Racism and the War Against the Poor

[On December 17,  1951 William Patterson, National Executive Secretary of the Civil Rights Congress, delivered copies of an historic petition to the United Nations delegation in Paris. Meanwhile, renowned musician and activist  Paul Robeson presented the same petition, which documented the legacy of slavery in America, to a U.N. official in New York.  That document was entitled “We Charge Genocide.”  Quoting the U.N. definition of what constitutes genocide (” Any intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, racial, or religious group is genocide.”) the Civil Rights Congress called on the U.N.  ” for Relief From a Crime of The United States Government Against the Negro People.”  They concluded that “the oppressed Negro citizens of the United States, segregated, discriminated against, and long the target of violence, suffer from genocide as the result of the consistent, conscious, unified policies of every branch of government. If the General Assembly acts as the conscience of mankind and therefore acts favorably on our petition, it will have served the cause of peace.”

Ruben Stacy lynched in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, 1935

After the Civil War’s military phase was over, the Reconstruction period established the rule of Wall Street over the South,  followed by the rapid and thorough establishment of sharecropping and peonage in the South.  The lynch law became the leading terroristic weapon to keep these social relations in place.  Thousands of documented cases of lynchings took place from the end of Reconstruction to the end of the second World War. This source notes that in the century after the end of the fighting in the Civil War more than 2,400 African-Americans were lynched, a number that considerably underestimates the deaths.  And while the preponderance of people lynched were African-American, more than a thousand non-African-Americans (“white,” Mexican, Asian) were lynched in the same period.

Ida B. Wells,born in Alabama and teaching in Memphis in 1892, had been writing articles in a Memphis paper pointing out the rising tide of lynching and the other practices which

Ida B. Wells

characterized the oppression of Black people. In 1884 she was ordered to give up her train seat and move to another (crowded) car so that her seat could be taken by a white.  She refused, was forcibly removed, and she sued to recover damages (the Supreme Court had, in 1883, struck down an 1875 Civil Rights Law banning discrimination in public accommodations).  A lower court ruled in her favor, but the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled against her and ordered that she pay court costs.  She continued to write about inequities and, while away in Philadelphia, her newspaper was burned down.  She left Memphis, lecturing around the world about the condition of Blacks in America, arriving in Chicago at the time of the World’s Fair.  Here she and Frederick Douglass campaigned to boycott the World’s Fair (1893) because Chicago had failed to work with the Black community in putting together its representation of African-American life.  20,000 copies of a pamphlet they wrote were distributed.  Wells decided to stay in Chicago and continued her campaign for an anti-lynch law, a campaign which she brought to the President of US (without significant effect).

In 1924 the young Vietnamese expatriate Ho Chi Minh, studying in France,  visited the United States and wrote an article on lynching for the French press (he also made some reports to the international Communist movement on the “national and colonial question”).  This source identifies 2,600 victims of lynching in just the 20 years from 1899 to 1919, and connects lynching to an economic question as well as a racial one.

In the last year, the issue of mass discrimination has entered public consciousness through the publication of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.  Her arguments on how the proportion of Blacks incarcerated has mushroomed fits neatly into the UN definition of genocide.  Note her comments here on Democracy Now, which among other things shows that the election of a Black president has not mitigated the growing assault on “poor communities of color.”

The March/April issue of Rally Comrades has a different perspective on race and class.  While focusing on the history of the US, as indicated above, the article “New Form of Racism Emerging” locates a nodal point in the creation of a new class of poor, with Blacks at the center of this class.]

New Form of Racism Emerging

We are entering a vast social revolution. Every aspect of American life is being torn apart and something new is being created. America is not going to be recognizable in another 20 years.
Change in social motion is difficult to grasp because the content begins to change before the form. What revolutionaries must grasp is that a new form of racism is developing, directed against an emerging new class that includes the “ghetto blacks,” the “illegal immigrant” and the white, so-called “trailer trash.” In other words, the class and cultural differences with the ruling class, not color, is emerging as the ideological basis for the savage economic assault against the poor.

Everything changes as economy changes

An economy cannot stand alone. There must be a political structure that protects it, including laws, ideas and institutions.  The struggles that are taking place today are over how to guarantee that the economy can continue to develop. All kinds of ideas are created, reshaped or thrown out according to whether they politically facilitate the development of the economy.
The concept of race, like any other political concept, has always served the needs of the economy. It changes with every change in the economy, because the economy demands that change if it is to move forward.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, two or three Blacks were lynched each week in the South. Lynching was seldom applied to Blacks until after the Civil War. Up to that time, almost all those who were lynched were white. There were changes in the economy and the Blacks had to be driven back into some kind of semi-slavery in order to maintain the profitability of the southern economy, which was absolutely indispensable to the northern textile industry and the U.S. economy overall.

