The Cost of Racism to White America

The Cost of Racism to White America

University of Massachusetts Professor John H Bracey (2011)

Film Review

In his lecture, Professor Bracey blames racism and white privilege for US having the most poorly organized working class in the industrialized world. From the start of Jim Crow after the Civil War to the late sixties, Africa Americans were deliberately excluded from trade unions, a perfect set-up for white bosses to use non-unions black workers to bust strikes and unions. This absence of working class solidarity meant it took American workers until the 1930s to win basic rights and benefits (eg Social Security, unemployment compensation and welfare) that European workers won in the 1880s.

Racism also keeps white people ignorant of their own history. For example they are unaware (I sure was) that the Battle of the Alamo was fought to extend slavery to Texas (slavery was illegal when Mexico owned Texas).

The refusal of northern whites to confront their own racism would ultimately culminate in the Civil War, which would result in more deaths (1 million) than all other US wars combined.

Bracey also blames racist attitudes for the absence of public education in the South until after the Civil War. It would be black Reconstruction governments that established free public education in the South – for all children (black and white). They would also establish the first state universities in Georgia and Mississippi.”

Ironically it was African Americans who founded Ole Miss (University of Mississippi), though they were later excluded when the Ku Klux Kan violently overthrew the southern Reconstruction governments.

It was also black women who organized the southern textile mills and not Norma Ray, as portrayed in the popular film starring Sally Fields.

Continuing racism forces white people to sacrifice education, health, housing and social service programs to cover the phenomenal cost of mass incarceration (of mainly black and Hispanic Americans. At an annual cost of $40,000 per inmate, the cost of incarcerating 2.4 million Americans adds up to $960 billion annually.

The presentation starts at 7 min.

 

Memoir of a Standup Revolutionary

my booky wook

My Booky Wook: A Memoir of Sex, Drugs and Standup

By Russell Brand (2007 Hodder and Stoughton)

Book Review

I have a particular interest in the background influences that radicalize people. In my view, this is the main value of Russell Brand’s 2007 autobiography. I had never heard of Brand, a 38 year- old British stand-up comedian and TV personality, until his interview with talk show host Jeremy Packman went viral on YouTube. Brand had just been selected to guest edit an issue of The New Statesman, an edition that featured his essay advocating revolution to overthrow the current political system.

The inspiration for the autobiography grew out of Brand’s treatment for drug, alcohol and sexual addiction. Making an uncompromising moral inventory of family and friends we have wronged in the course of our addiction is a major feature of all 12 step programs. Despite the tendency of most Step 4 confessions to be maudlin and self absorbed, Brand’s timing and zany self-deprecating humor carries over into his writing. My Booky Wook is well constructed and fast paced and any dull bits have been edited out.

Predictably Brand’s early history shares many common features with behavior disordered kids who go on to become revolutionaries. Like many gifted children whose intelligence is stifled, rather than encouraged, Brand used his cleverness to seek act attention and approval from his classmates. The more his teachers punished him for his disruptive behavior, the more he sought out the company of neighborhood drop outs, eventually getting caught up in their drug and alcohol use and petty criminal behavior.

Like many generation Xers, Brand had no working class allegiance as a child. Neither of his parents identified as working class. As a single mom, his mother was limited to low paid short term jobs with flexible hours, in order to accommodate her parenting obligations. Though most single mothers find themselves limited to similar dead end jobs, neither society nor their society nor the women themselves are inclined to view them as blue collar work. A perennial salesman (e.g. double glazing, water filters, market stalls), Brand’s father swallowed the myth that he was capable, if he worked hard enough, of creating his own future. Ironically his income was never sufficient to stretch to child support.

Brand himself only began to identify with his working class origins through his drug use. Establishing himself as a stand-up comedian required him to tour, and his heroin addiction required him to seek out the disadvantaged section of any new cities he visited. Impressed by the marked divide between the intense squalor he encountered and the lifestyles of the corporate elite, he began to educated himself politically by visiting Cuba and reading dissident writers like Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein.

Link to Brand’s New Statesman essay:  Is Utopian Revolution Possible?

