The Church and Radical Jesus

In a very early draft, I noted the church — both the Negro church and the white church cannot fully reconcile their racial differences because at the heart of their differences exist capitalism. It was capitalism that transformed the Negro church after 1970 from an agent seeking radical change to one procuring materialism. And because churches love capitalism, they continue to fall short of being revolutionary change agents. Capitalism promotes racism and divides the black and white working class from an achievable world. The white church fails at transforming the weak, poor, and oppressed in their space. While “some” provide food and shelter, they have yet to challenge the status of oppression that keeps the soup lines open. Others have conformed to blaming those who struggle, giving in to the solution of liberalism, as a measure in which capitalism favors them and their paternalism.

The 21st century church must disavow its complacency and promulgate equality through radical preachers who love people more than capitalism, and who will subscribe to what Psalm 82: 3-4 notes: “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Black academic and radical organizer Melvin Tolson once noted, “Jesus didn’t believe in economic, racial, and social distinctions…. You talk about Karl Marx, the Communist! Why, don’t you know Jesus was preaching about leveling society 1,800 years before the Jewish Red was born?”

Melvin Tolson above discussing Jesus as a radical.


The Divided American Left


solidarity-divided3A Marxist analysis is a shared methodology aimed at unifying the working class in the continual fight against capitalism; it offers a sense of solidarity among its exploited members, but in the United States, such analysis has failed at mending the color line. The 21st century challenge, of course, is moving white working class people to a place of understanding the complexities of intersectionality and its importance to Marxism and the potential bonds shared with people of color, which would ultimately offset the racial tension that precludes interracial solidarity.

Much like black activists of the past, who called for unity within the Negro race, and who aimed to walk side-by-side with white people, many white workers continue to resist such solidarity, as they support their own privileges. The potential election of Republican Donald Trump best explains this notion. The American left will continue to struggle for unity, as it has throughout its history, unless workers can draw upon their class solidarity and grasp the need for intersectional understanding. The American left has historically been highly disorganized and, at times, struggled to find a unifying position.

I was moved toward leftist thinking in high school due to an emerging interest in the activism and writings of W.E.B. Du Bois. I would later read the works of Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, whom made efforts in the left –only to grow frustrated. Then, I was a growing liberal and self-proclaimed Democrat. This was true during my college years — as the president of the Young Democrats; however, by the end of college and into graduate school, I read more about the struggles of black people. And thus grew interested in black Marxism. Though at the time I did not fully grasp Wright’s frustration with the left, I would later come to understand his distrust. This was proclaimed in his essay, I Tried to be A Communist. He noted:

It was not the economics of Communism, nor the great power of trade unions, nor the excitement of underground politics that claimed me; my attention was caught by the similarity of the experiences of workers in other lands, by the possibility of uniting scattered but kindred peoples into a whole. It seemed to me that here at last, in the realm of revolutionary expression, Negro experience could find a home, a functioning value and role.  Out of the magazines I read came a passionate call for the experiences of the disinherited, and there were none of the lame lispings of the missionary in it. It did not say: “Be like us and we like you, maybe.” It said: “If you possess enough courage to speak out what you are, you will find that you are not alone.” It urged life to believe in life.

Today I fault individuals with the internal struggles of the left. There are race matters among the left, as there are those who lack the skills to bring about solidarity. Both Ellison and Wright, I suspect, would say those to the left failed to meet them. This is a continual issue today. However, unlike the days of the aforementioned black literary folk, there are those seeking change and who are willing to do so by meeting folks where they are. As that population grows, and the other population dissipates, unity will be achieved.

Time for a Better World

As one can see below, it was cold. In truth, I think it got down to -15. It was bitter cold this past weekend, as Janette and I joined a friend to work at a kitchen. As we continue to engage in community work, the realities take shape. Case in point; we are working with folks on the street that would rather stay in the cold and either die — as some recently have, or experience the brink of it. I asked our friend whom we volunteer with why they do not want our help at times, and he said they do not trust us. I have been thinking about our levels of comfort since. How we continue to fail people because nobody checks in on others. Homeless folks do not want a shelter. They would rather freeze to death because society decides worth. We reject each other every day. Class division is real. Seeing a man dead under a bridge is real; he would have lived if he accepted our help; but we continue to let this happen. At times I think Janette and I are getting closer to giving up what little wealth we have to live a life greater than comfort. Can we? I am not sure. But this world in its current status is not cutting it.

