Inequality is Reinforced and Masked by RACISM and SEXISM
by Bill Sacks, 8-13-2021
A frontpage article in the Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/07/22/noose-construction-industry-racism/) tells of recent incidents at many US worksites in which nooses have been left in plain sight by unidentified persons (read cowardly racists). The intent of fomenting fear is derived from the ugly history of US lynchings, particularly in the South after the Civil War during Reconstruction and well into the 20th century.
The article calls lynching an “implement of terror and murder used primarily against Black people.” This description is important both for what it says and what it only implies – though the implication emerges only if one is prepared to read between the lines and thinks about the word “primarily.” The fact is that out of more than 4,000 lynchings, roughly a quarter of the victims were white working-class persons. In many (or most) cases their “crime” was associating with fellow workers who happened to be black. Thus, whether the persons lynched were black or white or any other ethnicity, the motivation was always inspired by the ideology of racism, and the purpose was always to maintain and employ the practice of racism as a means of keeping black and white working-class persons apart and convinced that each was the enemy of the other.
This article argues that ruling class exploitation is the foundation of capitalism, affecting black and white workers, although to lesser degrees, and gives examples from literary sources.
Exploitation Is the Root of Capitalism
The source of racist ideology and practices was and remains the capitalist class, the class of exploiters. Racism was adapted by them during the era of slavery in the US South, for the purpose of preserving their system of exploitation – a preservation requiring the prevention of resistance or rebellion by the exploited class of workers, whether enslaved or nominally “free.”
Exploitation is the central feature of capitalism and the foundation of class, just as class in turn is the foundation of inequality in an exploitative system – even if that inequality is reinforced and amplified by racism and sexism. But those and other forms of division are not the foundation of inequality; that role is filled by class, although inequality within the working class is magnified and reinforced by racism and sexism. The latter become the most visible elements, pushing class to the less visible and poorly understood background.
Just as the capitalist class is the source of these, and all other divisive ideologies and practices, so are they the sole beneficiaries. And the targets of their crimes are the working class, not just one portion of our class, but our entire class. Divisions within our class are made possible only by forcing one or more segments of our class into a subservient position, in which the directly targeted members are more, far more, intensively exploited and oppressed, and other portions of our class less intensively exploited and oppressed, but still exploited and oppressed. To be less exploited and oppressed is not, as the capitalists and their apologists claim, to be privileged. There is no such thing as “white skin privilege” among our class; the only privilege is based on class, not skin color – “capitalist class privilege.” And capitalists are not granted that privilege; rather they seize and hold it. They are enabled to do so by their concentration of economic power, in which workers put in the work and capitalists take out the profits.
The failure of the Washington Post article to make explicit the victimization of both black and white workers by racism, even though not equally so, is endemic in journalism. Its absence encourages further division between natural class comrades. It falsely implies to black workers who are unfamiliar with lynching history that they were alone in bearing the burden of that horrendous form of terrorism, and it falsely implies to white workers that they were never victimized by racism’s countless and ongoing atrocities. By leading black and white workers into opposite corners, the natural comradeship derived from our common subjugation to exploitation is blunted, if not completely disabled.
The definition of class, based as it is on exploitation, is one of which journalists are ignorant or one that they are hoping to hide. For instance, in the same day’s Washington Post, right wing columnist George Will approvingly quotes a prominent banking official as saying, “racism forms the foundation of inequality in our society.” This puts the cart before the horse. Again, exploitation forms the foundation of inequality, and racism (along with sexism and all other divisive ideologies and practices) is used by the exploiters both to enable their exploitative practices and to hide that underpinning by dividing its victims against each other. If all workers recognized our common victimization, regardless of how different the intensity, the ongoing economic and political control by the exploiters (victimizers) would be severely threatened.
