Racism: Highlighted by Covid-19, Needed by Capitalism

by Ellen Isaacs

April 12, 2020

The current pandemic has made the racial inequality in the US glaringly apparent if there was anyone who was not already aware of it. Countless articles have been written which document the much higher rate of infection and mortality for black and Latin workers in the US. Most reports, however, have responded to these glaring statistics with the hope or a vow to find a remedy, to cure the inequality which we have known has existed for hundreds of years. What few have acknowledged is that the capitalist US economy depends on racism for its functioning. Thus what we can actually expect, bar a mass movement to the contrary, is a return to hiding racial inequality and blaming the victims.

It is not necessary to repeat here the by now well-known facts of the great racial disparities in Covid-19 rates of infection and death. Some commentators, like New York’s Governor Cuomo, have expressed surprise and said we must do research to investigate the causes. Most commentators have acknowledged that health and social and economic disparities are to blame. Some have pointed out that racist health practices in the past have made blacks suspicious of any public health messaging or fear the police will attack them for such practices as wearing a mask. A few authors still blame bad individual habits, like a poor diet, as if this did not have social causes. US Surgeon General Jerome Adams, during a press briefing at the White House on April 10, cautioned minorities to “avoid alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.” Thankfully, it does not seem that biological inferiority is coming up except perhaps in a few backward corners unknown to this writer.

Many of those who are dismayed by these disparities are trying to propose solutions. Some simply hope that by exposing so much excess death, we will be moved to do something about it. Most, like Rashawn writing for the Brookings Institution say something similar to:“It is time for the U.S. to implement legislation to close the racial gap in health disparities before this pandemic is over and before it is too late.” (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2020/04/09/why-are-blacks-dying-at-higher-rates-from-covid-19/

US Capitalism Needs Racism

We would argue that the fundamental problem is not only that racism and disparities exist, but that US capitalism cannot afford to do without them. There are two fundamental reasons for this. One is that racism has successfully divided American workers against one another from the days of slavery through modern times, fooling people about the origins of their problems and preventing them from uniting together. The second is that there are massive savings in wages and social conditions between white workers and people of color which the economy could ill afford to dispense with.

From the age of slavery through Jim Crow we are all clear on how black workers were treated worse than white workers, who were then led to see their status as poor farmers or poorly paid laborers as at least superior to that of black workers. As early as the 1870s, there was a little interracial union organizing, such as by the Knights of Labor, but generally employers and union leaders sowed racial segregation and mistrust and used workers against one another to break strikes and other struggles. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Communist Party USA was heavily influenced by the international leadership coming from the USSR to make fighting racism a priority. Through the 1930s they played a large role in building multiracial struggles and the anti-racist CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations). However, the New Deal policies under FDR excluded many black workers in agricultural and domestic work, as well as immigrant workers, and the post-war anticommunism of McCarthyism in the 1950s destroyed the left leadership of the union movement and its multiracial emphasis.

Meanwhile, until the 1960s the government sponsored racial segregation in housing and education and created great environmental inequities. Even though these policies officially ended in the 60s, patterns of segregation in neighborhoods were well established and have been continued through many devices such as zoning laws. Despite court battles to outlaw segregation in schools, even in “liberal” cities like New York schools remain highly separate and unequal, as much as they were in the 1950s. In recent years, outright racist ideas which justify segregation have been partly replaced with supposedly progressive  identity politics, encouraging people to divide themselves in work, play and struggles by their ethnicity in order to feel more empowered.

These great divisions between us have enabled US capitalism to maintain huge differences in spending on wages and services between different communities. Not only do black Americans have but 10% of the wealth of whites, but black and Latin workers earn on average 75% of the wages of whites. Based on Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2017, one can roughly calculate annual savings of $382 billion just on wage differentials of employed workers. If one then adds in the wages that would be earned by those in prison and those who are unemployed above the rate for white workers, another $160 billion is added on. All this does not even consider what is saved by paying women less than men, or in wages paid to workers overseas.

There are also great differentials in spending on social programs. In 2012, for example, there was about $7 billion saved by spending less on students of color than white students, primarily based on quality and quantity of staff and class size ((https://nces.ed.gov/search/?q=number+of+students+in+school). In his book Evicted, Matthew Desmond estimates that it would cost $60 billion to provide universal housing vouchers nationally, but this of course excludes the cost of upgrading housing. Many of the urban poor live in projects which are in very poor shape and years behind in repairs, let alone any amenities like recreational space.

In conclusion, racism plays an important, a vital role, in enabling US capitalism to stay in power. Most important, it has been the main factor in dividing workers against one another and so has crippled the trade union movement, as well as struggles for better housing, environment, education, and health and health care. When people are divided into siloes that separate them by neighborhood, schools, job categories, and hospitals, they do not see themselves as allies or learn to love or trust one another. These divisions have enabled the ruling class of the US to maintain a system of shoddy standards in many areas of life, shocking by the norms of even other developed capitalist states. These low standards of course exist for all workers and drag down the standards for everyone, even the slightly better off white male workers. Whether these chasms of separation are justified by overtly racist ideas or those of defining identity by race or nationality instead of class, the end result is the same. We do not fight together.

So deep are these divisions in American society today that it would be hard for US capitalism to survive without them. But then, capitalism, a system that depends on reaping profits out of the labor of us all, is not system we should wish to keep. But whether fighting for reforms in the present or revolutionary system change in the long run, the imperative is to build multiracial unity. Only together can we win.

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