Civil rights marches versus the right to puke

It was a day of vivid contrast. One the one hand, tens of thousands marching through the streets, angry over a lack of justice and appalling inequality; on the other hand, the arrogance of privilege distilled in an alcohol-fueled invasion.

The Week of Outrage did meet SantaCon in the streets of New York City. “Taking the streets” has seldom meant such different things.

Despite the raw anger still felt in the wake of the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner (and so many others), the December 13 Week of Outrage march in New York City was a model of peacefulness. A multi-cultural multitude, there was a real respect shown toward others throughout. Time and again, when somebody accidentally bumped into someone else — regardless of who bumped who — both would quickly say “excuse me.” I was even thanked for being there after gently bumping into someone else. I appreciated that, but I was only doing my duty as a human being.

Marching in the streets of New York City

Marching in the streets of New York City

Then we have SantaCon, where yuppies and other privileged White people in their 20s act out their “right” be as drunk as possible, to overrun neighborhoods and vomit on the sidewalk. In past years, New York’s edition of this annual spectacle of drunken obnoxiousness took place in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a neighborhood that has become the poster child for gentrification — once a center for artists and non-conformists, it is now completely overrun with bars and chain stores.

Even there, bar owners and bartenders were fed up with it, and faced with a community unified in its opposition, SantaCon decamped for the Chelsea and Flatiron neighborhoods to the north, at least based on the numerous sightings of drunk Santas as the Week of Outrage march passed through those areas.

The SantaCon revelers were frequently encouraged to join the march; the reaction was almost invariably a slack-jawed uncomprehending look as if they couldn’t conceive of doing such a thing. Likely they couldn’t. The one notable exception I saw was when I suggested to one frat boy-looking character who probably works on Wall Street that he forget about SantaCon and join the march. He responded with a fusillade of expletives. Ah well, the stock market had just had a bad week; perhaps he wasn’t able to throw any grandmothers out of their homes and was in a bad mood because of it.

Claiming drinking as a “creative” activity

The flavor of SantaCon participants was captured by the Village Voice:

“Doug Bunton, owner of [a Lower East Side tavern], says he allowed Santas into his bar one time and quickly vowed never to do so again. ‘A guy poked me with a candy cane and said, ‘Santa doesn’t pay,’ and from then on I make no exceptions. I think their purpose is to take over the bar and make you do what they want,’ Bunton asserts. ‘I think they should try doing it in the Bronx, and see what they get there.’ ”

That would be interesting. But as one can not have privilege without an ideology justifying it, an anonymous SantaCon representative offered this nonsensical gem in the same Village Voice article:

“SantaCon’s New York organizer, the one who gives his name only as ‘Santa,’ feels SantaCon is merely misunderstood. He says outsiders are uncomfortable with such an unconventional and creative celebration. He insists the event is not a bar crawl, but rather an excuse to dress up, go caroling, and spread holiday cheer. ‘It draws criticism very easily from people because it’s rare to see so much unbridled joy and optimism outside,’ the man called Santa tells the Voice.”

There you have it: Getting drunk and vomiting in the streets, and doing so while wearing corporate products symbolizing consumerist excess that were almost certainly manufactured with sweatshop labor in a poverty-stricken corner of the world is “unconventional” and “creative”!

It is impossible not to see links with the runaway gentrification washing over one New York City neighborhood after another. SantaCon goes naturally with this. Gentrification is part of a process whereby people are expected, and socialized, to become passive consumers. Instead of community spaces, indoors and outdoors, where we can explore our own creativity, breath new life into traditional cultural forms, create new cultural traditions and build social scenes unmediated by money and commercial interests, a mass culture is substituted, a corporate-created and -controlled commercial product spoon-fed to consumers carefully designed to avoid challenging the dominant ideas imposed by corporate elites.

Undoubtedly, the SantaCon revelers, dressed alike and pursuing the same activity organized by someone else, believe they are rugged individualists, boldly displaying their “creativity.” That is what the corporate media tells them when they add a personal flourish to a corporate consumer product. Gosh, the corporate media wouldn’t lie, would they?

