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The Problem is Deeper than Racism

Racism is so engrained in American life and culture that it has become in some ways hidden from sight. In a very insightful essay titled “An Unthinkable History” historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot considers the question of how an event that is outside of the realm of common consciousness can be assessed historically. In describing how the incomprehensibility of the events now encapsulated within the framework of the Haitian Revolution were inconceivable to the colonists who were its target he writes, “Indeed, the contention that enslaved Africans and their descendants could not envision freedom – let alone formulate strategies for gaining and securing such freedom – was based not so much on empirical evidence as on ontology, an implicit organization of the world and its inhabitants.”[1]

Let’s wrestle for a moment with what that last phrase. To grasp its meaning we have to consider the word implicit. What does it mean? The word brings to mind something that is implied, but not stated. It this case it is, in effect, something that is known without empirical evidence. One definition of implicit is “with no qualification or question; absolute,” as in “an implicit faith in God.” One does not need empirical evidence of God to believe in God. Though the ancillary explanations are multitude the answer to faith in God always resolves on a practical level to the circular argument “I believe because I believe.” That doesn’t make it wrong, untrue, or incorrect, but neither does it allow for rational proof.

So when Trouillot tells us that the colonists’ knowledge of slaves’ desires and capabilities was based on ontology, he is proposing a worldview shaped by a fundamental belief in the order and relationship of people based on faith rather than evidence. In other words, if you were to ask La Barre, Trouillot’s colonist, why he was confident slaves could not imagine freedom, he might reply, “Well, everybody knows that.” (In French, of course.) So really, and I know this is a little sticky, it may be possible to know something is true without knowing that you know it. It’s just there, fundamental. And, as the particular case Trouillot discusses demonstrates, we may be motivated by fundamental knowledge that is entirely untrue. Because it is so deeply engrained, we don’t question it. Until some event, like a revolution, calls it into question, and forces us to consider its validity.

I propose that our attitudes about race and racism are ontological. We proceed from assumptions we may not even know we assume. And I will further propose that the assumptions we hold are flawed. One of these is most probably that there is such a fundamental category as race. And secondly that racism has always existed, at least among white Americans. So it may be informative to consider when race actually became a distinguishing factor in American life. And interestingly, we can point to a particular event that leads to the beginning of deliberate segregation of white and black. That event is what is known in history as Bacon’s Rebellion, a class uprising that occurred in the Virginia Colony in 1676.

The rebellion was a rising of working class blacks and whites against the planter class in Colonial Virginia. It demonstrates a number of things about the first few decades of the Virginia Colony. The first is that there was no practical separation of whites and blacks other than economics. There are recorded instances of wealthy blacks owning or controlling black and white slaves and indentured servants in Colonial America. There is nothing noble about owning and controlling other human beings but it does indicate a very different perception of race.

And that was the situation in Virginia at the beginning of Bacon’s Rebellion. Nathaniel Bacon, a white man who felt alienated from the elite and professing concern about Governor Berkeley’s perceived inaction in protecting the colonists from Native Americans, led a group of approximately 1000 white and black colonists against the Berkeley administration. Bacon died of disease and the rebellion was eventually put down by loyalists and British troops, but our concern here is the consequence. In the aftermath the British colonial authorities began to pass laws that separated blacks from whites, a process which would eventually lead to the Black Codes, and ultimately Jim Crow.

It would be a mistake to propose that racism can be traced solely to this incident. In fact the causes and history of racism are quite complex. White/black racism more likely developed as a justification for European use of Africans as slaves from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Although not as rigidly defined as in British North America, privilege in all American societies came to be associated with whiteness. The more “pure” white one was, the more privilege afforded. “Pure” blacks and natives were at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, the place associate with peonage and slavery. In North America the British invented the “one drop rule,” defining as non-white anyone who had “one drop” of non-white blood. Thus, one was either white or not white, with all privilege reserved to whites.[2]

Yet it is significant that the first traceable instance of racial segregation in what was to become the United States occurred as a strategy to prevent whites and blacks from presenting a unified front against the dominant class. It is significant because that has been the practical consequence of segregation in America since. Poor whites, who are little better off or not better off than their black counterparts, can claim at least the status of not being black. It is interesting to note that in the United States, racism is rampant among lower class whites even while the ruling class is thoroughly integrated.[3]

The tragedy here consists in the fact that the false perception of privilege on the part of poor whites leads them to act in ways that are detrimental to their own interests. It convinces them to support a status quo that keeps them at the bottom: excluded from wealth and power. They trade the benefits they might receive from common cause with others in their same situation to maintain an illusion of privilege. Who benefits from this are those in the dominant class.

This isn’t exactly new. When the writers of the Constitution affirmed the will of “We the People” they meant “we the wealthy, property owning people.” Familiarity with US history will reveal that most people were excluded from the franchise either by race, gender, or property ownership until the 1820s. Even then “Universal Manhood Suffrage” indicated only white men. In the model of the Greek democracies it was thought that only those who had a material stake in the polity would act for the benefit of the polity. It was acknowledged that everyone acted in their own interests, and so it was assumed that only if one’s interests and the state’s aligned would people act in a virtuous way. Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most radical of the founders, promoted middle class property ownership as a way of expanding democracy and creating a “republic of virtue.”

