Black Youth and the Criminalization of a Generation

Part 2: The Political Economy of Racism and Criminalization

Revolutionary Worker #972, September 6, 1998

The first part of this series looked at the massive and unprecedented increase in the numbers of African-American and Latino people being sent to prison, or otherwise brought under control of the police. We documented that most of this increase comes from arrests of Black and Latino people for drug possession, out of all proportions to their share of the population of drug users, and/or other petty crimes. We showed how a huge portion of minority youth were being put in government files as "suspects." And we refuted the lie that all this results from an increase in violent crime.

The U.S. government is on the biggest campaign of locking people up since Adolf Hitler and the Nazi "final solution." Every week they add 1,600 people to prison, and almost 3/4 of these prisoners are Black or Latino. During the last four years of the rule of the liberal president Bill Clinton, they have added more than 3/4 million new prisoners, at a time when crime has been dropping.


To understand this, we have to step back some and analyze history. In particular, we have to look at the history of the position of African-American people in this country, which today is undergoing great change that is very linked up with the criminalization that we have described above.

Two horrible crimes have defined the existence and development of the United States throughout its history. First, the extermination of millions of indigenous people who lived here and the theft of their land. And second, the kidnapping, murder and enslavement of tens of millions of African people. The impulse and motive for both these crimes was capitalist accumulation--that is, the blind and compulsive drive to pile up ever more profit. Again and again this impulse led the American ruling class to new crimes: the theft of land in five Southwestern states from the Mexican people; the brutal mistreatment of the Chinese workers whose labor connected the east and west; the grinding up of millions of immigrant workers from Europe in their mines and factories, and on and on.

This same relentless pursuit of profit has driven the changes in the conditions of the African-American people throughout history. The Civil War was not fought because people felt it was time to "live up to American ideals," but because slavery had begun to stand in the way of the capitalists--the factory owners, railroad owners, etc.--in their drive to develop a single national system based on factory and other wage-labor.

The slaves had heroically resisted with rebellions and runaways before the Civil War, and they fought and died out of all proportion to their numbers in the population during the Civil War. But it was the demands of capital that mainly shaped the outbreak and the course of the war--and what came after. After the war, the capitalists broke their wartime promises of land and protection for the newly free Black people and stood by while KKK terror was unleashed. Black people were forced back onto the plantation in the semi-slavery known as sharecropping. These great champions of law and order presided over the lynchings of more than 3,000 people between 1870 and 1920, the overwhelming majority of whom were Black.

The years after World War 1, and even more so during and after World War 2, saw yet another major change in the economic and social position of Black people in the U.S. This was the "great migration" away from the sharecropping life in the South into a new life as industrial workers in the northern (and southern) cities. In the North, the boom in defense industry in World War 2 created a demand for Black labor. And in the South, the mechanization of cotton (and earlier tobacco) production caused Southern landowners to drive millions of Black people out of the fields--they were no longer profitable. Indeed, in the years after World War 2, four million Black people left the Southern farms. Even many who wanted to stay and make a go of it were driven off by white landowners. As it says in the RCP pamphlet Cold Truth, Liberating Truth:

"Before, the interests of the capitalists dictated that Black people be forced and terrorized to remain on the southern plantations. Now, these same capitalist interests dictated that Black people leave the southern farmlands."(1)

In the South, these economic changes sparked certain political and social changes. Massive battles were waged against segregation, knocking down its barbaric barriers. And in the North, Black people also had to fight--both politically and sometimes quite literally--for any decent jobs, any decent opportunity, any decent housing. These bitter struggles led to some gains. In Detroit, for instance, Black men working in the relatively well-paying auto factories went from 4 percent of all workers in 1941 to 16 percent by 1960.(2) They were still mainly given the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs--they were "last hired" and "first fired"--but some were able to move up. Similar trends went on in other big cities.

