(This essay was written and regularly revised for use by study groups from 2006-2017. It is based on the three-part article by Linda Burnham and Bob Wing, “Toward a Communist Analysis of White Supremacy and Black Oppression,” Line of March, 1981.)
1. What is Racism?
Racism (or, if you prefer, racial inequality, racial oppression, or white su- premacy, etc.) is immensely powerful in the U.S. It has shaped and infects the entire U.S. political, social and economic structure, institutions, laws, culture and social customs right down to individual behaviors and atti- tudes. It is one of the chief determinants of the life course of people in the U.S. It has also been extended, in different ways, to shape immigration and foreign policy.
Yet the concept of racism is highly contested, and different ideas about racism have powerful political implications. Racism takes many forms and has many definitions.
(1) Individual attitudes of racial prejudice and bias. This is often called “racial prejudice” or “racial bias.” This is the definition of racism that is mainly used in the U.S. legal system and is probably also the most popular understanding of racism among most people in the U.S., especially most white people.
(2) Elaborate theories and ideologies that supposedly prove that whites are superior and non-whites are inferior. This is sometimes called “racist ideology.” This definition is especially popular in academic circles which tend to emphasize the role of ideas in history.
(3) Racist practices by social institutions such as corporations, laws, the courts or schools. This is sometimes known as “institutional racism” or “structural racism.” This understanding of racism was popularized by some of the radical movements and scholars of the 1960s to explain and struggle against the continuing power of racism even after it was made illegal.
By themselves, the first two forms of racism (prejudice and ideology) are not very powerful. Even though they can be very hurtful, by themselves they don’t have that much impact on people’s lives. Racism becomes much more powerful when it is institutionalized and legalized because it affects people’s lives in fundamental ways –their jobs, their housing, and their po-litical rights. Such institutionalization or legalization is made possible and augmented when race is central to politics thus shaping power and policy.
Despite this, most people and institutions in the U.S. only think of rac- ism as prejudice and ideology, not as institutionalized or legalized. These narrow understandings downplay the power of racism in the U.S. Many people may be committed to combating racial prejudice or racist ideolo- gies, but are not committed to dealing with the bigger parts of racism, the parts that impact peoples’ day to day lives. For example, Donald Sterling, a notorious billionaire slumlord, was allowed to be the owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers franchise for 33 years, but was suddenly drummed out of the league for racist comments he made in private to his girlfriend.
In many countries, racism takes on one or more of these three different forms. What is unique about the U.S. compared to almost all other coun- tries is that it takes ALL three forms. Moreover, it does not impact a small number of institutions in the society, but virtually all of them, including social justice organizations: it is one of the country’s most fundamental and powerful systems.
This means that racism is more powerful in the U.S. than in most other countries, and that it affects everything from interpersonal relationships to the economy to politics. In addition, racism is structured into almost all the main institutions of the country, not just a few.
(4) This is why, when describing racism in the U.S., I think it is most accurate to focus on understanding racism as a “system.” To be specific racism in the United States is a system of white privilege and racial op- pression: it systematically produces institutions, laws, ideas, behaviors, norms, customs and emotions that give power, benefits and opportuni- ties to those identified as “white” people, and systematically discrimi- nates, oppresses and burdens those identified as “people of color.”
The racist system in the U.S. ties together politics, laws, institutional practices, ideologies, culture, social psychology and individual attitudes to produce racist inequality that affects everyone in the country. When some- thing is “systematic” it is no longer accidental or a sometimes thing, but affects everything, to one degree or another.
A useful definition of racism in the U.S. might be: the systematic sep- aration of people into “races” based on the historically developed “one drop” rule, wherein “whites” are privileged and empowered and “Blacks” and other “groups of color” are disprivileged and disempowered. (The “one drop rule” is that anyone who has the slightest perceptible African heritage is considered Black.)
Of course, this system has an origin and has changed through different historical stages, what can be referred to as the process of racial formation.
For example, slavery was the first system of racism in the U.S. It
(1) gave rise to laws and constitutions that legalized and regulated slavery, invented the one drop rule to determine who is “white” and who is “Black,” designated only “Blacks” to be slaves and only “whites” as free per- sons with full citizenship rights, and legalized and regulated that color line throughout the society even beyond slavery.
(2) was backed by and integral to political/legal institutions (even those that seemed non-racial) like the militia, army, courts, the Congress, the presidency and the police
(3) was justified by various theories that supposedly proved the superi- ority of whites and inferiority of Blacks which dominated churches, media, schools and other cultural institutions
(4) practically every white person was imbued with racial biases and attitudes and tried to imbue non-whites with a sense of inferiority.
The system of slavery was the foundation of the white political and economic dictatorship wherein Blacks were systematically oppressed as slaves or freedmen with few or no rights and whites were systematically privileged with land, businesses, the right to vote and organize, the Bill of Rights, citizenship, etc. White privilege and racial oppression are complete- ly interconnected: one produces the other.
