by Alan Spector
Presidential Speech given at the 2013 Annual Convention of the Association for Humanist Sociology
An apple growing on a farm in Western Michigan. Another apple growing wild on a tree outside of Rome, 2,000 years ago. A Yamaha motorcycle. So, which of these have the most in common. The obvious answer, and it is a correct answer, is the two apples. But is there another way to look at the question? ‘‘Sociological Imagination,’’ as conceived by C. Wright Mills and utilized by many social scientists, provokes us to consider not just what things are ‘‘in themselves’’ but also what they ‘‘are’’ in their broader contexts and relationships to people, institutions, and broader social processes. Certainly, the two apples have a great deal in common. What does it take to create an apple? A seed, proper soil, water, and sunlight and time. But the modern, farmed apple also needs something else—it needs the belief of the farmer that growing that apple might help create a profit. Today’s apple and today’s motorcycle have something in common: They both need entrepreneurs who believe that they can make a profit from that enterprise. And, therefore, they both need a particular type of political economic climate that favors the development of both the apple and the motorcycle.
If the modern apple farmer does not believe that he or she can make a profit from the growing of those apples, then those apples will never be ‘‘born.’’ As an entrepreneur, the farmer does not care if the apple is eaten or not, as long as it is sold. Or if the modern apple farmer is offered some money by someone who will cut down the apple trees and put up a Walmart store, then again those apples will never be ‘‘born’’ even if there is sunlight, soil, and water available. In a sense, today’s apple is very similar to the apple of the past, but today’s apple is fundamentally different from the apple of the past because it has embedded in its very existence the political economy of the current era. Similarly, the Yamaha motorcycle will only be created if managers and investors believe that it is economically favorable to do so. Commercially farmed apples are not grown to be eaten; they are grown to be sold. Commercially produced motorcycles are not produced in order to be ridden; they are produced in order to be sold.
Racism as it exists in the world today did not exist in precapitalist society. Certainly, there was hostility between different groups of people and tribes and clans and families, but that is very different from the racism of today. For example, one could imagine a Roman soldier arguing that Nubians as a group are rude because of a bad interaction he had in the market, but that’s very different from the racism that exists today. Back then, so-called whites could own so-called blacks (of course, those concepts did not exist as such), and vice versa. Slavery was not based on the (often flexible) notions of ‘‘race’’ we have in today’s world. Similarly, sexism (discrimination against females), which began millennia before racism and is more deeply rooted, is nevertheless not the same today as it was 2,000 years ago. Of course, there are commonalities and some threads that are continuous but overall, there are profound differences. For example, a man in ancient Rome might have physically beaten his wife and a man today in Dallas might physically beat his wife. Some argue that both are simply reflective of something universally flawed in men. Or one could use the sociological imagination and understand that the conditions in the broader society have a profound effect on the behavior of individuals. For example, the man in ancient Rome might believe that it is his religious duty to beat his wife. The man in modern Dallas might have stress-induced hormones or chemicals (job-related, alcohol-related, early childhood trauma) whirling around in his brain, and channeled through the culture of a society that often dehumanizes women, just explodes and assaults the wife. None of this is excusable, of course, and stress or does not stress, that behavior cannot be tolerated and must be stopped, by force if necessary. What is similar in both instances? Biological size? If that were the case, then large men would routinely be beating smaller men with the frequency that women are abused. Is it a culture and social, political, and economic structures in both societies that justify this behavior? Yes, but the specific social, political, and economic structures are not identical any more than a car that will not start because of an engine problem is ‘‘the same’’ as a car that will not start because of an electrical problem. To the untrained eye, they might appear the same, but the underlying situation is very different. When one seeks to solve the problem of ‘‘the car that will not start,’’ one needs to understand the specific cause. If we truly seek to end race–ethnic oppression (racism), we need to understand the specific factors that create and shape racism in particular contexts.
Many social scientists, myself included, often refer to the concept of ‘‘race’’ and the practices of racist oppression as being ‘‘socially constructed’’ because it is so important to shatter the foolish myth that ‘‘race’’ has any biological meaning (Brace 2005; Lewontin 1982; Race: The Power of an Illusion 2003). But perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to them as ‘‘political economy constructed;’’ the term ‘‘socially constructed’’ leaves out the power relations within the ‘‘social,’’ whereas ‘‘political economy constructed’’ opens the door to a more precise investigation. Capitalism remade the world. It rolled over the world, blew it up, flattened the remains, shattered families, religions, languages, cultures, ethnicities, and remade a new world. Of course, this did not happen at once. It took centuries. And of course there are vestiges of the old, but only if they do not threaten the new set of class relations.
