Understanding the deep structures of racism
In my commentary of August 30, 2022 (“The Anti-Marxist Left”), I maintained that we must recognize, contrary to post-modern tendencies of the so-called left today, that objective reality exists, and that citizens of the countries of the North have the duty to seek understanding of the actual objective reality today in the world and in particular nations. And in last commentary, (“Truth through cross-horizon encounter: A critique of liberalism (and postmodernism),” September 9, 2022), I maintain that an understanding approaching objective reality can be attained through a sustained commitment to listening to and studying the leaders of social movements of the oppressed and the intellectuals that have cast their lot with the movements of the oppressed, paying special attention to the speeches and writings of the exceptional leaders that have been lifted up by Third World anticolonial and anti-imperialist movements. Such personal encounter includes critical analysis of defects, but with an orientation that above all seeks understanding of understandings that are emerging from a different social and political context.
On the basis of my own quest for cross-horizon understanding, it is clear to me that the anti-racist theories in vogue today proceed on a superficial understanding of racism that does not grasp the neocolonial context in which racism today manifests itself. These superficial theories, supported by prestigious universities and large corporations, erroneously present racism today as systemic rather than residual, not seeing the antithesis between neocolonialism and racism.
Understanding racism in global and historical colonial context
The anti-racism theories that are in vogue today in the USA do not escape the pervasive ethnocentrism of present-day U.S. thought, such that their critique of racism understates the global and historical context that has shaped racism in the nation. As a result of this limitation, they focus on the racism of historic figures and contemporary individuals; they fail to call the peoples of the United States to participation in the present global movement by peoples of color to attain fundamental changes with respect to unjust global neocolonial structures.
Let us recall fundamental historical facts. The modern world-system first began to emerge in the sixteenth century, and it has been shaped by European conquest and colonial domination of the world for nearly five centuries. European world domination was fully consistent with the ancient human tendency toward the conquest of neighboring nations and peoples in the formation of empires and civilizations; European conquest and colonial domination was exceptional only in its scope and depth, made possible by technological advances. European domination was driven by a quest for natural resources and cheap labor, as well as access to markets for the surplus goods of the colonial powers. Accordingly, European domination facilitated the economic development of Europe, and it resulted in the underdevelopment of the colonized regions.
Racism played the important role of legitimating European world domination. The colonizers had lighter skin color, due to less exposure to sunlight in the evolution of the human populations that had migrated to Europe. This accidental fact made skin color functional as a justification for domination. Religion had initially been used to justify the domination, but skin color turned out to be more functional, because it nullified religious conversion as a means for change of classification, and because it was more visible. Science contributed to the racist legitimation, classifying the human population into supposed races on the basis of skin color, ignoring gradations in skin-color variation; and ignoring the superficiality of using color as a basis for classification.
Beginning with the nineteenth century Latin American independence movements, and culminating in twentieth century anti-colonial movements in South and Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, the European-centered world-system was challenged by the colonized, and the colonial powers were forced to concede political independence. However, the global powers maneuvered to ensure the continuation of the imposed colonial economic structures, and to facilitate continued European control of the world-economy. Thus, what emerged was not true independence or genuine sovereignty for the colonized, but a neocolonial world-system, characterized by formal political independence for the neocolonized along with control of the world-economy by the ex-colonial powers.
With the transition to neocolonialism, imperialism emerged as the central practice of the former colonial powers. Imperialism consists of interfering in the affairs of the supposedly independent nations of the world. Imperialist policies support accommodationist political movements in the neocolonies, and they provide aid to governments that are able to contain nationalist popular movements that seek a more autonomous road. When recalcitrant governments emerge in the neocolonies, imperialist governments impose economic sanctions, support coups d’état, and/or carry out military interventions.
The United States emerged to become the dominant imperialist power. From the outset, the USA had exceptional characteristics in the unfolding world-system. The European conquest of the indigenous nations of North America was tied to the formation of a large-scale white settler society, economically and socially divided between an economy of small independent farmers and merchants in the North and West, and a plantation economy of African slaves in the South. Unlike the European colonial powers, the spectacular economic ascent of the United States was not based directly on colonial domination but on several key factors: a lucrative trading relation with the slaveholders of the Caribbean; the lucrative domestic trade involving emerging northeastern industry and the slave South; territorial expansion through the conquest of the West and indigenous nations; the concentration of industry and banking via the amoral practices of the Robber Barons; imperialist policies in Latin America and the Caribbean, involving continuous interference in the affairs of the nations of the region, seeking to advance U.S. economic interests; and profits from two world wars, culminating in the development of a military-industrial complex. As a result of these factors, even though the USA was never a major colonial power, it became a major imperialist power in the neocolonial era by strategically inserting itself into the world-economy that had been forged by the European colonial powers. By the end of the Second World War, the United Sates had risen to become the hegemonic core power, that is to say, the most economically, financially, and militarily dominant nation among the global powers that were at the center of the world-economy, which were economically benefitting from the exploitation of the nations and peoples of the world. In world-systems terminology, the United States had emerged to be the hegemonic core power of the capitalist world-economy and the neocolonial world-system.
