In How to be an antiracist, Ibram Kendi assumes that racial inequities are the result of racist policies and attitudes. In today’s commentary, I critique this assumption by attempting to explain the historic, economic, and cultural factors that have caused racial inequality in the United States today. Readers may also be interested in my previous commentary on Kendi.
The forty acres and a mule that were not delivered
In the aftermath of the abolition of slavery in the USA, Radical Republicans called for the distribution of forty acres of land to the emancipated slaves. In the context of the agricultural economy of the time, a broad-based distribution of agricultural land, accompanied by technical support and credit, would have led to a significant increase in the number of black middle-class farmers, placing the black community in a strong position to adapt to the emerging industrialization and concentration of industry.
It would have been necessary for the federal government to nationalize agricultural land for distribution to the emancipated slaves, and it would have been politically intelligent to compensate landholders. In general, the forced appropriation by the state ought to be accompanied by compensation, so that the former owners would have some stake in the new order.
The emergence of black middle-class farmers would have significantly expanded the market of the South for manufactured goods. The former plantation owners, using cash and certificates received for appropriated land, could have attained credit from Northern banks for investment in industry, responding to the expanding demand. These dynamics would have created significant employment opportunities for both black and white non-agricultural workers, who would have had a common economic interest in organizing without regard for race. These dynamics would have provided a solid economic foundation for the reconstruction of the South, in contrast to the weak foundation on which it was in fact established, as a merely political project enabling Northern commercial penetration, rather than a comprehensive political-economic project for the economic development of the South.
Established on a weak foundation, Reconstruction collapsed and Jim Crow emerged; and the federal government accepted a new version of the Old South. Facing economic superexploitation and barbaric violent repression, many blacks migrated to the North, especially with the employment opportunities stimulated by U.S. entrance into World War I. The migration to the North elevated to some degree the black standard of living, but these gains were limited by racial discrimination in employment in the North.
The white ethnic path to upward mobility has disappeared
The second half of the nineteenth century was characterized by a tremendous U.S. expansion in industry, which was fed by the expanding global economy, as a result of the conquest of vast new lands by the European colonial powers in the period 1750 to 1914. And the U.S. economic expansion was fed by the conquest of new territory beyond its Western frontier from the 1830s to the 1890s, violating numerous treaties with the indigenous nations and displacing the peoples from the land.
To respond to the new demand for cheap labor provoked by the great economic expansion, the United States maintained a policy of open borders with respect to immigrants from Europe, who were primarily peasants from Ireland and Eastern and Southern Europe. Given the dynamic economic conditions, the immigrants could obtain work, primarily in construction (men) and domestic work (women), but it was at superexploited wages, that is, wages less than what was needed to live. Th immigrants survived through multiple jobs per family unit and supplementary labor.
The immigrants had low educational levels, and their children had low levels of educational attainment. Parents encouraged children to study, so that they could have greater employment opportunities; but having limited education themselves, the immigrants were not able to provide concrete help and direction.
Meanwhile, the immigrant laborers, influenced by labor currents from their native countries, organized labor unions, especially among the men. There were conflicting ideological currents in the labor movement, including the importation of Marxist conceptualizations, which tended to copy European models without sufficient adaptation to U.S. conditions. But in general, taking advantage of the emergence of the steel and auto industries and the dynamically expanding economy, they were able to effectively use the weapon of the strike to drive up the cost of labor to what they called a “family wage,” in which a male worker earned sufficient wages to provide the basic necessities for his family.
Once the material standard of living had improved, the children, by now the grandchildren of the immigrants, had higher levels of educational attainment. Having received an informal education through employment and labor unions, and with higher incomes enabling more time and organization in the home, the offspring of the immigrants were able to provide concrete direction to their children. Higher levels of education enabled the third and fourth generations to enter middle class occupations and professions. The process reached its high point in the 1950s and early 1960s.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the sustained crisis of the world-economy began to set in, so that college-educated white ethnics, by now often of mixed nationalities, found their employment prospects limited. Many were employed, but underemployed relative to their educational level.
