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Monday, October 10, 2005

The New Orleans PD gives us another lesson in white supremacy

It didn't take long for the New Orleans Police Department to revert to form. Not that they performed well during the Katrina disaster. After all, who can forget the message sent by so many police deserting their jobs when faced with helping rather than oppressing the poor Blacks in those first few days after the hurricane? But right when the issue of race had disappeared from the national conversation (just in time to start planning the rebuilding), the needless beating of an unarmed Black man by a gang of white cops has again forced the issue onto the American agenda. And in the process the media has had to concede the NOPD's long history of racism and corruption, testing again the remarkable ability of white Americans to deny both the fundamental racist nature of the system and the vastly different ways that whites and Blacks encounter that system.

William Bennett's recent comments that, "if you wanted to reduce crime, you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down," have shed some light again on the way a sizeable chunk of white people view Blacks. The fact is, while elite policymakers planned the massive criminalization of American Blacks, the fears it plays on are widely shared amongst whites. In the last two and a half decades, the US has shifted its policy towards Blacks from segregation and welfare policy to incarceration and policing. But while the American elite depend on policing to keep Blacks in place, they also depend on the often silent alliance of white skin privilege that every white person is taught to defend, generally with more subtle methods than the police utilize.

Historically, Blacks have always been a thorn in the side of the white ruling elite. Absolutely necessary to American capitalism as a low-wage hyperexploited class, Black folks have also continuously revolted against this status. The cheap labor of the slave necessarily brought with it the threat of the slave revolt, and this pattern has continued even as the particular nature of the exploitation of Blacks changed form, from slavery to sharecropping to wage labor. Similarly, elites have frequently pitted Black and white workers against each other, generally to undermine white wages and working class power. Thus, Black labor became to be seen by whites as a threat, and in times of economic crisis whites often resorted to racist vigilante attacks on Blacks.

But, the rise of global capitalism, in which production has been freed to seek the lowest wage abroad, has created a dilemma for the American capitalist class. And the hard-fought Black struggle for equality has opened up opportunities for some advancement for a small number of people of color. But just as police forces keep local poor folks away from the mansions of the wealthy capitalists, the off-shoring of domestic production has increased the physical distance separating the capitalist class and the Third World laborers they exploit. With this development, Black labor as a whole in the US has become increasingly unnecessary from the perspective of the capitalist class, especially with the influx of Mexican and Central American labor. Thus, elites have embarked on a genocidal project aimed at eliminating as much as possible of the Black population. The primary tool employed for this purpose is the prison system. As incarceration of Black males has swelled in the past twenty-five years, so has there been an accompanying drop in the African-American birth rate. It's worth remembering that the United Nations defines genocide in five main ways, including "[i]mposing measures intended to prevent births within the group."

It is in the context of a really existing genocide against African Americans that we must consider Bennett's words. Towards this end, Alexander Cockburn addresses Bennett's remarks on his website Counterpunch.org. Amidst all the liberal moral posturing, Cockburn delves into the history of forced sterilization, and makes sure we don't forget that in the United States, eugenics was very much a liberal cause. He says,
The keenest of these cleansers were not Southern crackers but Northern liberals. States pioneering sterilization laws included La Follette's Wisconsin and Woodrow Wilson's New Jersey. Around the country, after Indiana led the way in 1909, eugenic sterilization was most energetically pushed by progressive politicians, medical experts and genteel women's groups. In the mid-1930s Alabama's governor, Bibb Graves, vetoed a sterilization bill enthusiastically passed by the legislature. The populist Graves cited "the hazard to personal rights".
This history should not be forgotten, and we should not allow revisionist or opportunistic liberals to shift the blame onto conservatives, who have plenty of their own sins to account for.

On the same website, Robert Jensen considers the question, "Is Bush a Racist?" The liberal tendency to ascribe various extreme personality traits to Bush serves to obscure the real politics behind his actions. First, it suggests that if we just got someone different in office - a Democrat, presumably - that Bush's racist policies could be corrected. Second, it fails to acknowledge the existence of a system of white supremacy - an amalgamation of racist policies, attitudes and institutions - that functions regardless of the individual opinions held by those at the top. To take an example, ascribing the government's reaction to Katrina to Bush's racism fails to explain why Bill Clinton's tenure was so disastrous for Blacks. And it also fails to explain why Bush has appointed so many more Blacks to top positions of government than previous presidents. Jensen suggests another solution:
That’s probably the most pressing race problem in the United States today -- a de facto affirmative-action program for mediocre middle- and upper-class white men that places a lot of undeserving people in positions of power, where their delusions of grandeur can have profound implications for others.

If the deficiencies of George Bush and people like him were simply their problem, well, most would find it hard to muster much sympathy. But they become our problem -- not just the United States’, but the world’s problem -- when such folks run the world.
Surely Bush suffers a disconnect from the daily realities of life in America for poor Blacks - and the poor in general. But Jensen's argument still fails to describe the whole picture. So, Margaret Kimberley weighs in on the Bill Bennett question in an article from the most recent issue of the BlackCommentator. She is concerned with what his comments say about white America in general, not just a few elites at the top:
If Bennett really feels that aborting all black fetuses is immoral and reprehensible, the words would never have entered his mind. The comments were William Bennett’s own Freudian slip that gave us a frightening peek at the secret desires of many white Americans.
She reminds us of the depth of the problem,
Comedian Richard Pryor posed a question about how and whether America saw black people in its future. He noted that futuristic science fiction films rarely if ever had black characters. Was this absence a creative oversight or were we being given a hint?...

...Bennett is not alone in dreaming about dead black babies. Whether the thought is spoken aloud or not, the American fantasy is a world without any black people in it.
That's a very important point - one that a lot of liberals don't really seem to get.

Finally, the Observer this weekend delves into the racial divisions in the United States, including the wealth disparities in Black America itself. The article examines the ongoing disparities and paradoxes about modern life in America for Blacks.
Never have blacks had so much legal freedom, yet there are record numbers in jail. Traditional black neighbourhoods have collapsed into drug-ridden crime strongholds, even as the black middle class is the biggest in history.
The contradiction of a small percentage of Blacks rising to wealth and power while so many of the rest linger in perpetual poverty remains unresolved in America, but suggests to us that our critique has to go beyond the person specifically holding the reins of power. Again, from the Observer:
...[T]herein lies the problem. Even as the old racism lies dead, its legacy endures in the American economy. As the black middle class grows and black politicians rise to the pinnacle of power, wealthy America - both black and white - has still not come to grips with the problems of its millions of poor black citizens.
America is a white supremacist system, now as it ever was, and that system extends far beyond the oval office. A white supremacist system in the hands of even those with the best of intentions will continue to function as a white supremacist system. Because of the hierarchical nature of America, and thanks to the social promotion of white skin affirmative action, there are plenty of opportunities for even average whites to exercise racist power over Blacks, if only through tacit support for the system or following the law. But, if it's the system that's the problem, then we need to start moving our solutions beyond it. If we can't reform it, then we need to start thinking about drawing our lessons from other sources. Nat Turner and John Brown offer two examples.


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