Beyonce, Black Lives Matter and the Continued Omissions of Class from Discussions of Race and Resistance in America

Pop superstar Beyonce used her performance during the Super Bowl 50 halftime show to promote and support the Black Lives Matter campaign that has swept the United States in the wake of a number of high profile Black fatalities at the hands of law enforcement officials. Her routine featured backup dancers dressed similar to members of the Black Panther movement of the 1960s, and the formation of an X in reference to Nation of Islam leader, Malcom X. Ruidi Giuliani, Mayor of New York branded the performance ‘outrageous’ and an attack on the institutions that protect ‘Middle America’, whereas sympathetic outlets have commended Beyonce for placing such an important struggle of a marginalised and victimised community at the heart of a show watched by a global audience of around one billion people. One of the most interesting aspects of the public discussion of the performance from the point of view of the historian is the continued omission of discussions of class from an analysis of radical black politics in the US.

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Image: League of Revolutionary Black Workers

Black Americans arrived predominately as slave labour in the early formation of the United States. Whilst an obvious historical statement, the significance of this cannot be understated in understanding the different historical relationship that Blacks have had with economic production when compared with other migrant groups. Slave labour was only abolished to suit the needs and requirements of America’s developing capitalist economy, as the industrial North sought to challenge the power of the plantocracy in the South. The freedom of African Americans was largely a result of economic necessity, and abolitionists such as Lincoln never anticipated the cohabitation of Blacks and Whites in the post-Civil War era.

The importance of this in the development of America’s problems with race and the position of African Americans must be empahsised. Blacks have consistently been viewed as the ‘other’ by America and her legal institutions. But within discourses of oppression in the modern American state, the importance of the economic position of Blacks has been consistently underplayed in popular representations of struggles for liberation, when class has been as significant as colour in fuelling anger and achieving solidarity. These relationships between economics, class and Black struggle have been historically interlinked at the grassroots level but, like the discussions following Beyonce at the Super Bowl, remain absent from broader public discourses of Black victimisation.

The Black Lives Matters campaign draws interesting comparisons with the Black liberation movement launched in the Detroit motor industry in the late 1960s. Following a wildcat strike at General Motor’s Dodge Main plant in the suburb of Hamtramck, a number of Black workers were dismissed whilst their White colleagues received far more lenient punishments. This was the stimulus for the formation of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), which argued and campaigned on issues such as Black representation in management and the motor workers’ union, the UAW. Revolutionary Union Movements soon organised in a number of plants in Detroit’s auto industry, culminating in the formation of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in 1969. Despite the evident racial elements of DRUM, they emerged from an industrial dispute and their politics were dominated by a Marxist analysis of production and exploitation. They argued clearly that, whilst their tactics were determined by the position of Blacks in Detroit as a lower class than Whites, their ultimate aim was ‘eliminating racism and the exploitation of all the workers, throughout the world’.

Video: ‘Finally Got The News’, a piece on DRUM and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

Despite their origins on the shop floor, their activism within the auto industry, and their repeated demands for the economic liberation of the working class, DRUM were portrayed at the time as a Black Nationalist organisation, with their membership viewed as a splinter Panther group, and no attention given to their nuanced Marxist economic arguments. When reading the material archived in the Reuther Library in Detroit, DRUM are evidently an organisation who combined arguments of racial and class oppression to develop a coherent programme of direct action against the motor industry, a union unrepresentative to Black interests, and the capitalist system that attempted to make enemies of Blacks and Whites at the point of production. This is represented in the historiography of DRUM and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, with historians such as David Lewis-Coleman and Heather Thompson referring to the Revolutionary Union Movement as Black Nationalist, with little attention paid to the complexities of the race and economic relations that shaped these organisations.

Without considering the economic drivers of DRUM, race is given a hegemonic position in understandings of their motivations and their politics (despite no racial terms in their title). Only when sufficient attention is given to the position of Black workers in the auto industry at this time does it become apparent that they were a Marxist organisation, struggling against capitalist exploitation within the dynamics of American racial struggle.

This is evident in the current Black Lives Matter campaign; even sympathetic outlets discuss these campaigns, public protests, and support and opposition in a purely racial manner. For popular American discussions of Black exploitation, it is a matter of African Americans against a White establishment that shoots and kills their young people. Little has been discussed following the Super Bowl performance of the intrinsic link between groups such as ‘Fight for Fifteen’ (the group campaigning for a minimum wage of $15 born from the fast food industry where Blacks are concentrated in the lowest paid jobs) and Black Lives Matter, and the way in which these campaigns have recognised and campaigned on the platform that the position of African Americans is the result of historic economic exploitation.

For White ‘liberal’ groups in the 1960s, support could be offered to DRUM on issues such as racism in the workplace. They could therefore simultaneously ignore the common economic exploitation of workers on the shop floors of the auto industry, as this would undermine what UAW leader Walter Reuther referred to as one of the most co-operative industries in the world. Society was good, racism was bad. This is also evident in the dominant public discourses on Black Lives Matter – the current capitalist system offers everyone equality of opportunity, but rogue cops are at fault for the problems facing Black communities. As like DRUM, Black Lives Matter is shaped by economic perspectives, and have consistent dialogue with campaigns such as Fight for Fifteen. Whilst it has righty been seen as positive by many for Beyonce to challenge Black oppression so publicly, the popular discussions that have followed have demonstrated that issues of class, economics and capitalist exploitation remain hidden beneath the myriad of discourses on America’s ‘race problem’.

Andrew Clark is an Economic and Social Research Council-funded PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde. His thesis is a comparative analysis of female-led factory occupations during the second wave of the Scottish occupation movement, 1981-83 entitled ‘Comparative analysis of female factory occupations in early 1980s Scotland.’

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