Seeing bias but supporting the architect of bias: We have a long way yet to go

Half a century has passed since Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, a passage of time symbolized by a Black man sworn in as president on a holiday celebrating Dr. King’s birthday. Yet it would be naïve to suggest that racism is now something in our past; that Dr. King’s hope that people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin has become everyday reality.

Racism is so woven into the fabric of society that it is sadly comprehensible that two generations of civil rights struggle has not eradicated it. The contradictions that swirl around a subject that is still uncomfortable for most to discuss were captured in a New York Times survey published last week. The survey asked a series of questions related to the “stop and frisk” tactic used by the New York City Police Department in which police officers routinely stop young people on the street and search them in what is claimed to be an effort to catch potential criminals before they commit a crime.

In 2011, the last full year for which statistics are available, the New York Civil Liberties Association reports that New Yorkers were stopped and searched by the police 685,724 times. Of these stops, 88 percent were reported by the police as stops of people who were totally innocent. Only nine percent of these stops were of White people. Those numbers are typical for a program that has run for several years.

The Times survey found that:

  • 55 percent believe that New York City police favor Whites over Blacks, while 27 percent believe that both Whites and Blacks are treated fairly.
  • By almost identical margins, New Yorkers believe that police favor Whites over Hispanics.
  • 61 percent say they approve of Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly while 24 percent disapprove.

People of Color were more likely to observe bias and less likely to support the commissioner than Whites, but the general pattern was the same. That majorities could simultaneously acknowledge racial bias and support the police chief responsible for a practice that most exemplifies that bias demonstrates that regressive attitudes like racism retain a strong social hold. Virtually all of the more 1,000 people who participated in the Times survey surely would vehemently oppose a hooded Klansman and look upon the Jim Crow South with horror. And yet a majority have little trouble in voicing approval of systematic harassment, a routine of criminalizing young people simply for being Black or Hispanic.

Mistaken beliefs that stop-and-frisk are effective in suppressing crime account for much of the reason for those approvals. But it is far from only that. And the law-and-order angle is not untinged with stereotyping — I vividly remember watching an interview of a White producer of a typical police “reality show” who, when asked why his program showed Black people almost exclusively as perpetrators, unashamedly answered, “Because they are the ones who commit the crimes.”

Ah, yes, it’s always the “Other” who is responsible for social problems.

The power of divide-and-conquer

And here we get closer to the reasons for the persistence of racism. And also to the persistence of sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, national hatreds and other social ills. In any society that is based upon inequality — where an elite arrogates to itself a hugely disproportionate share of wealth and dominates the levers of power and opinion-making to maintain its elite status — strong social divisions work to maintain such inequity. Divide-and-conquer is an old technique.

Pre-capitalist societies were subject to scarcities; the precarious nature of agriculture and lack of modern medicine guaranteed that periodic famines would leave too little for everybody to survive. Lords needed a powerful ideology (and deadly force when necessary) to enforce their “rights” to take so much of what their peasants or serfs produced. Nowadays, the dizzying increase in productivity ensures that mass starvation is not a possibility, if you are fortunate enough to live in a developed country, however much inequality ensures that millions in those countries will go to bed hungry some of the time.

But whether it is the aristocracy and the church dominating peasants, with the church continually telling them that their subordinate position is dictated by God, or capitalists and their corporate mass media dominating working people, with the mass media and orthodox economists telling them that the world cannot be organized any other way, the same dynamics are at work. But any ideology has to be supplemented. And what better than divide-and-conquer?

Racism (and sexism and other backward ideologies) are artificial constructs. The origination of modern racism can be traced to seventeenth century colonial Virginia. The plantation-owning aristocracy feared that Black slaves, White indentured servants and those former servants who were nominally “free” would unite, putting an end to their rule. Instilling anti-Black racism in poor Whites was the solution to this threat, a process facilitated by the racism justifying massacres of Native Americans.

At first, White indentured servants and Black slaves were treated similarly by plantation owners on the North American mainland, excepting the significant fact that the servants had seven-year terms in contrast to the slaves’ lifetime sentences.* Servants’ sentences, however, were frequently extended. The Virginia of the seventeenth century had workhouses on the English model; children of poor parents could be removed and sent to workhouses, enabling those parents to be pressed back into the ranks of servants. Black slaves and White indentured servants socialized together, helped each other escape and joined in rebellions.