Consider Bronzeville, on the near South Side of Chicago. City officials talk about how they are rebuilding this neighborhood. They are not rebuilding the neighborhood. They have almost completely destroyed neighborhood, drove out the majority of the population, flattened many buildings, and are now putting new buildings up on the same land where the old neighborhood was that will be inhabited by different people. Yes, it is still Bronzeville. But just as when Heraclitus, a highly underrated Greek philosopher said: You cannot step into the same river twice, so too do we need to explore in order to understand how underlying dynamics may not be so apparent when obscured by superficial appearances.
Contingency and Necessity in the Development of Modern Racism
At an American Sociological Association conference, someone once asked me the kind of ‘‘framed question’’ that might force someone into a forced choice between two erroneous alternatives. I was asked: ‘‘Are you saying that it was inevitable that capitalism had to become racist?’’ This type of question is, of course, a ‘‘setup,’’ the kind of question that people who want to deny associations and causal relationships toss out to trap the other into one of the two untenable positions. It is often used against leftist radicals and other humanists. If the speaker answers: ‘‘yes,’’ then the retort is ‘‘So, then, you are not a scientist at all. You are saying that something is inevitable. This is dogma. You are not open-minded. Science has to acknowledge other possible explanations.’’ If the speaker answers: ‘‘no,’’ then the retort is ‘‘So you agree then, that capitalism can exist without racism—that racism is not essential to capitalism.’’ Of course, this kind of reasoning can be applied to any assertion about how one variable might have an effect on another variable. So how do we answer? Well, nothing is ‘‘Inevitable–Inevitable.’’ The sun might explode tomorrow, making tomorrow’s sunset ‘‘not inevitable.’’ An unpredictable earthquake might prevent the Super Bowl from proceeding. The Chicago Cubs might overcome their inevitable collapse and win a World Series . . . well, maybe not that one.
Seriously, everything is probabilistic. Nothing is ‘‘Inevitable–Inevitable’’ with an Absolute upper case ‘‘I.’’ Was it ‘‘inevitable’’ that humankind would learn how to develop the wheel? Well, yes, but no, not inevitable—there might have been an asteroid collision, but probabilistically speaking, for all practical purposes, yes, given trial and error and memory and enough time. Consider it is in the dynamic of capitalism that enterprises must maximize profits. It is not inevitable in so-called human nature that we are doomed to being insatiable for money. But within the limits of capitalism, as in the game ‘‘Monopoly,’’ those firms that are not successful at maximizing income/profits will eventually be overcome.
A discovered invented way to maximize profits is to segment the labor force. In precapitalist society (and today), the division of labor by gender has been most pro- found, but there have been other ways—age, ‘‘ability/disability,’’ being on the losing side of a war, and so on, as ways to increase the wealth of ruling groups. Early capitalism became class society on caffeine. When the capitalist class began to develop more strength, in the 1500s, conquest and technology began to rapidly remake the world. In the 150 or so years since capitalism’s ascendency as the basic political– economic system of the world, we have witnessed changes unimaginable just three centuries ago. Today, capitalism is class society on methamphetamines.
Five centuries ago, as capitalist processes were developing (but not yet universally triumphant), the ‘‘discovery’’ of the Western Hemisphere by wealth-seeking empires created a scramble to acquire more wealth (Galeano 1973). Initially, it was gold, but it soon became apparent that the largest wealth lay in the soil—but it was wealth that could only be realized through the labor of the laboring class. Indentured servants were brought in, and, as has been documented, the very early social and legal status of African servants was the same as that of European servants (Bennett 1993). That soon changed as it became apparent that universal slavery was unworkable and that creating a superexploited sector of the laboring class would provide the benefits of extra profits, of providing the material basis for deflecting the possible antagonism of the rest (European origin) of the laboring class, and, later, actually holding down the compensation for the so-called whites (now wage laborers) by having the superexploited group to use against them. There are conspiracies in history, but it is not conspiracies that mainly shape history. Nor is it accident. More false dichotomy. It is ‘‘trial and error,’’ not necessarily planned way in advance, but if something ‘‘seems to work,’’ then it gets repeated and institutionalized. Was it ‘‘inevitable?’’ Is it ‘‘inevitable’’ that a Monopoly game will eventually have only two players? Yes and no—no, because it is possible that the game could be disrupted, but ‘‘yes’’ in the sense that within the limits of the game, it ‘‘has to’’ evolve this way.
