The Historical Construction of Racism in the United States and its Connection to the Concentration of Wealth
The United States is in great turmoil with the Trump administration’s anemic federal response to the coronavirus pandemic and now the protest movement sweeping the country after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The poor federal response lays bare the continued denigration of the federal government by the Republican party, which was immortalized in Ronald Raegan’s inaugural address in 1981 when he stated, “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” This neo-liberal focus on private enterprise and the pursuit of money has left the top households with a greater percentage of overall wealth when compared to middle- and lower-class people. According to the Brookings Institution, in 2016, the top 1% in the United States had over $25 trillion in household wealth whereas the middle class only held $18 trillion. The concentration of wealth in the United States in the hands of these ultra-wealthy has perpetuated a system that seeks to maintain the status quo at the expense of the other classes. And the ultra-wealthy have been largely able to weather the storm, and indeed, profit off of the pandemic. According to the Institute of Policy Studies, between January 1, 2020 and April 10, 2020, 34 of the United States’ billionaires have seen an increase in net worth in the tens of millions of dollars. This obscene increase in wealth has come at the same time as 40 million jobs have been lost in the pandemic at the end of May.
The backdrop of the pandemic and its disproportionate impact on African Americans and the poor are the context for the current protests. In fact, black Americans are likely to be poorer than white Americans with the average wealth of a white family ten times higher than the average wealth of a black family in 2016. Thus, they are already worse off to face the economic and health crisis wrought by the coronavirus. Black Americans have long suffered structural racism that favors whites at their expense. The institution of slavery was the most brutal and systematic version of control that white people had over black people, but there have been many other devices like the Jim Crow Laws that have kept black people from achieving the same standard of living when compared to white people.
The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has served as a catalyst event, but it cannot fully explain the anger and intensity of the protests. The killing of George Floyd has laid bare the truth that in the United States, police can execute a black man without serious penalty unless there is a nationwide movement that demands justice, and even then, the state seeks to suppress the protesters. The Pentagon has ordered military police to be ready to be deployed to Minneapolis in the event that the protests continue there, and how else can military intervention end but with blood? The ultra-wealthy and the establishment politicians will seek to condemn the protesters as violent (Trump has called them thugs and threatened to shoot them) because they do not want the current system to change. From a historical perspective, however, lower-class and grassroots pressure is necessary to achieve change in the United States. This can clearly be seen in the civil rights movement in the 1960s where marches led by Martin Luther King forced the American government to adopt civil rights legislation. To understand the current protests, I would like to take a look back to the early history of the colonies to understand better how racism has been socially constructed and embedded in the American experience.
For a social and class-based history of the United States, one of the premier works is the book, A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. One of his most powerful arguments is that racism has never been a natural phenomenon but instead was constructed as a tool of oppression by the wealthy land-owning class. Zinn argues that the structures of racism are always historically specific and so these structures are never permanent. They were constructed by the wealthy land-owning class to divide people along racial lines out of fear that class unity would lead to the overthrow of the grossly unfair distribution of wealth and power.
Many of the early immigrants to the English colonies were white indentured servants who were not at all opposed to working with black people because, after all, they were from a similar class. For instance, in Bacon’s Rebellion, in 1676, in Virginia, poor white servants and black slaves joined together ostensibly to fight against the Native Americans, but also to protest against the wealth and power being concentrated within a small number of land-owning Virginian families. Thus, in that early period, poor whites and blacks did work together and saw each other as class allies. Racism was not entrenched among poor whites. Zinn argues that the unity of poor whites and blacks in Bacon’s Rebellion terrified the Virginia landowners, and so they gave white servants better benefits like bushels of corn and a musket upon the termination of their servitude. They also discouraged inter-racial marriages and sex, since sexual relations between races had been fairly common.
The importance of these relations between poor whites and blacks cannot be denied because it shows that racism has always been used as a tool of oppression by the upper class to destroy class unity. The rich embedded racism into the consciousness of lower-class whites. They knew that if they did not divide blacks and whites (and make whites fight the Native Americans) that they could be overwhelmed if a majority decided they did not like the extremely unequal treatment of the rich and poor. Another striking aspect of colonial America was its wealth inequality. Zinn points out that in 1687, in Boston, the top one percent of the population was made up of fifty individuals who owned 25 percent of the wealth in the city. In 1770, this percentage of wealth had gone up to 44 percent. Zinn also makes the excellent point that the “founding fathers” started the revolution because it benefitted them more financially to separate from England, and they would not have to go to war themselves because only the poor would have to serve.
Thus, even before the inception of the United States, the upper class has sought to divide the lower class along racial lines. Class consciousness and solidarity has been eroded through the successful efforts of the 1% to divide people. It is so telling that the US has always been characterized by the problem of the 1%. From the riches of the founding fathers, to the riches of Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan, to the riches of Zuckerberg and Bezos, this accumulation has always come at the expense of the poor and particularly of black people. This 1% have been there long before Bernie Sanders made the term popular. Through slavery, black people built the wealth of the United States and the wealth of this 1%. Yet there will never be any acknowledgement of the enormous human suffering that the US has perpetuated through its treatment of black people in the pursuit of that wealth. These ultra-wealthy sing the praises of capitalism for how it has made them wealthy, and it certainly has but at what price? How many people have had to suffer throughout American history and throughout the world, so that a select few could enjoy the benefits of being rich?
Through undertaking this historical analysis, I hope people can understand that racism does not have to exist. It has been socially constructed into the fabric of American society, but so too can it be de-constructed with the right historical circumstances. In this time of coronavirus and in particular with the Trump administration, the truth is under threat like never before. But the truth of the murder of George Floyd cannot be denied. The truth of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery cannot be denied. The truth of Amy Cooper threatening to call the cops on Christian Cooper because he was black cannot be denied. The truth of the countless murders, lynchings, and enslavement of black people throughout the history of the United States cannot be denied.
The socialist organizer Euguene Debs, before his arrest, made a powerful anti-war speech in 1918. He spoke tellingly about the power of truth. He said, “The truth alone will make the people free. And for this reason, the truth must not be permitted to reach the people. The truth has always been dangerous to the rule of the rogue, the exploiter, the robber. So the truth must be ruthlessly suppressed.” And this statement rings so clearly true today. Trump and his ultra-wealthy supporters are exploiters who seek to suppress the truth at all costs because that is their method of keeping society contained and under control. But enough is enough. The protests must go forward and expose the rotten, racist core of the United States. There must not only be justice for George Floyd, but there must be a reckoning with the system itself and the people who control it. May the protests usher forward a reality where people do not need to be afraid based on the color of their skin and one where class unity burns brighter than any racial division.