The Baltimore upheaval: On race and class in America
12 May 2015In the aftermath of the eruption of anger in Baltimore, Maryland over the police killing of Freddie Gray, the media and political establishment are seeking to conceal the real social and political issues at stake.
The killing of 25-year-old Gray last month—only one of the latest in a wave of police murders around the country—triggered clashes with police, demonstrations that spread to other cities and a police-military occupation of the city that was only lifted last week. While Gray’s murder was the catalyst, the scope and magnitude of the social discontent was fueled by the destitute conditions confronting working-class youth in the city’s poorest, largely minority, neighborhoods.
Much of the political elite that runs Baltimore is African American, including the current mayor, police chief and the majority of the city council. Although this fact has seriously undermined the arguments of the proponents of identity politics, it has not stopped them from insisting once again that the essential division in American society is race, not class.
On Sunday, the New York Times published a lead editorial, “How Racism Doomed Baltimore.” The newspaper, which sets the tone for what is described as “liberal public opinion” in America, declared that conditions in the city could only be understood within the context of the city’s legacy of racism and segregation.
“Americans might think of Maryland as a Northern state, but it was distinctly Southern in its attitudes toward race,” the Times editorialists write before giving a potted history of the state, from efforts to disenfranchise black voters in 1905 to more contemporary examples of racial segregation in public housing.
The desperate condition of young low-income men, the newspaper says, cannot be understood outside of the context of the “century-long assault that Baltimore’s blacks have endured at the hands of local, state and federal policy makers, all of whom worked to quarantine black residents in ghettos, making it difficult even for people of means to move into integrated areas that offered better jobs, schools and lives for their children.”
The “tensions associated with segregation and concentrated poverty place many cities at risk of unrest. But the acute nature of segregation in Baltimore—and the tools that were developed to enforce it over such a long period of time—have left an indelible mark and given that city a singular place in the country’s racial history.”
That Baltimore, like many cities in the north and the south, had a history of racial segregation is of course true. However, if a reader of this column were not familiar with the politics of Baltimore, they might be excused for believing the city is run by the Ku Klux Klan and that its police force is made up of Night Riders covered in white sheets.
The Times does not mention that the political establishment in the city is predominantly African American, or that half of the Baltimore Police Department is black. Indeed, three of the six cops indicted for Gray’s killing, including the driver of the police van charged with murder, are African American.
The relentless police violence in Baltimore stems not from racism but from class oppression, which the black politicians defend no less than their white counterparts. Unable to contain her hatred and fear of the city’s youth after sporadic rioting erupted the day of Gray’s funeral, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declared, “Too many people have spent generations building up the city for it to be destroyed by thugs who are trying to tear down what so many fought for. They are tearing down businesses, destroying property.”
Rawlings-Blake speaks for a whole layer of wealthy African Americans who have a stake in defending their property and wealth and overseeing a system that produces ever-greater poverty for black and white workers alike. This corrupt social layer includes countless academics, politicians, preachers, millionaire “civil rights” leaders and black entrepreneurs who have benefited from government funding for minority-owned businesses and African American university programs.
Alongside the Times are various pseudo-left organizations that have long promoted identity politics in order to subordinate the interests of workers and youth to the Democratic Party. They represent the strivings of a segment of the upper middle class that uses the politics of race, gender and sexual identity as part of efforts to gain more of a share of the wealth exploited from the working class.
With angry youth in the streets of Baltimore denouncing the mayor and other black officials, the International Socialist Organization (ISO)—which hailed Obama’s 2008 election as a “transformative event in US politics, as an African American takes the highest office in a country built on slavery”—has suddenly discovered a “black elite” whose interests are at odds with the majority of minority workers and youth.
The problem, however, is that these “black elected officials” defend the “racist system!”
The ISO’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor—an assistant professor in Princeton’s African American studies department—tells us, “Black elected officials have largely governed in the same way as their white counterparts, reflecting all of the racism, corruption and policies favoring the wealthy seen throughout mainstream politics.” This “powerful Black political class,” she continues, “helps to deflect a serious interrogation of structural inequality and institutional racism.”
In other words, the problem is, according to Taylor, that the black politicians are simply not aggressive enough in their promotion of identity politics. Never does she suggest that there is a fundamental unity of interests between black and white workers.
The New York Times, the ISO—which is essentially an auxiliary agent of the Democratic Party—and the political establishment as a whole are determined to prevent any real examination of the social and economic structure of America because they all defend the capitalist system, which is the source of poverty and police brutality.
It has been 50 years since the Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles, one of the first of a wave of urban uprisings across the United States in the 1960s. The call made in the 1968 Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders for massive government spending to stop the country’s drift towards racial and economic polarization was never realized. Instead, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” programs gave way to massive outlays for the Vietnam War, with politicians declaring that it was impossible to provide “guns and butter.”
The five decades that have elapsed have seen the deindustrialization of major manufacturing centers like Baltimore, combined with an unrelenting destruction of social programs. At the same time, sections of the African American upper-middle-class have been elevated into positions of privilege and power.