Thus, it is ‘‘probably inevitable.’’ Which is, of course, a little silly, but it makes a point. It was probabilistically ‘‘inevitable’’ that capitalism had to maximize profits, that to do so successfully, it had to segment the labor force, and that one of the key bases of that segmentation would likely have to do with ‘‘place’’—whether place of origin or maintained and sustained through segregation/separation, because this separation facilitates the winning of the less-exploited/oppressed groups away from allying with the more exploited/oppressed group. And with that came the invention of race and racism, at least, as it exists in the world today.
So, was it ‘‘inevitable’’ that capitalism had to become racist? How do we handle that question? How about: ‘‘No, it was not inevitable that capitalism had to become racist—it was only the case here on Earth.’’ If racism and race did not exist, capitalism would have ‘‘had to’’ invent them—and, by the way, racism and race did not exist, and capitalism did invent them. Certainly, the processes and patterns of racist exploitation and oppression as they exist today are directly traceable to those early processes, with a distinct disconnect from whatever might, in appearance, seem to be similar from precapitalist societies. The question of ‘‘which came first’’ can similarly lead to nonproductive discussions, based on false dichotomies. Even if capital- ist processes began to develop before racist policies, the reality is that racist policies so completely saturated and shaped capitalist policies that today, they cannot really be separated, except in isolated cases. There is only ‘‘racist–capitalism’’ or ‘‘capitaist–racism.’’
Another metaphor: Consider a person who must have an artificial heart pump or a pacemaker inserted into the heart in order to live. Is that machine more a part of the person’s body than their hands or their eyes? On one hand no. It is not ‘‘organic.’’ But on the other hand, it is more a part of the person’s body, because without it, the person can no longer live. The person’s body is adjusted to the machine in order to live. Hence, that person is no longer just ‘‘a person,’’ rather that person is a ‘‘pacemakered person’’ or ‘‘heartpumped person’’ (and the pacemaker that now also changes with use actually becomes a ‘‘personized pacemaker’’ or something like that) as there is a dialectal dependency, a unity between the person’s biological body and the machine. So too is there now only ‘‘racist–capitalism’’ or ‘‘capitalist– racism?’’ They are so interconnected that, for all practical purposes in the foresee- able future, on this planet, neither can survive without the other.
The root of modern racism, then, is exploitation, rather than oppression. It is the seeking of profits, rather than psychological gratification, that is at the root (Cox 1948). Of course, these oppressions—political suppression, violence, cultural discrimination—are all devastating to the subjugated group. Fighting against forms of oppression is central to building consciousness and commitment to oppose all of racist oppression and exploitation; such struggles in the past century included opposition to lynching, the right to join unions, the right to vote, opposition to segregation, demands over education, campaigns against police brutality and incarceration, and struggles against racism in the media and culture. But asserting that oppression, rather than exploitation, is at the root begs the question of where it comes from. In the justified effort to avoid narrow ‘‘economic determinism’’ (where oppression is ignored and everything is reduced to the battle for higher wages), it is important to avoid the opposite one-sided extreme of ‘‘psychological determinism’’ (where it is assumed, either directly or by implication/omission that the first cause is something in the brains of people). Brains are very important. Consciousness is very important, central to the struggle. But understanding that the root comes from exploitation helps keep our understanding centered on the core processes and helps keep clear that it will not be possible to overcome racism, in all its forms, as long as capitalist processes continue to reward racist policies and the ideas that reinforce those policies. That does not mean that racist oppression and racist ideas will disappear shortly after the profit incentive is removed. That is nonsense. An uprooted tree can live for a long time. However, without destroying the root, it will be impossible to destroy the tree. It is even more complex than that, however, because while the roots are the core of the tree, it is possible to damage the roots by damaging other parts of the tree. Moving from the metaphor, since capitalism and racist oppression are so intertwined, it is impossible to overcome capitalist oppression without a mighty struggle against racism.
Sometimes social scientists, myself included, use the language of ‘‘the intersection of race and class.’’ There can be a problem with that formulation however if it is implied that these are separated ‘‘oppressions,’’ with different origins, parallel, that ‘‘intersect’’ here and there, rather than understanding that class relations in all their complexity (not just ‘‘low wages or how much money is in one’s bank account’’), but that class relations that materially reward certain arrangements for the ruling class are what give rise to and mutually saturate racist oppression. So of course, some people can be doubly, or triply, or ‘‘quadruple’’ oppressed and it is important to recognize that. But separating them out can lead to the kind of identity politics that actually undermines the ability of the oppressed group to overcome that oppression.
