Photo by Marion S. Trikosko - Library of Congress Collection (Public Domain)
First and foremost I'd like to advocate the principle of garbage in, garbage out: If we all don't have good information, we're going to make bad decisions -- especially about causes, effects and the best chance for a reasonable remedy. In the case of race relations in the U.S., there seems to be an endless amount of distraction and misdirection -- a smokescreen cast between those who care about healing the divisions in our country, and what is really perpetuating the divide. And there is tremendous energy behind that smoke, keeping the propaganda spewing forth at high volume, front-and-center, across all kinds of media. So, in the spirit of a storm to chase the smokescreen away, I will offer what I think are some high-quality truths about what underlies the sad state of race relations in the U.S.A., with supporting references at the end of the article.
#1) What looks like clear and indisputable evidence of racism is often a highly targeted and thinly veiled form of capitalist exploitation. In a very real sense, the loudest common denominator of oppression and exploitation in the U.S. is the profit motive. Here are some potent examples of what I mean:
a) Who targets communities of color in their aggressive marketing of tobacco products and alcohol on local neighborhood billboards? Tobacco and alcohol companies. Who has been complicit in the high concentrations of carryout stores selling tobacco and alcohol products in communities of color -- higher concentrations of such stores, in fact, than in any other neighborhoods in the U.S.? Tobacco and alcohol companies. Who has created customized brands of tobacco and alcohol products for marketing to communities of color, including products that are more addictive, more potent and more toxic than those sold elsewhere? Tobacco and alcohol companies. But of course no one is holding tobacco and alcohol companies accountable -- not for their role in perpetuating alcohol and nicotine addiction in black and brown neighborhoods, not for the disproportionate disease and mortality caused by alcohol and tobacco among people of color, and not for the societal destruction they are perpetuating in poor communities.
b) Who benefits most from the militarization of the police, or having assault-style weapons in the hands of both criminals and law-abiding citizens? Gun and military hardware manufactures. And who was responsible for lobbying to relax gun regulations, while marketing fear and paranoia across America at the same time? Gun and military hardware manufactures. Who benefits from flooding our inner cities with handguns, and flooding rural communities with panic that their gun rights will be taken away? Gun and military hardware manufactures. Who benefits from the escalation of gang-related, drug-related and terrorism-related violence involving their guns and equipment, as well as the defensive outfitting of communities overwhelmed by such challenges? Gun and military hardware manufactures. It seems Eisenhower's infamous "military-industrial-congressional complex" has figured out that what they have always aimed to achieve on a global scale can also be implemented on national, state and local scales as well. But of course no one is holding gun and military hardware manufacturers accountable for their role in promoting gun violence or the proliferation of military-style equipment. In fact, the puppet politicians of these corporations have passed laws that protect the companies from liability.
c) Who benefits the most from the "three strike" or minimum sentencing laws that swell U.S. prison populations? Privately owned, for-profit prisons. Who has benefitted most from "the war on drugs" and harsher immigration policies? Privately owned, for-profit prisons. Who benefits from inflating monetary penalties on minor infractions into unpayable debt that triggers warrants, arrests and jail time? Privately owned, for-profit prisons. In fact, which companies make the most money off of the U.S. justice system overall? Privately owned, for-profit prisons. And who has been lobbying legislatures and funding candidates to expand their corporate profits through more aggressive laws and penalties that just happen to impact the poor and people of color the most...? Privately owned, for-profit prisons. But of course no one is holding these companies accountable for the devastating consequences of their systemized greed.
d) Who initiated slavery of indigenous peoples and captured Africans in the Americas, and for what purpose? Capitalists, in order to increase efficiency and profitability of their production. Who perpetuated post-Civil War versions of slavery in sharecropping, truck systems, company stores, etc.? Capitalists, in order to increase efficiency and profitability of their production. Who has invented new forms of wage and debt slavery in the current day, fighting vigorously to keep minimum wages below subsistence levels, and consumers perpetually in debt? Capitalists, in order to increase efficiency and profitability of production. Who benefits most from "welfare-to-work" programs that only offer shabby, low-paying and demeaning jobs? Capitalists, in order to increase efficiency and profitability of production. Who still perpetuates exploitation of child labor around the globe, and benefits most from sweat shops and horrific labor conditions both abroad in developing countries, and using immigrant labor in the U.S.? Capitalists, in order to increase efficiency and profitability of production. And yet, too few people think to blame capitalism itself for these problems.
e) Who benefits the most from union-breaking policies and disruption of community organizing efforts? Capitalists and the puppet politicians who help funnel wealth and power to corporations. Who benefits the most from making tensions around race relations all about ethnicity and culture, and from making sure working folks from different backgrounds are angrily divided against each other? Capitalists and the puppet politicians who help funnel wealth and power to corporations. And who is laughing all the way to the bank when "race riots," social unrest, violence and death all across America are portrayed in the corporate-owned media as have nothing at all to do with oppression and exploitation of the working class by wealthy owner-shareholders? Capitalists and the puppet politicians who help funnel wealth and power to corporations. But here again, too few people think to blame capitalism itself for these problems.
