Racism’s Surface and Deeper Levels
The United States, where median Black household wealth is less than 7 cents on the white household dollar and where the mild slogan “Black lives matter” is considered controversial, is still very much a racist nation. Grasping the nature of this national racism in 21stcentury means looking at the different levels on which race operates here. One level is at the nation’s discursive and symbolic surface. It is about language, imagery, signs, the color of elite personnel, representation, and, well, symbols.
A different and deeper level is institutional and structural. It’s about how labor markets, the financial sector, the real estate industry, the educational system, the criminal justice complex, the military state, the corporate system, the dominant media, and capitalism more broadly all work to deepen, maintain, and/or reduce racial oppression and inequality.
At the surface and symbolic level, racism has experienced significant defeats in the United States since the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the middle and late 1950s. Open public bigotry has been largely defeated in the nation’s corporate-crafted public culture. Prejudiced whites face public humiliation when they voice openly racist sentiments in a nation that took “Whites Only” signs down half a century ago. Favorably presented Black faces are visible in high and highly public places across the national media and political landscape. The United States, the land of slavery, put a Black family in the White House in November of 2008.
Even in the South, a racially mixed Black couple now does not generally have to fear white violence and insults as they walk down a city street. The formerly all-white University of Kentucky basketball team now routinely competes for the NCAA championship with nearly all-Black teams before tens of thousands of screaming white fans and white cheerleaders. Black players dominate on the perennial college football champion in the heart of Dixie – the Alabama Crimson Tide. Nightly television news teams are racially mixed across metropolitan America. Images of smart and handsome Black people are standard in commercial advertising, public relations, and human resources programs.
At the deeper institutional and societal level, however, racism is alive and well beneath the public and representational surface. It persists in the more impersonal and the more invisible operation of social and institutional forces and processes in ways that “just happen” to reproduce Black disadvantage. This deeper racism is so ingrained in the social, political, and institutional sinews of capitalist America that it is taken for granted – barely noticed by the mainstream media and other social commentators. It includes widely documented racial bias in real estate sales and rental and home lending; the funding of schools largely on the basis of local property wealth; the excessive use of high-stakes standardized test-based neo-Dickensian “drill” and grill curriculum and related zero-tolerance disciplinary practices in predominantly black public schools; the concentration of black children into over-crowded and hyper-segregated, pre-incarceratory ghetto schools where a highly disproportionate share of the kids are deeply poor; rampant and widely documented racial discrimination in hiring and promotion; the racist “War on Drugs” and the related campaign of racially hyper-disparate mass black arrest, incarceration and criminal marking. The technically color-blind stigma of a prison history and felony record is “the New N word” for millions of Black Americans subject to numerous “new Jim Crow” barriers to employment, housing, educational and other opportunities.
Place and Race
Persistent de facto residential and educational race apartheid/segregation is a very underestimated underpinning of the institutional racism that lives on beneath the “color-blind” mythology supported by the rise of highly successful and publicly visible Black Americans like Oprah Winfrey and the Obamas. This is because place of dwelling is strongly connected to economic status and opportunity. As sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton noted in their important 1998 book American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass “housing markets…distribute much more than a place to live; they also distribute any good or resource that is correlated with where one lives.” The relevant goods and resources include jobs, education, safety, access to green spaces, civic community, healthy food, public and social services, and wealth in the form of home equity.
By concentrating poor and working class Black people in a restricted number of geographical places, including “downstate” (in Illinois) and “upstate” (in New York and Michigan) prisons, U.S. de facto race apartheid reinforces Blacks’ persistently disproportionate presence in the lowest socioeconomic places. It also renders Black experience largely invisible to most whites. This makes many Caucasian Americans susceptible to fantastically exaggerated and socially decontextualized media-generated notions of Black success and power (LeBron James, Oprah Winfrey, and Barack Obama) and – on the evening news, often delivered by “good Black” newscasters – to equally inflated images of “bad Black” criminality and “thuggery.”
