Race and Politics: A Color-Blind America?
— Malik Miah
THROUGHOUT U.S. HISTORY “race” has been a major factor in all politics—beginning with the English occupation and the Westward drive of settlers to conquer and slaughter the native peoples. The justification: advancement of civilization.
Racism is as American as apple pie, yet race itself is a political (economic) concept having little to do with biology or science.
The attitude of white superiority is embedded by the founding fathers in the U.S. Constitution, wherein African slaves are defined as property. A century later, laws enacted against Chinese and other non-white immigrants were based on racial differences and presumed white superiority.
Bigotry between whites, particularly when new European immigrants arrived, has existed throughout American history. Within a generation, however, their common color of skin brings about an accommodation and access to the system that former slaves and fourth and fifth generation Japanese and Chinese Americans still don't receive.
Class divisions, of course, are also mainstays of U.S. history and society. But race politics has always crossed class lines and cannot be viewed—as some socialists in history have done—as a subordinate problem that will be resolved (disappeared) once a successful anti-capitalist revolution takes place.
The truth is: A victorious socialist revolution cannot happen unless the issue of race and politics is central to an independent working-class movement.
With this understanding, this column will look at “race and politics” in today's reality. We'll examine not only its impact on U.S. politics, but how racism is used in other countries—in Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
A Debate on Race
Racism is not simply about color. It is a power relationship.
In the 1980s Reagan and opponents of affirmative action and civil rights shifted “race” politics to the right under the guise of supporting a “colorblind society,” and supporting “equality and fairness.”
A big debate has opened up. The San Francisco Chronicle recently ran a series of articles “About Race.” It included a discussion of what it means to be white.
Some whites have even begun organizing against “white bashing.” Others, motivated by anti-racist goals, have set up groups to learn about “what it means to be white.”
In 1996 the Center for the Study of White American Culture in New Jersey held a national conference. The founder, Jeff Hitchcock, said, “Some people say, `Oh my God, this is white supremacy.' It is not. It is a conscious attempt to look at the racial structure in our society. Is it being used to support white privilege?”
No one denies what the raw statistics document: African-Americans in all social and economic categories are worse off than whites. The question is: Why?
The right says it is because of the breakdown of the family and the failure of government social programs supporting welfare and affirmative action programs. Their solution is to gut or get rid of all social programs won in the 1960s.
For them, thirty years of “trying to amend” for crimes that they didn't commit (white ancestors only) is enough “time served” for 400 years of inequality. They promote the myth that we live in a “colorblind society” based on “equal opportunity.”
Conservatives use these code phrases to deny the historic privileges of being a Caucasian. The result of this sustained ideological backlash against civil rights is that whites feel more at ease to discuss the so-called “privileges” of being Black or Asian!
The failure of the labor and civil rights leadership to effectively answer these attacks has everything to do with their basic support of the for-profit system. The fight against legal discrimination was always much easier than a battle to end discrimination woven into the very fabric of the economy.
This is the context in which we should look at President Clinton's decision to establish an Advisory Commission on Race, headed by the distinguished Professor Emeritus John Hope Franklin.
The Commission's just-released report has received little attention—not surprising, given the President's other preoccupations. What coverage it did receive generally viewed the report as a lacklustre and mediocre document. This quality probably reflects the character of the “dialogue on race” that Clinton has been promoting.
What is Clinton's purpose? Obviously, he's not out to relaunch a new civil rights movement to take on institutional racism.
Rather, the rise of the radical right in mainstream politics is a concern for the powers that be. These forces have no need, and no desire, to have the stability of their system disrupted by overt racial conflict.
Clinton, representing dominant sectors of the corporate class, wants to slow down the racist backlash that could undermine the incorporation of middle class Blacks, Asians, Latinos and Native Americans into the political and economic structures of capital.
Big business has learned to live (and thrive) with the demographic changes of the last thirty years. The latest federal population figures show, for example, that within five years whites will be less than fifty percent of California, the country's most populated state.
Clinton's job is twofold. Firstly, he must explain to whites of all classes, but particularly working-class whites, that their relative privileges are secure.
Wall Street is not afraid that the colored business class is a threat to take over. They're not interested in preserving segregation. For that matter, most whites if asked (and recent polls confirm this point) are for equality and oppose racism, as they understand these terms.
Moreover, global economic realities dictate no turning back of the clock.
Clinton's second audience is the middle class layer in the Black (and non-Caucasian) community. He aims to ensure them that legal segregation is a thing of the past. They can stay in their comfortable homes. But they must let their working-class and poor cousins fend for themselves.
The existing African-American leadership supports the profit system. They're no longer on the outside. There are even Black investment firms. These “leaders” accept inequality based on income. They oppose racism since it still affects how high up the corporate and political ladder they can go. But to lead new movements against discrimination? Not likely.
To end racism requires a new state structure based on human needs over profits. That new state cannot be reformed into existence. A new leadership based on the most oppressed and exploited layers of the Black community will be needed.
While some middle-class individuals will join in as the inevitable next recession hits, they will not play the role they did in the 1960s.
The real question: Is it possible for an independent Black leadership to arise while there is a similar crisis of leadership in the labor and other social movements? That's a topic for future columns.
ATC 77, November-December 1998