Swans Commentary » swans.com June 1, 2009  



Are We In A Post-Racial America?


by Louis Proyect


Book Review



Roediger, David: How Race Survived U.S. History: from settlement and slavery to the Obama phenomenon, Verso 2008, ISBN-13: 978-1-84467-275-2, 240 pages.


(Swans - June 1, 2009)   As part of the euphoria surrounding the election of Barack Obama, members of the punditocracy speculated that the U.S. had entered a "post-racial" epoch. Typical was The Washington Post's Jim Hoagland who editorialized on Election Day last year:

Barack Obama has succeeded brilliantly in casting his candidacy -- indeed, his whole life -- as post-racial. Even before the votes have been cast, he has written a glorious coda for the civil rights struggle that provided this nation with many of the finest, and also most horrible, moments of its past 150 years. If the results confirm that race was not a decisive factor in the balloting, generations of campaigners for racial justice and equality will have seen their work vindicated.

After deploying data in his introduction to How Race Survived U.S. History to the effect that racism continues unabated (one in three children of color lives in poverty as opposed to one in ten of white families, etc.), David Roediger poses the question: "How did white supremacy in the U.S. not yield to changes that we generally regard as constant, dramatic, and, in the main, progressive?" The remainder of his brilliantly argued and researched book gives the definitive answer to this question. As such, it belongs on the bookshelf next to Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States and other such works that offer a "revisionist" history of this country in accordance with truth and -- more importantly -- justice.

The theme that Roediger keeps coming back appears initially in Chapter One on colonial Virginia in the 17th century ("Suddenly White Supremacy"); namely, that a white identity was created in order to unite men and women of conflicting classes against the most exploited groups of the day: the slave and the Indian. And when necessary, blacks were also recruited to the master's cause against the Indians. As has always been the case, the British -- including the freedom-loving colonists who would form a new republic in 1776 -- have been adept at dividing and conquering. Roediger writes:

The most spectacular example of revolt, Bacon's Rebellion of 1676, took Virginia to the brink of civil war. Broadly arising from the desire for good land among European and African servants and ex-servants, the rebellion therefore also had anti-Indian dimensions, demanding and implementing aggressive policies to speed settlement onto indigenous lands. Bondservants joined those who had recently served out "their time" under the leadership of the young English lawyer and venture capitalist Nathaniel Bacon, laying siege to the capital in Jamestown, burning it, driving Governor William Berkeley into exile, and sustaining insurrection for months. Authorities offered freedom "from their slavery" to "Negroes and servants" who would come over into opposition to the rebellion. Rebels, meanwhile, feared that they would all be made into "slaves, man, woman & child." Both the promise of liberation and the language registering fear of retribution suggest how imperfectly class predicaments aligned with any firm sense of racial division.

Even today, you can find the same sort of manipulation of "Negroes and servants" in support of xenophobic attacks on immigrant rights. In the March 29, 2006, edition of Counterpunch, Earl Ofari Hutchinson took note of the absence of open and vocal support in the black civil rights establishment for the immigrant rights movement:

The great irony in the gargantuan march of tens of thousands in Los Angeles and other cities for immigrant rights is that the old civil rights groups have been virtually mute on immigration and the marches. There are no position papers, statements, or press releases on the websites of the NAACP, Urban League, SCLC on immigration reform, and nothing on the marches. The Congressional Black Caucus hasn't done much better. It has issued mostly perfunctory, tepid and cautious statements opposing the draconian provisions of the House bill that passed last December.

As was the case in colonial Virginia in the 17th century and once again in 2006, the capitalist class demonstrates an enormous talent for conning its victims into lining up behind its own class interests. If its victims demonstrated only one-half of this skill at creating unity across color, gender, and sexual orientation lines, perhaps the capitalist system would have come to an end long ago.

Moving forward, Roediger demonstrates an uncanny ability to discover a racial narrative in the most unexpected places, including the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. This event has always been represented in high school and college classrooms as a straightforward commercial deal between the U.S. and France. For Roediger it was a bid by the new republic that had won its freedom from British colonialism to now create its homegrown colonial system. Ironically, it only was able to conclude a deal with the French because it had been weakened by the freedom struggle of Haitian slaves that Jefferson and other American "democrats" had opposed. Roediger quotes an 1889 observation by Henry Adams that "the prejudice of race alone blinded the American people to the debt they owed to the desperate courage of five hundred thousand Haytian negroes who would not be enslaved."