Thus, the capitalists are heavily invested in continuing this racist subterfuge, as much as many of them, along with their mass media, take on the appearance of opposition to it. This appearance has been deliberately stoked in the face of the world-wide rebellions following George Floyd’s assassination-by-police in May 2020. No doubt many journalists are individually opposed to racism, but the editors and managers of the media decide how much of this opposition to allow in print or on the air, just as the capitalists limit themselves mainly to denunciations in order to advertise their own apparent opposition to racism, while retaining many of its forms in practice. Such denunciations serve to conceal who the promoters and beneficiaries of racism really are, just as the encouragement of diversity in schools and workplaces accomplishes the same end, without forcing the capitalists to give an inch. Integration at more elite levels buttresses segregation among the working class, where it really counts, and does so by diverting everyone’s attention toward the professions and political offices, where it is made to appear that progress is the order of the day and discrimination is a thing of the past.
Racism Hurts White Workers
During the era of slavery in the South, white workers’ wages and working conditions, including rampant unemployment, were worsened by the competition from enslaved labor. As part of the racist plot by the slavocracy, the white working-class victims of these miserable conditions were encouraged to blame the enslaved laborers rather than the enslavers. And so they did, to a very large extent, even if not universally. Before, during, and after the Civil War, there were countless and exceptional instances of cooperation and joint struggle by black and white victims of exploitation to improve their shared position. But to the extent that white workers fell for the deception as to who their enemies were, they were helping to slash their own throats along with those of the enslaved workers, just as those deceived by racism do today.
According to one professor at a historically black university, the success of the deception is reflected in the common belief on the part of his students that the country was built by slave labor alone. Slave labor certainly formed the foundation of numerous fortunes held to this day by members of the capitalist class, in both the North and the South. But wage labor, performed largely, but not solely, by white workers, formed an even greater stimulus to many of these fortunes, even going back to the pre-Civil War era. The nominal end to slave labor amplified the pool of wage laborers as well as many a capitalist’s fortune. However, actual slave labor continued in the form of chain gangs in the South, with the practice continuing well into the 20th century. The practice was enabled by the loophole in the Constitution’s thirteenth amendment, that in 1865 finalized the end to nominal slavery on the heels of the Civil War. It reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction [our emphasis].” This was the legal basis for the rash of Southern state laws, the so-called Black Codes, that encouraged all-white Southern juries to convict massive numbers of black men of crimes like unemployment, which was called “vagrancy” in order to blame the victim.
Capitalism Oppresses White Workers –
In Higher Numbers But In Lower Proportions
The fundamental purpose of racist ideology, as opposed to racially-based discriminatory and institutional practices, has been to deceive white workers into ignoring their class position and into believing wrongly that they are somehow superior to, and more deserving than, their fellow workers of different skin shades. Meanwhile, their own class position saddles white workers with interests that conflict with those of their employers (exploiters) and forces them into a victimization that they share with their fellow workers of different skin shades, even if less intensively so.
A central manifestation of the deceptive nature of racism even today is the sparse recognition, for example, that while black workers like George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, or Ahmaud Arbery, and literally thousands of other black victims of murder-by-cop, are direct targets of the racist mentality encouraged among police by their presiding elected and appointed officials, there are more white workers assassinated by police on the street than black or Latin. But this numerical excess takes second place to the far greater proportion of black workers killed.
Thus, since the Washington Post began keeping track in 2015, police have perpetrated street killings of 2,958 white men and women, 1,549 black men and women, and 1,081 Latin men and women on the street (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/). But the proportions are 15 per million white persons, 28 per million Latin persons, and 37 per million black persons.
Thus, today in the US it is more than twice as likely that, walking or driving down the street, you will be killed by a cop if you are black than if you are white, yet almost twice as many white persons as black are killed by cops. The large total number of white persons killed is only a reflection of the predominance of white persons in the US population – 197 million white versus 42 million black versus 39 million Latin. Yet this larger number does not override the fact that in general white workers can walk the streets free of the constant fear of being accosted by police and provoked into any action that is used as an excuse for their assassination.
