Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Human Rights, Neo-liberalism, and Mass Incarceration

After billions of dollars in campaign donations and thousands of negative ads, the 2012 elections left the legislative and executive branch virtually unchanged. The Obama campaign energized a coalition of Blacks, unions, white women, and Latino’s. As a matter of fact, the day after the election, several Latino groups stated explicitly that Obama owes his second term to them and should pass comprehensive immigration reform. Unlike in 2008, Black people should not be pacified with the symbolism of a Black president but must develop a set of tactics, strategies, and objectives to improve their deteriorating condition, particularly in the arena of mass incarceration.

In 1948, the US became a signature to the United Nations Declarations of Human Rights. Similar to previous generations, this document can be used to demonstrate the gross human rights violations against US Blacks. For instance, the 13th amendment to the US constitution states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except for crime whereof the party has been duly convicted shall exist within the United States.” In short, enslavement did not legally end in the US but was only regulated by the government. Mass incarceration is slavery.

This runs counter to article 4 of the UN Declaration which states “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” This means that not only is the United States Constitution in direct contradiction to the very notions of equality and freedom it claims to represent but international law as well.

Due to neoliberal economic policies over the past thirty years, prisons and other areas of social life have become increasingly privatized. For example, in 2010 two private management prison companies had a combined revenue of almost $3 billion. We should demand the immediate transfer of private prisons into public hands. In addition, a ‘New’ New Deal, that includes a guaranteed job for ALL including the formerly incarcerated. Specifically, we demand re-entry programs that provide a job and housing upon release from prison.

An organization that should be studied to achieve these objectives is the National Negro Congress. NNC was a united front composed of fraternal and religious groups, civil rights, unions, etc. under the leadership of the Black Left. In fact, the President and Executive Secretary were Communists. The primary tactics used were mass demonstrations and direct action. Their successes include the establishment of a civilian review board for District police, dealing a death blow to debt peonage, and no police murders of Blacks in DC during their high point of organizing against police brutality in 1938-39.

The inherent limitations of this strategy are obvious: ending neoliberalism does not end white supremacy or the economic system that created it and the UN is to a large extent controlled by major Western powers. But a critique of neoliberalism does provide space for a more thorough critique of capitalism and a human rights paradigm gives US Blacks a common framework and possibility for alliances with other oppressed people. In addition, this strategy allows us to publicize our case at the international level. The time of symbolism has ended and movement building has begun.


Friday, October 19, 2012

Black Internationalism and Mass Incarceration

The 2008 financial collapse that began in the United States spread almost instantly to rest of the globe. Since the financial collapse, the resistance to the imposition of austerity measures has spread as well. For example, the Arab spring inspired the Indignado movement in Spain which motivated the white Left in the US to form the Occupy movement. Black people in the US must build upon their own history of internationalism in order to abolish the prison industrial complex.
For instance, internationalism was a regular feature of theabolitionist movement. After leaving Fredrick Douglas publication, the North Star, Black abolitionist Martin Delany held several conventions in the 1850s to decide a location for Black people to emigrate from the US. Also, he spoke to the Aleke or so called chief to set up trade between US Blacks and people in contemporary Nigeria. Finally, he traveled to Britain to build international support among abolitionists in Europe.
Almost a century later, Howard alumnus and professor, Alphaeus Hunton helped to lead the Civil Rights Congress. The CRC was a Black radical organization that protected the democratic and human rights of US Blacks. In 1951 they published and delivered to the United Nations “We Charge Genocide” a detailed portrait of the gross human rights violations against US Blacks.
Arguably, Black internationalism is one of the greatest threats to the US Empire. For example, during the anti communist Red scare several Black radicals were blacklisted, called in front of senatorial hearings and questioned about their political affiliations and, like Alphaeus Hunton, imprisoned. Great Black organizations such as the CRC, National Negro Congress, Southern Negro Youth Congress, and Council on African Affairs were destroyed and, worse yet, forgotten.
Perhaps most unfortunately, Black liberal organizations such as NAACP that adopted Black internationalism abandoned it once it was marked subversive by the US government. The NAACP adopted much of the Cold War rhetoric as well. This included condemning uncompromising former allies like Alphaeus Hunton who were prosecuted for their political beliefs
It is time to resurrect the spirit of Black internationalism! Several leaders in Latin America such as Guatemala and Costa Rica have expressed thier support for ending the war on drugs through decriminalization. This region is even more important because of the Left ward shift of its governments and the literally hundreds of millions of the Black people living in Central, South America, and Caribbean.
Due to the numerous embassies in Washington DC, Black students in the area are uniquely situated to build relationships with progressive governments. In addition, Black students in the NY area have access to the United Nations headquarters. Black internationalism will allow us to publicize the condition of Black people across the globe and bring the US on charges of human rights violations and Genocide. Only a few organizations have kept the flame of Black internationalism alive but now we must bring it back to the mainstream of Black political life.
Benjamin Woods is a student organizer and PhD candidate in Political Science at Howard University. His blog is He can be reached at

