Roseanne Barr’s racist comment got a lot of attention this week but we’ve seen this story before. Some of us remember Don Imus with his “nappy-headed hoes” remark or Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder remarking on black athletes’ domination of sports or Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s n-word rampage or Al Campanis on Nightline explaining why he believed black athletes don’t become managers. All had pretty good jobs and all were fired immediately after making those remarks (see links below for more on each of these stories.)
MSNBC hosted a town hall on the heels of the Starbucks training day to discuss everyday racism. Hosted by Joy Reid and Chris Hayes, the show had several guests, including Valerie Jarrett, who was the target of Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet. For me, aside from the 30-second spots where average black people talked about how they experience racism in their everyday lives, the high points of the show were comments made by Demos President, Heather McGhee, and civil rights attorney Cheryl Ifill.
In response to the examples several people provided where they emphasized how hurtful it is to be a target of microaggressions, Ifill emphasized that although she understood the emotional and psychological toll of racism, she thought it was imperative that we not ignore the material impact these episodes have on the lives of black people.
Starbucks and MSNBC and any other organization attempting to take actions they feel will bridge the racial divide should be applauded. But ultimately we all must come to the realization that we are all being played.
Several guests, including the Reverend Al Sharpton, expressed concern that the tone coming out of the White House and specifically from the president of the United States has unleashed something in the public sphere that is giving license to Trump’s racist base to do what had become taboo. Ifill mentioned the marked rise in hate crimes and said that the rhetoric is affecting the legal landscape.
The town hall talked with the two women who recorded the Starbucks incident where manager called to arrest two black men who hadn’t yet made a purchase. One of the women talked about the lack of education on race in our school systems. Heather McGhee picked up that line of thought but went further asserting that this country needs to do what South Africa did – establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with a court-like restorative justice body.
I opened this piece by talking about the many times we’ve seen this kind of thing before. America—or maybe its just the media—loves these stories. What happened with Roseanne and at Starbucks is the kind of story we now call “clickbait”. Do a Google search and you’ll find memes galore. The public gobbles it up. But memes and tweets don’t educate. They don’t get us any closer to understanding the root cause of America’s most toxic problem. I have said in the past and still maintain that if we do not learn from these lessons we might as well forget about achieving any real progressive victories in the country.
Here’s a little piece of history we all should know.
Bacon’s Rebellion in colonial Virginia in 1676 was a wakeup call for the wealthy ruling class of the day. For the first time, the colonial poor revolted in an attempt to change the order of things. Because of their common experience, a natural alliance had been forged between indentured servants and slaves. Both were doing back-breaking work without pay while the ruling class reaped the benefits. Colonial America had both African American and European American indentured servants as well as African slaves.
Although the uprising was narrowly defeated, the ruling class was keenly aware of the likelihood of future uprisings. With their power under threat, they had to find a way to divide and conquer that would prevent any future insurrections without killing too many of the very people whose labor they relied on to maintain wealth and power.
They came up with a solution. That solution, still with us today, remains as effective as it was three hundred years ago.
But before we delve into the solution, allow me first to introduce you to historian Theodore W. Allen, a man whose quest to understand how the power elite maintain power in the United States led to a two-volume set. Allen came to believe what has now been confirmed and reported in a recent study by Princeton University’s Martin Gilens and Northwestern University’s Benjamin Page: The United States is an oligarchy, run by a small group of wealthy power elites. It is not a democracy. I wrote about this important report last year.
For decades Allen immersed himself in painstaking research to gain an understanding of how the ruling class has effectively thrived in the United States in operating an oligarchy while politicians, educators and the populace at large tout that democracy reigns.
Allen understood that Bacon’s Rebellion was a natural expression of outrage that would be expected to erupt over an unfair economic system where labor does all the work but the upper crust reaps the vast majority of the benefits (not unlike today). In 1676, the indentured servants’ and slaves’ common experience created solidarity. This solidarity between African-American and European-American laboring people was a force to be reckoned with. According to Allen, it was because of this solidarity that the power elite birthed the notion of a “white race.”
The back cover of volume one of Allen’s book, “The Invention of the White Race” reads, “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there; nor, according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.”
Allen’s exhaustive research lead him to discover that from 1619 until shortly after Bacon’s Rebellion, the concept of race—as it is thought of today—didn’t exist. He found that the use of the term “white” to describe a race of people didn’t actually appear in the lexicon until after Bacon’s Rebellion. In other words, there was no functioning white race in the early colonial period. Instead of identifying as a single race of people, European Americans maintained the ethnic identity of their country of origin. There were the English or the Irish or the Dutch but they certainly did not see themselves as one people.
Science has now proven through DNA that race is a genetic fiction. Sociologists agree that race is a social construct. But Allen goes further, theorizing that the concept of a “white race” was an intentional invention devised and promoted by the ruling class in response to the labor solidarity that gave rise to the almost successful Bacon’s Rebellion.
Asserting that all people of European extraction belonged to a superior race called “white people”, the ruling class effectively created a faux alliance with the European American indentured servants specifically to create division and to inject enmity between the African American and European American laborers. The goal as to basically keep them fighting each other instead focusing on their common foe.
To further drive a wedge and weaken the power of the labor class, the power elite ushered in legislation that set the stage for the development of a formalized racial caste system, placing whites at the top and blacks at the bottom. Enforced by the colonial governing body and later enforced by the United States government, laws like the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705 established the tradition, still practiced today, of regulating black lives in ways that white lives are not regulated.
Racial segregation and one of its by-products—racial conflict—has been a thorn in this nation’s side since the colonial days. Recent headlines make it clear that race in America continues to be a source of disdain for this country both domestically and on the international stage.
The headlines today confirm that we have never recovered from the trap set by the power elite of 1676. To be clear, Starbucks and MSNBC and any other organization attempting to take actions they feel will bridge the racial divide should be applauded. But ultimately we all must come to the realization that we are all being played. Just as it was true in 1676, it is true today, there is a small class of that benefits when our attention is diverted. While we’re stuck in the racial conflict quagmire the power elite walks away with all the goods.
Understanding how we are all victims of this will help us to mount a real resistance. It’s doubtful we’ll be successful until this happens.
Here are the links I promised and several more.
- Al Campanis—asked by Ted Koppel of ABC’s Nightline why there were no black managers or owners in Major League Baseball
- Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder—when asked about blacks coaching, Jimmy’s comment got him fired
- Dr. Laura Schlessinger—in 2010, Schlessinger, a popular radio personality on KFI, went on a n-word rampage
- Don Imus—while watching a women’s college basketball team, Imus’ commentary gets him into hot water
- The Whiteness Project—a series of interviews with people from all walks of life sharing their experience of being white.
- Racial Equity Tools—the place to go to for people who are series about understanding and healing the racial divide
- Fakequity—does your company offer diversity or inclusion training that doesn’t do jack? Here’s why.
Publisher, LA Progressive