Beware of the new racist counteroffensive

Many people say that racism is simply an attitude or a prejudice of one people toward another people. That allowed Republican senators to make the ludicrous claim that Sonia Sotomayor was a racist, during the hearings on her Supreme Court nomination.

In reality, racism is a historically developed set of practices, institutions and beliefs that systematically subordinate racially oppressed people to an inferior status in every area of life. It dates back to the 17th century and its genesis lies in the practical economic and political requirements of the interwoven systems of predatory colonialism, slavery and nascent capitalism in the  "new world" at that time.

These systems of oppression and exploitation in the Americas needed not only an unlimited supply of unpaid or underpaid labor, but also a system of rationalization - racism - to legitimize the theft of lands and resources and the unparalleled subjugation and/or enslavement of peoples of the Americas, Africa and Asia.

Because slavery and other forms of subjugation were tied to a young but expanding system of capitalism, racist oppression and exploitation had a particularly brutal and bloody character. No longer did the subjugated produce for a local market; now they produced commodities for consumers in distant lands and in the context of an expanding world system of production for the sole purpose of accumulating capital and maximizing profits.

With the overthrow of slavery within our borders, a major breech in the system of racist oppression, exploitation and ideology occurred. It at once forced the slave owning/planter class and its supporters to retreat, and created a more favorable terrain for the freed slaves and their allies to secure new rights and recast the struggle against racist ideas.

This moment, however, proved fleeting. Only a decade after the end of the Civil War, a counteroffensive by the old ruling class in the South and its allies in southern and northern states restored them to power and crushed the interracial movement that had advanced democracy in the post-war aftermath.

The system of slavery didn't get a new lease on life, however. The old unpaid slave labor mode of production gave way to a new one, resting on underpaid labor (sharecropping and extractive industries), lynchings and other forms of vigilante terror, and legalized and comprehensive discrimination against African Americans and other peoples of color.

In short, the pre-war reactionary coalition, defeated on the battlefield, was able after a brief retreat to regroup, violently seize political power, and then construct with the continued use of coercion (by state and non-state entities like the KKK) a new system of racial oppression and exploitation - popularly called Jim Crow. While its structural features (political, economic and ideological) were new, its racist essence remained the same.

It wasn't until nearly a century later that the modern civil rights movement upended these legal forms and structures. But, as Martin Luther King said more than once, racism, though no longer legally sanctioned, persisted in day-to-day life.

Moreover, in some ways racism worsened as it took on new material (deindustrialization) and ideological ("reverse racism") forms, shaped by the exploitive pressures and crisis tendencies of globalizing capitalism, the unraveling of the New Deal coalition, and the rise of the extreme right in the early 1980s.

Seen through this optic, the election of Barack Obama constitutes a historic moment and turn in the struggle against racism and for social progress for our nation. It carries the potential to set in train a new era of racial progress, multiracial unity, and overall progressive advance.

Of course, Obama's stunning victory, as significant it was and as promising as it is, doesn't eliminate in one fell swoop the structures and institutions that are the material ground on which racist oppression and ideology rest in the early part of the 21st century. Nor does it mark a withdrawal from political life of the forces of reaction and racism. Proclamations of a post-racial era are exceedingly premature.

In fact, the election of the nation's first African American president has triggered a new racist counteroffensive in much the same way as the North's victory in the Civil War set into motion a racist and revanchist counteroffensive by the former slaveholders and their allies.

The new racist counteroffensive, much like the earlier one, hopes to turn the clock back. It aims to strip away the legitimacy of the first African American president in ways that are both coded and crude (witness the use of the "n" word and other vicious epithets). But it also hopes to obscure the democratic, class, and human bonds shared by tens of millions of American people of all nationalities and colors, introduce racial fissures in the coalition that elected the president, and restore the power of right-wing extremism and authoritarian rule.

My guess is the Republican Party and the teabaggers will not be successful, but only if their racist barrage runs into a powerful anti-racist response not only from people of color, but also from the white majority and white workers.

To no small degree, the success of this anti-racist struggle depends on the ability of white people to understand that racism not only impacts the dignity and life prospects of people of color, but also cuts against their own material and moral well being. Nothing is so corrosive of working class and people's democracy and reforms than the poison and practice of racism. If unchallenged, it could lead to disaster, via a much uglier version of the Bush-Cheney administration.

This possibility should be a wakeup call for all democratic-minded people. At the same time, the fact that a multi-racial movement, in which labor played a special anti-racist role, elected an African American president and, after a pause, is getting back into the swing of things and scoring some victories - the most recent being health care legislation - is reason for confidence, albeit a sober-minded confidence, about the future.



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  • Hahahahahahahahahaha.

    A laughable column.

    Posted by Guest, 03/30/2010 11:12am (6 years ago)

  • Sam makes an important contribution with this article. With the mostly deeply coded language of the tea party movement it's easy to overlook how racist a movement it really is. For example, recently when right-wing crack pot Glen Beck was listing undemocratic trends in the USA he skipped right over slavery and singled out "carpet-baggers and reconstruction" for consideration. Now with the rewriting of history in Texas schools the specter of historic revisionism is becoming very real.