Racism in America has been directed against the Irish, the Native Americans, the Latin Americans, and the Asians among others. Most of all it has centered on the African Americans because it is a political question. Politics is the art of the class struggle. Nothing could be more artful than to use a myth to convince literally millions of people to do harm to themselves in the interests of the people they are struggling against. Yet this is precisely what has happened in our history. It happened because the American people became convinced that they were dealing with a biological rather than a political question. We emphasize this point because the great economic and political changes taking place are having a profound effect on the politics of race and color.

There was a time when a person’s race depended on where they were born, not the color of their skin. Race became a color question when the African slave trade enslaved all kinds of different nationalities whose common characteristic was their color. This linking of color and race for capitalist exploitation was further consolidated and spread through the worldwide expansion of imperialism.
We also must never forget that the brutality of racism was not always directed solely by color differences. The racist nationalism of the fascist Japanese government against the peoples of Asia, or the slaughter and enslavement of the Slavic peoples by fascist Germany are only recent examples. In history we see racism in a religious garb as well. The thing that is clear is that racism, no matter its veneer, facilitates exploitation and is an integral part of capitalism. Therefore, as the needs of capitalism change, the forms of racism will change to accommodate it.

Not an underclass but a new class

A new social group is forming. They have been driven outside the  capitalist economy, but as human beings they must eat — they must consume. This new class is growing daily through the process of technological innovation. Like anything else, today’s new class developed over a period of time.

Robotics entered industry at the lowest and simplest level. Its first victims were the unskilled and semiskilled workers. Part of the legacy of slavery was that after emancipation a huge section of the African American work force remained tied to the land. Tractored off the land after the development of the cotton-picking machine, they were the last section of the rural population to join the industrial work force. They were concentrated in that sector — the unskilled and semiskilled sector — that was first attacked by the robot.

The Black poor were hit first and hardest. The Black bourgeoisie fled their traditional sections of the city as soon as the ink was dry on the laws allowing them to do so. Holding stable jobs, a section of the African American workers also moved from the inner city into much more stable neighborhoods.

With the factories shutting down, the land around these factories quickly lost their value. Taxes fell, maintenance dwindled and the combination of the American form of apartheid, plus the liquidation of jobs, created a new type of slum: the black, permanently destitute, rotting inner core of the formerly central working-class area of the city.

The economists, their social vision distorted by racist ideology, were unable to understand the difference between the reserve army of unemployed created by industrial capitalism and the structural, permanent joblessness created by robotics. They only saw a growing mass of African Americans outside the labor market. They eagerly embraced the term “underclass.”
Those who coined the term “underclass” perhaps thought here again was a group unable to keep up, and once falling behind and supported by welfare, consciously accepted an existence outside the capitalist relations of worker and employer. They were presented as a subclass of Blacks, reliant on welfare, who had lost the work ethic. Worse, they were creating a subculture of immorality and criminality in the midst of a great national expansion of wealth and productivity.

A more concrete look showed something different. The new productive equipment has polarized wealth and poverty as never before. Absolute wealth in the form of 145 billionaires and absolute poverty in the form of some eight million homeless and absolutely destitute were new to our country. The increase in production was accompanied by an increase in unemployment and joblessness.
Since that phrase “underclass” was coined, the process of social destruction has continued. We can see now that this new group of permanently unemployed is not the result of the welfare system or of some “racial inferiority”, but of the new means of production and the destruction of jobs.

The effects of robotics on the white unskilled and semiskilled workers were not so easily seen scattered as they were, and still are, throughout the general white population, especially in the rural areas and in the suburbs. The African Americans were highly visible, being concentrated in a relatively small urban area. Also, the percentage of Black laborers among the African American population was higher than white laborers among the white population.

Racism against Blacks provided the form, but the content was the beginnings of a social revolution. The first expression of that revolution was the wrecking of the economy of working-class Black America. That revolution is now wreaking its havoc against the formerly secure sections of the blue-collar, white-collar and lower management levels of the white workers.
Today, almost nine in ten Black youth ages 16 to 19 are unemployed. There is a steady increase in Black teens murdered. Black families on average hold one-tenth the wealth of white families. HIV, a disease of poverty, disproportionately affects Blacks. There is a disproportionate number of Blacks in prisons.

This dangerous situation facing the African American poor is not happening in a vacuum. It is part of a process that is pulling millions of all colors and nationalities into poverty. Today, the economy is losing millions of jobs. Nearly 50.7 million Americans, or one in six, are without healthcare. An estimated 50 million people struggled to put food on the table last year. The demand at food banks is up. One in four children is hungry. Growing numbers of Americans are going without other necessities such as water and heat in their homes.

