“Hitherto Social Democracy did represent to the masses of the people the object lesson of being the most tireless champion of the freedom of all who were oppressed, not merely the wage-earner, but also of women, persecuted religions and races, the Jews, Negroes and Chinese. By this object lesson it has won adherents quite outside the circle of wage earners.”
– Karl Kautsky, The Object Lesson in ‘The Dictatorship of the Proletariat” (1918)
In an essay titled ‘Grounding With My Sisters: Patriarchy and the Exploitation of Black Women’, late and former DSA Vice Chair Manning Marable’s modern classic How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America highlights the brutal exploitation and oppression faced by Black women in America, and how their plight has been in the background of the Black freedom movement. Marable understood, like Marx and the Black Marxist-Feminist Claudia Jones, that the ‘feminine’ ferment is an integral part of the socialist vision. Socialism is incomplete without an understanding that women’s liberation is a constituent component of its vision of human emancipation. The emancipation of woman in all of her modes of existence is a serious part of our work as activists, intellectuals and organizers.
On February 3rd, I along with over 200 other participants joined a webinar led by Kimberlé Crenshaw titled #BlackGirlsMatter. While #BlackGirlsMatter is primarily an initiative to highlight the plight of Black girls who are disproportionately harmed by the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,' it was emphasized that the difficulties affecting Black girls are shared by Brown girls as well. Nevertheless, the details are disheartening for women of color in general, Black girls in particular who are affected by the transformation of many urban public schools into points of entry for the American criminal justice system. In many urban public schools, Black girls exist in an environment that is ‘chaotic, repressive, and unresponsive’ to their needs, and are far more likely to face expulsion – six times more likely, according to the Department of Education – juvenile detention, and general insecurity than their white counterparts (“Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected” 2015). These insecurities range from zero-tolerance punishment for Black girls who suffer from sexual harassment to incarceration into juvenile detention systems because of numerous truancy claims by school administrators.
A point highlighted in the webinar that resonated the most for me was that Black girls in many urban school districts, and poor Black & Brown women in general, live in precarious conditions that not only affect their ‘quality of life,' but also their ability to academically perform. Similar effects also exist among Black women who have to balance workplace pressures to perform with emotional labor undertaken outside the workplace (Durr and Wingfield 2011). As Durr and Wingfield highlight, Black women often operate in environments that are socially-constructed to assume the male standpoint; Black women and girls engaging in ‘survival strategies’ are commonly mistaken as engaging in aggressive or delinquent behavior, often resulting in employment jeopardizing scenarios in the workplace, write-ups, terminations, and sometimes judicial action.
For many socialists, these issues seem adrift given their discourse often takes place separate from traditional socialist forms of analysis. Nevertheless, illuminating the plight of Black women and girls in various spheres of public and civic engagement is important in our bid as socialist to expand democracy throughout the American project. Issues such as the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ may seem narrow and less glamorous than resurgent left-wing parties, or spontaneous occupations; but the ‘school to prison’ pipeline is at the crux of the democratic socialist mission to make our public and private spaces inclusive and amenable to all, regardless of their race, class, gender, nationality, and disability. The ‘school to prison’ pipeline is no different in this regard.
Sociologist Loic Wacqaunt highlights the dynamic of the ‘school to prison pipeline’ as a part of the rise of the penal state. In Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (Wacquant 2009) Wacqaunt highlights the transformation of social welfare policies into a weapon by the state to survey, dominate, and oppress marginal populations via the transformation of welfare into ‘workfare’, and expansion of the prison-industrial complex. For poor Americans of all races in general, but African Americans in particular, this has meant the mass incarceration of Black men, and more increasingly Black women who are the target of ‘broken windows’ policing and racial profiling. A more recent study done by the MacArthur Foundation highlights that Black women are evicted from their homes at the same rates that Black men incarcerated (2014-2015)!
While the analysis of ‘The New Jim Crow’ and the ‘school to prison pipeline’ certainly demonstrate that Blacks in general are disproportionately targeted by the expansion and entrenchment of neoliberal governance, a democratic socialist-feminist perspective highlights that the rise of this form of governance in America is an authoritarian approach to dealing with those living on the margins of American society. In this manner, the rise of law and order politics and means-targeted welfare reforms have made poor Black women public enemy #1, the cause and face of Black poverty and criminality. This has led to political rhetoric that portrays Black women as ‘sexual deviants’ who have destroyed the Black family by embracing feminism, and by emulating the allegedly “sexually-aggrandizing” tendencies of bad cultural influences (Jacobs 2015). Furthermore, the erasure of Black women from the forefront in the Black freedom struggle has cultivated a mindset that Black freedom is synonymous with Black male power.
Socialists must begin to work and form coalitions with those fighting against the ‘New Jim Crow’, and the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ because our own politics are at stake in these struggles. While the analysis on the street may not fit the ‘radically-chic’ analysis that often passes for critical thinking for many in today’s left, the struggle for the emancipation of Black women is real and is an integral part of our war against the increasingly anti-democratic mode of public administration in America. The ongoing onslaught of finance capital on inner-city residents through gentrification, and the increasingly militarized police force being deployed against political demonstrators in locales such as Ferguson indicate our ‘creeping despotism’ under the banners of ‘law, order, and homeland security’. Thus, the struggle for Black women in the workplace and the public school is part and parcel the fight for socialism.
“Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected.” 2015. AAPF. Accessed February 6. http://www.aapf.org/recent/2014/12/coming-soon-blackgirlsmatter-pushed-out-overpoliced-and-underprotected.
Durr, Marlese, and Adia M. Harvey Wingfield. 2011. “Keep Your ‘N’ in Check: African American Women and the Interactive Effects of Etiquette and Emotional Labor.” Critical Sociology 37 (5): 557–71. doi:10.1177/0896920510380074.
Jacobs, Ben. 2015. “Mike Huckabee Slut-Shames Beyoncé.” The Daily Beast. January 13. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/01/13/mike-huckabee-slut-shames-beyonce.html.
Report: Poor Black Women Evicted as Much as Black Men Are Incarcerated.” Black Youth Project. Accessed February 20. http://www.blackyouthproject.com/2014/11/report-poor-black-women-evicted-as-much-as-black-men-are-incarcerated/.