Centrality of Race

by Sharon Kyle

Progressives in California show up. Los Angeles City Hall is frequently filled to capacity when activists want it to be known that they care about something.

The LA Progressive has covered many an event that was standing room only. To be responsive to our readers we try to cover as many of these kinds of events as possible. They’re peppered throughout the year—depending on the hot news of the month, sometimes there are so many rallies, town halls, or panel discussions it’s hard to choose which to attend. There’s always some way to get involved. A day doesn’t pass without something to promote, attend, moderate, speak at, write about, or support. We try to keep up, but frankly it seems to be getting harder.

Over the years, judging by the activity on the streets, you might think that left-leaning policies would receive wider support. But the policies adopted by our legislators seem to be going backwards. This point was driven home when looking at the conclusions drawn after two professors at Northwestern and Princeton Universities analyzed data they gleaned from a twenty-year study “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”.

Their data demonstrated that policies supported by economic elites and business interest groups were far more likely to become law than those supported by the rank and file. The 20-year study found that the average voter had almost no chance of having policies reflect their interests unless their interests overlapped the interests of well-heeled individuals or deep-pocketed corporations. In essence, the study found that money rules.

But it’s not supposed to be that way in a democracy. Weren’t we all taught in elementary school that this is the land of the people, by the people, and for the people? I’ve heard politicians say they’d be better equipped to do the bidding of their constituents if they had the masses backing them than if they had a huge war chest. So how is it that big money consistently determines the shaping of public policy?

As tempting as it is to blame politicians, the most obvious answer is that we don’t have a sufficiently cohesive mass of progressive support standing solidly behind any one candidate, issue, or policy. We have fractured parts and bits—each assembling in their own camps around their own particular interest. Our fragmentation strengthens the power of the well heeled. Taken to its logical conclusion, it is our separateness that empowers oligarchs.

This is simple divide-and-conquer truth. During the birth of this nation, the wealthy land-owning elite needed to figure out a way to maintain power so that they could continue to accumulate wealth while simultaneously doing little to no work. To pull this off and not have the workers revolt, they came up with a winning strategy that has continued to pay them dividends to this day: they created the notion of a superior “white race”. Before 1680, the idea of a single white race didn’t exist. The English, Dutch, Scottish, and Irish in what became the United States didn’t see themselves as members of a single race. According to historians, the words “white race” was not used in any historical documentation before 1680.

The workers of the early colonial period were from African countries as well as European countries like England, Ireland, Scotland, and Holland. They all lived together, ate together, slept together—had the same opportunities and disadvantages. Most were indentured servants or slaves but they were all treated the same by the elites. To the wealthy landowners, the workers were an undifferentiated mass whose only purpose was to work so that the wealthy could reap the benefits. Race was not a factor. It didn’t become a factor until after Bacon’s Rebellion.

Bacon’s Rebellion, instigated by Nathanial Bacon, was an armed uprising of the worker class. The beginnings of the uprising were primarily fueled by hatred for the Native Americans. But it ultimately culminated in a united group of black and white laborers successfully banding together and toppling the governor of colonial Virginia. The rebellion lasted a year. It didn’t end until after Bacon’s death. But it wasn’t until after the rebellion that the wealthy 1% ushered in racialized laws that drove a wedge between an otherwise racially integrated group. These racialized laws hastened the transition to chattel slavery and gave justification for the 3/5 Compromise. Hundreds of years of racial oppression and apartheid followed.

In contrast, South Africa’s apartheid laws were only on the books for about 50 years. While it is true that the United States no longer imposes overt state-sanctioned apartheid, the truth is it doesn’t have to. Its socially sanctioned apartheid systems are just as effective. In fact, they produce pretty much the same results as the state-sanctioned segregation laws of yesteryear.

Case in point: in 2018, public schools are more racially and ethnically segregated than they were in 1954. The vast majority of people in the United States live in neighborhoods with people who pretty much look like them. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court found, in Brown v. Board of Education, that separate is inherently unequal—and most importantly that racial segregation yields inequality.

Although not spoken of in these terms, today “socially sanctioned” segregation strongly resembles the state sanctioned segregation progressives so vehemently opposed in the 1950’s. Here in Los Angeles, as we travel across the city covering events, we find that even though California is viewed by the rest of the country as a bastion of progressive ideas and government, you wouldn’t know that by taking a drive across town on Olympic Boulevard.

In a recent LA Times article entitled, “Why Los Angeles is still a segregated city after all these years“, opinion writer Richard Rothstein points out that 60% of Los Angeles’ African Americans live in neighborhoods where few whites are present. In Los Angeles, the same is true for the Latinx community. On a map, the African-American and Latinx communities appear as racial and ethnic islands where there is a concentration of poverty and a disproportionate amount of tax dollars spent on incarceration. These neighborhoods have come to be known as the Million Dollar Hoods – where the Los Angeles law enforcement agencies spend the bulk of their time and money. These facts are not anomalies; they’re strong indicators of the deeply entrenched racial and ethnic divides our society was built upon.  An edifice that provides the 1% with a type of insurance that we won’t soon be uniting and taking the reigns of democracy.

Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren made no bones about it when he agreed with Thurgood Marshall and proclaimed that separation leads to inequality. This is as true today as it was in 1954 and this truth isn’t limited to education—its affects bleed into employment, housing, healthcare, and the justice system.

It’s not debatable that the vast majority of people living in the United States, political persuasions aside, live in racially homogenous communities. That has been a constant for at least 150 years. We’re so accustomed to living racially segregated lives in the United States that its hard for people to conceive of any other way. But it wasn’t always like this. And when it wasn’t, working people were a force to be reckoned with—hence Bacon’s Rebellion.

When giving a talk, author and attorney Jacqueline Battalora often begins by declaring, “White people did not exist until 1681”. She makes this declaration not just to get a rise out of her audience but because her research proves it to be true. You can hear one of her talks by clicking the video embedded in this article. I highly recommend it.

According Battalora and other historians like Theordore P. Allen and Edmon S. Morgan, the working class during colonial times did not see themselves through a<span
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Some of us, and I’m in this camp, believe that our separateness weakens the progressive movement. In his book, Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America, well-known white anti-racist Tim Wise makes the case that economic inequality in this country is caused primarily by predatory affluence. He maintains that until we address racial divisions we’ll never be able to accomplish our overall progressive goals.

I think he’s got that right. So whether you’re involvement in the progressive movement centers mostly on the environment, or the rights of the LGBTQ community, or healthcare, or the economy, or education or any number of issues that progressives care about—if you are not also focusing on our racially splintered foundation, you can’t be serious about winning.

The underlying message of everything Dick and I do is that we are anti-racists. The creation of laws that centered race in this country as a mechanism for determining who would be the haves and who would be the have nots was essential for the establishment of our current  system with its extreme wealth and extreme poverty. We’ll be addressing these issues and exploring remedies at the upcoming The Left Coast Forum.

Please join us on August 24th-26th, 2018 at Los Angeles Trade Tech. We’ve lined up some great keynote speakers that we’ll be announcing soon. Won’t you join the speakers, panelists, and fellow activists building upon sometimes disjointed street protests, online petitions, and siloed thinking to create the potent united front needed to reclaim all threatened rights and freedoms.

Sharon Kyle View more

Sharon Kyle
Sharon Kyle is the Publisher of the LA Progressive. With her husband Dick, she publishes several other print and online newsletters on political and social justice issues. In addition to her work at JPL, Sharon is enrolled in law school at the People's College of Law in Los Angeles. She is also the mother of two adult children, Wade and Deva and the step-mother to two children, Raheem and Linnea.

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