Despite the overthrow of slavery and the overtly legalized system of white power that succeeded it until the civil rights movement won the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, racism—the system of white supremacy/priv- ilege and racial oppression—is still an immensely powerful system in the U.S. It has shaped and infects the entire U.S. political, social and economic structure, institutions, laws, culture and social customs right down to individual behaviors and attitudes. It is one of the chief determinants of the life course of people in the U.S. The system of white privilege and racial oppression has also been extended, in different ways, to shape immigration and foreign policy.
2. When and Why Was Racism Bought into Being?
Many people think that racism has existed forever and will exist forever. Perhaps that is true about individual prejudicial attitudes and racist ideas. But is it true about racism as a system?
Today’s racism has its roots in the system of European colonialism and neocolonialism begun in the 15th century. It was the imposition of West- ern Europe’s power (especially England, Spain, and France) over the rest of the world, including the African slave trade that marked the beginning of modern racism. Racism thus came into being as a part of justifying and deepening the exploitation and oppressed of peoples of color throughout the world by Europeans.
Prior to the 15th century the European countries or what became known as “white” people lacked the power to force a system of white supremacy (or any other kind of supremacy) on others. Instead Western Europe was a backwards part of the world entrapped in the Dark Ages, while the centers of power and learning were the Arab world, China, India, the Aztecs and Incas in South America, the Mali and Sonhay in Africa, the Mediterranean and Constantinople. In fact, Europe did not become the main world center of power until about 1800. Power is central to racism.
However, European colonialism was and is primarily a system of oppres- sion of some nations (in the “global south”) by other nations (in the “global north”). In other words, colonialism is a system of national oppression, not a system of racial oppression. That system is often justified and facilitated through racist ideology, the idea that Europeans or whites are superior to non-Europeans/non-whites, but in its economic and political dynamics it is a system of national oppression.
In turn, European colonialism gave rise to different racist practices in different colonized countries. The United States (or what became the U.S.) was one of the few places (along with some of the countries of Southern Africa) where a fully distinct social-political system of racism was brought into being and became central to the way life was organized. Although many countries in Latin America had brutal systems of slavery and today have marked racism, none enshrined a color line into their Constitutions, law or concepts of citizenship.
There are a number of reasons why the U.S. became one of the countries where racism became central to the society.
1. Settler colonialists who were mainly from capitalist England (as op- posed to feudal Spain or Portugal) and who were intent on developing capitalism in the colonies.
2. A newly developed world market for New World commodities such tobacco, sugar and other agricultural products (later, cotton). Therefore, there were tremendous profits to be made if the colonists could grow to- bacco cheaply and efficiently.
3. A tremendous amount of land compared to a small population. Be- cause of this, free people refused to work for plantation owners or other capitalists, preferring instead to own their own land and enjoy the full fruits of their own labor.
The U.S. system of racism, then, was brought into being by these capi- talists to solve their labor problem. By stripping Black laborers of all their rights, they could be forced to work for the plantation owners as slaves or be rented to other capitalists. At bottom, racism is a system designed to cre- ate cheap, exploitable labor. However, once put in place it became not just a labor system, but a racial system (the color line) that governed every aspect of U.S. life. Capital held in the form of slaves quickly became the largest form of capital all the way up to the Civil War and the products of slave labor were central to the economic activity of the Northern merchants and became the basis of their alliance in the American Revolution and beyond. Indeed, recent scholarly studies of slavery (especially Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told, and Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton) have shown that slavery was a leading edge of world capitalism.
One of the most unique features of U.S. slavery was that, unlike the slave systems in Brazil and Cuba, it was the only one that depended primarily on the domestic reproduction of slaves rather than the African slave trade to expand its slave force. To do so it vastly expanded the concept of who was “Black” and therefore enslaveable. Thus, they invented and legalized the “one drop rule” in which only people who appear to be “pure” white are considered white, and all others are considered “Black” or some other group of color.
This categorization—pure white v. mongrelized people of color—is it- self a racist categorization. This shows that “races” or “racial groups” as we know them in the U.S. are not neutral or natural; they are products of and a necessary part of the racial polarization itself. Unless it is socially, politi- cally and legally clear who is “white” and who is “Black” or otherwise “non- white”, it is impossible to have a systematic form of oppression/privilege. Another proof of the social rather than natural or genealogical nature of these categories is that the U.S. is the only country in the world that defines “races” based on the one drop rule.
The other key legal rule adopted by U.S. slaveholders to expand their slave force was the rule that, for Blacks only, social status would follow the status of the mother rather than, as was traditional in English law, the father. In essence this law unleashed the powerful economic motive to ex- pand slavery through mass rape of Black women.
3. Why is Racism in the U.S. so Powerful?
Why is racism so systematic and powerful in the U.S.? Why did racism develop differently in the U.S. than in other countries?
The power of racism in the U.S. does not lie in the unusual racist preju- dices of “white” Americans or in the power of racist ideology or culture per se. Rather it lies in the uniquely powerful historical role of the system of white supremacy and racial oppression in the politics, society and economy of this country.
The power of racial categories in the U.S. stems first and foremost be- cause historically these categories delineated those who were free from those who were enslaved for more than 250 years.