Corporate media get cold feet

The corporate media has begun turning against the fightback against the systematic police killing People of Color sparked by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. That is a sign of its effectiveness. The ludicrous under-counting of the size of the December 13 marches and the “reporting” of a Brooklyn Bridge incident later that evening by local newspapers that read like police department press releases indicate that those authorities who had hoped the ongoing demonstrations would have died down by now may be preparing more repressive approaches.

We’re not talking about mad-dog Murdoch media outlets, but rather newspapers that had reported on continuing unrest in Ferguson and elsewhere with minimal malice. The New York Daily News, for example, breathlessly declared: “Police said Sunday that they had arrested a hooligan who assaulted two police officers during protests on the Brooklyn Bridge overnight.” The paper made sure to stress that the arrestee had written poems containing “disdain for the cops.” Quelle horreur!

And lest we are tempted to chalk that up to tabloid excess, The New York Times, although too genteel to use a word like “hooligan,” dutifully presented the police version of the incident as undisputed fact, making sure to note the police allegation that the arrestee’s backpack was found with a sack of hammers a day after uncritically citing the police department’s obvious under-counting of the size of the main march.

The Brooklyn Bridge activists wound up marching to the Brooklyn housing project where another young Black man, Akai Gurley, was recently killed by police in a stairwell. (The officer who shot Mr. Gurley, instead of calling for help, texted his union representative.) A moment of silence was held for him. Although no time was lost in condemning activists as “guilty” following the incident on the Brooklyn Bridge, the murder of Mr. Gurley was swiftly declared an “accident” by the corporate media and by Mayor Bill de Blasio without even the pretense of an investigation.

I was not on the Brooklyn Bridge, so I can not definitively say what did or did not happen. (A two-minute YouTube video shows a struggle underway, but not what might have precipitated it.) But the use of provocateurs by police to justify crackdowns is hardly unknown, so newspapers reports ought to be read with considerable caution. The uniform use of police violence against peaceful Occupy protestors and encampments should be borne in mind.

I will note that the sole example of anything violent I witnessed was when one person slapped the side of a police wagon with a hand, and several people immediately admonished that person not to do that. And this was on a spontaneous march after the main march in which the very point was to walk in the street to bring traffic to a halt in a symbolic gesture of “no business as usual.” Dozens of motorists stuck in traffic nonetheless honked their horns in solidarity, several putting their hands out their windows for the marchers to slap a “high-five” in support.

Besides a demonstration featuring parents and other family members of people killed by police in Washington, there were demonstrations in Boston, Nashville, Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, among other places. In Oakland, anti-racist activists followed up by chaining themselves to the city police headquarters.

Taking aim at systems of repression

The continuing nature of these protests — they have been nearly non-stop since August and the December 13 events likely saw the biggest single-day total of demonstrators yet — has led some people to ask if this is the beginning of an uprising. It is far too early to say, but the ongoing willingness to disrupt “business as usual” through civil disobedience tactics certainly merits serious attention. Any movement to be serious about effecting a change has to aim squarely at the system in which individual police officers, or district attorneys, or courts, operate.

As Angela Davis said in a lengthy interview with The Guardian, the recent police killings are part of a long chain of repression. She said:

“There is an unbroken line of police violence in the United States that takes us all the way back to the days of slavery, the aftermath of slavery, the development of the Ku Klux Klan. There is so much history of this racist violence that simply to bring one person to justice is not going to disturb the whole racist edifice. … The problem with always pursuing the individual perpetrator in all of the many cases that involve police violence, is that one reinvents the wheel each time and it cannot possibly begin to reduce racist police violence. Which is not to say that individual perpetrators should not be held accountable – they should.”

Capitalism was built on slavery and the “triangular trade” in which 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. The North American 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 the genocide of Native Americans.

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.

Divide-and-conquer techniques, whereby we are set at one another’s throats for the scraps left to us by capitalist elites, are indispensable to the maintenance of massive inequality. No police officer says to him or herself, “I’m going to shoot this Black man to keep capitalism in place.” Nonetheless, the mixture of fear and loathing of Black men and women on the part of a White police officer from the suburbs with no connection to the community being patrolled is a product of structural racism. That racism, along with sexism, national hatreds, anti-Semitism and other backward ideologies, are propagated through a variety of social mechanisms, and survive partly because some people receive benefits from them and/or enjoy believing themselves superior to others through supremacist ideologies.