Developing a Useful Concept of Racism
A few words about how I use the term ‘‘racism.’’ Racism is about ideas, but it is also a system of practices. Nobody assumes that fascism, or capitalism, or socialism are only ideas—they are systems of processes. So too is racism, a complex system of processes and ideas that reinforce each other (Omi and Winant 1986). When we create definitions, we have to be careful that we do not let our words utterly redefine the reality. Our words exist to advance our understanding of processes, not to ultimately define something. Different languages use different words. The term ‘‘racism’’ is often too broadly defined, as when I heard a white student say that the local (white) police were ‘‘racist’’ against kids like him because they would not let him use his skateboard. Well, perhaps they were prejudiced against youth, but somehow, the word ‘‘racism’’ does not seem to apply, especially, given that the root of the term ‘‘racism’’ is ‘‘race.’’ At the opposite extreme are those who insist that ‘‘racism’’ should only be used in reference to ‘‘black–white’’ relations in the United States. That seems to be too narrow. It is important to understand the social–political–economic processes if we are to have a definition that is useful. There are other ‘‘oppressions’’ that share much in common with racist oppression—discrimination based on age, or against those with different ability, discrimination based on height, or weight or perceived ‘‘beauty’’ and certainly discrimination based on gender. But while these have much in common, there is something distinctive that runs through discrimination based on perceived ‘‘race’’ as well as ethnicity (often different from perceived ‘‘race’’), language, religion in some but not all instances, and even citizenship. Imperialism also relies on racism to justify the extreme exploitation and often violence that victims of imperialism experience.
What is distinctive is the role of separation. Wealthy powerful people once were young and will someday be old. They might bear a child with a physical or mental ‘‘disability.’’ Men or women generally have someone in their life with whom they love. Such people may still practice discrimination or have prejudiced attitudes based on age, or ‘‘ability’’ or gender, but it is much easier to marginalize, isolate, and create a culture of ‘‘otherness’’ against people who are more physically separated, either by origin or by design. This facilitates discrimination and oppression. None of this is absolute, of course. There are many exceptions, but the dynamic that is facilitated by separation has some distinctive characteristics. Besides so-called race and ethnicity, religious conflict is sometimes characterized by this dynamic. Not absolutely, but often, religion is confounded (sometimes intentionally) by racist pseudoscience; the average person in the United States does not picture a European when asked to picture a Muslim. Consider imperialist Japan’s abuse of Chinese and Korean women; Nazi and other European slaughter of Jews; Zionist discrimination against Arabs; Muslim discrimination against Buddhists in Afghanistan and Buddhist assaults on Muslims in Myanmar; Hindu assaults on Muslims in India; discrimination against Roma (so-called gypsies); non-European immigrants in Europe; Northern Italian scorn of Southern Italians; the mistreatment of indigenous people from Canada to Latin America to Australia to Northeast India; and conflicts among Christians in Yugoslavia or Ireland and of course, against especially black people in the United States, and Latinos and Muslims—wherever there is widespread discrim- ination or conflict that spills over to civilians, we see a commonality centered on so- called race or ethnicity or, often, religion. Because separation is such a core feature to this particular cluster of discriminations that I am categorizing, imprecisely, as ‘‘racism,’’ it therefore means that the struggle against all forms of separation/segregation is absolutely essential to the struggle against these forms of racism, just as the struggle against racist oppression is the cutting edge of the struggle against capitalist oppression.
Again, there are other forms of discrimination and oppression that are deadly and need to be opposed. And the cluster of discriminations that I am including as types of ‘‘racism’’ are not identical, but all definitions are clusters with fuzzy edges, and this helps to clarify what is common in the dynamics of these discriminations. While we do not want to get mystical with numbers, it is interesting that the wage gap between white and black workers in the United States has remained around 60 percent for the past 50 years. That is very close to the wage gap between ‘‘whites’’ and Hispanics in the United States, Protestant and Catholic workers in Northern Ireland, between Jewish and Israeli Arabs (citizens of Israel) workers and between white workers and Caribbean/African/Pakistani/Bangladeshi immigrants in Britain. Some places are more extreme (South Africa) and some are less. It is worth noting that the ‘‘wealth gap’’ (as opposed to wage gap) between white and black families (how much in total assets a family owns minus liabilities) in the United States is nearly 20 to 1, higher than in South Africa. In any case, it would be very wrong to reduce all the multidimensional, life-destroying forms of oppression to a simple ‘‘wage gap’’; the point here is to simply explore some of the core dynamics that drive these processes.