The plantation slave system was the most dynamic and important part of the colonial economy. Not only did it produce tremendous profits for its owners and dominate the southern colonies, it was also key to the economy in the northern non-slave colonies. This is because its products—tobacco, rice, sugar, cotton—were the foundation of the business of the northern merchants.
Together those merchants and the slaveholders became the richest and most powerful forces in the colonies. Northern merchant representatives such as John Adams, John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin and slavehold- ers such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison led the American Revolution and the formation of the U.S. as a new nation.
It was therefore in their interest to ensure that the new U.S. Constitution declared slavery legal and not only barred Blacks from being U.S. citizens but indeed stripped them of all human rights. The slaveholders were much more powerful than the merchants so four of the first six presidents of the U.S. were slaveholders. Slaveholders held the presidency for 50 of the 72 years before Abraham Lincoln, who was elected in 1860, became the first U.S. president who did not openly defend and expand slavery.
Thus, the Constitution defined the term “American” to mean whites only. Even after the Civil War when the Constitution was amended to include Blacks as citizens (but not Asians), Blacks were consigned to second class cit- izenship: they were still subjected to racially coerced peonage, legalized racial discrimination in all walks of life and prevented from voting. This was not outlawed until the Civil Right Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This is different than the history of Latin American and the Caribbe- an countries. Like the U.S., many of those countries had powerful slave plantation economies. Indeed, many more African slaves were imported into Cuba and Brazil than in the U.S., and were treated with even greater brutality. The average life span of an African slave in many areas was as low as seven years.
However, the struggles against colonialism and for independence in those countries were mostly opposed to slavery or at least not led by slaveholders. Anti-slavery and anti-racism were part of their indepen- dence struggles. But in the U.S., the independence struggle was led by slaveholders and the new nations were explicitly pro-slavery and nakedly racist. The concept of “Cuban” is historically linked to anti-slavery and absolutely includes Black Cubans, which is why so many Black Cubans reject the term “Afro-Cuban” as marginalizing. But the concept of “Amer- ican” is historically linked to being white and excluding Black people, which is why all peoples of color in the U.S. include a racial identifier: African American. (Some European immigrants to the U.S. sometimes had hyphenated identities such as Italian-American, but these mostly faded after a couple of generations in the U.S.)
After slavery was abolished, neither Cuba nor Brazil ever instituted a system of legalized racial discrimination or segregation remotely resembling the one in the U.S. or South Africa.
Racism in the U.S. was therefore uniquely powerful first of all because it was so central to the new nation’s political and economic elites.
But the benefits provided by the system of slavery in the U.S. were not limited to slaveholders and merchants, but extended to regular white people. Herein lays the secret to why racism is really uniquely powerful.
It shapes the behavior and consciousness of everyone in the U.S., not just the elites.
As we have discussed, the racial categories of “white” and “Black” in the U.S. were socially produced and inscribed into law not simply to describe what people looked like or whether they originated from Europe or Africa. Rather they were specifically meant to clarify who was free and who was a slave. In fact, to be “white” meant that the majority would not only be free from slavery, but free to own farms or other businesses and there- by accumulate wealth and avoid economic dependence and exploitation. (**”Exploitation” means that someone else, usually an employer, takes a part of the product of the laborer for himself. For example, a worker may be paid $15 per hour but may make products worth $50 per hour. The worker has then been exploited in the amount of $35 per hour by the employer.)
It was the powerful benefits that the system of racism gave to whites that convinced warring European groups like the Irish and English to decide that they were, in the U.S., now united as “whites.” And it was the oppres- sion of that same system that involuntarily shunted the various African ethnicities together as “Negroes.”
In the colonial period the majority of whites, especially those born in the U.S., were or became independent small farmers, businessmen or independent craft workers or professionals. They avoided exploitation as peasants, agricultural laborers or workers. The majority retained small capitalist (“pet- ty bourgeois”) status until well into the 20th century. The ruling classes (big capitalists and big plantation owners) consisted of whites only and gained the support of the rest of whites by providing vast, privileged economic opportunities and, for working people, unprecedented political influence.
Even those European immigrants and others that were exploited workers or farmers had the full expectation that they or their children would climb out of that status given the unusual upward mobility that whites in the U.S. have enjoyed. Thus, for 300 years, white meant the “American Dream” of economic independence and freedom from exploitation (and today continues to have this meaning, even though the reality of it is more complex.)
For centuries, white privilege was not limited to extra pay for exploited white workers; racism against people of color produced freedom from eco- nomic exploitation for whites. Racism produced class (not just economic) privilege for whites and created coerced class positions for people of color.
Thus, all whites, not just slaveholders and merchants, had a powerful economic stake in white supremacy.
They also had a powerful political interest in racism. This is because racial categories designated who had a political voice and vote, and who didn’t. The 3/5ths rule ensured slaveholders and their allies would control Congress and the invention of the Electoral College ensured the same dominance over the presidency. Only white males had free speech and could vote until after the Civil War. After that whites used terrorism, poll taxes and rigged literacy tests and other means to prevent the vast majority of Blacks from voting. Whites therefore retained a near monopoly on political power until the civil rights movements won passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The Electoral College system facilitates the political dominance of Southern whites and the defacto disenfranchisement of most Southern Blacks.
