Global Independent Analytics
Danny Haiphong
Danny Haiphong

Location: USA

Specialization: War, Racism, Capitalist exploitation, Civil rights

Racism Persists even as Conditions for White Americans Decline: A Short Study on the roots of US Racism

American credo

The recent upsurge of Black protest against police violence and racism continued when Black Lives Matter activists interrupted US Republican Party Presidential candidate Donald Trump during a speech on December 3rd.  Trump has become the face of racist bigotry in the United States. His positions have angered the Muslim, Latino, and Black American community and drawn support from a significant section of the White community. The polarization brought to the surface by Trump’s campaign demonstrates the enduring legacy of racism in US capitalist society. Yet, conditions for white workers have declined greatly over the last forty years. So what continues to make racism so widespread in this country?

Historical Summary of Racism in the US

The answer lies in the historical context of US development. There have been many theoretical interpretations of the roots of racism in the United States. Racism, as articulated by Theodore Allen, can be traced back to the era of Anglo-American colonialism. Allen explains that capitalist economic crisis led to cross-class solidarity between European and African labor. Such solidarity threatened colonial rule. The architects of Anglo-American colonialism, merchants and planters, institutionalized a system of racism in an attempt to control its rebellious majority. 

The system of racism in the continental North American colonies was rooted in the ruling class formation of a "White identity" tailored for the European populations of colonial Virginia. Africans were deemed "Black" and subject to a hereditary exploitation much harsher than the exploitation of their white counterparts. The colonial ruling class in North America was especially motivated to institutionalize white supremacy due to the dependence of the capitalist economy on African slave labor. Capitalism's slave economy stripped Africans of their right to land or payment for work. Racism justified slavery-driven exploitation with sheer brutality against Africans and an ideology that deemed them sub-human to Whites.

As for Whites, the majority of the population remained poor. But racism gave individual Whites an elevated status in colonial society. White colonists could vote, serve in colonial administration, and practice religion freely. The ruling class combined such privileges with a racist ideology that was meant to protect the interests of the rich. White identity encouraged European colonists to ignore their class status and enjoy a higher standard of living than that of the indigenous or African "others."

Racism seeped into every aspect of Anglo-American society. This could be seen in developments such as the early slave patrols manned by poor whites. According to scholar Gerald Horne, racism was key to the "counter-revolution of 1776," otherwise known as the formation of the US. The concern of the wealthy over the potential abolition of the slave trade in British court threw their class into a rebellion against the mother country. The rebellion led to the republican government of the United States.

Racism’s Golden Rule Challenged?

White supremacy has persisted into the current period, infecting every aspect of US capitalist society from the labor movement to foreign policy. It has created a society where the majority of White Americans live in significantly better conditions than Black Americans, Indigenous Americans, and peoples of color generally. This has been a golden rule of white supremacy manufactured by the intentional policies of the nation's ruling class. However, the US capitalist system is currently in a permanent crisis. In response to the steady fall in the rate of profit, the ruling class has eroded the conditions of all people in the US, including those of the White worker.

A recent study sheds light on the deteriorating position of the White working class. According to a report from two Princeton economists, White, middle aged men without a college degree have seen their life expectancy significantly decline by 134 deaths per 100,000 people since 1999. The study attributes this decline to higher rates of suicide and substance abuse among this section of White America. What the study mentions only briefly is how economic conditions under capitalism's current crisis have shaken the security and comfort of race-based privileges. Not only has life expectancy decreased, but the incomes of middle-aged White Americans have also fallen by 19 percent over the same period.

These conditions are a product of capitalism's crisis, often mislabeled the "Great Recession" in the corporate media. US capitalism has entered a stage of development where the cost to maintain its high-tech empire has outstripped the capacity of its productive forces. For the rich to continue to accumulate enormous profits, the rate of exploitation of the masses has to be intensified. The ruling class has done so through a regime of union-busting, austerity, and deindustrialization. This triple threat of economic warfare has eroded the material base of white supremacy and privilege. It has also exacerbated the crisis. Technology has permanently replaced jobs and left capitalists with fewer workers to exploit. The result has been general economic stagnation on top of the periodic crises of overproduction/under consumption inherent in the capitalist system.