Friday, September 28, 2012

The End of Political Theatre

"There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say."  -W..E.B. Dubois (1956)
“Places everyone, Places” we are entering the final act of political theatre.  The Presidential debates indicate the eminent conclusion of the 2012 Presidential elections.  This election season has been equally entertaining as any Broadway show.  Whether it’s the pep rally/Sunday revival that is the nominating conventions or tragic-comedy of Mitt Romney’s comment regarding the “47%.” But ultimately what makes this election theatre is the fact that the political and economic system of this society has been structured to restrict the acceptable terms of debate.  How did this happen?

For all those who remember the 2000 elections, in Florida, a controversy developed concerning which votes would be counted in one of the closest presidential elections in US history.  After the case was sent to the Supreme Court, the justices in Gore v Bush decided “The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States”.  This judicial decision reminds US citizens that in this Republic, not democracy, the Electoral College determines the winner of the election. In short, voting is a privilege, not a right. 

At the founding of the US, when this drama was written, only property owning white males could vote.  Originally the US senate was decided by the state legislatures.  In fact, in agreement with several framers of the US Constitution, James Madison in in Federalist Papers No. 10 explicitly states the he believes the masses should not enter politics because they would want to redistribute wealth.  It wasn’t until Blacks, Women and other disenfranchised people engaged in dynamic social movements that they gained the privilege to vote.  In a capitalist society, the poor are denied a voice.

More recently, the Supreme Court facilitated the corporate sponsorship of this theatrical production per the Citizens United case.  This far sighted judicial decision allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts in election campaigns.  Although in 2008 Obama received a record amount of small donations, he received many large donations that helped him reach the record setting $745 million.  In a report titled “America for Sale” Sen. Bernie Sanders (D) states the Koch Brothers alone plan to give $400 million.

To a large extent, in 1972, following the Gary Convention, the Black movement began to shift its primary focus from militant grassroots organizing to electoral politics.  This strategy has been a major error.  The Black Movements primary focus should return to tactics such as the general strike, non-violent civil disobedience, and independent Black-led political organizations.  Then, we can end the political theatre and get on the real show called: Liberation!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Black Secular Thought and Action

Christ Jesus Lord God Jehovah,
Beat it on away from here now.

-Langston Hughes “Goodbye Christ”

Every year, the Pew Research Center publishes a survey which consistently demonstrates that Black people are the most religious group in the United States. This is not surprising considering that the Black Liberation Movement has been influenced by spirituality particularly Christianity. The historical and contemporary religiosity of Blacks leads many to incorrectly assume spiritually/religion has been at the center of the Black Movement. History tells a different story.

In every stage of the Black movement you can find atheists, agnostics, skeptics or people better known as freethinkers. For example, while a Southern missionary in the 1830s, AME minister, Daniel Payne stated enslaved Africans “scoff at religion itself…Yes, I have known them to even question [God’s] existence.”

