By Karyn Pomerantz, January 2019
Selected non-fiction books that provide an analysis of racism in US history.
Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi, 2016.
My favorite non-fiction history of 2018. Kendi traces the rise and fall of racist ideology to justify the exploitation of Africans and African Americans. He rejects the popular belief that racial prejudice creates discrimination and argues that the ruling elites create and promote racist ideas to divide and control the population and maximize earnings. He condemns the racists who attack black people as biologically and intellectually substandard. More unusual is his criticism of the assimilationist perspective that accepts black inferiority but attributes it to culture, the environment, poverty, and historical factors. He calls out famous figures from Lincoln and Garrison for holding these ideas. Kendi maintains that black people are not deficient or inferior but are targeted by a small ruling class to create wealth. He calls for unity among all workers and contends that white workers benefit materially and socially from a more equal society. (See a fuller review on this blog at https://multiracialunity.org/2018/10/04/book-review-stamped-from-the-beginning/).
The Color of Politics: Race and the Mainspring of American Politics by Michael Goldstein, NY Press, 1997.
Goldstein, a labor historian, argues that racism underlies the political, social, and economic history of the US, describing and countering other explanations. From colonial times and the growing power of the planters, he notes the initial alliances and relationships among the white indentured servants and free black people. The decision of these planters to enslave Africans, and their creation of white superiority (and use of violence) to separate whites and blacks enabled them to justify slavery and reduce the risk of multiracial rebellion. This divide and conquer strategy by the ruling class dominates the periods of Reconstruction, the rise of unions, the New Deal, electoral politics, and imperialist and world wars. Countering racist oppression are the unions, mostly in the communist led Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), that organized black, white, and immigrant workers together and fought for broad, class based demands. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) had a militant multiracial membership with black officials and policies outlawing Klan members and discrimination. The meatpacking union in Chicago expanded their workplace demands to antiracist community actions, mobilizing 1000s of members to protect black families moving into white neighborhoods. Goldstein shows how racism maintains the rule of a small elite and how mass, antiracist organizations can threaten its power. While describing the damages caused by capitalism, he never calls for its elimination. However, he concludes by calling for “placing the principle of racial egalitarianism on the top furl of our marching banner.”
From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation by Keenaga Yamahta-Taylor, Haymarket Books, 2016.
While Kendi traces the evolution of ideas to justify racism and Goldstein depicts the consequences of multiracial organizing in the labor movement, Taylor offers a strategy for creating an antiracist movement and world. This book is a must read for anyone trying to understand the structural barriers to equality and the way to break them down.
The early chapters describe the pervasiveness of police brutality, mass incarceration, unrelenting economic exploitation, and the rise of black rebellions against the police murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and so many others. She acclaims the young Ferguson leaders for their militancy in the face of tanks and gas, and their rejection of cooptation by the Church, Democratic Party, and Al Sharpton (who called for pacifism and tried to kick their speakers off the podium at a march in DC).
Obama doesn’t get off easy either. Understanding that many defended him because of the vicious racist attacks against his family and people’s baseless hope that he could make a difference, Taylor rightfully censures him for continuing imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, funding Israel, maintaining the Guantanamo Prison and torture, deporting millions, and refusing to pardon Troy Davis who was wrongfully executed.
She demonstrates that racism does not arise from the prejudices of white people or individual politicos. From Black Lives Matter clearly places racism within the system of capitalism as a source of enormous profits for a corporate elite through cheap or free labor and as an ideological cleaver between groups of workers that Kendi (above) so brilliantly recounts. After centuries of scapegoating blacks as criminals, low-lifes, crazy, and lazy, the ruling class easily blames black families for their disproportionately high rates of poverty and unemployment, attributing such “failures” to their culture or biology.
Repudiating these theories of personal responsibility, Taylor shows how social and economic policies enforced by employers and the government deny black individuals good housing, education, and jobs. For example, black GIs after WWII secured only 2% of subsidized housing mortgages that created suburbs for white GIs and urban slums for black GIs. Home ownership allowed white families to accrue 18 times greater wealth than black families that they passed down to generations while black families experienced poverty. (See Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law for a detailed history of housing discrimination, also reviewed on this blog below and at multiracialunity.org/2017/05/23/the-u-s-government-caused-segregated-housing-with-malice-of-forethought/).
The Latinx, black, Native Americans, and Chinese workers responded to these form of oppression with resistance and uprisings, including slave revolts, urban rebellions, boycotts, unionizing, strikes, marches, left wing organizations like the Black Panther Party and the Communist Party, black radical feminism, anti-Vietnam War protests, and voter registration campaigns. The ruling class responded with cooptation, such as non-discrimination laws, elections, and voting rights. President Kennedy, threatened by an upsurge in economic demands in Mississippi, secured foundation money to steer Freedom Summer activists away from anti-poverty struggles to voter registration campaigns in 1964. However, lynchings, the Black Codes that criminalized behaviors such as loitering or disrespect of whites, convict labor, violent policing, and prison served as the means of social control.