One may conclude that the capitalist crisis has produced conditions that inevitably lead to unity among all workers regardless of race. This "color-blind" narrative misinterprets the character of racism in the US. For one, racism is part and parcel of US capitalism's infrastructure and does not simply wither away under the misery of the White worker. Racism inherently produces conservatism among all White people, especially the White poor. As Gerald Horne comments in his text, The Counter Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States, (page 251): 

 

 …remarkably, few are those who actually inquire as to why this sector tends to lean in a conservative direction and, least of all, the deep historical roots of this phenomenon in a nation where not only was citizenship determined on a racist basis, but, furthermore, benefits were dispensed by the state in a similar fashion-and not just to elites.

 

Horne's conclusion explains why White Americans are more likely to view themselves as victims of racism rather than as victims of the same ruling class that has terrorized and looted Black America and communities of color for centuries. In fact, because White Americans see themselves as victims of anti-white prejudice, white supremacist terror has actually increased as the capitalist crisis has worsened. Numerous Black churches have been set on fire since white supremacist Dylan Roof's mass shooting of the historic AME church. White Student Unions have formed across the country to "protect" white privilege on university campuses. And White Americans continue to be the culprits of mass shootings such as the one committed on Planned Parenthood. White supremacist terror has indeed become the most common form of terrorism in the US.

White Conditions Bad, Black Conditions Worse

For over three centuries, White rule in what is now the US has developed a society where class relationships are shaped by racism. Whites have always occupied the ranks of the poor and working class yet could always count on a higher social position than “non-whites,” especially Black Americans. And in many ways, they still can. The capitalist economic crisis of 2008 hit Whites hard, but Black Americans harder.

Black Americans have lost more economic ground than any other section of the US since the economic crisis. The foreclosure crisis has stripped Black Americans of whatever financial gains were made for the cohort since 1965. Black income and wealth has plummeted as a result. Austerity and privatization has continued the devastation through a corporate attack on teachers and public sector workers. This attack has particularly targeted Black schools and neighborhoods.

The force of the state has equally matched the force of austerity. Murder by way of law enforcement has become a near daily occurrence. Black Americans make up forty percent of prisoners of the nation’s 2.3 million prisoners. These are just some of the many indicators of a wholly racist US capitalist society. This society has kept Black Americans in a perpetual spiral of social decline, which has arguably worsened under the dictates of a Black president.

Conclusion

Racism is a power structure deeply woven into the fabric of US-led global capitalism. It is the continued super exploitation of the vast majority of Black Americans and other racially oppressed groups that gives racism its material and ideological basis. Most White Americans do not control this system, but benefit directly from it. The labor and resources of oppressed people all around the world have developed a decadent existence for white people in the US and Western world. The capitalist class has utilized the racist ideology of white superiority to justify this phenomenon.

The privileges of the white worker and poor that support white racist ideology are under attack by the crisis of capitalism. Yet, a large section of White America has reacted to decline not with solidarity, but barbarity. Racist attacks and incidences are on the rise. This piece provides an explanation as to why.

Racism endowed the settlers of colonial North America with citizenship. The highest expression of such citizenship came in the formation of the United States. The White sector of US society was given the historic role as “citizens” whose primary purpose was to defend a society ruled by the rich, capitalist class. This was the contract formulated by the architects of Anglo-American colonialism in the 17th century. “White” people were to provide protection to the ruling order in exchange for the right to live in favorable circumstances to Black, indigenous, and all non-white people. Whites were fed the idea that they were superior to all “other” peoples and were provided with certain benefits that confirmed this hypothesis.

On December 4th, 1969, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party Fred Hampton was assassinated by the Chicago Police Department in collaboration with the FBI. Hampton once said that racism must be fought with solidarity. He was right. We can build the foundation of solidarity with concrete defense of the oppressed from racist barbarity in whatever form it comes. But we won’t do justice to the spirit of Fred Hampton if we don’t simultaneously point our resistance toward the police forces, armies, and institutions of the exploiting class. Let’s live in the spirit of Fred Hampton.

HASHTAGS

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