Racism is Not about White Skin Privilege

By Alan Spector, Professor of Sociology at Purdue North West and long time anti-racist, anti-war activist, ajspecto@purdue.edu . This was written in 1998 but is still current.

The image of a police car appears in the rear view mirror as the driver of a car glances up. Proceeding for five or six blocks, the driver notices that the police car is still following. As the driver makes a right turn, the police car follows, and seven blocks further down the street, the driver is quite aware that the police car is still following behind — no lights, no siren, no request to pull over….just following. While it may well be a coincidence, the driver may nevertheless start to experience anxiety. “Did I commit a traffic violation? Will I have to take a day off of work to go to court? Will there be a fine? Will I get points against my driver’s license? Will my car insurance go up by several hundred dollars?” Anxiety. For perhaps 80% of the population in the U.S., this kind of experience creates anxiety. For much of the other 20%, however, the anxiety is much more intense. For the young black male driving through Gary, Indiana at 11 p.m., the anxiety includes: “Will my car be searched? Will I be humiliated? Will my car be damaged? Will I be roughed up? How should I act? If I’m quiet, the cop might think I’m being hostile. If I’m friendly, he might think I’m being sarcastic. My friend was arrested for disorderly conduct last week in a traffic stop. How should I act? What’s going to happen now?”

Is the young black man acting “paranoid?” Or is he reflecting the reality more accurately than any sociology text book can do? Racism is not just a set of erroneous ideas. Racist oppression is a powerful material force in the world that does severe damage to hundreds of millions of people.

Many who oppose racist oppression and racist ideology and culture are skeptical of many on the Left who emphasize “class” in ways that ignore the particular effects of racist oppression (“class reductionism”) or who use phrases like “black and white unite” without making clear that the unity has to be on the basis of fighting racism as opposed to a unity that calls on minority group members to tone down their struggle.

And this skepticism has a material basis: there have been many instances in American history when labor and even socialist movements downplayed the struggle against racism or worse, even promoted racist policies against immigrant, Native American, and black workers. Racist oppression is a persistent reality with destructive material effects that can be measured in terms of infant mortality, unemployment, average family income, incarceration rates and a dozen other indicators. But acknowledging the existence of racist oppression — that on average members of minority groups experience more oppression than members of the majority (so-called “white” SCW) group — does not mean that members of the SCW have “White Skin Privilege.”

There are several problems with this term. For starters, rather than enhancing our understanding of the many ways that capitalism oppresses people, it oversimplifies it by separating class oppression from racist oppression the same way that the class reductionists do. If one understands class as a relationship rather than as a one-dimensional income variable, then one can understand that racist oppression and the ideology that reinforces it are related to material processes of exploitation and that flow from material inequality and the need to justify it, rather than seeing racist oppression as primarily flowing from racist thoughts that are somehow independently ingrained into the psyche of all members of the majority group. Racist ideas ARE deeply ingrained, but they are not inherent. This is evident by the inconsistencies of racist myths and the flexibility utilized by racists as theories shift into contradiction with previous racist theories.

A second problem is that racism is not just a “black/white” relationship or even a “white/not white” relationship. Do black autoworkers in the U.S. “enjoy” privilege over black autoworkers in South Africa? Members of minority groups can participate in racism. Generally, it is very rare that members of minority groups can enforce racism against members of the majority (“white”) group. But members of minority groups can enforce racism against members of other minority groups and sometimes even cooperate in the racist oppression of the minority group that they might seem to be identified with. There are many examples of this in the first case, from Japanese mistreatment of Koreans to Israeli Zionist mistreatment of Arabs to some black U.S. soldiers attacking Vietnamese and Panamanians and a thousand other examples, and in the second case, of the alliance between the racist apartheid forces and black anti-ANC forces in South Africa, or the role of Louis Farrakhan today in the U.S.

Thirdly, the rhetoric of “white skin privilege” implies that wealthy black capitalists are essentially friends to the black working class while (with a few exceptions) white working class people are essentially adversaries of the black working class. This not only mistakenly “others” white working class people; it also leads black working class people into the trap of supporting certain elements in the black community who are serving the interests of the most powerful racists!

Finally, while the term “white privilege” creates confusion, the term “white skin privilege” is much worse, because it reinforces the dangerous myth that SKIN, biology is somehow at the root of differences among people.

But are there some privileges associated with being “white?” If a white college student gets a well-paying job doing road construction because his uncle arranged it, isn’t that a type of privilege not available to the black college student who probably doesn’t have a “white” uncle? What about the privilege of being able to buy a house that rapidly appreciates in value because it is in a certain neighborhood? These are clearly short-run advantages. As anti-racists, we have a duty to expose the racist processes that deny members of minority groups a decent life. And we have a special responsibility to directly confront the myth of reverse discrimination, so popular in the media and on campus these days. But capitalism as a system means misery for the great majority of people. This system, at its most gentle, produces stressful lives and alienated personal relationships for most people; at its worst, we have and will see many members of the so-called “majority” group experience the misery of economic hardship, political/police repression, and war.

Already we see that life for many white people in small towns across the U.S. is not that different from life in the black and Latino inner cities — with widespread unemployment, despair, drugs, and violence. Perhaps the language of “more oppressed” is a more useful way of explaining the processes of racist oppression than the language of “white privilege.” Racist exploitation is a key source of profits that keeps capitalism afloat, and racist ideology is a key source of power for the capitalists by keeping the working class divided. If capitalism harms the white working class and even many in the so-called “middle class”, then members of those groups do not ultimately benefit from the racism that keeps capitalism afloat!

In the short run, and admittedly the short run can last longer than some of us might like, there are tangible differences in the material quality of life for members of different racial-ethnic groups. This must be exposed and opposed.

But asking people to “give up their white skin privilege” can be one of those statements that sounds very radical but in fact leads to no change. Are we demanding that white professors resign? Better to ask the people fight against racism, even if it means risking losing one’s job! That is an active, anti-racist stance that unites people while it aggressively fights racism as opposed to a strategy that can lead to empty “Apologies for Slavery” and strategies that hide the reality that the real roots of racism lie in class inequality, exploitation, and oppression — which today means capitalism.

During the Vietnam War, some protesters went to jail rather than pay taxes because they did not want to be a part of supporting the war. With all due respect to their motives and unselfish dedication, the more effective strategy was to pay the taxes and then work very, very hard to stop the war — even if it meant risking jail because of anti-war actions.

It is not a question of “giving up privileges”, however one might do that. There will be those who rationalize and passively exploit the oppression of others, and that should be exposed and opposed. But the rhetoric of “privilege” masks the roots and processes of racist oppression rather than attacking them.

Different sections of the working class do experience different levels of oppression. Some passengers on the Titanic drowned before others did. But those who drowned a half-hour later can hardly be called privileged. Those less oppressed do have a duty to focus special efforts to oppose the racist discrimination against their working class sisters and brothers from so-called “minority” groups. But the rhetoric of “privilege”, while possibly helpful in exposing racist treatment, ultimately obscures and diffuses the anti-racist struggle.


“The Road Not Taken” by Lerone Bennett

Tobacco_cultivation_(Virginia,_ca._1670) Road Not Taken

(From Lerone Bennett, The Shaping of Black America. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Co., 1975, pp. 61-82. Originally published in Ebony, vol. 25 (August, 1970), pp. 71- 77).

A nation is a choice. It chooses itself at fateful forks in the road by turning left or right, by giving up something or taking something — and in the giving up and the taking, in the deciding and not deciding, the nation becomes. And ever afterwards, the nation and the people who make up the nation are defined by the fork and by the decision that was made there, as well as by the decision that was not made there. For the decision, once made, engraves itself into the landscape, engraves itself into things, into institutions, nerves, muscles, tendons; and the first decision requires a second decision, and the second decision requires a third, and it goes on and on, spiraling in an inexorable process which distorts everything and alienates everybody.


