Sunday, January 15, 2006
Spier: Racism in America -- Some History and Threads
by Bill Spier, right
It was never in the interest of Southern slave owners to allow much co-mingling of slaves with poor white yeoman. Daily life for the majority of whites was nearly as hard as slavery and living conditions marginal; but whites were not chattel. The long period of racial degradation and abuse allowed the plantation class ample time to accumulate wealth. Although the United States was a democracy in the making, equal rights and economic opportunity was not in the mind of the South. Communities were isolated and king cotton benefited those with the means to bankroll the large crop.
Before the Civil War, free people of the South were largely poor white farmers and a few shopkeepers. Expanses of fertile land in areas like the White River region of Arkansas belonged to the plantation owners. Just about everyone else farmed scrabble or up hill. Unlike the North which was industrializing rapidly, only a few cities like Nashville and Birmingham entertained significant and centralized industry. Plantations manufactured their own farming equipment and owners amassed their wealth on the broken backs of black men and women. In 1840, the most important mode of commercial transport was still the river barge. One hundred years after the Civil War, the South still did not have the abundance of well paying jobs found in the North. The genteel south was just an illusion. Generations of wrenching white poverty brought forth social pathologies like the Klan and James Earl Ray.
Jump ahead over a hundred years to Memphis in April 1968. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was there to lend support to striking city sanitation workers -- ordinary Americans who happened to be both black and white. Lurking in the shadows though was James Earl Ray. Ray, twisted by racial hatred, was like the poor confederate soldier who picked up a rifle to support economic and cultural issues he had little stake in a hundred years before. Ray was brought up to believe that it was the "nigras" who kept folks like him from moving up and out of the grinding poverty and ignorance that typified the South since Reconstruction. Worker exploitation, anti-unionism, neglect of destitute communities, and national priorities skewed towards federal support of business were hard-to-grasp issues to people like Ray. For Ray, there was strength in ignorance. It seemed that no one cared for him or other whites like him for as long as anyone could remember. This was not entirely untrue. The coming of equal rights frightened many who did not have the education or skills to compete with a larger reserve pool of workers. In April, 1968, King walked hand-in-hand with white sanitation workers. They were Southern men all. King believed that the struggle for economic security and a more properous South did not have to be encumbered by the irrationality of racism. For some, this alliance was the great danger of the King movement.
Hard Wiring Racism
What hard wired racism into the mind and culture of the South? (The North had its more subtle yet insidious racism.) There is no easy or short explanation. American racism certainly was inherited from its British ancestors. Mid 17th century England was a period of economic and social oppression. Any customary rights the old peasantry had to land was evaporating as wealthy Englishmen corralled vast tracts to raise sheep. You could say that this was a time when sheep devoured men. Large numbers of English peasants and yeoman who worked by the seasons landed penniless in cities where they either worked in factories or starved. English cities were a dog-eat-dog environment where beggars and the poor were vilified for their sloth and crudity. Throughout the Isles, ministers preached the value of work and self control; from their moral superiority thundered the harsh sentiment that the idle hand was the devil’s do. The church reinforced the new capital accumulating class’s belief that making an orderly world would call for the repression of the old social order; that is, the life governed naturally by the seasons had to be driven back into dream state and yield to a new disciplined world. This took over a century of brutality to accomplish. According to E.P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class, "When the work was done, the peasant went back to the field and the artisan on a drunken spree."
Unfortunately for Africa, the British set sail for the Dark Continent during this same period of repressive religious and social ideology. In the African, they observed black men and women living in societies of mostly agricultural economies. But life in this natural world of Equatorial Africa was exactly opposite from what the English were brutally forming in their new industrial society. In Africa, the protestant repression of humors and spirit was not the rule of the day and the English made a “pornography” of this former life of theirs. It was therefore not difficult to enslave a whole race of people who lacked the social and sexual discipline of a (now) superior and rational people. The English enterprise on the African continent was not missionary, and the brutality of their slave trade left America with a legacy of social pathology.
Did the assassin Ray know that he struck down the one man who, at that very moment in history, was leading both white and black workers together out of the shadow of a racist South? By killing King, Ray struck a blow at worker unionization and stilled a unique voice of healing and reason. The irony of Ray, an ingorant and unskilled man, is that he acted as an agent of just the divisiveness that oppressed him too.
Nixon and Reagan and the Southern Strategy
“The reason their southern strategy worked was not because whites suddenly developed an interest in religion, marksmanship, and heterosexuality. The reason was race.” (Digby) Coming on the heels of a real attack on cultural and institutional racism, Nixon and Reagan knew that the South was not ready to accept equal opportunity for all. They exploited hard wired white racism, and with a wink and nod gave the old worldview the respectable moniker of “conservatism.” The word conservatism now implied that the bearer of the moniker was part of the "real interest" of respectable middle class society. The bearer had family values, Christian values, and most of most of all the support of the Party. George Bush has the "conservative value thing" even though he is allowing an American city to disappear: a black city.
Republicans May Get Whipsawed on the Immigration/Illegal Worker Issue
In order to win local, state and federal elections, the privileged white class of Republicans has got to appeal to the racial prejudices of its base. Fortunately for Democrats, the Republicans cannot appeal to them and have any chance of winning over Hispanic voters—who make up 13% of the population. A very big issue for its base is Mexican and Latin immigration. This may be a no-win situation for Republicans. Other issues like Republican scandals, NSA wiretaps, lying to get the U.S into a bloody war with Iraq, mammoth deficits etc., are troublesome but abstract to its base; but Mexicans taking American jobs is incendiary. The Republican base is angry and senses betrayal on immigration "reform". Right now immigration "reform" is hiding in the shadows of the Alito nomination. On this and other issues the Bush administration and the Republican Party lives on the side of a hill. It won't take much rain for a mudslide.
As we remember Martin Luther King this Monday, it behooves Democrats to think deeper about this problem of racism in America. Our Party's leadership must rip apart any remaining illusion that Republican interests are like those of the common working man. For over thirty years, the Republican Party exploited hard wired racism to divide this country. Now with hope sinking for a restored bi-racial New Orleans, George Bush and congressional Republicans finally show some transparency: they are indifferent to the future of the the disadvantaged bedrock men and women of this nation. In my lifetime, the Republican Party has always used race to divide the nation, but that is becoming more obvious now.
Confronted with inaction over New Orleans redevelopment, Bush recently intoned: "I'm no racist." It was like Nixon saying, "I'm no crook." The obvious provoked a weak denial.
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