The neocolonial era is a time of deceit. Neocolonialism pretends that an international community of sovereign nations has come into being, when in fact what has emerged is a European-centered and European-controlled world-system, constructed on a foundation of the five-century-long European conquest and colonial domination of the world.
The neocolonial deception has significant influence on political discourses. The global powers are compelled to justify interventions in the neocolonies with allegations of violations of democratic values and international norms, inasmuch as they are the leading nations of a supposedly democratic world order. Thus, the discourse normally distorts the historical and political reality of the neocolonies. In contrast, in the neocolonies, popular social movements debunk the deception, and there emerges a fundamentally different political discourse that recognizes the colonial foundation of the world order, and that proclaims the right of nations to true sovereignty. Whereas the neocolonial powers protect their interests in the world under a façade of democracy, the neocolonized call for an alternative international economic order based on respect for the sovereignty of nations, invoking the universal values that the neocolonial powers have themselves proclaimed.
The neocolonial era is post-racist. Once the neocolonial world-system reached maturity, justifications of imperialist policies were no longer based on the race and supposed racial inferiority of the peoples of the neocolonies. Today, the equality of all nations and peoples is formally and repeatedly declared. Interventions in the neocolonies are justified on the basis of some alleged violation of the rules of the international order, backed by ideological manipulations and misinformation, taking advantage of the ethnocentric ignorance of the peoples about the world.
However, imperialism is a losing game in the long run, because the world-system itself cannot be sustained. For two reasons: first, the world-system has overreached the geographical limits of the earth; and secondly, the desire of the neocolonized for sovereignty does not abate. These two factors are the fundamental causes of what I call the sustained structural crisis of the world-system.
The signs of the structural crisis in the world-economy became increasingly apparent to many influential members of the U.S. power elite during the 1970s. But they could not discern, or they refused to accept, the unsustainability of the world-system. They reacted with renewed aggression, trying to shore up the world-system and to preserve U.S. dominance. Accordingly, the U.S. government, first, imposed global economic neoliberalism, beginning with Reagan, justified with claims that government regulation undermined the efficiency and productivity of national economies. Secondly, it launched neoconservative wars of aggression following 9/11, justified as a “war against terrorism.” As a result, the United States has found itself involved in endless military wars; and it constantly imposes economic sanctions against recalcitrant nations that seek an autonomous road.
The USA is a declining power, as a result of its underinvestment in production combined with overspending on the military and on domestic consumer goods. Although the United States remains the world’s leading economic and financial power, its lead over other core powers is not as great as it was following World War II, nor as great over China and the emerging powers of the South. Its post-1980 turn to more aggressive economic and military policies is a reflection of its relative decline, in that it can no longer attain its economic goals purely through advantages in production and commerce.
Although ignored by the public discourses of the North, the colonized have forged their own political and intellectual project in response to colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism. The fundamental historical facts related to the colonial foundations of today’s European-centered neocolonial world-system are central to the narrative of the colonized, which has been formulated by the principal leaders and intellectuals of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean during the course of the twentieth century. It attained expression in the United States, a dimension of Pan-Africanism, the black power movement, and black nationalist thought; Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., contributed to its formulation. Jesse Jackson retook some of these themes in the presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988.
The classic period of the Third World project was from 1955, the year of its first international meeting in Bandung, Indonesia, to 1983, when the presidential baton of the Non-Aligned Movement was passed from Fidel Castro to Indira Gandhi in New Delhi. Its greatest achievement during the period was the forming of the Non-Aligned Movement, an organization of governments, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1961; and the passage by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1974 of its proposal for a New International Economic Order, which declared, among other things, the right of nations to sovereign control of their natural resources and to non-interference in their internal affairs.
The Third World critique of the modern world-system continues to be expressed today by leaders in vanguard socialist and progressive nations in the Third World. From the period 1983 to 2000, the Non-Aligned Movement had been hijacked by accommodationists to Western interests, led by representatives of the “Asian Tigers.” But the classic Third World agenda was retaken by the Non-Aligned Movement beginning in 2000, culminating in the second Cuban presidency from 2006 to 2009, which was followed by presidencies of Iran (2013-2016) and Venezuela (2016-2019). The renewal of the Third World project was spearheaded by the emergence of “Socialism for the Twenty-First Century” in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.
In the renewed manifestation of the Third World project, Third World nations have advanced much further in the implementation of the concept of South-South cooperation in practice. Today, the Non-Aligned Movement has 120 member states representing three-quarters of humanity, and it has the ideological and economic cooperation of China. The Movement today reconfirms the commitment of the neocolonized to the rights of nations to true sovereignty and to control of their natural resources; and it continues to uphold the principal of mutually beneficial trade among nations as the necessary road to global economic prosperity and world peace. Third World leaders today consistently speak against the most recent policies and maneuvers of the neocolonial powers: neoliberalism, aggressive militaristic imperialism, the unilateral imposition of economic sanctions, soft imperialism under the pretext of democracy, and the global war against terrorism. At the same time, Third World nations plus China are developing mutually beneficial trade relations, seeking to construct, step by step, in theory and practice, an alternative, more just, democratic, and sustainable world-system. The process has accelerated in recent months, as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) expands in reaction to Western imperialist aggression against Russia in Ukraine.