America became America that way. Fork by fork, step by step, option by option, America or, to be more precise, the men who spoke in the name of America decided that it was going to be a white place defined negatively by the bodies and the blood of the reds and the blacks. And that decision, which was made in the 1660s and elaborated over a two-hundred-year period, foreclosed certain possibilities in America — perhaps forever — and set off depth charges that are still echoing and re-echoing in the commonwealth. What makes this all the more mournful is that it didn’t have to happen that way. There was another road — but that road wasn’t taken. In the beginning, as we have seen, there was no race problem in America. The race problem in America was a deliberate invention of men who systematically separated blacks and whites in order to make money. This was, as Kenneth Stampp so cogently observed, a deliberate choice among several alternatives. Slavery, he said,

“cannot be attributed to some deadly atmospheric miasma or some irresistible force in the South’s economic evolution. The use of slaves in southern agriculture was a deliberate choice (among several alternatives) made by men who sought greater returns than they could obtain from their own labor alone, and who found other types of labor more expensive…”

It didn’t have to happen that way. Back there, before Jim Crow, before the invention of the Negro or the white man or the words and concepts to describe them, the Colonial population consisted largely of a great mass of white and black bondsmen, who occupied roughly the same economic category and were treated with equal contempt by the lords of the plantations and legislatures. Curiously unconcerned about their color, these people worked together and relaxed together. They had essentially the same interests, the same aspirations, arid the same grievances. They conspired together and waged a common struggle against their common enemy — the big planter apparatus and a social system that legalized terror against black and white bondsmen. No one says and no one believes that there was a Garden of Eden in Colonial America. But the available evidence, slight though it is, suggests that there were widening bonds of solidarity between the first generation of blacks and whites. And the same evidence indicates that it proved very difficult indeed to teach white people to worship their skin.


All this began to change drastically in the sixth decade of the seventeenth century. The decade of the 1660s: this was the first great fork in the making of black America. For it was at this fork that certain men decided to ground the American economic system on human slavery. To understand that great fork, one must understand first the roads leading to it — roads that were not taken.

The first road — a road never seriously considered, although it was open, at least for a while — was the road of fraternal cooperation with the Americans, i.e., the Indians, in a program of free and creative development of the immense resources of the American continent. This obviously would have required consummate diplomacy and an abandonment of the peculiar European idea that Europeans were divinely ordained to appropriate the resources and alter the institutions of non-Europeans. It would have involved, in other words, the transformation of both Americans and Europeans and the creation of a new synthesis made up of the best elements of both configurations. This road — the only road to justice — was rejected out of hand by the white founding fathers, who adopted a policy of genocide.

The second road, also rejected, was a free and cooperative system of labor for all immigrants. This would have involved, at a minimum, an abandonment of the European principle of masters and servants and would have required all men to live by the sweat of their brow. Because the Europeans were already hooked on the master principle, because they could never somehow get over the idea that it was necessary for somebody else to work for them, this road was not taken. And the decision not to take that road left only two alternatives: temporary servitude and eventual freedom for all workers — red, black, and white — and the road of permanent servitude based on the work of one or possibly all three of the subordinate labor groups. This last road was taken, and one group was singled out for permanent servitude. Why?

To answer that question, we must back up again and consider the groups not selected.

First, the Indians. A popular idea to the contrary notwithstanding, the Indians were enslaved in all or most of the colonies. But Indian slavery and servitude created problems that the colonists preferred to deal with in other ways. To begin with, there was the problem of security. It was difficult to keep Indian servants and slaves from running away because they knew the country and could easily escape to their countrymen, who

were only a forest or river away. Another and possibly more persuasive argument against large-scale enslavement of Indians was that the supply was relatively limited. Finally, and most importantly, Indian servants and slaves were members of groups with a certain amount of power. These groups could (and did) retaliate. For this combination of reasons, it was considered unwise to enslave large groups of Indians, who were usually sold into slavery in the West Indies.

From the standpoint of the masters, the poor whites of Europe presented equally serious problems. The supply of poor whites, like the supply of Indians, was limited; and poor whites, like Indians, but for different reasons, could escape and blend into the whiteness of their countrymen. The most serious problem, however, was that poor whites had tenuous but nonetheless important connections with circuits of power. There were pressure groups in England that concerned themselves with the plight of poor whites. This fact alone drastically limited the options of Colonial masters. For in order to safeguard the relatively limited supply of poor whites, it was necessary to make costly – – from the standpoint of the masters — concessions to white servants and to improve their living conditions.

The last group — the group finally selected — did not have these disadvantages, as Oscar and Mary F. Handlin noted:

“Farthest removed from the English, least desired, [the African] communicated with no friends who might be deterred from following. Since his coming was involuntary, nothing that happened to him would increase or decrease his numbers. To raise the status of Europeans by shortening their terms would ultimately increase the available hands by inducing their compatriots to emigrate; to reduce the Negro’s term would produce an immediate loss and no ultimate gain. By mid century the servitude of Negroes seem generally lengthier than that of whites; and thereafter the consciousness dawns that the Blacks will toil for the whole of their lives…”

Unhappily for the Africans, they had none of the disadvantages of the Indians and poor whites, and they had — again from the standpoint of the planters — distinct advantages. They were marked by color and hence could not escape so easily. The supply seemed to be inexhaustible, and the labor of Africans was relatively inexpensive when compared with the cost of transporting and maintaining white indentured servants for a limited number of years. This last fact was decisive, and it was clearly understood by the colonists as early as 1645. It was in that year that Emanuel Downing sent a famous letter to his brother-in-law John Winthrop, saying, among other things:


“If upon a Just Warre the Lord shold deliver [Narragansett Indians] into our hands, wee might easily have men woemen and children enough to exchange for Moores, which wilbe more gaynefull pilladge for us then wee conceive, for I doe not see how wee can thrive untill we get into a stock of slaves sufficient to doe all our business, for our children’s children will hardly see this great Continent filled with people, soe that our servants will still desire free dome to plant for themselves, and not stay but for verie great wages. And I suppose you know verie well how wee shall mayneteyne 20 Moores cheaper than one Englishe servant.”

Twenty Africans for the price of one English servant — how could a Puritan resist such a deal! And how could he overlook the final and deciding factor: the Africans
were vulnerable. There were no large power groups nearby to retaliate in their name. Nor did they have power groups on the international scene to raise troublesome questions. They were, in fact, naked before their enemies, and their enemies were legion.

As the pointer on the roulette wheel neared the African number, the power brokers of England suddenly and dramatically increased the odds against Africans by announcing a new policy of restricted white emigration and massive support of the African Slave Trade. With the formation of the Royal African Company (1672), the wheel of fate came to an abrupt halt before the black square. For henceforth, as James C. Ballagh has pointed out, it would be “the policy of the king, and of the Duke of York, who stood at the head of the [Royal African] Company, to hasten the adoption of slavery by enactments cutting off the supply of indented servants, at the same time that large importations of slaves were made by their agents.”

But we must take care here to preserve perspective. Ballagh is suggesting, as others suggested before and after him, that history or some impersonal force decided for the colonists. But history is made by men and not by circumstances. And if history created the circumstances and the alternatives, it was still left to men in the colonies to choose between the alternatives. That happened, in the first instance, in isolated areas in the menacing decade of the 1640s. In that decade certain men in Maryland, Virginia, and Massachusetts began holding certain Africans in life-time servitude. There are some indications that this was a deliberate gambit on the part of designing men who wanted to force a favorable legal decision in favor of slavery. If so, the gambit had its desired effect. F or the first legal enactment in favor of slavery in the colonies came in 1641 in Massachusetts, which declared in its Body of Liberties that there “shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or Captivitie amongst us, unless it be lawfull Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us.” This was, all things considered, a fateful and ominous “unless,” for the following words clearly authorized African, Indian, and European slavery. Once the genie was out of the bottle, there was a more or less deliberate effort to create a legal structure for slavery, a fact noted by Herbert S. Klein, who said: “Once these first hints about the existence of a status of slavery within the colony [of Virginia] had been made by the legislature, there seems to have developed at this point a conscious effort on the part of the Virginians to create a statutory framework on which to firmly base this condition.”


This effort unfolded, roughly, in four stages. The first stage, linked, in part, with the Massachusetts precedent, was the extension of the term of black servants from a specified number of years to life. Following Massachusetts on this point were Connecticut in 1650, Virginia in 1661, Maryland in 1663, New York and New Jersey in 1664, South Carolina in 1682, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island in 1700, North Carolina in 1715, and Georgia in 1755.

The second and more momentous stage, a stage that marked the institutional divergence of servitude and slavery, was the introduction of the principle of heredity. Virginia pioneered in this development, declaring in December, 1662:

Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman shall be slave or ffree, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present grand Assembly, that all children borne in this country shall be held, bond or ffree only according to the condition of the mother…

This raised more questions and doubts than it answered. For what precisely was a Negro? And what was the child of a Negro man and a white woman? And what in the world was a white person? Was it a matter of blood or culture or Christianity?

