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Protesters rally against the TPP. (Photo: Alexandra Pusateri/Memphis Flyer)

The Political Economy of Black Opposition to Free-Trade Neoliberalism

The debased conditions of black working class existence in the U.S. is produced and reproduced as a result of the inner logic of this system.”

President Obama and the corporate Democrats continue to press Congress to provide Obama with trade promotion authority (TPA), or so-called “fast-track” authority to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the first of a series of pernicious so-called free trade agreements.

The Flush the TPP website, a major resource for the anti-TPP movement characterizes the treaty as: “A secret trade agreement…(that) threatens to undermine democracy by entrenching corporate power in virtually every area of our lives, from food safety and the environment, to worker rights and access to health care, the TPP is about much more than trade. It is a global corporate coup.”

In the process of organizing the fight-back to deny President Obama fast-track authority to conclude the TPP and ram it through Congress behind the backs of the people, I wrote about the fact that in some black circles there was uncertainty regarding the priority that the TPP should be given or whether or not it was even an important issue for African Americans.

However, over the last week African American organizations have rallied in opposition to the TPP and established its defeat as an immediate priority for black people, even as some members of the Congressional Black Caucus are wavering in their initial opposition as a result of pressure from the Obama administration.

TPP is about much more than trade. It is a global corporate coup.”

Saladin Muhammad, long time union organizer, veteran of Black Liberation Movement and spokesperson for the Black Workers for Justice, captures the view of a number of black activists who are naming neoliberal capitalism as the enemy: “structural policies of global capitalism like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), must be opposed and challenged by the Black working-class as part of the struggle for Black liberation and social transformation.”

The logic of Saladin’s comment is grounded in a critical analysis of the relationship between African Americans and the capitalist political economy that suggest that the debased conditions of black working class existence in the U.S. is produced and reproduced as a result of the inner logic of this system.

And since the degrading and dehumanizing conditions that characterize black working class existence are inherent to this system and cannot be altered through liberal capitalist reforms, an anti-capitalist position is the only logical political position that African Americans can take.

It’s Capitalism, not Culture:

Current configurations of so-called “free trade” agreements are at best kinder and gentler, neoliberal versions of more of the same.  For the vast majority of Black workers, who languish without relief at the very bottom of the economic rung, such agreements only reinforce longstanding exploitation, visceral racism and denial of good jobs and equal opportunities.” (Jaribu Hill, the Executive Director of the Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights)

Contrary to the culture-of-poverty nonsense being offered by Obama and his neoconservative friends as a way to explain why African Americans are engaged in “unapproved” resistance in places like Baltimore, the real explanation for the conditions that produced that resistance is situated within the context of the very same neoliberal capitalist policies being championed by Obama with the TPP.

A number of scholars have argued that capitalist globalization has had a disproportionately negative impact on African Americans over the last four decades.

The neoliberal restructuring of the national economy that began in the 1970s and accelerated under Reagan in the ‘80s ushered in a period of economic stagnation and decline in black America from which we have never recovered. Not that life was a bed of roses for African Americans who had just migrated from the totalitarian conditions of the South during the Second World War and in the years following. However, there was some relative economic advancement, although uneven, in the immediate post-war period for African Americans able to land a job in the industrial heartland of the country.

However, the always precarious situation of black workers and the relative weakness of the black middle-class became an existential crisis after the capitalist implosion in 2008.

While the destructive impact of the economic crisis was experienced by families and individuals in every sector of society – except the super-rich – for African Americans the crisis was nothing short of catastrophic.

Black laborers had become a work force and population that was no longer needed in the globalized U.S. economy.”

Staggering losses in household wealth, income and labor force participation decimated large portions of the already small and fragile black middle-class and plugged black workers into desperate poverty. The latest capitalist crisis, however, revealed something even more frightening for African American workers.