But it is not simply the growth of poverty that is significant today. And the results of the process are broader than the social problems caused by racism. It is acknowledged now that, in fact, the so-called white underclass is larger and growing faster than the Black. What we are dealing with is not an “underclass,” but a new class. Today, this new class has already formed a new economic section of the working class and it is in the process of creating a new social and political entity.

Class-cultural division

The concept of race based on color has to go out the window, just like the concept of race based on geographic locale had to go out the window.  It is not possible to have a Black president and sustain the idea of color-based racism.

But we do have racism. But it’s more and more being shifted into economic status. More and more if you are part of the America where your parents didn’t have a job, you don’t have a job, you went to a school where you can barely read and write – you might have the same skin color, but you are not the same as others who are not in that situation.
The cultural divisions within Black society have been developing for some time and are almost complete. There has been a selective “cultural integration” taking place. If an African American will think, talk, act and have the same motivations as the members of the ruling class, the doors are open to them. The scores of Black generals, admirals and CEOs of big corporations, the Black politicians and government bureaucrats all testify to this. Today, there are literally hundreds of Black millionaires. Below them is a growing layer of Black professionals who have practically no connection to the strivings and aspirations of the mass of African Americans.

The tendencies of cultural division within white society, although always underground, are now becoming visible. Increasingly, lower-class whites have more in common with the lower-class Black cultural forms than they do with the white upper-class. Today, this history is being grafted on to the new class and the cultural divisions that are arising from the vast polarization of wealth and poverty.

Race, racism and the new class

The ruling class uses the particular weapons of history against the different sections of the new class, but the ruling class is aiming its fire at anyone — regardless of color — who presents a threat to the existing order. They are attempting to stigmatize and isolate the new class as a class.

We can see the outlines of this attack in Charles Murray’s new book Coming Apart. He warns that the all-class white unity that once characterized America is “coming apart at the seams, not along seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.” The divergence of cultural behaviors and values between the classes he describes is so great, he writes, that they have so little in common that one can “barely recognize their underlying American kinship.”

Murray considers the “new lower-class” of “poor whites” he describes as depraved and ignorant as the poor Blacks he described in his infamous book The Bell Curve. For Murray, poor whites are lazy, prone to crime, addicted to government programs, irreligious, full of excuses, and morally bankrupt. They are inferior to, beneath, not anything like, the whites (and the wealthy of all colors) in the new upper class he lauds so highly.

This kind of racism against the white poor is nothing new, of course. Poor whites have always been considered naturally inferior, their poverty attributed to some deficiency in intellectual or physical capacity. Especially after the Civil War and all the way up to WWII the southern white was looked down upon by the northern white as being not really American. In the 1950s, a series of Chicago Tribune editorials, for example, viciously attacked Appalachian “migrants” for turning the streets of Chicago into “a lawless free-for-all with their primitive jungle tactics … [with] the lowest standard of living and moral code [if any] of all… No other group is so completely devoid of self-pride and responsibility… even worse than Negroes.”  The 1972 movie Deliverance made this point clearly to the American public – that these people were animals, that these were the kind of people that lived in Appalachia.

While Murray focuses on poor whites, he includes poverty stricken Latinos and Blacks in this new lower class. Regardless of color, the new class poses a threat to the very fabric of American society. “Individually, they are not much of a problem,” he writes. “Collectively, they can destroy the kind of civil society that America requires.”

Looking ahead

Two contradictory processes are developing simultaneously in America today. Under the pressure of economic privation there always will be a tendency for any oppressed or defenseless person to shift the blame to someone else, rather than attack the overwhelming power that is hurting him or her. We are going to see different sections of this new class fighting each other.
At the same time, the commonality of their economic situation is going to compel them to unite, if only at first on specific issues. As the foundation for color-racism is being destroyed there is a growing economic attack against the new class — on their education, their housing standards, their job benefits, an attack on the very infrastructure of their lives. There is no way for them to resist this kind of pressure unless they seek out and find a political expression for the objective reality of their changing lives.

We are dealing with a political question. The new class is already forming along the line of a unity based on what is practical and real and possible.  But ultimately, it cannot carry out its historic mission unless it becomes conscious of that mission, unless it understands itself as a class, unless it sees its common interests as a class. This is the revolutionaries’ role, to illuminate the meaning of the current struggles in order to develop the consciousness, the thinking, the sense of self the class must have to carry out its mission.  Strategy, direction, vision and the diverse ways in which the revolutionaries disseminate and share this message all turn on an accurate assessment of the race question as it is today in America..

This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
P.O. Box 477113 Chicago, IL 60647 rally@lrna.org
Free to reproduce unless otherwise marked.
Please include this message with any reproduction.


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