Taylor devotes the last chapters to analyzing the rise of Black Lives Matter and how this new activism can develop into a liberation struggle. These chapters are the most controversial and important sections.
She quotes Malcolm X:
“… We have a rotten system. It’s a system of exploitation…You can’t have capitalism without racism.”
Marx underscored how the rise of capitalism in the US and Europe created different levels of exploitation and schisms among workers. The planters and business class gave white workers in colonial times a higher economic and social status than enslaved people, a bribe that continues today. Objectively, black and white workers have much in common; they all labor for wages and have no actual power.
The ideology of white skin privilege implies that white people, especially men, benefit from racism and should sacrifice their somewhat better circumstances to counter it. Taylor attacks this notion arguing that all workers experience the deleterious effects of capitalism in different degrees, and that these degrees are getting worse for everyone due to falling wages, joblessness, unaffordable housing, and increasing poverty. While a disproportionate number of black families live under the poverty line, 19 million whites do as well.
Alternatively, Taylor calls for multiracial unity:
“Solidarity… is crucial to workers’ ability to resist the constant degradation of their living standards. Solidarity is only possible through relentless struggle to win white workers to antiracism… Building the struggles against racism, police violence, poverty… is critical to people’s basic survival… it is also within those struggles for the basic rights of existence that people learn how to struggle, how to strategize and build movements and organizations.”
These struggles must eventually lead to more revolutionary goals and liberate the working class from capitalism and the oppression it unleashes. It remains to be seen whether the new protest movements can move in this direction.
Color of Law by Richard Rothstein and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond address the oppressive nature of housing policy through the legal system and its effects on impoverished people. Rothstein traces government laws that “redlined” real estate to deny housing to black families, forced them into substandard city housing in neighborhoods with poorly resourced schools, and steered 98 percent of the subsidized mortgages to white GIs returning from WWII. Black residents lived in more environmentally toxic locations and accrued less wealth that home ownership conveys. Segregated housing ensured less contact among workers and more victim blaming.
Morris takes a micro level approach. He spent over a year living in public and private housing interacting with the residents and landlords. His reporting reveals the utter disruption and instability caused by rotten conditions, evictions, and the fees landlords charge. There are many scenes of parents and kids hustling their belongings into trash bags before the movers arrive and frantically trying to find new housing.
A longer review of The Color of Law is on this blog at https://multiracialunity.org/2017/05/23/the-u-s-government-caused-segregated-housing-with-malice-of-forethought/
African American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz introduces a working class view of US history emphasizing the reciprocal effects of antiracist and anticolonial movements in the Americas, a perspective Ortiz labels emancipatory internationalism.. The Haitian revolution is one example. Most people are aware of the impact of the Haitian insurrection on enslaved people and the plantation owners in the US. It inspired slave revolts in the colonies and stoked fear in the planters. (It also forced the French to sell its Louisiana territory to the US). The uprisings led by Simon Bolivar throughout South America also encouraged abolitionists in the US as these anti-slavery campaigns also encouraged anti Spanish colonialists in South America.
Ortiz cites Frederick Douglass’ support of international solidarity:
“Neither geographical boundaries, nor national restrictions, ought, or should prevent me from rejoicing over the triumphs of freedom, no matter where or by whom achieved.”
This history demonstrates the reality of unity among workers of different countries bound together in their pursuit of freedom from colonialism and exploitation.
A short list of novels that portray personal experiences of racism.
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbu, 2017, tells the story of a family from Cameroon who moves to NYC, finds jobs, and pays thousands to lawyers to obtain green cards. Once the financial world tanks, their economic security evaporates. Mbu draws readers into a suspenseful tale of the effects of finance capitalism on the financiers and the immigrant workers they hire.
Jesmyn Ward has written several books about growing up in Mississippi, Salvage the Bones, Men We Reaped, Sing, Unburied, Sing. They portray the effects of poverty, addiction, family ties, and rural life on relationships and survival. Her characters strive to connect with others, understand family dynamics, and secure a living. Ward is an incredible, awarded writer who allows readers to enter the heads of her characters and the environment in which they live.
Sour Heart by Jennifer Zhang is a collection of short stories about people immigrating from China to the United States. It travels back and forth in time and location through the perspectives of angry young women and their relatives who experience intense poverty and isolation. The writing is intense and often repetitive but worth reading or listening to the audio version.
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota is a harrowing account of 4 people from India who escape to England in hopes of an education and employment. They live in fear of detection by the immigration police, forced into worse housing and jobs. It would be hard not to sympathize with any migrant trying to create a better life. Sahota’s portrayal of their despair and friendships recall Rohinton Mistry’s classic, A Fine Balance.
Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot is a memoir of a Native American woman’s experience growing up in an abusive family on a reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Mailhot has a unique voice; she writes in short sharp, powerful sentences that engages the reader (or listener) anxious to learn how she survives. (The audiobook is excellent).
James Baldwin (anything) also places the reader in the heads of his characters as they struggle to find love in heterosexual, gay, and biracial relationships, respect, and racialized stigma. His essays, such as The Fire Next Time, eloquently bares the mechanisms of capitalism and the racism it requires.