The Black Panthers’ emphasis on Black self-determination didn’t compromise their belief in class solidarity, despite popular discourse today that attempts to pit anti-capitalism against anti-racism.
The Black Panther Party, founded in 1965 by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, was a radical Marxist-Leninist group centered around the idea of black power. At a time when the Civil Rights movement and the Red Scare were occurring, the notion of black individuals who stood for communist principles and the right to self-defense terrified affluent white people who had a vested interest in upholding white supremacy, a cornerstone of U.S. capitalism. The Black Panther Party’s power only continued to grow as it aligned with other Chicago groups such as the Young Lords and Young Patriots in what came to be known as the Rainbow Coalition.
The Rainbow Coalition united groups that seemed to have little in common on the surface level through the principle of solidarity. The Young Lords were a group focused on Puerto-Rican advocacy and the Young Patriots were white migrants from Appalachia who faced poverty and discrimination upon moving to Chicago. To quote a scene from the film John Sayles’ Matewan, “They got you fightin’ white against colored, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain’t but two sides in this world – them that work and them that don’t. You work, they don’t. That’s all you get to know about the enemy.” When we are united in solidarity, that’s how we can accomplish our goals. It only makes sense that the US government would target the Panthers because they united diverse anti-capitalist groups that worked together to better their communities.
Most of us are familiar with how the story goes. Chicago police shot Fred Hampton and other Black Panther members in a raid orchestrated by the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, that targeted many other activists, including Martin Luther King Jr. With Fred Hampton dead, the Black Panther Party’s foundations crumbled. That the federal government decided to assassinate Fred Hampton speaks to the power of solidarity that our government and the capitalist system are afraid of. When we put aside our differences, let go of petty squabbles, and unite on the common principle we share, we can finally move forward with our goals.
It is important to remember the legacy of the BPP and Fred Hampton today as the neoliberal establishment attempts to co-opt our language with cynical identity reductionist rhetoric devoid of any class analysis.
We must combat class reductionism that dismisses the unique experiences of oppressed and colonized peoples in the US while, at the same time, the neoliberal brand of identity reductionism that ignores racism’s symbiotic relationship with the capitalist class order.
Above all, socialists must make it clear as neoliberal corporate sycophants try to co-opt progressive rhetoric – socialism is the only way to address the racial inequities. The fight against capitalism is the fight against racism.