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Gentrification Part II: Living Downtown

A while back I drafted a post on white flight and gentrification part I. Below is part II of my thought regarding this matter.

Thus far the 21st century has made it pretty darn cool to move downtown….Or for some, a return to the inner city, a place once thought by some to be an unthinkable living place with its racial and ethnic minorities. Recent studies have shown that not only are younger folks moving closer to the hood, but the same is true of those who have reached retirement age. Cities such as my current one (Houston) and my former one (Little Rock), have invested a great deal of money in developing and renovating their downtown. The new slogan in Houston is ” inside the loop.” The loop is a defined zone noting a bourgeoisie culture South of Interstate 10, west of  freeway 59, and inside the 610 loop.

Inside the loop is the new aspiring dream for those who are firmly fit for upper middle class status. It brings with it an array of shopping centers, dining options, and expensive living centers. There is an element of prestige that goes with living “inside the loop.” It presses upon the masses of suburbanites that an inner looper is cooler, far trendier, and far more in touch with what is “IN.” It also reminds those who live in the suburbs that there is a new distinction of class. There was a time when a suburban Houstonian might turn his or her head down on an inner-city dweller. The image of gang infested blocks, or bums on the street after a hard day of drinking and begging seemed too beneath the suburban vanguard of middle class people. After all, those in the suburbs had achieved the American dream: A house with a yard; neighbors of the same class and race to worship with on Sunday; well manicured lawns to impress the ladies club come Bridge Tuesday. Yes!!! The dream was met. The notion of racial polarization was set. Thanks to the consumer decade of the 1950s, domestic house wives could feel safe in their homogenous community, as they worked the latest innovations in kitchen appliance.

However, by 2000 an interesting trend developed. Though urban sprawl continued to increase since the construction of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, a younger and trendier group of people are rebelling against the mass conformity of their parents. Growing up in white homogenous communities, a new population of young hip white adults are returning to the hood. Well, what was once the hood. After decades of receiving an excellent upper middle class education in property rich school districts, young post-graduate professionals have drawn certain conclusions: They do not want to live the life of their parents. This inner loop trend is a bit more diverse with a growing young black  crowed and the expansion of the gay and lesbian population. This is particularly true of Houston.

Gentrification comes at a price; I am not talking about the cost of a small downtown loft. It has created an interesting trend of migration. In Houston, a number of the once homeless population that found places to reside in the inner loop, are now being pushed out. City ordinances in Houston do not allow for the homeless to reside in street alleys or beneath an unoccupied overpass. Urban renaissance cities are campaigning to bring in more downtown businesses and residents. And while that is great for the local economy, I guess it says something when we as a society are more concerned with our fancy way of living than the social conditions of society. A number of once inner loop homeless citizens have now migrated to the suburbs.  I hate that I am part of this problem. I am trying to figure it out.

Occupy Wall Street

Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite!
Karl Marx

Conservatives hate it because it is a large leftist movement. Many New Dealers are still trying to figure it out; in the end, I suspect it will die out like so many movements (Read: Right Wing version is the Tea Party). However, a small part of me would like to see this “rally” promulgate categorical change. We are and have long been a greedy nation. American history has long been predicated on the notion of class conflict. The wealthy continue to exploit the have-nots. And, the have-nots have given in to much of the dreams and crimes of capitalism. The haves cheat, lie, manipulate, and con their way into power. The masses sit and watch in a passive manner.  As I have noted before, we live in a nation that was founded under the dreams and goals of capitalism. Exploitation was established the day Europeans arrived. And, in the end, we are all guilty of this. We buy big houses because our friends have a big house; we buy expensive gas consuming cars because it makes us seem to be elite; we keep a beach house or a country house because that is what the middle class is supposed to do. Though I am not guilty of any of these things, I am guilty of many others. The American dream of capitalism is the downfall of man kind. I like the way Richard Hofstadter defines the American origin.

