office he appointed a bevy of associates with questionable pasts. His deputy mayor for public safety, Phillip Banks, had resigned from the NYPD amid an investigation for trading favors and bribery. And he is the brother of the new school’s chancellor, David Banks. Adams’ chief of staff, Frank Carone, was a power broker in the Democratic Party with a history of unsavory business deals. Adams even named his own brother to be head of his security with a quarter million dollar salary.4
Unsavory associates or not, the most unsavory aspects of Adams’ tenure have been his actions. His budget proposes to cut $2.5 billion from all agencies except police, fire, and sanitation.
Police: Adam has emphasized the need for “public safety,” although shootings and murders have dropped as crimes of theft have risen. He attributes the latter to bail reforms for minor offenses, which he has fought against, rather than considering social stressors made worse by the pandemic. His response has been a police budget of over $5 billion; reactivating the anti-gun unit disbanded for its role in police shootings; encouraging more aggressive police tactics and facial recognition technology, known to fare poorly with black faces; decreasing funding for sending mental health professionals instead of armed police to deal with those in mental health crises; and rolling back punishments for police misconduct. Quality of life summonses has risen 27%. 5,6,7
Health: $257 million will be cut from the health budget. All retired city workers, who were entitled to regular Medicare and a supplement, are being forced into Medicare Advantage Plans, known for denial of care and procedures and limited doctor networks. Homeless people deemed to be mentally ill by police, are to be taken to emergency rooms for involuntary psychiatric admissions. Of course, only doctors and judges can actually commit patients, nor are there in-patient beds available or community mental health programs to actually assist such patients.8
Rather than dealing with the worsening staff shortages in hospitals and clinics in the wake of Covid-19, Adams is offering free training in lifestyle medicine to 200,000 medical practitioners and more plant-based diet options in city schools and hospitals.9
Education: $200 million is being cut from the school’s budget and more the next year, mostly by cutting teachers, although educators see the need for extra programming to make up for learning losses during the pandemic.10 The expansion of free preschool to three-year-olds, the public library budget, and funding for the City University of New York have also been cut. The City Council may succeed in mitigating some of these proposals.
Housing: A record 66,000 homeless are living in city shelters as the average rent on apartments in Manhattan has risen to over $4000. The Mayor has proposed $22 billion for affordable housing over the next decade, which is way below what would be needed to alleviate the problem.11 Meanwhile, evictions, which primarily affect New Yorkers of color, are up to about 4,400 since the moratorium ended in January 2022.12 In addition, over 40,000 asylum seekers have been dropped off in the city, with many being housed in hotels. The mayor has built huge 1000 head-to-toe bed temporary shelters for single men. When some protested outside for days in the cold after being forced from a hotel to the mass shelter, Adams said they were “actors,” not actual immigrants.
Black Capitalist Politicians are No Protection Against Capitalist Inequality
What most concerns Adams is growing the city’s business economy and its tax base, expanding transportation into Manhattan and attracting high-income renters. Of course, this is the trap of capitalist economics, needing to service the rich while minimizing their costs and taxes, which means limiting services to the poor. As always, racism is the key to making such discrepancies acceptable: it is the black, Latin, and immigrant communities who are said to cause crime, use up health dollars with poor self-care, be hard to educate, and take poor care of their neighborhoods.
Protest against the dire conditions that many New Yorkers and other urban residents face has been muted since the pandemic but also because of the presence of black politicians like Adams. Just as anti-war protests almost ceased as soon as Obama took office, many New Yorkers, especially black New Yorkers, either believed Adams would care about them or that protests against him would seem racist. When the failures are monumental, as in Chicago, black politicians such as Lori Lightfoot, may be replaced by an openly racist and fascistic opponent, as seems about to happen.
As is the major theme of the multiracialunity.org blog, as is the most important tool of the capitalist class, racism and identity politics are used to fool us about who are our allies and who are our enemies. We must learn to ask to what class, what system, are our leaders loyal? From Eric Adams to Lightfoot to Obama to Hakeem Jeffries, they are believers in capitalism. No matter what “liberal” or humane platforms they may put forward, they will always choose the solutions that allow capitalism to survive and flourish. The lesson for us is that we must build movements that do not rely on choosing politicians but on building mass support for what we need. We must seek working-class allies of all ethnicities and prioritize the fight against racism in order to have the strength we need. And while we’re doing that we must build the consciousness that a new system – a worker-run system – is needed.
Ellen Isaacs is a physician, co-editor of multiracialunity.org, and an anti-racist and anti-capitalist activist. She can be reached at email@example.com.