Revolution#127, April 20, 2008
Response to Obama’s Speech “On Race” Part II:
“Separate But Equal”…and the Myth of “We the People”
In Part I of our response to Barack Obama’s March 18 “speech on race,” we spoke to Obama’s claim that, while slavery was a “stain” on “America’s improbable experiment with democracy, the “answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution—a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law.” In reality the Constitution represented a pact between southern slavery and northern wage slavery. That this compact burst apart in a Civil War was a product of both developing antagonisms between these two systems of oppression and exploitation, and the resistance and the rebellions of Black people and others. Some 200,000 Black people joined the Union Army and 40,000 of them died in the Civil War fighting to end slavery. After the end of chattel slavery, the Constitution continued to be a framework for enforcing different modes of exploitation, and for promoting a shared “we the people” mentality and sense of community between white people of all classes.
Obama’s speech revolves around the claim that that the “two-hundred and twenty-one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia… is where the perfection begins.”
To make that case, Obama’s speech fast forwards past, and covers up, formative decades in U.S. society—from the end of slavery up to the post World War 2 era. In order to reveal what is being covered up, we need to briefly examine this period of history.
For ten years after the Civil War (the Reconstruction period), U.S. troops backed up the struggles of Black former slaves and some poor whites for political and economic rights. Black people and poor whites were given some land, and the right to vote. But these changes were not part of a program challenging the whole setup, and were short-lived.
To actually overturn the whole set of relations in the South—the plantations, the caste-like status of Black people, the entrenched racism…the whole structural subjugation of Black people—would have taken a profound revolution. Doing that would have required digging up the roots of the whole setup, something that would have been a tremendous thing. But that did not happen. After just ten years, Federal troops marched west to slaughter Native Americans (and were used as well to crush workers’ strikes in the late 1800s).
What followed was four generations of the sharecropping system in the South, where Black people continued to work in slave-like conditions (or even in significant numbers as literal slaves through the southern prison labor system). Former slaveholders in the South re-emerged as plantation owners for whom Black people continued to work the fields, this time in return for a “share” of the crop they raised—a share that, when they even got it, kept them in abject poverty and subject to a whole set of laws, oppressive social relations, and culture that arose on top of this structure and subjugated Black people, as a people.
Plessy v. Ferguson
At the turn of the century, the Jim Crow system in the South began to break up under pressure of the rapid growth of capitalist industry and the mechanization of agriculture. As this happened, segregation was enforced in the South with new virulence. In 1896, in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the United States Supreme Court ruled by a 7-1 vote that overt, legal segregation was constitutional under the legal doctrine of “separate but equal.”
A reading of the Supreme Court ruling is revealing: “The object of the [14th] amendment [that supposedly declared equality for Black people] was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but, in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.” [emphasis added]
What was being referred to by the Supreme Court as “the nature of things” was a whole set of social relations and ideas that arose on an economic base of capitalism and still existing sharecropping agriculture in the South. The Court’s logic demonstrated that formal (“political”) equality promised, but in reality rarely delivered, by the Constitution masks real and profound and systemic inequality rooted in the very nature of this exploitive system. The reality of “separate but equal” was Black people being forced to drink from “colored” water fountains that were often dirty or broken. It was Black children walking miles to school, past “whites-only” schools blocks away from their homes. Or—and this was not a rare event—Black people dying after being turned away from whites-only hospitals.
In Plessy vs. Ferguson, the Supreme Court adapted the Constitution to the requirements of capitalism in that era: Keeping Black people locked into subordinate, caste-like oppression in the South, and defining legal segregation throughout the country. That ruling defined the legal status of segregation for decades.
Immigrants Become White, Black People Stay Oppressed as a People
Obama’s speech is built around the claim that the U.S. Constitution is “a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.” No it did not. And specifically, during the period between 1900 and World War II, it was interpreted exactly to uphold and enforce segregation.
At the turn of the century, as segregation was being hammered down and upheld by the Supreme Court, big changes were happening in the U.S. In the North, capitalist industry was expanding rapidly. It drew on a massive influx of immigrants from Europe. At the same time, Black people were being driven from the Jim Crow South into the ghettos in the cities of the North in search of work—1.6 million Black people were part of this migration between 1900 and 1940.
