Race is Class


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Trent Lott's racist declaration that the United States would be better off under segregation, contrary to his own and others' apologetic claims that such statements are reflections of a long forgotten past, has exposed the barbaric truth of capitalism today. At a time when the Bush administration is attempting to rally worldwide support for its imperialist war in Iraq under the façade of "spreading democracy" abroad, at home it continues to demolish the principles of democracy as it pursues—with relentless energy—a class politics of racial segregation.

The Bush administration has, of course, "winked" at charges that it now presides over one of the most racist administrations in U.S. history, as it does whenever it is faced with challenges that expose the truth of its class interests. While backing the removal of Sen. Trent Lott—using it as a "Rove-ian" opportunity to side with "traditional conservatives" who were quoted as saying, "We have long considered Lott a clumsy and ineffective Republican leader […] and his controversial Strom Thurmond birthday remarks are a spectacular confirmation of that judgment''—the Bush administration immediately supported Sen. Bill Frist, whose voting record on civil rights is virtually identical to Lott's. While Bush declared that he found Lott's comments to be "offensive", he simultaneously worked behind the scenes to prepare a briefing to the Supreme Court against affirmative action and to re-nominate Charles W. Pickering, whose entire career has been dedicated to reviving segregation, to the federal courts.

At the same time the Democrats—the "other" party of U.S. capitalism who have made it their platform to mimic the Republicans' "winking" politics whenever possible—have done nothing to challenge the Republican attack on civil rights. While denouncing Trent Lott and demanding his removal, the Democrats have made clear that they will support Bush's racist judicial nominations. When the Republicans made imperialist war and an assault on the civil rights of people of color the central part of the new "security" agenda, Democrats lined up and voted almost unanimously to support the new racist "Homeland".

This is because, despite the desperate singularity of the media's focus on Trent Lott, the issue is not whether or not certain politicians are racists; racism is not a matter of people's ideas. Even Republican Governor George Ryan has recognized this fact when, in an attempt to repair the public face of the party in the wake of the scandal caused by Lott's remarks, he commuted all death penalty cases in Illinois on the basis of their racist determination stating that, "While we are not in a civil war now, we are facing what is shaping up to be one of the great civil rights struggles of our time". Trent Lott and the rest of Bush's racist cabal are symptoms of a deeper truth that is at the core of both parties' (one overt, one silent) defense of a growing U.S. segregationism. The issue, in short, is that despite whatever people think or say about racism in the United States the ruling party is racist in practice. It is the political economy of racism that is the issue not cultural differences.

The politics of racist segregation are, in other words, the direct product of U.S. capitalism. Recent statistics demonstrate the actual fact that while segregation might have been made "illegal" before the courts (a point which the Bush administration is trying to change), in practice segregationist policies are one of the main tools of capitalist bosses to divide the working class along racial lines while driving down wages, by eliminating necessary public services such as health care and education that affect all workers, for example. While the capitalist bosses enjoy the full benefits of their workers' labor and live a life without fear of not being able to afford basic necessities, 22% of African-American workers and 34% of Latino workers do not have access to health care and 27% of both African-American and Latino workers live below the poverty line. At the same time, the U.S. capitalist class is trying to extend the policing tactics it has used against the African-American members of the working class—for instance, while African-Americans constitute roughly 13% of the population in the United States, they represent almost half (48%) of all prison inmates and half of all death-row convictions in what has become a form of "legal lynching"—by criminalizing all people of color as part of their "war on terror". INS lock-ups, draconian immigration laws that are going to require all working people to carry ID cards, and Ashcroft's on-going policy of detainment without trial are all aimed at dividing the working class and ensuring that a segment of the population forever remains available as a "cheaper" source of labor (and a "scapegoat" when crisis emerges).

While Lott's comments have made all of this (momentarily) "visible" in the mainstream press, the unfolding cultural commentary has trivialized the issue by focusing on the personalities and speculating about whether the American people are ready to accept a racist message from their leaders.  In other words, the corporate media does what it always does and turns what should be an occasion for investigating the social effects created by the powers that be, which should be the role of the press in a democracy, into a cultural debate about people's "values" that silently normalizes the rule of the powerful whose material interests in fact dictate what counts as public opinion because in actuality they own and control the culture industry and government.

