Tag Archives: slavery

Race v. Class

6 Nov

One of the perennial debates among liberals is the one over which is the more powerful organizer of social and economic inequity – race or class. To those who believe that class is fundamental, racism may be important as a moral issue, but is only strategically significant because it gets in the way of working class unity across race.

Those folks, well-intentioned though they may be, are wrong. They’re wrong because they’ve bought into an interpretation of history that overlooks the structural dimensions of racism, and the roots of American capitalism in slavery and native genocide. Here’s what I mean.

The first Europeans to colonize what would become the U.S. didn’t leave Europe simply to escape religious persecution. They left in order to escape wage labor. And while not all of the early Europeans were landowners, the slave trade provided the necessary capital, and the uncompensated labor of slaves provided the profit margin, to buoy the colonial economy, putting white wage earners in North America among the highest paid wage earners in the world by the beginning of the 18th century.

With these wages, whites bought land and became their own bosses. This was the lure of America to early European immigrants.  Here, whiteness was a golden ticket to independence. Only after the end of the Civil War did a white working class start to emerge in the U.S. And while those white workers were often terribly exploited, most enjoyed a white wage that was higher than the wages of free Blacks and Asian coolies and subsequent generations of low wage workers of color.

American corporations have always relied upon highly exploited non-white labor, either here in the U.S. or abroad. One only need consider what happened to apple growers when immigration crack downs drove Latino migrant workers out of the orchards. What should have been a boom year ended up a bust, with fruit rotting on the trees and no amount of recruitment producing lines of white workers to take the place of Latino immigrants even in the midst of an economic crisis.

The great American middle class was built upon the exploitation of people of color. While many harken back to the immediate post-WWII years as a time of economic growth and prosperity, people of color were almost entirely excluded from the opportunities afforded to white Americans during those years. Much of the prosperity of post-war America was financed through the super-exploitation of workers of color whose low wages depressed the costs of basic goods and services.

In order to address oppression by class, we have no choice but to deal with how we are classed by race.

But the success with which politicians and business leaders are able to exploit white nostalgia for those “good old days”when racist codes protected white privilege, even among whites who abhor racism, speaks to just how deeply engrained racism is in our culture. Everything from the dream of American social mobility to the American obsession with home ownership, our suspicion of “big” government, and our endless fight with ourselves over who is deserving and not deserving of social safety net programs is rooted in racism. In order to make change, you have to change the way we are organized socially, and you need to change culture. In the U.S., our culture and our social relations are color coded.

That’s why for me, the argument is a no-brainer. Race informs my understanding of class, and not the other way around.

The Durability of Race

5 Oct

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the death of racism. Many believe that as the global demographics change and Generation Y rises, racism will fade in significance. Some even suggest that what we are witnessing in the Obama backlash is just death throes.

That argument ignores history.

Here’s what I mean.

Neither the Emancipation Proclamation nor the abolitionist movement were enough to end slavery. Slavery was defeated in a Civil War that was fought not over race equality nor just for the cuase of freeing slaves, but over federal authority. The cynicism at the root of the “war against slavery” is revealed by the fact that when legal race slavery was finally defeated in 1865, the culture of  white supremacy survived, both in the North and the South.

Southern state governments, determined to maintain white supremacy, pivoted after the war and took advantage of an exception in the 13th Amendment that allowed for the indentured servitude of criminals. They created a set of legal codes that criminalized Black people. Crimes included changing employers without permission,vagrancy, and selling cotton after sunset.

Once imprisoned, African Americans were subjected to neo-slavery in the form of labor camps and chain gangs. But the impact of neo-slavery was not just on those enslaved. The system terrorized Blacks throughout the South keeping them subjugated to white employers who in many cases were their former masters.

The federal government’s unwritten policy through this period was to turn a blind eye, allowing the system to continue unacknowledged for more than 70 years. While many attempted to fight neo-slavery, what finally ended it was World War II. Just days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Francis Biddle, Attorney General under FDR, issued Circular N0. 3591 acknowledging the federal government’s unwritten policy of overlooking complaints of peonage and slavery and directing federal law enforcement officials to enforce the 13th Amendment.

