Is racism an unfortunate, incidental feature of American capitalism? Or is the class structure of American society racialised and discriminatory to its very core? This question goes to the heart of understanding the relationship between race and class. In the previous article, we examined the beginnings of the new American republic, and the dispute surrounding Project 1619.
The pushback against the Project 1619 takes many forms, but one line of criticism has importance over others. The charge levelled at the authors of Project 1619 that they are ignoring class disparities, and that class not race is the main division in American society, is simplistic and misguided. The detractors of Project 1619 may be questioning this or that historical conclusion – that is all well and good. However, accusing the Project 1619 of dismissing class differences – “it’s class not race” – detracts from the undeniable inclusion of white nationalism in the founding of American capitalism.
At the opposite end of this debate is the charge ‘class reductionist‘. This is another scare term which is meant to convey the impression that by emphasising class distinctions necessarily ignores non-class forms of oppression, such as race and gender. Centrist liberals have long accused socialism of dismissing racial divisions and reducing society to class divisions. The debate then becomes a vituperative ping-pong match of accusations and snarling insults. Accepting the racial disparities of American society does not blind us to the fundamental underlying class divisions that characterise the capitalist system.
Fighting class oppression, and challenging the power of the ultrawealthy billionaire elite, goes hand-in-hand with the struggle to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination. Counterposing demands for economic justice to those of antiracist struggle indicates either a wilful misdirection or ignorance of the way the capitalist system operates. As the late Reverend Dr Martin Luther King argued, the struggle for racial justice is inseparable from the fight for economic equality. He realised that he was fight a racialised capitalism that put people of colour at the bottom economic rung of the ladder.
Marx, and socialists after him, have been routinely accused of ignoring racial disparities and overemphasising class differentiation. But even a cursory glance of Marx’s writings on the subject exposes the falsity of that accusation. Has not racism always existed, since the dawn of human civilisation? No. The ancient empires of Greece and Rome had slaves, and a slave-owning economy. They regarded outside of their original states as ‘barbarians’. What they did not have was any concept of race, or racial classifications.
Indeed, contact between the Mediterranean empires and the black African civilisations also involved cultural and informational exchanges. There was no upsurge of African slave-trading when Greeks and Romans conquered territories in Africa. As time went on, black Africans began to be assimilated into the hierarchical structures of the Mediterranean empires.
To be sure, there were proto-racial ideas in precapitalist societies. Religious institutions and associated scholars preached the ‘curse of Ham‘ upon the darker-skinned peoples. Muslims who converted to Christianity – particularly the Moors in Spain – were regarded as possible ‘carriers’ of non-Christian doctrines in the blood. But while the Catholic church held primary sway over Europe, that is as far as those ideas got.
With the advent of capitalist relations of production, there arose a new political formation – the nation-state. That required doctrines to unite formerly feudal principalities into united entities. Here is where racial ideas began to crystallise – the transatlantic African slave trade brought anti-black racism to the forefront. A new division of labour began to emerge – racial divisions based on perceived skin colour.
The North American road to white supremacy was paved by Europeans, but took on a distinct character. While the first slave labourers in Europe were Eastern European – hence the name ‘Slavs’ – they were white. In North America, the African slaves – and after Emancipation, the black proletariat – formed a distinct racial category which occupied the lowest rung of society, even below that of the white European worker.
Slaves were, and nonwhite minorities today are, the internal enemy from the point of view of the white American ruling class. The new American republic did provide freedom and security – declaring a kind of ceasefire between white Europeans. The religious wars of Christian-dominated Europe had witnessed barbaric results. The American patriots provided sanctuary for Germans, Dutch, French – Protestant or Catholic.
The emergent American capitalist state opened up a new battlefront – that of race. The nonwhite populations were deliberately excluded from the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness guaranteed by the founding fathers. Black oppression – coupled with the exploitation of other nonwhite races – was and is an inbuilt characteristic of American capitalism. Coupled with the rise of pseudoscientific ideas about ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ racial stocks, and the United States became the nation that implemented white nationalism in its very foundations.
The United States was founded, and continues to be, a social experiment in racial capitalism. We have witnessed extreme examples of this in apartheid South Africa, and formerly white Rhodesia. The US, much like Australia, is founded on a transplanted capitalism which built into itself a racialised hierarchy – a white ethnocracy, if you will.
Imperialist powers, such as Britain and the United States, have issued declarations respecting the equality of nations and support for human rights. When these are issued, the nonwhite peoples of the world are left wondering if these declarations apply equally to them. When Dr Martin Luther King denounced racial and economic inequalities, and called for a multiethnic struggle against injustice, he was striking at the very heart of American racial capitalism.