Racism and Capitalism in Cincinnati

The murder by a white police officer of an unarmed 19-year-old black man was the spark which ignited the accumulated tinder of racism and poverty in Cincinnati last week. In the biggest “race riots” since the Rodney King trial in Los Angeles in 1992, hundreds took to the streets to protest police brutality and the pent-up frustrations of decades of marginalization and poverty. Timothy Thomas was the 15th black male killed by the Cincinnati police since 1995, and the fourth since November. During the same period of time, no whites were killed by police. Officer Stephen Roach shot him as he evaded arrest for outstanding warrants – mostly traffic violations. Roach claims he feared for his life because he saw Thomas reach for a weapon during their encounter in a dark alley – but no gun was recovered at the scene. Like the Amadou Diallo case where the West African immigrant was shot 19 times just for reaching for his wallet, the case of Timothy Thomas highlights the fact that relations between one of the most oppressed segments of society and the police are balanced on a knife’s edge, ready to explode at any moment.

The rage expressed by the residents of the once prosperous Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, which spread to other predominantly black neighborhoods is just a tiny indication of things to come as the contradictions of the capitalist system come more and more to the fore. As long as these problems remained restricted to the poor and minorities, as long as they stayed in their own neighborhoods and wallowed in despair, ignorance, degradation and poverty in isolation from the rest of “decent” society, no one cared. But as soon as the residents rose up in exasperation at the lack of real opportunity and the virtual police state they live in, the whole world watched, astonished that in the United States there were people so poor, and that they were willing to come into conflict with the world’s mightiest state machine and police.

But who were these “rioters”? Why did they see no other option but to burst onto the scene in a spree of arson, vandalism and confrontations with police? The phenomenon of “white flight”, whereby more affluent whites move to the suburbs, abandoning the decaying centers of cities to the poor in general, and poor African-Americans in particular, is a serious indication of the divisions in society along economic and racial lines. About 43 percent of the city’s population of 330,000 is black, up from 38 percent a decade ago. The Over-the-Rhine neighborhood is 83 percent black. According to a recent study by the University of Cincinnati, the average income in Cincinnati is $14,420 a year per person, but in Over-the Rhine it is just $5,359, and 48 percent of its residents are on public assistance. Cincinnati is home to major corporations including Kroger Co., Procter & Gamble and Chiquita Brands International Inc., and the unemployment rate for the greater Cincinnati area has averaged just 3.8 percent over the last five years. But among blacks in Over-the-Rhine the jobless rate is closer to 30 percent, according to the same study.

The resulting conditions have been dealt with not by increasing the opportunities available to the residents of these areas, but by increasing the presence of the ever more brutal police. The practice of “racial profiling” of young African-American males, many of whom are unemployed, by police who treat them like second-class citizens was bound to result in an explosion sooner or later – and this will not be the last. According to one resident, “From all the people that have died, all the African-American males, the subconscious message being sent is if you come in contact with the police, its not going to be a good experience.”

One can’t help but see the striking similarities between the actions of the Israeli “defense” forces against the Palestinian youth who are in similarly bleak circumstances, and the repression of the poor youth in the inner cities by the Cincinnati police. The police are supposedly here to “serve and protect” – but the question which must be posed is the following – who are they serving and protecting? The answer is clear – they exist as part of the repressive arm of the state power which defends private property and the capitalist system of wage slavery. That a “state of emergency” was declared and hundreds were arrested during the curfew in a major US city sends a message to people around the world. It highlights the fact that the US is not at all the land of milk and honey, and that the ruling class here will use the same repression it dishes out to the rest of the world against its own people. The bourgeois raise their hands in horror at the violence of the oppressed – and in particular the violence against their sacred private property – yet every day they inflict even worse conditions and violence on the workers, unemployed, minorities, women, and youth of their own country.

After decades of searching for a peaceful solution to their deteriorating position, the residents of these areas could no longer take it, and took things into their own hands. According to Reverend Daman Lynch who runs a local church, “They relied on their leaders after 14 deaths, to negotiate, to bring about plans but there was no action. And after the 15th, they wanted to send a message and… they sent a message that actually woke up this city.”

But we must emphasize that this is not strictly a racial issue – the fundamental reason for the plight of the residents of the inner cities is the dead-end of capitalism. The near state of war raging daily on the streets of the world’s richest country is only a graphic expression of the wholesale war which the capitalist system wages on the majority of humanity. It is organically incapable at this stage of history offering a way forward. As Malcolm X explained when he was moving towards a class analysis of society, “racism is rooted in capitalism”. Wherever there is an accumulation of wealth and prosperity on one pole, and scarcity and want at the other, people will divide along the superficial lines of race, religion, gender, etc. Lenin explained that it is a question of bread – if there is not enough to go around, then people will fight over the scraps which capitalism throws them.

So what is the solution? Put bluntly, there is no simple or easy solution – and no solution whatsoever under capitalism. The only way to change this situation is to provide decent jobs, housing, education, healthcare, leisure activities, etc. But this is impossible under capitalism which cares only for its profit margin. Capitalism doesn’t create jobs or opportunities just for the sake of it. If this means that millions and even billions of other humans languish in depravity and destitution, then so be it, as far as the capitalists are concerned, that’s “just the way it is”. As Marx explained in the Communist Manifesto, the bourgeoisie “is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.”

But a look around shows that there is no need for this state of affairs. Humanity has at its disposal the most wonderful technology and knowledge which could transform the living conditions of every human living on the planet almost overnight. But only the revolutionary change of society along democratic socialist lines can effect real and lasting change. The task of overthrowing capitalism is the job of the workers, unemployed, and youth of all races and nations. We must build up class-independent organizations which can effectively fight in the interests of all oppressed layers of society. Join us in building an genuine alternative to the capitalist system!

  • Outlaw all forms of discrimination!
  • No to police racism and brutality!


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