The move was driven by fears that the Japanese and German propaganda machines would use the federal government’s tolerance of neo-slavery to undercut support for the war effort among African Americans. The circular was issued, but it wasn’t until 1948 that federal criminal code was rewritten to explicitly outlaw slavery.

Of course, while neo-slavery was finally abolished, other aspects of Jim Crow survived, as did the culture of white supremacy. Through Jim Crow, white supremacy was exercised by means of legal apartheid, a system that not only held Black people separate and unequal under the law, but that accommodated white terrorism and vigilante violence to suppress resistance.

When Jim Crow fell, it wasn’t just the result of the courageous efforts of civil rights activists. The death of Jim Crow was also brought about by the Cold War, a conflict in which racism in the U.S. could be weaponized by the Soviet propaganda machine.

But even as Jim Crow fell, the culture of white supremacy survived. The federal government, under Richard Nixon, pivoted to maintain white dominance by targeting the War on Drugs at Black communities. Like the Black Codes before it, the War on Drugs and a broader War on Crime would attempt to criminalize Black people, popularizing the idea that the rising crime rates of the 1970s was the result of the alienation of a permanent Black underclass and not, as sociologists suggest, the result of the baby boom.

Whites and Blacks use illegal drugs at approximately the same rate. The sheer numbers of white people puts them in the drivers seat of the illegal drug market. Yet law enforcement efforts target Black and Latino communities with the result that over two-thirds of people in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

Just as neo-slavery affected far more than those who were imprisoned and enslaved, the War on Drugs is having a broad and devastating impact on communities of color. Prisons take wage earners out of families and parents away from children only to return them years later to suffer collateral consequences such as the loss of voting rights, bans against certain types of employment, and banishment from public housing and “drug-free zones” that may follow them for the rest of their lives. And, for some, just for carrying marijuana in their pockets.

That so small an offense could cost one so much also contributes to a climate of fear and a culture of fatalism. A Black woman married to a man in prison on a drug offense once asked me to imagine what it is like to be a parent of a child in a militarized zone. She said, “every day I tell my kids, ‘if you are stopped by the police be still, be polite, and keep your hands out of your pockets.'”

White supremacy is also adapting to a changing world. Today, the criminalization of race affects more than African Americans. Latino immigrants are reduced to a criminal act when we refer to them as “illegals.” We exploit racism to criminalize Muslims to justify a grab for geopolitical control of a resource rich region of the world. And if you doubt that the growing fear and hatred of Muslims is rooted in racism, imagine for a moment the face of the Muslim threat that lives in the mind of Michelle Bachman. I assure you, it doesn’t have white skin and blue eyes.

We can’t just wait for the culture of white supremacy to be swept away by demographic and generational change. History show us that the durability of race will require much more of us than patience.

Why Don’t We Racially Profile Whites?

10 Aug

A while back I wrote a post called White Identity Politics. In it, I wrote:

Whiteness has a political meaning as much as does Black or Asian or any other racial category. In order to define non-whites as inferior and deviant, whites needed to be defined as superior and normal. By claiming the category “normal,” whites imagined themselves outside the racial paradigm they had created. But, in fact, they were and are at the center of it.

I was trying to make the point that while whites seem to think of themselves as raceless, they in fact are the inventors of the whole system of race. They have a racial identity, and their historic (and contemporary) role in creating and perpetrating racism is as integral to that identity as surviving slavery and facing it’s continuing legacy of injustice is to the identities of African Americans.

In the name of white racial identity, whites have engaged in genocidal warfare against Native Americans. As the victor in this war, whites took land and natural resources not rightfully their own and corralled the surviving Native Nations onto reservations and forced them into inequitable treaty agreements, before attempting to make them disappear entirely through programs of forced assimilation. And ever since, it’s been part of white identity to celebrate white settler history and tout U.S. exceptionalism in spite of the fact that this nation is founded upon genocide.

