Guest Post By The Barefoot Bum On Capitalism And Racism
August 15, 2009
My friend and colleague, Larry Hamelin aka The Barefoot Bum, is guest posting today:
Recently, Comrade PhysioProf posted “Diversity” In White Institutions, discussing the Witty Mulatto’s post, stuff white people do: use the word ‘diversity’ to avoid really dealing with ‘race’. I’m entirely sympathetic and supportive of the grievances of people of color, as well as women, and LGBTI etc. people (not to mention atheists). But sympathetic and supportive does not mean uncritical.
There are a couple of relatively minor things wrong with the article. The first is its lack of specificity: The author does not really say specifically what’s wrong with “diversity” (other than the implication that it’s not enough) or specifically what he would like white people to do differently. Additionally, diversity in academia and the corporate world is in direct response to the objectively true and legitimate grievance that various marginalized groups were arbitrarily shut out of these institutions. Diversity is half-assed, of course, but human beings are half-assed in general. Half-assed is better than no-assed, and all progress — scientific and technical as well as social and political — is nothing more than the accumulation of half-assed solutions.
More interesting, though, is the author’s criticism of “white” culture. The author doesn’t seem to be just criticizing a culture dominated by white people, where people of color are accepted only in insignificant numbers and/or only subordinate positions. In an earlier version of the article (since emended, I suspect), the author talks about institutions that can be “white” despite having a numerical majority of people of color. And, of course, we currently have a black man as President of the United States, and we are making real progress in including not only people of color but also other marginalized groups in positions of real power, not just subordinates. An implied criticism, then, is that such people are “selling out” to the white power structure, adopting “white” (and male, religious, and hetero-normative) cultural norms despite their technical minority status.
I believe this criticism actually has some merit. It is better read, however, as a criticism of capitalist culture. (And we white folk have to bear full credit and blame for capitalism.) Race and capitalism are inexorably intertwined. Capitalism requires a hyper-exploited underclass, and the hyper-exploited underclass in every capitalist society is composed primarily of women and people of color. White culture is capitalist culture, and vice versa.
Even a cursory study of history will reveal, however, that capitalist hyper-exploitation precedes and is arguably the cause of racism. Hyper-exploitation has been a feature of every society since the beginning of civilization. The first Western civilizations (such as the Roman Empire) were slave states, and who is more hyper-exploited than a chattel slave? And the original hyper-exploited capitalist underclass in every early capitalist state was differentiated not by race but by dialect, parentage and upbringing.
Racism in its modern form doesn’t really get going until the development of imperialism; in Lenin’s terms “the highest form of capitalism”. Imperialism features the hyper-exploitation of foreign countries for raw materials and labor-intensive work, and the foreign countries conquered and hyper-exploited happen to be full of people of color. (There are of course other contributing factors, including the American slave trade and the genocide of the American Indians, but these factors were motivated, enabled and facilitated in no small part by imperialist capitalism.)
There are exceptions, but social and political relations typically emerge from more fundamental economic relations. The social relations in the white Western societies pertaining to hierarchy and authority, the “work ethic”, the correlation of personal and moral status with economic worth, and other pernicious, soul-destroying and dehumanizing social relations emerge from the capitalist system. Of course I cannot read anyone else’s mind, but I suspect that if the Witty Mulatto were asked to detail what precisely constitutes the objectionable “white” culture that people of color are being assimilated into, he would name characteristics most of which could easily be seen as emerging from imperialist capitalism.
As long as we have capitalism, we will have a hyper-exploited underclass. And, given our history, that underclass will always be disproportionately composed of women and people of color. Simply allowing a few women and people of color into the tiny minority of the ruling class can always legitimately be labeled as tokenism and selling out. And there’s no feasible way (nor does it seem particularly desirable) to simply transform an exploitative, capitalist culture dominated by white men to an exploitative, capitalist culture dominated by black males, or brown women, or any other arbitrary group.
If women and people of color want to actually end sexual and racial oppression, hyper-exploitation and marginalization, they have to attack the roots of this oppression: the capitalist system. I don’t demand that they do so — their agenda is their own, not mine — but if they do not, I cannot see how their efforts would be effective.