Racism, Capitalism, and the Police

“There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Warren Buffet

Black Lives Matter.

I support the protesters. I support the rioters. I support the looters.

That said, I don’t think protesting, rioting, and looting will be enough. To truly pull a weed out, you must get its roots, otherwise it just grows back. Similarly, to effect real social change, we must address the root cause.

To that end, in this post I trace the origins of American racism and police brutality and demonstrate that they spring from the same well – capitalism and the elites that created it, maintain it, and benefit from it. I further suggest that to end racism and police brutality, we must end capitalism.

The Invention of American Racism

The following excerpts are all taken from the phenomenal A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. The emphasis is mine.

Only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order. In the early years of slavery, especially, before racism as a way of thinking was firmly ingrained, while white indentured servants were often treated as badly as black slaves, there was a possibility of cooperation.

By the years of the Revolutionary crisis, the 1760s, the wealthy elite that controlled the British colonies on the American mainland had 150 years of experience, had learned certain things about how to rule. They had various fears, but also had developed tactics to deal with what they feared.

The Indians, they had found, were too unruly to keep as a labor force, and remained an obstacle to expansion. Black slaves were easier to control, and their profitability for southern plantations was bringing an enormous increase in the importation of slaves, who were becoming a majority in some colonies and constituted one-fifth of the entire colonial population. But the blacks were not totally submissive, and as their numbers grew, the prospect of slave rebellion grew.

With the problem of Indian hostility, and the danger of slave revolts, the colonial elite had to consider the class anger of poor whites-servants, tenants, the city poor, the propertyless, the taxpayer, the soldier and sailor. As the colonies passed their hundredth year and went into the middle of the 1700s, as the gap between rich and poor widened, as violence and the threat of violence increased, the problem of control became more serious.

What if these different despised groups – the Indians, the slaves, the poor whites-should combine? Even before there were so many blacks, in the seventeenth century, there was, as Abbot Smith puts it, “a lively fear that servants would join with Negroes or Indians to overcome the small number of masters.

It was the potential combination of poor whites and blacks that caused the most fear among the wealthy white planters. If there had been the natural racial repugnance that some theorists have assumed, control would have been easier. But sexual attraction was powerful, across racial lines. In 1743, a grand jury in Charleston, South Carolina, denounced “The Too Common Practice of Criminal Conversation with Negro and other Slave Wenches in this Province.” Mixed offspring continued to be produced by white-black sex relations throughout the colonial period, in spite of laws prohibiting interracial marriage in Virginia, Massachusetts, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, Georgia. By declaring the children illegitimate, they would keep them inside the black families, so that the white population could remain “pure” and in control.

Edmund Morgan, on the basis of his careful study of slavery in Virginia, sees racism not as “natural” to black-white difference, but something coming out of class scorn, a realistic device for control. “If freemen with disappointed hopes should make common cause with slaves of desperate hope, the results might be worse than anything Bacon had done. The answer to the problem, obvious if unspoken and only gradually recognized, was racism, to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous black slaves by a screen of racial contempt.”

In the 1720s, with fear of slave rebellion growing, white servants were allowed in Virginia to join the militia as substitutes for white freemen. At the same time, slave patrols were established in Virginia to deal with the “great dangers that may … happen by the insurrections of negroes….” Poor white men would make up the rank and file of these patrols, and get the monetary reward.

In other words, the 1% of the time feared the white indentured servants would realize they had common cause with the black slaves and together overthrow those taking advantage of them both. To prevent this, they created laws and policies to create division between poor whites and black slaves to keep them divided. They were obviously very effective.

The Police

Not too many people are aware, but the institution of American policing came directly from these slave patrols.

Gary Potter is a professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies and the author of  The History of Policing in the United States. He says public police forces began around the mid-1800s. They were born out of slave patrols in the south and industry policing in the north.

In the late 1800s, police were involved in union busting. After major corruption scandals during the prohibition era, Potter says there were “efforts to professionalize the police.” This led to more public funding and starting with the Nixon administration, federal funding for police forces. This is also when police departments started getting military-style equipment.

Julian Hayda & Jack Hurbanis

Another thing most people aren’t aware of is that the Police have no legal responsibility to protect citizens.

“Neither the Constitution, nor state law, impose a general duty upon police officers or other governmental officials to protect individual persons from harm — even when they know the harm will occur,” said Darren L. Hutchinson, a professor and associate dean at the University of Florida School of Law. “Police can watch someone attack you, refuse to intervene and not violate the Constitution.”

The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the government has only a duty to protect persons who are “in custody,” he pointed out.

Ryan McMaken

Here’s a particularly egregious example:

Warren v. District of Columbia, in which two women heard their roommate being attacked downstairs by intruders called the police several times and were assured that officers were on the way. After their roommate’s screams stopped 30 minutes later they assumed the police were present and went downstairs, only to themselves be held captive, raped, robbed, beaten, forced to commit sexual acts upon each other, and made to submit to the sexual demands of their attackers, for the next 14-hours. The “officials” in legal land claimed that official police personnel and the government employing them owe no duty to victims of criminal acts and thus are not liable for a failure to provide adequate police protection.

