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The Grand Rapids based Acton Institute, anti-Blackness and Labor Unions

August 15, 2022

For more than twenty years, I have been monitoring and writing about the far right think tank, the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. The Acton Institute, which was founded by a Catholic Priest, Rev. Robert Sirico, who is currently the priest at Sacred Heart on the westside of Grand Rapids.

The Acton Institute was founded with the belief that Capitalism and Christianity are perfect bedfellows. However, the far right think tank also embraces other harmful ideological positions that condemns gender equity, the LGBTQ community, public education and labor unions. In more recent years, the Acton Institute has also been more critical of Black-led movements, particularly the Movement for Black Lives. It would be no stretch at all to say that the Acton Institute engages in anti-Blackness, unless of course Black people embrace Capitalism as zealously as they do.

It was rather instructive to read a recent blog post on the Acton Institute’s website, a post entitled, The union movement was anti-black from the beginning. The post was written by Professor Rachel Ferguson, who teaches in the  business college at Concordia University Chicago. Ferguson has become Acton’s go to person on race relations in the US, especially after she wrote the book, Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America.

Like the Acton Institute, Professor Ferguson believes that Black people would be better off if they embraced free market Capitalism. Not surprising, this position is completely counter to the history of the Black Freedom Struggle in the US, where Black people have consistently fought against systemic racism, which also includes racial capitalism. 

Upon reading Ferguson’s blog post about labor unions and anti-Blackness, I was struck by how selective she was with her sources. First, it is important to acknowledge that many of the early labor unions did exclude Blacks from being members, but Professor Ferguson ignores the inclusive practices of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW),   the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (in Detroit), plus all of the unions that have significant numbers of African Americans in their ranks, like AFSCME, the UAW, the UFCW and the national and state teacher’s unions. Ferguson’s complete failure to acknowledge the history of these unions was probably intentional, but it also could because she is ideologically blind to this history. 

Second, there are the sources that she uses, which are rather instructive. Ferguson cites a professor who teaches at Hillsdale College, which is a haven for far right ideology. Ferguson also cites the book Illiberal Reformers, written by a professor at Princeton University. In both of these book, the Acton writer wants to present labor unions as the primary reason why Black people could not obtain economic freedom. Ferguson then shifts the conversation, by blaming the welfare state as the cause of poverty, since it made Black people dependent on the state. Here, Ferguson cites two books, Out of Work, which blames the federal government for unemployment, plus Black Boom, which makes the claim that corporations relocated overseas because of union, thus harming vulnerable populations like African Americans. This is such an absurd claims, since it fails to even discuss the real motivation of corporations going overseas – using cheap labor. 

Third, the Acton writer then engages in out of context sleight of hand, when she cites the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the great Black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois. Both Douglass and DuBois railed against systemic racism, which is inherently tied to the practice of Capitalism, plus Ferguson goes on to say that DuBois “flirted with Communism.” This completely ignores the fact that DuBois joined the Socialist Party in 1911, because he was disgusted with the influence that White philanthropists had over the NAACP. DuBois visited the USSR and China in his later years, and in 1961 he wrote a letter to the Communist Party Chairman in the USA, which included the following observations:

Today I have reached a firm conclusion: Capitalism cannot reform itself; it is doomed to self-destruction. No universal selfishness can bring social good to all. Communism—the effort to give all men what they need and to ask of each the best they can contribute—this is the only way of human life. It is a difficult and hard end to reach—it has and will make mistakes, but today it marches triumphantly on in education and science, in home and food, with increased freedom of thought and deliverance from dogma. In the end, Communism will triumph. I want to help bring that day.

Ultimately, the Acton writer demonstrates that she is ideologically limited in her understanding of history and labor unions. Equally important is the fact that since she is writing for an organization that celebrates free market capitalism, she has to always find ways to demonize anyone or any group that challenges the hegemony of the economic system of Capitalism. 

Lastly, the most offensive and ridiculous argument the professor makes is that labor unions are anti-Black. I agree that for many unions, especially business unions, they have an awful history of exclusion in regards to Black people. However, the more egregious treatment of Black people during the history of the US has come from Capitalists, from southern plantation owners (DuBois referred to Black liberation from slavery as a General Strike) to current corporations that exploit Black labor and fight to undermine Black organizers attempting to form unions, as we have seen with Amazon workers in recent years. Thus, the Acton writer, while attempting to blame unions for their anti-Blackness, ultimately reveals that the anti-Blackness resides with Professor Ferguson and the Acton Institute. 

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