Thus, today’s racism rests on this history of white privilege and Black oppression whereby to be “white” meant to be free, economically independent, and to have a monopoly over citizenship rights, U.S. national identity and political power. For whites, the system of white privilege and racial oppression meant access to perhaps the most economically free, upwardly mobile and democratic system in world history. But for Blacks it meant a life of racially based economic exploitation and political oppression devoid of even the most basic rights. The freedom of whites was premised on the unfreedom of Blacks, and vice versa based on the unique historical inter- section of race, class, gender and politics.
Indeed, the very shape and power of the United States rests on this unique system. For example, without slavery the U.S. might be more like Australia or Canada which are capitalist countries but only of medium strength be- cause they did not have a powerful economic engine like U.S. slavery.
Many people, including many progressives, think that racism is an add- on to the “real” system—that of capitalism and class exploitation. But in fact, racism is much more than that: the system of capitalism in the U.S. could not exist without racism; it was shaped by racism just as much as racism was shaped by capitalism.
4. How Do Different Peoples of Color Experience Racism?
The term “Third World” was developed and became popular in the late 1960s to refer to all non-whites—Blacks, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans and others. “Third World” was largely supplanted by “people of color” since the 1980s. These concepts are based on and promote the very important notion that all non-whites face racism and should unite to fight it. But if we are not careful, they can hide as much as clarify. In fact, each group of color faces very different conditions and therefore tend to struggle for justice in different ways. I have largely described the situation of African Americans above, so will here discuss some of the others.
The most unique situation is faced by Native peoples. Along with Black slavery, settler colonialism of Natives is a foundation stone of this country because it was the means by which the U.S. land base was “acquired” and “peopled.” Alone among peoples of color, Native peoples are made up of numerous indigenous nations that were subjected to settler colonialism by the U.S. Unlike other peoples of color in the U.S., issues of land and sovereignty are at the center of the struggle of Native groups. Genocide—cultur- al and physical—is a daily and pressing issue. Treaties are central to their relationships with the U.S. Their living conditions are by far the worst in the U.S., with many even lacking running water. They are truly oppressed nations even though they are located within the U.S.
A major complication is that Native peoples consist of dozens of different nations, most with distinctive land bases, history, conditions, languages, resources etc., including historic rivalries among different groups. There is also a growing urban Native population which faces more racially determined conditions similar to Blacks. Most Native peo- ples are mixed with whites, and some with Blacks. But Native issues tend to center on sovereignty over tribal land, governmental power, water and other environmental issues, tribal recognition by the U.S. government, historic burial grounds and treaty rights and are therefore quite different than other anti-racist demands stemming from anti-Black racism or im- migrant rights. Unity between Native peoples and other peoples of color must be consciously built and not just assumed.
Racial oppression and nationality oppression
It is the relationship of white privilege/Black oppression that has been the historic and current day centerpiece and source of power of U.S. racism. Over time, that system of white privilege was extended to include, to one degree or another, other peoples who eventually came to be socially de- fined as “non-white.”
Within the U.S. racism (the system of white supremacy/privilege) should be distinguished from oppression based on ethnicity or nationality. Virtually all immigrants to the U.S., including European immigrants, have faced oppression based on their nationality or ethnicity (e.g. language, citizen- ship status, the relation of their home country to the U.S., culture).
But the truth of the “melting pot” is that nationality identities/oppres- sion tends to fade or disappear over a generation or two; but racial identities/oppression does not. Because of racism, European immigrants were immediately considered white; even those that faced harsh discrimination based on their foreign citizenship or language (such as the Irish or Italians) were treated as second class whites and never as non-white.
In fact, many white immigrants consciously used their white status to take advantage of racism to improve their conditions. For example, white immigrants were at the forefront of the anti-Chinese movement of the late 19th century and white immigrants were often at the forefront of labor unions that adopted whites-only membership policies.
By contrast, almost all immigrants from the global south are immediately treated as peoples of color. Their social conditions are shaped by a complex combination of race and nationality, not simply one or the other. The system of white supremacy/privilege dictates different histories for immigrants along the color line from the time they first set foot in this country, even though many immigrants are unaware of it. Immigrants of color face discrimination based on nationality (citizenship, language, etc.) as well as race. And over time these groups become highly diverse; some no longer speak the language of their ancestors while others are recent undocumented immigrants.
Latinos are an extraordinarily diverse group of peoples, each with a different history in regards to the relationship of their home countries to the U.S. and in relationship to their history and positioning within the U.S. They are also racially diverse, from full blooded Africans, Spanish, Italians, Indigenous, Palestinian, Portuguese or Chinese, to every mix among them. Latinos are also ethnically diverse, with more than a dozen different Latino nationalities. Puerto Rico is a separate nation that the U.S. has colonized and today there are more Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. than in Puerto Rico. Most Cubans who have come to the U.S. are or were staunchly po- litically conservative opponents of socialist Cuba. Mexicans are the largest Latino group and the biggest dynamic at play is the relationship of U.S. and Mexico, its long common border and historical intertwining. But among Mexicans there are big distinctions between recent immigrants and those who have been in the U.S. for four or five generations, and there are marked racial differences as well.
