The ideology of racism began as a rationalization for the hideous crimes of slavery. This podcast explores the US development of white supremacy and how to change it.
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Transcript has been edited for clarity.
Hello, this is Dr. Harriet Fraad on Capitalism Hits Home: An Interpersonal Update. This is a show about the intersection of capitalism, class, and our personal lives. I'm going to talk about the disadvantaged position of African Americans in our society, how it happened, and what can be done about it in a relatively parallel fashion. I'm doing this because of a comment that our listeners sent me, and I will read to you that comment: “I think your analysis is on point, but it's missing a massive intersection. The intersection of race goes hand in hand with class and capitalism. When we ignore that, we miss a huge connection into the behavior of modern American men”—I think of women too but—"Black men have had some of the lowest wages and employment for decades, and black women have always had to work unlike white women before the 1970s. This decline affects races of men in completely different ways.” And I agree and would like to say that white supremacy is certainly as strong a tradition as male supremacy in the United States. There are very many similarities between gender and race in the United States; though they're hardly identical.
On January 31st, 1865, the U.S. ratified the 13th amendment which abolished slavery in the United States. It provides that and I quote, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States…” That's interesting: “except as a punishment for a crime” Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated in jails and prisons than white men. Black women are put in jail twice as much time and twice as often as white women. Their sentences are about 20% longer as well which allow them to be used as slaves. Just as a civil rights movement was enacted, prison brought people back to slavery, and black people are disproportionately those enslaved people.
Now first of all, there was formal slavery. In order to enslave other human beings, to rip him off, to take them out of their homes, send them overseas, remove their languages, put them up to back-breaking labor and rape them at will. The good Christians needed an ideology that rationalized such terrible crimes just like men needed a rationalization for keeping women imprisoned in the home. From there—from that need for ideologies—black inferiority was born. You have to really rationalize the crime of enslaving other people with a strong rationalization, and that rationalization was “whites were designated by God to be superior, and blacks were fortunate to be protected because as weak minds and inferior people they couldn't take care of themselves.” Anyway, you had to point to something, so you pointed to what are really very small, exterior differences, because on the inside we’re all the same. You had to point to things like skin color, the shape of the nose, the shape of lips, the curl in hair on which to pin a judgment that these humans were inferior, and we were justified in enslaving them.
Just as the ideology of male supremacy can't always last uninterrupted in the face of outrageous injustice, neither can the ideology of white supremacy. Sometimes it is fought in its oppressive hideousness. How did it get this way? Well, the slaves were freed—unless they were found guilty of a crime—way back in 1865. And way back then, those people from the north who were enlightened and had some morality and those southerners who had some moral sense of obligation to the people that they enslaved and many what were then African Americans or black people created rules and laws of reconstruction to help former enslaved people function in our advanced society as equals. Programs of education, political empowerment, and support were accompanied by federal protection of troops against the vigilantes who would keep black people from voting or working through intimidation and violence. However, as happened with Trump and his ilk and has been happening since the New Deal, right-wing white supremacists in north and south were unsatisfied with this—with reconstruction. They united and promised one of the candidates—Hayes, President Hayes—that if he would end reconstruction and protections for black people and call off reconstruction, he would get their votes; much as many Republicans in a quieter more dog-whistle policy let whites know that they will not protect black people if they're elected.
The main method of control wasn't the violence—which was of course also used—but to deny black people of decently paid employment. Black men were never paid the family wages of white men, so they couldn't support their families. Black women were economically forced into the lowest paid work as maids or nannies, as servants or in the lowliest jobs. Black men were employed either not at all—were unemployed—or in jobs that did not earn money. They couldn't support their families. Black women had to often neglect their own children while they took care of white people's children and homes. They were denied the mothering they needed. Their families were denied the support that they needed.
And then in 1965, the Moynihan Report came out that said that the problem with the black family is that blacks are inherently pathological, and their men are lazy too lazy to support their families. This is very interesting because within the last 10 years, a right-wing author called Charles Murray wrote a book that said the white working-class—which now is not paid enough to support a family—was also morally inferior and their men were lazy and that's why white families are falling apart. Black men who wanted to make money had to circumvent the law and then they were incarcerated where they could be used as slave labor. It's interesting that the incarceration rates used to zoom in the south at around cotton-picking time because then if you were incarcerated you could be enslaved to pick cotton. Blacks were the last hired and the first fired which prevent them just like women who take time out to take care of homes and children and elders, they didn't accumulate the seniority and the promotions and the wealth. Black wealth in America is seven times less than white wealth. Also, once you had the rule that involuntary servitude and slavery were okay as a punishment for crime—this is after the Civil Rights Movement—black men were 400 times more likely to be put in prison than they had previously. So, what you had was the reenslavement of a population made even more severe by private for-profit capitalist prisons that required a certain number of prisoners and judges who were actually—some were—exposed of getting big kickbacks from private prisons for sending people to prison.
The tradition of white supremacy is a powerful one. It took a civil rights movement to end formal segregation, formal pushing down of black people. The two great leaders of the civil rights movement and the greatest leaders America has had since were Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. They both realized shortly before their deaths that the U.S. needed class transformation as well as race transformation. They needed class and race transformation together. They needed a unity of blacks and whites together against war profiteering and capitalism. Martin Luther King spoke powerfully with that message in 1967 and 1968. King was assassinated in 1968. It wasn't so hard to find a white racist to murder. Dr. King. When Malcolm X traveled abroad, he changed his ideas of the importance of racial segregation to empower blacks. He noticed the people following him and monitoring him were not the usual southern racists. They seemed to be from the State Department. And of course, he too was murdered when he came back and advocated race and class unity to transform America. And naturally, it wasn't very hard to find someone within the divisions in the black community to murder Malcolm X.
We have to understand that the trajectories of white supremacy and also male supremacy are quite parallel, and that doesn't mean that there aren't black men who are happy to exploit and dominate black women because that's a privilege that men have just like poor whites are often ready to discriminate against black people because at least they could feel superior to someone. And that's why white bosses often try to segregate and antagonize whites and blacks and men and women from one another because working-class unity is needed to make change and raise salaries and benefits. White supremacy and male supremacy are fed by Donald Trump who represents the interests of the 1% against the 99%. And although white supremacy and male supremacy have slightly different histories, and black women have different histories from white women in that they were particularly sexually exploited and also economically exploited—but also independent, much more independent because they had to earn their own money—those kinds of bias against one another allow the 1% to continue and the 99% to be divided and not fight together for the kind of class, race, and gender transformation that America needs to be a truly egalitarian country where everyone does have a chance, where we are equal beings; not equals within a system of increasing inequality, but equals. So, we need to unite—women and men, blacks, whites, browns—to understand one another and create a powerful movement because that alone can transform America.
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Transcript by Eric Fleischmann
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