We should note that there is a thread that runs through all the changes in the economic position of Black people in the U.S. over three centuries and more. That thread is the desire and need of the capitalists to super-exploit Black labor --to subject Black labor to special conditions of exploitation and oppression which yield extra profits. The overwhelming compulsion to do that--the "addiction" to those super-profits--drove the capitalists to erect the massive structure of white supremacy and drives them to continue to refine and re-establish it in each generation.


The big changes of the '60s happened at a time when people all over Africa, Asia and Latin America were rising up against colonialism, and the rulers of the U.S. were fronting as "champions of freedom and democracy." This, combined with the way in which the Civil Rights movement began to give way to the revolutionary Black Liberation struggle of the late 1960s, forced the capitalists to make some concessions. The structure of white supremacy was being battered. Some doors were opened, at least part way, and more Black people were allowed to "make it" to "middle class" status.

But even as those concessions were made, two other things went on. First, the rulers of America unleashed police and troops in the northern ghettos, murdering scores and even hundreds of Black people in the urban rebellions of 1965 to 1968. Along with that they assassinated revolutionary leaders like Malcolm X and Fred Hampton and went after the Black Panther Party with police agents and the sick, cowardly plots of COINTELPRO.

Second, by the early '70s conditions for the masses of Black people actually began to get worse. Beginning as far back as the late '50s and early '60s, the capitalists began to withdraw their industries from the cities and relocate--either to suburbs or to foreign countries. Detroit, for instance, lost 134,000 factory jobs between 1947 and 1963, even while its working age population grew. A class of permanently unemployed workers grew up in the Black community.(3)

Jobs were moving to the suburbs--where Black people, by and large, were either not allowed or not financially able to move. This move to the suburbs came for many reasons: the cost of land for new plants in the cities was high; the new interstate highway system made cheap transportation available to and from suburbs and rural areas (resources didn't have to be so centralized); the taxes were less; and the government wanted industry dispersed in the event of nuclear war. And, not the least of it, the capitalists wanted to suppress militancy, especially militant struggle associated with Black workers. It wasn't just "good business decisions" that just happened to break unluckily for Black people; the government consciously made decisions that drew factories into the suburbs, while continuing the segregation of Black people in inner-city housing (away from the jobs). This segregation was caused both by the government (which consciously relocated all new public housing for Black people in the ghettos) and the banks and real estate capitalists (who confined sales and rentals to Black people to certain areas and discriminated with loans).(4)

For a while, though, these trends weren't that apparent. Because of the overall expansion of the U.S. economy during the '60s, and because of the militant struggle of the Black masses, some of the better working class jobs began to finally open up for Black people. But by the middle of the '70s the economy was in crisis, and the job flow out of the cities became a hemorrhage. The accompanying box shows the loss of manufacturing jobs in key northern cities between 1967 and 1987.

Decent jobs for the basic masses were (and are) becoming a thing of the past. And discrimination against Black workers in the private sector has actually, in many ways, gotten worse. A survey of 170 employers in Chicago in 1987 and 1988 documented 74 percent who openly expressed negative views of inner-city Black workers, complaining that Black workers "are much more aware of their rights," feel that they "are owed something," and are generally more combative over pay and conditions. Some of these bosses even worried that "some of the Black attitude is rubbing off on [whites]." (While most of the bosses surveyed were white, negative attitudes were expressed at an even slightly higher rate by Black employers.) Most of the employers admitted to many racist tactics. They will not run help-wanted ads in Black newspapers or major metro newspapers, but only in white ethnic area newspapers. Or they will recruit only out of mainly white high schools. If someone has an address in Cabrini Green, some of these bosses admitted that they toss the application right in the garbage. Yet only 4 percent of these same lying, racist "employers" agreed that discrimination might have something to do with the high level of unemployment in the inner city!(5)