The simultaneous grasp of both numbers and proportions is critical in understanding that to regard white workers as privileged ignores the fact that police are their murderers, executioners, and assassins as well. And this practice originates in, and is a spillover of, the racism showered on black workers but designed to divide and conquer black and Latin, as well as white, workers. And while in the past it didn’t matter what a black person’s class status was, street murder-by-cop today is reserved almost entirely for the working class. Black or Latin citizens who have attained the status as skilled workers or professionals and who can afford to live in integrated, more affluent neighborhoods, are these days virtually never killed while walking on the street of their residence, though they can often be confused with workers, and treated no better, if driving outside their neighborhoods.
The intensity of exploitation, and the accompanying oppression that keeps us subjugated, differs on average between white and black (and Latin) workers, but it is not different in kind, and there is significant overlap. The overlap means that large numbers of white workers are economically worse off than large numbers of black workers, even if the worst off are black and the least intensively exploited and oppressed are white. It is this latter difference that has been misinterpreted as “white skin privilege.” However, less intense exploitation and oppression is not the same as “privilege,” particularly when all workers have a right to be free of both forms of assault. A right denied to some does not turn a right for others into a privilege. Furthermore, the misapplied concept of “privilege” falsely implies that white workers actually benefit from that “privilege” – that is, it implies that white workers benefit from racism, which we have tried to make clear is a lie.
If one knows where to look, one can find voluminous accounts of the way that white workers have been victimized by extreme forms of what began as mainly anti-black racism – a practice and ideology that lay in the political, social, and economic fortress built to enable and protect the enslavement of persons of African origin or descent in the pre-Civil War US – but that, even then, was a method of division between black and white.
For example, found at the homepage of the Library of Congress is the following report: https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/immigration/italian/the-great-arrival/. A sampling:
“In the 1890s alone, more than 20 Italians were lynched.
One of the bloodiest episodes took place in New Orleans in 1891. When the chief of police was found shot to death on the street one night, the mayor blamed “Sicilian gangsters” and rounded up more than 100 Sicilian Americans. Eventually, 19 were put on trial and, as the nation’s Italian Americans watched nervously, were found not guilty for lack of evidence. Before they could be freed, however, a mob of 10,000 people, including many of New Orleans’ most prominent citizens, broke into the jail. They dragged 11 Sicilians from their cells and lynched them, including two men jailed on other offenses. Italians worldwide were outraged, but the U.S. press generally approved of the action. It was the largest single mass lynching in U.S. history.”
Much like Irish immigrants a few decades earlier, Italian-Americans were not considered to be “white” people until the 1920-1930s. However, the history of American racism is not a “zero-sum” narrative, and the inclusion of oppressed “whites” in no way diminishes the four centuries of horror and brutality that accompanied chattel slavery of kidnapped Africans brought to the Americas. Playing competitive oppressions benefits no workers, when all have been subjected to one or more of its many forms and intensities.
And from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Frank:
“Leo Max Frank (April 17, 1884 – August 17, 1915) was an American factory superintendent who was convicted in 1913 of the murder of a 13-year-old employee, Mary Phagan, in Atlanta, Georgia. His trial, conviction, and appeals attracted national attention. His lynching two years later, in response to the commutation of his death sentence, became the focus of social, regional, political, and racial concerns, particularly regarding antisemitism. Today, the consensus of researchers is that Frank was wrongly convicted.”
Both legal teams, in planning their trial strategy, considered the implications of trying a white man based on the testimony of a black man in front of an early 1900s Georgia jury. Jeffrey Melnick, author of Black-Jewish Relations on Trial: Leo Frank and Jim Conley in the New South, writes that the defense tried to picture Conley as “a new kind of African American – anarchic, degraded, and dangerous.” Dorsey [the prosecutor], however, pictured Conley as “a familiar type” of “old negro”, like a minstrel or plantation worker. Dorsey’s strategy played on prejudices of the white 1900s Georgia observers, i.e., that a black man could not have been intelligent enough to make up a complicated story. The prosecution argued that Conley’s statement explaining the immediate aftermath of the murder was true, that Frank was the murderer, and that Frank had dictated the murder notes to Conley in an effort to pin the crime on Newt Lee, the night watchman.