Nationality oppression (based on citizenship, language etc.) is often the most apparent problem faced by Latinos (especially immigrants), but this oppression is thoroughly interlinked with racism. That is why the expe- rience of immigrants from the Global South (even those who otherwise might appear to be racially white) is so markedly different from white European immigrants. It is also why those who have been here for many generations continue to face discrimination and oppression.
Asians are also ethnically diverse and are the fastest growing group in the U.S. But racist immigration laws in the past and present have had the ironic effect of creating within the U.S. an unusually highly educated and affluent population of Asians: the laws have allowed a disproportionate number of business people and highly educated people in, although there are also many very poor and isolated workers. The overall socio-economic profile of Asians (except Southeast Asians who entered the country un- der Refugee Law) in the U.S. is much more like whites than that of other peoples of color. Despite the high numbers of educated people, Asians certainly face racism and have an unusually large number of very poor immigrant workers.
5. the system of Racism in the U.S. Today
The system of racism has developed and changed over time. The first main period of racism was slavery. The second was legalized discrimination and segregation, often called Jim Crow. Since 1965 a new more complex, less formal but still incredibly powerful system has been developed.
The following are some of the main changes since 1965:
a. The Black-led but multiracial, cross-class freedom movement of the 1950s and early 1960s won the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act ended the system of legalized racial discrimination and segregation. The Voting Rights Act ended the virtual white monopoly over politics. Together, they transformed the political, social and economic structures of the society as a whole, leading many to consider it the “Second Revolution.”
b. In 1965 Congress passed a major immigration reform, at the time an afterthought of the civil rights legislation. This reform ended the long- standing racist limitations on immigration from the Global South, most importantly Asia and Latin America, and led to massive immigration that has transformed the racial composition of the U.S. population. Today there are more Latinos than African Americans in the U.S. The Asian population has grown even more rapidly and Asians now come from many different countries. Arab and South Asian populations, often Muslim, have grown and are being harshly integrated into the U.S. racial system, especially since 9/11. Islamophobia is a relatively new but powerful form of racism that in- cludes repression of Muslims in the U.S. and U.S. military aggression in the Muslim countries.
Due to this tremendous immigration of peoples of color, the intersec- tion of racism and nationality oppression is much more important than before. While Black/white relations are still the centerpiece and sharpest expression of racism in the U.S., a whole series of other relationships are now critically important: white/Latino (and white/specific Latino groups), Latino/Black, white/Asian, Black and brown to Asian, relationships among different Latino and Asian groups, white/Arab, and relationships involving Native peoples. Moreover, many immigrants from Latin America and the Middle East are racially white, indigenous or don’t fit neatly into the U.S. system of race, introducing complicated new relationships and issues in and around the color line.
Last but hardly least, peoples of color have become a majority in several states and are projected to become the majority of the U.S. population by about 2040. Moreover, since the 2000 election voters of color are increasingly voting Democratic and liberal and have more power in the electoral system than ever. The unity of peoples of color has become a centerpiece of progressive strategy. The election of Barack Obama punctuated both of these developments. The growing numbers and power of peoples of color has produced a powerful racist backlash and is one of the cornerstones of the rise of a powerful populist rightwing in U.S. life and politics.
c. In the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. economy entered a “postindustrial” phase that has transformed the economy and class structure. The old southern plantation system that was the original economic foundation of racism, already a shadow of its former self, was completely eliminated. The unionized sector of the industrial economy (auto, steel, rubber, warehouses, etc.) in which many Blacks and other people of color had begun to get a strong foothold in has been drastically cutback by technology, outsourcing and the movement of manufacturing to low wage areas of the Global South. In South Los Angeles alone more than 150 factories employing thousands of people were closed down and moved to non-union states within the U.S. or to poor countries where labor is cheap. This is often called “de-industri- alization.”
This eliminated the jobs of millions of unionized industrial workers, including a disproportionate number of Black and Latino industrial workers. These workers had previously been one of the largest sectors of economically stable people of color. This “deindustrialization” drastically increased unemployment and underemployment (forced part time workers) among people of color, especially Black men. High wage industrial jobs disproportionately held by Blacks were replaced by low-wage jobs in sweatshops industries and the low paid service sector (retail workers, fast food, restaurant and hotel workers, security guards, etc.) where employers disproportionately prefer to hire Latinos. As Blacks were pushed out of the workforce, alienation from work has grown, especially among Black men.
Simultaneously, the rise to dominance of the Republicans since 1980 led not only to drastic cutting of the safety net, but to a general cutback in government, including public schools. Government employment, of course, was historically perhaps the mainstay of the Black “middle class” (actually a combination of professional and stable working-class government jobs). In addition, desegregation, urban renewal and gentrification eliminated thousands of Black small businesses. Thus, Blacks took a triple economic hit from 1975 to the present.