Ideas, Behaviors and ‘‘White Privilege?’’
Ideas are important. The complexity of our ideas is what separates us from other species and what gives rise to social organization. All kinds of ideas can pop into people’s heads in all kinds of combinations of ways; our creative imaginations gen- erate so many different thoughts that it is difficult to conclude whether one or another random idea is more important. While the initial flash that sparks an idea is certainly important to explore, it is more important to understand why certain ideas take hold among large numbers of people while others are discarded. Whether a person might randomly ponder about the importance of supposed ‘‘racial’’ differences, or height, or deepness of voice is less the central issue than how one’s life experiences, and especially the social–political–economic structure rewards, rein- forces, perpetuates, systematizes, and institutionalizes those ideas.
To see the genesis of systems of racist exploitation/oppression as being within the minds of people begs the question of why there is not a similar, massive, world- wide system of stratification, exploitation, and oppression based on more documentable physical differences, such as height or eyesight, rather than the conveniently flexible, unscientific notions of race, often ‘‘flexibly’’ confounded with culture. If racist exploitation and oppression by the powerful exists to serve the material interests of the capitalist class (as a whole, with exceptions of course), why, then do some members of the working class go along with this oppression, or worse, sometimes participate in it?
Since the late 1960s, it has become fashionable to assert that white people, as a group, have interests that are opposed to the interests of racial minorities, especially black people, and are fundamentally allied with the white capitalists who wield economic and political power in capitalist society. Sometimes this takes the form of asserting that there are great psychological benefits associated with feeling superior. While there is, no doubt, some satisfaction that some white people derive from not being in the more oppressed group, it is doubtful that most white people walk around constantly enjoying, in a self-aware way, the fact that black people, in general, have lower economic and social standing in U.S. society. But what of the material advatages afforded to white people in general? Can they be so easily dismissed?
On average, white people earn about 65 percent more in wages per capita than black people (or Hispanic/Latino people). The typical wealth of white households is about 20 times the median wealth of black households—mainly because of home ownership. Equality of public educational facilities is not guaranteed by law, and educational opportunities in the black community are very limited (Kozol 2012). Discrimination in hiring persists (Bertrand and Mullainathan 2004). Black people are incarcerated more often and for longer periods of time than white people for sim- ilar alleged offenses. Black poverty is higher, unemployment is much higher, discrimination in employment has been absolutely documented, infant mortality rates are scandalous and devastating, and black people have higher mortality rates from most diseases and live shorter lives. There is no question that taken as a statistical group, white people, on average, have easier lives. There are, of course, many white people who have more difficult lives than some black people, but again, taken as an average, there is no question that racist exploitation and oppression are devastatingly real. This reality must be exposed, called out again and again, and fought with every ounce of energy that we can muster.
The question becomes: Do white people, as a whole, benefit from the existence of racist exploitation and oppression? Is the term ‘‘white privilege’’ the best way to describe the differentials between the two groups? Clearly, wealthy white people benefit from racist exploitation and the oppression that sustains it. Their wealth is derived from the profits from the working class, enhanced by racist (and imperialist) wage policies. White working-class people live longer lives and generally have better health, better schooling, and nicer homes than do black working-class people. I can personally detail encounters with traffic police where I likely avoided deserved penalties because I am ‘‘white.’’ So clearly, and unambiguously, there are advantages, material, life-enhancing, life-sustaining advantages that even many white working-class people experience But the core question remains: Is it a ‘‘Privilege,’’ with an uppercase ‘‘P,’’ for most nonrich white folks to live under capitalism? Is there a difference between using the language of ‘‘relative advantages’’ even ‘‘huge relative advantages’’ as opposed to language that implies that it is in the fundamental material interests of most white people to support the exploitation and oppression of blacks and other racial–ethnic minorities?
If it is, then the interests of all white people would lie in suppressing others, and there is no hope for white people, except to appeal to some sort of moral self- sacrifice. Such is the language of ‘‘giving up one’s white privilege.’’ What does that mean, exactly? Sometimes these phrases become a way of symbolically assert- ing something without having to actually do anything. Surely, white people, all people, should be willing to risk their position, their status, their material well- being, to protect, and defend the condition of others experiencing oppression. But one is reminded of President Clinton ‘‘apologizing for slavery’’ while slashing welfare support and being complicit in the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of black men. Interestingly, many of the ones who assert that ‘‘all white people are guilty’’ often end up mainly blaming white working-class people and offering milder critiques to those, like themselves, who are enlightened (and generally of somewhat more affluent means). It also often only treads very ‘‘lightly’’ on those black politicians who themselves are often fronting for rich (white) capitalist interests.
