I wanted to share something really interesting I’ve learned from reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: there’s a distinct history of a) wealthy whites driving a wedge between poor whites and poor blacks to preserve class hierarchies that benefit those on the top and b) liberal/moderate politicians feeling pressured to pander to poor and working-class whites by giving in to right-wing racist policies that exploit their vulnerabilities and racial resentments.
As Alexander states:
“The most ardent proponents of racial hierarchy have consistently succeeded in implementing new racial caste systems by triggering a collapse of resistance across the political spectrum. This feat has been achieved largely by appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower-class whites, a group of people who are understandably eager to ensure that they never find themselves trapped at the bottom of the American hierarchy.”
Here are some examples. Please note that everything I’m about to state in the numbered list here is paraphrased and summarized from The New Jim Crow and may include direct language that Alexander used in her book. I just want to make it very clear that I’m giving Alexander the full credit that she deserves. I also want to point out that I haven’t finished the book yet…I simply felt compelled to write this all down when it was freshest in my mind after reading these sections in the book. Following the numbered list I’ll include some additional commentary that is my own.
1. In the 1600s, white and black laborers revolted against the “planter elite,” condemning them for their oppression of the poor. In an effort to protect their status and economic position, the planters stopped relying so heavily on indentured servants and instead imported more black slaves—strategically, they had them shipped from Africa, knowing that they were less likely to be familiar with the European language and thus less likely to form alliances with poor whites. The planters then took an additional precautionary step by extending special privileges to poor whites to further drive the wedge between them and the black slaves. The status of poor whites hadn’t improved much, but—from their perspective—at least they weren’t slaves.
2. The late 1800s gave rise to the Populist Party, which sought to unite poor and working-class whites and blacks against the privileged classes conspiring to keep them in a subordinate political and economic position. It was a genuine multiracial, working-class movement against white elites. Threatened by the potential potency of this alliance, conservatives proposed segregation laws in part as a deliberate effort to encourage working-class whites to retain a sense of superiority over blacks. Ultimately, the Populist Party dissolved under this pressure and realigned with conservatives. This culminated in Jim Crow.
3. In the 1960s and 1970s, politicians (most notably, Nixon) worked to erode the belief among poor and working-class whites that the condition of the poor was the result of a faulty economic system that needed to be challenged. Instead, they deliberately pitted disadvantaged whites against disadvantaged blacks, feeding off of white resentment following recent racial reforms during the Civil Rights era.
4. In the 1990s, with the covertly racist War on Drugs in full swing thanks to Nixon and Reagan, liberal politicians felt pressure to show that they were just as tough on crime as their conservative opponents. The War on Drugs, which disproportionately targeted black men, was popular among poor and working-class whites who by that point had been convinced that black progress, civil rights enforcement and affirmative action were the root of their woes. In came Bill Clinton, who picked up right where his conservative predecessors had left off and developed policies that would result in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history.
We now look back at all of these events in history and see them for what they are. Slavery, Jim Crow Laws, and the War on Drugs are widely regarded as racist and immoral. And now here we find ourselves at another similar point in history: we have a president who has exploited racial resentment and economic distress by scapegoating minorities. And then we have the mainstream liberals with their op-eds about the forgotten white working-class folks and the importance of catering their message to them.
But history shows us that when we pander to poor and working-class whites, it only deepens racial divides and gives rise to new racial caste systems.
That said, if we look even deeper, history also shows us something else—something that I believe is key to moving forward in a truly progressive and effective manner: there’s a distinct intersection between racism and classism in America that dates back to the 1600s. They’re so intertwined that we can’t really talk about one without talking about the other. We must acknowledge the deep history of wealthy and powerful whites driving a wedge between poor and working-class whites and blacks in order to preserve wealth and power. And we must find the strength to unite against that or risk history repeating itself…again and again and again.