#2) Although there is much evidence to support issue #1 above, epidemic levels of white privilege, systemic racism and white supremacist extremism are real, and still persist. But shouldn't we still ask whom these prolific cultural diseases really serve...? This is the tricky part, because on the surface it really does seem like such reflexes and patterns are mainly about deep-seated fear and hatred of a particular ethnic or cultural group, and that deliberately disrupting the well being, economic mobility, social status and political influence of these targeted groups is mainly a consequence of that fear, hatred and ignorance. Except...well...let's consider the ultimate outcome of disenfranchising any homogenous group, depriving them access to decent education and employment, disproportionately persecuting and imprisoning them, interfering with their voting and other civil rights, or otherwise "keeping them down." Again, who benefits the most...?
When Republicans rolled back minority voting rights protections in the South, whom did that help in subsequent elections? And when Republicans have thrown up all kinds of hurdles to vote within various regions -- hurdles like requiring voter IDs, or reducing polling places and hours, or changing polling places at the last minute, or removing "suspected felons" from voter rolls -- whom have these hurt the most in terms of voter access? And when an unqualified and mentally unstable Republican candidate ran for President in 2016, and then won the election using flagrantly racist and xenophobic rhetoric to "fire up" his base, who actually benefitted from his ascendance to power? It certainly wasn't the poor, fearful and uneducated white folks who helped vote him into office. And whom do conservative judges, appointed by Republicans, favor when a case between worker or consumer rights and the privileges and power of a corporation comes before their bench? Again, it isn't the workers and consumers, and it's certainly not any poor people. And who benefits most from the legislation written by A.L.E.C. that is passed by Republican-controlled legislatures all around the U.S.? It's not the working class people who live in those states. In all of these cases, all we need to do is follow the money. It is the wealthiest of the wealthy who fund the campaigns of these Republican officials, and who ultimately benefit from these laws. Which is also why Republicans work so hard to roll back any kind of taxes or regulation -- or undermine, disempower or disembowel the regulatory agencies they oversee -- in the name of "smaller government." We know who consistently benefits, and who consistently suffers.
In short: the primary beneficiaries of conservative Republican politics are the enormous concentrations of corporate wealth and power, as wielded by the most privileged owner-shareholders. And it is the working poor of any and all ethnicities, cultures and immigration status who are consistently used, abused and trampled underfoot...even as they are persuaded with outrageous propaganda and false promises to vote for and embrace ideologies and candidates that contradict their own expressed values and interests.
"Hey who got the politicians in they back pocket
Pimp slap pump that gimme that profit..."
- Get Busy, The Roots
Now I will not say that Democrats have been innocent in this puppet play -- for they, too, have been funded by dark money and become subject to corporate influence. I think this is especially true as Democrats seek higher office, become career politicians, and accumulate more influence and power. But at least, along the way, Democrats have with one hand tended to promote social justice, minimum wage increases and wage equality, social safety nets, workplace protections, a level playing field for all religions and genders and races, consumer protections, compassionate laws, law enforcement oversight and justice system reforms...even as they may still throw a bone or two to their corporate campaign contributors with their other hand. At least many Democrats often try to free themselves of the fetters of greedy corporations and the damage these capitalists perpetually do to our society. Which again is why most of the huge concentrations of capitalist wealth in the U.S.A. is used to elect pro-corporate Republicans to office, and to disrupt and discredit both Democratic candidates, and as many Democratic voters as possible. And we need not guess where the latest phony rhetoric around "voter fraud" will be focused: it will be just one more tool to undermine the Democratic base. So although Democrat politicians may still be culpable and complicit at times, they at least attempt to balance the scales and listen to the needs of regular working folk. Republicans? Generally, they tend to almost exclusively serve the corporate Beast with cold-hearted, lock-step conformance.