In his historical intellectual work, Hofstadter brings a more revisionist and realist account of America’s historical figures. Hofstadter, much like historian Howard Zinn, taught and wrote history from the perspective of non elites: blacks, women, immigrants, workers, and the poor, who all had a voice in shaping the hitherto. Moreover, Hofstadter looked to end the romantic notions often used to describe the traditional white male hero of American culture (or WASP). Here is an example from his chapter on the founding fathers:

Democratic ideas are most likely to take root among discontented and oppressed classes, rising middle classes, or perhaps some sections of an old, alienated, and partially disinherited aristocracy, but they do not appeal to a privileged class that is still amplifying its privileges. With a half-dozen exceptions at most, the men who had considerable position and wealth, and as a group they had advanced well beyond their fathers.

One of the things Hofstadter writes about in his many works is that of economic elitism. He described the framers as men who created an oligarchy via the Constitution only as an instrument to protect their wealth and status; he questions the democratic nature of the founders and the Constitution. Moreover, he discusses history as an entity protected by the very men who used it to enhance their status.

Marx and the Church on Gambling

Karl Marx was not a nationalist nor a spiritual person like that of Georg Hegel, who found the Lutheran faith to be the highest form of religion in a man’s life. If one were to look beyond the exile of the Catholic church, during the early stages of the French Revolution, historical analysis would show a vibrant relationship between religion and nationalism. Marx, unlike Hegel, saw religion as a seductive force; it was an element that, as other Marxist scholars have noted, served as another means of exploiting the means of the masses. As noted in his Opium of the People:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Marx’s thesis of class consciousness and class conflict continues to be relevant today. Though Paul Gottfried’s The Strange Death of Marxism addressed the political shift of the left in relation to societal constructs, Marxism continues to be a significant school of thought in a world divided by class, race, gender, and national interest. Academic disciplines continue to focus on conflicts within society as they seek to explain economic interest in a pluralistic society. And yes, I do believe pluralism is a highly ubiquitous ideology that shapes the social and cultural make-up of the American polity.

But, if Marx had his doubts about the seductive force of religion, on the masses, he would contend that exploitation of any type is exploitation. Not only did Marx see forces of economic interest as being dangerous, the church (Catholic and Protestant) also voiced its concerns about agents that exploit. In a recent class discussion on capitalism, I told my macroeconomics class that Marx would be opposed to both a state lottery system, and casinos. As a self-professed leftist, I too do not favor the lottery or casinos. Here is the problem: politicians support legalizing casino gambling and the lottery because they are influenced by special interest. Many claim it will generate revenue for the state and create jobs; in truth, both exploit the poor, lead to more crime, and increase unemployment. The lottery is an indirect tax. I realize that it is a tax one does not have to pay, but if you are low on the socioeconomic scale, it is easy to be seduced by the possibility of cashing in quick for greater earnings.

In addition, education plays a major role in this matter. If you are poor and have a limited education, the seductive forces of the opium of gambling, will be hard to reject. A man works hard all week to earn a pay check, yet that check is not enough to make ends meet. Thus, he seeks to “earn” additional wages by handing that check over to a casino with the hope of getting rich. Casinos represents the bourgeoisie’s efforts at exploiting the poor. Once that hardworking man surrenders that check, he is granted a credit card to buy alcohol, rent a room, have dinner, and gamble with money he does not have. In the end, he leaves the casino in debt.

This is not an unusual predicament of classic exploitation. Spend time in a poor black inner-city neighborhood. You will see pawn shops, liquor stores, and porn shops. All of which are owned by the same class of people who own casinos and lobby politicians to legislate a state lottery. Their justification: lottery dollars will be used to improve the education of blacks in the inner-city. Special interests always look to states like Georgia and Mississippi as a reason for why it works. I am not convinced. The church is not convinced, as noted by John McArthur, who outlines the sins of gambling here. My two favorite points are 1.) it preys on the weak and 2.) it is part of the sin of materialism. Marx would draw this exact conclusion, too.

I do not think this is an ideological matter; I was a bit shocked that many of my students disagreed with me. They argued that it is a choice. In a society that is made up of freedoms and economic expansion, people have the right to enhance their earnings…be it the casino owner or the uninformed poor person looking to improve his lifestyle. They have the right to hold such a position. It is not my job to change  students’ minds; however, it is my job to present the historical evidence that proves otherwise.