As long as working people allow ourselves to be divided, pointing figures at designated scapegoats, the economic structure that locks in inequality will remain untouched. That will require many people to examine and question their privileges. It would be unrealistic to expect SantaCon participants to do that, but the number of civil rights marchers greatly outnumbered SantaConners. We should not under-estimate the length of the task ahead, but that is a good start.

Freedom is the most abused word in the English language

“Freedom” naturally means different things to different people, but we’ve gone far down a slippery slope when it is reduced to the right to exploit others to the maximum extent.

Humans exploiting other humans is hardly a new phenomenon, but seldom has it ever been elevated to a “democratic” principle in the way it has in recent decades. This is because freedom is morphing from something intrinsic to people to a right embedded in money. Those who have the capital are free to wield it in any way that earns themselves more capital, regardless of harm to others.

Ideologies of individualism are not simply mechanisms to atomize society through breaking down bonds of solidarity — although that is an important reason for their propagation — they grant a license for those who have more but never enough. The cult of individuality, by reducing all social outcomes to personal behaviors independent of any social structure, provides the basis for the celebration of greed while simultaneously inculcating those who have been run over with the self-defeating idea that their individual failures account for their fate.

The class interest of industrialists and financiers is presented as all of society’s interest. “Freedom” is equated with individualism — but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. More wealth for those at the top (regardless of the specific ideologies used to promote that goal, including demands for ever lower taxes) is advertised as good for everybody despite the shredding of social safety nets that accompanies the concentration of wealth. Those who have the most — obtained at the expense of those with far less — have no responsibility to the society that enabled them to amass such wealth.

Imposing harsher working conditions is another aspect of this individualistic “freedom,” but freedom for who? “Freedom” for industrialists and financiers is freedom to rule over, control and exploit others; “justice” is the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists — this is the freedom loftily extolled by the corporate media.

Photo by Istvan Takacs, Budapest.

Photo by Istvan Takacs, Budapest.

When the means of collective defense have been sufficiently eroded, material standards of living are bought at higher personal prices — longer working hours, greater workloads, ever-present insecurity from the fear of being sent to the unemployment line and fear for the future because of the lack of a secure pension. That material standard can be taken away at any moment, and for many is taken away in an era of outsourcing, corporate globalization and attacks on unions and solidarity.

Even the consumer goodies constantly dangled in front of us are a source of anxiety — commodities must be designed to lead to further consumption rather than satisfy desire so as to prop up the economy, and that wages are insufficient to buy what is produced leads to reliance on credit. The imposition of debt as a means of fattening wallets is not merely a process of saddling unsustainable levels of debt on students, retirees and everybody in between, it ensnares entire countries.

Governments borrow money from the ultra-wealthy and from corporations instead of taxing them, then have to pay higher interest rates on those borrowings because the ultra-wealthy and the corporations complain that too much is being borrowed. In exchange for continuing to buy government debt, financial institutions demand that governments cut social services, lay off workers, sell assets and impose other austerity measures.

As a result of the austerity, governments take in less revenue, so they have to borrow more from the super-wealthy and corporations, who have hoarded the country’s wealth. Governmental central banks continue to keep the interest rates at which they loan money to big banks close to zero to ensure that the banks will continue to loan money, without which capitalist economies can not function. The banks in turn loan money at much higher rates, profiting from the creation of debt.

The capital wielded in exploitative ways itself comes from exploitation — profits are accumulated on the backs of employees through paying them far less than the value of what they produce, and when there is more surplus than can be usefully invested or shoveled into luxury consumption, it goes to speculation, further destabilizing living standards when the bubble inevitably bursts.

Graphic by Bryan Helfrich

Graphic by Bryan Helfrich

Fables are concocted to “explain” this “freedom.” The United States declared itself to be the freest society on Earth while enshrining enslavement in its constitution. Revolutionary French leaders swore to establish “liberty, equality, fraternity” while mercilessly putting down slave rebellions in the Caribbean. 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.

The U.S. maintained slavery until the mid-nineteenth century, enabling the plantation aristocracy to accumulate enormous wealth on the backs of its slaves, then allowed servile relations such as sharecropping, and systematic state-backed violence, to maintain African-Americans’ subjugation for another century. 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.” Is this not preposterous?

Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United equating money with speech are but a logical outgrowth of pernicious ideology masquerading as “freedom.” So pervasive is this ideology that, as Fredric Jameson famously wrote, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. It’s true: Hollywood movies invariably depict the breakdown of society or the aftermath of a major disaster as a brutal war of all against all as if the very concept of the survivors cooperating to ensure their survival were beyond the ability to conceptualize.

The current globalized race to decide who dies with the most toys can only lead to the death of civilization.

Defending Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present has always been a controversial book. We are taught as young students that history is made by monarchs, emperors, presidents, generals and industrialists who created the modern world, the only world that can be. The overwhelming majority of humanity is putty shaped by these great men, and we should all be grateful for what they have bestowed upon us.

Professor Zinn’s work is a direct challenge to such narratives, illuminating the struggles of ordinary people against the dominant classes through long periods of history and the violence that accompanies the creation and maintenance of institutional inequality. The potent challenge that People’s History represents more than 30 years after its first printing is demonstrated by a vitriolic attack on it published in the magazine of the American Federation of Teachers, American Educator.

The article, “Undue Certainty,” was brought to my attention by a dedicated New York City high school teacher who is not confident that the AFT will publish a response. The author of the article, Sam Wineburg, could not long maintain his mask of neutrality despite his attempts to root his challenge in a supposed concern for “balance.” A perusal of Professor Wineburg’s curriculum vitae shows no obvious ideological slant, and I shall not attempt to assign him one. Moreover, he took pains to write from a centrist position. Nonetheless, his false equivalences between Right and Left ultimately ring hollow, and his assertions that he is standing up to the “dominant narrative” of People’s History badly at odds with reality.

After acknowledging that traditional school textbooks “too often” hide the history of ordinary soldiers and everyday people, Professor Wineburg’s first critique is that People’s History “is naked of footnotes,” similar to traditional textbooks. It is true that direct footnotes aren’t used, but People’s History contains 18 pages of references, grouped by chapter, and often provides sources in the text, so it is not difficult to find relevant sources.

Questioning the questioning of World War II

The core of Professor Wineburg’s argument centers on a critique of “A People’s War?,” People’s History’s chapter on World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War. (Professor Wineburg uses the 2003 HarperCollins edition while my copy is the 1995 edition, so the page numbers I will cite will vary a bit from those cited in the American Educator article.) The professor begins his critique of the chapter by pouring cold water on the questions raised by Professor Zinn concerning African-American attitudes toward the war, although he does acknowledge that the Black press wrote about the “Double V” — victory over fascism in Europe and over racism in the United States.

Professor Wineburg asserts that Professor Zinn “hangs his claim on [only] three pieces of evidence” — a quote from a Black journalist, a quote from a student and a poem published in the Black press [page 28]. It is strongly implied that these were lone unrepresentative voices. But Professor Wineburg leaves out that the student quote was was read to a crowd of “several thousand people in the Midwest,” according to People’s History, and was met with loud and sustained applause, to the “surprise and dismay” of the NAACP leader who is directly quoted. [page 410]

Moreover, Professor Zinn immediately follows those examples with these two sentences: “But there was no organized Negro opposition to the war. In fact, there was little organized opposition from any source,” save for a handful of very small socialist, anarchist and pacifist groups [page 411]. A page later, the book states, “Public opinion polls show[ed] large majorities of soldiers favoring the draft for the postwar period.” These passages are hardly consistent with Professor Wineburg’s contention that Professor Zinn one-sidedly declares that the U.S. seethed with hostility toward the war.

Professor Wineburg then complains that the number of conscientious objectors was not only low, but that Black C.O.s were proportionally fewer than White C.O.s. He simply uses the raw numbers in these categories without making any attempt to analyze them, an irony when a primary accusation against People’s History is that it is too simplistic. I am not an expert on World War II and am in no position to issue judgments, but a reasonable analysis would take into account the fact that Blacks consistently faced much harsher punishments than Whites, perhaps dampening the willingness to act on ambivalences toward the war. We might also consider the racism that would have made it more difficult for a Black objector to be granted C.O. status by White decision-makers.