Another critical and underestimated part of the societal racism that lives on beneath the representational and symbolic surface is the steadfast refusal of the white majority nation to acknowledge that the long (multi-century) history of Black chattel slavery – the vicious torture system of mass racist labor exploitation (itself the key to the early rise of American industrial capitalism, as the historian Edward Baptist has shown) that the Confederacy arose to sustain in 1861 and which prevailed across the U.S. South until the Civil War – and its Jim Crow aftermath are intimately related to the nation’s stark racial disparities today. There is something significantly racist about the widespread white assumption that the white majority United States owes Black America nothing really in the way of special, ongoing reparation for the steep and singular Black disadvantages that have resulted from centuries of overt, explicitly racist, and brutal oppression and exploitation. As anyone who studies capitalism in a smart and honest way knows, what economic actors get from the present and future so-called “free market” is very much about what and how much they bring to that market from the past. And what whites and blacks bring from the living past to the supposedly “color-blind” and “equal opportunity” market of the post-Civil Rights present (wherein the dominant neoliberal authorities and ideology purport to have gone beyond “considerations of race”) is still significantly shaped by not-so “ancient” decades and centuries of explicit racial oppression. Given what is well known about the relationship between historically accumulated resources and current and future success, the very distinction between past and present racism ought to be considered part of the ideological superstructure of contemporary white supremacy.
Even if U.S. capitalism was being conducted without racial discrimination – and vast volumes and data demonstrate that it is not (see my own discussion here) there would still be the question of all the poker chips that white America – super-rich white capitalist America in particular – has stacked up on its side of the table over centuries of brutal theft from Black America. Those surplus chips are not quaintly irrelevant hangovers from “days gone by.” They are living, accumulated weapons of racial inequality in the present and future. (For a more detailed discussion of this question, please see my recent Truthdig essay, “A Lesson on Slavery for White America.”)
Not Glass Half-Full
It is tempting, perhaps, to see America’s split race decision – anti-racist victory on the surface and doggedly persistent racial disparity and oppression underneath – as a case of glass half-empty versus glass half-full. It’s more dark and complicated than that. For, perversely enough, the deeper level of racism may be deepened by surface-level Civil Rights victories insofar as those victories and achievements have served to encourage the great toxic illusion that, as Derrick Bell once put it, “the indolence of blacks rather than the injustice of whites explains the socioeconomic gaps separating the races.”
It’s hard to blame millions of white people for believing that racism is dead in America when U.S. public life is filled with repeated affirmations of the integration and equality ideals and paeans to the nation’s purported remarkable progress towards achieving it and when we regularly celebrate great American victories over surface-level racism (particularly over the open racial segregation and terror of the South). As the Black law professor Sheryl Cashin noted in 2004, five years before the existence of a first black U.S. president, there are [now] enough examples of successful middle- and upper-class class African-Americans “to make many whites believe that blacks have reached parity…The fact that some blacks now lead powerful mainstream institutions offers evidence to whites that racial barriers have been eliminated; [that] the issue now is individual effort . . . The odd black family on the block or the Oprah effect — examples of stratospheric black success,” Cashin wrote, “feed these misperceptions, even as relatively few whites live among and interact daily with blacks of their own standing.”
One of the many ways in which Barack Obama’s presidency was problematic for the cause of racial justice is the way it proved to be something of a last nail in the coffin for many white Americans’ already weak willingness to acknowledge that racism is still a major problem for Black Americans. This is something that Martin Luther King, Jr. anticipated to some degree. “Many whites hasten to congratulate themselves,” King noted in 1967, “on what little progress [black Americans] have made. I’m sure,” King opined, “that most whites felt that with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Most white people are so removed from the life of the average Negro,” King added, “there has been little to challenge that assumption.” (emphasis added)
Note the importance of segregated experience in King’s reflection half a century ago. The media image of black triumph and equality trumps the reality of persistent racial inequality in white minds so easily thanks in part to the simple fact that whites have little regular contact with actual, ordinary black Americans and little understanding of the very different separate and unequal ways in which most Blacks’ experience life in the United States. This is one of many ways in spatial and residential and school segregation – all still quite pronounced in the U.S. – matters a great deal.
More than just feeding illusions that racism has been overcome, the victories over surface-level racism and the related celebration of Black success in the reigning media-politics culture have helped feed the illusory belief that Blacks are getting more money and power than whites – that Black Americans are unfairly “getting over” on whites thanks to the nefarious actions of “liberal and left elites.” Poor, working-class, and middle-class whites who are struggling to keep their heads above water and not become “surplus Americans” (Charles Derber) in neoliberal New Gilded Age America (where half the population is poor or near-poor and the top tenth of the upper 1 Percent owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent while white working class expectancy has gone into a chilling decline thanks to rampant alcoholism, opiate addiction, and related gun suicide) have shockingly little real-life contact with the nation’s disproportionately poor and struggling Black population. They do, however, regularly view images of wealthy Black celebrities and watch news broadcast by racially mixed and affluent talking heads. To many whites, these surface-level Black victories are no small status insult added to class-based economic injury. As the great Black American Marxist W.E.B. DuBois once noted, racism has long granted the white working-class a false but potent compensatory “psychological wage” of whiteness: the belief that while one may occupy a relatively low and insecure position in capitalist America one was at least more elevated and honored than “them”: that is, than Blacks.