By the time of Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, the Democratic Party had completely repudiated its association with the reforms of the New Deal and Great Society periods. Clinton gutted welfare programs to provide an ample supply of cheap labor for the rich, including a growing layer of black capitalists, and passed the 1994 Federal Crime Bill, with its notorious “three strikes” provision that has helped create the largest prison population in the world.
Since taking office Obama has only escalated these reactionary policies. Today the America
n ruling class will not even provide “guns and water,” as tens of thousands of low-income residents in Baltimore and Detroit are seeing their water service shut off for unpaid bills. The only “urban policy” Obama and the ruling class have is to try to contain the explosive social tensions with police military repression.
Whatever role racism might play in any particular act of police violence, the events in Baltimore expose the fact that above all class is the determining factor. With nothing to offer masses of people, the political and media representatives of the ruling class, along with the upper-middle-class boosters, are determined to block the development of a politically conscious and united movement of black, white and immigrant workers and youth against the profit system.
FALL of AMERICA
By Alexander Fangmann
On Friday, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that struck down the 2013 law cutting pension and retirement benefits for state workers, public university and community college workers, and teachers outside of Chicago.
11 May 2015
The court’s decision makes clear the essentially illegal and criminal character of the drive by state and local officials to slash public employee pensions. The court case, however, in no way settles the question. The financial elite in this state, like their counterparts throughout the country and the rest of the world, views the pension benefits and social programs established through decades of social struggle as rightfully theirs, and will stop at nothing in their goal of reducing workers to penury.
The Supreme Court unanimously agreed with Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge John Belz’s decision that the law—known as Senate Bill 1—is a violation of the Illinois Constitution, Article XXIII, Section 5, which states that pension benefits “shall not be diminished or impaired.”
Further, the Supreme Court rejected the argument put forward by Democratic Party Attorney General Lisa Madigan, daughter of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, that the state’s “police powers” allowed pension benefits to be cut in order to preserve government services, which would otherwise have to be cut in order for the state to make required payments to the under-funded pension funds.
Justice Lloyd Karmeier wrote that economic fluctuations were anticipated at the time the constitutional provision was added. “The law was clear that the promised benefits would therefore have to be paid and that the responsibility for providing the state’s share of the necessary funding fell squarely on the legislature’s shoulders.”
The decision noted that the “General Assembly could also have sought additional tax revenue.” It criticized the legislature for allowing a 2011 temporary income tax increase to lapse at the beginning of this year, bringing the regressive tax back down to 3.75 percent from 5 percent and leaving an additional $1.6 billion deficit.
Indeed, the pension emergency that both the Democrats and Republicans have invoked to slash benefits is largely an engineered crisis. The entire reason for the existence of the so-called “unfunded pension liability” of approximately $100 billion is that state legislators have for years refused to make adequate payments to the pension systems, preferring instead to use that money to fund other programs.
In addition, the pension funding formulas deliberately overestimated the returns on pension fund investments in order to further reduce the necessary state contributions. Karmeier alluded to this in the decision, noting that the crisis is one for which “the General Assembly itself is largely responsible.”
In the wake of the decision, both Democrats and Republicans are working feverishly to craft even more devastating attacks on retirement benefits than those in the law that was struck down. Even prior to the decision, Democrats, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and those in the General Assembly, have been working closely with newly-elected Republican Governor Bruce Rauner—a close friend of Emanuel’s—using him as cover to introduce billions of dollars worth of cuts to a host of state agencies and social programs.
Rauner in the past has advocated eliminating all public pensions and moving workers to 401(k) style retirement plans. His proposed state budget for next year anticipated cutting state pension payments by an estimated $2.2 billion. This would be accomplished through the introduction of a distinction between current benefits and future benefits as a way of getting around the constitutional protection. Under Rauner’s proposal, all benefits currently earned by workers would be protected, but any future benefits would fall under the reduced Tier 2 pensions currently in place for newly hired workers.
Acknowledging that this would likely run afoul of the recent court decision, Rauner has proposed a constitutional amendment that would solidify the distinction between current and future benefits, arguing that, “Nobody, frankly, knows whether they’re going to have a job in the future.” However, a constitutional amendment would open the door to the elimination of retirement benefits by erasing the pension protection clause altogether—the eventual goal of the ruling elite. If the amendment were accomplished through the mechanism of a constitutional convention, it would open up the door for a reactionary rewriting of the entire document beyond the pension provision.
It is now likely that next year’s state budget will go substantially further than the bloodbath envisioned in Rauner’s proposal. Beyond the cuts to pensions, Rauner’s budget incorporated spending cuts of $4.18 billion, including $1 billion from the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, $400 million from higher education, and $22 million from the Department of Public Health, among other programs. Additionally, in March House Speaker Madigan made a deal with Rauner in which the legislature agreed to let the governor cut spending for the current year by $300 million and freeze $26 million in programs ranging from mental health and autism to burials for the indigent.