Whites enslaved Africans – they invented race as we know it for this purpose. Even after a war was waged to end slavery, whites invented convicted leasing. Through this system, they unjustly imprisoned Blacks for the purpose of re-enslaving them. By doing so they not only created a pool of free labor, they terrorized the mass of the Black community of the South into remaining in poor jobs, often for their former masters and their descendents, for fear that they would be imprisoned since unemployment was a crime for Blacks in some jurisdictions. And where Blacks are concerned, much more followed, including Jim Crow and our current war on drugs (notice how I bring that up constantly? I think you should, too).

Whites vilified, persecuted, and alternately exploited and then excluded Asians and waged a war against Mexico and forced them into an inequitable sale of territory that includes all or part of seven U.S. states. And there was Jim Crow, lynchings, mass race riots targeting Black and Asian laborers, and more, and largely with impunity. I would go on, but I think you get the point.

The whole of the U.S. experiment in democracy is marred by incidents of racist brutality, violence, and warfare, and the legal diminution, dehumanization, and exclusion of people of color.  In fact, it is what most characterizes race relations in America.

If an attempt were made to racially profile whites, the picture we would come away with would be anything but pretty. So I’ve been wondering lately, why is it that in spite of the fact that very nearly every modern mass shooting is committed by white males there is still no white racial profile of the mass shooter. One would think that a population, defined by race by their own choosing, that has for so long condoned mass murder, especially in the name of their race, would be, therefore, suspect every time an act of terrorism and mass murder took place in America. But they aren’t.

There is also no federally commissioned Report on White Families that parallels the Moynihan Report. When we think of welfare, we don’t see white people even when welfare was created for white people. When we think of drug crimes, we see Black people in spite of the fact that whites drive the illegal drug trade in the U.S. And we don’t just see them, we arrest them, prosecute them, and imprison them en masse.

A Race Files reader sent me an article by Tim Wise about the 2001 Santee, CA mass school shooting resulting in injury to 13 white children and the deaths of two, asking the same question. In it, he says:

…once again, we hear the FBI insist there is no “profile” of a school shooter. Come again? White boy after white boy after white boy, with very few exceptions to that rule…, decides to use their classmates for target practice, and yet there is no profile? Imagine if all these killers had been black: would we still hesitate to put a racial face on the perpetrators? Doubtful.

In the wake of last Sunday’s mass shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin (by no less than a self-professed white supremacist) I think the question needs to be asked again. Why is there no white profile? I’m not saying it’s just, nor that racial profiling is the solution, but as long as law enforcement is going to continue to racially profile people of color, I think we need to create an echo chamber around this issue and say it again and again, white is a race, it has a history and tradition, and mass murder is by no means outside of it, so why aren’t we talking about this?

Adidas Shackle Shoes

17 Jun

Click the image to open in full size.

Just in time for Juneteenth, Adidas announces a new shoe design scheduled to hit stores this August.  It’s a shoe with a shackle, so you too can experience a bit of the fun of serving on a chain gang.

The caption beneath the image of the shoe reads: “Tighten up your style with JS Roundhouse Mids, dropping in August. Got a sneaker game so hot you lock your kicks to your ankles.” An article on Indiewire.com suggests that the whole shackle and chain thing is potentially racist. I’ll take it one step further and say that the shoe with the prison-orange shackle is absolutely racist. Whether the use of the shackle is due to insensitivity or something more sinister, it’s ignorant and offensive.

The shoe is obviously being marketed to communities of color. And the irony of the timing of the advance marketing could not be more stark.

Juneteenth (June 19th) is, after all, Emancipation Day, a holiday celebrating the abolition of slavery. But the end of slavery opened a new era of neo-Slavery.

