by Howie Hawkins
Juneteenth celebrates the final end of American slavery when on June 19, 1865, the Union Army reached Galveston, Texas informed the last enslaved people that they were free more than two years after President Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation. Slavery ended, but racism against black people has continued to the present day.
On Juneteenth last year, I outlined a program of anti-racist policies. I called for “race-conscious programs to remedy race-conscious injuries,” including strengthening the enforcement of civil rights and anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action to reverse the growing resegregation of housing and schools, and taking power from racists who exploit racially-oppressed communities and empowering those communities through collective community ownership and control of public housing, schools, police, and businesses. I called for a reparations for African-Americans, an Economic Bill of Rights to end poverty and economic distress for all Americans, ending mass incarceration, and federal law enforcement against white racist terrorists.
This year on Juneteenth I want to discuss how systemic racism is woven into the structure and values of capitalism. I want to do this by reviewing an influential 1969 essay on this question by James Boggs called “Uprooting Racism and Racists in the United States.” The full essay is in Bogg’s Racism and the Class Struggle (Monthly Review Press, 1970). At the time, it was reprinted widely in the black press and circulated as a pamphlet by SDS’s Radical Education Project.
James Boggs (pictured above) and his wife Grace Lee Boggs worked closely in the 1940s and 1950s with the Trinidadian historian, journalist, and socialist, C.L.R. James. A Detroit autoworker, Boggs was active in the radical socialist wing of the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s, working closely with well-known activists like Malcolm X and Ossie Davis and advising younger activists in SNCC and the Detroit-based League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Both James and Grace spoke at the first National Green Gathering in Amherst, Massachusetts in July 1987 and became active in the Detroit Greens.
In his essay, Boggs says “the first thing we have to understand is that racism is not a ‘mental quirk’ or a ‘psychological flaw’ on an individual’s part.” Racism is systemic.
Racism is the systematized oppression of one race by another. In other words, the various forms of oppression within every sphere of social relations—economic exploitation, military subjugation, political subordination, cultural devaluation, psychological violence, sexual degradation, verbal abuse, etc.—together make up a whole of interacting and developing processes which operate so normally and naturally and are so much a part of the existing institutions of society that the individuals involved are barely conscious of their operation.
He then establishes that systemic racism is unique to the capitalist era.
This kind of systematic oppression of one race by another was unknown to mankind in the thousands of years of recorded history before the emergence of capitalism four hundred years ago…
Just as mankind, prior to the rise of capitalism, had not previously experienced an economic system which naturally and normally pursues economic expansion at the expense of human forces, so it had never know a society which naturally and normally pursues the systematic exploitation and dehumanization of one race of people by another.
Boggs describes how racism was was built into the political economy of capitalism.
It is only when we understand this immediate economic and social stake which not only slave owners and capitalist entrepreneurs but the entire white population—including doctors, lawyers, bakers, and candlestickmakers (but not, of course, the Indian chiefs whose lands were taken for plantations and farms)—had in the enslavement of blacks that we can understand the realities of racism in this country. Racism was real because their were real people with a stake in racism—racists—and these real people were ready to resort to force to to protect their stake.
Beginning in the late 1600s, after black and white slaves and servants had united in rebellion against their masters in Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia and other rebellions, the plantation owners and merchants who controlled colonial governments began to be codified the color line into law to make black people slaves and white people free laborers. Since that systemic racism was institutionalized, Boggs notes that “physical and social mobility for white workers [has been] possible only because there is a reserve army of black labor to scavenge the dirty, unskilled jobs in the fields and sweatshops.”
Capitalists, with the support of most of the white middle and working classes, have enforced a horizontal race-class line that “assigned to blacks and other colored peoples, such as Chinese and Japanese on the West coast, and the Mexicans and Puerto Ricans” the dirtiest, lowest-paying jobs as common labor in fields, factories, construction, and domestic service.
Not only did blacks and other people of color play the scavenger role at work where they were super-exploited to more rapidly increase capitalists’ wealth, Boggs describes how they also had to scavenge among “used homes, used schools, used churches, and used stores” in segregated neighborhoods, where the profitability of obsolescent fixed capital was prolonged as racist landlords, merchants, and lenders price-gouged people of color for second-rate goods and services.