All of this is why I do not believe the primary issue we must identify and confront is a fundamental conflict between black and white -- or any other skin colors. This is instead mainly a conflict between the "haves" who want to expand their ill-gotten gains, and the "have-nots" who are constantly being manipulated, misled, exploited and oppressed. And of course this insight was shared by many of the greatest civil rights leaders throughout history. Martin Luther King decried the poverty of the U.S. and our need to "question the capitalist economy;" as early as 1952 he wrote that "capitalism has outlived its usefulness." For King, democratic socialism was an obvious avenue for the U.S. to reinvent itself in a more truly democratic political economy. Malcolm X also summed things up simply when he said: "You can't have capitalism without racism...you have to have someone else's blood to suck to be a capitalist." He, too, believed the central struggle was not really "a racial conflict of black against white," but rather "the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter." Many other human and civil rights champions -- from Gandhi to the Dalai Lama -- have also concluded that the battle against systemic oppressions cannot be separated from the problems inherent to Western-style capitalism; the two go hand-in-hand.
In more recent times, anti-capitalist rhetoric has gained some traction -- from Black Lives Matter; during the Occupy movement; in a broader awareness of writers and speakers like Alicia Garva, Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Thomas Picketty, Greg Palast and Noami Klein; from socially conscious hip-hop; in the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign; in the earnest activism of Elizabeth Warren; in the evolving discussions around "racial capitalism" -- but populist passions in this arena often tend to be tepid or short-lived. Even well-meaning academics like Cornel West will agree with Marxist critiques of capitalism and its perpetuation of structural racism, and even promote the "overlapping goals" of democratic socialism and antiracism, but will then ask us to increase our awareness of other power relationships in society, other longstanding threads of racism that predate capitalism, and the "Eurocentrism" inherent to left-leaning revolutionary ideologies...and to do so with seemingly equal energy and attention. And although all of this should undoubtedly become part of the picture, unless the enduring roots of capitalism itself can be excised from our political economy, it simply won't matter how we engage these other cultural issues. Because capitalism will automatically either utilize some other longstanding prejudice, or invent an entirely new one, in order to engineer the mindless, tribalistic, infantilizing conformance that facilitates conspicuous consumption and enduring class divisions. It's simply how capitalism is done.
So yes, there is real and potent racism that arises within cultural and historical contexts...but its perpetuation and amplification is used mainly as a tool by capitalists and their puppet politicians to perpetuate capitalist-imperialist power. And yes, like the other tools being used -- gender discrimination, misogyny and patriarchy, religious persecution and exclusion, anti-intellectualism and science skepticism, irrational fear and paranoia about government, etc. -- racism also stands alone as a grave concern that needs to be addressed. But the far greater corrosive influence arising across the political spectrum is the greed and lust for dominance that fortifies insidious crony capitalism, where plutocrats rule all races in the U.S.A. and around the globe. It is this corporatocracy that employs racism and these other tools as a social means to its nefarious economic ends. For all such efforts aim to enrich and empower the corporate elite, and perpetuate their position of privilege -- regardless of race, gender, identity or beliefs. And the resulting destructive inequity is, in fact, what the entirety of our capitalist system is built upon. It is feudalism with a new coat of paint, and until that feudalism is brought to an end, oppression and exploitation will generate new forms and tools to combine with the old ones, just to keep the gears of commerce well-greased.
Who then will hold the corporations, shareholders and the capitalist system itself accountable for the perpetuation of inequality and injustice?
Here's what we can do. First, I think delving beyond "wokeness" to the deeper, more pervasive roots of the problem is an important first step. The actual primary antagonist here needs to be clearly defined and called out. And if that primary antagonist is in fact our capitalist system, then we all need to start thinking about moving beyond capitalism to something better. Something more egalitarian, more compassionate, more democratic, more sustainable, more environmentally responsible, and more kind. Throughout that process, we can certainly recognize that hatred, fear, prejudice, inequality, injustice and a host of other critical issues also need to be addressed in a new design. In fact that is what many of my own Level 7 proposals are about, and I would encourage you to check them out (and I invite your feedback and ideas as well). But the main call-to-action here is to get this conversation going, and not allow ourselves to be distracted by the noise and propaganda. For our feudal lords take great delight in the masses being redirected away from the man behind the curtain, and while we focus on the sensational tools they are using to manipulate, divide and distract us, they will continue to amass malfeasant mammon and consolidate their power. Most certainly we can and should be motivated by a fervent desire to end all manifestations of oppression, exploitation, disenfranchisement and marginalization...these are all noble and essential aims. But if the very foundation of our society is a political economy that thrives on enriching a tiny percentage of plutocrats at the expense of everyone and everything else, then we can't just put a Band-Aid on the symptoms and ignore the deep festering rot underneath. We need to get more than "woke;" we need to get fierce.