Today, young Black people question a God who would allow the persistent violence in their communities or huge disparities in wealth between poor Black and affluent white communities. Therefore, contrary to popular opinion, atheism is not a Eurocentric or “white thing” but is an indigenous intellectual development that organically emerges out of the Black experience. Lastly, this challenges the common held assumption that faith in God was necessary to survive the horrors of slavery, sharecropping, and segregation.

Several Black political leaders and intellectuals have been critical of the Black church, some have completely rejected faith. An example is Black atheist WEB Dubois. Dubois is known as the first African to attain a PhD from Harvard and arguably the most revered Black intellectual of the 20th century. He boldly asserted “I do not believe in the existence and rulership of the one God of the Jews” and “Death is the end of Life.”

Dubois praised the Soviet Union for removing religion from public education. In his eyes the Black church defended the oppression and exploitation of Blacks and a lack of free thinking. Although Dubois is one of the most read Black thinkers in history, his atheist views have been overlooked. Other Black leaders who were also freethinkers include A. Philip Randolph, Langston Hughes, and Howard University’s own Zora Neale Hurston to name a few.

To an extent, the Black church has had better propagandists than Black freethinkers. Most know of the contributions of the church to the Civil Rights Movement but what about the obstacles it has posed? For instance, at the 1961 National Baptist Convention, the largest Black religious group in the US, progressive ministers such as M.L.K. attempted to have the organization support civil rights. The idea of supporting Black human rights was so controversial, that a physical fight ensued and one minister was killed at the convention! Lord have Mercy, chile!

In conclusion, although everyone is entitled to their own personal belief or lack thereof, the Black movement should be secular. Whether it is the independence movements in Africa such as FRELIMO (Mozambique), MPLA (Angola), or the Black Panther Party in the US, spirituality was, at best, a secondary factor. As a Black skeptic examining this information, I ask ‘Do we need spirituality or religion in order to build and sustain a mass movement?’ I doubt it.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Stand Whose Ground?

This article originally appeared in the Howard University newspaper, The Hilltop.

“Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”

“If We Must Die” -Claude Mckay

The Southern Poverty Law Center released its Spring 2012 Intelligence Report titled “The Year in Hate and Extremism,” which described the dramatic increase in the number of radical right- wing organizations.

A few of the groups are described as neo-nazis, neo-confederates, white nationalists, and racist skinheads. According to the report, the number of militia and patriot groups jumped from 158 in 2001 to 1274 in 2011. A similar rise of right-wing groups has occurred in Europe as well.

The publication provides three reasons for the rise of so-called ‘hate groups’: the first Black President, a growing non-white population, and, I think most importantly, the so-called Great Recession.

For obvious reasons, Black people should be especially alarmed by the rise of the radical right. We are subjected to a distinct type of oppression in America. Historically, Black people are defined by America as the opposite of all that is moral, just, beautiful, industrious and divine.

In short, we are the most likely scapegoats in periods of instability, like, I don’t know-- an economic recession. Of course, other groups such as Jews, Arabs, women, homosexuals, etc. are targets as well, but Blacks are the eternal “other.”

The murder of Trayvon Martin should be placed in this context.

However, I don’t think these incidences of white radicalism should be viewed as strictly the province of the so-called lower classes. A large part of this potential raging fire is being fanned by right-wing elites such as the Koch brothers.

The Koch brothers fund politicians like Newt Gingrich who stated, “I will tell black people to demand paychecks instead of food stamps,” and Rick Santorum who enlightened us with “I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money.”

The Koch brothers, are also behind the voter ID legislation and owners of Georgia-Pacific--you know, all those new paper towel and soap dispensers in bathrooms across the university campus.

White radicalism could not be so widespread and protracted without white elite complicity. In 1919, after the Washington Post ran a story stating a white woman had been raped by a Black man, whites engaged in a rampage through The District for multiple days, murdering Black people throughout the city.

Once it became obvious that the government was not going to intervene, Black folk began to form self-defense units against white neighborhood watchmen, I mean--vigilantes. They even placed snipers on the roof of Howard Theater to defend themselves.

In the 1950s, Robert Williams, head of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP started a gun club to protect civil rights workers. Self-defense was a necessity for survival in Black communities, not a “get-out-of-jail-free,” or rather, a “never-be-arrested-for-murder” card.