Soon after the end of the war, vagrancy laws were enacted throughout the South that targeted African Americans, especially men, criminalizing minor law violations, including simply being “idle,” as in, not in the employ of a white man. Thousands throughout the South were imprisoned under these laws and consigned to labor camps. Yup, the chain gang is a black thing, as in, a form of forced labor specifically targeting Black people. You can read more about it here.

Prisoners in shackles built much of the public infrastructure necessary to industrialize the South. Prisoners were also leased to corporations, including Northern businesses like U.S. Steel for whom they labored without consideration of their health and safety. The conditions were, in many ways, worse than they had been under slavery because there was little incentive to keep prisoners alive.

And because of fear of the chain gang, the Black population of the South was terrorized into staying under the control of exploitative employers. For every person enslaved as a convict, thousands more were scared away from changing jobs for fear of going unemployed and being accused of vagrancy.

This is the historical context for the new Adidas shoe. It may be unintentional, but it is nonetheless offensive. Until they take this shoe off the market, none of us should shop with them.

Job Creators or Profit Makers?

13 Jun

Lately a debate about corporations as “job creators” (usually in contrast to government regulation as a “job killer”) has been waging in the media. I’m guessing that most of you can see through the hype to the real issues at stake. But, just in case, here’s my take:

Businesses are job creators, but only in the sense that they hire workers to facilitate making stuff or delivering services that make them money. They don’t create jobs for the sake of providing employment. Creating jobs is just a means to an end, and the end in question is profit.

Profits are produced when goods and services are sold for prices greater than the cost of production. For this reason, profit, at least short-term profit, is maximized by keeping the costs of production as low as possible, including the cost of labor.

And what are those labor costs? Lots of stuff, including wages, insurance, and measures to insure worker health and safety. It’s stuff like protecting workers from toxic chemicals, moderating the pace of assembly lines, and providing proper lighting, protective gloves and glasses, breaks, days off and overtime pay, all of which adds to production costs and much of which is imposed on companies by government.

That’s why the business sector doesn’t like regulations that get between them and their employees. They like determining wages and benefits, and establishing working conditions by private decision in order to serve their private interests. Government regulations force public accountability in the public interest and that adds cost and reduces short-term profit.

That, from my point of view, is what the fuss is all about. Businesses want to operate in private, without the intervention of government ‘cuz government represents the public, and that public is, inconveniently, made up mainly of people who work and see it as in their interests to demand liveable wages and safe working conditions.

So why is all of this basic stuff about jobs and business being written about in a blog about racism?

Because the poorest workers are the most in need of government protection, and the most vulnerable of poor workers include workers of color. That’s been true since the days of slavery. Remember, government, not business, ended slavery.

Back when the government only served white male property owners, our laws protected slaveholders and allowed men to engage in super-exploitation of women whose often uncompensated labor is a huge and largely unexplored contribution to the creation of wealth in America. But the government giveth, and the government taketh away. By abolishing slavery and later neo-Slavery via convict leasing, government, as an instrument of the public interest, forced serious changes that transformed our country.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that you will agree that this transformation was for the good.

Bob Wing points out in Race and Nationality: The Racial Formation of Asian Americans, 1852–1965 that,

Until the 1840s or so, European immigrants to the United States or what became the United States had an inviting situation…The Irish and other European immigrants became white the day they landed on these shores…The often neglected dialectical opposite of Black oppression is white supremacy and white privilege: the obverse of the enslavement of Blacks was the monopolization of political power, land, skilled trades, and all other forms of rights, property, and privilege by whites, including immigrants. Combined with the ready availability of land opened up by the devastating Indian wars, until the end of the nineteenth century, the majority of whites…became bourgeois or petit bourgeois property holders of one kind or another.

This system is the historical foundation of structural racial inequality in the U.S. What brought it to an end was government intervention and regulation.

Of course, slavery is only the most heinous example of profit-making gone wild. Since slavery and neo-slavery were abolished, workers, especially workers of color, have continued to be exploited and mistreated. Their best hope? Get organized, join a union, and, if all else fails, get the government involved.

