Give me a place to stand on and I will move the earth
I’ve argued in the past that the fulcrum of white supremacy is anti-black racism. A fulcrum, you probably already know, is what one rests a lever on to give it, well, leverage. Without it, a lever is just a stick.
I’ve called anti-black racism the fulcrum of white supremacy because I believe fear and loathing of black people is the driving force behind our racial politics. It has shaped everything from welfare policy to policing. While today unions may be working people’s best friend, regardless of race, the union movement in the U.S. has historically been as much about the exclusion of black workers as about the uplift of the working class. Today’s major unions are having to play catch-up behind this history in order to protect workers across the board because most new jobs today are like those historically reserved for blacks. In other words, non-union, low-wage, without benefits, contingent, and temporary.
Certainly we know that the original colonies were capitalized by the slave trade. And slave labor created the wealth that served both as an incentive for American independence and as the means by which it was won. And the policing of the black labor force, keeping it contained within highly exploitative systems, is the tap root of the modern American penitentiary. No wonder then that black people are so over-represented in our prison populations.
Our Constitution was designed to accommodate slavery. Even the electoral college is a remnant of a compromise that was struck between slave states and free states in forming the union.
Many have argued that anti-Indian hatred has been as powerful a force in shaping American racism. After all, native genocide was necessary in order to acquire the land and resources on which our country was founded. Anti-Indian wars were the drum beat dictating the rhythm of western expansion, and have ever since been part and parcel of the mythos of America. Any perusal of our cultural record, especially American literature and cinema, leads easily to the conclusion that murderous enmity toward American Indians has been a centerpiece of American identity.
Between slavery and native genocide, whites were able to accomplish something extraordinary in the history of the modern world. They were able to create a settler nation in which the settler class was able to almost entirely avoid participation in the exploited workforce. Long after the founding of the United States, in fact until the Civil War, European immigrants were drawn to the American frontier, with all of its hardships and dangers, by the dream of acquiring land on which they could be free from wage labor. This is the basis of the American dream. And white supremacy is why a land founded in slavery has nonetheless convinced itself that it is exceptional in the world as a land of freedom and opportunity.
And, I acknowledge that Orientalism, by which I mean the particular brand of dehumanization and othering that is suffered by non-white immigrants, is an important part of the story of American racism. The introduction of Chinese workers to the Southern workforce after the civil war was a seminal event in racial politics, further enshrining white nativism in culture and law, and making the connection between American and white more explicit than ever.
But, I still say that anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy.
Orientalism was the basis of Japanese American internment and contemporary Islamophobia. It informs our war and immigration policies. But American orientalism is rooted in ideological soil tilled by the justification for genocide and slavery.
Anti-Indian racism has always been about erasure. Genocide, relocation, containment, assimilation, these are the means by which we have attempted to vanquish Native Americans. In contemporary culture and politics we treat Native Americans as relics of the past or by never acknowledging native people at all. This vanishing facilitates tribal termination, violation of treaty rights, stealing land, minerals, and water, and the raiding of native trusts by our federal government to the tune of billions of dollars.
But while continued injustice toward Native Americans requires that we look away, white and black look one another squarely in the face in contemporary politics. The war on drugs, attacks on welfare queens and the food stamp president, and the notion that our social safety net facilitates dependency are all animated by anti-black racism.
Even the centrality of the story of the great American middle class in our politics revolves around anti-blackness. After all, when politicians exploit the proud history and current concerns of the American middle class, they are telling only half the story. The untold half shows that the massive government investment that created that middle class excluded black people and relied on their exploitation. That’s why the racial wealth gap actually grew larger and more durable during this period of so-called growth and opportunity. So when we stir the ire of middle class people over the erosion of their status, we stoke an anger rooted in white privilege.
For a fulcrum to be effective, it has to have a lever. Whiteness is that lever. Whiteness is shaped more powerfully by anti-blackness than by any other force because black and white people have lived in a deeply intimate and interdependent relationship throughout American history.
In America, all races fit together in a system of white political and cultural dominance. But in contemporary American life, black is the foil against which white is most powerfully defined.