Although, for the most part, their methods have changed, this rise in right-wing radical groups reminds us that there was a time when a certain group of people, many of whom now criticize our hoodies once wore different hoods of their own.

In many ways, the self defense aspect of Stand Your Ground law is not foreign to the history of Black people. The answer to our question of what else can we do outside of marches, rallies, and petitions, is there, only if, we listen to the ancestors…..

Monday, February 20, 2012

Racial Inequality in the United States

This article originally appeared in the Howard University Newspaper, The Hilltop.

The bees work.

Their work is taken from them.

We are like bees-

But it won't last


-Langston Hughes, "Black Worker"

The United for a Fair Economy's annual State of the Dream report demonstrates the deep and enduring racial inequalities in the United States and the need for a revitalized Black Movement.

Of late, the Occupy Movement, a de facto white Left movement, has put a spotlight on class inequality in the U.S. The other positive side of #occupy is its challenge to electoral politics as the primary mode of political expression. Although #occupy issues overlap with Black issues, as of yet, racial inequality has not become a central feature in the Occupy Movement.

Racial inequality is a direct of result of an ongoing Whites only affirmative action program. In 1862, the Homestead Act transferred the title of government land almost exclusively to whites. Almost one hundred years later in the wake of World War II, due to white supremacist practices, a large number of Black veterans were unable to take advantage of educational opportunities, home loans, and job training skills offered by the G.I. Bill. And, more recently, mortgage companies targeted Blacks and Latinos for adjustable rate mortgages that precipitated the economic crash of 2008.

These and numerous other policies have had detrimental life consequences for Africans in America. Last year the Pew Research Center released a study showing the median net worth of white households compared to Black households had risen from 12 times more in 1984 to 19 times more in 2009. At the same time, Blacks receive 61 cents for every dollar a white person earns.

Not surprisingly, for over forty years Blacks have experienced triple the poverty rate of whites. This is just a sample. In most areas, including education, housing, employment, and of course, mass incarceration, Blacks have more of the bad things and less of the good things.

What is more, these are not just words or statistics on a page or screen, these numbers represent the real life chances for human beings.

The historic and continuing racial oppression of Black people in the U.S. has helped to produce a common experience and history. In effect, it has molded them into a nation. What is necessary then to resolve the national oppression of Blacks in the U.S. is a Black Nationalist movement that has a critique of capitalism.

The oppression of Blacks is fundamentally rooted in economics but, due to the history of this country there is a unique type of anti-black racism in the U.S., and even the world. Furthermore, the movement should reject narrow nationalism and instead be open to coalitions with other oppressed nationalities and class conscious white workers.

The primary challenge is a generation of Black people who have been inundated with post-racial propaganda from the right wing that states that race is virtually irrelevant and white Left opportunism that asserts race should be completely subservient to class.

Therefore, a mass based political education is necessary to assist the millennial generation in attaining the understanding that their oppression is at the foundations of the current world system and a Black Nationalist movement isn't a preference, but a historical necessity.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Black Student Abolitionism

This article originally appeared in the Howard newspaper, The Hilltop.

"I'd open every cell in Attica—send 'em to Africa."

-Nas "If I Ruled the World"

Last week Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, spoke at Rankin Chapel about the need for Black students to reject American consumerism and sacrifice for a cause greater than them. Alexander, following in the tradition of Angela Davis, has identified the elimination of mass incarceration as a noble cause.

Davis' scholarship and activism shows how prisons are a multi-billion dollar industry primarily because, according to the 13th amendment, enslavement is legal in the U.S. in the form of prisons. Therefore, Davis identifies as a prison abolitionist and traces her political lineage to the abolitionist movement in antebellum U.S. Unfortunately, most Black students are totally unaware of their own abolitionist tradition.

Several notable Black abolitionists such as Henry Highland Garnet began political organizing at the African Free School in the 1830s. While a student, Garnet caused uproar in the community when he helped to found an anti-slavery organization named after one of the most militant abolitionists of the time, William Lloyd Garrison. After graduation, he was an uncompromising advocate for armed struggle to end enslavement and emigration to Africa.