This is why we should all be very concerned about casting business as the job creating heroes on white horses who will save us from our economic woes if only we can get government out of the way. History teaches us that, left to their own devices, business will put profit before people, even if it means treating some people as nothing more than property.

Race Basics

25 Apr

A  friend of mine sent me an email with a link to an article entitled, The History of Race… And Why It Matters.  The article tells the story about how race was invented out of whole cloth, at a time when African and European immigrants lived in relative harmony in North America, purely for the political purpose of justifying race slavery in the colonies.

This was news to her. She had no idea that long before the Civil Rights Movement, there was a time when Black and white people in North America lived together in integrated communities. They married and created families across race. Africans were considered more capable and knowledgeable than most Europeans in the colonies. In fact, without Africans, the colonies probably would have failed.

The exchange caused me to wonder. In these confusing, supposedly post-racial times, are racial justice advocates mixed-up about race?

You know that expression, “preaching to the choir”? By talking about the basics of race, I might be committing that sin. But suppose the choir is so out of sync that we’re in no shape to be singing in public?

With that in mind, here are some race basics for the choir:

  • Race is not based originally in science; racist science came later
  • Race is not natural, as in, it is in human nature to see people as races
  • Nor is race the same as culture or ethnicity

Race, as we know it in the U.S., is a political system invented to justify race slavery.

From these beginnings, 350 or so years of assorted racist b.s. followed, including apartheid in South Africa (based in large part on “our” system), tribal terminations, Jim Crow, Chinese Exclusion, Japanese American internment, the illegal occupation of Hawaii and Puerto Rico, and the continued impoverishment of Black, Native American, Latino, and certain Asian and Pacific Island ethnic groups in the U.S., among other atrocities too numerous to mention (though I invite you to add your story to the comments section).

And this legacy continues. It shapes our culture, our politics, and our economy, and, just as in the days of slavery, it continues to cause white folks, and some of the rest of us along with them, to act against our own best interests.

Don’t believe me?

White racist ideas about Black people are hundreds of years old, but old as they are, the world lost Trayvon Martin to those ideas in 2012. And you think George Zimmerman acted rationally? He may not be dead but all I can say is, sucks to be him.

And if that’s not enough, consider this:

Racism just might also explain why the welfare rollback picked up serious steam when a lie was told to the public in 1976 about the Chicago Welfare Queen, a Black welfare recipient who supposedly had 80 names and 30 addresses, and four fake dead husbands on whose fictional backs she was collecting veterans benefits. Between that income, food stamps, Medicare, and 12 sources of social security income, she was supposed to have been making over $150,000 a year tax free.  She didn’t exist. President Reagan made her up to win white votes.

By ginning up racism, Reagan powered-up a welfare reform revolution popular among poor white people. That movement eventually messed up Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a benefit program that mainly helped poor white people.

White racism might explain why the U.S. is waging a War on Drugs that is crushing state budgets. It’s not working to stop illegal drugs, but it did lead to a prison building boom to lock up Black folks for selling drugs to protect “our” kids at the cost of letting our kids’ schools go bust. Meanwhile, we’re not doing much to lock up the white people who use drugs at the same rate as Black people (but are a larger part of the population, meaning they drive the U.S. illegal drug market).

And white racism might also explain why we’re fighting a war against Mexican immigrants. Mexico is the third largest trading partner of the U.S. after Canada and China. Money sent home by Mexican immigrants is Mexico’s number 2 source of foreign income after oil exports. The population of Mexico is just over 100 million. About 6 million undocumented Mexican immigrants are in the U.S.

What would happen to the U.S. economy if our 3rd largest trade partner lost its 2nd largest source of income and added maybe as much as 6% to their already high unemployment rate? Undocumented Mexican immigrants, both as workers in the U.S. and as a source of revenue to a major U.S. trade partner, are integral to our economy. Anti-immigrant politicians are just playing us to get votes.

Racism is a political system. And as a political system, it endures to this day. In fact, it is part and parcel of the American way of life.

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