Racism in the United States is worse now than it was just before the civil rights movements of the 1960s, according to noted feminist activist, scholar and philosopher Angela Davis.

“Racism has always functioned to disrupt the promise of unity,” said Davis, who is in Mumbai to deliver the Anuradha Ghandy Memorial Lecture. “Racism has not only not been addressed in the US, but in many ways is worse than it was during the period that gave rise to the civil rights movement.”

In an interview before her talk on December 16, Davis argued that racism has in fact worsened since the civil rights movement and that the only hope for movements in the era of Trump is to emphasise the Marxist ideal of organising communities for change.

Davis holds the dubious distinction of being the third woman to make it to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Most Wanted List. She came into the spotlight in 1970 when as a prison rights activist, she was charged with conspiring to murder a judge. Arrested in early 1971, Davis was acquitted after 18 months in prison. By then, she had become a household name for African-Americans across the US who had lobbied for her release.

Her rise to fame came at a particularly powerful movement in the history of civil rights for African-Americans, soon after the civil rights movement had ended with Martin Luther King Junior’s assassination in 1968, and around when the more assertive Black Power movement, which had been gaining strength in parallel, assumed centre-stage.

Davis is a professor emerita at the History of Consciousness department at the University of California Santa Cruz. For the last 30 years, she has worked not just to reform prison systems, but to abolish incarceration as a form of punishment

“I do not mean to underestimate the important struggles of people who have managed to shift certain forms of racism,” she clarified. “In many ways things are better because we don’t have the legal racisms that we had during the era that gave rise to the civil rights movement. At the same time, racism is more deeply entrenched in economic and political structures.”

Davis attributed the intensification of racism today to the rise of global capitalism, which led in turn to the deindustrialisation of the US. A part of this is manifest in increased police violence and the rise of what she calls the “prison industrial complex”, where government and business collaborate to use surveillance and imprisonment to control perceived social problems.

This combine, she said, “provides evidence of the continued operation of racism at a time when material conditions have been rendered far worse for people of colour and poor people precisely as a result of the migration of jobs to areas of the world where there are cheaper labour forces”.

Beyond single leaders

As the nature of racism has changed over the decades, Davis believes that the nature of resistance to it has also changed.

For instance, the Black Lives Matters movement, initiated by three queer black women in 2012 as a response to the shooting and trial of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida, is noted for its diffused organisation with no clear leaders, as spontaneous protests erupted around the country in the years since.

This stands in stark contrast to the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which were dominated by male figures such as Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X. More telling is that though organisations such as the Black Panther Party, associated with the Black Power movement, were dominated by male leaders, two-thirds of its members were women who organised behind the scenes.

“Black Lives Matter calls for a feminist exploration of new forms of leadership [through organisation instead of single leaders],” Davis explained. “It seems to me that we are in the process of conceptualising new ways of imagining change. [...] You cannot assume that all you need to say is dismantle capitalism and your problems will be solved.”

Despite the many shortcomings of the administration of outgoing US president Barack Obama, Davis believes that his presidency did allow a political space to be created for movements such as Occupy and Black Lives Matter to flourish. The test of these mass movements will now come in the presidency of Donald Trump, who was elected in a wave of overt racism and sexism.

Black Lives Matters, Davis said, would hold together, because it represented a long history of scholars and activists coming together to organise.

The only hope, she added, was that his presidency would help to accelerate organisation, “to bring more people into the fold, to have more demonstrations and protests and to make the country ungovernable in the ways Donald Trump hopes to govern.”

Davis said: “That is our only hope, but that is always the hope. Hope for the future always comes when masses of people organise and struggle.”

Credit: Nick Wiebe, Wikimedia Commons

Angela Davis will deliver the Anuradha Ghandy Memorial lecture titled Black Lives, Dalit Lives: Histories and Solidarities on Friday, December 16, 2016, at 5.30 pm at Kishenchand Chellaram College, Mumbai.