In the white ethnic pattern of intergenerational of upward mobility, therefore, good paying jobs were the key to rising out of poverty, and once poverty was overcome, educational attainment was more possible. For the white ethnic groups, education was not the means to rising out of poverty; the white ethnic groups persistently had low levels of educational attainment during the first one or two generations, when they had low income. Relatively good-paying manual jobs and labor unions were the key to their upward mobility.
During the intergenerational upward mobility of white ethnics, blacks were excluded, a dimension of the systemic racism of the era. The reforms of the 1960s ended systemic racism, but at a time when the historic white ethnic pattern to upward mobility was coming to an end.
The reforms of 1964 and 1965 arrived too late
During the decades of Jim Crow in the South and racial discrimination in employment and housing in the North, the African-American movement challenged racial discrimination as inconsistent with the Constitution of the Republic. Mass rallies were held in indoor stadiums in the North. Law suits were filed in federal courts, leading to the 1954 Brown decision, which ruled that legally mandated segregation in schools was unconstitutional. In the period 1954 to 1965, bus boycotts, “sit-ins” in “white-only” public spaces, and street demonstrations were held in the cities of the South, provoking a violent repression by local law enforcement. The international media coverage of the confrontations between white police and black protestors was viewed by the U.S. government as damaging to its imperialist interests in a world order in transition to neocolonialism, so it came to the support of the black movement, although inconsistently, for fear of alienating white voters.
The reforms in civil and voting rights of 1964 and 1965 were significant. They put the nation’s racial laws and customs in concert with the emerging neocolonial world order, such that the USA was differentiating itself from the African “white settler” societies and their racial laws and customs. Since 1965, U.S. laws have mandated no racial discrimination in employment.
However, the reforms came too late. By 1965, the economy was in transition to what has variously been called a “post-industrial” and “service” economy. In the emerging economy, employment increasingly required higher education. There was less and less space for unionized good-paying jobs in manufacturing that did not require higher education.
The timing of the reforms, their late appearance in relation to the dynamics of the economy, meant that blacks, Latinos and indigenes would have to accomplish upward mobility through educational attainment while still in conditions of poverty. The white ethnic groups had not accomplished intergenerational upward mobility in the United States in this form.
The situation required exceptional measures. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had discerned these dynamics, and he proposed a War on Poverty, designed to uplift the poor, regardless of race; and he organized a Poor People’s Campaign, which intended to pressure the federal government to take action. However, with overextended governmental expenditures in relation to the war in Vietnam, the investment in the War on Poverty was limited.
There was not much in the way of accumulated wisdom concerning how a government should conduct a War on Poverty. In the past, people generally had been lifted out of poverty by unfolding economic dynamics, and not by governmental action. Perhaps the best kind of governmental expenditure would have been in the improvement of the road, railroad, and housing infrastructure, which would have generated the kinds of economic activities that the expanding economy had generated for a century; activities that are characterized by high numbers of relatively good-paying jobs that do not require higher education. And such infrastructural development would have attended to the concrete needs of the working class. But this was not clearly understood at the time; and in any event, governmental resources were limited, and there was not a consensual political will to conduct a War on Poverty.
Exceptional measures in another direction were implied by Malcom X’s call for black control of the institutions of the black community. Local community control in the neighborhoods of the great cities could have enabled local businesses, schools, and police forces to evolve in accordance with particular concrete community needs, especially with financial support from the larger society in specific necessary areas.
But little in this direction was undertaken by the black community. Many middle-class blacks migrated out of the traditional black area, a phenomenon that the African-American sociologist William J. Wilson called the outmigration of the black middle class, converting the traditional black neighborhoods into lower-class black neighborhoods, lacking in middle-class role models. This dynamic was in sharp contrast to the urban villages of the white ethnics, inasmuch as the white ethnic merchant class lived in the ethnic neighborhood. But as noted, even with the presence of the ethnic merchant class, the white ethnics could not lift themselves out of poverty through education alone. They needed good-paying manual jobs, which after 1965 were in short supply.
Under these conditions, it is not surprising that after 1965 black lower-class neighborhoods evolved with high levels of crime, which is a general tendency in low-income neighborhoods. In the absence of structures of black community control, white cops were sent to control them, like an occupying army. In the context of this highly conflictive situation, created by global economic dynamics, the indifference of white society, and the attention of the black middle class to its own interests, white cops ultimately became the fall guys.
