By Ted Pearson*
In his report to the National Committee of the Communist Party U.S.A on November 21, 2011, Sam Webb, CPUSA Chairperson, observed that “Racism …. rests on the systematic elaboration of the notion of white superiority. And this notion has its origins in and is sustained by racist practices and structures that confine people of color to a subordinate status relative to white people in nearly every area of life.”
This needs to be explained and developed very concretely. We need to find creative ways to disabuse white working class people of the notion that whiteness offers them some kind of privileged position vis-à-vis capitalism. Such notions are instruments of their own exploitation and pits them against their brother and siste workers of color. Capitalism has developed institutions of white supremacy in which white racial privilege appears as a reality relative to people of color. We need to show that this saps the strength of the working class and the people in confronting the 1 per cent.
Struggles of African Americans in the United States have been a central issue in every juncture of our history. This was true in 1776, when slaveholders rebelling against the threat of British abolitionism were part of the American Revolution and the British were able to use this to their advantage. (See “Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution,” by Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen) It was true in the U. S. Civil War. (See “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery “ by Eric Foner) It was a factor in the movement for women’s suffrage. It’s been a constant theme in the Labor Movement. Concessions to white supremacy weakened the progressive majority during the New Deal period, and hurt the global war to defeat fascism. These problems continue today in every popular mass movement.
White supremacy is at its root Black oppression. This not a quantitative question of “who is the most oppressed?” It is a qualitative, historically determined question of “Whose oppression is and has been at the center of all struggles?”
Many other peoples of color have suffered and continue to suffer special oppression under U. S. capitalism. These are all manifestations of white supremacy, and they all must be fought.
The genocide of Native Americans (up to total extinction of some peoples and cultures) and the theft of virtually all their land are extreme. The grinding poverty and destruction of Native Americans continues in the shadows of the U.S. society and economy today.
The number of Latin American immigrants in the U. S., their struggles for basic rights, and their role in the working class has grown many times over in the recent past. All Latinos have become a lightning rod for unrelenting attacks by the far right.
Since 9-11 Arab Americans and Muslims of all nationalities have been singled out for harassment, violations of civil liberties, and general discrimination by the government and the far right.
But it is uniquely the continuing legacy of African enslavement – the identification of blackness with inferiority and whiteness with its opposite - that persists and potentially disrupts every political and economic struggle in the United States today, whether it be for a living wage, for civil liberties, for the right to organize, for education and health care, for gender equality, for equal rights of immigrants, for “fair” taxation of wealth, for human rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people – everything.
It is not accidental that the majority of the men and women in prison today are African American, and most of the rest are Latino. The so-called criminal justice system and the prison-industrial complex maintain a new form of slavery. It is the primary instrument that enforces a renewed system of jim crow-de facto segregation of Black people throughout the United States today, as thoroughly documented by Michelle Alexander in her seminal work, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-blindness.”
The historical record shows that the rape and enslavement of Africa and Africans have been central in modern world history. Karl Marx noted that from its beginnings capitalism was fueled and consolidated by “[t]he discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins. … Capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt” (Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Ch.XXXI, p.703-712, Progress Publishers, Moscow). Unlike the indigenous and aboriginal peoples of the Americas and Asia who were forced into labor on their own soil, early capitalism made Africans into commodities (slaves) and sold them in the Americas. The thousands who died in the Middle Passage were simply spoilage in the view of the slave traders.
Africa was robbed of its most precious resource – its people. Unlike wage workers, whose labor power was purchased as a commodity and whose product was taken, the entire physical existence of Africans was stolen and sold outright. Being African became, as a matter of law and custom, a mark of being a slave, an item for sale in toto as a commodity. The value of this commodity accrued completely to the slave master with nothing for the slave. In contrast, being white became the mark of being free, a vessel of labor power. Free white workers owned themselves and they could sell their labor power as a commodity or not, for their own benefit. Between Black and white was erected a spectrum of color in which one’s status as pariah could be determined by the darkness of one’s complexion.
How did this happen? Certainly in our creation there was no separation of human beings into categories of free and slave defined by skin color. White supremacy did not “just happen” naturally. It was the midwife of capitalism and all the brutality and violence that it brought into the world.
The history of how the English colonial masters created and institutionalized white supremacy in their colonies in the Americas is brilliantly documented in detail in Theodore Allen’s two volume work, “The Invention of the White Race.” Starting in 1616 (before the Pilgrims came to New England) the English shipped thousands of English, Scotch, and Irish to the tobacco plantations of Virginia, where they were held to unpaid work in bondage under contracts typically lasting seven years. They were drawn from among the former peasants cast off the land in the British Isles in the 17th century through the enclosure of the commons and the expropriation of their land. Cast onto the roads, driven into the cities these men and women were arrested en mass for vagrancy, which was made illegal. They were given a choice - prison or Virginia. Work in the tobacco plantations of Virginia was hard and conditions were harsh; most did not live long enough to complete their bondage. Marriage was not permitted among them; fornication was absolutely prohibited.