Among other proposals Rauner has floated is an extension of the sales tax to cover services and amending state law to allow municipalities and other state government entities to declare bankruptcy in order to annul constitutionally protected pension benefits, following the precedent set in the Detroit bankruptcy case by Judge Steven Rhodes. These measures are now substantially more likely to get a hearing, even though the latter would not help the state avoid its own pension shortfall.
The court’s decision, while not directly impacting the cuts to Chicago’s pension systems, which are the subject of a separate lawsuit, will likely mean they will also be reversed by the courts. Emanuel claims that his plan, which raised employee contributions from municipal employees and Chicago-area laborers by 29 percent and reduced annual increases to pensions, does not fall afoul of the decision because the cuts were “negotiated with labor,” in other words, with the union leaders, rather than being made unilaterally.
Following the decision, the unions did their utmost to continue to fan illusions in the ability of workers to redress their grievances within the confines of the current political set-up. Having supported former Democratic Governor Pat Quinn—who signed the pension cut bill and was among the most prominent voices calling for pension cuts—for reelection, the unions did nothing to mobilize Illinois workers against benefit cuts, urging them to place all their faith in the courts. Following the most recent decision, they have pledged to work closely with the legislature to find ways to cut pensions without falling afoul of the constitution.
April employment report masks extent of US jobs crisis
By Gabriel Black
The US economy added 223,000 jobs in April, according to figures released Friday by the Labor Department. The official unemployment rate dropped to 5.4 percent, the lowest since May 2008.
9 May 2015
In an online statement following the release of the figures, the Obama administration praised the report as a reflection of an “ongoing recovery” showing “substantial progress” in the economy. News commentators echoed this line, saying that the report constituted evidence of an economic turnaround.
Speaking at Nike headquarters in Oregon, Obama declared that “obviously” his policies have not “done too bad in terms of employment in this country. I just thought I’d mention that. Since there were a lot of predictions of doom and gloom.”
In reality, the jobs report looks good only in contrast to the dismal performance of recent months. The US economy added only 85,000 jobs in March, according to newly-revised figures released alongside the April statistics.
Stock analysts have called the April jobs figures announcement a “Goldilocks” report: generally positive, but not good enough to encourage the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates more rapidly, which would tend to lower stock values. Ryan Larson of RBC Global Asset Management told CNBC that the jobs report was “Probably [the] best scenario in which the market was hoping for growth but not [so strong] that the Fed needs to hike in June.” Stocks responded to the report with a rally.
Wages rose by 0.1 percent in April compared to March, below economists’ expectations, and were up by only 2.2 percent over the past year, according to the Labor Department report.
The industries that added jobs in April disproportionately pay low wages, and provide temporary and part-time work. As a CNBC headline put it, “Bad job news, good stock news.”
While only 1,000 jobs were added in the higher-paying manufacturing sector in April, a total of 182,000 jobs were added in the service sector. Administrative and waste services, a category that includes janitorial, cleaning staff, and temporary workers, added 41,300 jobs.
Food service and drinking venues added 26,000 jobs. The average wage in this sector is $11.39, with employees working an average workweek of 24.8 hours. Other industries that added jobs included transportation and warehousing, with 15,200 jobs added; hospitals, with 11,800 jobs; social assistance, with 10,400 jobs; and nursing and residential care facilities, with 8,100.
According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), in the first four years of the “recovery,” low-wage jobs accounted for 44 percent of job growth. However, low-wage jobs were only 22 percent of the jobs lost in the recession.
While the official unemployment rate fell to 5.4 percent, this figure excludes the millions of people who are not counted as unemployed because they have simply given up on the prospect of finding a job. According to the Economic Policy Institute, there are 3.14 million such workers, and if they were counted in the official unemployment rate, it would stand at 7.3 percent.
The latest jobs figures follow a string of mass layoffs. Dow Chemical announced last Monday that it would cut up to 1,750 jobs to save costs. First Data, a tech finance company stationed in Omaha, Nebraska, this month said it would be laying off several thousand people globally in the coming months.
In April, Bell Helicopter announced 1,100 layoffs at its facility in Lafayette, Indiana. The Pennsylvania-based software developer Unisys also announced plans to slash 8 percent of its global workforce, including 1,800 workers in North America. On April 24, pharmaceutical giant Procter & Gamble announced it would cut 6,000 office jobs worldwide. The company has eliminated 20,000 office and manufacturing jobs since 2012.
During his appearance at Nike headquarters Friday, Obama credited his administration’s policies for having set up an economic turnaround, declaring “thanks to the hard work of the American people and entrepreneurs like the ones who are here today—and some pretty good policies from my administration—we’re in a different place today.”
In fact, The Obama Administration’s policies have been aimed at reviving US manufacturing on the basis of a significant reduction of workers’ wages.
As a result of these policies, the National Employment Law Project
concluded in 2014 that “While the manufacturing sector has grown
in recent years, wages are lower, the jobs are increasingly
temporary, and the promised benefits have yet to be realized.”