Long after the end of slavery, Boggs, explains, white people remained willing to be socially mobile on the backs of black people because of the values capitalism promotes.
As long as the economic system of expansion by all means necessary (i.e., capitalism) and the philosophy corresponding to it (i.e., materialism, individualism, and opportunism) continue to exist, this country will produce a working class which is racist, i.e, determined to maintain its economic and social mobility at the expense of blacks.
“So long have they evaded the question of right and wrong that the question of what is right and what is wrong evades them,” Boggs says, which has made the American people “the most technologically advanced and the politically most backward people in the world.”
Boggs notes that this political backwardness could have been changed if the American working class had formed its own workers party. But white racism undermined such efforts.
The American political system, based upon two barely distinguishable political parties, is a structural manifestation of this backwardness. In other advanced countries the workers formed political parties of labor [which] served not only to represent the economic and social interests of labor but also to educate the entire country in some sense of social and political consciousness. In the United States, however, all efforts to create a political party of the working classes, particularly in the late nineteenth century and in the 1930’s, have come to naught because white workers have focused on the individual’s opportunity to climb into the middle class. The result is that the political process has been reduced to a meaningless ritual whose mechanics and outcomes are decided by Madison Avenue hucksters.
This problem of white racism has been so entrenched in American political history that it has infected not only the masses of white workers, but also many of the leaders of progressive social reform movements throughout American history. Robert L. Allen recounts this history in Reluctant Reformers: Racism and Social Reform Movements in the United States (Howard University Press, 1974), showing how the abolitionist, populist, feminist, progressive, labor, and socialist movements were weakened from within by white racism despite the best efforts of black reformers who participated in these movements.
Boggs argues that black people must be central to a movement to uproot racism and capitalism.
Black people in the United States are the ones who have been the most economically undeveloped by the American economic system, but at the same time they have been forced by the racism inseparable from the system to become more concerned with human values than material values. Racism and capitalism have also concentrated them into a social force, situated at the heart of the major cities of this country and conscious of their common oppression as black people. Hence blacks are the ones best situated to lead the struggle.
Will white workers join them? Capitalists have long used racism to divide black and white workers in order to exploit all of them more. White workers may get what W.E.B. DuBois in Black Reconstruction (1935) called the “psychological wage” of whiteness that meant to the white working poor that at least they were not as downtrodden and disrespected as black people. But as Michael Reich showed empirically in his Racial Inequality: A Political-Economic Analysis (Princeton University Press, 1981), when discrimination against black people has increased, as indicated by black/white income inequality, white workers’ incomes have decreased. Racism may increase the incomes of employers and the white professional/managerial middle class, but it reduces the incomes of white as well as black workers. Racism makes all working people sick: black workers may get pneumonia, but white workers still get the flu.
But many white people are not persuaded by such evidence because racism is not rational. Racism in the capitalist system is more than the means by which capitalist divide and exploit all workers more. Racism is interwoven into the culture of capitalism. American capitalist culture is rife with pseudo-scientific racist ideologies that promote the biological or cultural superiority of white people. These racist myths mesh seamlessly with the dog-eat-dog capitalist ethos. Capitalist markets and ideology inculcate the predatory values that have encouraged white people to seek advancement on the backs of black people.
To uproot racism, we have to uproot capitalism—and to have the political forces we need to uproot capitalism, we have to uproot racism within our ranks. We need to promote an anti-racist, anti-capitalist counter-culture that envisions a socialist economic democracy where free-riding capitalists who live off the work others are scorned and where the values of sharing responsibility for the common good and caring for those in need are lifted up.
We can take hope from the current movement against police brutality and racism, which has a multi-racial composition. Young black people are in the lead as the most affected and the most familiar with these issues, but young white people have joined them because they too are outraged at the racist brutality of the police and more generally angry at a system that cannot suppress the Covid pandemic and cannot deliver the economic opportunities they expect. Our task now is to nurture this solidarity and help people understand that if we want to uproot racism, we have to uproot the capitalist system with which racism has been joined at the hip from birth.