The third phase of the process — defining slavery and providing a rationale for the system — was involved almost entirely with a farcical quest for answers to these questions. The first question requiring attention was the question of religion, for religion and not race was the first rationale for slavery. This caused no end of problems for Colonial masters, for it was an axiom of their faith that freedom in Jesus Christ was real. More to the point: the whole colonization crusade of the colonists was based on the idea of carrying the word to the “heathens.” How then could they deny freedom to a “heathen” who had seen the light? The answer, as usual, was both practical and profitable. “Baptism,” to quote Ballagh again, “thus involved a dilemma. If conferred it sealed the pious end of slavery but freed the Christian slave. On the contrary, if enfranchisement was a possible result, Christianization was certain to be retarded or completely stopped. The wisdom and the conscience of colonial assemblies were equal to the emergency. They held both to their justification and to their slaves. The Virginia Assembly in a law of 1667 presents but a typical example of general colonial action. It settled the question by the naive declaration, worthy of the metaphysician that rightly separates the spiritual person from bodily form, “Baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom; in order that diverse masters freed from this doubt may more carefully endeavor the propagation of Christianity.”


That settled that, but it did not settle the legal question of who could be enslaved. And in 1670 the Virginia legislature spoke again on the subject, saying: “All servants not being Christians imported into this country by shipping shalbe slaves for life.” Whether by design or accident, this law excepted blacks who had been baptized in Africa, Europe, the West Indies, or other colonies. But this loophole was eliminated in the act of 1682 which declared that

… all servants except Turks and Moores… which shall be brought or imported into this country, either by sea or land, whether Negroes. …Mullattoes or Indians, who and whose parentage and native country are not christian at the time of their first purchase of such servant by some christian, although afterwards, and before such their importation… they shall be converted to the christian faith. …shall be judged, deemed and taken to be slaves…”

In plain English, this meant that all Jews, Asians, and Africans (except Turks and Moors) were subject to slavery in Virginia. It meant also that Virginia was embarking on the process (completed in the eighteenth century) of basing slavery on race rather than religion. (The Virginia legislature finally said that a Negro was anyone with one Negro grandparent.)

In this manner Virginia (and America) crossed a great divide, a divide that requires some elaboration. For what was involved here was the idea of racism, which is not an individual idea or peculiarity but an institutionalized ideology that commits the institutions of a society to the destruction of a people because of race. The idea developed by the Virginians (and Americans) was simple and profitable. The idea was that all whites were biologically superior to all blacks, who were infidels and heathens, a dangerous and accursed people who embodied an evil principle that made them dangerous to the morals and the politics of the community. The truth or falsity of this idea disturbed few men then (or now). The only thing that mattered was that this idea or something like it was necessary to justify past, present, and future aggression against blacks.


With the institutionalization of this idea, the structure of slavery was almost complete. There remained only the fourth phase, a phase that continued for two hundred years and involved the destruction of the legal personality of the slave.

The first step in this direction was the declaration that the slave was the property of the master. As such, the slave could not hold property or engage in trade or commerce. Nor could the slave as a piece of property move without the express consent of his master. He could not leave the plantation without a pass, he could not gather in large groups, he could not commit himself to a marriage vow. More ominously, he could not even defend himself. In the words of the codes, he was in the “condition of a natural person, in which, by the operation of law, the application of his physical and mental powers depend[ed]… upon the will of another…”

By these words and acts, and in these stages, the masters of Colonial America committed themselves and America to the institution of human slavery. Having made that decision, the masters had to make another decision, for neither the masters nor the servants had been prepared for the new script of roles in the statutes. Nature does not create masters or slaves. Nor does it create blacks or whites. In order to make masters and slaves, in order to make blacks and whites, it is necessary to kill them — it is necessary to separate them by rivers of blood. But terror alone is not enough. One must condition the mind and the eye and the heart. And the conditioning of one generation must be repeated in the next generation and on and on ad infinitum. The men who ran Colonial America did not shrink from these exigencies. Moving swiftly and ruthlessly, they began in the middle of the seventeenth century to separate blacks and whites and to create a race problem in America.


Curiously enough, there is no full-length treatment of this process. Most historians avoid the subject by positing a natural or cultural bias in the European psyche. But this maneuver fails to explain why this natural or cultural bias manifested itself in one way in 1619 and another way in 1819 or why it developed in one way in Maryland, another way in Massachusetts, and a third way in Brazil. Nor is it possible, from the traditional standpoint, to explain why the laws against blacks became progressively worse and differed significantly in different demographic and economic situations. From time to time, some historians admit, in so many words, that the traditional view is untenable. Stanley Elkins, for example, who has advanced a fanciful theory of slavery, said that “the interests of white servants and blacks were systematically driven apart.” After reading the same evidence, the Handlins said that “the emerging difference in treatment [of blacks and whites] was calculated to create a real division of interest between Negroes on the one hand and whites on the other.”

No one reading the evidence can doubt this. Nor can it be doubted that blacks and whites had to be taught the meaning of blackness and whiteness. This is not to deny “differences” in color and hair formation, etc. It is only to say that perceptions had to be organized to recognize the differences and that men had to be organized to take advantage of them. The so-called differences were not the cause of racism; on the contrary, men seized on the differences and interpreted them in a certain way in order to create racism. Not only did they exploit “differences,” but they also created “differences” and preserved them by force and violence. The differences, in other words, were rationalizations and excuses, not the causes of racism. Once established, however, the ideology of rationalizations assumed a calamitous autonomy and influenced the interests from which they derived.

Who was responsible for this policy?

The white founding fathers, the Byrds, the Mathers, and Winthrops, the Jeffersons, the Washingtons, the heroes of all the Fourths of July: they divided blacks and whites, they sowed the seeds of division and hate and blood. In an attempt to evade the implications of this fact, some men blame “the English” or “Colonial public opinion.” But Colonial public opinion was the public opinion of the planter-merchant aristocracy. As

T. J. Wertenbaker, Philip A. Bruce, James Hugo Johnston and scores of other scholars have pointed out, the colonies were run by a closed set of men who monopolized political, ecclesiastical, and economic power. “The system of life built up in the agricultural colonies,” James Hugo Johnston writes, “resulted in planter control. Both social and governmental institutions ‘were devices wrought by the planters. The system of Negro slavery may have been thrust upon them by England, but the problems arising from it were first of all the planters’ problems; and on the governing class is the responsibility for the system of slave institutions worked out in the colonies.”


There is corroboration on this point from another authority, Philip A. Bruce, who says that “the whole power of Virginian society even in the times when universal suffrage prevailed, was directed by the landowners. That society was composed entirely of the landed proprietors and their dependents…” The public sentiment was exclusively the sentiment of men who, like the landowners of England, looked to agriculture for the income which went to the support of their families, and whose only material interests were those associated directly with the soil.

Not only did the planters have the power; they also had a vested interest in black exploitation. It was on their plantations that the new system of black servitude was tried out for the first time, and by mid-century, as Elkins notes, blacks had accumulated in large enough parcels in the hands of the colony’s big planters to develop in these men a vested interest in the new system. “The advantages of slave labor,” Wertenbaker says, “were manifest to planters of the type of William Byrd or William Fitzhugh, men who had built up fortunes by their business ability. It is but natural that they should have turned early from the indentured servants to stock their plantations with the cheaper and remunerative African workers.” Herbert S. Klein adds: “The Virginia planter, in his drive for a more economic system of labor, was the first to reduce the Negro to the status of a servant for life. But the judiciary and the legislature, which were uniquely representative of and in fact entirely composed of the members of the planter class, were not far behind in taking cognizance of this growing customary law governing the Negro’s condition, and they early gave recognition to this whole body of practice.” In the face of these testimonies, one can hardly escape the impression that it was the big planters and their allies who reduced the vulnerable and powerless black servants to slavery and enacted legislation that committed every white person and every white institution to support of the new order.


How was all this done?

It was done by the creation of a total system of domination, a system that penetrated every corner of Colonial life and made use of every Colonial institution. Nothing was left to chance. The assemblies, the courts, the churches, and the press were thrown into the breach. A massive propaganda campaign confused and demoralized the public, and private vigilante groups supplemented the official campaign of hate and terror.

It was all done deliberately, consciously, with malice aforethought. To mold the minds of whites, to teach them the new ideas, and to let them know who was to be loved and who was to be despised, the planter-merchant aristocracy used every instrument of persuasion and control. In every colony, from New York to South Carolina, the same mechanisms of separation and subordination were elaborated and imposed. From New York to South Carolina, the same penalties were used to keep blacks and whites apart, the same rewards were developed to make poor whites support a system that penalized them, the same statutes were elaborated to crush and diabolify blacks.

The statutes were designed to instill a sense of superiority in whites and a sense of worthlessness in blacks. They were designed to create stereotypes and invidious images. The language of these statutes (“abominable mixture,” “barbarous,” “savage”) was instructive; it designated, pointed out, authorized, and it was a legal requirement, in many cases, for parsons and politicians to read the language at public meetings and church services.