Thus was a white person both wrongly indicted, convicted, and when his death sentence was vacated, he was lynched by a mob. Albeit different in the details, a racist assault was applied both to a white Jewish manager and to a black worker, with the devastating implications broadly encompassing both all Jewish persons and all black persons.
Multiracial Struggles Against Racism Depicted in Literature
There is, furthermore, a long history of struggles against exploitation and oppression that were jointly fought, shoulder to shoulder, by black and white workers, each defending the other. But in this essay we will simply point to certain literary acknowledgments of the manner in which racism has immiserated white along with black workers.
Among literary reflections of this history, a handful of scholars have looked into the early unproduced plays of Tennessee Williams, some of which are good examples of working-class drama. Embedded in Williams’s early dramas (sometimes obliquely) are denunciations of racism. He also condemned violence used to suppress working-class rebellion, a point rarely raised when literary critics write about his work.
One example lies within the plot of Sidney Lumet’s film The Fugitive Kind, an adaptation of Williams’s play Orpheus Descending. The film is best known for performances by Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani who play, respectively, a Southern drifter and the wife of the racist owner of the town’s dry goods store. The Italo-American wife runs the business for her invalid husband whom she hates with a passion. Why? Magnani’s character reveals to Brando’s character that her own father’s roadside cafe was “burned out” by her husband and a racist gang because her father was serving African Americans.
The plot of his seldom performed Candles to the Sun (1939) draws out the oppression and exploitation of immigrant coal miners in rural Alabama.
Another early play, Not about Nightingales (1938), depicts the merciless punishment of inmates at a Pennsylvania prison. When they protest against brutal treatment, prisoners are moved to the boiler room where temperatures are regularly 130 degrees, and scalded.
Thus, the only way to put an end to lynchings, noose threats, and racism in general, has to engage not only black and other “minority” workers, but also white workers, since all have been its victims. The ongoing struggle to oppose all forms and incidents of racism must by fought by all workers side by side. All workers will benefit, and only the beneficiaries of racist divisions, the capitalists, will suffer – as they should.
None of this is intended to diminish in any way the horrors and extreme oppression represented by racism. Rather it is intended to magnify its significance even more, by showing that racism is an assault on our entire class, and not just an assault on one portion of our class, even though its manifold forms of torture are dealt out unequally, to put it mildly. Furthermore, by showing that all workers are the victims of racism, and by thereby attempting to unite our entire class around the struggle to eliminate racism, it helps to build the strength of the movement – a movement that otherwise has both hands tied behind its back. As the title of this blog asserts, only multiracial unity against racism has any chance of succeeding, and multiracial means all “racial” groups. While we are forced to speak of “racism” and “multiracial” in order to oppose the one and advocate the other, we also acknowledge that “race” is not a biological category, even though it is presented as such in racist tellings. It is rather a social category that was created by the exploiting class to protect their dominant and dictatorial position in society. That is, race was created by racism, and not the other way around.
It is vital that people recognize that US history is full of examples of multiracial unity, to the benefit of all participants in the struggles. During early colonial days, black, white, and indigenous people intermarried and worked together until the colonial powers forcibly outlawed their socialization. Even during the Civil War, black enslaved runaways and poor white Southerners joined forces to fight Confederate troops in Georgia (see the review of the “Free State of Jones” film and book on this blog). During the 1930s in the US, the meatpackers union mandated black leadership and organized white and black members to defend black families moving into segregated neighborhoods. The ruling class media and education system bury these examples in order to foster ignorance and antagonism between these so-called racial groups.
To abolish racism altogether and eradicate the treadmill that keeps us fighting against its effects on a daily basis, eventually we will together have to abolish the class relationships that underwrite its existence. We will have to abolish the use of racism as a means of reinforcing exploitation. We will have to abolish the exploitation that lies at the heart of the inequality that characterizes capitalism and that continues to grow greater and greater on a daily basis. The class relationship centered on exploitation is the central feature of capitalism and the central reason that capitalism must be eradicated from the face of the earth.