The political economy of race, in short, is systematically suppressed by the ruling ideology.  The common sense of "race" trivializes it as a cultural "stigma" that blocks the free play of market forces and produces unfair "discrimination" in the job market that, if left to itself, gives all an "equal opportunity".  By turning racism from an economic to a cultural matter, the common-sense view of race diffuses the issue into a private matter of individuals—that is, there is racial discrimination because there are racist people; a circular logic that fails to explain what it claims to.  This privatized view of race as discriminatory ideas, however, reflects the rule of a society that enshrines private property as the motor of economic life and normalizes the exploitation of the majority who are therefore forced to produce profit for the few just in order to survive.  In other words, the common-sense of race in capitalism silently accepts and normalizes the unequal class relations that systematically contradict the ideal of "equal opportunity" and produce racism today: in an economy based on private control of the social means of production, competition is the rule and racism is a tool for increasing profits because it justifies unequal wages and undermines the unity of workers in the face of their exploiters. This class-consciousness of race is suppressed under the false consciousness that if left to itself the market frees the people from discriminatory ideas and gives everyone a chance to benefit equally: i.e., that the market is "colorblind". The common-sense that race is a matter of ideas that contradict the principles of the free market is a not so subtle ruse to deflect attention from the socio-economic causes of racism in capitalism onto its cultural effects and serves the interests of the few who alone actually benefit from racism in the world of wage-labor and capital. The cultural debate over the racism of the Republicans, the speculation of whether such and such politician is or is not racist, makes racism a matter of the ideas and beliefs of individuals so as to instill faith in the underlying class relations that systematically breed racism today.

The Republicans are racist in practice because they are the party of capital.  What the Republicans want is what the capitalist bosses want: to roll back all legislation and attack all social norms that in practice serve to strengthen workers' collectivity in the face of capital, especially those that serve the most disadvantaged workers. Their tax policy shifts the social wealth to the few who are already wealthy and away from social programs that would benefit working people.  They seek to privatize education so that only the already economically privileged can afford a quality education (Bush's attack on affirmative action policies is not about defending "meritocracy", he himself benefited from quotas that privilege rich alums, but about getting rid of policies that serve to benefit disadvantaged workers).  On "jobs" they support the creation of more prisons and a bigger state bureaucracy that will serve the military buildup and in which workers are not protected by unions or legislation.  On health care they give more power to the private sector, the insurance lobby and drug companies, whose main priority is profit and not the health care of the people.  The ruling party is the dictatorship of capital.  It is racist in practice despite whatever "human face" they put on these practices because their policies attack the material benefits of the most oppressed workers, mainly African-Americans and Latinos.

The Republicans are the ruling party and racist in practice because they represent the interests of capital in crisis, which can no longer afford the reformist social policies of the past because they cut too deeply into the falling profit margin of big business. It is the deepening of the post-WWII crisis of profitability that explains the contemporary politics, both foreign and domestic, of the US--the debates about what style of rule the Republicans need to stay in power is a cynical alibi for the miserable social conditions they wish to see in place so as to cheapen the value of labor power around the world and increase the rate of profit.  The party of capital is doing what the capitalist class has always done at times of crisis: scapegoat the most vulnerable workers for the ills of the capitalist system so as to divide the working class against itself. While the Republicans are now attacking affirmative action and health care, the Democrats under Clinton championed the most brutal rollback of social services ever undertaken in an "industrialized" country.  Contrary to the discussions of who is "less" racist and who "might" vote in support of working class interests, what the workers in the US need to be told is that nobody is secure in a world constructed in the interests of profit and that they only undermine their own collective power by going along with policies that only make more and more people desperate enough to work for the barest minimum of subsistence. It is this class-consciousness of the contemporary that most of all is suppressed by the cultural construction of race in the ruling discourses. People are instead taught to see "race" as purely a cultural matter when in actuality race is class in a world divided between capital and wage-labor.

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