Racism has always been a problem in the United States of America. Racism operates on two levels: first there is institutional racism, or racism that is embedded in the structures of power, both at the state and private level. Secondly there is personal racism. Both are internal relations and are therefore mutually reinforcing. Both can operate openly or in more subtle ways; of course, what we see and don’t see depends largely on our life chances.
As human beings, we naturally see primarily those problems that have some direct impact on our lives. We feel most deeply about what has a direct impact on us. Just as many upper-class, upper-caste Indians will proudly affirm the decline or end of casteism, so many white Americans will claim to occupy a post-racial world, saying I don’t see colour. Quite simply, this isn’t enough, it isn’t correct and it’s missing the point.
Racism directly impacts the life chances of people of colour. Institutional racism is most clearly discerned in the Repressive State Apparatus[i]: the judicial system, the prison system and the police. Consider the following facts: Despite making up only 13% of the US population and 14% of illegal drug users, 37% of drug arrests are African-Americans. African-Americans receive, on average, 10% longer sentences than their white counterparts, for the same crimes, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. One in three African-Americans will serve time in prison throughout their lifetime. Blacks are three times more likely to be searched by police during a traffic stop and four times more likely to encounter police violence during their interactions with police.[ii] There is no dearth of similar statistics. Furthermore, we cannot ignore the disproportionate effect the retrograde ‘war on drugs’ has had on African Americans; it is an established fact that the ‘war on drugs’ has targeted minority communities.[iii]
One way racism is maintained is by reframing the issue. This was a key component of that American bogeyman, Richard Nixon’s, campaign strategy known as the Southern Strategy. According to civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander, US President Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman stated, “The whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while appearing not to.”[iv] Similar language is used by some on the right in America today; CNN reports the following statement by a sociologist studying racism: “’The new racism, like God, works in mysterious ways and is quite effective in maintaining white privilege,’ Bonilla-Silva says. ‘For example, instead of saying as they used to say during the Jim Crow era that they do not want us as neighbors, they say things nowadays such as ‘I am concerned about crime, property values and schools.’ ‘ “[v]
Housing and ‘white flight’ are common examples of institutional racism converging with personal racism. Government housing and loan policies led to increased African-American populations in decaying city centres. Personal prejudice intersected with this as real estate agents and loan officers often did not give African-American clients the same treatment. Whites, not wishing to live next to non-whites, moved to the suburbs. This created ghettos where there weren’t adequate employment opportunities or good schools and poverty was endemic. In time-honoured fashion, white Americans pointed to these deplorable conditions as proof of black inferiority, when they in fact were the cause of the conditions. [vi] We can also see institutional racism dovetail with the imperatives of capitalist exploitation through black unemployment and under-employment (11.4% unemployed compared to 5.3% for white Americans).[vii] Black America serves as a key element of the Reserve Army of Labour, fundamental to the perpetuation of capitalist exploitation.[viii]
When we talk about white privilege we are talking about the increased life chances available to white people. Simply put, we can see this as the ease with which white Americans are integrated into their society, in comparison with people of colour. White privilege is the privilege to not be marginalized and the structural role, indirect or otherwise, in perpetuating black marginalization. The most important component of white privilege is the privilege to deny that racism is a problem and the failure to recognize the singular role of white people in perpetuating racism. Countless well-intentioned, but wildly ignorant, white Americans will claim that racism is not a problem, or that they certainly aren’t racists whilst simultaneously expressing little or no sympathy with the plight of black Americans. White privilege is inscribed onto such statements, even as many of the speakers aren’t aware of their complicity in this deplorable state of affairs. In fact, one could argue that a lack of awareness, an ignorance of the reality of the situation, is one of the defining characteristics of white privilege (one can hardly fail to draw comparisons with ‘American privilege’ and the failure to have a true understanding of the international situation).
Americans do not live in a post-racial society. Canonizing Martin Luther King, Jr and establishing Black History Month, whilst refusing to talk about the elephant in the room is downright disingenuous. In case it isn’t clear, white people are that elephant. This isn’t to say that real progress hasn’t been made, due to the pressure exerted on white America by people of colour and their white allies-but it isn’t enough. Success in one arena is dependent on success in another; it’s all or nothing. To borrow Trotsky’s terminology, a state of permanent revolution is required.
Looking back, we see that over four hundred years ago, the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade began. Europeans kidnapped Africans and shipped them to the New World; they were treated like livestock. 300,000 Africans were brought to what is now the United States, between the early 17th century and mid-19th century. [ix] Uprooted from their homes and traditions, forced to labour for the benefit of white masters, they occupied the lowest strata of American society. The first US Census, in 1790, found that almost 18% of the US population were slaves[x] and yet the Constitution originally viewed non-free individuals as only 3/5 of a person.[xi] Blacks were thought of as part-human, sub-human-black lives mattered only in so far as they increased the life chances of white people. As Howard Zinn reminded us, the United States was founded by rich, white, old slave-owning men. We shouldn’t forget that. Then, as now, American freedom was not an inclusive concept and there was a surfeit of hypocrisy.
