Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Thursday, September 17, 2009

IS IT RACISM?

Everyone is getting into the discussion now about whether Joe Wilson's outburst, and the rabid support for it from the right, is an instance of, or evidence of, racism. Jimmy Carter says yes. The White House says no. Today, on the Huffington Post, John A. Bohner posted a comment entitled "The GOP is Too Crazy to be Racist." Here is, as they say in the blogosphere, the money quote: "[T]he color of the President's skin does not matter to the lunatics dictating the direction of the Republican Party. I mean, it matters in that it's icing on the cake -- but they were baking regardless of all that." He concludes by writing: "Are there some racists out among the crowd? Absolutely. Is race an overtone? You bet. But -- and it's a big 'but' -- is "the overwhelming portion" of it based on race as President Carter contends? No."

Bohner is right, in an odd way, even though he misconstrues the role played by race in American economic, political, and public life. His commentg treats what is called racism as a personal attitude, an aversion to people with skin somewhat darker than that of Northern Europeans, a matter of taste, an individual irrationality. But slavery was never about skin color. Jim Crow was never about skin color. Redlining and job discrimination are not about skin color. The Civil War was not about skin color.

My colleague in the W. E. B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass, John Bracey, brought this home to me one day during the very first year of our doctoral program. We were in class with the first group of doctoral students [that first year, crazy as it may sound, all seven members of the graduate faculty attended every one of the twice-a-week seminar meetings required of all seven graduate students -- by the time we got finished arguing with one another, there was scarcely enough oxygen in the room for the poor students to take a deep breath.] I was making some inane remark about the racism of the early slave owners, and John interrupted. "Bob, the English settlers didn't get to Virginia, look around, and say, 'this is a wonderful place. All it is lacking is black people to discriminate against. Let's go get some.'" He didn't need to finish the thought, because I immediately saw what he meant. The settlers, who were out to make a killing in tobacco, took a look around and said, "This is a godawful bug-infested unhealthy place, but if we had some cheap labor to plant and tend tobacco crops, we could make a bundle. Let's go get us some cheap labor."

Race in America has always been about forced labor, cheap labor, labor that can be exploited to make a profit for capital. The liberation of the slaves deprived the planters of their captive labor force, and the Black Codes and Jim Crow legislation that brought an end to the brief period of Reconstruction had as its manifest purpose re-enslaving that labor force in all but name. The ante-bellum slave owners were not phobic about people with black skin. They raped them, had babies by them, gave their infant children to them for suckling, lived cheek by jowl with them, and took them as mistresses when they couldn't have them as slaves. They used them not only as field hands, but also as skilled artisans -- wheelwrights, cartwrights, carpenters, blacksmiths, builders, architects, even factory workers. So long as the owners could control the labor of the slaves, they valued it, paid top dollar for it, depended on it. Once they lost control of that labor, almost overnight the myth grew up that the former slaves were shiftless, lazy, no-account layabouts.

For much of the last century and a half, the well-being of White workers, always in danger, has depended on excluding from the labor force a sizeable fraction of the available workers, so as to maintain a decent level of wages. Starting with the period just after the Civil War, that meant excluding Black workers from all but the most poorly paid jobs. The working class in America has been under siege for decades now, with stagnant wages and vast job losses contributing to persistant unemployment and underemployment. The election of Barack Obama has panicked millions of Americans, who fear that this highly symbolic event means a final and complete loss of the comparative advantage White Americans enjoy so long as they can effectively exclude Black Americans from jobs and some measure of economic security. Not at all surprisingly, the severe recession of the past year has been catastrophic for Black workers.

The recent outbursts are about the fact that there is a black man in the White House, as I said in an earlier post, not because of his skin color, but because of the threat that this legitimating of a dispossessed fraction of the American population poses to those already under attack by a capitalist economy that no longer needs their labor so urgently. The attacks operate at the level of symbolism and hysterical phobia, but the underlying cause is economic through and through. These attacks will grow more stronger, and the public faces of the attacks will become more unhinged. We are in for an ugly time in America. It is only a matter of time before there is an attempt on Obama's life. The Secret Service hasn't lost a president in forty-six years. Let us hope they can run the string out for another seven.

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