Not only did the economic crisis strip away the chimera of prosperity created by access to easy credit for most workers who hadn’t experience real wage increases in decades and were living paycheck to paycheck, but it also exposed an unacknowledged and unspoken reality for vast numbers of unemployed black workers: that they had moved from the category of being a part of the “reserve army of the unemployed” – labor ready to be reemployed when the economy picked up – to the category of a surplus work force. That is, it became painfully obvious that black laborers had become a work force and population that was no longer needed in the globalized U.S. economy.

Today the labor participation rate for African American men is the lowest on record. The plight of African American women is ever more precarious, although their employment rate is a little better. However, African American women’s increased participation in the economy is offset by the fact that black women are disproportionately tasked with the responsibility of caring not only for themselves but their children. Linda Burnham points out an additional economic reality that black women face and that is because black women are overrepresented in the low-wage sector they suffer from both the gender and the racial gap in wages.

The labor force is contracting.”

Confined to unsteady and unpredictable low wage service sector jobs, it should not be surprising that the fastest growing population of homeless in the U.S. is African American women with children.

Neoliberal globalization also had a devastating impact on working people in cities like Baltimore. The shattered communities and pockets of absolute poverty that exist in that city did not come about as a result of fathers not being in the home or black people not taking advantage of opportunities, but is a direct result of the 100,000 unionized manufacturing and seaport-related jobs lost in Baltimore when those jobs were shifted out of the U.S. by corporate and finance capital. The closing of Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Works that employed 35,000 people and the dramatic reduction of jobs at Baltimore’s port were body blows that the working class community of Baltimore never recovered from.

The terrible reality facing increasing numbers of African Americans is that as the U.S. continues to shift to a low-skilled, low-wage economy, the labor force is also contracting, with the result being that large numbers of African American workers and the poor are destined to not be able to secure full time employment during their entire lives!

And for those lucky enough to secure a job, the new jobs that are projected in the U.S. will be in such low-paying occupations as fast food, food prep, retail, and healthcare aides.

North-South Solidarity in the Struggle to end Global Oppression

The systemic capitalist crisis that led the captains of finance and free-market capitalism to line up for rescue by the state in 2008 dramatically exposed the fraudulent nature of neoliberal capitalism as a strategy for long-term, sustainable capitalist progress.

This is true in the capitalist center as well in the peripheries of the global system. That is why black opposition to neoliberal free trade agreements is not just based on the negative impact of those agreements on black people in the U.S. but on the recognition of a common agenda with the exploited and colonized peoples of the world in ending global capitalist oppression.

Opposition to the TPP and free-trade must be seen as one front in the resistance to further U.S. imperialist consolidation. Jaribu Hill reminds us that “free is a misnomer for control and a maintenance of a status quo that will always require the sufferers to suffer more while maximum profits are made on their backs and at the expense of their safety and yes, their lives.” 

African Americans oppose the TPP because we understand that the workers in Vietnam, who will be primarily women, are being primed for super-exploitation under the terms of that agreement. We understand that under North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), millions of farmers were driven from their land in places like Oaxaca, Mexico and ended up landless urban dwellers in Mexico or working for slave wages as undocumented workers in the U.S.

We oppose the TPP because neoliberal free trade between the U.S. and Colombia has resulted in the accelerated loss land for Afro-Colombians as their lands are stolen for illegal mining and the corporate expansion of palm oil and sugar cane processing for bio-fuel production for markets in Europe and the U.S.

And even though the elites of those countries who are part of the agreement prostrate themselves before Uncle Sam, we oppose the TPP in the name of the people of the global South.

For those who might ask why African Americans would question and oppose free trade agreements, we point to history and say that if there are any people on the planet who should question so called free trade it should be the descendants of the people victimized by the most barbaric trade regime in the history of the planet.


Ajamu Baraka

Ajamu Baraka

Ajamu Baraka was the 2016 candidate for vice president on the Green Party ticket. He is an editor and contributing columnist for the Black Agenda Report and contributing columnist for Counterpunch magazine.  His latest publications include contributions to Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence (Counterpunch Books, 2014), Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA (HarperCollins, 2014) and Claim No Easy Victories: The Legacy of Amilcar Cabral ( CODESRIA, 2013). He can be reached at www.AjamuBaraka.com

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