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The roots and reality of racism

Faline Bobier

February 5, 2014

The recent release of British director Steve McQueen’s movie 12 Years a Slave, based on the true account of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New York who was kidnapped in Washington, DC in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana, is a reminder of what it took to make the United States the world’s wealthiest capitalist country.
This wealth was inscribed on the very bodies of black men and women, who toiled as slaves on the masters’ plantations. But slavery was not simply or only an economic transaction, in which one party profited from the immiseration of the other. As McQueen’s movie so tellingly illustrates, it was a whole world view, reinforced on a daily basis by the edifice of racism, which could only enslave Blacks by creating the myth that they were less than human, so that any indignity or violence that was visited upon them was justified by their inferior status.
Before the rise of capitalist society, based on colonialism and the often violent expropriation of resources from those who lived in the “colonies,” modern day racism as we know it did not exist. In pre-capitalist societies there was prejudice against strangers, or those who lived in the next town, but there was no systematic categorization of different "races" as inferior.
This understanding was something that Karl Marx wrote about very compellingly in Capital, Vol 1: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of the continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins are all things that characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production.”
In one sentence Marx encapsulates immense amounts of human suffering, from the genocide visited on First Nations people in North America to the slave trade which saw Blacks forcibly removed from their homes to die on slave ships or to survive only to become the property of white masters.
Divide and rule
But why has racism continued to exist, even after widespread colonialism and slavery have been relegated to the past, at least in their more overt forms? Racism is a double-edged sword. Its first target is obviously those who suffer most directly from prejudice and hatred. However, racism has another objective, which is to bind those who share the same skin colour or religion or national affiliation, to their own ruling class.
Marx understood that this false consciousness or affiliation with one’s own ruling class could only divide the 99% and make it much more difficult for ordinary people to make any gains. In the following passage he explains how English and Irish were set against each other and how this only benefited the bosses and the English ruling class:
“Every industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude toward him is much the same as that of the ‘poor whites’ to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland. This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”
The myth of “reverse racism”
It’s important to differentiate what Marx is saying here from a notion that is sometimes put forward as "common sense,” that is the idea that there is something called “reverse racism.” Charges of reverse racism (racism against the dominant racial group in a society) became widespread, for example, during the backlash against initiatives such as affirmative action, which aimed to try and address the inequalities many US Blacks faced in the areas of employment and education. It’s no surprise that these charges of “reverse racism” became popular under the Reagan administration in the 1980s, as a way not only to push back any gains that Blacks had made, but also to attack white and other workers as well. As Marx noted, “Labor in the white skin can never free itself as long as labor in the black skin is branded.”
The “secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power” is this ability to pit one group against another. In order to fight effectively it’s important that we build real solidarity with those who face the daily reality of racism and discrimination and that we reject as pernicious nonsense claims of “reverse sexism” or "reverse racism" (for a comedic but powerful debunking of "reverse racism", watch stand-up comic Aamer Rahman in the video clip below).
Indigenous sovereignty and solidarity
Last month a Saskatchewan high school told its grade 8 students Tenelle Starr, a member of the Star Blanket Cree Nation, to stop wearing her shirt that says “Got land? Thank an Indian”—because it was “racist.” There was an online backlash, including racist attacks and threats to her safety. Michele Tittler of the so-called “End Race-Based Laws” claimed that the shirt was evidence of “reverse racism”: “This is racism," she said. "Canadians are really getting sick of the double-standard. No white kid could walk into a school with a shirt that says that in reverse.” But there was a far stronger flood of support for Starr—who continues to proudly wear her shirt at school—and for the shirt’s creator, Jeff Menard, a postal worker and member of the Pine Creek First Nation in Manitoba.
In Canada the Idle No More movement has highlighted the thievery and violence of the so-called founding fathers of Confederation, who systematically built their wealth on the annihilation of a whole people. First Nations people across this country have been resisting the continuing destruction of their land through government-backed projects like the tar sands and the proposed pipeline construction, and non-Natives have been building solidarity with them in the realization that the continuing plunder of the environment—and the environmental racism on which it is built—is something that concerns us all. It's this kind of solidarity and a refusal to let racism divide us that can win in the struggles ahead.

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