In the previous article, we examined how the FBI director does not understand the close interlinkage between class disparities and racism. There was an American leader who understood perfectly how class and racism work together to immiserate the working class – the late Reverend Dr Martin Luther King. We will get back to Dr King later on. For now, we have an opportunity to examine the relationship between racial discrimination and class-based inequalities.
Racial discrimination and racism, on the one hand, and economic inequities on the other, are usually discussed separately. That is all well and good – however, we must never forget that racial disparities and economic inequalities are inextricably interlinked. In other words, race and class are best understood not by counterposing them, but by understanding how they are reinforce and symbiotically support each other.
I am not raising this subject out of thin air.
The election of Trump in 2016, and his current reelection campaign, have prompted discussions about the role of race and class in his electoral triumph. While examine Trump’s platforming of white nationalism is interesting and relevant, we need to dig deeper. To fully appreciate the interaction of race and capitalism, we need to have a historical perspective. The New York Times began just such an exploration. In what way?
1619 was the year that slaves were first brought to the British colony of Virginia – what if that year, rather than 1776, marked the true beginning of the nascent American republic? Hence, the New York Times magazine collaborative Project 1619, dedicated to examining the impact of racism on American society. Racialised slavery, rather than being a peripheral occurrence, was fundamental in creating the financial wealth and political character of the new republic.
The American Revolution of 1776, presented to the world as the epitome of democratic liberty, did not result in equality for all people. While the American colonists and patriots were united in their opposition to the British monarchy, they were also motivated, at least in part, to preserve the operation of slavery. While the so-called founding fathers of the American constitutional republic privately opposed slavery, they did not publicly oppose it.
The American colonists fought for revolutionary reasons, uniting against the feudal British monarchy. They created, if not a slavocracy, then a mercantile racial capitalism, where everyone could pursue their individual liberty and happiness – as long as they were white. General George Washington, in 1775, officially decreed that black persons would not be permitted to join the Continental Army.
The British authorities cynically exploited the prospect of freeing and arming the slaves as a tactical manoeuvre against the rebellious patriots. While promising to free the slaves, Britain benefited from the Atlantic slave traffic. There had been numerous slave uprisings in the Caribbean colonies throughout the 1700s, and the spectre of organised slave revolt terrified the insurgent colonists in mainland America.
The contention that some of the American patriots were motivated in part to preserve slavery has provoked a firestorm of debate among various academics and historians. The claim that the preservation of slavery was a main motivation for the American revolutionary patriots is controversial, but nothing new, nor confined to the political Left. Adam Serwer, examining the dispute between Project 1619 and historians critical of the project, explains that this is not merely a disagreement about historical accuracy:
The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles?
After the British forces were defeated, the American republic continued to allow slavery to operate as normal. In fact, American capitalism became wealthy and powerful because they tapped into slavery and slave-produced products, not in spite of it.
Slavery has been portrayed as a uniquely Southern institution, separate and distinct from the industrial North. However, the mercantile and industrial North profited handsomely from the slave-owning industries, and were linked with the transatlantic slave trade in myriad financial ways.
It may be comforting to us to think of American capitalism as unblemished by the stain of racialised slavery – but the mercantile North was just as culpable as the South in profiting from the proceeds of slaves. Though the African slave trade was officially outlawed in 1807, Northern capitalists continued to invest heavily in the Southern slavocracy, and Northern wealth was directly tied to products originating in the materials provided by the South.
Slavery was not only an economically dynamic core of the US economy for the first half of the 1800s, the slaveowners and their bankers received significant federal government subsidies and loans in support of their business. Through various financial instruments and derivatives, using slaves as collateral, the wealth of the North became inextricably linked with the sugar, cotton, tobacco and textiles of the South. Federal government intervention, rather than being a hindrance, was actually a crucial supporting factor in the operation of this private enterprise.
Project 1619 compels us to reexamine the consensus view that the United States is a beacon of freedom and equal opportunity for all of its citizens, regardless of ethnicity. The founding fathers certainly fought for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – as long as the people rallying under that banner were white Europeans. Slavery was left unchallenged by the American revolution; that barbaric heart of American capitalism was only shattered decades later by the civil war.
Martin Luther King, among other black American scholars and activists, understood the connection between economic power and racial disparities. We will elaborate on this subject in the next article. Stay tuned.