Is this white racism?
We see, then, the historic, economic, cultural, and ideological factors that are the causes of racial inequality today: historic blatant racism in employment and housing prior to 1965, which excluded blacks from good paying jobs in expanding manufacturing; changes in the economy beginning in the 1970s, with stagnation in the industrial sector and expansion in the service sectors, which was divided between low-income jobs requiring limited education, which mostly employed women, and a relatively high-income sector that required higher education; the unpreparedness of low-income families to provide concrete support to children in education, observed in white ethnic as well as black and Hispanic cultures, although some low-income children were able to figure things out for themselves; and the incapacity of the political culture to identify and implement the necessary steps in this situation. The Left turned to racial entitlement, which could not address the problem. The Right turned to neoliberalism, which enshrined a limited state, so that there was even less possibility to address the needs of the poor, be they black, Hispanic, or white.
From 1988 to 2010, I taught in a small Church-related college in a small town in South Carolina. The great majority of my students were white middle-class students from South Carolina and Georgia. As we discussed these issues, I did not find among them a disposition to exclude on the basis of race. Even if they were suspicious that whites were disproportionately represented among the talented, they nonetheless were prepared to permit untalented whites go down the drain, and to accept talented blacks in positions of importance, and even to some extent in their intimate circles. They were ethnocentric, looking at the world from the vantage point of their own nation, region, and social class; but this is a universal human characteristic. They were in general indifferent to the situation of others, but this indifference was widely cast: it pertained to workers and lower income whites as well as blacks and Hispanics, and it also was cast upon the poor nations of the world. They did not have, however, a conscious orientation to do others harm.
It seems to me unreasonable to call this attitude racist, unless indifference be considered racist. This is in essence what Kendi does. He considers racist all of those, black and white, who are not actively involved in eliminating racial inequality. A racist is “one who supports racist policy through their actions or inaction.” Racist policies are “written and unwritten laws, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines” that produce and normalize racial inequity, which occurs when “two or more racial groups are not standing on approximately equal footing,” exemplified by the fact that 71% of white families are homeowners, as against 41% of black families.
Aside from its tendency to blame people for being human, Kendi’s position ignores the historic, economic, and cultural factors that created and sustain inequality, focusing on a consequential component, attention to which cannot remedy the inequity. Inasmuch as it constitutes in effect an exaggerated attack on white comportment, it fuels racial division, thereby undermining the possibility for whites and blacks to struggle together in relation to common economic interests. For these reasons, the corporate elite and the political establishment support and disseminate anti-racist ideas, for they provide a clear path to decadently pursue their own interests as the civilizational crisis of humanity deepens.
The black power movement and black nationalist thought of 1966 to 1972 also was hostile toward whites and tended to provoke racial division. But black power had its redeeming social value: through its identification with the Third World revolutions, it empowered all of us, black and white, to escape the limitations of American ethnocentrism, and to see the redeeming value of anti-imperialist movements forged by the peoples of the world. But the anti-racist ideology, in contrast, is superficial; it wants to castigate white individuals, rather than transform neocolonial structures. It divides, and offers nothing of benefit; it does not even understand the nature of the disease that it condemns.
Where do we go from here?
We in the United States must unite, casting aside the recent unwise detours of identity politics and anti-racism ideology. We must return to, or discover, our roots in Malcolm, King and Jesse, and develop consciousness of the popular revolutions of the Third World. Let us study their discourses, and on this intellectual foundation, delegitimate identity politics and anti-racism ideology, in order to forge a united people’s movement that declares in defense of the social and economic rights of all citizens, regardless of race; and that seeks to end imperialist and militarist foreign policies that constrain the social and economic possibilities of the peoples of the world.
A free subscription option is available, with capacity to read, send, and share all posts. A paid subscription ($5 per month or $40 per year) enables you to make comments and to support the costs of the column; full subscribers ($40 per year) also receive a free PDF copy of my book on Cuba and the world-system.
Follow me on Twitter: Charles McKelvey@CharlesMcKelv14