What we are concerned to emphasize here is that the laws were the heart and center of a massive public education campaign. The best evidence in favor of this point is the extraordinary letter Governor William Ceech wrote to the English government, which had demanded explanation of a Virginia law denying the suffrage to free blacks. Governor Ceech wrote:

[The] Assembly thought it necessary, not only to make the Meetings of Slaves very penal, but to fix a perpetual Brand upon Free Negroes and Mulattos by excluding them from the great Privilege of a Freeman, well knowing they always did, and ever will, adhere to and favour the Slaves. And, ’tis likewise said to have been done with design, which I must think a good one, to make the free Negroes sensible that a distinction ought to be made between their offspring and the Descendants of an Englishman, with whom they never were to be Accounted Equal. This, I confess, may Seem to carry an Air of Severity to such as are unacquainted with the Nature of Negroes, and Pride of a manumitted Slave, who looks on himself immediately On his Acquiring his freedom to be as good a Man as the best of his Neighbours, but especially if he is descended of a white Father or Mother, lett them be of what mean Condition soever; and as most of them are the Bastards of some of the worst of our imported Servants and Convicts, it seems no ways Impolitic, as well for discouraging that kind of Copulation, .as to preserve a decent Distinction between them and their Betters, to leave this mark on them, until time and Education has changed the Indication of their spurious Extraction and made some Alteration in their morals.

This is a significant document that has been too often ignored by historians. We don’t have to speculate on the motives of the men who created the American race problem. They tell us clearly what they were doing and why they were doing it.

They were passing laws to preserve a decent Distinction between blacks and whites. They were passing laws to fix a perpetual Brand upon blacks.

They were passing laws with design… to make free blacks sensible that a distinction should be made between their children and the children of Englishmen.

They were passing laws to break the Pride of blacks.

They were passing laws to leave this mark on them.

And it can be said, by inverting this language, that the laws were also passed to leave a mark on whites, who were instructed, under pain of punishment, how to act in relation to blacks. Under these laws whites of all classes were penalized for expressing human impulses. It therefore became very expensive for a white person to like black people or to love them. This was not, it should be emphasized, a matter of hints and vague threats. The laws were quite explicit. Symptomatic of this were the laws passed to punish whites who befriended blacks or ran away with them.

Masters were also disciplined. The right of the master to free his slave was curbed and finally eliminated. The master was also forbidden to teach his slaves or to permit them to gather in large assemblies. Winthrop Jordan, who argues that racism was a natural or cultural bias of Englishmen, contradicts himself on this point by saying that the laws were designed to force workers and masters to treat black people like slaves. He writes:

While the colonial slave codes seem at first sight to have been intended to discipline Negroes, to deny them freedoms available to other Americans, a very slight shift in perspective shows the codes in a different light; they aimed, paradoxically, at disciplining white men. Principally, the law told the white man, not the Negro, what he must do; the codes were for the eyes and ears of slaveowners… Members of the assemblies, most of whom owned slaves, were attempting to enforce slave-discipline by the only means available, by forcing owners, individually and collectively, to exercise it.

As the years wore on, and as the number of slaves multiplied, the laws increased in severity and scope. The first laws applied only to some blacks, primarily non- Christians. But by the middle of the eighteenth century, many of the laws applied to all blacks, free and slave, Christian and non-Christian.

Behind the legislator and the planter stood the writer, teacher, and priest. The perceptions of whites and blacks were organized and manipulated by churches, which were an integral part of the governing mechanism. In some cases churches were directly involved in carrying out laws relating to indenture and sexual irregularities. In other cases churches and ministers bought and sold slaves. In still other cases churches led the campaign of vilification, openly identifying blacks with Ham and the Indians with the devil.

Equally important as an adversary was the press. The owners and writers of many of the first American newspapers had direct or indirect interests in slavery, and their journals were in the front ranks of the white crusade. It is not at all surprising therefore to learn that editorials and news stories accentuated antagonisms in the colonies and that advertisements for black runaways were to the first American newspapers what advertisements for deodorant and detergent are to the electronic media of the seventies. The Boston News Letter, the first permanent American newspaper, published slave advertisements almost from the first edition.

The whole system of separation and subordination rested on official state terror. The exigencies of the situation required men to kill some white people to keep them white and to kill many blacks to keep them black. In the North and South, men and women were maimed, tortured, and murdered in a comprehensive campaign of mass conditioning. The severed heads of black and white rebels were impaled on poles along the road as warnings to black people and white people, and opponents of the status quo were starved to death in chains and roasted slowly over open fires. Some rebels were branded; others were castrated. This exemplary cruelty, which was carried out as a deliberate process of mass education, was an inherent part of the new system.

THE thrust behind the drive for separation and subordination was overwhelming. Separation paid, and was paid for. And before long slavery and the slave trade were the twin fountains of the economic system of New England and the Southern colonies. The phenomenal growth of the slave trade, the development of the plantation system, the expanding drive against Indian land — all these factors created iron bands of interests that compelled every Colonial institution to support the politics of division.

Despite this fact, there was widespread opposition to the new order in the white community, particularly among poor whites, many of whom were still indentured servants or former indentured servants. What is amazing here and worthy of detailed examination is that so many whites openly flouted the new laws and conspired with blacks to evade them. How explain this? The explanation is simple: whites, in general, had not been prepared for the new departure. In the words of one white historian, opinion had not “hardened sufficiently” against black people. In the words of another, many whites “had not learned to hold the attitude toward the Negro” that the new script demanded. In addition to these purely passive considerations, there were positive and active links between blacks and white indentured servants, who continued to run away together and to conspire together. A point of considerable importance here is that slavery did not immediately displace white servitude. For more than one hundred years, the two systems existed side by side, mutually influencing one another. For almost as long a period, the white servant and the black slave continued to interact, threatening the stability of this dual system of servitude.

In order to preserve domestic tranquility, the leading groups in the colonies made it a matter of public policy to destroy the solidarity of the laborers. Laws were passed requiring different groups to keep to themselves, and the seeds of dissension were artfully and systematically sown. Indians were offered bounties for betraying black runaways; blacks were given minor rewards for fighting Indians; and poor whites were used as fodder in the disciplining of both reds and blacks.


At the same time masters used Draconian measures to stop the mingling and mating of blacks and whites. From the last quarter of the seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth century, policy-makers legislated against these practices. In the process white women were whipped, banished, and enslaved to keep them from marrying black men. “The increasing number of mulattoes, through intermarriage and illicit relationships,” Lorenzo J. Greene writes, “soon caused alarm among Puritan advocates of racial purity and white domination. Sensing a deterioration of slavery, if the barriers between master and slaves were dissolved in the equalitarian crucible of sexual intimacy, they sought to stop racial crossing by statute.” In this instance, as in so many others, it was necessary to teach whites the value of whiteness. Under the ground rules of the time, a master could virtually enslave a white woman who married a black man and could hold in extended servitude all the issue of such a marriage. In this situation, as might have been expected, Puritan greed triumphed over Puritan morals, and many masters encouraged or forced white women to marry black men. It finally became necessary to pass laws penalizing masters for forcing white women to marry black men. The Maryland law of 1681 said:

Forasmuch as, divers free-born English, or white women, sometimes by the instigation, procurement or connivance of their masters, mistresses, or dames, and always to the satisfaction of their lascivious and lustful desires, and to the disgrace not only of the English, but also of many other Christian nations, do intermarry with Negroes and slaves, by which means, divers inconveniences, controversies, and suits may arise …for the prevention whereof for the future, Be it enacted: That if the marriage of any woman-servant with any slave shall take place by the procurement or permission of the master, such woman and her issue shall be free.

Neither statute law nor terror stopped intermarriage and interracial dating, which continued for more than a century. Strange as it may seem today, there were even some open protests against the laws. The minutes of the Council of Virginia, May 11, 1699, contain “the petition of George Ivie and others for the repeal of the Act of the Assembly, Against English peoples marrying with Negroes, Indians or Mulattoes…”


In the 1690s and the decades that followed, the central task of the masters was changing — and distorting — the perceptions of George Ivie and men and women who shared his view. This was done slowly, methodically and painfully. It was done with the carrot and the stick. It was done by enticing some with promises and browbeating others into submission by threats and blows. We have already dealt at some length with the methodology of the stick, and we should note that the carrot was also a powerful and persuasive weapon. One manifestation of this was the new state policy of favoring poor white servants, who were systematically given preference over blacks and Indians. In the last decades of the seventeenth century and the first decades of the eighteenth, the laws became increasingly liberal toward white servants, and special efforts were made to accentuate the differences between blacks and whites. As the number of blacks increased, the heavy labor was shifted to blacks, whites were employed as overseers of the slave population, and sympathetic attention was given to the petitions of white artisans. At the end of the seventeenth century, white workers in New York City filed a complaint alleging that black labor had “soe much impoverisht them, that they Cannot by their labours gett a Competency for the Maintenance of themselves and Family’s.” Similar petitions were filed in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and other colonies. Responding to these fears, the South Carolina Assembly voted in 1743 that “no slaves that shall hereafter be brought up to any mechanic trades shall be suffered to be hired out or to work for any other than their own masters.”

