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Why We Need Black-White Unity to Save America-An Historical Perspective

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Message Perry Stein

Today's headlines are replete with stories regarding an ugly and thoroughly racist cartoon in the New York Post that connects President Obama with the worst stereotypes often falsely associated with African-Americans.  Meanwhile Attorney General Holder stated that the US is "a nation of cowards that needs to finally--and urgently--begin confronting the issue of race relations before it polarizes the country even further".  The race issue is once again front and center in America.  But what isn't being discussed at this time of economic depression is the need for black-white working class unity in order to establish profound and positive change in America. Why is this solidarity so critically important? Because only a multi-racial bottom up movement can work with President Obama to restore economic justice and fairness in America.


It's not surprising that as the economy goes on life support and people of all races and backgrounds face the double threat of foreclosure and unemployment the forces of reaction would once again resort to racist images and other attempts to convince working class whites that African Americans are their great problem.  It's an old playbook we need to review if we as a people are to overcome past mistakes and move forward to establish Dr. King's beloved community. 


This investigation must commence at the very beginning of colonial American history.  For this review reveals the hidden truth that at its inception colonial American workers, including white workers, were not racist in their beliefs and practices.  In fact historians tell us that for the first 50 years of American colonization blacks and whites commiserated with each other while enjoying a high degree of equality and solidarity.  However, as Norrece T. Jones, Jr.Associate Professor of History and African American Studies Virginia Commonwealth University, points out the aristocracy of Virginia had a different and malignant vision.  Specifically, from the initial days that the first settlers arrived in Virginia in 1619 the aristocrats had already planned if not acted to divide white and black indentured servants into first and at least potentially second class citizens. 

And the aristocracy had a real reason to plan to "divide and conquer", because as Margaret Washington Associate Professor of History at Cornell University stated "You can't discount the notion that black and white servants and slaves were going to unite over their common oppression. We have evidence of them running away together. We have evidence of them rising against their masters together. They lived together. They slept together. So yes, there was a possibility of a lower class surge against the elites. So that's a very important consideration for the Virginians, in terms of wanting to create one kind of labor force." 

And the planters fears were to be realized in what may be the most important event in early colonial history "Bacon's Rebellion."  The actual facts regarding Bacon's Rebellion of 1675-1676 are subject to a number of different interpretations. However, Bacon's Rebellion most be situated within the environment of extreme economic injustice where even during the early 1600's it was clear that colonial Virginia was rife with class inequities  Michael Swogger wrote that, "the class divide in the colony (Virginia) was glaring, with two different societies in existence. There was the plantation elite of the Tidewater "who dominated the assembly and ran the government," and there were the small farmers "who penetrated the foothills, or piedmont, of the Appalachian ridges, and beyond them."  The potential for rebellion was there and Nathaniel Bacon arrived on the scene to provide the spark that ignited the conflagration. 

Like a number of leaders Bacon was no saint and he probably was more interested in furthering his own personal ambitions as opposed to leading a peasant uprising. In fact, the initial goal of this rebellion was to eliminate nearby Native American nations.  This act of ethnic cleansing was carried out by Bacon leading a farmer/laborer army that acted without official governmental sanction.  After a subsequent series of political and military battles involving Bacon and the Colonial authorities the nature of the battle took on a new dimension.  And whatever Bacon's actual intentions he was now seen as the leader of a multi-racial working class/indentured servant army looking to subvert the power of both the local governor and the planter aristocracy, in support of the rights of the non-propertied majority.  As his rebellion waned Bacon took ill and died, effectively ending the revolt but not the planter aristocracies fear of rebellion from below. 

During the aftermath of Bacon's Rebellion, the aristocrats were smart enough to realize that an openly white upper class dictatorship could no longer rule Virginia.  Something new had to be introduced; The Color Line and the Racism System were the answer.  First, using racism the ruling class would divide and conquer: the Indian populations would be destroyed for the purpose of clearing land for industrious poor white farmers and newly manumitted servants so that they could obtain wealth and status to dominate those who would have no chance at either.  And for the first time white laborers were given certain minimal but tangible advantages vis a vis their black laboring brothers and sisters. As the noted historian Theodore Allen wrote in his discussion of the revision of th Virginia code of 1705: 

"The exclusion of free African Americans ...was a corollary of the establishment of the 'white' identity as a mark of social status. If the mere presumption of liberty was to serve as a mark of social status for masses of European-Americans without real prospects of upward social mobility, and yet induce them to abandon their opposition to the plantocracy and enlist them actively, or at least passively, in keeping down the Negro bond-laborers with whom they had made common cause in the course of Bacon's Rebellion, the presumption of liberty had to be denied to free African Americans".  Specially, poor whites were granted certain minimal but real rights and opportunities, such as being "deputized" as overseers to police slaves.   But the greatest concession to poor whites offered by the planter aristocracy was physiological, they were granted membership in the newly created (at least in American history) "white race".  Simultaneously, black people were no longer granted the status of indentured servants with the possibility of eventually securing their freedom; they and their descendants were now "slaves" a status they would carry until the end of the Civil War.


Centuries later Frederick Douglass put it this way: "The encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the Blacks, succeeded in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the Black himself...Both are plundered, and by the same plunderers." Or, as Douglass also said, "They divided both to conquer each."


And so we had the creation of the American racism system.  A system that has been battered by the North's victory in the Civil War, the glorious victories of the civil rights movement and yes by the election of President Barack Obama.  And yet a system that still remains to this day.

So the eternal question remains, what is to be done?  Do substantial numbers of white workers, especially but not exclusively in the South, continue to support the racism system and its right wing radio demagogues and the Wall Street banksters in return for their meager relative advantages versus blacks?  Or do white workers join with their black, Latino, Asian and indigenous sisters and brothers in a multi-racial people's movement that finally establishes democracy and justice in America?

The choice is ours, which road will we take? 
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Am a former policy aide to three US Congressmen, including Benjamin Rosenthal on of the first ten representatives who oppossed the Vietnam War. Subsequently I worked as a policy analyst for the New York City Council. Where I prepared hearings on a (more...)
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