To Defend “the Largest and Most Powerful System of Slavery in the Modern World”
This is essential context for understanding the terrible events in Virginia two Fridays and Saturdays ago. The shameful events there followed the decisions of the liberal University of Virginia-hosting campus down of Charlottesville to take down a statue of the Confederate War General Robert E. Lee and to rename the park in which that statue sits “Emancipation Park.” At the one level, the conflict is symbolic. Make no mistake: many of not most of the virulent racists (including Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis) who showed up the “Unite the Right” rally to protest Charlottesville’s courageous civic decisions would love to see Black chattel slavery re-instituted across the U.S. today. But most white defenders of the southern Confederate symbols claim that they are about “culture,” an appreciation of “history,” and “regional” identity, and a belief in “states’ rights,” not slavery. That’s how the history Confederacy and the Civil War are still taught in most southern U.S high schools to this day.
Falsely taught, I should say, for the simple textbook historical fact of the matter is that the Confederacy was formed to preserve, by any means deemed necessary, the South’s “peculiar institution” – the arch-racist and mass-murderous torture and exploitation regime of Black Chattel Slavery. The Confederacy was a secession government formed among southern states whose ruling elites had determined that the election of Abraham Lincoln spelled the end of their vicious slave system. As the retired University of Virginia historian Edward Ayers told the “PBS NewsHour last eleven days ago, “even if …individual [Confederate] soldiers were not slaveholders [plenty were- P.S.], they were fighting to defend a nation that was based on slavery… The fact is, had they won, you would have had an independent nation overseeing the largest and most powerful system of slavery in the modern world.”
The Road to Charlottesville
But beneath the historical argument at the symbolic surface, three forces drove the madness of the racist white nationalists who flocked to Charlottesville, including a young man from Ohio who were three basic forces. The first is a deeply fear-based sense that Blacks are “getting over” on them, violating the “psychological wage” and threatening to obliterate good hard-working white Americans with the help of white middle and upper class liberal and left elites. The nationalists tellingly chanted “you will not replace us” – as if Robert E. Lee had been turned down on a job or college application because of affirmative action – as they marched through the University of Virginia campus. Their fear is rooted in the very real and long-running neoliberal global-capitalist assault on working- and middle-class economic security, a persistent racial-spatial apartheid that makes real Black lives largely invisible to most whites, and in an exaggerated celebration of Black advancement and success that oddly combined with an equally exaggerated reporting of Black criminality in the dominant media that provides most whites their main images of Black America. It reflects the underlying and interrelated, racially toxic impacts of capitalist class rule, racial segregation (persistent American race apartheid), and corporate media.
The second driving force is the right-wing, fascist, white-supremacist, and “alt-right” (neofascist) political media, from FOX News and talk radio to Alex Jones and Brietbart and the Websites of the shockingly large number of white nationalist and neo-Nazi hate groups themselves (see the Southern Poverty Law Center’s chilling “Hate Map” for a geographical mapping and naming of the nation’s many white hate groups, very disproportionately concentrated in former Confederate states). These virulent manufacturers of “blood and soil” white nationalism fan the flames of white racial sentiment, feeding the paranoid-style conspiratorial sense that a nefarious liberal and Left elite (replete with back-stabbing white “race traitors”) is pushing whites down while elevating people of color – who are slated to out-number white Americans by 2050 – above them. The white hate groups have, incidentally, killed significantly more Americans on U.S. soil than any Islamic extremist forces in the post-9/11 era. They are the leading agents of lethal terrorism in the U.S.