A corollary of the strategy of the carrot was the creation of a common white front. The planters needed the silence and/or support of the poor whites. To get this support, they manipulated symbols and sanctions in such a way as to persuade poor whites to identify with masters instead of their fellow workers. The designation of poor whites as a buffer class was a particular expression of this general policy. In some colonies, “Deficiency acts” were passed to increase the number of poor whites. These acts usually offered bounties to encourage white immigration and required planters to employ a certain number of poor whites. A 1698 law of South Carolina offered the captains of ships thirteen pounds for each white servant imported and required every owner of six black slaves to buy one white servant. This and similar acts said frankly that poor whites were needed not only for labor but also for protection. In 1711 a South Carolina governor asked the House of Assembly to import whites at public expense. He went on to say that the house should consider “the large quantities of Negroes that are daily brought into this Governt., and the small number of whites that comes amongst us, and how many are lately dead, or gone off. How insolent and mischievous the Negroes are become, and to consider the Negro Act doth not reach up to some of the crimes they have lately been guilty of.”


As this language makes clear, poor whites were deliberately used to insure the social system against black rebellion. In the words of Abbot Emerson Smith, poor whites were viewed as a “defense against the Negro menace.” A revealing example of this was a South Carolina act “for the better securing of this province from Negro insurrections & encouraging of poor people by employing them in the Plantations.” This was, to a great extent, a ruse of the planters, who bought the cooperation of poor whites by throwing them crumbs from the table. But many, perhaps most, poor whites had neither the space nor the consciousness to look gift horses in the mouth. And so, many accepted the bait, never noticing, perhaps not even caring, that it was bait and that it covered a sharp steel hook. One of the by-products of this was that most poor whites were persuaded that they had a stake in the system and that it was working to their advantage. Steadily and inescapably, a new rhythm was imposed on them, and by the middle of the eighteenth century a solid white front was developing. A curious and crucial point here is that concerted action by blacks and whites virtually ceased after the creation of the white front. What is even more interesting is that white revolt against the system alti1ost disappeared. “Significantly,” Winthrop Jordan said, “the only rebellions by white servants in the continental colonies came before the firm entrenchment of slavery .”

The impact of all this on blacks and whites was disastrous. The development of the slave system and the systematic separation of blacks and whites created a race problem in America, divided the working force, made it impossible to create a single American community, and laid the foundation for an anti-democratic, hierarchical police state, taut with tensions and fears. With the creation of this system, the number of African slaves increased dramatically. On the eve of the Revolution, blacks constituted 60 percent of the population of South Carolina, 40 percent of the population of Virginia, and 30 percent of the population of Maryland. By the first census there were 757 ,000 blacks in America, 19.3 percent of the population. As it turned out, the emerging slave system had an immediate and disastrous impact on poor whites. Unable to compete with the large planters, poor whites retreated to the marginal land in the hills, where they eked out a hand-to-mouth existence. To the untutored mind of the poor whites, it seemed that blacks were the cause of their misery. They therefore began to hate black people with a passion. Notice the emphasis in the following passage from the conservative historian, T. J. Wertenbaker: “While not destroying entirely the little farmer class, it [slavery] exerted a baleful influence upon it, driving many families out of the colony, making the rich man richer, reducing the poor man to dire poverty. Against this unfortunate development the Virginia yeoman was helpless. Instinctively, he must have felt the slave was his enemy, and the hatred and rivalry which even today exists between the Negro and the lowest class of whites, the so-called ‘poor white trash,’ dates back to the seventeenth century.” The poor white was wrong: slavery, not the slave, was his enemy. But it would take time — and blood — to see this.


It was against this background that the white identity in America was forged. American whites developed a sense of personality and nationality in response to the presence of blacks and Indians. They were not black, they were not red, they were white. Black and red, as Jordan has pointed out, “rapidly came to serve as two fixed points from which English settlers could triangulate their own position in America: the separate meanings of Indian and Negro helped define the meaning of living in America.” What Jordan fails to mention and what is equally supported by the evidence is that the white sense of identity developed in response to the forced degradation of blacks. “When the Negro slave had supplanted the indentured servant upon the plantations of the colony ,” Wertenbaker wrote, “a vast change took place in the pride of the middle class. Every white man, no matter how poor he was, no matter how degraded, could now feel a pride in his race. Around him on all sides were those whom he felt to be beneath him, and this alone instilled into him a certain self-respect. Moreover, the immediate control of the Negroes fell almost entirely into the hands of white men of humble means, for it was they, acting as overseers upon the large plantations, that directed their labors in the tobacco fields. This also tended to give them an arrogance that was entirely foreign to their nature in the seventeenth.” What this means, if it means anything, is that white character structure underwent a fundamental transformation in the crucible of slavery.

As the seventeenth century ended and the eighteenth century began, white arrogance increased, and a yawning chasm opened up between blacks and whites.

One more decision in the history of black and white had passed, never to be called back, never to be erased, never to be forgotten.

What were blacks doing all this time? They were retreating, going back to the wall, contesting, with all the resources at their command, every inch of the ground. And it was during this retreat that the African began to forge a New World personality. This personality was colored indelibly by the fact that blacks were deliberately pushed out of the circle of community .They were in but not of Colonial America. They were the colonial subjects of the colonial subjects of England. They were not being exploited by George III but by George Washington and his class.

Responding to this situation, blacks began to define themselves in opposition to whites, who were viewed as enemies and oppressors. Nothing shows this more clearly than the remarkable ferment that began with the imposition of slavery and continued for more than a century. In 1672, 1687, 1694, 1709, 1710, 1722, 1730, and 1741, blacks conspired or staged revolts. They also committed suicide, established maroon camps, poisoned masters, and fled to the Indians.

Beyond doubt blacks wanted freedom and fought for freedom. But, as we have shown, they were powerless, and their adversaries held all the high ground. For them and for the millions who would follow, this was one of history’s hard places, one of those impossible historical situations that condemn people to centuries of horror with no hope of immediate escape or salvation. There are impossible historical situations, and this was one of them. There was no immediate possibility of escape for the black victims, and there was no immediate possibility of triumph. And there was nothing in the world they could do about it, except to play the cards history had dealt, waiting and watching, taking advantage of every opportunity, extending the lines of hope and organization.

It was done.

It was done not only by the black founding fathers who began to create a new synthesis in the wilderness of North America, not only by the underground priests who remembered the drums and made others remember, not only by the fathers and mothers who began to shape the foundations, real but shaky, of the black family, not only by the “black and unknown bards” who found strength in song and rhyme and gave others strength, not only. by the rebels and outlaws who, waiting and watching, seized opportunities and made thieves pay for the crime of theft — it was done, it was splendidly done, not only by these, not only by the new priests and leaders and bards but also, and perhaps most importantly, by the millions of maintaining individuals who never rose to public attention but never sank to the level the masters demanded, the millions of maintaining individuals who looked horror full in the face and endured, leaving millions of black seeds on the hard white ground, seeds that would take root and, miraculously, grow.



Migration: A Reflection of Capitalism


By Ellen Isaacs

Appearing in Zmag, July 2016

The news is full of tragic and shocking stories of the flight of refugees, such as the 12.6 million Syrians internally or externally displaced and over 1000 drowned in June in the Mediterranean Sea. Today, more desperate refugees are seeking shelter in Europe than at any time since World War II.

In this article we will examine why so many people in the world have been driven to flee their homes, the status of migration in the world today, and why capitalism and imperialism are responsible for this phenomenon. We will also explore how nationalism and racism, inventions of capitalism, are used to justify mass displacements and make them more acceptable.

According to the United Nations Population Council, there were 232 million international migrants worldwide in 2013 – people who were driven from their homes, leaving behind communities, jobs, relatives, and friends because of unendurable conditions. This desperate disruption of life is the condition of about one in thirty, actually 3.2%, of all the people in the world, up from 2.9% in 1990.1 As of December 2014, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 59.5 million of the total number (more than 25%) are forcibly displaced, by which they mean fleeing from, or within, their country because of war, violence, or persecution. Other causes of the surge in migration are poverty, unemployment, and “natural” disasters increased by capitalist-spawned global warming. This huge crisis cannot be solved by mere modifications of capitalism.