The elitism of the Constitution as it was originally understood was very much in keeping with the liberalism of the day, which, if it considered popular participation in government at all, assumed that only the wealthy would be able to make good decisions about the common welfare. The founders, along with liberals in Europe and later in Latin America, had an aversion to and a fear of the masses. It goes almost without saying that the assumption that the wealthy could and would govern for the benefit of all rather than their own interests was as flawed as the also common assumption that Kings would protect the people rather than milking them. It was sometimes true, but more rarely than not.

The story we like to tell ourselves about American history is a continuous progress away from this original elitism toward more and more democracy. And it is true that as time passed more and more groups who had once been excluded: poor people, blacks and other ethnicities, and women, were enfranchised. But early on, beginning with the creation of machine politics in Jackson’s Democratic Party of the 1820s, it was known that the way to make the popular vote count was to create voting blocks. In other words, the solidarity of the masses was the only way to promote the welfare of the masses. And this was the beginning of what came to be known as “machine politics.”

Machine politics is successful in creating effective voting blocks but it tends toward corruption. Voters in the voting blocks become convinced that their welfare depends on the election and continuation in office of their preferred candidate. But history shows us that the politician rarely has the welfare of his constituents uppermost in his mind. The organization of the vote into political machines served only to create an alternative elite, who often had more in common with the original elite than with their constituency. The unity of Democrats and Republicans against Civil Service reform in the Progressive era provides a telling example.

So it remains a truism in American politics that the interests of those who rule are separated from and often at odds with the interests of the masses.

This difference, as seen going as far back as Bacon’s Rebellion, is caused by class interests. But, also demonstrated by the same event, race has been the primary instrument by which the elite maintain their hold on power. The ruling elites of Colonial Virginia deliberately used false privilege to drive a wedge between lower class blacks and whites, and were spectacularly successful. Since then racism, along with justifying a brutal system of chattel slavery, has provided different groups of the lower classes with the illusion of status. In the South, whites who should have had common cause with blacks aligned themselves with the planter elite because of a false solidarity based on whiteness. In the industrializing North and West white workers focused their discontent and fear on Hispanics, or Asians, or immigrants, when uniting with them would have favored the interests of all.

The popular narrative of American history is that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s created a profound change in race relations, opening up opportunities that didn’t exist before and moving the United States toward a race blind utopia. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did make profound changes in law. They did, eventually, make possible the once unthinkable fact of electing a black President. But the popular narrative hides that race relations got worse as a result of the changes in the law. In 1968 over 150 cities in the United States erupted into flames following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The Civil Rights Movement in some ways made things worse for blacks by creating an expectation of change that was painfully slow in coming, if it came at all.

Fueled by rage against very real injustice based on race that continued, and in many ways still continues, black people looted and left a path of destruction in their own neighborhoods. Whites were quick to shake their heads and mutter at the folly of destroying your own neighborhood in anger. But some were able to put the action in perspective. While condemning the violence of rioting Martin Luther King at the same time warned that rioting was the inevitable outcome of economic and social injustice. In a speech delivered a month before his death King decried the economic plight of black America in 1968, when unemployment was officially 8.8% (in 2015 it was 9.6%[4]), but in reality as high as 50% among young black people. He decried under-employment, large numbers of black people working full time for part time wages that kept them in a constant state of economic depression. And then he noted:

Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.[5]

Over the years I have come more and more to regard Dr. King as a prophet, both in the sense that he was able to speak the truth of God, and in the sense that he was able to clearly see the future. When he spoke here about riots, did he not correctly observe the response? “[A] riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt.”

Now, many of my friends will reject the notion that they have anything to feel guilty about. They’re not oppressing black people. They’re not practicing segregation less blatant but more insidious than Jim Crow. They cling to the illusion that the only impediment to the advancement of black ghetto dwellers is their own ignorance, lack of motivation, and laziness. Never having had to experience the anguish and despair of the black community they deny that it exists, or insist that it only exists because of indolence.

So from afar we consider the riots an aberration. Only the work of fools and thugs. We talk in the same way as Dickens’ refugee Marquis the Monseigneur in A Tale of Two Cities spoke of the French Revolution:

to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown—as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it—as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain words recorded what they saw.

And we turn our backs on Baltimore and Ferguson, somehow relieved that it wasn’t worse than it was, smug in our assurance that the riots were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown.

Nothing changes. The 1% continue to control 90% of the resources and buy the political system to maintain their oligarchy. The politicians use their power and influence to divert attention away from the grim reality. The masses remain divided. The status quo prevails.

[1] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, ©1995), 73.

[2] The Color of Money: Colonialism and the Slave Trade, (BBC, 2007).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Patrick Gillespie, “Black Unemployment Finally Falls Below 10%,” CNN Money, May 8, 2015, accessed May 9, 2015,http://money.cnn.com/2015/05/08/news/economy/black-unemployment-below-10-percent/.

[5] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Other America” (lecture, Grosse Pointe High School, Grosse Pointe, Mi., March 14, 1968).

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