Black Communist and the 1930s

I recently watched Denzel Washington in The Great Debaters, an excellent film that depicted ideology, race, class, and Jim Crow in the American South. There are a number of  great clips to show in an American History course.  Washington, a great actor that personified the typical black academic circa 1930, played Melvin B. Tolson, a poet and professor during the decade. In the movie, Tolson’s character was that of an energetic professor at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas who organized the school’s debate team, which went on to debate white colleges, to a mostly undefeated season where they won a 1935 debate against the reigning national champion, USC — not Harvard. Although there are historical problems with this feel good film, the same cannot be said about the historical accuracy of what the movie is really about: lynchings, KKK, poverty, racism, economic inequality, communism, and capitalism.

Tolson, being both an academic and a communist, saw the significance in ending class and racial conflict in America, as he attempted to unify poor black and white sharecroppers against the feudal construct that controlled their wages. Such a union was a threat to both white supremacy and capitalism. The government, along with the bosses, were completely against any form of union that would help sharecroppers receive better wages and better working conditions. Moreover, a great fear among white supremacists was racial harmony. Rooted back in the days of the Populist Party, racial unification among the working class might destroy the feudal order of share cropping.

The late Richard Hofstadter, one of my favorite scholars, thought very little of the Populist. He noted in his 1955 work, The Age of Reform, that they rested on a romanticized and obsolete vision of the role of farmers in American society, and was permeated with bigotry and ignorance. Thus, their inability to unify beyond the condition of race and ideology allowed capitalists to manipulate them, and the dominance of progressive period politics to end their platform for rural reform.

As I have noted on a previous post regarding this historical topic: The problem that unfolded, however, was the marriage of democracy, racism, and slavery. These three components can be viewed as a product of capitalism. Many black intellectuals were Marxist. Better yet, many were card-carrying members of the Communist Party. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Zora Neale Hurston wrote about the failure of American democracy. According to some, they saw a better world in the red regime of Cold War Eastern Europe. Because of the failure of American democracy, the communists had some natural advantages. Marxist ideology was insistently nonracislist; the various non-European nationalities in the former Soviet Union were, on paper at least, equal under the law; and blacks from the west that visited Russia could be entertained in a manner that seemed to demonstrate a total absence of color prejudice.

As noted on my CV, I delivered a conference paper a few years back  entitled The Atlantic-Market Thesis. In this paper I stated that in my courses,  I teach that the term “racism” was transformed at the same point in which the term “slavery” was transformed via the 16th century Atlantic market (denoting the Atlantic Ocean and World). The Atlantic market gave rise to a newly created North American state that used racial exploitation as a labor base to develop its economic market. I do realize that this attitude was one of region and geography; regardless, it fostered an American identity that  linked Max Webber’s work ethic of inherent Calvinism to capitalism, slavery, and racism. Though,  the very nature of slavery was anti-climatic to the term free-market capitalism.

That  historical epoch which shaped my interest in Oceans as a historical marker (see post here) are directly linked to the rise of black communist in American society. The Atlantic market gave birth to the notion of king cotton, slavery, and the inevitable rise of sharecropping. Note this recent book review offers much perspective on what the film is really about.  In Robin D.G. Kelley’s book, Hammer and Hoe, the author constructs an anthropological, historical, and sociological book about the organizing work of Black Communists in the South in which the stereotype about communists are debunked.

The Alabama Communist Party was built from scratch by working people who had no Euro-American radical political tradition. It was composed largely of poor blacks, most of whom were semiliterate and devoutly religious, but it also attracted a handful of whites, including unemployed industrial workers, iconoclastic youth, and renegade liberals. Kelley shows that the cultural identities of these people from Alabama’s farms, factories, mines, kitchens, and city streets shaped the development of the Party. The result was a remarkably resilient movement forged in a racist world that had little tolerance for radicals. In the South race pervaded virtually every aspect of Communist activity. And because the Party’s call for voting rights, racial equality, equal wages for women, and land for landless farmers represented a fundamental challenge to the society and economy of the South, it is not surprising that Party organizers faced a constant wave of violence.

Kelley’s analysis ranges broadly, examining such topics as the Party’s challenge to black middle-class leadership; the social, ideological, and cultural roots of black working-class radicalism; Communist efforts to build alliances with Southern liberals; and the emergence of a left-wing, interracial youth movement. He closes with a discussion of the Alabama Communist Party’s demise and its legacy for future civil rights activism.