None of this is meant to excuse active participation, complicity, or even passive acceptance by white people of the oppression of others. But would we then say that an unemployed black worker in the United States is ‘‘Privileged’’ because she does not live in poverty in Ghana, and is that Ghanaian ‘‘privileged’’ over someone in Ethiopia? All of this moralistic rhetoric (embraced by many capitalist foundations, by the way) obscures the causes and genuine interest groups that fundamentally sustain this oppressive, racist system.
In fact, by diverting the focus away from the capitalist political–economic basis for modern racism, this ‘‘guilt’’ approach actually dilutes the struggle against racism. If we are all guilty, then none are more culpable than others and we wallow in a swamp of original sin rather than organizing to fight against the oppression. The problem is not that it is ‘‘antiwhite;’’ the problem is that by failing to focus the struggle against racist exploitation and oppression on the main causes, it sustains not only class exploitation and oppression in general but more specifically racist exploitation and oppression. The problem is that it is not just ‘‘antiwhite,’’ but that, in effect, it is ‘‘antiblack.’’ This is related to criticisms of Obama that are often dismissed as racist; many, many of those criticisms are racist. But some of those criticisms are based on the belief that Obama is not opposing racism enough, and in fact, that some of his policies sustain racism against black working-class people, Latinos, and ‘‘people of color’’ in other countries.
Do most white working-class people benefit from living in this capitalist system? Certainly within the United States, and many other places, wages for white workers are lower where the gap between black and white is larger, and where wages for black workers are higher, including relative to white worker wages, the wages of the white workers are also higher. Widening the gap doesn’t mean ‘‘there’s more for the white workers;’’ on the contrary, narrowing the gap makes it more difficult for one group to be used against the other to lower the wages for both. As the relative gap between black and white family incomes narrowed, the absolute economic condition of white families improved. In recent decades, as the gap between black and white family incomes has widened, the absolute economic condition of white fam- ilies has declined. One did not rise at the expense of the other.
But there are even more profound reasons for ‘‘majority’’ ‘‘white’’ working class (very loosely defined here to include all sorts of service, white-collar, semiprofessional, and some professional people) to oppose racism. It is because the profits made from racist exploitation and the political disunity fostered by racist culture/ ideology is what sustains this capitalist system of war, of economic instability, of artificially limited scientific, especially medical research, of unhealthy foods and lifestyles, of corrupt, superficial, competitive culture that corrodes and destroys human relationships. And then there’s war. Do most white folks benefit from that? Is it a ‘‘privilege’’ for most working-class (broadly defined) people to live under capitalism? If not, what would it take to change the situation? How important is racist superexploitation to the capitalist system. Consider if the U.S. capitalist class simply raised the wages of all black workers (not even counting Latinos) to be equal to the average wages of the average white worker, the capitalist system would col- lapse. That is how important racist superexploitation is to the capitalist system and that is how important the struggle against racism is for the broad struggle for social justice against capitalist oppression. Sure, there are perks. And the perks are not just illusory. They are real. Real, genuine, palpable, tasty, health giving, life sustaining. But they are real like the real cheese, tasty, healthy, life-sustaining cheese . . . in the mousetrap.
As social scientists, as humanists, as thinkers we have to learn to see beyond superficial appearances. The cheese looks good. It is good. It is not illusory. But what is it attached to?
Oppose Color-blind Racism
The discourse around these issues is so saturated with racism that it is easy, but wrong, to categorize what is being put forward here as typical ‘‘color-blind racism’’ that is substituting bland ‘‘class rhetoric’’ as a way to avoid acknowledging the life- destroying role of racist oppression and as a way of avoiding confronting the ways that many white people, including working-class people, act to help sustain racism. Critiquing the notion that all whites fundamentally benefit from racist arrangements is not necessarily ‘‘protecting’’ white people from having to accept responsibility for behaviors that may be complicit, or worse, in sustaining racism. It is exactly to con- front white folks, and all folks, with the understanding that if they/we are serious about ending racist oppression, we must go after the roots of that—the capitalist class relations that create, reward, and sustain racist oppression, and if we are serious about ending all forms of exploitation, oppression, and subjugation, we must put the struggle against racism at the forefront of all struggles.