As a long-time critic of an element of the thesis associated with Robert Brenner that equates free labor with capitalism, I found Roediger's discussion of slavery and Jim Crow most useful. To summarize the Brenner thesis briefly, he and his co-thinkers including Ellen Meiksins Wood distinguish capitalism from all systems that preceded it by its ability to coerce workers solely through market relations rather than through "political" means such as discriminatory laws, etc. While not mentioning Brenner or Wood specifically, Roediger's words would seem to refute their analysis:

Liberal and radical writers of the late twentieth century inherited from earlier progressive historians a framework viewing the Civil War itself as a contest between the agrarian feudalism of the South and the industrial capitalist ambitions of the North. Early Marxist historians generally agreed, and the most celebrated late twentieth-century Marxist writing on the subject unfortunately resonated with such accounts far more than it did with Marx's own writings on the United States. By contrast, Marx's own words at their best impressively resisted drawing the easy opposition between a backward pre-capitalist South and a progressive capitalist North. For Marx, the contrast was less marked, even as he championed the Union side in the Civil War. "We . . . call the plantation owners in America capitalists," he wrote, because they exist and compete "within a world market based on free labor."

Not only did slaves produce commodities like cotton for the world market, they were commodities themselves. Roediger notes that 40 percent of all slave trades before the Civil War were interstate, involving as much as $600 million exchanging hands.

If slaves were treated by law as less than human, then it was inevitable that supporters of the system would attempt to explain their status in "scientific" terms. The slave system was not just responsible for debased human relations, it also produced debased ideology.

Roediger dissects Samuel Cartwright, one of the more odious practitioners of scientific racism. A physician based in the South, Cartwright tried to explain the racial differences that justified one group dominating another. He discovered a mental disorder common among slaves called drapetomania -- the desire to flee from servitude. There was also Dysaethesia aethiopica, a disease "affecting both mind and body" that explained the apparent lack of work ethic among slaves.

More associated with inaction during the Great Depression than with racism, Herbert Hoover was just as bad as Cartwright. Before becoming president, he worked as a mining engineer and rated labor on the basis of its innate racial abilities. Whites were at the top and indigenous peoples in Australia, whom he referred to as "niggers," were at the bottom. Even the white workers were suspect, especially in Australia where they had "loafing proclivities." He imported crews of Italian workers, who he regarded as "servile" and "peaceable" in order to put pressure on native labor, colored and white alike. Always attuned to the bottom line, Hoover told a 1902 international congress of engineers in London that Chinese workers might be the best investment since despite having a "capacity for thieving," their families would be mollified by a $30 compensation for death due to accident. Thus, less money would have to be spent on supporting timbers in mines worked by Chinese labor.

Returning to a question that has consumed others working in this field, including the late Ted Allen and Noel Ignatiev, Roediger considers the susceptibility of Irish immigrants to be recruited to the racist cause despite being regarded as little better than "niggers" themselves on their arrival to the U.S. This kind of anti-Irish venom was not limited to the uneducated. Francis Amasa Walker, who taught political economy at Yale and went on to become president of M.I.T., warned that Irish immigration would pose the threat of racial degeneration. Walker also worried about other threats to American civilization like the Poles and the Italians who represented "races...of the very lowest stage of degradation."

At the outset Irish workers were open to a class unity that transcended race. In the early 1840s abolitionists held a mass rally that supported the Irish struggle for independence. These hopes were crushed as the Democratic Party, the party of slavery, devised ways to elevate the Irish immigrant community in exchange for siding against black people. Daniel O'Connor, a pro-abolition Irish nationalist, remarked that Irish Americans had "learned this cruelty" of pro-slavery in the U.S., not Ireland.

Despite the Democratic Party's reputation for opposing racism, given a new lease on life with the election of Barack Obama, there are indications that not much has changed since the mid-19th century. The Democratic Leadership Council emerged in the post-Reagan era in order to woo the white "Reagan Democrat" back into the fold, which meant backing politicians like Bill Clinton who offered only the most tepid resistance to Republican assaults on affirmative action and who scuttled Aid to Dependent Children, a welfare measure that was perceived (incorrectly) as favoring people of color.

Even under the "post-racial" epoch of Barack Obama, there are few signs that the Democratic Party is willing to attack the institutional basis of racism as long as the party is under the control of Wall Street banks, real estate developers, and other sectors of the capitalist economy that prosper on the super-exploitation of non-white workers. Obama signaled his intention to adhere to the status quo even before he became president. In his speech to the 2004 Democratic Party convention, he stated "Go into the [blue] collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don't want their tax money wasted by a welfare agency or the Pentagon." Considering how welfare budgets have been slashed in the past 25 years or so while the Pentagon drains tax coffers in order to fend off one enemy or another overseas (mostly people of color in the colonial world), Obama's remarks can only be considered cheap demagogy.

Furthermore, his willingness to condemn Jeremiah Wright for alluding to the truths self-evident to everybody in the black community and receiving a scholarly treatment in Roediger's book demonstrate that the task is the same as it was from the beginning: to unite the victims of the capitalist system against those who benefit from it. Since we have hundreds of millions that we can count on eventually against a tiny minority, our final victory is assured as long as we have the courage to march forward without illusions in temporary fixes.


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Published June 1, 2009