Racism began to be developed as an ideology to counter solidarity between Blacks and Whites and to counter poor White settlers who left the colonies to live among Indigenous peoples, whose non-hierarchical society was more appealing to thousands of them. To facilitate this process, freed servants were given small privileges not available to slaves to give them the illusion of having a stake in the aristocracy-dominated social order; Whites who rebelled were not punished as severely as Blacks; and poor Whites were forced to move inland due to the monopolization of coastal land by elites, thereby exacerbating tensions with Native Americans.

The genocide of Native Americans — ultimately reducing their populations by 95 percent — was of course well under way across the New World. The plantation-based economies there were dependent on slaves, and the European countries that were the earliest sites of the emerging capitalist system grew wealthy. More specifically, the emerging capitalist class grew wealthy and increasingly assertive in political matters.

Old World capitalists and New World slaves

European economies grew on the “triangular trade” in which European manufactured goods were shipped to the coast of western Africa in exchange for slaves, who were shipped to the Americas, which in turn sent sugar and other commodities back to Europe. (At this time, the Caribbean was far more important than mainland colonies, and conditions for slaves there was harsher; owners of Caribbean plantations often worked their slaves to death within a few years.) Profits from the slave trade and from colonial plantations were critical to bootstrapping the takeoff of British industry and modern capitalism in the second half of the eighteenth century into the early nineteenth century.

Walter Rodney, in his outstanding book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, pointed out that it was necessary to rationalize the exploitation of African labor that was crucial to European accumulations of wealth. He wrote:

“Occasionally, it is mistakenly held that Europeans enslaved Africans for racist reasons. European planters and miners enslaved Africans for economic reasons, so that their labor power could be exploited. Indeed, it would have been impossible to open up the New World and to use it as a constant generator of wealth, had it not been for African labor. There were no other alternatives: the American (Indian) population was virtually wiped out and Europe’s population was too small for settlement overseas at that time.”**

This early buoying of capitalism can be obscured because slavery is a system best suited for accumulating agricultural surpluses; slavery’s association with plantations, however, can’t be disassociated from the use of plantation profits. Those surpluses provided investment capital for capitalist development despite slavery having been abolished within the internal British and other Western European capitalist systems.

Slave revolts and popular movements had much to do with abolishments of slavery, but the changing economic system was prominent as well. Slavery, as well as serfdom, is incompatible with industrial capitalism’s need for “flexible” workforces that can be hired or fired at will and for large numbers of consumers who can buy the capitalists’ products.

Slavery ended in the South, but subordination enforced with state-sanctioned terrorism did not until the civil rights movement a century later, when activists quite literally staked their lives on ending it. The wealth of the plantation owners and the desperate poverty of newly freed slaves were both transmitted to their respective descendants, locked in through terrorism. When the civil rights movement forced a dismantling of Southern apartheid, U.S. elites countered by saying, in effect: “Look! We’re all equal now! If you are not rich it’s your own fault.”

Imprisonment and a lack of jobs

This line of thinking, widely propagated, is a direct descendant of earlier, more crude ideologies. And from here it is a small step to justify mass incarceration and the racial bias exemplified by the U.S. prison system. More than 2.2 million people are imprisoned in the United States, a total and a rate that are the highest in the world. Black men are incarcerated at a rate almost seven times that of White men; two-thirds of all persons in prison for drug offenses are People of Color although Whites use drugs in similar amounts.

It is no longer unusual for police chiefs in large cities to be Black, and even the president and his attorney general are Black, yet the conveyor belt of repression continues to run smoothly. This is an institutional, structural problem that is untouched by the symbolism of a single leader.

In this neoliberal era, massive economic dislocations and poverty have made migrants of tens and hundreds of millions of people around the world, many of whom are small farmers forced off their lands due to cheap, often-subsidized agricultural products imported from the strongest capitalist countries. Corollary to dominant/subordinate pairings are immigrants, particularly those who become undocumented workers — another source of exploitable labor and a new means of fostering divisions when jobs are harder to find.

It so much easier to point at immigrants and blame them for depressing wages rather than examine the economic and social structure, at home and abroad, that puts mass immigration in motion and creates the conditions for the exploitation. Similarly, it is much more comforting to see oneself as a self-made success rather than someone who does work hard but nonetheless is a recipient of social privileges. In a country in which racism is so densely interwoven into the fabric of society, can any of us honestly say we are free of all prejudices?

