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Issue #1810      February 14, 2018

Racism – a capitalist tool

Prior to the Second World War, the heartland of capitalism – the place that set the system’s policies, methods and style – was England. But after WW2, capitalism’s heartland shifted base to the USA, where, 80 years after the end of the American Civil War – the “war to free the slaves” – a deep and pervasive racism operated.

In the southern half of the country, blacks and whites were ruthlessly segregated, at school, on public transport, at work, everywhere. The system worked to the benefit of capitalism, keeping workers divided by race and at the same time giving poor whites the illusion that they were not really being ruthlessly exploited because there was a sizeable segment of the population – “coloureds” – who were not only visibly worse off than they were but were clearly “inferior” to them.

And capitalist propaganda hammered home the message that that was exactly the way things should be, because poor blacks were “undeserving” – alleged to be shiftless, lazy, ignorant and prone to criminality. Despite the courageous civil rights movement which ended the worst aspects of the racist “Jim Crow” system in the USA – segregation, overt racial abuse, lynchings and other symptoms of white supremacist terrorism – racism itself did not disappear, a fact which did not overly discommode capitalism.

Racism has always been part and parcel of capitalism’s stock of weapons. It was used to divide – and conquer – the numerous different peoples who found themselves within one or another of the colonial “empires”. And when the “natives” fought back, they were labelled “terrorists”, as in Kenya, Algeria or Malaya.

The national liberation struggles that followed WW2 were emboldened by the historic victory over fascism and the progressive ideas that had underpinned that momentous event. And all of them acknowledged the debt they owed to the Great October Socialist Revolution. Capitalism reacted with concentration camps (e.g. in Kenya), state terrorism (Algeria) or open warfare (Malaya, Indonesia, Borneo, The Philippines, Indo-China).

At the same time, US imperialism (with the full support of its British counterpart) set out to “roll back Communism” by starting a war on the Korean peninsula. The Koreans they fought were labelled “gooks”.

While Americans were soon to be found engaged in combat for US imperialism’s “strategic interests” in numerous parts of Asia and South and Central America, at home racism determined the nature of national policy – or warped policies that were meant to combat racism.

Even as President Johnson was talking up his “Great Society”, he had to use the army to escort nine black teenagers to high school in Arkansas as racists angrily resisted integration. But if segregation was out of favour and losing traction, the right wing in the US simply changed tactics. Instead of ranting against “niggers”, they now argued for “states rights” and railed against “big government”.

In the lexicon of US racism, “big government” is a euphemism for welfare payments to the undeserving poor – in other words, to people of colour. Paradoxically, it is used to justify tax cuts for the rich and big corporations, on the grounds that if they are left with more money, they will employ more people. In fact such tax cuts merely mean government income is reduced so government has less money with which to make welfare payments. Since the majority of welfare recipients are in fact poor whites, these cuts adversely affect the very constituency the Right is trying to win.

Undeterred, they fall back on propaganda: implying – rather than stating outright – that if it wasn’t for all the money being “wasted” on Latino and Black welfare recipients, poor whites could almost wallow in luxury! It’s sheer nonsense of course, but they can hardly tell people the truth: that shortage of funds for welfare payments (if true) can only be the result of corporate greed.

Poverty is endemic across the US. However, the poverty rate among people of colour is higher than among whites. Consequently, the need for social programs is correspondingly higher, too. But the Republican Right is not concerned with logic, still less with humanity. They are concerned with building a power base, so they resort to lies, half-truths and distortions.

The task of ensuring that the Blacks and coloureds stay in their place falls to the USA’s massive militarised police forces and law enforcement agencies (for many years when J Edgar Hoover headed the FBI, that organisation gave serious attention to ways of preventing “the coming Black uprising”). In a culture where virtually all young Black men are regarded as potential criminals, and possession (and use) of guns is common place, the killing of young Black men in particular by the police is also distressingly commonplace. So commonplace in fact, that it has generated the active and significant “Black lives matter” movement.

The role of police forces under capitalism is to safeguard the rule of capital, to protect private property, the wealthy and corporate power. Racism, historically a major tool of capitalism, pervades all the activities of capitalism’s police forces. Young Black men are arrested in grossly disproportionate numbers and make up the bulk of those unfortunates confined in the private industrial prisons that have spread across the USA, providing US capitalism with a new form of highly profitable slave labour.

While people of colour demonstrate against police killings, the right-wing calls for “law and order”, which is code for “prevent the Blacks from rioting”. Donald Trump ran for president on an openly racist platform that advocated making welfare payments only to the “deserving” poor (i.e. poor whites). Since taking possession of the Oval Office, his racism has become even more overt and more blatant.

From offending Native Americans with a crude racist slur against Democrat Congresswoman Elizabeth Warren (calling her “Pokahontas”), to pandering to Israel’s desire to conquer and absorb the whole of Palestine, Trump has blended his far-Right politics with crude racism to the delight of his base constituency (uneducated poor whites).

William C Anderson, a contributing editor covering race, class and immigration at the Praxis Centre for the USA’s Kalamazoo College, has pointed out that “White supremacy, too, is a grounding undercurrent of this country’s history and present-day functioning. If the Trump presidency concludes, we will still be faced with a powerful system of oppressions. Until we confront the systems that enabled Donald Trump’s rise to power, we’ll always be at risk of seeing someone like him empowered again.”

Next article – 75th anniversary – Nazi surrender at Stalingrad

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