The Mass Media [UMass-Boston]
November 6, 1979
The Roots of Racism
By Michael Letwin
Though it’s hard to believe, white racism as we know it today has not always existed. it began with American slavery.
Black slavery was the foundation stone of the prosperity of American society, South and North, in the 18th and 19th centuries. The transport, sale and labor of black slaves made possible the development of the into the richest and most powerful country in the world. But the systematic enslavement and brutal treatment of millions of black people required some justification.
How could Christian white society explain the horrors committed against black slaves? Simple. As slavery developed, blacks were declared less than human. They were “evil,” “childlike,” “stupid,” and a whole parade of other names familiar lo anyone who has seen Gone With The Wind. They were “obviously” in need of white ownership and deserving of whatever white slave owners committed against them. The slave system in America badly needed such racism to explain to itself, to poor whites and, most importantly, to black slaves that slavery was the “natural order of things.”
Slavery ended in 1865, but white domination and racism did not. After the Civil War, it benefited the American ruling class — both its planter wing in the South, and industrial wing in the keep blacks marked off as an inferior section of the working class, and to confine blacks to the worst jobs and lowest pay. It made sense to encourage racial division in the working class along color lines, for if white workers could be convinced that their interests were with white capitalists rather than black workers, the working class would remain divided among itself instead of fighting against their employers together.
So only a few short years alter the Civil War, Northern industrialists in control of the Federal government had abandoned any pretense of defending the rights of black people. Poor blacks and whites alike were left to the mercy of white racist terror in the South. In the North, economic and social discrimination and segregation were maintained as strongly as ever.
Only the threat created by the Black movement of the 1960’s forced a section of the American ruling class to realize that certain concessions would have to be made to the demands of black people, particularly in the area of civil rights. But even these concessions didn’t prevent the government’s campaign of repression and murder of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Panther Party. And, as we have seen in the case of Boston school integration, the concessions have been extremely limited in scope, are at best carried out halfheartedly and at worst sabotaged.
What worked well in dividing the working class has also been used by the ruling class to justify American imperialism. lt was alright to commit genocide on the native American population because they were “filthy red savages.” Half of Mexico was stolen by the U.S. in 1845 because the Mexicans were race. In more recent times, American soldiers massacred “Japs” in WW Hand “gooks” in Korea and Vietnam. That’s ok, they weren’t white.
That the American ruling class has encouraged white racism should not be surprising. America was built on and is maintained on the murder, exploitation and oppression of the vast majority of humanity. Racism is an indispensable way of justifying that tact.
The ultimate tragedy of racism, however, is that most of the time the majority of the white working class has bought it. Why? First, because white workers have not been immune to the dominant ideas of society. And from school to television to the newspapers those ideas have been permeated with racism. Even where blatant racism has been reduced, racist thinking, after generations of existence, has taken on a life of its own. White superiority is as fundamental a view of many whites (both consciously and unconsciously) as the world being round.
At least as important, however, is that in the short run, white workers have enjoyed some benefits from white domination. White racism has ensured that the better jobs, housing and schools go to whites rather than nonwhite workers. It has also had certain psychological benefits for white workers. If you’ve been fucked over by the boss, the cops or the school principal, it’s easiest to blame the problems and take out your frustrations on nonwhites who can be attacked without fear of punishment the government.
The systematic racial segregation of Boston only reinforces that hatred since It allows many whites to be completely ignorant of the black people they attack. This scapegoating of blacks and other people of color is especially popular in times of economic crisis, such as today.
So, while the ruling class has organized to maintain racial divisions in the working class through economic discrimination and political manipulation, white working class people often have been willing to play their part by opposing integration of schools, jobs and housing and by tolerating or participating in physical attacks against the black community,
But the short-term benefits of racism tor white working class people are in tact outweighed by the long-term losses, Take Boston. The most virulent racism against the black community today comes from the poverty stricken Irish Catholic and Italian working class neighborhoods, communities laced with rotten schools, decaying housing and rising unemployment, Can blacks be blamed for that? Hardly: black conditions are even worse.
In fact, American capitalism has squeezed Boston’s white working class for all it could get and has abandoned it now that it’s not as profitable. White racism has enabled whites to suffer a little less from this reality than blacks, but that same racism now makes it a thousand times more difficult to build a united movement against the declining conditions laced by all working class people in Boston.
Despite this gloomy picture, things have been different. Though racism is the rule, white and black working class people in this country have at times worked together against the conditions of life imposed upon them by American capitalism. They have united in strikes. They have fought police terror. They can unite to do this again and lo move on lo establish a socialist society based on the democratic control of all workers.
But they will only do so when white racism is understood, confronted end beaten.