The Imperial Wizard in the White House
The third driving force has been the quasi-fascistic Trump phenomenon and presidency. There’s was something naïve about liberal calls for Trump to be more forceful and concerned for national racial healing and unity in his response to the fascist protests and violence in Charlottesville. This is a president, son of a man arrested at a Ku Klux Klan rally, who entered the last presidential sweepstakes by advancing the ultimate racist “blood and soil” argument that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. As a real estate developer, Trump was heard saying that he didn’t want Black people handling his money (he preferred Jews in that role, he said) and was sued repeatedly for racist housing discrimination. As a presidential candidate, Herr Donald:
+ Refused to disavow the support he received from the former Ku Klux Klan (KKK) Grand Wizard David Duke and otherwise failed to properly distance himself from the Klan.
+ Offered to pay the legal bills of a white man who viciously sucker-punched a black protester at a Trump rally.
+ Responded to the racial turbulence sparked by repeated video-captured police killings of Black Americans and the rise of Black Lives Matter by calling for the “restor[ation of] law and order” to “control our cities” and for a “national stop and frisk law”—that is, for a declaration of national racist martial law.
+ Continued his noxious backing for the malicious racist railroading of the “Central Park Five”—five young black men who were wrongfully convicted (with Trump leading the charge) of raping a white woman in New York City in 1989. (The subsequently exonerated five spent years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit).
+ Gave a commanding position in his campaign to Steve Bannon, the director of Breitbart, an openly white-nationalist, paranoid-style and alt-right (proto-fascistic) website.
+ Absurdly charged without evidence and in so many words that people of color would commit massive voter fraud in the 2016 president election.
As president, Trump appointed one of the nation’s leading elected racists (Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions) as Attorney General (of all things) and kept the white-nationalist “populist” Bannon and Steve Miller on as top political advisors. He appointed the Hungarian fascist Sebastian Gorka, as his top “Counter-Terrorism adviser” and hired Gorka’s anti-Muslim wife Katherine as a top “policy adviser” in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). He has exhibited a practically psychotic obsession with dismissing anything and everything remotely positive that might be associated with the nation’s first Black president. He has repeated the preposterous, racially loaded voter fraud charge, ridiculously claiming to have won the popular vote but for ballot shenanigans. (The charge turns history on its head, Orwell-style: Trump owned his victory in key battle ground states to the legal and illegal suppression of non-white votes). The Trump administration is actively stripping away civil rights protections and appointing enemies of racial justice and equality to a federal bench that is being made over the image of the right-wing Federalist Society. It is even turning the Orwellian table on race regarding college admissions by “preparing,” the New York Times reports, “to redirect resources of the Justice Department’s civil rights division toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants.”
Trump has given the white-nationalist movement good reason to think that they have their first real champion in the White House. Of course Trump has failed to properly condemn white supremacy, bigotry and Nazism and cloaked his condemnation of the racist violence in Charlottesville with dog-whistles to the “alt-right.” Trump isn’t merely “reluctant to alienate [white] backlash voters, who are among his most loyal supporters” (E.J. Dionne). He is himself a backlashing white nationalist, albeit an atypically super-wealthy one. Expecting heartfelt moral leadership on racial justice (or anything else) from Donald Trump is like expecting a beagle to write a respectable doctoral thesis on particle physics. It’s like expecting me to become a starting pitcher for the Chicago White Sox.
Towards Truth and Reconciliation
What should be done? Miller and the Gorkas and other vicious racist white nationalists in the White House need to follow Bannon out the door, either voluntarily or not. So does the shameful Orange Beast and Imperial Wizard Donald Trump, who has become a grave nuclear threat to national and global security (the former top national U.S. intelligence official James Clapper is right about that, darkly enough) and who is very possibly now fantasizing about how he can enlist the nation’s vast white police state in the suspension of the 2020 elections on the pretext of a civil emergency or a corrupted voting system. (Recall that Trump would promise to honor the results of the 2016 election only if he won. He would likely refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of an Electoral College count not in his favor in 2020.)
The neo-fascist white right-wing needs to be disarmed, its hate-mongering leaders silenced and placed along with their followers in psychological treatment programs like those run by “Life After Hate”– a highly successful organization run by a recovered former leading white supremacist. Trump’s DHS recently slashed a grant the Obama administration had slated for “Life After Hate.” That grant should be restored and dramatically expanded.