The American Civil War of 1861-1865 is mythologized as the victory of freedom over slavery. In fact, the Civil War was largely an economic conflict between a developed capitalist North and a precapitalist South. To simplify somewhat, the American South, driven by slave labour, was a dependent economy of the British Empire; in order for the United States to expand and develop independently of the Empire, it was necessary for the North to absorb the North under capitalist terms.[xii] While some Northerners viewed slavery as evil, that didn’t mean they viewed black Americans as equal.[xiii]
The end of slavery with the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution and the relatively bright period of Reconstruction were stymied by the Jim Crow laws of the late 19th century; these laws functionally disenfranchised African-Americans and segregated them. Terrorist organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan worked hand in hand with the Repressive State Apparatus to enforce the subjugation of blacks. Straight from the horrors of slavery many blacks were soon forced into extremely exploitative economic arrangements such as sharecropping. Southern states arrested and incarcerated black Americans for manufactured crimes and used them as free labour on chain gangs.
This deplorable state of affairs continued through the first half of the twentieth century. Billie Holiday’s haunting rendition of the song Strange Fruit epitomizes the subjugation of black America at the time.[xiv] Despite claiming to be fighting for freedom, black Americans served in segregated units during the Second World War. In fact, the relative freedom of movement and association African-Americans experienced when stationed in England during the war was a major source of tension between the Americans and British. White Americans appreciated segregation because it reinforced the marginalization of black Americans.
After the war, the golden age of American capitalism left most African-Americans behind. The Civil Rights Movement and the labour of Dr. King, Malcolm X, SNCC, the Black Panthers and other organisations led to hard fought gains but it still wasn’t over.
Hardly any time passed between the victories of the Civil Rights Movement and the initiation of the war on drugs and the development of the prison-industrial complex. So here we are; racism is an indelible part of American history and continues to exert a powerful influence on current affairs.
Today black Americans are dying at the hands of police. This isn’t new, but the pressure has built to the point of rupture. This dialectical tension is the real way things change in the world. In cities and towns throughout America people are marching and protesting against police brutality and white apathy to the plight of black Americans. Black Lives Matter. Hands Up, Don’t Shoot. I Can’t Breathe. These are the slogans of people who just want a fair deal.
Over and over again we hear that stock response of white privilege: what is needed right now is calm, reason and trust in the justice system. But the words of Herbert Marcuse in his seminal Essay on Liberation seem more humane, more pertinent: “It makes them reject the rules of the game that is rigged against them, the ancient strategy of patience and persuasion, the reliance on the Good Will of the Establishment…”[xv] Of course, it’s easy to deflect responsibility, to not acknowledge injustice, when one isn’t a target. It isn’t so easy to calm down when one is facing four-hundred years of prejudice and injustice. It’s a lot easier to take the side of cops when one has never faced systematic discrimination.
Of course not all police are bad or racists, but they occupy a role that structurally reinforces racism and unfortunately too many white cops have demonstrated their own personal racist attitudes. It must be unequivocally said that some police and goons and murderers. Eric Garner was murdered by police in New York City and nothing has happened about it. You can see the entire thing on video and listen to him die as he strains to say “I can’t breathe” over and over again.[xvi] You can hear him object to be “hassled”. But instead of remorse, the police are responding with claims that they are the victims; according to the Huffington Post, “In private and on Internet chat rooms, officers say they feel demoralized, misunderstood and ‘all alone.’”[xvii]
In Ferguson, Missouri, Mike Brown was murdered by another police officer. This is not the place to go over the details of the shooting and, as the reasonable people will tell us, you don’t know what happened and you don’t have all the information. No, we don’t have all the information. We do know that the policeman, Wilson, described Mike Brown as a minatory subhuman in his grand jury testimony: “It looked like a demon” [xviii] Few things are more demonstrably emblematic of racism in America than the utter dehumanization of African-Americans by whites. Not only does he use the pronoun ‘it’ but he says ‘demon’-demon. And we do know that ingrained prejudice leads to police profiling and treating African-Americans differently (read worse) than white Americans. We do know that Brown’s body was in the street for over four hours after his death, like roadkill. We do know that the Ferguson police department is overwhelmingly white, as are those occupying political positions-this in an area where two-thirds of the population is black. This is only some of what we do know, and it’s damning.
Yes, institutional racism and personal racism are horrible, but there is a special kind of depravity born of white privilege. These blinders lead white Americans to pejoratively say, yes we understand the anger, and we want things to change, but everybody needs to just calm down. It isn’t always about race. Think about the rule of law. Rioting is never okay. Don’t demonize the police. These people are wrong and they are missing the point.
[i] ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation’, Louis Althusser.
[ii] ‘The Top 10 Most Startling Facts About People of Color and Criminal Justice in the United States’, Center for American Progress.
[vi] For an in-depth look see: ‘White Flight: A Brief History of Segregation and Ghettoization’, Kate Miles.
[xii] The Age of Capital, Eric Hobsbawm, pg. 98
[xvii] ‘Police: Chokehold Victim Eric Garner Complicit In Own Death’, Huffington Post.
[xviii] “Dehumanizing the Black Lives of America: Michael Eric Dyson on Ferguson, Police Brutality and Race”, Democracy Now.