Because there are so many examples throughout history of calls for unity, which then kicked black folks, in particular, off the train once it was running, the burden of proof lies with those who do receive the immediate advantages to demonstrate their willingness to risk those advantages. That is not the same as moralistically declaring that one has ‘‘given up their Privilege’’ (sometimes quite profitably by giving work- shops to help people assuage their guilt or worse, a public relations for institutions that maintain racist policies). But the skepticism about ‘‘class’’ rhetoric has a real basis in history. The old slogan of ‘‘Black and White Unite’’ should be ‘‘Black and White Unite against Racism’’ because the struggle against racist exploitation, oppression, and ideology must be the cutting edge of the struggle for social justice, exactly because it is the fracture that weakens the movement for social justice while at the same time, holds the key to being the point of entry to weaken the oppressive structures of capitalism.
Racist exploitation and oppression grow out of the class relations of society, but they are not simply collapsible to ‘‘higher wages.’’ On the contrary, they are the sharpest expression of capitalist oppression, as if the blade of a sword is the weapon of class struggle, but the very edge of the blade is the struggle against all forms of racism, including, as mentioned, imperialism. Asserting that racist exploitation and oppression flow out of the class struggle need not be the same as supporting the notion of ‘‘color-blind racism.’’ In fact, as discussed earlier, the edge of the blade and the rest of the blade are not two separate things; they are fundamentally parts of the same thing, so fundamentally ingrained in each other that neither could exist in any serious sense without the other. The struggle against racism must be at the forefront of all struggles because racist oppression saturates all aspects of capitalist social relations, whether we realize it or not.
Why Do You Care?
Every so often, some asks me: ‘‘Why do you care so much about racism? Is it some sort of ‘thing’ with you?’’ Mostly white folks ask me that, students wonder why it runs throughout my courses, rather than just being a ‘‘one-week unit’’ in Introductory Sociology or Social Problems or Stratification. Occasionally, serious black folks ask me versions of that question. The first time I was asked it was during a campaign to save the job of a black professor who was being unfairly terminated. Someone came up to me and asked me why I cared so much about it. I just looked at him and asked: ‘‘Should I care about you?’’ He looked confused. So I asked him again, looking him straight in the eye: ‘‘Should I care about you?’’ ‘‘Well, er, um, sure, I hope so,’’ he said. ‘‘So,’’ I replied, ‘‘what kind of question is that?’’
The point is that antiracists have to stop being so defensive or apologetic about the importance of this struggle. Many humanists/leftists/progressives, whatever . . . ponder the question of why there is no strong leftist, or prosocialist, or class conscious movement in the United States. The ones in Europe have many, many flaws, but compared to them, we have a situation in the United States where tens of millions of people believe that Obama is a socialist. Conservatives in Europe are more pro- gressive than many in the liberal wing of the U.S. Democratic Party on many issues. There are lots of reasons why there is so little, for now, class consciousness in the United States. Partly it is the culture of individualism, intensified by home owner- ship, the automobile culture, the mythical cowboy culture, the ‘‘United States is Supreme’’ type of nationalism, the temporary bribes (‘‘cheese?’’) of easy credit to temporarily maintain a lifestyle with some physical comfort. But a core reason is the racist division within the population, something that has been ingrained in U.S. culture since two centuries before there was a United States! While European imperialists certainly used different aspects of racism in their imperial conquests, mainly overseas, we now see more of the U.S. type of internal racism developing in Europe as well, and we see a divided movement, split between leftists preoccupied with labor issues and ignoring racism, and ethnic groups immersed in identity politics who remain skeptical of the traditional Left. Who benefits from the existence of a race–ethnic based ‘‘reserve army of lower paid labor?’’ Who benefits from a divided grassroots populace, divided by illusions, and forced institutional arrangements based on politically constructed, perceived ‘‘race and ethnicity?’’
Hence, yes, we all should ‘‘care.’’ Not as charity, but for survival. Our lives and our destinies are one. If, for example, all the black workers in the United States, and nobody else, had gone on strike at the start of the devastatingly destructive Iraq War, it would have been the most powerful strike in the history of the United States, and perhaps a million lives there as well as thousands of lives here, and millions more impacted negatively by that war—they/we would have been spared great misery. It’s not charity. It’s sisterhood/brotherhood. It’s what the word ‘‘solidarity’’ means.
All this should lead to the realization that the struggle against racism, broadly defined, is not just another of the many struggles we need to carry on in order to cre- ate a humanistic world based on social justice. Just as racist exploitation, oppression, and ideas saturate every part of human life, distorting our institutions and relation- ships in complex, subtle, and not-so-subtle ways—just as all of our struggles for social justice are undermined by the existence of racist ideas and racist institutional arrangements in society . . . so then must we ensure that the struggle against racism is part of every struggle for social justice in which we are involved, from the most explicitly political to the most personal in our relationships.