Below Brand calls for revolution in Parliament Square:

 

Activism in New Zealand

Maori protest

(The last of 8 posts describing my new life in New Zealand)

For me personally, the advantages of living in New Zealand far outweigh the negatives. One of the major positives is the greater willingness of Kiwis to get involved in grassroots campaigns for political change. Give my 30+ year history of activism, this is obviously a high priority.

Overall, I find Kiwis to be less alienated and apathetic than their American cousins, less likely to be taken in by the corporate hype they see on TV, and more confident about their ability to bring about change through collective action. I believe this relates, in large part, to a well-organized, militant indigenous (Maori) movement. Their highly visible activism models the importance of collective struggle for other New Zealanders, in much the same way the American civil rights struggle provided a role model for the US antiwar movement, and the women’s, gay and disability rights movement.

There are also a number of institutional and social features about New Zealand society that make political organizing somewhat easier.

Institutional features:

  • New Zealand has a parliamentary democracy coupled with elections conducted via proportional representation (which Kiwis won through strenuous grassroots organizing). The New Zealand Green Party (which I joined in 2002) presently has 14 MPs in Parliament.
  • New Zealand has no illusions about being a great military empire. In my experience, it’s only after they leave that Americans fully realize how much US militarism overshadows every aspect of their life.
  • New Zealand is 100% anti-nuclear (both nuclear power and weapons), and US naval ships are banned in our ports because the US government refuses to indicate whether specific vessels are nuclear powered or carry nuclear arms. This, too, was won by sustained grassroots organizing.
  • New Zealand has no death penalty.
  • At presented, genetically engineered crops and farm animals aren’t legally permitted in New Zealand (except in the laboratory). That being said, keeping New Zealand GE-free requires constant vigilance and sustained organizing.
  • The cattle supplying New Zealand’s world famous dairy and beef export industry are grass fed (except during drought years), and no Kiwi farmer would dream of injecting them with hormones or feeding them antibiotics to stimulate growth.

Social Features:

  • New Zealand has a predominantly working class culture, owing to a misguided student loan policy which has led about one million college graduates to emigrate (mainly to Australia and the UK. Given my own working ckass background, I fit in really quickly. Americans from more middle class backgrounds seem to have more difficulty.
  • While much of the New Zealand media is foreign-owned and blatantly pro-corporate, there are still vestiges of an independent media that routinely challenges and embarrasses the government in power.
  • Kiwis are much more likely to have a civic life than their American counterparts. Here in New Plymouth (population 55,000), most of my friends belong to the Green Party or the sustainability movement. However I also have friends who belong to Lions, Rotary or one of the many sports clubs (lawn bowling, cricket, soccer, rugby) or hobby groups (stamp club, little theater, orchid society, tramping club, canoe club and four cycling groups).
  • New Zealand has a much stronger sustainability movement than the US. The late arrival of both TV and cheap Asian imports in means most Kiwis are only one generation away from growing vegetables, raising their own chickens and “making do” with jerry-rigged plumbing and home repairs and homemade cleaning and beauty products. The majority of my female friends still hang their laundry on the line, and community currencies introduced during the last recession still survive in several local communities.

photo credit: lancea via photopin cc

Progressives Who Oppose Gun Control

2nd amendment

I’ve always been curious how American progressives got on the anti-civil liberties side of gun control. It strikes me as a grave strategic error. I have written elsewhere about the extreme difficulty liberals and progressives face in engaging the working class. I have also been highly critical of their tendency to get sucked into “lifestyle” campaigns (anti-smoking, anti-obesity, vegeterianism, etc.), owing to the strong class antagonism this engenders in blue collar voters.

Contrary to the stereotypes portrayed in the corporate media, class differences – and class hatred – are alive and well in the US. From the perspective of a blue collar worker, the progressive movement is the middle class. They’re the teachers, social workers, psychologists, doctors, lawyers and religious leaders who make the rules for the rest of this. Thus when they tell us not to smoke, eat big Macs, or buy guns, we don’t see this as political reform. We see it as an extension of their (privileged) class role.

