The dispossessed of this nation – the poor, both white and Negro – live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take the means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty.
— Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1967 Massey Lectures

Are we all alone fighting on our own
Please give me a chance
I don’t wanna dance
Something’s got me down
— J.Cole, “Be Free”

Maybe that’s the reason for the struggle we’re in – as a city, as a nation
Maybe it’s because we’ve all come to see only what we represent, instead of who we are
We don’t see each other
— William Bratton, “Eulogy for NYPD Officer Rafael Ramos”

A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin” they explain
And the Negro’s name
is used it is plain
for the politicians gain
as he rises to fame
and the poor white remains
on the caboose of the train
but it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
— Bob Dylan “A Pawn In Their Game”

A pawn with state sanctioned power to kill is still just a pawn. Pawns play important roles but they don’t create the game. They don’t set up its rules and structures. They are often sacrificed to protect the more powerful pieces that determine who wins and loses.
Yet, as one police killing of unarmed black men after another has unfolded before our eyes, we have been encouraged to see, to focus our attention on, to demand accountability for, only the pawns.
Cops are assigned to keep order in a deeply disordered society – one they did not create. They are supposed to provide equal justice and protection to communities of people who virtually every other social institution treats the most unjustly and who are the least protected from violence daily inflicted in myriad forms. They are officially expected to treat all people, including those of color, with the respect and dignity that our social systems deny every day. The police force as a whole, whatever the attitudes of individual cops, reflects the pervasive racism, both blatant and subtle, that drives that denial in small, large and frequently deadly ways. Community demands to hold police accountable for their acts of brutality or killing are seldom, if ever, met. Accountability from those responsible for the conditions in which those acts take place is not even publicly discussed.

So when cops feel they are asked to do difficult and sometimes dangerous work and then are portrayed as the main source of racism, violence, and injustice in society, they get angry. As they are encouraged to do, they often focus their anger on the ones closest at hand – those in the community, the streets, and sometimes local government who are advocating change. They don’t look at those, seldom identified let alone seen, who create, maintain and benefit from the intolerable and explosive situations they are ordered to control.
In this limited vision, they are hardly alone. “The struggle we’re now in – as a city, as a nation” is not, as NYPD Commissioner Bratton put it, “because we’ve all come to see only what we represent, instead of who we are.” The struggle is taking place and will continue because of who and what we are not supposed to see – a social and economic system that serves a tiny minority of obscenely privileged people. It is a system that doesn’t care who we are. It violates who we could be. It seeks to treat us all as pawns.
The fight to stop police killings of black men necessarily makes demands for police accountability and criminal justice reforms that could easily be accommodated and could help save lives and reduce routine acts of brutality and humiliation. But what gives the assertion Black Lives Matter its revolutionary power is that it directly challenges the larger social system that has at its heart the use of racism to control us all. It is a fight being led by young and other people of color. Their struggle raises what has always been a determining question in this country: Can white people, and in particular the white poor and working classes, not only see and value black lives, black people who are fighting and those they are fighting for, but also understand and join that fight as one to liberate all of us?
We were told these were black people fighting for their rights, but what I saw, from the outset, were poor people fighting for all our rights. They were fighting, I remember telling my puzzled mother, the same system that kept us poor.
This is a question that very early began to shape my life. I grew up in a poor single parent white family, outliers in an all white largely middle class Ohio town. Watching my hard working and often exhausted mother suffer as she struggled to pay the most basic bills, I didn’t need political theory to know there was something fundamentally wrong with how society was set up. What I didn’t know was how such a powerful and celebrated economic and social system could possibly be changed.
Turning on our shaky black and white TV, we saw startling images of people marching, and frequently being beaten and arrested, in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma. We were told these were black people fighting for their rights, but what I saw, from the outset, were poor people fighting for all our rights. They were fighting, I remember telling my puzzled mother, the same system that kept us poor.
That is not what many of my relatives saw. They saw black troublemakers who didn’t know their place and threatened their jobs and the gains white people like them had struggled to make. I am not sure what my mother thought at first. She grew up imbibing the racial prejudices of many poor whites, but her experience as a poor woman gave her both deep class and early feminist instincts. All I know for sure is that when I came home from school in June 1966, my worn out and Republican-voting Mother announced that she wanted to go to Alabama to march in protest of the shooting of James Meredith. That is the moment I began to believe that class solidarity could overcome racial divisions.
That belief was shaken many times as those calling for cross-racial unity like Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were killed, the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign ended abortively and in derision, and so-called white backlash became a seemingly permanent social and political reality which politicians and others in power took advantage of to further their own interests and careers. If I had known more, I might have been less surprised. The divisions that keep poor and working people divided are old, deep, and grounded in real material – and deliberate – differences. As Michelle Alexander summarizes in her book, The New Jim Crow, a decisive turning point in this country’s history was the decision to make slavery – for millennia worldwide a status inflicted on diverse peoples, many of whom would be considered white today – a permanent condition based on race. The primary aim was to control and exploit a source of free labor, but the racism vital to that system was also a way to control all labor.
Alexander gives as an example the rebellion of Nathaniel Bacon, who in 1675 managed to briefly “unite slaves, indentured servants, and poor whites in a revolutionary effort to overthrow the planter elite”. That rebellion was crushed, but it and others like it galvanized planters to develop a system of what Alexander and others call a “racial bribe”: “Deliberately and strategically the planter class extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and black slaves….. poor whites suddenly had a direct personal stake in the existence of a race based system of slavery. Their own plight had not improved by much but at least they were not slaves.” They became, in fact, slightly better off pawns of rich people, a role that all white people, in different degrees, are now expected and encouraged to play.