It is well known that the entire human species originated in Africa in distant millennia. About 100,000 years ago our ancestors began their migration around the world, which gave rise to separation of various groups and the evolution of many different languages and sets of customs as well as physical differences, like skin color – which later became the basis for the myth of different races as though we were somehow divided into different species. But what DNA analysis in recent years has taught us is that superficial physical differences between geographic groups account for only a very tiny portion of our total genetic make-up. There are more genetic differences between individuals in one place than variations between separated groups who may look superficially different. In other words, we are all the same species, the human species, which underwent very small genetic changes to adapt to different climates, as well as variations in diet and disease.


Capitalism treats workers as commodities, like products for sale, valued only for their ability to work and make a profit for a boss. The whole world is capitalist today, including the former Soviet Union and China, where early attempts to build communist societies made tremendous progress in liberating workers from exploitation. Ultimately they failed, for identifiable reasons that we must not make in future revolutions. Not only is capitalism universal in today’s world, it has grown bigger and ever more exploitative. The largest capitalists have merged and consolidated to such a degree that the five hundred largest multinational corporations concentrate between 35–40% of world income. By the end of 2016, the richest 1% of the world’s population are projected to own more wealth than the other 99% put together.

Corporations, aided by the policies of their governments, aim to lower the wages they pay workers by any means necessary. Over the last twenty years, the number of workers available for free-market capitalist exploitation has more than doubled, from 1.5 to 3.3 billion. This is partly facilitated by advances in communication and transportation, allowing products to be designed in one part of the world, built in another, and shipped thousands of miles for sale in still another. This “over-supply” of workers, from the bosses’ point of view, allows them to lower wages to the point where 630 million workers in the world today earn less that than $1.25 per day, while the number of unemployed is now 205 million. This accelerating widespread impoverishment has led to growing pressure on workers to migrate, internally and/or internationally.2

Other factors that have sped up impoverishment and inequality in the last 20 years are world trade agreements such as NAFTA, invasions by the U.S. in such countries as Iraq and Afghanistan, proxy wars by the large powers in such places as Syria and Yemen, the buying up of huge swaths of land by rich nations to feed their own citizens such as China in Africa, and climate change. The world continues to warm at an alarming pace, causing droughts, storms and flooding, because the necessity of capitalism to be ever more profitable requires the increasing burning of fossil fuels. All these disasters, and more force people to take the huge and perilous decision to flee their homes, work, friends and family.


In order for capitalist nations to keep the loyalty of citizens, even if oppressed or poor, the populace must be weakened and divided by ideas of racism and nationalism. Perhaps the most devastating historical example is the importation of 12.5 African slaves to the New World in the 1600-1800s that was justified by the purposeful creation of anti-black racism, so well described by Lerone Bennett in The Road Not Taken (see “What is Racism” in this blog). Racism, along with religion, is still used to divide workers both within their own country and between countries. By fostering divisions between black and white, Shiite and Sunni, Hutus and Tutsis, Catholics and Protestants, Dominicans and Haitians, and many, many more examples, bosses mislead ordinary people into blaming each other for their problems, often to the extent of killing each other. In contrast to their sowing these divisions among workers, capitalists are always willing to unite with one another when their interests are threatened. A major example was the invasion uniting ten Western and Asian nations that attacked the Soviet Union after the revolution of 1917. Another was the temporary alliance that Western capitalist governments were willing to make with the socialist Soviet Union to fight the Nazis in World War II, an alliance that broke up into the Cold War as soon as the Nazis were defeated.

Every nation preaches patriotism, the idea that citizens must be loyal to the rulers of their own country just because they speak the same language or share the same culture. Such blind loyalty, instilled from earliest childhood, enables capitalism to exploit its workers and fight wars with worker-soldiers while minimizing resistance. Patriotism teaches that workers from other countries, rather than the capitalists of all countries, are the enemy. The logical unity that should exist between workers of all nations is obliterated by this ideology of loyalty to the nation of one’s birth, which is code for loyalty to its ruling class.

All present-day discussions of migration differentiate between external, from one country to another, and internal, within a country, but this distinction is an artificial one. It is based on the existence of national borders. Without borders separating nations, all migrations on earth would be internal. Borders developed gradually over thousands of years of class-divided societies, largely separating peoples with different languages and other customs. Today, borders are used by the capitalist classes around the world to divide workers from each other, promoting mutual antagonisms that hamper our ability to unite in common cause to fight for a better life.


Of the 59.5 million migrants who are forcibly displaced, about 24 million are refugees, migrants who have fled from their country to another one because of war, general violence, or persecution. This is the highest number ever recorded and includes 14 million who have been turned into refugees over the past year – some 42,500 a day! To put these huge numbers in perspective, we should note that the numbers of worldwide refugees have vastly increased from 2.4 million in 1975 to a former peak of 19.5 million in 2014.6  Flight from conflict is itself deadly. The International Organization for Migration has recorded 40,000 migration-­‐related deaths around the world since 2000. Every day the media tell of over-filled boats that have sunk, drowning hundreds of refugees, with bodies of children and adults washing up on the shore, and families devastated by their loss of relatives.

Since 1951, refugees have had some legal protection under the Refugee Convention adopted by 150 out of 200 countries. They are also entitled to protection by the UNHCR, which has a budget of $3.59 million in 126 countries. But this has not prevented millions from being forced to live in camps or the fringes of their new lands with the very minimum or less of food, shelter, and health care for years at a time. Internally displaced persons, who have fled their homes but remain in the same country, don’t even have this source of supposed legal protection, except those generally found in the Geneva Accords – honored more often in the breach than in actuality.4

There are only estimates of the millions of people who have been displaced by development projects including dams, roads, mining, urban clearance, or deforestation. This group of migrants, estimated to be 90-100 million during the 1990s alone, usually remains in their home country but are rarely, if ever, adequately compensated. It is estimated that ten million people a year are forced to move by dams alone. The number who have had to flee natural and man made disasters is on average 27 million a year.5 A study by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists finds that 3.4 million have been physically or economically displaced by World Bank-funded projects which seize their lands and livelihoods. In China, about 300 million (almost the size of the U.S. population) have moved from the country to the cities over the last 30 years and 350 million more may do so in the future, often desperate to seek even underpaid jobs in vast international factories.7

The American Academy for the Advancement of Science estimates that by 2020, there will be 50 million climate migrants.8

Migration map

Drought will force millions to flee their land to the slums of large cities, rising sea levels will make many coastal lands uninhabitable, and storms will destroy homes and farmland in many parts of the world.9


We will attempt to give a very brief overview of migration in various locales and show how it has been influenced by capitalism and imperialism. It is impossible to examine this is in a detailed way regarding each country, but some broad statistics and concrete examples will illustrate how this phenomenon is becoming progressively more massive and deadly as inter-imperialist competition and wars intensify.


In the U.S., as of 2012, there were 40.7 million foreign‐born people, 18.6 million of whom were naturalized citizens. Of the 22.1 non-citizens, 13.3 were legal residents, 1.9 million were on temporary visas, and 11.3 were undocumented. It is estimated that half of the undocumented have overstayed visas, rather than having crossed borders illegally.10 From 2000 to 2012, the immigrant population grew from 31.1 to 40.8 million people, making up 13% of the total U.S. population, but still lower that the peak of 14.8% in 1890.

The origin of today’s immigrants has changed from 50 years ago. In 1960, 75% of the foreign born population came from Europe, whereas only 11.8% do today. Currently, the largest bloc of immigrants, 26%, come from Mexico, followed by other Latin American countries and Asia. Contrary to media propaganda, less than one in five immigrants lives in poverty, nor do they use social services or commit crimes more than the native-born. Both immigrants and their children have higher levels of education and home ownership than non-immigrants.

Of the 11.3 million undocumented immigrants in 2013, 52% were from Mexico, down from 57% in 2007. Of these, 62% have been living in the U.S. for 13 years or longer, 88% for over 5 years. They are employed at a higher rate than the general population, representing 5.2% of the labor force while comprising 3.7% of the population. Hundreds of thousands have relatives in the U.S. but, because of 1996 laws, would have to leave and wait ten years before re-entering the country to qualify for a green card. 3.8 million have children who are citizens and 20% have a spouse who is a citizen or has legal status.10

migration by ethnicity charts

While the right wing press and politicians wail about the drain of illegal immigration on the economy, legalization is thought by liberals, like the Center for American Progress, to be an economic boon. Their thinking is that if immigrants were granted legal protections, and access to promotion and training, they would earn 15% higher wages with documentation and an additional 10% with citizenship within five years. The total $618 billion dollar increase over a decade would boost taxes and spending and boost the coffers of Social Security and Medicare. Even as illegal workers, the undocumented pay $13 billion in taxes, much of it for benefits that they are denied. As the population ages, the younger immigrants would fill many jobs left vacant by retiring workers. Even if all the undocumented were permitted to work legally and became incorporated into the labor force, the unemployment rate would be expected to rise by only .1%, and that only for a short period.11

So if this is true, why is there so much anti-immigrant propaganda and so little done to reform immigration policy? The Republicans and other right-wing politicians like Trump rely on overt racism against immigrants and non-white citizens to build loyalty to the U.S. and create antagonisms among workers. By blaming crime, unemployment, poor schools and other services on the undocumented, they divide various groups of workers against one another. They also use scare tactics to pinpoint Muslim immigrants as the likely source of terrorism, while in fact many more terrorist attacks have been committed by non‐Muslim extremist citizens.

