Part of an ongoing debate: see here for all the contributions
White supremacists’ threats of violent disruption on 17 January proved empty, but we still don’t know what they can do to pressure the incoming Biden administration. In many respects this struggle is unfinished business from the American Civil War.
In the aftermath of that conflict insurrectionists escaped punishment, in the name of “national reconciliation”, and went on to re-establish white racist regimes in the southern states lasting a century.
Trump angered the Republican establishment when he intervened in the Georgia Senate run-offs by rubbishing Republican officials who managed the elections there. Why were there Senate run-offs in Georgia?
Those run-offs were enacted at the end of the old Jim Crow regime in response to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The idea was that in a three-way first-round contest between two white candidates and a black candidate the election would go into a second round where the “white vote” could coalesce around the single remaining white candidate.
The vote this month went differently because of the demographic changes in some southern states, with growing cosmopolitan cities.
The USA still deals with the legacy of slavery. In many ways the Trump movement is a product of imagined loss of white status. Some of its motivation is similar to the reason why southern whites took up arms for the Confederacy. Most southern whites then did not own slaves, but felt their position in the racial caste hierarchy was threatened by the Northern abolitionists.
During the civil war many atrocities were committed against black troops, hated by the Confederates for daring to take up arms. Often they were murdered if they fell into rebel hands. At Fort Pillow in Tennessee, 300 African American soldiers were massacred after they’d surrendered.
Confederate commander Nathan Bedford Forrest bore overall responsibility for this, but was not brought to justice afterwards.
Instead he became instrumental in the founding of the Ku Klux Klan.
The organisers of the rebellion escaped punishment. Only Confederate President Jefferson Davis served jail time — a measly two years. The leniency was justified by a hope that not making rebel leaders “martyrs” would prevent a violent backlash. The hope proved false. Ex-Confederates waged a successful terrorist campaign against the federal government, culminating in the triumph of the Jim Crow system.
Andrew Johnson, who took over as President when Lincoln was assassinated, opposed giving African Americans civil rights and allowed many southern states to introduce segregationist “black codes”. Congress, however, passed Amendment 15 to the US constitution, giving voting rights to all male adults regardless of race.
Ulysses S Grant, President in 1868, did much to combat the terrorist war the Klan and others conducted in the former confederacy by sending federal troops south to counter them. That was the period of “reconstruction”, until 1877, when African Americans exercised the vote and were involved in the governments of southern states.
Then the contested election of 1876 was “resolved” by a deal whereby federal troops were withdrawn from the south and white supremacist rule (though not the slave-owning mode of production) was restored for most of the next century.
Federal troops were then deployed against the emerging labour movement in the North.
The lesson to learn is that white supremacists must be made to pay for their crimes. That’s why, despite Stephen Wood’s arguments ( Solidarity 572), I argue that we should not want the incoming Biden government to let bygones be bygones. Trump and others attacking democratic rights should be prosecuted to the utmost.
Trump and co will try to make themselves out to be martyrs. Many sadly deluded followers trapped in a parallel universe where lies are truth will fall for the con. Yet putting Trump on trial for his countless crimes can open the eyes of some, and criminal sanctions act as a deterrent. Failure to prosecute only emboldens the far right.
Coupled with this must be demands to purge the police and military of those connected with white supremacist and neo-nazi groups.
Socialists cannot of course rely on Biden and the American establishment to take such far-reaching measures or indiscriminately support heavier policing. They need to build up independent organisations and campaign on various fronts.
The list of tasks is long. Voting rights strengthened, voter suppression ended. Legal obstacles to trade-union organisation lifted, trade union membership expanded. Economic relief measures to meet the needs of working class communities devastated by the Covid epidemic. Socialists must stand at the forefront of the struggle for racial justice.
Nevertheless, we cannot be blasé about the attack on the Capitol by a terrorist gang who threatened to lynch elected representatives. Reports are emerging that these attackers were aided in various ways by some Republican legislators, that panic buttons were ripped out of some of the offices. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says she “feared for her life” and “didn’t feel safe around other members of Congress” because they might tip off rioters to where she was.
Congress staffers knew how to deal with the emergency because they had learnt the drill from their schooldays as a precaution against school shooters. It’s doubtful they expected to need it in the workplace.
Those workers won’t be wanting their attackers to get off with a Presidential pardon. They will want the instigators of the assault on their workplace to be brought to book.