The European immigrants who were driven to America in search of work were brutally exploited in sweatshops. Women garment workers, for example, worked 16 hours a day and took extra work home at night to make ends meet. Fierce struggles broke out between these workers and the capitalists. And these European immigrants brought revolutionary ideas to the U.S. at a time when the whole world was profoundly impacted by the 1917 communist revolution in what became the Soviet Union. Out of the struggles of the largely immigrant working class in this period came International Women’s Day, a revolutionary holiday celebrated in struggle around the world ever since. And May First, too, arose out of the struggles of workers in the U.S.
During this period, the powers-that-be singled out and viciously attacked radical and revolutionary movements; some 15,000 radicals were rounded up in the Palmer Raids of 1917 and many were deported or jailed. Especially targeted was the International Workers of the World (IWW)—a union that organized white and Black workers together and consciously opposed capitalism and racism. Federal troops attacked their strikes. Company goons killed their leaders. IWW organizer and songwriter Joe Hill was hung.
But the struggles of immigrant workers were taking place within a structure in which Black people continued to be oppressed as a people. The forms this took in the northern cities were not the same as in the Jim Crow South, but they were all-pervasive. Black people were “last hired and first fired.” They worked in the most dangerous jobs. White people, even exploited white workers, could relax in a public park that was off limits to Black people. Neighborhoods and schools were segregated, and schools for Black students were conspicuously inferior. Police, judges, and public officials were drawn from the ranks of white people. And all this had an effect on how white people of all classes saw themselves—it tended to obscure the real position of white workers in society and their real interests. Even though, in a fundamental sense, they had more in common with Black people than with the capitalist ruling class, white workers got petty privileges, and were enlisted to fight to defend those privileges.
Through this whole complex and contradictory period, white workers in general found their place within the white supremacist setup. Along with the suppression of anti-capitalist and revolutionary movements, the very terms of fighting for unions, and better wages and working conditions, tended powerfully to channel the sights and outlook of white workers into how they could advance—in opposition to others—within the system.
Meanwhile, the ideological poison of white supremacy got pumped through the veins of U.S. society, including very broadly in culture. Minstrel shows popularized degrading stereotypes of Black people. The movie Birth of a Nation— that glorified the rise of the KKK to “defend” white people—had profound impact in the North as well as the South in the year 1915 (and this movie is still treated as a “classic” today).
And through a whole complex of interweaving of factors, white workers in general, as well as other strata of white people, were being won to the outlook that Black people—people who were even more exploited than themselves—were a threat to their privileges.
This got expressed in very ugly ways. In May of 1917, in East St. Louis, rumors circulated at a meeting of white workers that Black men were hanging out with white women. Some 3,000 whites from the meeting rushed downtown, beating up every Black person in sight. A month later, violent racists attacked the Black community in East St. Louis. Black people were lynched. When the National Guard arrived, many reports say that they joined the attacks. Ditches and creeks filled with the bodies of Black people. Other such pogroms occurred in this same period, like in Chicago where 23 Black people and 15 whites were killed.
Throughout this whole period, Black people waged persistent and heroic struggle in every realm of society. In the first few decades of the 1900s, in the face of brutal repression, Black sharecroppers organized throughout the South, sometimes joined by poor whites. In defiance of both systematic mis-education and for many the outright denial of education, a Black middle class and intelligentsia developed (the movie The Great Debaters gives a sense of both the sharecroppers’ struggles and the emergence of the Black intelligentsia).
What emerged out of the workings of capitalism; conscious policy on the part of the ruling class; the promotion of racism in every sphere of society; struggle and repression of those struggles—especially suppression of revolutionary movements—was the forging of a shared “we the people” mentality and sense of community between white people of all classes.
In every sphere of society, white people were given privileges, and on that basis were mobilized to fight to maintain those privileges. And all this took place, again, within a framework of “that document in Philadelphia…where the perfection begins,” the U.S. Constitution.
The Rise of the White Suburb and the “Resentment” of Whites
The United States emerged from World War 2, a war that laid waste to much of Europe and much of Asia and Africa, as an unprecedented global imperialist power. As it moved into the former colonial empires of Britain and France, the U.S. confronted the rival Soviet Union (which until the mid 1950s was a socialist country). And U.S. imperialism was challenged by the world revolution in the vast regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
After essentially skipping over the era of lynch mobs and Jim Crow, Obama’s speech starts back up at this historical moment. He paints this post World War 2 period as part of “the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.”
Yes, at this point in the process of the development of U.S. capitalism-imperialism, some of the forms of overt Jim Crow segregation were being challenged and transforming into new forms of subjugation of Black people. That was not because constitutional scholars suddenly discovered that Jim Crow laws were unconstitutional, but because they were no longer essential to the workings of the system. Jim Crow laws and lynchings were now an international embarrassment. Further, they served and enforced forms of exploitation of Black people that were being superseded.