Here in New Zealand, young upwardly mobile professionals manifest the same zeal as their American counterparts for anti-smoking and healthy eating campaigns. However there’s no gun control lobby here. It would be unthinkable in a country where one third of the population lives in cities. Gun ownership and proficiency are fundamental to the Kiwi way of life, especially in rural provincial areas.

The History of Progressive Opposition to Gun Control

For a progressive to take a stand against gun control is a pretty lonely place. However I’m not utterly alone. There’s a 1979 book edited by Don Kates entitled Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out. There’s also an organization called the Liberal Gun Club, whose mission is to “provide a voice for gun-owing liberals and moderates in the national conversation on gun rights, gun legalization, firearms safety, and shooting sports.”

Then there’s Sam Smith’s excellent article in the Preogressive Review: “Why Progressives Should Stop Pushing for More Gun Control Laws.” Among Smith’s numerous arguments, three leap out at me: the exacerbation of “cultural conflict” between rural and urban and wealthy and not so well off, the tendency for gun restrictions and prohibition to be intersect with a drive to restrict other civil liberties, and the need for progressives to stop treating average Americans as though they were “alien creatures.” He seems to share my view that progressives lose elections as much because of their condescending attitudes as their issues.

In January  2011 (following Representative Gifford’s shooting and renewed calls for gun control), Dan Baum wrote in the Huffington Post that progressives have wasted a generation of progress on health care, women’s rights, immigration reform, income fairness and climate change because “we keep messing with people’s guns.” He likens gun control as to marijuana prohibition – all it does is turn otherwise law-abiding people into criminals and create divisiveness and resentment.

How Progressives Came to Oppose the 2nd Amendment

None of this explains how progressives got on the wrong side of this issue. US gun manufacturers wrote the first gun control legislation in 1958, in an effort to restrict Americans’ access to cheap imports. However, owing to civil liberties implications, the bill encountered stiff Congressional opposition. Finally in 1968 President Lyndon Johnson played the race card and used the inner city riots to pass a watered down version of the industry’s original gun control bill. It required gun dealers to register guns and ammunition, banned the mail order and interstate sale of guns, and instituted a lifelong ban on felons (even on non-violent convictions) owning guns.

Progressive research into gun control generally makes two equally salient points: 1) the aim of gun control legislation is to control people (mainly disenfranchised minorities and the poor), not guns and 2) in countries with strict gun control laws, the use of deadly force is restricted to the police and army, as ordinary citizens aren’t trusted to play any role (including self-defense) in maintaining law and order.

Using Gun Control to Control African Americans

America’s extreme preoccupation with gun control appears directly related to their 200 year history of slavery and oppressive Jim Crow laws that followed emancipation. As Steve Ekwall writes in the Racist Origins of US Gun Control,and Clayton Cramer in Racist Roots of Gun Control, the targeting of blacks with early gun control laws is extremely blatant.

In the south, pre-civil war “Slave Codes” prohibited slaves from owing guns. Following emancipation, many southern states still prohibited blacks from owning guns under “Black Codes.” This was on the basis that they weren’t citizens and not entitled to Second Amendment rights. After the 1878 adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, which formally acknowledged blacks as citizens, southern states imposed high taxes or banned inexpensive guns, so as to price blacks and poor whites out of the market.

Ekwall also quotes gun control advocate Robert Sherrill, author of The Saturday Night Special and Other Guns (1972). Sherill states unequivocally that “The Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed, not to control guns, but to control blacks.”

Ekwall goes on to describe the unprecedented 1965-68 race riots in 125 American cities, in which the violence was graphically magnified by extensive TV coverage. The paranoia this engendered in the corporate and political elite was greatly heightened by Stokely Carmichael and other Black Panthers openly advocating violent revolution and the well-publicized protests (and police riot) at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

The Last Pro-Gun Democrat

As Joe Bageant writes in Deer Hunting with Jesus, the 1968 pro-war Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey uttered the last breath of Democratic sanity over the gun control issue. It’s really sad how radical he sounds in 2014:

“The right of citizens to bear arms is just one more guarantee against arbitrary government, one more safeguard against the tyranny which now appears remote in America, but which historically has proved to be always possible.”

photo credit: Whiskeygonebad via photopin cc

Has the Left Abandoned the Working Class?

working class

Liberals and progressives frequently bemoan the absence of blue collar workers in their meetings and protests. It’s pretty hard to organize a movement large enough to take the streets with only 20% of the population. Estimating the size of the US working class is difficult. According to the Department of Labor, roughly 60% of Americans work for an hourly wage. Approximately 2/3  of them work for less than a minimum wage worker earned in 1968. Add roughly 20% to those figures, the true proportion of Americans who are either temporarily or permanently unemployed.

Traditionally the unemployed and working poor opt out of politics, though roughly half will vote every four years during presidential election years. Those who do vote mainly choose right wing fundamentalists who enact policies (such as cutting unemployment benefits, scrapping public services, and gutting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security) that are harmful to their economic interests,.

As Wilhelm Reich notes in his 1933 Mass Psychology of Fascism, fascism and reactionary politics have always exerted a powerful attraction for men (and some women) from authoritarian working class families. Karl Rove and the spin doctors behind Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck and Fox News all know this and cleverly play on these sentiments. They are also masters at painting liberals and progressives as politically correct intellectuals whose main goal in life is to moralize and dictate lifestyle choices for low-income Americans.

The late Joe Bageant, author of Deer Hunting with Jesus, feels the organized left plays into the hand of right wing demagogues. Based on my own working class background, I agree. Because progressives fail to recognize the firmly entrenched US class divisions, they always end up on the wrong side of lifestyle campaigns. By jumping onto the anti-smoking, anti-obesity and anti-gun bandwagon, they only solidify their reputation as the politically correct lifestyle police.

The US Class Divide: the Real Culture War

The corporate media likes to depict the US as a profoundly polarized nation consisting of red and blue states. Red states are supposedly populated by highly religious, family-centered conservatives, and blue ones by social libertines who value community welfare over individual liberty. The concept, which total misrepresents the broad diversity of American society, is yet another example of mind-bending propaganda designed to keep us from uniting against our real enemy: the corporate state.

I agree with Bageant that the real cultural divide is between the college educated and the 80% who don’t attend college. Owing to limited social contact between these two groups, many educated Americans fail to appreciate the existence of discrete working class culture, with its own distinct values and language. Spin doctors like Karl Rove know all about working class culture. Why else would he remake George W Bush into a plain talking simpleton who refused to read books?

What many on the Left also fail to recognize is that it’s not just the police and slick ideological propaganda that keep the capitalists in power. These two forces are aided by an army of middle class “helping professionals” – teachers, lawyers, religious leaders, social workers, doctors, psychologists, etc – who play a crucial role in instructing the working class in appropriate and politically correct behavior.

This dynamic frequently gives blue collar Americans the sense that educated professionals are demeaning them – particularly when they moralize about smoking, junk food, changing lightbulbs and the evils of guns.

Courting the Working Class

Can progressives and liberals win the working class back from the New Right? I believe they can, but only if they’re genuine in their desire to do so.

They will definitely need a totally new approach to organizing that prioritizes the nitty gritty hardships faced by low income Americans. People struggling with joblessness, homelessness and/or starvation wages will find it really hard to get excited about climate change and electoral reform.

Moreover, low income and unemployed activists are going to have real time survival needs that more well-off activists will be forced to address. In the 1930s, coalitions that incorporated the unemployed formed welfare committees to help fellow activists with food, clothing, child care and even temporary accommodation.

Progressives will also need to be far more sensitive to the cultural differences associated with social class. In the early feminist movement we did this by conducting meetings in fishbowls. Low income and minority women began the meeting at the inside of the fishbowl, while more affluent educated women sat in the outer circle and observed and listened.

Finally progressives need to take a hard look at their association with “lifestyle” campaigns that low income workers view as personal freedom issues. They will also need to reexamine their dogmatic stance around non-violence. Non-violent resistance is an alien concept in most working class communities. This relates in part to authoritarian family life and, particularly in minority communities, constant exposure to police violence.

photo credit: Tymtoi via photopin cc

Deer Hunting with Jesus

deer hunting with jesus

Deer Hunting with Jesus

by Joe Bageant

Book Review

Deer Hunting With Jesus is a graphic account of the abandonment of the white working class by the American left. And how this left the door wide open for right wing fundamentalists to claim their allegiance.

The book’s format is largely autobiographical, as the (now deceased) college-educated journalist Bageant describes his return to his working class roots in Winchester Virginia. He’s dismayed by the deterioration of living standards. The people he grew up with in the fifties and sixties no longer have any job security, nor input into their pay or working conditions, nor employer-sponsored health or workers compensation benefits. Yet instead of being angry with the factory that exploits and demeans them on the daily basis, his former schoolmates have been conditioned to deflect this anger onto educated liberals.

According to Bageant, class warfare is very real in the US. Unfortunately it isn’t between workers and the employers who exploit and demean them. It’s between the educated and uneducated. The goal of Deer Hunting With Jesus is to examine exactly how the white working poor of the rural south and Texas have come to internalize key values of the gangster capitalist class. For example

  • Labor unions are bad because they have priced Americans out of jobs.
  • Entitlements (Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment, food stamps) are handouts that encourage laziness.
  • The rest of the world envies us (these are people who are one paycheck away from the street) and wants to steal our freedom.
  • Wars are good because countries get out of line and need to be put in their place.
  • Wall Street should take over Social Security because they’re better at managing money than bureaucrats.

The Advantages of a Cheap, Unquestioning, Compliant Work Force

The conservative PR specialists who spawned Fox News and talk radio personalities like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have been extremely skilled in exploiting the fear and ignorance of this demographic. An ignorance, according to Bageant, that Republicans have deliberately created by systematically dismantling the public education system. There’s nothing the corporate elite likes better than a cheap, unquestioning, compliant labor force that pays high rents and medical bills.

According to Bageant, approximately half of all Americans are illiterate, semi-literate or functionally literate. He breaks down the statistics as follows:

  • Approximately 30% of Americans can’t read at all.
  • Another 10% can’t read well enough to fill out a job application or understand food labels.
  • Another 12.5% can’t read well enough to understand a business contract.

Liberals Feel Uncomfortable Around the Working Class

Redirecting blue collar anger against liberals has been incredibly easy, as the working poor have far more contact with rich Republican business leaders and slum lords – in small town churches, taverns, and fraternal organizations like the Elks. Liberals feel uncomfortable around them and shun them socially.

Their only contact with liberals is when they go to a doctor, lawyer, social worker, or parent teacher conference. Where they are often talked down to and insulted. Unintentionally of course. Most educated people are unaware that they do this. Based on my own working class background, I can confirm how common this is.

The Scots-Irish Roots of Fundamentalism

The highlights of the book are the chapters in which Bageant discusses the Calvinist Scots-Irish heritage of what he describes as “Middle America” and the major blunder liberal Democrats made in leaping on the gun control wagon.

From the early 1700s, America has always fostered two parallel belief systems, the Yankee liberalism that characterized the New England colonies and the fundamentalist Calvinism that would come to characterize the southern colonies.

How Democrats Bungled the Gun Control Issue

Given my personal opposition to gun control, this chapter was my favorite. According to Bageant the only good call the Republicans every made was to side against the gun control lobby. Unlike the Democrats, they understand the deep reverence for guns and meat hunting that is passed down over generations in rural communities. While urban liberals with no experience with guns – and who never have to take the bus alone after a graveyard shift – typically decide they know what’s best for everyone.

This section includes detailed analysis of Congressional Budget Office research about the decline of gun violence and women’s use of firearms to protect themselves against sexual assault.

1968 Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey was totally mainstream and pro-Vietnam war. It’s really sad how radical his views on gun control sound in 2014:

“The right of citizens to bear arms is just one more guarantee against arbitrary government, one more safeguard against the tyranny which now appears remote in America, but which historically has proved to be always possible.”

Link to Bageant’s website for other great books and articles: http://www.joebageant.com/joe/