However, the dominant wing of the ruling class, liberals like Obama, are actually a much more dangerous and insidious enemy of immigrant rights. Obama deported over 3.5 million people (deportations + removal soon after arrival) through 2012.12 Nearly all (98%) of these deportees were Latin American or Caribbean nationals. As the backlash increased, he changed his tune and promoted the DREAM Act (deceptively named acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), which would provide, if passed, a path to citizenship to those who came as children, are still under 30 years old, and, most importantly, who enlist in the military or go to college. In the meantime, Obama’s executive policy called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allows undocumented children who came to the U.S. before they were 16 and before June 2007 to get a two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. Despite the superficial anti-racist appearance of the (still only proposed) DREAM Act and DACA, the main motivation behind them is to increase recruitment into the military, a path open to many more young immigrants than completing college. As larger resource and profit-making wars loom and the pool of citizen volunteers shrinks, increasing recruitment among young immigrants, who can be pressured to enlist, fight, and die, is essential for the ruling class.

Furthermore, maintaining low wages for Latin immigrants, as well as blacks and women, is necessary to boost the capitalists’ profits. In fact, black, women and Latin workers are paid only 72-78% of the wages of white male workers, which amounts to something on the order of $4 trillion dollars a year by short-changing on wages,11 about 20% of the GDP, that is stolen and pocketed by the ruling class. American workers have become so poor that they cannot support their families or buy goods, leading some politicians to give support to a $15 an hour minimum wage, when a real living wage would be closer to $30 an hour.

But what is most important to the ruling class is to deny immigrants any rights to challenge their conditions of employment or their inferior housing, schools, health care, sanitation and other services. Even more significant than this is the ability to keep immigrants and other oppressed groups – black and other non-white citizens ‐ divided against one another. This prevents their uniting around wages, working conditions or social conditions, because they are separated by job categories, unions, churches, and in segregated schools and neighborhoods. Suspicion and negative images of one another are sown in the media, by politicians, and in the educational curriculum. This has been the bosses’ most effective tool for limiting fight-back against exploitation and oppression, and most particularly for limiting the building of a large anti-capitalist revolutionary movement in this country.


About 42% of all immigrants to the U.S. are from Mexico or the rest of Latin America. During and after WWII, there was a great farm labor shortage in the American West. An average of over 400,000 workers from Mexico, with smaller numbers from the Caribbean and Honduras, were employed legally under the Bracero Program. The program also stimulated a sharp increase in unauthorized immigration, as wages were kept seven to ten times lower in Mexico than in the U.S., where they were still at poverty level. This suited employers, who were free to super-exploit these workers, and it is estimated that the ratio of undocumented to documented farmworkers was about two to one. The Bracero Program ended in 1965, and that same year a law was passed by racist politicians limiting the number of legal immigrants to the U.S. to 120,000 a year from the whole Western Hemisphere. In their zeal to attack workers, the politicians failed to satisfy the bosses’ desire in the U.S. for adequate low paid labor, so, because of the resulting labor shortage, the numbers of immigrants did not decrease.

The economic crisis in the U.S. of the 1970s caused a contraction of jobs in industry and a growth in service jobs – throwing many workers out of higher-wage into lower-wage jobs. The global capitalist crisis and austerity imposed on Latin American countries by the World Bank and IMF caused even greater pressure for immigration. It also meant that more whole families were coming as opposed to just working-age men.11

The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 also led to huge increases in immigration from Mexico to the U.S. Now highly subsidized American agricultural products like corn flooded and undersold the Mexican market, driving some two million Mexican farmers out of work. Large corporations like Walmart opened shop in Mexico because of tax and duty exemptions, causing many small local businesses to close. NAFTA caused a general reduction of wages near the border, forcing many families to send members across the border to seek higher wages.13 Thus, the widely advertised “Free Trade” was free only for the U.S. capitalists but intensified wage slavery for workers in both Mexico and the U.S.

In Central America during the 1980s, the U.S. funded the rise of violent military dictatorships in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, as well as the Dominican Republic, in order to support U.S.-owned corporations and repress movements against poverty and inequality. The defeat of these movements enabled the building of huge assembly plants, maquiladoras, to manufacture goods using American raw materials in Mexico, Central America, and the Dominican Republic and Haiti. This in turn caused the loss of better-paying jobs in the U.S. and increased very low-paying jobs in the target countries. Poverty rates reached nearly 60% in Central America by 1990. The boom in profits led to passage of the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) in 2006, which increased the scope of NAFTA-type policies and more widespread super-exploitation. Over 200,000 displaced workers have been forced to move into the maquiladora zones to have any kind of work. At the same time, prices of food and other essentials rose by 9-16%. From 2000 to 2010, the number of Central American migrants in the U.S. grew to 3.1 million and now almost equals the number from Mexico.

Another factor is the “war on drugs,” originally driven by CIA-promoted high drug use in U.S. inner cities – profits from which were used to fund the right wing forces in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas during Reagan’s term in office. U.S. drug consumption, which kills countless workers and destroys countless families, is now estimated at 62% of the total world market. It is used to imprison hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers who might otherwise threaten the domestic tranquility, and who are disproportionately black, even though drug use is roughly equal among both blacks and whites.

Since the 1990s, while promoting the drug trade with one hand, the U.S. has pushed its “enforcement” policies outward with the other, to the Caribbean and as far south as Colombia, enabling them to keep tighter military control over these countries. In 1994 the U.S.-Mexico border was highly militarized, at the same time that NAFTA was displacing thousands. This has resulted in the death of at least 6,000 people trying to cross to the U.S. The Mexicans have also fortified their southern border, making northern emigration from Central America even more hazardous. Despite the hundreds of millions of American dollars poured into this pretence, the drug cartels have grown more powerful and violent, and the murder rate in the region rose 100% from 2000-2012. The increase in violence explains the recent massive increase of unaccompanied young immigrants, who are desperate to escape deadly drug gang recruitment and killing, especially from Honduras and El Salvador.13

It is estimated that 13-30% of immigration within Central and South America is intraregional, going from one country in the area to another, but the numbers are hard to document. The total was thought to be about 3.5 million in 2001. As elsewhere, the search for work and escape from civil wars and drug-gang violence are the main driving factors. Mexico has many undocumented immigrants from countries to its south, many of whom are in transit to the U.S. Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have fled repression and poverty to Costa Rica since the U.S.-backed war, where they continue to be the victims of racism and exploitation. Colombians have fled the decades-old civil strife and drug wars into Venezuela.14


Of the approximately 17,756,000 refugees and displaced persons from Africa as of December 2014 (according to the UNHCR), 55% have migrated within the continent, often from landlocked conflicted areas to coastal areas in a search for jobs and whatever security they can find. The most common destinations are South Africa, Ivory Coast, and Kenya. Most internal migrants within Africa lack legal protection and are subject to human rights, property, and sexual abuse and suffer poverty and exclusion from the main society.