And the struggle of Black people continued. The Second World War (like the First World War before it) dragged hundreds of thousands of Black people into segregated army units, exposing them to the world, to people like themselves, and to new ideas. Black GIs returned from both these wars angry, and feeling particularly betrayed by claims that they were fighting for freedom and democracy. In this period, there was increasing struggle by Black people against segregation.
After World War 2, massive changes took place in the U.S. society. These changes were not the product of any kind of special ingenuity of Americans, but were built on a system that was sinking its tentacles deeply into the whole world. And those changes were driven—in complex ways—by contradictions that system faced.
For example, white suburbs, with their “good schools” and the “quality of life” so foundational to “the American dream,” were a product of a tremendous growth of middle class jobs and the bourgeoisification of a significant section of the working class on the basis of a share of the spoils of this global empire. This gave great impetus to the growth of the suburbs, and the suburbs became ideological bastions of racism.
In this same timeframe, five million Black people were driven from the South into the factories of the North. The plantation system was breaking down in the South, and there was the promise (often not met) of jobs and a better life in the “Promised Land” (the North). When they arrived, Black people encountered strict segregation in every sphere. And all this was enforced by conscious government policies, and reinforced by the promotion of racism.
To take but one example: Segregated housing. Obama’s speech acknowledges “black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages.” But policies like this were not missteps on the “long march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.” They were foundational to how U.S. society developed in this period.
The U.S. government subsidized home loans for huge numbers of white people, including better-off workers and middle class people after World War 2. At the same time, the form of government-subsidized housing for Black people was the inner city housing project, located in the already established Black ghettos of the Northern cities. This reinforced white privileges— by federal policy. And this overt, government-enforced segregation in housing fell well within the way the Constitution was being interpreted.
A whole upside-down mythology developed among white people that they worked hard for their homes, while Black people lived in slums because they did not. As Thomas Sugrue observes in The Origin of the Urban Crisis, “Residence in the inner city became a self-perpetuating stigma. Increasing joblessness, and the decaying infrastructure of inner-city neighborhoods, reinforced white stereotypes of black people, families, and communities.”
And that in turn led to a vicious, often violent culture of attacks on Black people who attempted to move into suburbs, or who entered “whites-only” jobs. In June of 1943, three Black workers integrated the final assembly line at the Packard factory in Detroit, and 20,000 whites walked off the job. Later that month, a racist riot broke out in Detroit as mobs of whites attacked Black people escaping the heat at the Belle Isle Bridge. Police stood by when whites attacked, and then moved into Black neighborhoods with “shoot-to-kill” orders. The official death toll was 34.
Equating White “Resentment” with the Struggle for Equality
Obama’s speech does acknowledge forms of discrimination that Black people have faced, and still face. But he presents this framed by the mythology of a “long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.” He claims that this inequality has been and is in contradiction to the “more perfect union” promised by the U.S. Constitution.
And Obama goes on to equate the anger of Black people at their continuing oppression with what he calls “a similar anger [that] exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience—as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch…. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.”
But as we’ve seen so far, white “resentment” of Black people, and the struggle against the subjugation of Black people are completely different things. When Obama equates this white “resentment,” on the one hand, with the outrage and struggle against the oppression of Black people on the other, he is defining terms that concede that white people’s privileged position in society has been earned. In fact, that position of privilege is a product of, and serves the whole setup of exploitation in this society, including the subjugation of Black people (and other oppressed nationalities).
Through this whole era, the U.S. Constitution, what Obama insists is the “path of a more perfect union,” was invoked to uphold inequality and the oppression of Black people. In fact, that very Constitution was a perfect framework for the capitalist system to keep masses of people of all nationalities in a subordinated and exploited position. And within that, to enforce the continuing political, economic, and cultural oppression of Black people in different forms, under different conditions, even after the abolition of slavery.
And as we will get into in the next installment of this response, the road forward, the road to freedom, is not through the U.S. Constitution.
* * *
During the upheavals of the 1960s, the whole system, including barriers to equality for Black people and other oppressed nationalities came under siege. This struggle was taken up by many people of all nationalities, particularly youth. Though not broken, those barriers began to bend under pressure. Racism too was challenged and began to break down in unprecedented, and very good ways. Revolution was in the air.
Obama argues that “we the people” need to put the legacy of that era behind us “if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union” promised by the U.S. Constitution. We will address the implications of this in the next installment of this response.
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