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What the past offers contemporary racial justice movementsLeft: Leaflet promoting membership meeting of the All-America Anti-Imperialist League (American Section), New York City, Dec. 5, 1928. Source: Digitally edited by Tim Davenport ("Carrite") for Wikipedia. Right: Wonsan, North Korea, 1951. Supply warehouses and dock facilities hit by para-demolition bombs dropped from Fifth Air Force's B-26 Invader light bombers. (Photo: USAF, National Archives, via Wikimedia Commons.) Both i

What the past offers contemporary racial justice movements

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By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

Christine Hong and Ann Garland Mahler examined past social justice movements that explicitly linked racism to capitalism, fascism and imperialism. These movements of the 20th century, they argued, offer a powerful transnational solidarity framework for racial justice movements today.

Download the "Black Lives Matter: Global Perspectives" webinar schedule 

UCLA International Institute, December 30, 2020 — At the second webinar in the “Black Lives Matter: Global Perspectives” series sponsored by the International Institute, two scholars addressed racism in a transnational context by delving into 20th-century social justice critiques and movements. “Global Movements against Racial Capitalism: Conversations across Latin America and Asia and the Pacific” featured presentations by scholars Christine Hong and Ann Mahler Garland. (Watch the full webinar.)

Hong, associate professor in the literature department and critical race and ethnic studies program at UC Santa Cruz, traced the post-9/11, “militarized human rights” agenda vis-à-vis North Korea to the original U.S. “police action” in the Korean War of the 1950s, then used the Black anti-fascist critique of the Korean War to demonstrate the carceral logic of U.S. militarism.

Garland, associate professor in the department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese at the University of Virginia, addressed two transnational solidarity movements centered in the Americas: the All-American Anti-Imperialist League of the 1930s and 1940s and the Tricontinental movement of the 1960s.

The webinar was cosponsored by the International Institute, Program for Caribbean Studies (POCS) and the Center for Korean Studies and moderated by UCLA historian Katsuya Hirano. Professor Jennifer Jiyhe Chun, who has a joint appointment in the Asian American studies department and the International Institute, began the evening with an introduction to the BLM: Global Perspective series, and Jorge Marturano, director of POCS and associate professor in the department of Spanish and Portuguese, introduced the speakers.

Black radical critique links U.S. “police action” abroad to the policeman’s bullet at home

Hong traced what she called the carceral logic of the original U.S. “police action”* in Korea through the post-9/11, neo-conservative human rights agenda against the North Korean “gulag.” The latter, she pointed out, was rooted in visceral anti-communist ideology and used technologies, including satellite imagery and intelligence, “interoperable with technologies of interventionist war.”

Supporters of the militarized human rights agenda against North Korea, noted the UC scholar, “consistently argued against food aid and other humanitarian measures, while advocating for fortified sanctions, military intervention and advanced plans or refugee camps to house fleeing North Koreans after an externally triggered regime collapse.

“North Korea's post-Cold War image as the world's most heinous police state requires,” she added, “critical contextualization against the early Cold War U.S. ‘police action’ that placed North Korea in the U.S. war machine’s crosshairs.

“By delving into the archives of the Civil Rights Congress, a Black anti-fascist organization,” she said, “I want to dwell on the linkages between the policeman's bullet in the United States and U.S. police action in Korea.” The scholar specifically analyzed the “We Charge Genocide” petition presented by the Civil Rights Congress, a pre-civil rights movement of Black activists, to the United Nations in 1951.

“At a moment in which the United States was waging a ruthless war of intervention in Korea, a war in which the United States ruled the skies, perpetrating what [historian] Bruce Cummings has called a ‘bombing Holocaust below,’” she continued, “this petition insisted on the structural correlation between U.S. domestic and foreign policy, construing racism within the United States to be the domestic expression of a global pattern of U.S. imperialism.

“As William Paterson and other petition authors reasoned, racist violence and economic exploitation in the United States would beget more of the same as it projected its war power abroad,” she commented. Hong then directly quoted the 1951 “We Charge Genocide” petition:

We, Negro petitioners whose communities have been laid waste, whose homes have been burned and looted, whose children have been killed, whose women have been raped, have noted with peculiar horror the genocidal doctrines and actions of the American white supremacists have already been exported to the colored people of Asia. We solemnly warn that a nation which practices genocide against its own nationals may not be long deterred if it has the power from genocide elsewhere.