Many Blacks, it seems, have been marginalized from the economy and are downwardly mobile while many Latinos, though very poor, have been incorporated into the low wage economy and many immigrants are upwardly mobile compared to their previous situations in Latin America or Asia.
The Great Recession greatly aggravated preexisting racial inequality. In 2013 white net worth was 13 times that of Blacks, the biggest gap since 1989, and ten times that of Latinos, the highest since 2001.
d. Deindustrialization has also been characterized by a significant growth in professional and technical jobs in the new high-tech economy. Thus, at the same time that millions of Blacks and other people of color lost good paying industrial union jobs, a significantly increased but still small percentage of people of color were able to go to college and get professional jobs. Today there are three to four times as many Black professionals as in 1960. Most of these folks in turn moved out of the Black communities into exurbs, suburbs or other largely white, affluent communities.
To fill these increased professional/technical jobs, immigration law has encouraged the influx of large numbers of Asian and South Asian college educated people.
e. The combination of mass unemployment and the exit of profession- als left the Black communities poorer than before. A new phenomenon was thereby created: communities of “concentrated poverty.” This is de- fined as a community where at least 40% of the people live at or below the poverty line. Research has shown that such communities have drastically worse problems than other communities, even other somewhat poor com- munities. They have much worse schools, retail, housing, crime, violence, fostered children, substance abuse, health problems, police abuse, etc. All of the worst features of capitalist society get concentrated in these com- munities, virtually all of which are communities of color aside from some Appalachian communities.
f. Communities of color, increasingly urban unemployed and underem- ployed, were simultaneously subjected to the crack epidemic and the “war on drugs,” which included massive incarceration and draconian laws such as three strikes. Today the U.S. has imprisoned a higher percentage of its people than any other country, and the highest absolute number of people, disproportionately Black and Brown, are behind bars. This is sometimes called the “prison industrial complex” or the “New Jim Crow.” Recently criminal justice reform has gained momentum as the racist inequalities and police abuse have been exposed and the cost of mass imprisonment ran out of control.
g. Since 1968 the ruling elite has led a conservative backlash against the gains of the 60s. Since the election of Ronald Reagan through Bush II, this elite conservatism has been flanked by a grassroots right wing, rac- ist movement consisting of rightwing white homeowners, the NRA, the Christian right and others. They have propagated the notion that the U.S. has achieved a “colorblind society”, have drastically cut the social safety net and job training programs, undermined human rights, rolled back civil rights, encouraged privatization of schools, prisons and other government entities, attacked the labor movement and launched a campaign of mass incarceration of people of color.
In 2016 the struggle against the far right has reached a fever pitch. The far right has taken even more extreme racist and misogynist positions and has also, for the first time, seized control of the Republican Party from the Republican elite. While most of the population has registered strong disapproval of the right, it is extremely mobilized and determined to build on the tremendous power it has built over years. While 2016 may be a tipping point in the fight against the right, it is likely that we have a long fight ahead of ourselves.
h. The percentage of professionals of color has tripled since the Civil Rights Act. Yet the racial wealth gap is still grotesque and puts the lie to the notion that racism is a thing of the past: Based on the 2002 Survey of In- come and Program Participation, white median household net worth was about $90,000. It was $8,000 for Latinos and $6,000 for Blacks. Amazingly, the greatest racial gap is among the poorest: among the poorest 25 percent of households, a Black family has only two percent of the wealth of the poorest white families. White median income in 2006 was $58,407; Black $38,269 (65.5% of whites, a rise of only 5% since 1990); Latino, $40,000; Asian $74,612.
i. At the same time, the majority of whites are now part of the exploited classes. The formerly stable white middle class has been splintered, and many white people now face great economic instability. This means that whatever privileges they receive based on race may be less substantial than before, and that what they could win by uniting against racism might be more substantial. Thus, there is a greater class basis to turn more whites against racism. On the other hand, the 2016 election indicates that a sub- stantial number of white workers blame people of color rather than the economic elites for their predicament, and are moving to the right. Also, there is an increasingly conservative to reactionary section of stable white homeowners, typically centered in the suburbs that have become more vo- ciferous and powerful forces opposing racial and ethnic equality.
Taken as a whole, the system of racism has survived the civil rights era, but is much changed. The color line has simultaneously become more po- rous and harsher, less obvious and more entrenched. Few issues are strictly about race, but instead are usually intertwined with class and gender dy- namics. Class looms larger over how race plays out than in previous peri- ods. Behavioral and psychological issues internal to communities of color also play a greater role. Family units are increasingly broken down. And issues related to immigration and ethnicity have become major flashpoints introducing not only nationality dynamics but also issues of foreign rela- tions.
Still, today’s system of white privilege and racial oppression casts a pall over the lives of most people of color, and can be fairly definitely identified.