Plantation Politics
The use of that racial bribe to help the dominant class retain control has remained remarkably effective for centuries. Its importance to the social order helps explain why, for all the talk of “racial progress,” the sizeable gap between black and white poverty, unemployment, income, and wealth has for the past 50 years remained as wide as ever (or in the case of wealth, widened considerably). We are told: “You may have economic hardship, white people, but at least you are not as poor as people of color or treated as badly or locked up as often or killed as regularly.”
Built upon this material basis for dividing poor and working class people along color lines is an ideological and cultural basis of division. It is essential for the maintenance and functioning of our current unequal and unjust system that people of color be identified with poverty and crime. It is equally essential to identify all white people, even the poorest, with the white planters of our day: the enormously wealthy tiny minority who control our economic and political systems – a frame that even many so-called progressives have adopted. This dominant narrative has worked well. It has, for example, enabled some 18.8 million white poor people, the largest in absolute terms of any racial group in poverty in the United States, to largely disappear from public sight and discussion. In many states, it has enabled politicians to gain a majority of those working class white people who vote to support policies that have kept their wages stagnating or falling for decades. Those in power have used this narrative of fear to line up majority support for police killings that can be seen on videos to be morally and in every other way indefensible.
And yet, there are cracks in this age-old system. As Leonard Cohen sings, “that is how the light gets in.” We see growing numbers of whites, mainly but not only young, joining the fight to say that Black Lives Matter and demand that racism must end. We see major unions and other labor groups taking up the fight, led by low-wage workers, for a living wage. When put to a popular referendum, we see majorities voting to raise the minimum wage in cities and states around the country. We see movements like Forward Together/Moral Mondays in North Carolina effectively uniting people against racism and for economic justice for all. And we are seeing growing interest in building a new Poor People’s Campaign for today.
We need to widen those cracks and help emerge into that space the kind of broad based movement that it has always taken to bring about fundamental change. For white progressives, that means certainly confronting racism, including our own, but it means doing more than showing through our support for black-led protest how enlightened we are compared to other white people. If we are serious, it will mean actually seeing, listening to, and reaching out to poor and working class whites to help demonstrate the power that principled unity can have in improving their lives and every life.
That has never been easy, but it has also never been more important. For just as it did in the day of Nathaniel Bacon, nothing shakes the dominant class more than the unity of those they rule. Nothing is more crucial to building that unity than fighting racism in all its forms while making it clear that this is also a fight to win economic justice and security for everyone. This is why Black Lives Matter is key to moving to a new reality in which all lives matter. Time to stop being pawns in anyone’s game. Time to stop the game altogether.