- Karl Marx to the English working class on the Irish question -
Let me begin with a very simple premise: most white people know little or nothing about the history of racism or the root causes of racial inequality in American society, have little or no interaction with nonwhites, and believe that people of color, especially black people, have no one to blame but themselves for why they linger behind whites on practically every indicator of social and economic well-being in American society.
Part of the reason for this is rooted in the failures of our nation’s educational system. Most white students I encounter in the classroom – the future leaders of this country – have either no understanding or have just a cursory understanding of the history of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, or the civil rights struggles of the past or those that continue today. And, most do not entertain any notion of the possibility of the lingering effects of the institutionalization of white supremacy that took place for most of the country’s history.
But, the most important reason white Americans know so little about the racial history of our nation is willful ignorance. Countless books, articles, and reports that detail this nation’s sordid history of racial oppression and its lingering consequences sit on bookshelves in libraries and bookstores in every state of the nation. If someone doesn’t know this history, it’s because they haven’t taken the time to try to learn because they, perhaps, aren’t interested in encountering anything that may challenge what they think they already know.
Rather than learn information that may clash with some of their core dogmas about race, most whites cling to beliefs that are based on self-serving myths and fantasies that portray the behavior of their ancestors and themselves in the most heroic of terms and paint a picture of black pathology not white racism or structural inequality, as the key reason for racial disparities in American society.
A mountain of social science research shows that a majority of white people believe that any privileges they experience are justified because they, unlike most nonwhite Americans, have worked hard and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. They talk often about how their ancestors came over to this country penniless and uncultured in the ways of American society, but through hard work, character, a deep faith in God, rugged individualism, and sacrifice, pulled themselves up from poverty, built a future for them and their children, and in the process transformed America into the greatest nation in the history of the world. Racial privileges, of course, played no part in this wonderful journey.
In contrast, people of color have relied primarily on racial preferences emanating from white guilt, and other illegitimate means to advance, and are today, mostly a drain on the nation’s resources and undermine its future prosperity. The opposition many whites have to affirmative action programs and many social programs designed to redistribute wealth such as Obamacare, reflect a deeply rooted concern that they pay for but do not benefit directly from efforts to address racial and economic inequality.
The support over the years most white people have given for the militarization of the nation’s police forces, the over-policing of black communities, and the explosion of the prison-industrial complex and the unprecedented levels of mass incarceration that result from it, along with the knee-jerk support of law-enforcement even in the most egregious cases of police brutality or excessive uses of force that result in the death of unarmed black teens stems from a pathological fear of the black criminal predator that populates their imagination.
In spite of the partisan divide that grips our nation today, when it comes to race, most whites believe that the key institutions that govern our society are for the most part, objective, neutral, and rational. Even the most abominable decisions white political leaders have made during the nation’s history, such as the acceptance of the institutionalization of chattel slavery, is viewed by most whites as a necessary evil and was done for the greater good. However, when government does harm, the belief is that it is usually directed at white people. It should come as no surprise then that large numbers of whites believe that they, not people of color, are the true victims of discrimination today.
These are sobering truths we must face and work hard to change because, otherwise, the future is very bleak. Until there is a recognition of the poisonous influence of white racial attitudes, particularly among working-class whites, the kind of racial unity needed for a class struggle to fight economic exploitation and political oppression orchestrated by the plutocrats will not occur.