Any analysis would surely have to contend with the fact that, as People’s History does but Professor Wineburg does not, the World War I-era espionage act criminalizing dissent was still on the books and the Smith Act passed in 1940 made criticism of the war effort illegal. These acts, while applied ruthlessly against Left critics of the wars, likely would have come down especially hard on African-Americans who publicly objected and wielded as racist object lessons. Would this not have an effect?

War aims and the decision to drop the atomic bomb

Professor Wineburg continues his critique of the World War II chapter by complaining that Professor Zinn asks “yes-no” and “either-or” questions [pages 29-30]. People’s History does ask big questions, but that is rather the point. The book openly asks if an Allied victory would deliver a blow to imperialism and if U.S. post-war policies would match the country’s stated ideals and values. Considering post-war McCarthyism, continued Jim Crow laws and the forcing of women back into the home, these hardly seem irrelevant questions.

Despite ample evidence of hostility to change by the country’s rulers, it is difficult not to conclude that Professor Wineburg is offended by the mere asking of these questions. People’s History presents a long series of evidence of the true U.S. goals of economic dominance covering five pages, backed by quotations directly from U.S. government archives [pages 401-405]. Some of the documents reveal that officials explicitly told Allied governments they would be allowed to keep their colonies.

The U.S. has a long history of interventions in other countries, often to directly benefit U.S. corporations. The U.S. intervened militarily almost 100 times in Latin America alone before 1970 and has a long history of overthrowing governments not to its liking. Does this history truly have no relevance to an analysis of U.S. war aims in World War II? It should not be controversial that the first world war was fought for imperial gains and colonies, nor that a struggle between the U.S. and Germany to be the successor to Britain’s declining world dominance was a factor in early 20th century foreign affairs. World War II did in fact end with the Allies dividing the world among themselves, nor did the Allies exert themselves to stop the Holocaust.

Professor Wineburg is certainly entitled to draw different conclusions than Professor Zinn, but his accusation that People’s History asks one-sided questions to pre-determined answers itself appears to be pre-determined. Professor Wineburg’s subtle contention that Professor Zinn gives insufficient credit to the Allies’ supposed zeal to defend Jews is complemented with a more direct accusation that People’s History fails to acknowledge the suffering of Poles. As I am Slavic and a Marxist intellectual, I need no lectures on Nazi barbarism; I am painfully aware of what the Nazis did to people like me in the Mauthausen death camp. I doubt Professor Zinn needed such lectures, either. Nonetheless, Professor Wineburg writes:

“Zinn is silent about Poland. Instead, he approvingly cites Simone Weil, the French philosopher and social activist. At a time when the Einsatzgruppen were herding Polish Jews into the forest and mowing them down before open pits, Weil compared the difference between Nazi fascism and the democratic principals of England and the United States to a mask hiding the true character of both. … Zinn adds that the real struggle of World War II was not between nations, but rather that the ‘real war was inside each nation.’ Given his stance, it’s no wonder that Zinn chooses to begin the war not in 1939, but a full year later.” [page 30]

That is a heavy charge. Did Professor Weil really say that? When we examine the relevant passage, we find that what she wrote was rather more subtle; neither she nor Professor Zinn is quoted accurately. Here is the relevant passage in People’s History:

“A few voices continued to insist that the real war was inside each nation: Dwight Macdonald’s wartime magazine Politics presented, in early 1945, an article by the French worker-philosopher Simone Weil: ‘Whether the mask is labelled Fascism, Democracy, or Dictatorship of the Proletariat, our great adversary remains the Apparatus — the bureaucracy, the police, the military. … No matter what the circumstances, the worst betrayal will always be to subordinate ourselves to this Apparatus, and to trample underfoot, in its service, all human values in ourselves and in others.’ ” [page 412]

There are no direct comparisons of countries. Reasonable minds can disagree with Professor Weil’s anti-authoritarian stance or her imagery, but her writing unmistakably is a cri de coeur for democratic values to be honored, an end to oppression everywhere and for people to have control over their lives. That is not unreasonable. Jim Crow and racism was enforced with state-sponsored and -enabled terrorism across the U.S. South, women could hardly be said to have attained equality even if their labor was needed for the war effort and all sorts of national hatreds coursed through the populations of all belligerents.