Jellied gasoline in Korea and the lyncher’s faggot at home are connected in more ways than that both result in death by fire. The lyncher cannot murder unpunished and unrebuked without so encouraging the bomber that the peace of the world and the lives of millions are endangered.

Actor, singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson in Wales, 1958. Robeson delivered a copy of the “We Charge Genocide” petition to a U.N. official in New York City on December 17, 1951. A year earlier, Robeson’s passport had been confiscated by the U.S. State Department to prevent him from travelling to the USSR; it was restored in 1958. Robeson was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. (Photo: Geoff Charles; posted by The National Library of Wales/ Flckr.) Public domain.

“This sort of two-fronted sort of genocidal charge against the United States emerged in part out of an anti-fascist milieu that bears revisiting,” said Hong. “Here I'm speaking about Los Angeles in the 1940s and early 1950s,” she continued, noting that LA at the time was home to both a local chapter of the Civil Rights Congress and a bilingual Korean English newspaper called Dongnip Shinmun, which protested the U.S. interventionist war in Korea, as well as organizations seeking to prevent the deportation of Korean refugees who objected to the war. 

Both U.S. militarism and counter-insurgent violence against domestic populations have been directed against racialized “enemies,” said Hong. She noted that U.S. counter-intelligence campaigns — whether surveillance of racialized U.S. minorities by the FBI during World War II or the tracking of leftists by COINTELPRO (the Counter Intelligence Program of the U.S. government) in the 1960s and beyond — revealed that “the domestic arena wasn't just a site of war production, it was a site of a potential sort of enemy saboteurs” that included communists, black civil rights organizers and, during World War II, Japanese and Asian groups.

These counterintelligence campaigns, stressed Hong, deliberately sought to disrupt radical movements and interrupt their genealogies in the United States. For example, she cited the claim of New Left activists of the 1960s that COINTELPRO ensured that activist leaders ended up in exile, in prison or dead.

Fascism, observed Hong, is the common link between U.S. military aggression abroad and racialized suppression at home. Yet she argued that the original link between fascism and capitalism was eventually obscured by a U.S. ideological sleight of hand that linked fascism instead to communism via what she called “the Cold War catchphrase of ‘totalitarianism.’”

This term, she argued, “[warped] the clarity of the anti-fascist critique of U.S. militarism precisely as U.S. war power assumed unprecedented infrastructural form around the globe following World War II. We can think here,” she stressed, “of the U.S. national security state, the military industrial complex, the empire’s bases and the permanent war economy.”

Addressing racialized capitalism in a transnational frame

Many political actions in the U.S. in recent years are have drawn links between the “logics of anti-Black racism and anti-immigrant nativism,” said Ann Garland Mahler. “[T]his speaks to an increasing consciousness around the central role of immigrant rights in a larger struggle for racial justice. “Within the United States, organizations like the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and the UndocuBlack Network have been leading voices in framing intersectional anti-racist politics,” she noted.

Mahler argued that our contemporary moment of intersectional, transnational politics would benefit from an examination of previous movements that explicitly linked anti-racist to anti-capitalist politics. She then provided a brief overview of two 20th-century militant movements: the All-American Anti-Imperialist League (in Spanish, Liga anti-imperialista de las Americas, or LADLA) of the 1920s and 1930s and the Tricontinental movement of the 1960s.

Both movements generated activism and theorization in ample measure, as well as prolific amounts of cultural production, including posters, books and magazines, particularly the El Libertador (of LADLA) and The Tricontinental.

“These two key solidarity movements of the 20th century,” said the speaker, “conceived of the operation of power through a global frame, and examined the overlapping mechanics of finance capitalism with earlier histories of European colonization.

“Ultimately, both movements, although with distinct discourses and aesthetics, aimed to bridge a global anti-capitalist movement with racial justice organizing,” she added.

“Social movements today face particular challenges, like the question of how to navigate the complex relationship between the globalized networked nature of contemporary power, [such as] the role of transnational corporations and transnational elites, for example, and the locally socio-spatial context of inequality and racialization.”

