Category Archives: Anti-Racism/Xenophobia
The first presidential election in which I was old enough to vote was the 2000 Gore-Bush contest. On Election Day, my mother called me and said simply, “I wanted to make sure you voted today. Your great-grandmother (born in rural North Louisiana in 1903) took great pride in voting. You do the same.”
My great-grandmother Daisy, made sure that one of her granddaughters came during every Presidential election to take her to vote.
The whole world is my province until Africa is free. - Marcus Garvey
(This essay originated as a class assignment in comparative politics. It is a polemical response to a 1990 article by Jeffrey Herbst. The class was asked to answer the question, “Is this a good theory?”)
If one adopts a simple distinction between the states of the African and European continents and asks what are the differences between these two regions in political terms, one theory offered has observed that in Europe there are a large number of “strong states” that are effective in taxation, governance, and military readiness. By contrast, in Africa there are a relatively large number of states that are “weak, failing, failed, or collapsed.” With this basic construct in place, Jeffrey Herbst’s 1990 article “War & the State in Africa” offers the following hypothesis:
“War in Europe played an important role in the consolidation many now-developed states: war caused the state to become more efficient in revenue collection; it forced leaders to dramatically improve administrative capabilities; it created a climate and important symbols around which a disparate population could unify. While there is little reason to believe that war would have exactly same domestic effects in Africa today as it did in Europe several centuries ago, it is important ask if developing countries can accomplish in times of peace what war enabled European countries to do. I conclude that they probably cannot because fundamental changes in economic structures and societal beliefs are difficult, if not impossible, to bring about when countries are not being disrupted or under severe external threat.
“I conclude that some [African] states will probably be unsuccessful in finding ways of building the state in times of peace and will therefore remain permanently weak. Accordingly, the international community will have to develop non-traditional policies for helping a new brand of states: those that will continue to exist but that will not develop. Other states, perceiving that peace locks them into a permanently weak position, may be tempted to use war as a means of resolving their otherwise intractable problems of state consolidation.”
In sum, a lack of inter-state warfare in Africa has led to weakened development of the political states on that continent. Political science as a discipline is somewhat problematic in this respect, as it attempts to create parsimonious, satisfying, falsifiable, and rich theories of human politics. Human politics is not easily reduced to cause and effect explanations due to the sheer number of causes, that is, human behaviors, and their complexity, such as intention, social conditions, collective agency, etc. that would lead a serious theorist aiming at causal reduction into statistical tesseracts of astronomical proportions, perhaps beyond the complexity of mapping the smallest galaxy. By this token, political science has to content itself usually with approximations, rather than rigorously lawlike theories.
That said, other considerations impact the theory at hand, suggested by a common knowledge of the shared history of Europe and Africa, that of colonial exploitation of Africa by European states. That Herbst does not seem to consider this history strongly (though he acknowledges it) relevant is startling, given the centuries of political struggle within his homeland of the United States against the racial oppression of formerly enslaved persons of African descent. The U.S. economic and political system from well before its founding in 1776 up to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was profoundly enmeshed in a racist system of slavery. Similarly, the growth of European political states was enmeshed in the slave trade and an even more direct colonial domination of the continent’s people groups. To put the alternative premise bluntly, perhaps the “strength” of European versus African states was deliberately intended by those European states?
Herbst intends his theory to suggest possible directions that African nations might pursue towards creating stronger states, such as pursuing wars. On the alternative premise, if the formation of strong states in Europe was bound up with the domination of Africa, does this suggest that Africa should now turn north and seek to dominate Europe? Recent clashes within Europe between populations of African immigrants and authorities of those exemplary “strong states” of Europe suggest that warfare is being carried on by other more social means, perhaps? Various radical movements and uprisings in Africa over the centuries suggest that Africans haven’t been as passive in state-building as Herbst implicitly projects, but that they have been outgunned by forces that intentionally prevented their success?
To attempt to remain properly – for a political scientist – theoretical and objective, this domination counter-theory also is subject to the canons of good theory: clarity of concepts, rich explanation, and verifiability. Of course, it is also subject to the persistent problematics of political science earlier mentioned. After all, the scientist is still a human being and treating humanity as a scientific object ultimately turns the clinical eye of science onto the scientist himself. Can such a science be entirely objective, when the very object of study is also in some sense intimately bound up with the observer? As much as a theorist might wish that the histories of Europe and Africa were separable like so many petri dishes in which bacteria grow, cross-contamination is systemic and ineradicable when pursuing the messy business of human politics. Political science is ultimately, also politics by other means.
That said, humans do have the potential to step outside their own embedded social position, and aim at sympathetic and truthful understanding of other societies. Clinical distance from the object of study is not an end in itself, but rather a limited – though necessary and helpful – tool, a step in a much larger process towards concrete truth and potentially effective action. Acting as a scientist is but one aspect of being a full human being. It may be obvious that this short essay is bound up with a moral outrage, a grief and sadness at the conditions of human suffering – in Africa and elsewhere – and the political forces that perpetuate them. Like a medical doctor who has dedicated her life to curing cancer, exploring the ravages of disease with clinical rigor isn’t the endpoint, but rather one necessary moment of a larger battle to gain a strategic clarity in order to achieve a greater good.
“Now, when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Where Do We Go From Here?,” Delivered at the 11th Annual SCLC Convention, Atlanta, Ga. 16 August 1967
Michelle Alexander’s portrait of the mass incarceration industry in the contemporary United States is chilling and horrific. Her pivotal identification of this “New Jim Crow” is saturated in the irony that the current President of this nation is a black man who has admitted to smoking and inhaling marijuana, a “criminal” commodity that accounts for over half the prison population. Decriminalizing marijuana alone and releasing prisoners held on charges related to this contraband product would massively reduce the very problem she identifies. Of course, reforms such as marijuana decriminalization aren’t won in a vacuum. The prison-industrial complex is a lucrative business for state and federal governments as well as the booming private prison industry. Such vested economic interests will hardly roll over as their paychecks are canceled.
Her calls for a new “human rights” movement to address mass incarceration issues a direct appeal to the largest group of Americans who were not included in the landmark civil rights movement victories of the 1960s, “poor and working-class” white men. Blacks, women, and gays have all won significant new statuses in the post-60s social order, but wages and salaries for the vast majority of white men, as well as most working people, have remained stagnant or even declined for the entire four and a half decades since 1976. Sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein identifies the current phase of the “world-system” after this point as a period of nearly inexorable decline in wages and relative wealth for the overall system of capitalist production. He predicts the cycle will end in a bifurcation between two possible resolutions, which he labels as “Davos;” referring to the World Economic Forum, which holds its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland and is comprised of business leaders who seek to understand and respond to the crisis from within a commitment to reform, but not a general reordering of economic system, versus “Porto Alegre;” named after the World Social Forum headquartered in Porto Alegre, Columbia which is generally committed to the view that “Another World Is Possible.” Wallerstein fears that the resolution that may be favored by the Davos trajectory will necessarily reshape and replace existing capitalism with a system that will nevertheless still be hierarchical and inegalitarian.
Why do such grand considerations impinge on the topic of prison reform? I will explore here the hypothesis that the prison-industrial complex that Alexander surveys and critiques serves an explicit economic function that is in some sense more crucial than its function as a racialized undercaste. This hypothesis is derived from Marxist and post-Marxist theories about a “reserve labour army” of chronically unemployed persons who Marx theorized were a crucial element in the maintenance of profit margins and low wages in capitalism. My conjecture is that the prison-industrial mass incarceration complex is a criminalized and racialized concrescence of this reserve army hypothesis. Further, this undercaste serves to visibly anchor and fortify the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’s” inherent stratification of our world.
The first difficulty in using the “reserve army” hypothesis to explain the economic function of the mass incarceration undercaste is that Marx himself explicitly excluded “vagabonds, criminals, and prostitutes” as “dangerous classes” from the reserve army. In my research of Marx’s hypothesis I have been unable to find a justification for this exclusion. For the purpose of my exploration, I will offer some considerations for not taking Marx’s exclusion of criminals from the “reserve army” as definitive. Marx’s starting assumption in the Communist Manifesto that all history is the history of class struggle would suggest that in a real sense the very category of “criminal” either serves or is created to serve an economic function. Marx would hardly be expected to consider the criminalization of marijuana, for instance, as a democratic implementation of an ahistorical moral principle, but more likely as a legislative expression of ruling class interests. That laws, courts, police, and prisons might actually be forces that construct a class structure seems a natural deduction from Marx’s premises. That he doesn’t draw this conclusion from his own premises begs explanation, but that is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say, all that is needed to frame the hypothesis that the criminal justice system is structured to manifest ruling class purposes is to examine the history of the criminalization of marijuana through a mass media campaign of fear and racial demonization. The 1936 film “Reefer Madness” and the prejudiced attribution of greater marijuana abuse rates to blacks are exhibit ‘A’ supporting this charge.
How does the “reserve army” function in capitalism according to Marx? Capitalism depends on the ability to cheaply mass produce necessary commodities that can be sold to the public for a profit. This means that the labor costs of production must be devalued, since if the real labor costs were expressed in the retail price of a commodity, no profit would be reaped from sales. In order for the hundreds of millions of working people to accept devalued wages, there must be an existential threat to their livelihood. This threat is unemployment. Marx proposed that capitalism needs a constant supply of unemployed workers to keep profits elevated. When production soars in response to growing demand, more workers are hired. But once demand is met, capital must slow production through lay-offs and firings or risk profitability and bankruptcy. For my hypothesis, I propose that beyond the threat of unemployment, an even more ominous threat is incarnated as the prison-industrial complex. Since we know that most criminals are also unemployed, the economic connection between the two conditions seems almost obvious. If one is unable to find employment in the usual market opportunities, one’s health and ultimately survival dictates one’s acquisition of at least basic foodstuffs by some means, including theft and black market activities, such as drug sales.
Alexander identifies the emergence of the “New Jim Crow” with the Reagan Administration’s prosecution of the “War on Drugs” in the early 1980s. If, as Wallerstein claims, capitalism fell into a profitability crisis in the late 70s, then the War on Drugs provided a convenient opportunity to intensify the discipline on the working-class that criminalization represents. That the war was also racialized served a parallel purpose of extending this existential threat to the rising black middle-class that had benefited from the Civil Rights and Affirmative Action victories of the 60s and 70s. Devah Pager studied the effect of a criminal record on the job prospects of blacks compared to whites in a 2003 study, and charges that,
“Those sent to prison are institutionally branded as a particular class of individuals—as are college graduates or welfare recipients—with implications for their perceived place in the stratification order. The “negative credential” associated with a criminal record represents a unique mechanism of stratification, in that it is the state that certifies particular individuals in ways that qualify them for discrimination or social exclusion.”
Since blacks were the overwhelming target of this incarceration crusade, middle-class blacks reflexively distanced themselves from opposing the new criminal justice regime, as Alexander amply documents. Securing the gains of affirmative action, civil rights, and desegregation were turned into a legalistic survival tactic, and neutralized any substantive political opposition to the system itself.
What should replace the “prison-industrial complex?” Angela Davis supplies an important part of the answer,
“…positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment — demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.”
Doubtless, such a political program will face massive obstacles. The attempt by Obama to pass a universal healthcare plan met with intense opposition and only passed after a nearly complete evisceration of the very word, “universal.” Education funding reform is even further hamstrung. The crisis of capitalism that Wallerstein presents ensures that the ruling forces of our society, whether they be black or white, are locked in a massive pursuit of falling profits in a world that is awash in overpriced and over-produced commodities. This means that criminalization as a necessary method of targeting the most vulnerable populations for exploitation and incarceration continues with little political will to oppose it.
Despite this pessimistic conclusion, I am hopeful that history is on the side of the majority in the long run. The ruling class is small in real numbers and the declining rate of profit promises to shrink their numbers inexorably. What the vast ruled majority must forge the will to achieve is their own political unification as the dispossessed heirs of the centuries of toil and blood of their forebears. In a billion different ways, in a billion different places, the suffering and marginalized must seize the realities that their own unemployment, underemployment, and incarceration represents, the failure of the great capitalist system of the past few centuries to provide a decent standard of living for all humanity.
“From each according to ability, to each according to need.” Louis Blanc 1839.
 Suh, Jae Jang. “Capitalism’s Demise? An Interview with Immanuel Wallerstein.” History News Netowrk, George Mason University, January, 2009. http://hnn.us/articles/59481.html
 Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. volume 1. Marx/Engels Internet Archive, 1999. Orig German pub. 1867. The section dealing with the reserve army hypothesis is chapter 25, section 3.http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch25.htm#S3
The ruling classes throughout human history have dominated their populations by multiple means. They have monopolized and controlled political power, armies & security forces, economic relations, sex/gender roles, religious institutions, racial privilege, and ecological conditions & resources. As modern technology enables global travel and communications on an unprecedented scale, these originally local and provincial means of domination ignore and transgress pre-modern barriers of distance and culture. Planet Earth is less and less divided into isolated nations, cultures, and societies and the possibility of a unified global society is seemingly inevitable.
Of course, this unification is being led by a modernized ruling class with new and improved systems of domination, repression, exploitation, and oppression that are more powerful than ever thanks to modern technologies. The contemporary ruling class is the descendant of millenia of previous power-systems. By the same token, the potential for revolutionary emancipation has also always been present within this very same history of domination.
The ruling classes have been always composed of men with power, wealth, and means of force. They mandate sexual repressions and religious domination. The revolutionary counter-hegemonic forces nevertheless flower among women, the poor, the disenfranchised, racial minorities, and heretics. This pattern of ruling class and counter-class is universal and a persistent source of cultural creativity and emancipation throughout history.
This revolutionary view of history is in direct contrast to two prominent approaches to the question of culture and society. First of all the pro-Western narrative shared by most liberal, conservative, Marxist, and even many anarchist thinkers that Western modernity is a uniquely endowed society with critical resources of science, democracy, capital, atheism, or rebels that, for the first time in history, constitute a global potential for emancipation. In this approach non-Western societies are expected to adopt some of the specific aspects of Western modernity in order to become emancipated.
In its most egregious form, this viewpoint justifies the African slave-trade as it introduced Christianity to heathens. In a more subtle form, it calls for worldwide industrialization in order to speed the day when the proletariat can overthrow global capitalism. A more liberal variant sees the “end of history” in our present system of representative democracy and free markets and the rest of the world will simply have to catch up with us.
The primary limitation of this pro-Western approach is that its biases against religion or non-Western peoples fails to examine the counter-hegemonic resources of the submerged voices within religion and non-Western cultures. For example, while Christianity has doubtless been one of the most advanced hegemonic institutions in history, the gospel narrative itself has repeatedly spawned creative variations, usually persecuted as heresies. Similar dynamics have recurred throughout the history of existing religious traditions.
The second opposing approach may be called “culturalism” as it identifies some aspects of existing non-Western cultural identity that has to be defended against the onslaught of Western hegemony. Whether it be expressed as Black Nationalism, paleo-conservatism, multi-culturalism, traditionalism, or identity politics, this approach abstracts some seemingly benign aspects of a social group that is under pressure from modernization as worthy of defense and preservation. Often borrowing from anthropological cultural relativism, the culturalist approach often whitewashes issues of economic or gender privilege.
In one troubling form, such culturalism refuses to pass judgment on regimes such as Iran’s Islamic state, in the name of anti-Western multi-culturalism. While understandable at some level, to take the view that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is dangerous and betrays the emancipatory hopes of the oppressed suffering under authoritarian regimes. My critique of Iran’s government is not that it is Islamic, since by my logic, an emancipatory Islam has existed historically and still operates as an important source of social emancipation within Islamic societies. The flaw of culturalism is that it tends to see cultures as closed systems, rather than as complex realities with dynamic forces at work within them.
In contrast to either a pro-Western or a cultural relativist perspective, a revolutionary viewpoint sees emancipatory potential as the necessary product of relations of domination, oppression, repression, and exploitation. As Michel Foucault once stated, “where there is power, there is resistance.” Even more than resistance, the experience of domination fosters the potential for a truly emancipatory irruption of the existing power-structures.
In our world today, European and American powers rule the planet by means of capitalism, representative democracy, technological supremacy, racial privilege, military might, and male domination. From within each of these death-systems a radical opposition is persistently in formation, attempting to achieve a creative opening for emancipation. The hope of humanity is that these distinct counter-forces can transcend their isolation to join in common struggles across the barriers erected by the ruling classes down through the millenia.
The Racist Paradox of Modernity: Are Capitalism, Socialism, Science, and Democracy Hopelessly Racist?
(This blog post is the first one I’ve written in quite a while at radicalprogress.info. It is more personal in tone than most of my previous ones. It may or may not mark a transition in how I blog here. You can find other more recent writings of mine at a new group blog, Symptomatic Redness, that I joined about a month ago. I don’t want to get in the habit of reblogging each new post to both blogs, since I’ve heard that can lower our ranking in Google searches.)
One of the recurring arguments that I’ve had over the years about racism is whether it is inherent within modern Euro/American civilization. Since I am usually arguing with Marxists or Liberals, they both want to rescue some element of modernity such as science, democracy, or capitalism from the claim that each of these depend on racism. Cornel West calls this “great the paradox of Western modernity” that both the flourishing of democracy and the transatlantic slave trade coincided historically.
I, too, believe in science and democracy, not so much in capitalism. However, like my Marxist friends, I want to believe that socialism can be achieved without racism marring it. With racism (and I would argue in a different vein, sexism) we can’t even limit its negative characteristics to the “ruling class” as we can with capitalism, since the examples of racism among the working-class and socialist leaders are abundant.
When I began trying to find a socialist organization to join last year, I kept finding them to be preserves of white guys. I sought out an explicitly socialist, feminist, and anti-racist organization, only to find it to have done pretty good attracting women, but not so much blacks. If I want my political engagement to break out of this sort of white ghetto, I have to travel further afield.
One idea I have is to find a Black Church and attend it with the intent of immersing myself in its living culture. Of course, some have argued that Christianity itself is inherently racist. I’ve found one Black church in Chicago that does have a strongly liberal theology and even on the edge of being post-Christian. It’s an experiment that I think worth doing, though I can’t exactly approach it as one, as being part of a church requires becoming authentically relationally connected to people.
Back to the big question, can modernity be rescued from its racist origins? One perverse sign that it can transcend its origins is the experience of Asian capitalism and Communism. Both of these Western exports have found fairly fertile soil in Asia and have flourished there, though the Communist nations there are actually trending towards a new form of capitalism.
The counter-examples come from Africa, the motherland of humanity, and the poorest, most exploited continent on earth. When South Africa overthrew its apartheid regime and began transition to a multi-racial democracy, many of us where simultaneously thrilled and stunned. It happened so quickly that many of us who’d been involved in anti-apartheid activism were scratching our heads. Just like the collapse of the Soviet Union surprised many of us.
As uprisings surged across northern Africa this past year, many of us hoped that finally Africa was going to stand up to Euro/American hegemony. When Libyan revolutionaries became military partners with NATO, we knew the possibilities of revolution were still bottled up within the narrow strictures of that hegemony. The struggle continues, the questions unanswerable.
The modern idea of social revolution is typically attributed to the European middle classes who rose up across most of the continent’s nations to depose kings and institute representative democracies. This revolutionary history is bound up with the abolition of feudal economics and the creation of modern capitalism. Women in the new middle-classes gained access to education & social influence, science advanced with industrialization, and church-state entanglements were weakened or abolished.
However, there is a negative side to this history. Among the most egregious was the Atlantic Slave Trade which stole millions of living beings from Africa for forced labor in the Americas and Europe. Not only were millions enslaved, but the raids to capture slaves resulted in millions of additional deaths. Some historians refer to this catastrophe as the “Maafa,” a Swahili word for “disaster.”
In a persistent quest for world domination, Europeans and their American siblings plundered and colonized Africa, exported slaves, and crippled the future of an entire continent’s inhabitants and millions throughout the African diaspora. Not only Africans, but native peoples across the globe have felt the boots of white supremacy. Abolishing slavery in the 1800s was a long overdue reform (some say revolution), but white supremacy’s dead hand still persists across the globe.
The most pronounced attempt to abolish white supremacy in the US began with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Long before Dr. King’s boycotts and marches, tireless opponents of segregation and racism organized for a new day for all people under oppression. Legal segregation was ended through these efforts, but for most involved there seemed to be much more work to do, and thus was born a new era of social analysis and critique from the point of view of people of color.
The most vivid exponent of revolutionary opposition to white supremacy in the U.S. was the Black Power movement. This movement was both a repudiation of Dr. King’s still-evolving vision of nonviolent revolution and a reaching back to older currents of black resistance such as Marcus Garvey and Frantz Fanon. In brief, Black Power advocated a militant mobilization of African peoples against white domination as the key struggle able to overthrow a central systemic obstacle to world emancipation.
Dr. King’s vision wasn’t static, merely bound to the recent gains of the Civil Rights movement. His commentary on Black Power and his offering of an alternative road to nonviolent revolution was profoundly multi-racial in its reach, yet it also advocated a militant overthrow of systemic racism, capitalism, and militarism. King had realized in his years of struggle that every system of oppression, repression, exploitation, and domination was at bottom a system of unbridled violence, forever making him a genuine master visionary of anti-racist pacifist-socialism.
Black Power’s laser focus on racism is crucial to any revolutionary politics. The human race is divided against itself along racial and cultural lines that quite predictably mirror economic and political lines. The death drive of white civilization expels its toxic excrement most directly at those it has viscerally, if sometimes unconsciously (or in denial), classed as dirty, lazy, ignorant, and dangerous.
Radical Black Power and King’s Pacifist-Socialism were not the only revolutionary analyses to emerge in the late 60s and early 70s. Although the Black Panther Party sold Mao’s “Little Red Book” as a ploy to gain the support of student radicals, revolutionary communist ideology offered a somewhat different spin on systemic racism. The world wasn’t just divided into Black and White, but also into workers and capitalists. According to Marxism (and some strains of Anarchism), the workers held a strategic position within capitalism that anointed them as capitalism’s gravediggers.
Class analysis warned opponents of racism to be wary of middle-class and wealthy blacks, whose vested interests in the rewards of capitalism would turn them against any true overthrow of the economic power of racism. This analysis was broad enough to take in even Dr. King’s Civil Rights movement, with its connections to liberal white Christian seminaries and the creeping professionalization of Black church ministry.
An important outgrowth of this new militant combination of anti-racism and class struggle was the short-lived League of Revolutionary Black Workers who organized effective actions inside the Detroit auto industry. Many white Marxists to this day maintain that the real revolutionary leaders in the U.S. must emerge from the black working-class. A more international take on Black Power arose in the “Third Worldist” camp, who held that nations outside the White Supremacist core had to unite for the revolutionary overthrow of Euro-American world domination.
Enter Black Feminism. While white feminists were resisting their marginalization in social movements, Black women were facing parallel struggles in both the Civil Rights and Black Power camps. Unlike white feminists, black feminists could not dis-identify with their male counterparts as easily as some radical feminists did. They experienced the double-bind of being women and black. A significant number also came to embrace class struggle, thus birthing a tri-systems analysis of anti-racist socialist-feminism.
As readers of this blog will know, integrative revolutionary social ecology is conceived as an outgrowth of these attempts at grand analyses of social struggle. This social ecology seeks to integrate radical critiques of the dynamics of racism, politics, religion, sexuality, class, gender, and militarism within a global ecological understanding. Since this author is a caucasian male, the question of whether white men can make a real contribution to world emancipation has personal relevance.
Sandra Harding’s work on “feminist standpoint” epistemology (theory of knowledge) asserts, “Men, too must learn to take historic responsibility for the social position from which they speak.” As a white working-class male survivor of child abuse, I have predispositions to both domination and emancipation within myself. Overcoming visceral biases requires intense re-education.
Harding again, “…this approach challenges members of dominant groups to make themselves “fit” to engage in collaborative, democratic, community enterprises with marginal peoples. Such a project requires learning to listen attentively to marginalized people; it requires educating oneself about their histories, achievements, preferred social relations, and hopes for the future; it requires putting one’s body on the line for “their” causes until they feel like “our” causes; it requires critical examination of the dominant institutional beliefs and practices that systematically disadvantage them; it requires critical self-examination to discover how one unwittingly participates in generating disadvantage to them…and more.”
1) Towards an ecology of racism
Racism is rarely examined as an ecological problem. Analyses of environmental racism focus on toxic waste and other environmental impacts that fall disproportionately on poor people of color. For example, the rapid growth of the Sahara desert in Africa as an effect of massive poverty is another legacy of centuries of Euro-American exploitation of that continent.
In Chicago, where I live, there has been significant concern about “food deserts” in large stretches of poor black or hispanic neighborhoods. Large grocery stores refuse to build in these neighborhoods, so residents are forced to travel significant distances or buy from local convenience stores at inflated prices with limited selections. As always, every ecological problem is simultaneously a problem of economics and politics, but now it seems apparent that they are also about race.
2) Dark skin, dark origins, dark destiny
The primary marker of race is skin color. A child of African descent raised within a Euro-American family, with limited exposure to their racial social group will still become the victim of racism, as white supremacist psychosocial conditioning operates on those white persons the child encounters. Skin color is an ecological phenomena, a fact rarely acknowledged.
Dark skin arises in the sun-soaked climates of Africa, Southern Asia, and South America. In other climates different variations arise, but once established within the genetic code, the trait persists beyond the original ecosystem. In sun-deprived climates, “white skin” becomes predominant. Humanity first evolved in Africa and moved outward across the continents. This suggests that our biological foremother was in fact dark-skinned. Racism is therefore in part a hatred of our original genetic heritage.
Human beings evolved from higher primates in Africa and thus racism is also a close cousin to speciesism, a hatred of animality. Such hatred has connections with the predatory instinct where animals other than one’s own kind are seen as potentially a meal or a competitor for food. White racism is therefore a legacy of predatory instincts.
Dark human skin, in the white racist imagination, is a signifier of animality, of prey, of fearsome threat. In our racist world order, one part of the human race oppresses and exploits another part of itself through ecological warfare. However, evolution also has a mutuality factor that has been shown to advance the health of an entire ecosystem far more than the predatory instinct. Overthrowing racism is therefore a necessary component of ecological progress and planetary wholeness.
3) Psychological genesis of individual racism
Racism is not inevitable, but arises in early childhood. My father told me stories of how he had a black best friend up until just before kindergarten in the 1940s. After schooling began, a rigid segregation was imposed in his West Texas hometown, where I was also born, though I never experienced school segregation in my childhood.
Various psychosocial theorists have focused on early child-rearing as the genesis of individual racism. One Freudian-influenced theory focuses on potty-training or the “anal stage” as the period in which aggression towards a dark subhuman other emerges. A child’s own feces are originally not experienced by an infant as smelly or dirty, and the infant enjoys and expects the several daily cleanings of their diapers, including the pleasurable genital contact.
As the caregiver urges the infant to begin using a toilet, a struggle of wills ensues. The toddler wants to continue the diaper phase with its attendant pleasures. The caregiver wants to put an end to having to clean dirty and smelly messes and to handle the child’s excretory and sexual organs. The toddler has to somehow be induced to accept the caregiver’s valuation of their feces, their genitals, and anus. The toddler takes the first steps towards maturity at the expense of her original sense of self by becoming self-disciplined, yet emotionally ambivalent about this newfound skill.
This self-discipline often takes an aggressive turn, as the toddler grieves the loss of the earlier stage of intimacy and holding. Mastery of the anal products becomes a subconscious attitude towards all disciplinary activities. Work becomes the opposite of play. Dirty smelly things become messes to control.
Joel Kovel summarizes the anal phase’s relationship to white racism thusly, “The anal phase is so important in discussing racism because anality is the form of drive behavior which predominates during that time when a child is painfully detaching himself from his mother and establishing himself as a separate person. In this light, excrement — what is expelled from the body — becomes symbolically associated with the ambivalent feelings a child has about his separation from his mother and the establishment of himself as an autonomous person. Dirt becomes, then, the recipient of his anger at separation; while the love of possessions becomes the substitute for the love of what has been separated from him. Since racism involves the separateness of people, so must it become invested with anal fantasies.” White Racism: A Psychohistory. 1970.
The anal phase’s development of the human hatred of dirt and smell undergoes developmental changes as the child grows. A complex experiential transformation of early aggressive conditioning is necessary for black skin to become the object of racialized fear and hatred. That it nevertheless succeeds in taking root in some form in nearly all Euro-American adults indicates its immense power.
4) Racism, Slavery, and Criminality
The connections between anal self-discipline, work, property, and obedience find social expression in systemic dehumanization and criminalization of dark-skinned persons. Historically, racism has relied on a prejudicial charge that blacks are lazy. The Atlantic slave trade arose out of the need of early modern capitalism for a massive infusion of cheap labor. Racist assumptions about black peoples gave rise to the practice of coercively enslaving them by the millions.
Once U.S. slavery was abolished however, the persisting projections of black laziness gave rise to a criminalization of the entire African-American population. Blacks were disenfranchised politically, subjected to economic barriers, educational disadvantages, and a relentless regime of police repression. Today a massive prison population of 2.2 million has been formed in the U.S. that compares to the heights of slavery and continues to grow. If one includes the number of released criminals the total number of criminalized people of color dwarfs the total U.S. slave population in any given year of its existence.
70% of all incarcerated persons in the U.S. are non-white. This is entirely out of proportion to the general population. Are white people simple more moral or virtuous? Or, are our laws, police, courts, and jails a massive institutional machinery aimed specifically at criminalizing people of color?
Although important advances have been made in African-American freedom and achievement, such as the election of a black president, there is still an oppressive racist infrastructure at work in our society. It is also important to remember that most non-whites live outside the U.S. and are the recurring targets of American imperialism. Africa continues to struggle with the legacy of centuries of Euro-American colonization and exploitation.
5) The Many-Headed Racist Monster
White Racism infects and pervades our world. It is human self-hatred externalized into systems of destruction and suffering. Religion gives it mythical support, capitalism profits from its exploits, armies mobilize its offensives, governments legislate its priorities, and the earth itself is strangled in its entrails.
There is hope, hope in the sheer numbers of people of color. We should be deeply inspired by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. While racism wasn’t completely overcome in that era, a lasting shift in the power of racism was achieved. It is our duty in this day and age to press further towards freedom and equality, and one day win a final revolutionary overthrow of all systems of racial oppression. Then, we will truly embrace our natural heritage, our African humanity.
If one studies statistics of world poverty and takes account of racial identity, the obvious conclusion is that most of the world’s poor are non-Caucasian and most of the world’s rich are Caucasian. Europe and North America control the vast majority of the world’s wealth, while Africa, Latin America, and Asia control tiny fractions of wealth. The main exception is China, but compared to the Euro-American bloc, China is still far down the list of wealthy countries.
Africa is still the poorest continent on Earth, and this is certainly not an accident. The twin projects of the slave trade and colonialism were aimed at making this continent subordinate to Euro-American global domination. Despite decades of decolonization and independence for many African nations, this continent still suffers the most from global inequality.
Cornel West rightly challenges the view that we can reduce race to economic or class issues. He maintains that racist social practices “are best understood and explained not only or primarily by locating them within modes of production, but also by situating them within the cultural traditions of civilizations.” (“Race and Social Theory” from Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America, 1993.) He identifies three modes of cultural racism: Judeo-Christian, Scientific-rational, and psychosexual.
From Judeo-Christian culture, a racist discourse arose that is focused on blackness as synonymous with chaos and paganism. From scientific-rational culture, an intellectual elitism that disdains subjectivity and privileges a search for truth detached from the struggles of both everyday life and political power. The psychosexual aversion to non-white persons is a complex subconscious disposition of neurotic fears that blacks are both dirty, disgusting, and rapacious sexual predators.
The cultural discourses of racism have operated through Anglo-European history in its rise to global supremacy and have come to fundamentally shape its institutions. Our economics, education, and politics are shot through with a cohesive repressive, dominative, and exploitative consciousness and praxis. While this reality has been challenged both by people of color and their caucasian allies, the mountain of racism has proven itself indomitable thus far.
The struggle continues, but with a reasonable hope. The Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the U.S. 1960s were instrumental and opening a space in Caucasian society for greater freedom for people of color. Racism is fundamentally at odds with the authentic potential of human freedom and equality.