It consists of
- segregation into concentrated poverty v. segregation into affluent white communities
- poor schools that track kids to prison and low wage jobs v. good schools that track kids to college and economic success
- a drastic cutback in the social safety net and job training programs and narrowing of civil rights gains v. an increase in high paying jobs
- massive and racially disproportionate police harassment, arrest, conviction and jail terms v. always given the benefit of the doubt by the criminal justice system
- last hired, first fired and/or stuck in lower pay jobs v. substantial op- portunity
- discriminatory immigration laws v. privileges of citizenship
- discrimination based on language v. more power because everything is done in English
- deprived of full power of the vote and impact over political institutions via the electoral college and other rules v. heightened power in elections and over political institutions by gerrymandering and the increased power of money
6. The Struggle against Racism
Given the above, the antiracist struggle is obviously complex. But here are a few starting points.
- Importance: The division of people into ridiculously and oppressively defined racial groups, a division that even divides many families, is a monumental form of inhumanity. The struggle against racism is therefore high moral ground, and central to any humanist or democratic agenda in the U.S. In this respect, the fight against racism is clearly in the interests of all fair-minded people.
At another level, racism is the most marked and longstanding form of inequality in the U.S. and the antiracist struggle is a struggle for equality. Viewed in this way, the struggle involves a restructuring and redistribution of power, rights and resources. Herein lies its centrality and connection to the general fight against all forms of inequality, class exploitation and oppression.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, racism is perhaps the most potent political division in the country. On one hand racism is central to the pro- gram and ideology of all conservative tendencies in the country and cross- class white unity is critical to the alliance between the white elites and the white masses that has ruled this country since its origins. On the other hand, anti-racism is core to any progressive program in the U.S., and people of color make up the staunchest forces fighting for democracy and inequality.
- The goal: The ultimate goal is to dismantle the system of white privilege and racial oppression, i.e., the system that distributes benefits and pun- ishments along the color line. The struggle against racism is in its third main period. The first period was the struggle against slavery. The second period was the struggle against legalized racial segregation, discrimination and disenfranchisement, often called the Jim Crow system. The great civil rights movement of the 1960s resulted in victory over these forms of racism in the forms of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Like the bloody civil war that ended slavery, the defeat of the system of legalized racism required mass struggle and a radical transformation of U.S. society and politics.
We are now in the third historical period of antiracist struggle, what could be called the struggle for the Third Reconstruction. This period may be described as the struggle for real (not just legal) political, economic and social equality. Fighting for racial economic equality is the central issue in this period of struggle, but its ultimate goal will be to eliminate racial groups as fundamental social formations in the society. Since racism is so interconnected with the capitalist class structure and system of U.S. society, eliminating it will undoubtedly require a major social transformation of the whole society (though not necessarily the complete end to capitalism).
In addition, there needs to be a separate (though linked) goal to deal with nationality oppression: securing rights for immigrants and ending discrim- ination based on citizenship, language and culture. It is difficult to envision achieving this without major changes in the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, as well as Puerto Rico and the Central American countries.
- Racial Interest and Class Interest: Among progressives it is common to define a person’s or groups’ “objective” or “material” interest strictly on a class or economic basis. However, throughout U.S. history there has also been an objective, material “racial” interest: an objective interest for or against white privilege and racial oppression. Thus, in assessing the “objective interest” of any group or sector, it is crucial to ascertain their class and racial interest (and often their sectoral or geographic or gender interests as well). Sometimes they coincide; sometimes they are contradictory to one or another degree. A concrete assessment of the different interests of different sets of people is critical to crafting an antiracist (or anticapitalist) strategy. These interests change based on the historical period and the struggles at hand. And, as earlier stated, at any given time there are always a substantial number of people who don’t necessarily follow their interests; who might follow an ideology or set of values of some sort, who might feel that a given situation merits a position that differs from their interests, or whatever. How a given issue is presented, how targets and messages are chosen, etc. also might have a huge influence on the positions that different institutions or individuals choose.
- The racist forces/white united front: The target of the antiracist struggle is that powerful but shifting cross-class coalition, mainly of whites, who consciously or unconsciously defend and reproduce the system of white privilege: this might be called the white united front or the white cross- class alliance. All whites benefit, to one degree or another from racism, and to the degree that they identify and/or act to defend white benefits, they are part of that racist white united front. But not all whites do so, are not aware that they do, or do so inconsistently. Moreover, even many whites who benefit from racial privilege can and do oppose racism on the basis of fairness and/or a democratic, humanist or working-class world outlook.
Whites are still a majority of the U.S. population and in many states and regions are overwhelmingly so. They also hold disproportionate power and resources. And as the diehard racists mobilize to fight for “white rights” and “white power” it remains the key political task of antiracists break up the cross-class coalition of those who defend racism and win over the “middle” forces who haven’t taken a clear side. Breaking up that coalition means being focused about targets so as to narrow the opposition, winning increasing numbers of whites to fight racism, to convince others to at least not actively defend it, and to isolate and thereby defeat the diehards.