We need to convene a national truth and reconciliation commission on the racist crimes committed against Black people in British colonial North America and in the U.S. from original British settlement through the present day. A key mission behind such a commission would be to educate Americans on the difference between getting a few Black faces in high places and real racial equality and justice. Other key themes would include the living relevance of centuries of Black chattel slavery for understanding contemporary racial inequality; the role of segregation in reducing Black opportunity and making Black experience invisible; and the ways that American racial oppression has harmed ordinary middle and working class white Americans as well as Blacks. It has done so by undermining their ability to join with Blacks in forming powerful grassroots organizations to fight the capitalist elite and by offering them the poison and false-compensatory “psychological wage” of whiteness.
It is long past time to massively de-incarcerate Black America, transferring billions of dollars spent on surveilling, arresting, prosecuting, incarcerating (the racist Trump is an active champion for the private-, for-profit prison industry), and branding Black people into meeting the vast swath of dire social needs that go neglected in contemporary America: schools, housing, health care, green space, and so much more.
We need to begin accelerated racial literacy and empathy programs to bring white Americans into Black and other nonwhite communities to confront the harsh realities of American racial apartheid and disparity – and to make real and unthreatening human, face-face connections with real Black and other nonwhite people. (“Life After Hate” does good work in this vein). This will counter the exaggerated images of Black success and wealth and Black criminality purveyed in the dominant media and to put racially blind whites in contact with real and all to ghettoized and oppressed Black lives.
Beyond just tearing down Confederate (Slave Power) symbols and monuments, we need to litter the nation and especially the South with signs and monuments reminding ordinary Americans of the monumental racist torture regime and holocaust that was Black chattel slavery and its Jim Crow aftermath. Lynching sites should be marked, with the names of victims and the circumstances surrounding their deaths included. Places where Black slaves and neo-slaves were bought, sold, whipped, exploited, worked to death, tortured, raped, and beaten should be gravely commemorated with names and plaques providing basic historical descriptions of what happened there. Done right, such a monument construction project – to be built by racially mixed teams under Black supervision – would create literally thousands of structures across the country and not just in the South.
The commission must be charged among other things with the design of a reasonable and properly targeted and serious program of racial reparations for the monumental injustices imposed by centuries of racial oppression from slavery through Jim Crow oppression, ghettoization, and the age of racist mass incarceration and criminal branding. It is long past time for a monumental payback – paid out of giant taxes on the absurdly rich U.S. financial and corporate elite. The class specificity of the payment us critical. We shouldn’t charge lower- and working-class whites a penny for the sins of slavery. American racial oppression, it should always be remembered, has harmed ordinary middle and working class white Americans as well as Blacks. The point bears repetition and elaboration. From the nation’s colonial origins through the present, the Machiavellian, ruling class-imposed color line (see Edmund Morgan’s truly classic 1976 study American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia) has hurt ordinary whites as well as people of color. Elite-crafted racism has undermined working-class and poor whites’ willingness and ability to join with Blacks and other nonwhites in forming the powerful grassroots alliances and solidarities required to wrest a durably decent living and a democratic society from the Wealthy Few. In the place of these necessities, the pervasive and living culture of racism – so doggedly persistent that (to repeat) the mild phrase “Black lives matter” is somehow controversial more than half a century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act – has offered poor and working-class whites the poison, false-compensatory “psychological wage” of whiteness. The always embattled actual American Left has always said something else: “Black and White Unite and Fight” in solidarity against the ruling class masters. That slogan was no small reflection of how the American industrial workers movement was built in the 1930s and 1940s.
Unlikely under capitalism….
Can reparations (due also to Native Americans and nations abroad where untold millions/billions of people have been devastated by U.S. imperialism) be properly and meaningfully introduced under the existing U.S. regime of class rule called capitalism? Almost certainly not – as with the demand for a shift to an ecologically sustainable economy and society. It must therefore be considered a revolutionary demand and be combined with multi-racial working-class struggle to remove the “One Percent” (a catchy euphemism for the capitalist ruling class) not just from its wealth but also and above all from its command of the structuring and purpose of “our” (their) political economy. It must be interwoven with the struggle for the broad redistribution of wealth and power and for peoples’ socialism. This is very different from the reactionary, “divisive,” and zero-sum way in which reparations is advanced by its bourgeois champions both white and Black.
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Paul Street is an independent radical-democratic policy researcher, journalist, historian, author and speaker based in Iowa City, Iowa, and Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of seven books to date: Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: a Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010); (with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011); and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). Paul writes regularly for Truthdig, Telesur English, Counterpunch, Black Agenda Report, and Z Magazine.
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