That the evil of Nazi Germany was a unique menace that had to be eliminated is not an excuse for Allied countries not to take stock of themselves. No Allied country was anywhere near as cruel as the Nazi régime — but is that the bar we wish to set for ourselves?

Finally, Professor Wineburg addresses Professor Zinn’s contention that Japan was seeking to negotiate a surrender in the months before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that it was not necessary to drop them as the dominant narrative has consistently maintained. The complaint here is that Professor Zinn relies on “the two defining texts of the revisionist school, Gar Alperovitz’s Atomic Diplomacy (1967) and Martin Sherwin’s A World Destroyed (1975).” But Professor Zinn also quotes from U.S. government documents that are based on interviews with “hundreds” of Japanese civilian and military leaders, and also notes that the U.S. had broken Japanese codes, revealing that Japanese leaders were talking of surrender.

Moreover, Atomic Diplomacy has a “selected bibliography” of 28 pages and A World Destroyed supports itself with more than 100 pages of notes, sources and documents. It is rather difficult to argue that these books are not well sourced. Nonetheless, Professor Wineburg rests his case on his disbelief that the Japanese had any intention to surrender. He writes:

“The Japanese had been courting the still-neutral [in the Pacific theater] Soviets for months, with airy proposals containing scant details about surrender terms. In fact, as late as June 1945, their backs to the wall and all hope seemingly lost, the Japanese were still trying to barter with the Soviets, going so far as to offer Manchuria and southern Karafuto in exchange for the oil needed to stave off an American invasion.” [page 31]

Is it really so remarkable that the Japanese were maneuvering to avoid a surrender they were becoming reconciled to, even if they had only the slimmest of hopes? This passage “proves” that Japan was willing to try anything to avoid a surrender, not that they were definitively determined to fight on no matter what. For a critic so quick to accuse Professor Zinn of “undue certainty” in the support of a preferred narrative, Professor Wineburg appears to be the one rather casual with documentation.

Is it really ‘neutrality’ that is the issue?

Having built up a head of steam, Professor Wineburg perhaps does not realize the extent to which he reveals an agenda, and not merely disapproval of conclusions supposedly too strong. In different passages, he issues these harsh judgments on People’s History:

“It is here that Zinn’s undeniable charisma becomes educationally dangerous, especially when we become attached to his passionate concern for the underdog. … Instead of encouraging us to think, such a history teaches us how to jeer. … A history of unalloyed certainties is dangerous because it invites a slide into intellectual fascism.” [pages 33-34]

Wow! “Intellectual fascism”? What purpose is the use of such invective by someone who has spent pages claiming to be above any partisan scholarship? The purpose is to dismiss out of hand any real critique of the modern capitalist state and its workings. Professor Wineburg’s lines of attack demonstrate that he identifies strongly with these dominant powers. It is not uncommon for a person with such an identification to react with fury when patterns of domination are challenged because such patterns are so deeply woven into the fabric of society. Here is how he dismisses People’s History:

“Zinn remains popular not because he is timely but precisely because he’s not. A People’s History speaks directly to our inner Holden Caulfield. Our heroes are shameless frauds, our parents and teachers conniving liars, our textbooks propagandistic slop. Long before we could Google accounts of a politician’s latest indiscretion, Zinn offered a national ‘gotcha.’ They’re all phonies is a message that never goes out of style.” [page 33]

So there we have it. How dare Howard Zinn question our great country and its great institutions! There is no reason for anyone to complain, so he writes only to indulge a childish desire to poke people in the eye and only the immature could possibly follow him. Sam Wineburg may have convinced himself that he has “exposed” Howard Zinn, but he has exposed only his own desire to guard the honor of the powerful and keep them safe from criticism.

People’s History is an attempt to write people into the history that they lived. Professor Wineburg’s illogical contention that the Right’s efforts to erase people from history — the ideological re-writing of history in school textbooks in Texas and the elimination of Mexican-American studies in Tucson, Arizona, are merely two of the most recent efforts — is equivalent to the pioneering work of Professor Zinn is unworthy of an educator. And far less removed from such ideologically inspired erasures of history than he would like to believe.

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]