Some Africans were also brought to Virginia as bonded or indentured workers on the tobacco plantations. They were a minority of such workers originally.
The Virginia Company’s plantations were on land that had been taken from its original indigenous inhabitants through force, some of whom struck back. Colonial masters made certain that it was bonded workers, virtual slaves, who bore the brunt of these counter-attacks. In 1676 a frontier planter named Nathaniel Bacon demanded protection against Indian raids from the colonial administration. Failing to get it, he organized an armed force of bonded workers without regard for color or ethnicity, and stormed Jamestown, the seat of power, burning it down.
It may seem ironic that it was a in a demand for more aggressive action against the peoples of the First Nations of the new world that Bacon’s Rebellion was born. But this was the logic of colonialism.
In 1662, the Virginia House of Burgesses had declared that as a matter of law “all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother. “ But this condition was not color or ethnically based. In the years after quelling the insurrection Virginia passed racial slavery into law. In 1682 the House of Burgesses declared that “all servants [...] which shall be imported into this country either by sea or by land, whether Negroes, Moors [Muslim North Africans], mulattoes or Indians who and whose parentage and native countries are not Christian at the time of their first purchase by some Christian [...] and all Indians, which shall be sold by our neighboring Indians, or any other trafficking with us for slaves, are hereby adjudged, deemed and taken to be slaves to all intents and purposes any law, usage, or custom to the contrary notwithstanding.” Finally, in 1705, they passed the Virginia Slave Code which codified the slavery of all non-Christian servants and declared them and their offspring to be “real estate” and slaves forever. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slave_codes#Definition_of_.22slaves.22, the Slave Codes.)
In his 1625 Essay No. 15, Sir Francis Bacon (a distant cousin of Nathaniel), advised that “a wise government … can hold men’s hearts by hopes, when it cannot by satisfaction.” Bacon further noted that “Generally, the dividing and breaking of all factions and combinations that are adverse to the state, and setting them at distance, or at least distrust, amongst themselves, is not one of the worst remedies” for sedition and insurrection. (See http://www.bartleby.com/3/1/15.html .) Folloing Sir Francis’ dictum, under the 1705 Virginia Slave Code bonded and free Christian whites were afforded special privileges and exemptions under the law. The contracts of white bondsmen could end; whites received “freedom dues” or grants of grain and land upon obtaining their liberty; Africans and their children, even when the product of rape by their masters, were never to be released from bondage. African Americans could not testify against a white person. Free African Americans could not vote. A slave who defended him or herself against a white person was to be executed. The murder of an African American was not a crime (although repeated abuse of slaves was penalized, much the way we treat animal abusers today).
Being European and “white” was established as a de facto and de jure mark of being free, or potentially free; having a black skin was the mark of the un-free. The white race and white supremacy were invented, and the working population, most of which was European at that time, became easier to control. Allen puts it precisely in his discussion of the revision of the Virginia Slave Code of 1705:
“The exclusion of free African Americans from the intermediate stratum was a corollary of the establishment of the ‘white’ identity as a mark of social status. If the mere presumption of liberty was to serve as a mark of social status for masses of European-Americans without real prospects of upward social mobility, and yet induce them to abandon their opposition to the plantocracy and enlist them actively, or at least passively, in keeping down the Negro bond-laborers with whom they had made common cause in the course of Bacon’s Rebellion, the presumption of liberty had to be denied to free African Americans” (vol. 2, p. 249). Another law mandated that pastors were to review the rights of white people and the lack of rights of Black people every Sunday at church.
The perpetuation of the myth of the white “race” and its presumption of freedom and social mobility continues to infect social and class struggles to this day, even as thousands of white working people are thrown out of work and pushed into homelessness and poverty. No matter how bad things get whites are supposed to find solace in the fact that they are “not black” - because for a majority of African Americans economic depression has been a constant for decades.
Even though there has been progress as a result of the historic civil rights struggles of recent decades, it remains true that the skilled trades in offices and industry are dominated by white men. In spite of progress among many white workers in cutting through the fog of white supremacy, racism still fuels the vitriol heaped upon President Obama by the Faux News-Tea Party right.
Winning the labor movement to struggle against white supremacy has to be a central theme of the class struggle. It’s a major challenge. White supremacy is maintained by practices and institutions in every aspect of American life. An individual white person cannot shed white supremacy by simply denouncing and rejecting “white privilege” in words, or adopting a monastic life style. It can only be fought by living a life of struggle rooted in the knowledge that it is absolutely true that “an injury to any one is an injury to all,” or, as the Socialist Eugene Debs put it, “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
White progressives have a duty to set an example in this struggle and to never succumb to the notion that their whiteness imbues them with any superiority. It requires that the fight for the unity of Black and white be constant and in every struggle, never postponed until conditions are “favorable.” It requires that progressive white people fight for leadership by African Americans in every movement and struggle, along with that of white workers and Latinos, and women, and for unity of all.
*Ted Pearson is Co-Chairperson of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and a member of the National Executive Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, and. The views expressed above are his own, however, not necessarily those of the CAARPR or the CCDS.