By Les Leopold and Kris Raab
In the wake of the white supremacist riot and murder in Charlottesville, Virginia, it’s important to recall how political and economic elites have always used racism as a weapon. They invented the very idea of biological race to justify colonizing, exploiting, enslaving, and murdering “inferior races” around the world. And they have always been able to count on mob violence from those who justify their entire self-worth by the color of their skin.
From the earliest invasion of North America by Europeans, elites used racial hierarchy to divide and conquer workers.
● In the 1600s, plantation owners broke apart coalitions of poor whites, white indentured servants, and black slaves by giving special economic and social privileges to whites, such as granting them greater access to Native American lands. Now poor whites’ chances for prosperity were directly dependent on being elevated above blacks and on the conquest of indigenous people.
● In the late 1800s, railroad and factory owners brought thousands of Chinese workers to the U.S. to break strikes and drive down wages. Instead of cooperating to challenge the bosses, many whites came to blame Chinese workers in a wave of anti-Chinese hysteria that culminated in mob violence, mass deportation, and a ban on emigration from China.
● From the 1940s to the 1960s, Mexican migrants were used as disposable labor by corporate agriculture. Bracero programs brought Mexican workers into the U.S., where they were regularly cheated out of wages and housing. Agriculture companies undermined wages of U.S. workers and responded to strikes, or even the threat of a strike, by bringing in more bracero workers.
● As the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s won some victories for racial justice, an even more radical vision emerged: a multi-racial fight against economic inequality. The Poor People’s Campaign was a broad multi-racial effort that involved community, labor organizations, and civil rights organizations, Appalachian coal miners, welfare rights activists, California farm workers, Chicano, Native American, and Puerto Rican activists, organized tenants, and many others. Elites quickly took refuge behind the Southern strategy of appealing to white racism to win political control:
“What is the Southern Strategy? It says to the South: Let the poor stay poor, let your economy trail the nation, forget about decent homes and medical care for all your people, choose officials who will oppose every effort to benefit the many at the expense of the few―and in return, we will try to overlook the rights of the black man, appoint a few southerners to high office, and lift your spirits by attacking the ‘eastern establishment’ whose bank accounts we are filling with your labor and your industry.” (George McGovern)
Playing a Symphony on that White Skin
The novelist Howard Fast graphically described how skin color could be used to help white elites maintain and reclaim power. In Freedom Road, his fictional account about the aftermath of the Civil War, a former plantation owner describes how to reclaim power by creating an army from those who are fixed on their skin color:
“… there’ll be men enough, the scum that we used for overseers, the trash that bought and sold slaves and bred them, the kind who were men with bullwhip and filth without one, the kind who have only one virtue, a white skin. Gentlemen, we’ll play a symphony on that white skin, we’ll make it a badge of honor. We’ll put a premium on that white skin. We’ll dredge the sewers and the swamps for candidates, and we’ll give them their white skin – and in return, gentlemen, they will give us back what we lost through this insane war, yes, all of it.”
Today Trump and some of his supporters are still playing “a symphony on that white skin.” We need to end that song and redouble our efforts for racial and economic justice for all.
Sources and further reading: Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness; Southern Poverty Law Center, “Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States.”