The public discourse of the USA has not known the Third World project and its critique of the modern world-system. This oversight undermines the capacity of intellectuals and leaders to discern the source of social problems and political conflicts and to see the path to their resolution.
From 1917 to 1988, the African-American movement periodically engaged the Third World project and supported its goals, calling all Americans to support the struggles of the colonized and neocolonized for a more just and democratic world. The anti-racist theories in vogue today leave this legacy behind. Focusing on textual analysis of racist individuals and inventing racial causal factors, they fail to contribute to an awakening of consciousness among the people of the anti-imperialist struggles of the peoples of the world. They turn their back on the moral obligation of the peoples and nations of the North to forge a policy of cooperation with the peoples of the earth in the construction of a post-colonial and post-imperialist international economic order that respects the sovereignty of all nations, giving nations the necessary space for designing plans and policies for the development of their national economies, thus capacitating them to provide for the socioeconomic needs of their peoples.
From systemic to residual and indirect racism
In slavery times and in the era of Jim Crow segregation, racism was integral to the system. People were taught a supposed superiority of the “white race,” a belief that was reinforced in political practice and social custom in a variety of ways. Systemic racism in the USA during the period was consistent with world-wide colonial practices. European colonialism had pretended to be on a “civilizing mission,” but it did not claim to be democratic, and it used racism to justify its undemocratic domination.
But neocolonialism does not need and does not want racism. In the transition to political-economic-cultural structures of neocolonialism in the 1950s and 1960s, the world-system began to deceitfully base its social order on democratic values. It proclaimed the sovereign equality of nations and the equality of all persons, without regard for color. From the perspective of the neocolonial world order, violations of this principle threaten to expose the neocolonial pretense to democracy. In accordance with its neocolonial interests, the U.S. government today criminalizes racial discrimination, and it adopts measures and strategies to eliminate racism and racial inequity, including measures of preferential treatment for persons of color in employment and education.
The claim of the anti-racism theories of the existence of systemic racism in the neocolonial period has different dimensions. First, they claim that racism exists in language, which can be discerned through analysis of spoken and written texts, and they maintain that racial inequities are constructed and maintained through racist language. In downplaying changed political-economic-cultural dynamics with respect to race since 1965, they present a distorted image of racial realities today, inconsistent with the real experience of the people in political and economic structures.
In identifying racist language and attitudes, anti-racism theories often are identifying residual racism, legacies of the past preserved in language, not generated by current dynamics. On the other hand, it is the case that new forms of racism and fascism have emerged on a limited scale in the neocolonial context, stimulated by the neoliberal turn of the elite and its abandonment of the people and their needs, which the anti-racism theory does not analyze.
Furthermore, anti-racism practitioners often identify racial transgressions in language with a tone of moral outrage, without regard for details and context, and in violation of norms of due process and civility. They thus provoke divisions among the people in a historic moment in which the people ought to be united in struggle against imperialism and neocolonial global structures.
Moreover, anti-racism theories maintain that existing racial inequities are caused by white racism. In this claim, they ignore historic, class, and cultural factors, which means that they overstate the actual level of race inequity, and they distract attention from accurate analysis and beneficial resolution of existing social inequities.
In addition, anti-racism theories sustain their claim of systemic racism through manipulative distortion of facts, selecting some data that appear to support their claim. This is consistent with their post-modern assumption that all claims are socially constructed, which permits all to manipulate data in support of the social construction that they are promoting. Assuming that objective truth does not exist, anti-racism theories are unconstrained by a commitment to truth. In their world, a claim has validity as a truth claim if it is consistent with feelings and lived experiences, and if it is effective in mobilizing support and pressuring the powerful to concede to demands.
Why has such an anti-scientific theory gained currency? In the first place, because it is in the interests of the black middle class, for it generates greater employment and income opportunities for black professionals, as black conservatives have well explained (see “Conservative black intellectuals speak,” August 5, 2022). And in the second place, because it is promoted by the elite, which has an interest in distracting the people from a united struggle against imperialism and neocolonialism.
The abolition of imperialism is in the interests of the peoples of the imperialist countries. Imperialist policies seek to sustain a neocolonial system that itself is unsustainable, having overreached and overextended the ecological and geographical limits of the earth, and confronting at the same time the sustained resistance of the neocolonized, who are responsibly and gradually constructing an alternative world-system. Moreover, imperialism provokes global conflicts, draining resources away from increasing the productivity of our economies in an ecologically sustainable form, and away from the protection of the social and economic rights of our peoples with respect to health care, education, housing, and nutrition. The imperialist nations ought to abandon imperialism, and instead seek mutually beneficial trade with all nations, thus contributing to the emergence of a more peaceful and prosperous world.
Racism is not the problem; imperialism and neocolonialism are the problem. Anti-racism theory undermines our awareness of this fundamental fact of our time. It seriously damages the capacity of the people to respond to the challenges that the nation today confronts. It has contributed to a debilitating polarization among the people, in which both bands are confused.
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