Another standout Black student abolitionist, John A. Copeland, while a student at Oberlin College helped to liberate a Black man in Ohio who was captured after escaping from enslavement. He eventually dropped out of Oberlin to join John Brown in his violent attempt to overthrow the slave system. Copeland gave the ultimate sacrifice, his life.

Howard University is no stranger to Black student abolitionism. In the 1930s, Howard students joined the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC). (The first Snick!) SNYC was founded by two Black communists. Although its membership included non-communists, its communist members envisioned and struggled to create a classless-stateless society without prisons.

If the current generation is to pick up the torch of abolitionism similar to Garnet, Copeland, and SNYC members, they must reject American individualism, consumerism, and celebrity culture. In a society that states our human worth is determined by material possessions and the amount of goods you consume, the notion of fighting to abolish all prisons is perceived to be futile and utopian, but the tide may just be turning.

All over the world, from Arab countries to the Africa to Latin America, as Martin Luther King stated "the cry is we want to be free." The abolition of all prisons can only come as a result of a complete transformation of the economic system.

It appears that we are entering the beginning stages of such a movement. Here is our chance. Now is the time for us to reclaim the Black student abolitionist tradition.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

We Are NOT Our Own Worst Enemy

And I don't give a f#@k what Bill Cosby said
'cause the problem gon' exist when Bill Cosby's dead
And I don't think the revelation from the supreme beings
residing or hiding out in Bill Cosby's head

-Jay Electronica “Renaissance Man”

A few days after Christmas, the blogosphere and social media sites were abuzz with images and news articles of working class Black people buying and even fighting over newly released Air Jordan sneakers. Predictably this news story led many to fall back on the dominant narrative that irresponsible purchases are the cause of Black people’s problems. Never mind the fact that wages have stagnated for the past forty years and most people have had to go in debt to keep this consumer based economy going. Why? Because, according to some, “We are our own worst enemy.” Unfortunately, most of us don’t view the problem as ‘the system’ because we have accepted the dominant narrative of Black pathology.

In large part, the blaming-the-victim ideology that has become so pervasive has its roots in White Nationalist archetypes of Africans in America. The lazy, shiftless, socially and financially irresponsible negro narrative came to full maturity during the Reconstruction period, following the US civil War. Similar to other periods when Whites socio-economic position feels threatened, they are manipulated into blaming scapegoats for their problems. Once Reconstruction ended, this narrative was employed to justify legal segregation, economic exploitation, and lynchings of Black people. More recently in the 1980s, right wing neo-conservatives manipulated working class whites and, I argue, middle class Blacks to blaming their tenuous position on poor and working class Black people (welfare queens, the inner city drug dealer etc.).

The causes and solutions to the economic crisis show the hypocrisy of the lazy negro narrative. For example, Black people are told one of their problems is they do not correctly save and invest their income. On the other hand, financial institutions and banks that partook in risky financial instruments received over $7.7 TRILLION (yes with a T) in bailouts from the Federal Reserve. How much economic development would half that amount have done for the Black community?

Or, a case in point, we are told our poverty primarily results from that fact that we are not financially literate. In fact, researcher Dedrick Muhammand has demonstrated that Wells Fargo and other banks conducted ‘wealth building seminars’ in Black churches then targeted Black people for subprime mortgage loans. Lastly (and my personal favorite), somehow our problems are attributed to young Black men wearing their pants below their waist i.e. sagging. (sigh) The bankers wear business suits and they’re the main culprits behind ‘The Great Recession.’ Any questions?

One way to challenge the dominant narrative is to not view events and people as isolated phenomena but instead attempt to find the connections between what appears to be unrelated events. Our problems are not disconnected from other issues like American consumerism. Also, instead of a focus on personal responsibility, let’s look at Ujima or collective work and responsibility. In other words how do Black people as a group resolve our problems? After making these adjustments we can construct a narrative that correctly identifies the problem: imperialism and capitalism.