Invoking such scholars as Cedric Robinson and Charisse Burden-Stelly on racial capitalism, and Jodi Melamed and Charle Hal on neoliberal multiculturalism, Mahler commented, “Racial justice organizing throughout the American hemisphere has tended to focus its critique on reforming the state, sidelining at times a broader consideration of the intersection between racial violence and global capital flows.”

Both LADLA and the Tricontinental movement emerged in Spanish-speaking Latin America. LADLA was founded in 1925 in Mexico City, with the goal of creating “a hemispheric alliance among anti-imperialists of Latin American countries with those of the United States and a forging a multiracial political community that … focused on advancing the indigenous struggle, but then expanded to focus on Black and immigrant struggles,” said the scholar.

“Its vision,” she continued, “was based on the theorization of a transnational ‘extractive zone,’ to use Macarena Gómez-Barris’ term, managed by a form of transnational racial policing.” One of many mass organizations funded by Comintern — the (Third) Communist International (1919–1945) — it grew to 12 chapters throughout the Americas and included a broad range of social organizations, from trade unions to agrarian organizations to cultural and artistic groups.

Originally LADLA activists were focused on Latin America and the Caribbean. Soon, however, these Spanish-speaking activists attended the Congress against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism and for National Independence in 1927 in Belgium, where they interacted with leading European anti-colonial intellectuals. As result, said Mahler, they abandoned a regional Latin American ideology for a hemispheric framework that linked Black worker and minority struggles in the U.S. to Black migrant labor in the Americas.

LADLA members’ exposure to European anti-imperialist activists “would influence LADLA to theorize white supremacist and fascist ideologies as an integral part of imperialist domination,” said the Mahler. In fact, she added, “LADLA redefined its anti-imperialist program to address anti-Black discrimination and dispossession as a central part of the extractive economy, identifying Indigenous and Black communities as key to the worldwide anti-imperialist struggle.”

Mahler drew particular attention to Sandalio Junco, an Afro-Cuban LADLA member, who extended the organization's ideological framework to include racialized migrant and immigrant communities, including African Americans in the U.S., Haitian and West Indian migrant workers in Cuba and Chinese immigrants. Junco also recognized the need to address anti-Black racism among Latin American radicals and argued, said the speaker, that “anti-Black racism, like anti-Indigenous racism, were foundational elements of Latin America’s capitalist societies.”

Although Junco’s impact on LADLA discourse was marginal, he elaborated “an early intersectional, anti-racist politics, as well as a theory on a transnational form of anti-labor racial policing that impacted Black, Indigenous and immigrant communities,” observed Mahler. His ideas would become important some three decades later when, at the “Tricontinental Conference” in Havana, the Organization of Solidary with the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAL) was created in 1966.

Cuban poster featuring Che Guevara used to advertise the Tricontinental Conference in 1966. The poster was created by the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America. (<a href="">Image via Wikipedia</a>.) Public domain. Born of the Cold War, the Tricontinental movement was originally focused on Asia-African solidarity. However, an early focus on Jim Crow in the U.S. South led it toward a theoretical vision of a movement that would serve all exploited, racialized communities. “So, rather than a class-based movement… it [becomes] a movement that centers Black activism, but with the intention of opening onto a trans-racial political community,” said Mahler.

Responding to Mahler’s presentation, moderator Katsyua Hirano observed, “When we think about our current intellectual climate in public and academic discourses, it seems to me that we still see much disjunction or disconnect between race and class. In public discourse, we almost exclusively talk about race, whereas in academia, critical race studies and Marxian analysis of class don't really talk to each other.

“So I agree that that's why the concept of racial capitalism is so important for the formation of solidarity in our time,” he continued.

Asked to elucidate some of the lessons and inspirations of the two movements, Mahler stressed the ideological flexibility and sociocultural heterogeneity of LADLA and the internationalist framework of the Tricontinental movement as highly relevant to contemporary racial justice movements. In terms of lessons learned, she mentioned the need for nuanced, contextualized approaches to racialized struggles and the drawbacks of the overtly masculine paramilitary aesthetics, bordering on hero worship, found in Tricontinental poster art.

* Truman’s designation of U.S. involvement in the Korean War (1950–1953) as a “police action” enabled him to deploy troops without a declaration of war by the U.S. Congress.