    Posted by rick, 03/28/2010 4:07pm (6 years ago)

  • Excellent article and comments and we want to be sure that we are not merely struggling to avoid"a much uglier version of a Bush-Cheney administration"(which we certainly we are).
    Moreover,we agree that we,struggle against fascistic teabaggers,nazis,kkks,"white citizens councils",and racist,anti-immigrant militias,but:
    we struggle for the vast anti-racist programs,economic re-tooling of our country,enviromental and human resuscitation of inclusion and healing from decades of of war,repression,racism,exploitation and wrong,carried out against workers, the environment, and the oppressed peoples of these United States.
    In such a struggle,we have a vibrant,diametrically different and viable solution,as opposed to a tragic spiral downward,represented by the acknowledged danger of a warmed over Bush-Cheney administration,with its proven organized murder of war,monstrous debt,fiscal irresponsibility,economic downward spiral of infrastructure destruction,Wall Street and Main Street collapse.
    Simultaneously,we struggle against the "interposition and nullification"(as the monumental MLK might say)of the "pale"ossified and willy-nilly Republican Party who show up as supporters of the teabaggers,racists,bigots,kkks ect.,as they oppose the progressive Obama administration.
    This vibrant,anti-racist,multi-racial labor led movement,needs to surface and re-surface for peace,environmental sustainability,racial equality and ownership of natural resources and capital by this movement. We can understand that this would be a natural extension of the struggle that won the progressive and potentially more progressive Obama administration.
    This,perhaps is a hint to a "stronger" fight-back against this new racist counter-offensive that the article treats and sister Betty Smith comments to.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 03/28/2010 10:09am (6 years ago)

  • No mention of affirmative action. Strange.

    Posted by Don, 03/26/2010 8:57pm (6 years ago)

  • I am a white, senior citizen, born and raised in the American south. All of my life I have been struggling within myself to rid myself of the ingrained behavior and actions which were a part of the culture in which I was raised.

    I have, finally, I hope, reached the point where I have no fear of inclusion of all in the society called the United States of America.

    The racists must not be allowed to have the last word.

    Posted by Ronald Humphrey, 03/26/2010 6:09am (6 years ago)

  • I wonder if racism is truly a phenomenon arising at the dawn of modern capitalism. I tend to think it's a lot older than that. The Bible is full of territorial conquests, enslavement of other peoples, mass slaughter. I have not studied ancient texts of India, China and Japan very much, but I daresay the racism against "untouchables" in India, Japan (the Ainu--still!), the Chinese sense of superioroty toward Mongols, Tibetans, Koreans, etc., goes back a long, long way. If you look at the murals found in the Maya site of Bonampak, which date to about 1200, a few centuries before the Europeans came to the Americas, you'll see a darker race conquered and enslaved by a lighter race. How about the age-old animus toward the Roma ("Gypsies") and the Jews? (Race is not only a question of skin color, of course, although from an anthropological point of view, the whole concept of race is a very ambiguous and troublesome one.) I don't believe it takes anything away from Sam's point about present-day needs for fighting racism; I am just saying that putting the "blame" on capitalism alone seems kind of wooden and short on nuance and depth.

    Posted by Eric Gordon, 03/26/2010 1:20am (6 years ago)

  • the world is watching the internal terrior by the people of this country on others in this country,,,, it is a sad day with NO RESPECT FOR THIS FORM OF GOVERNMENT by the "Bullies"

    Posted by j. h, 03/25/2010 2:20pm (6 years ago)

  • Sam, thanks for putting what's happening now in its appropriate historical context; as ridiculous as the right/ultra-right's acting, it make sense.

    Posted by Tokumbo , 03/25/2010 1:58pm (6 years ago)

  • I believe racism is a form of mental illness. Live on HCR!!

    Posted by cinderella, 03/25/2010 12:45pm (6 years ago)

  • The call for an anti racist offensive is very very key in this fight. The news today is full of a wave of Republican inspired tea bagger violence and threats against those who voted for the Health care bill. These are the tactics used by the KKK and the white citizens councils when they saw their Jim Crow system coming apart. Nobodies used the word terrorist but that is what they are. How many Timothy McVeighs are out there plotting at this very moment? This should not be taken lightly.
    Our history is full of examples of hate-fulled, racist, McCarthyite, anti working class speech leading to violence. If they get away with this now, how will they react to troop withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. How will they react to tougher laws against crimial behaviro on Wall st., stronger enforcement of anti discrimination laws, and Employee Free Choice? An anti racist, pro democracy, anti right wing offensive is needed especially up to the November elections. This danger is serious but it can be defeated. Good piece Sam.

    Posted by Jarvis Tyner, 03/25/2010 12:10pm (6 years ago)

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