Tag Archives: structural racism

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.

Why “Racist” Is Such a Powerful Word

18 Oct

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the term “racist.” Cognitive psychologists, political pollsters, and communications consultants have weighed in about how to talk about racism and advance an equity agenda while not alienating white people by labeling them racists.  Many advise never using the term to describe people, instead suggesting we only criticize actions. Some have gone so far as to argue against using terms like racism and racist at all, calling it a losing strategy and directing us to focus on actions and outcomes that result in unintentional inequities instead.

All of that is fine to a point. I tend to think it’s a good idea to focus on actions and assume the best of people. It’s the right thing to do if for no other reason than that it exercises and strengthens our generosity. Without generosity, coalitions and alliances don’t work, and authentic solidarity across racial differences is impossible.

But even as we try to embrace the best in each of us, we ought not forget that racist actions are attached to racist attitudes. Those attitudes may be so integrated into the common sense of our society that those who harbor them aren’t doing so consciously, but that doesn’t mean those attitudes don’t exist, nor that they aren’t damaging. We need to call those attitudes out and make what’s common exotic. Unless we do, the logic of racism will continue to dictate the pace of progress toward justice, and that disparages the rights and humanity of those who are racism’s victims. It’s an approach that allows whites sensitivity to being labeled racists to dictate that racism with continue to reign.

Whites are about 78% of the American public. According to Gallup, about 19% of whites were opposed to interracial marriage in 2007. That’s a pretty small minority of whites, but in total number, that’s something like 49 million people. There are only 69 million or so non-white people living in the U.S. That means that the number of whites who oppose interracial marriage is greater than all of any one U.S. racial minority group. Why are they so afraid?

I believe what whites have to fear is white people.

When white supremacy was challenged by the racial justice movements of the 1950s and ’60s, white elites pivoted from overt racism and co-opted the language and symbols, but not the substance, of  racial justice. By doing so, they were able to position themselves as champions of a new colorblind code of civility that reduces structural racial injustice to an attitudinal problem. This enabled them to block attempts to reorganize unjust power relations while deflecting responsibility for continuing injustice on overt racists who were cast as ignorant, immoral, and backward.

This move caused whiteness to fracture. The dominant faction of elites adopted a strategy of coded messaging and avoidance of obvious racial conflict, while using overt racists as a foil against which to position themselves as racial egalitarians. When whites are exposed as racists, their anger is in part a reaction to the fear that they will be cast out of the dominant faction of whites and marginalized along with old fashioned racists like the KKK.

If you buy that, what we are up against, at least in part, is a factional fight among whites over how best to maintain supremacy. And for people of color to concede to that by avoiding direct attacks on racism is like cutting off our noses to spite our faces.

Why Affirmative Action Pisses Them Off

11 Oct

The Fisher v. University of Texas-Austin case against affirmative action in college admissions is a subject I’ve been turning over in my mind for a while. Folks who are arguing against affirmative action for people of color are attacking it as if it’s a program meant to address the impact of discrimination on people as individuals, and not as members of aggrieved communities. According to that logic, affirmative action, at least on a case by case basis, puts one form of discrimination over another, as if some people matter more.

Proponents argue that affirmative action exists to address barriers to access resulting from systemic discrimination experienced both by individuals as members of whole structurally disadvantaged communities. This reasoning says affirmative action exists to deal with the harm that occurs when discrimination is not just arbitrary and individualized but instead concentrated upon groups over time.

That pro-affirmative action argument is one I pretty much agree with. But while it seems to be good for the choir, it’s not sitting well in the pews. So, I take a slightly different approach when folks ask me about race-based affirmative action.

I say, before you can understand why we need race-based affirmative action, you gotta understand racism. Racism isn’t just about individual discrimination. And then I ask, do know what a house and racial inequality have in common?

A house is based on a blueprint, much as racial inequality is originally based on a set of racial codes. That blueprint describes a set of aspirations and a lifestyle. It reflects the hopes and dreams, and, yes, limitations and financial considerations, of the builders and those for whom the house is being created. Upon that blueprint, a real bricks and mortar structure is created. And in that structure, just as in a society based on racist codes, how we think, what we are able to imagine, and how we relate to one another are deeply affected by the original design.

Our blueprint for governance is the Constitution. And that document was meant to perpetuate a set of ideas created by people whose definitions of freedom, rights, liberty, and even happiness was shaped by racism. In order to be among the architects, you had to white, male, and wealthy. And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the land upon which their wealth was founded was stolen, and Black people were among the property the vast majority of those architects owned.

Based on that blueprint, a system of governance and real political, social, and economic structures were created that, among other things, defined by race those who would benefit from these structures and who would be left outside. That the land and labor of people of color would be used to build these exclusive structures only reinforced, rather than weakened, whites’ sense of exclusive entitlement.

The legacy of these first decisions is perhaps no where better demonstrated than in the racial wealth gap.

In 2009, median white household wealth was 20 times that of African Americans. In specific terms, white median household wealth was $113,149. Black median household wealth was $5,677. It’s not much better for Latinos. And though I couldn’t find statistics, I think we can agree that where wealth is concerned, there could be no more dispossessed a people than Native Americans, no matter what their median household wealth.

For African Americans, U.S. history is riddled with stories of discriminatory laws and customs that prevented them from creating wealth. Discrimination in insurance and mortgage lending as well as racially exclusionary neighborhood covenants prevented African Americans from buying property in neighborhoods considered desirable from an investment standpoint.

Even some of the benefits of the GI Bill that are so often credited with having helped to build the American middle class were denied to African American veterans in some Southern states. Throughout the period so many harken back to as the good old days, when the American middle class was being built, racism ensured that African Americans would be left out of that middle class. Following the logic of slavery, Blacks were excluded so as to avoid interfering with their availability as cheap labor.

So to return to the analogy of the house for a minute. If you think of society as a house, racism in the original blueprint created a structure in which the rooms are too few, even as all of us contribute to it’s maintenance. Far too many of us sleep outside.

As long as we refuse to start over, to create a structure capable of accommodating everyone, and fairly, our only other resort is to remodel. That means taking down walls, making some rooms smaller and generally changing a structure the most advantaged among us have become all too comfortable with. From the perspective of those on the inside, the walls are not barriers, they’re protection. That’s why even those in the poorest rooms are complaining.

And, that’s what all the fuss is about regarding affirmative action. It’s one of those remodeling jobs that’s cutting into structures that whites have come to rely upon to safeguard their privileges. Our only options are to challenge those privileges, or to propose a new plan that can accommodate everyone.

%d bloggers like this: