By Kwesi P. Dean
Posted Sept 1, 2020
Another black man refuses to be quietly controlled by people with guns, badges, and immunity and is shot for it. We can raise the statistics that all races of people in the US face the risk of death by police. According to Statista, as of July 2020, 558 people lost their lives in police shootings. 39% of those killed were white. We can talk about age and perceived socioeconomic backgrounds as mitigating factors. And still, with all that has happened in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, recordings show unarmed black men are being shot by police officers seemingly more interested in being obeyed than de-escalating situations. Youtuber Beau of the Fifth Column described it as a life and death game of “Simon Says”.
In 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote a masterful description of the racist nature of the Constitution of the US in the Dread Scott v. Sandford decision. His decision, which includes the often misused quote that “they [blacks] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order … and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”, clearly argued that the framers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution certainly didn’t have blacks in mind when referring to “all men” or “We the people”. The 14th amendment of the Constitution was required to legally recognize the citizenship rights of men of African descent. I think one could add without much of a stretch that “all men” wasn’t merely a rhetorical exclusion of women either since women had to fight 137 years to earn the right to vote nationally.
Taney’s argument is relevant today because he highlighted that white identity was so ingrained in the minds of the framers of the Constitution and the states that ratified it that no discussion about the exclusion of black men from the rights of US citizenship was necessary. Even if free, black men did not qualify as citizens of the US.
Identity was not only at the heart of the founding of the USA, it was at the heart of the establishment of capitalism itself. From the enslavement of civilian prisoners of war to the forced reduction of social roles of women in Europe, others outside of feudal, ethnic male hierarchies were deemed fully exploitable. As Cedric J. Robinson wrote in Black Marxism, “Indeed, capitalism was less a catastrophic revolution (negation) of feudalist social orders than the extension of these social relations into the larger tapestry of the modern world’s political and economic relations.”
Exploited labor based on ethnicity was a norm in wealth creation in Europe and its colonies. It applied to the deckhands on the ships as well as the slaves in the holds. Europeans carried all they had learned from centuries of the use of slave and other-than-free labor in their fields, mines, and precursors to factories to new lands around the globe where processes of exploitation developed on steroids. That identity politics/economics is foundational to our current system should be recognized as a historical fact. The fact that it often isn’t feels disingenuous as highly intelligent people seem to discount the evidence of European history and tie themselves in rhetorical knots to focus solely on economic identity as important to the narrative of revolution.
And our current manifestation of identity has severe problems in its effect on efforts to create coalitions of the exploited necessary to drive systemic change. The origin of our frame of identity can be found in a positivist cultural hierarchy and that sews the seeds of its ineffectiveness. Identity was designed to define, separate, and divide the “have nots” in service to the maintenance of the power of the “haves”. (Sometimes I think that designation should be switched as the real “have nots” don’t have to work to maintain their obscenely high standards of living while the rest of us “have” to work or face ruin.)
The identities were only voluntary for one group, in the case of the US, white men. The rest of the identities were imposed upon different groups as white men saw fit. Legal constructs of race began in the Virginia House of Burgesses in the late 1600s following a multiracial militia of servants burning down Jamestown. They’ve continued ever since as the current US census includes 6 racial groups and 11 sub-groups that can be selected in any combination of the respondents’ choosing.
After nearly 350 years since the appearance of the word “white” to describe people of Northern European descent according to the Oxford English Dictionary, we’ve seen developments. First, the expansion of the franchise of “whiteness” to include more people of various ethnic backgrounds, people from the Middle East and North Africa are now white according to the 2020 Census, and the continued division of non-whites into more specific cultural affinity groups. Both have led to discounting other differences that don’t fit for purpose.
Class divisions among whites, while ever-present in the US, are culturally subordinated to whiteness when it is to the advantage of the ruling class, like election season and settling union contracts on the golf course. Class divisions among non-whites are both subordinated and exacerbated within the groups at the same time leading to even more division. All of this exists in the rampant, toxic individualism of consumer culture.
No wonder people are anxious and confused. Even wealthy, accomplished, educated non-whites find themselves subject to the perception of their non-white status in the eyes of those with the power to enforce the exclusion associated with whiteness. A non-white professor was forced to present her credentials to far less credentialed campus police to prove she belonged on her majority white campus. Members of my family were reminded of that recently when refused service in a Savannah, Georgia restaurant.
Today, many working-class whites can’t afford that professor’s Ivy League education nor to eat in the restaurant where my family members were refused service. Despite vast resource and cultural differences, working-class whites are told of their commonality with wealthy white people who’ve never had to work a day in their lives. A white billionaire’s daughter confidently stated, without uproar, that she identifies with recent college graduates facing one of the toughest job markets in decades.
There are no easy answers. New processes will need to emerge to create connections beyond racial and many other social positions.
How can our lives matter to others? How can their lives matter to us?
Witnessing the international, multiracial movement that BLM is becoming offers hope that a new generation will take the experience of working together for justice to create those unifying processes and mutual interests. Let’s then apply those processes to other areas including taking on capitalism itself.
Beau of the Fifth Column, “Let’s talk about country folk and their responses to the law…” https://youtu.be/5-v7Juv2bvU
Dred Scott v. Sandford Decision https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/60/393
Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical TraditionCedric J. Robinson
US 2020 Census