Occupy Wall Street and White Privilege (Part 2 of 4) – The Historical Context

Part 1 – the problem

The very idea of a “white” person was invented in colonial Virginia in the late 1600s as a means of separating poor European laborers from poor African laborers, who together had shown a willingness to join in mass armed rebellion against their masters. African Americans became the enslaved workforce and European Americans became the slightly privileged, but still poor  and oppressed enforcers of the status quo. At the top was a much smaller elite group of “white” English plantation owners who arrived upon a master plan for  social control that has lasted until this day. Basically, the further down you can push people of color, the further down you can push white people too, so long as you allow some small difference in privilege between the two groups.

This divide and conquer strategy of race was ingrained in American society when capitalism was in its formative stages. Racism and capitalism fed and informed each other. They still do today. Neither reduces to the other but they are entwined like incestuous siblings. Dividing the poor and working class creates tidy profits for the few.

It is incredibly naive for a newly-minted radical cohort of white people to claim that unity in the 99% compels us to ignore historical hierarchies of privilege and oppression. Race, in particular, has been the undoing of progressive movements in the past, and it has been the failure of white leadership to understand the impact of race and racism that has led to these movements falling short of truly radical change.

Robert Allen in collaboration with Pamela Allen described this unfortunate historical tendency several years ago in Reluctant Reformers: Racism and Social Reform Movements in the United States. The authors studied six reform movements: abolition, populism, progressivism, women’s suffrage, organized labor, socialism and communism. Their findings are worth quoting at length. “Reform movements have been consistently undermined by racism,” they say, and they elaborate,

…two basic and important factors immediately stand out when these case histories are reviewed. In the first place, it is apparent that virtually all of the movements (with certain limited exceptions) have either advocated, capitulated before, or otherwise failed to oppose racism at one or more critical junctures in their history. These predominantly white reform movements thereby aligned themselves with the racial thinking of the dominant society, even when the reforms they sought to institute appeared to demand forthright opposition to racism. Instead of opposition, the reformers all too often developed paternalistic attitudes that merely confirmed, rather than challenged, the prevailing racial ideology of white society. Secondly, but equally striking, constant efforts were made by black reformers to get their white co-workers to reject and oppose racism, both within the reform movements themselves and throughout society in general. In each of the six movements blacks were actively involved, although the degree and success of their involvement varied considerably. In each case, the reformers struggled to have blacks included both as supporters and beneficiaries of reformism, since black people in fact needed the proposed reforms as much as whites (p. 247).

Allen and Allen focused on black people, but they note that their analysis does not preclude finding similar conditions impacting other people of color. Indeed, I strongly believe that is the case.

Not only have reform movements failed to achieve their full potential because of the inability or refusal of white leadership to grapple with racism within themselves and their movement. Even more problematic has been a tendency for white society to settle intra-racial conflict (i.e. conflict between large groups of white people) at the expense of people of color.

Class conflict in white society was minimized by the “frontier,” where working class whites could strike out and acquire land—made available to them by a white elite that enacted a centuries-long practice of genocide on Native Americans, and the military conquest of Mexico. In the mid-1800s when poor white people were given the vote in Northern states, black people were simultaneously disenfranchised. This included the few black people with property who had been eligible to vote at that time.

North and South fought a Civil War unprecedented for its carnage but within four decades veterans of both sides marched side by side in memorial parades. In the intervening decades, the North ignored the wave of white terrorism sweeping the South as black people were re-enslaved under the newly crafted banner of white supremacy and Jim Crow.

When the masses took a radical turn and threatened class warfare in the Great Depression, the new program of Social Security provided a safety net to white labor, but effectively excluded black labor from participation. These are simply a few examples. I can offer more, at length, but I hope you begin to see the point.

Make the rebellious white people happy, our history tells us, and you can write off people of color. Better yet, you can seize their resources to finance the outcome. This is a short term and racist solution. The short term nature is evident insofar as the need for reform arises anew among white people every generation or two (while it has more or less been continuous for people of color). The racist nature should be clear to you by now.

Part 3 – the current condition
Part 4 – moving forward