The question, then, becomes one of a willingness to overcome social conditioning. Shaking one’s head sadly at racial bias in policing but supporting the police chief who intensifies that bias and voting for the politicians who appoint the chief is an unwillingness to critique the world you live in, and all the inequalities that have made today’s world what it is. A better world is not going to come into being by wishful thinking; it’ll only come about when we are not only willing to confront ourselves and our society, but to act.

* This and the following paragraph are based on Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-present, pages 37-58 [HarperCollins, 1995]; Edmund Sears Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, page 297-299, 327-328 [W.W. Norton & Co., 1975]; and Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World, pages 252-254 [Bookmarks Publications, 1999]
** Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, page 88 [Howard University Press, 1982]

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9 comments on “Seeing bias but supporting the architect of bias: We have a long way yet to go

  1. tomdegan says:

    Nice site you have here.

    Tom Degan

  2. Paul Gilman says:

    All you wrote is correct, slavery started out as purely an economic relationship based on capitalism’s need to exploit labor, that is labor in the service of a bourgeois, not labor in the service of the community and hence humanity. Yet, as you pointed out this need for labor morphed from purely an economic necessity into one of racial domination.

    I came upon this in William Loren Katz’s great book, “Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage” – talking about the founding of what became the lost colony of Roanoke, Virginia, in 1584, “Trouble began when newcomers refused to plant, build, or exert themselves. Iron in hand, Captain Smith ordered these lazy gentlemen to ‘work or starve'” – pg 21, Atheneum – NY, 1986 – OK, now this is just one case, but this is not an unusual case. it’s an example of an entitlement that is the cultural bedrock of capitalism. Even the hard working pilgrims almost who landed on Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, felt the same sense of entitlement based on their hard work and Protestantism. Yet, for most people, slaves, sweatshop workers, housewives, day laborers, proletarian, hard does not translate into any source of entitlement or personal wealth for that matter. The lazy aristocraps of Roanoke, were more correct, their entitlement, although the source of their demise, is based on the arbitrary luck of birth. The above passage quoted from Katz is followed by “Time and time again the English were rescued from starvation through the generosity of the Algonquin Confederacy, which provided corn and bread. The foreigners responded by refusing to share European agricultural tools with the Indians and violence broke out.” – pg 21 cont -. This is what White racism is all about, the alienation of Europeans from the rest of the world and at the expense of the rest of the world. This era of crapitalism and all the history, histories of personal experience filtered through biases, cultural mixes, group experiences…, all that went before it obscures most of this. Doesn’t mean its still not there, all one has to do examine imperialism, which is still the dominant economic mode.

    Imperialism is all about the white ruling-class with the support of their social base, the petty bourgeois, steeling from everyone else.

    In contrast to Europeans alienation from the rest of the world, Katz whole book is about how two different peoples, although their skin is of a different color, can base their relationships on shared values and common needs.

    • Thanks for the interesting reply, Paul. Reading your comment brings to my mind a passage from Capital:

      “[P]rimitive accumulation plays in Political Economy about the same part as original sin in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote of the past. In times long gone by there were two sorts of people: one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal élite; the other, lazy rascals,
      spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tell us certainly how man came to be
      condemned to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people
      to whom this is by no means essential. Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour, has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly although they have long ceased to work. Such insipid childness is every day preached to us in the defense of property.”

      Ideology is always flexible for capitalists as long as they can keep themselves in command.

  3. immanuelness says:

    Excellent points.

    In a time of neoliberal capitalism and declining living standards, we are seeing the significance of a militarized police state that operates as an extension of the military. The great fear is that the US already has a massive repressive apparatus that is directed against African Americans and Arab American communities that is reminiscent of fascism. This extension of this form is of greater concern than ever in a state that has a declining industrial infrastructure with parallels to early-20th century Germany and Italy. The quote from Rodney is spot on and his relevance remains critical to understanding the marginalization of large segments of the working class during the contemporary crisis.

    • Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is an outstanding text for anyone who wishes to understand the development of modern capitalism, how certain parts of the world became dominant at the direct expense of other parts. You bring up excellent points — military and police force is the indispensable fist of capitalism, and the velvet gloves that have frequently obscured the fist over the past 60 years (although not hidden to those who cared to pay attention) seem to be slipping off more often as more people are forced to confront the shortcomings of capitalism.

  4. acephalist says:

    This was a very well written and thought provoking post. Thank you. I enjoyed it very much.

  5. […] lion’s share of the world’s wealth is held by a small group of people who then have to assert control over the rest of the population in order to hold onto or augment that wealth, there will always be racism; as long as […]

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