The other day, I was sitting in a coffee shop in Cambridge, not far from the racial profiling incident of Henry Louis Gates that triggered a national conversation on race and racism, and, being a bit nosy, heard some references to ‘Skip’ Gates.

What these conversations (and others like them) reveal, I’m afraid, is that many people fail to understand that racism is more than an attitude of one person or people toward another person or people. That misunderstanding allows the mass media to make the ludicrous claim that Sonia Sotomyor is a racist.

Racism is a historically developed set of practices and beliefs, some obvious, some more subtle, that systematically subordinate racially and nationally oppressed people to an inferior status in every area of life. It developed in a symbiotic embrace with predator colonialism and nascent capitalism in this hemisphere centuries ago. This symbiosis gave racism a particularly brutal, bloody, and exploitative character, while at the same time acted as a major engine of capitalist development in the Americas.

One would think that given this history, racism (as well capitalism and colonialism) would have exited the world stage long ago. But it persists. But not in exactly the same way as it did in earlier centuries. While its essence remains the same, the institutional and ideological structures of racism have changed, in part due to the developmental pressures of developing capitalism and in part due to the popular opposition to this vile system by the racially oppressed and their allies

The election of Barack Obama and the nomination of Sonia Sontomyer were inspiring moments in our nation’s life that advance the freedom agenda and auger well for the struggle for racial (and gender) equality. But they didn’t eliminate the structures, institutions, and rationalizing ideological systems that sustain racist oppression and white supremacist ideology in the early part of the 21st century. That still needs to be done by a multi-racial movement, powered in no small part by a working class and labor movement that understands that its class interests are interlocked with a successful struggle for affirmative action and equality.

A challenge no doubt, but a worthy and necessary one for the broad coalition that elected the first African American president!


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.