There has actually been something new that has developed out of this--whole sections of every major city where jobs have virtually disappeared! A 1985 survey of the housing projects in Los Angeles found only 120 employed breadwinners out of 1,060 households in Nickerson Gardens, 70 out of 400 at Pueblo del Rio, and 100 out of 700 at Jordan Downs. (When a few openings to work longshore did open up in LA, over 50,000 youth, mainly Black and Chicano, lined up for miles to apply.)(6) In the Chicago Black neighborhood of Woodlawn, there were over 800 commercial and industrial establishments in 1950. Today only about 100 are left, with many of them tiny businesses employing one or two workers.(7)

The overall job loss of the last two decades has hit hard against both white and minority workers. But Black and Latino wage workers have had an even harder time finding new jobs after the cutbacks and/or plant closings (and of course in most cases the new jobs paid substantially lower than the ones that got away). In the words of Cold Truth, Liberating Truth:

"What is involved here is a deadly combination of the `normal workings' of capitalist money-making and deliberate moves to apply and enforce discrimination and segregation victimizing Black people. Both parts of this are main ingredients of "the American way of life"--of how capitalism has developed and operates today in the concrete situation of the U.S. and in terms of U.S. imperialism's role in economics and politics worldwide."(8)

Other things have gone on at the same time. For one thing, the capitalists were reinstituting sweatshop industries and extremely low-paid service industries (like janitorial companies) on the basis of minimum and sub-minimum wages. Non-union construction was exploding. These businesses could pay rock-bottom wages to immigrants, who had been driven here in desperation and were at the mercy of the police of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

So by the early 1980s, big changes had gone down. The industrial system that drew Black people from the farms of the South in the first half of the century was becoming a thing of the past, and the "good jobs" for less skilled workers were disappearing. At the same time, the more stable government jobs in the post office, hospitals, social service bureaucracies, etc.--an important source of "better" jobs for Black people--were also being cut. Income and employment were sinking for the whole U.S. working class, but Black and Latino workers were taking the hardest hit.

At the same time, a significant section of Black people were making it into the middle class. The proportion of Black managerial, professional, technical, and administrative positions expanded, as did the ranks of Black entrepreneurs. The top 20 percent of the Black nation has been pulling down 50 percent of all the income of the Black community.

At the same time, the newly expanded Black middle class continued to face national oppression in housing, credit, employment, culture--and police abuse and brutality. And in many ways the sometimes deadly hazard of DWB (driving while Black) typifies this problem for Black middle class people (and even Hollywood stars)--who have "done everything right" and still can't take their Benz on the road without being stopped, humiliated, beaten and even murdered.

Meanwhile millions of Black and other minority proletarians were trapped. They were confined in decaying inner cities with no services and little work and no way out. Things were getting desperate. The stage was set for the crack epidemic. And we will deal with what happened in Part 3.


So what are the conclusions?

One, that the place of Black people in U.S. society has always been determined by two driving forces: first, the insatiable demand of the capitalist system to super-exploit Black labor; and second, the militant and often revolutionary struggle of the Black masses themselves against that system.

Two, that after some concessions in the '60s, the situation of the masses of Black and Latino workers has steadily worsened. Good jobs are becoming a thing of the past, and in some inner-city neighborhoods any jobs at all are impossible to find.

Three, that by 1980 this was the stage on which the expansion of the crack trade, the war on drugs, and the criminalization of a generation would play out.



1) Cold Truth, Liberating Truth: How This System Has Always Oppressed Black People and How All Oppression Can Finally Be Ended, p. 9.

2) Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis (Princeton University, 1996), p. 95.

3) Sugrue, p. 126 and Jacqueline Jones, American Work: Four Centuries of White and Black Labour, (W.W. Norton & Co., 1998), p. 359.

4) Sugrue, p. 132.

5) William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears (Afred A. Knopf, 1997), pp. 111-146.

6) Cited in Mike Davis, City of Quartz, p. 305.

7) Wilson, When Work Disappears, p. 5.

8) Cold Truth, Liberating Truth, pp. 14-15.

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