In previous periods, the core of the racist forces was the slaveholders, plantation owners, capitalists who depended on the plantation system and other proslavery or segregationist forces. Today the core of the racist forces are the reactionary sections of corporate power (usually big oil, real estate developers, Wall Street, big Pharma, insurance companies, Southern based rightist corporations like tobacco, retail and alcohol, defense industries, prison industries); racist homeowners, professionals and small business associations; rightwing Christians; and racist unions like the prison guards and other racist white workers: in other words the main sections of the Republican Party as well as rightist Democrats. However at any given time and on any given issue, a concrete analysis needs to be made. Politics is in the here and now.
- The antiracist united front/coalition: To be successful, a broad, multi- racial, multinational, multi-class antiracist united front needs to be built, and there is an objective basis to do so. Given the history of racism, it is not surprising that the staunchest antiracist forces have been Black people, especially Black working people. The vast increase in Latino immigration combined with the growing power of the immigration issue now means that a mass Black/Brown alliance needs to be the centerpiece of a powerful antiracist united front. However, it is important to expect that the sponta- neous movement of Latinos and Blacks are bound to be different given the different forms of oppression they face, their different histories, and the real conflicts and contradictions between and among them. In other words, a Black/Brown alliance will not come into being automatically; it must be built through conscious, long term work.
All Asians face racism, even if for some it can be very a different form of racism that that faced by Blacks and Latinos. They are the fastest growing segment of the population and are therefore gaining in political importance. Strategically navigating class and ethnic distinctions among Asians will also be key to developing a successful strategy to mobilize them against racism.
People from the Middle East and Muslims in general are the most recent group to be racialized as non-white in the U.S. and to face racial discrimination. Due to the importance of the fight for peace in the Middle East and the danger of terrorism stemming from that region, the fight against Islamophobia has taken on increased importance and Muslims have become increasingly politically aware and mobilized.
Native peoples are also crucial to the struggle against racism. Although relatively small in number, divided by nation and often fighting for distinc- tive demands, the struggle for Native sovereignty, rights and equality is a crucial moral and political piece of the fight against white supremacy.
In addition, an antiracist coalition can and must also include tens of millions of whites if it is to gain the power to make real change. Given their continued majority numbers (and of voters), and the increasing basis for many of them to take on the struggle against racism, it is critical to under- stand that whites are an integral and strategic part of the antiracist front, and not some distant or optional “allies.”
Today it is critical to recognize the structural and political change that has occurred and is occurring in the labor movement. Whereas before the 1990s the labor movement was led by racist craft unions, especially the building trades unions, often allied with industrial unions who had won a privileged status for their workers in the 1950s and 1960s. Since then the situation has entirely changed. The most powerful unions are those that represent the lower and middle strata of workers that are disproportionate- ly Black and immigrant such as SEIU, AFSCME and HERE. To one degree or another they tend to be politically progressive and antiracist.
It is extremely important that labor unions have been moving in a pro- gressive direction in the last decade or more. Most significantly, racist white workers in the construction trades, the leading force in labor for more than 100 years, have greatly diminished power within the labor movement compared to those that represent the lower and middle strata of multiracial workers such as SEIU, AFSCME, HERE, etc. Many of these unions are taking antiracist stands on a variety of issues from crime to immigration. However, at the same time, the post-industrial economy and government led by the rightwing of capital has significantly shrunk the unionized work force and undermined its power.
One of the results of the civil rights movement is that, for the first time in U.S. history, the two main political parties clearly reflect the political di- vides in the society. The Democratic Party encompasses the great majority of the progressive constituencies and the Republican Party is built around the rightwing forces. Thus, while current electoral law makes the formation of a progressive third party that can actually contend for power all but im- possible, it is critical to the fight against racism and indeed all progressive fights to figure out how to implement and inside/outside strategy relative to the Democratic Party. We need to forge a progressive, anti-racist wing of the Democratic Party that exercise independent clout, contend for dom- inance and ally with all forces to fight the far right. At the same time, we need to build the broadest front possible to build the power necessary to defeat the far right.
- The issues: Unlike the first two periods of the antiracist struggles where slavery and legalized racism were the overriding issues, it is more difficult to identify the central issues of the struggle in this period. Rather, there are many: mass incarceration/criminal injustice, employment/ underemployment/unemployment/income, environmental racism, gross health and education disparities, electoral racism, rebuilding and extending the social safety net, etc. More than ever, racial issues are connected to class, gender and nationality issues and very often they have to be taken on together. Elections and ballot initiatives, as well as direct action, seem to be taking a more and more important role in the struggle.
In earlier periods, the South was clearly the center of racism and the struggle against racism. This is much less true today than earlier, as issues of racism are national in scope. However, the South still stands out as a partic- ularly harsh and important site of struggle. The majority of Blacks still live that region, and while substantial racial progress has been made, the South is still by far the most racist and conservative part of the country. Similarly, the most reactionary core of the white united front resides in the South.
But the overriding goal is clear: to disrupt, minimize or eliminate all the main mechanisms of white privilege and racial oppression, and to thereby qualitatively close the racial gap in all fields of U.S. life. It is impossible to envision accomplishing this goal without a major alteration of the class and racial forces that hold power in this country.