It is not so-called reverse racism (a nonsensical rhetorical tool to deny the inten- sity of actual racism) to emphasize the struggle against racism any more than it is reverse discrimination to toss a buoyant lifesaving device to someone in the water when someone on the boat complains that they want one also! And it is not ‘‘charity’’ to offer solidarity to brothers and sisters. It is important to keep in mind that in the most fundamental sense, black people (and increasingly many Latino people) have not been ‘‘outside’’ the system; black and Latino working-class people have been holding up the system as agricultural workers, steel workers, auto workers, coal miners, health care workers, and more, while being underpaid not just in wages but in social services, education, and housing. It is not a question of ‘‘white’’ allies; it is a question of solidarity and equality. However, it is true that most ‘‘white’’ people do not grasp how profoundly widespread and intense racial discrimination is—from the different types of anxiety that white people feel when followed by a police officer to the humiliation of being followed in retail stores or vilified in the media. And this is on top of the massive economic discrimination. So the burden is on all of us, but there is a special need for those with weaker understanding of these dynamics to take the initiative to become educated and committed to opposing them. Many people have had the experience of someone asking the oft-repeated question of ‘‘Why do the black students sit together in the cafeteria?’’ Perhaps readers of this might ask that question themselves. One could try to consider sociological explanations that evade issues of race, or of networks, but even without looking too deeply into it, shouldn’t the question be: ‘‘Have you ever gone over and introduced yourself?’’ Per- ceived so-called black separatism is less widely practiced than is exaggerated in the media and more important, ‘‘white separatism’’ is often considered ‘‘natural’’ and the question is seldom asked: ‘‘Why do the white students sit together in the cafe- teria?’’ Actually, while the media discourse on race and racism still mainly rein- forces racist divisions, and while economic and social gaps are widening, it seems to be the case on many colleges, especially working-class ones, that there is more social interaction than in the past. This is good, important, and needs to be nurtured. Antiracists should not be apologetic or timid. We are not the weird ones. We have to internalize and project, with confidence and strength—not arrogance or elitism, but confidence and strength, that it is the racists who are the weird ones. We have to practice thinking and saying things like: ‘‘Do people really believe that stuff?’’ rather than asking people to give up their perceived ‘‘normalcy’’ and join us, the abnormal ones, on a great moral crusade. Seriously, racist ideas are nonsense and, again without exhibiting personal arrogance or using personal insults, these ideas should be confronted the same way we would confront the idea that horses can talk.
Racism and Capitalism—Crisis and Resistance
The struggle for social justice is more important now than it has been in the past 75 years, perhaps ever. The world is an increasingly dangerous place. Capitalism as a world system has limits, and while it has not reached its limits everywhere, there are huge pressures building up. Severe cutbacks in the standard of living even in the wealthy countries, fragmentation, intensified nationalism camouflaged by talk of global economic integration. The pressures will try to be contained through cut- backs, then political suppression, but ultimately, they will likely explode in one way or another. If that sounds apocalyptic and silly, just ask why should we believe that after hundreds of generations, this generation will be the one that sees the start of eternal peace here on Earth. The youth of today will face a much more difficult world than my generation faced. We cannot fully prevent certain massive political–economic processes from developing along certain pathways, but we most certainly can have an impact on how devastating they will be and how we can make the world a better place.
The struggle against racist exploitation and oppression can never be won without defeating the profit motive of capitalism that rewards it. It is not just the ‘‘1 percent,’’ but rather the system as a whole, which rewards and therefore creates these practices. The struggle for social justice on all fronts, the struggle against capitalism and its destructive dynamic of profits over people can never be won without a massive struggle against all forms of racism. This is not just a slogan. The two are not ‘‘two’’—they are integrated, fully unified parts of a single system. Let us all commit ourselves, again and again through action, to transform our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, community centers into self-conscious centers working for social justice, with the struggle against racism ever present in those struggles. And let us continue to transform the Association for Humanist Sociology (AHS) into an organization that can set that example to ourselves, our colleagues, our students and staff, and our communities by fully incorporating into AHS the struggle against all forms of racism and imperialism and by transforming the membership of AHS to more fully reflect the ‘‘racial–ethnic’’ and international diversity of the human race.
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Alan Spector is a Professor of Sociology at Purdue North West and long time anti-racist, anti-war activist, email@example.com