Racism and Hate?
In the last two weeks lawn signs have sprung up all over our neighborhood condemning hate. The intent of those lawn signs is clear: they oppose racism.
But this identification of racism with hate is attracting well-deserved criticism. Racism in the form of slavery was not a matter of slave owners hating their slaves. They may have hated some who were particularly difficult and loved others. But slavery was an economic system that produced significant wealth for the slave owners who worked their plantations with slaves – a workforce that was owned and did not receive wages and was maintained at fairly minimal levels.
Any business that produces goods – regardless of whether it is cotton or electronic appliances – thrives to the extent that it can sell its products for more than it costs to produce them. One source of wealth is keeping one's production costs down. Wages are one important part of production costs. Where labor earns little, a business has a chance to thrive. Slavery was attractive because its labor costs were low. Slavery was supported because it enriched an entire class of landowners, not because these owners hated black people.
The end of the Civil War put an end to the institution of slavery. Afterwards the super exploitation of black labor was arranged in different ways by means of a set of laws we now refer to as "Jim Crow." No longer were black workers the private property of white plantation owners but their exploitation was enforced by new laws and random violence such as lynching.
Racism remains an economic system. The majority of black Americans are there to take up the slack of an economic system that is unable to create decent jobs for all who want to work. Black Americans are the first to be unemployed when jobs disappear. When they do work, they often work for little to do menial jobs.
The same applies to racism against other persons of color. Mexicans and other immigrants from Central and South American play the same role in the labor market as African-Americans. Immigrants from China built significant portions of the railroads in the 19th century and worked in mines. But the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prevented further immigration from China and made it impossible to unite the families of men who had come here to work but had left their families back in China. Different laws restricted immigration from Asia until, during World War II, China and the US were allies in fighting Japan.
Racism has always played a political role. In the slave south not all whites were rich plantation owners. Many whites were also poor. Their farms were small, their land barren; they had to work hard to wring a poor living from the soil. But the rich white people reminded them that they were after all white people. They had something significant in common with the plantation owners who were wealthy and politically powerful. This served to conceal the fact that the poor whites had in fact a lot more in common with the poor black laborers and tenant-farmers.
The racial divisions in our society were and are not primarily a matter of everyone's feelings about each other. The racial divisions were maintained because they were in the economic and political interest of the most powerful families in the region. The interests of the rich and powerful to maintain racist exclusions can continue to be concealed because most white people know next to nothing about what it is like for persons of color to live in this society. They don't know about the experiments where applicants with "white" names and applicants with what sounded like "black" names both put in applications for jobs and the persons with what sounded like black names were a lot less likely to get any response from the employers advertising jobs. They don't know about the different ways in which black and white students are treated in public schools, or the various myths circulating about how most people on welfare are black and that they are on welfare only because they are too lazy to work.
They don't know the sad history of the G.I. Bill for black veterans at the end of World War II. The G.I. Bill gave substantial support to all veterans to get an education and to get mortgages to buy a house in the suburbs. But black veterans in the South could only attend segregated black colleges that offered a very limited education. Colleges and universities in the North would admit only small numbers of Blacks. Many white veterans managed to go to graduate school and end up being college professors. That possibility was only rarely open to black veterans. The G.I. Bill guarantees of mortgages were of no use to black veterans because banks did not issue mortgages in black neighborhoods and those were the only places where black veterans would have been able to buy a house. Realtors would not sell homes in white neighborhoods to Blacks.
And on and on.
If we want to reduce the ravages of racism on our black fellow citizens we should stop talking about love and hate. Diagnosing racism as a form of hate misdirects our attention. It completely misdiagnoses the problems our society creates for person of color and why it does so. Accordingly well-meaning efforts to reduce the damages created by racism will miscarry because they address imaginary causes and conceal real ones. Talking about racism as a form of hate is not just an innocent error. It gets in the way of addressing racism.
We need, instead, to make sure that where we work or where we study black Americans are given the same chances as whites. That means that everyone is treated with equal respect. It means that each of us patrols their thoughts and behaviors motivated by derogatory mythologies about African-Americans and other people of color.
Well-meaning whites are often eager to "help" African-Americans as if somehow their difficulties in getting ahead, in getting and keeping a decent job, in finding housing in secure communities, in securing a good education for their children are due to their inadequacies which we, the well-meaning whites, can help repair.
But the disadvantages suffered by people of color in this white supremacist society are imposed by white people. If whites want to help, they need to learn what limitations we, the white people, impose on persons of color and try to remove those.
I do not think that persons of color in this society are aching to be loved by whites. They want to be given an equal chance to live agreeable and secure lives without being judged defective--morally and otherwise--by people who know no more about them than that this skin is dark.