As in other parts of the world, the conflict and poverty within Africa results from its long history of victimization by imperialist exploitation. By the year 1914, 90% of Africa was controlled by various European powers, most notably by France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, and England. Although most states ostensibly gained formal political independence after World War II, they remained economically dependent on their former colonial masters. In the 1990s, the World Bank intervened increasingly in Africa, and both China and the U.S. became deeply involved in the 2000s. AFRICOM, the U.S. Africa Command, was established in 2007, and its first operation was the coup in Libya. Although there is only one admitted U.S. military base in Africa, a 2013 investigation by TomDispatch found military involvement in 49 out of the 53 nations, counting the offshore islands.16 Oil resources in Libya, Sudan, and Nigeria led self-serving governments to make alliances with Western and Chinese oil companies, to the detriment of local populations. The Libyan government was overthrown by a U.S. inspired coup in 2011, when oil prices were high and the Chinese were moving to grab more of the oil wealth. The country was left in total chaos, resulting in nearly 400,000 Libyan refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) by the end of 2014 (UNHCR). Now there is chaos and no work in Libya, but the migrants from countries to the south, who used to seek jobs in the oil fields, still come, hoping to get to Europe by boat from the northern coast. Smugglers charge high fees for transport on flimsy, overcrowded boats and thousands have drowned in the past few years. In 2014, 68,000 North Africans arrived in Sicily – another several thousand drowned – primarily from Eritrea, Mali, Nigeria, and Gambia.17

The Horn of Africa, the northeastern area containing Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, is of vital importance to U.S. energy interests. It is not only one of the potentially largest unexplored regions for oil and gas, but it borders the Red Sea, a route which connects the oil rich Persian Gulf nations to Europe and Asia. This explains the U.S. involvement in wars in Somalia and Ethiopia since the 1970s. A story could be told of resource wars and imperialist greed in almost every African country, which is beyond the scope of this report. Most recently, resurgence of conflicts in the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, northern Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan have continued to displace millions, pushing ever more young men north towards Europe. Recent mayhem in northern Mali threatens to tip the country back into civil war as camps in Mauritania and Burkina Faso still overflow with refugees from a previous round of fighting.18

Capitalist caused global warming is also playing a role. The strip of Africa that runs from East to West across Africa south of Libya and Algeria, called the Sahel, has been suffering the most severe drought of the last century, one manifestation of climate change. This is a major factor which has driven 1.5Y2.5 million to migrate, largely north through Libya.19


Today’s news is dominated by Syria. The ongoing civil war there has created 11.6 refugees, over 4 million of whom have fled to Europe, with the rest remaining in the country under horrendous conditions. Although the conflict is said to be about democrats vs. a dictator, with Islamic militants later becoming involved, it too really began over oil and pipelines. As recent Wikileaks cables confirm, the U.S. was involved and planning to topple Assad in 2006. The American Government not only wanted to weaken this ally of Iran and Russia, but to stop the construction of a gas pipeline that was to be built between 2014 and 2016 from Iran’s giant South Pars field through Iraq and Syria. With a possible extension to Lebanon, it would eventually reach Europe, the target export market.20 The recent military involvement of Russia makes it possible that this war will expand to include direct U.S.Y Russian engagement, wreaking death and havoc on even more of the population and threatening to turn into another world war.

Palestinian refugees were previously the largest and longest displaced group of refugees in the world, about 7.2 million in total. They are descendants of those forcefully expelled by the Israeli government in 1948 or displaced by the 1967 war, and by construction of the Wall surrounding the West Bank, with continuing home demolitions. About 38% live in the West Bank and Gaza (50% of thelocal population) and another 335,000 thousand within Israel. The remainder live in the surrounding countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, mainly in refugee camps, or scattered throughout the world.21

This situation had its origin after WWI, when the British promised a state in Palestine to the Jewish Zionist movement, in truth to serve their own imperialist interests, particularly in Middle Eastern oil. After the defeat of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the British needed a friendly ally in the area to protect newly discovered oil fields in the area, access to the Suez Canal, and air routes to India. Since the end of WWII, the U.S. has become the major supporter of Israel and gives over $3 billion annually in militaryaid. This pays for Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine and enables its rulers to maintain the fourth largest army in the world, complete with nuclear weapons, which is intended to serve as the American watchdog in the region.


According to the United Nations, this region accounts for 3.5 million refugees, 1.9 internally displaced people and 1.4 million stateless people. The majority come from Afghanistan and Myanmar.22 But UN figures do not include China, where over 300 million have migrated from the countryside to the city as worldwide industries have sought cheap labor among those forced from agricultural villages.

The situation in Afghanistan results from the chaos unleashed by the 2001 U.S. invasion, which has left the country divided and unstable. By midY2014, Afghani refugees in Iran numbered 1 million and in Pakistan 1.5 million. 700,000 are internally displaced. In Iraq, even before the recent escalation of conflicts with ISIS, 1.9 million Iraqis were either transborder refugees or internally displaced. 23

One of the largest of 20th century migrations occurred in 1947  between India and the newly created state of Pakistan (then East and West Pakistan, but now Bangladesh in the east) when the Indian rulers gained nominal political, but not economic, independence from Britain after WWII. Over fifteen million passed back and forth, as Muslims rushed north and Hindus fled south. Between one and two million died as ethnic passions were whipped into a frenzy of bloodshed.24 As in many other places, the rule of colonialists was initially largely responsible for the onset and growth of deadly nationalist passions in an area where various religions and cultures had coexisted for centuries. The wealthy and professional Muslim leadership had demanded privileges from the British rulers since the early 1900s, in return for a pledge of loyalty. A wave of strikes in the months after WWII had united workers of all religions, which made both the Muslim and Hindu upper classes nervous. Even the revered anti-British leader Gandhi, in service to the Indian capitalists, described the strikers as “rabble…in an unholy combination.” The deal for separate states allowed the elites to turn workers against each other and maintain their ruling status, resulting in decades of impoverishment and inter-ethnic rivalries among workers that last until today.25

Today, the U.S. is the major power in the world, manipulating the rulers of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh to supply cheap manpower and markets and to “fight terrorism” in American interests. Poverty has caused at least 12 million Bangladeshis to migrate to India in search of better pay, while at least 25 million Indians migrated to Europe, England, the U.S., or Asia by 2005.26. At least 8 million Pakistanis had fled violence, persecution, or poverty by 2015, with 27% of all Pakistanis wishing they could leave.27

In conclusion, migration is just one manifestation of the misery and chaos that world capitalism brings down upon the workers of the world. Without wars between competing ruling classes and their proxies, without climate change due to rampant fossil fuel use, without racist exploitation of labor, there would be far less migration. In the coming decades, life as we know it may well be destroyed by climate disaster or widening war between the superpowers, so long as capitalists remain in power anywhere in the world. We have no choice but to overthrow this system and put the world’s workers in charge. We must build a society based on equality, sharing, and production for need rather than profit.

We will have to study the shortcomings of previous attempts at revolution as well as their strengths. We must be prepared for struggle with revolutionary potential to erupt anywhere in the world. And we must build smaller struggles along the way, to train ourselves as active participants, as leaders, and as thinkers. But always, we must emphasize uniting together on the basis of class and refusing to be divided by racism and nationalism. We have a world to win.

  1. United Nations. http://esa.un.org/unmigration/documents/the_number_of_international_migrants.pdf
  2. Raul Delgado Wise “The Migration and Labor Question Today: Imperialism, Unequal Development and Forced Migration, Monthly Review. 64, no. 9 (February, 2013)
  3. http://www.forcedmigration.org/about/whatisfm
  4. http://www.forcedmigration.org/research-resources/expert-guides/internal-displacement/internally-displaced-persons-the-category
  5. http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/201409-global-estimates.pdf
  6. http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home/opendocPDFViewer.html?docid=556725e69&query=number%20world%20wide%20refugees%202014

7.http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175959/tomgram%3A_pepe_escobar,_inside_china’s_%22new_n ormal%22/

  1. Harsha Walia, https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/the-making-of-the-migration-crisis/
  2. Michael Klare, http://www.opednews.com/articles/MichaelYKlareYPostYApocalYbyYTomYEngelhardtY 120807Y!!!!!134.html,!
  3. David Guttierez, http://www.nps.gov/history/heritageinitiatives/latino/latinothemestudy/immigration.html

11.https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/report/2014/10/23/59040/theYfactsYonY immigrationYtodayY3

  1. Washington Post, 4/21/14
  2. Tanya! Golash-Boza, http://www.scribd.com/doc/28994034/The-Immigration-Industrial-Complex-Why-We-Enforce-Immigration- Policies-Destined-to-Fail
  3. Justin! Akers! Chacón, http://sandiegofreepress.org/2014/07/central-american-refugee-children-forced-on-a-dangerous-journey/
  4.  http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/400YHaitiansYDeportedYfromYDominicanYRepublicYinY SeptemberY20150913Y0019.html

    16. Nick Turse, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/09/usYmilitaryYbasesYafrica?page=1

    17. The Guardian, 1/16/15

    18. The Economist, 3/31/14

    19. Anthony Watts, http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/12/12/climateYchangeYblamedYforYdeadYtreesY inYafrica/
    20. Mnar Muhawesh, http://www.mintpressnews.com/migrantYcrisisYsyriaYwarYfueledYbyYcompetingY gasYpipelines/209294/
    21. http://alYawda.org/learnYmore/faqsYaboutYpalestinianYrefugees/

    22. http://www.unhcr.org/cgiYbin/texis/vtx/page?page=49e487cd6&submit=GO

    23. http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/human/refugees

    24. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/06/29/theY greatYdivideYbooksYdalrymple

    25. Ali, Tariq, The Duel –Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, Scribner, New York, 2008, pp 29Y34].

    26. Daniel Naujoks, http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/emigrationYimmigrationYandYdiasporaY relationsYindia,

    27. Huma Yusuf, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/world/90118/pakistanYterrorismYemigrationY ISI,