Pete Eyre

So, who are the police really trying to protect?

Something true throughout the history of policing in America is the focus on property. “The police are primarily there to protect business property first, and residential property second, not human interactions. If that were the case, they would fail miserably,” says Potter.

Julian Hayda & Jack Hurbanis

In reality, police are the domestic enforcement arm of capital (analogous to the military for external imperialist affairs), and the only force authorized by capitalists to use violence to protect capitalist property rights. The history of police crackdowns on unions, workers organizing for better conditions, and minority groups challenging the inequality of the capitalist order goes back to its inception. Cops are class traitors, serving the capitalists by inflicting violence on workers when necessary, and keeping capitalist property safe from the pesky plebs.

Class traitor is a term used mostly in socialist discourse to refer to a member of the proletarian class who works directly or indirectly against their class interest, or what is against their economic benefit as opposed to that of the bourgeoisie.

Wikipedia

In other words, the police’s main function today is to maintain the current class structure, i.e. capitalism. Since racism strengthens classism, the police are encouraged to be racist. Here’s a fantastic look into the systemic issues of policing as recounted by an ex-cop: Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop

Economics and Control

Let us not forget that slavery was an economic enterprise. All of the horrors of American slavery were committed so that rich, white, elites could make money. It was profit seeking capitalism that created American slavery.

Michael Perelman’s incredible (yet dry) book The Invention of Capitalism details how that exact same profit seeking led the nascent capitalists to convert a self-sufficient European peasantry into wage slaves by force (emphasis mine):

Some of the forthright accumulationists, however, were sophisticated enough to have realized that once the work of primitive accumulation was complete, what Marx (1977, 899) called the ‘‘silent compulsion’’ of the market could be far more profitable than the brute force of primitive accumulation. Consider again the generous vision of Reverend Joseph Townsend (1786, 404, 407):

[Direct] legal constraint [to labor][i.e. slavery] . . . is attended with too much trouble, violence, and noise, . . . whereas hunger is not only a peaceable, silent, unremitted pressure, but as the most natural motive to industry, it calls forth the most powerful exertions. . . . Hunger will tame the fiercest animals, it will teach decency and civility, obedience and subjugation to the most brutish, the most obstinate, and the most perverse.

Similarly, Rodbertus, a German socialist and government minister rather than an outright primitive accumulationist, asserted:


Originally this compulsion was exercised by the institution of slavery, which came into existence at the same time as tillage of the soil and private ownership of land. . . . When all the land in a country is privately owned, and when the same title to all land has passed into private ownership of land and capital exerts the same compulsion on liberated or free workers. . . . Only now the command of the slave owner has been replaced by the contract between worker and employer, a contract which is free only in form but not really in substance. Hunger makes almost a perfect substitute for the whip, and what was formerly called fodder is now called wages. (cited in BöhmBawerk 1959, 253)

In other words, early capitalists realized that the market functioned as a better means of control than outright slavery.

Economics and Racism

Nor is the connection between racism and economics only in the distant past. Modern racism and xenophobia are fueled primarily by economic concerns. The motivation behind Trump’s wall is of course to keep Hispanic immigrants out of this country lest they “steal our jobs.” This of course was the same motivation behind anti-Irish and anti-Italian sentiment in the late 1800’s.

For the poor and working classes, immigrants willing to do their low-skilled jobs for less are a real threat to their livelihood. As long as capitalism-created scarcity has the many fighting to stay out of poverty, there will be the necessary and sufficient conditions for racist sentiment to form.

Whether pitting laborers of different races against each other, stoking racial fears through a sensationalistic and profit-driven media, or politically scapegoating entire ethnic groups, America’s white elite have successfully modernized age-old strategies of using racism to prevent the formation of a broad coalition of people along class lines — and across racial lines.

Keri Leigh Merritt

The truth, of course, is that it is the capitalists, not their fellow laborers, who are the enemies of the poor and working class whites.

“You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings,” the famous Georgia populist leader Tom Watson told a crowd of black and white laborers in 1892. “You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both.”

Keri Leigh Merritt

Listen to the King

Again, in no way am I trying to co-opt, distract, or detract from the BLM movement. I support it wholeheartedly.

I’ve tried to demonstrate what I believe to be a clear line of causality from capitalism to racism to police brutality. It is my belief that racism derives largely from economic motives and economic inequality. I further believe that because racial injustice stems from economic injustice, to truly address racial injustice we must address economic injustice.

In this, I am beat to the punch by none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. himself.

And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.

From King’s last speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, delivered in 1967

The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.

From a speech titled “The Three Evils of Society,” delivered to the National Conference for New Politics in 1967

King thought that if you could pull together the poor blacks of the inner cities, the poor American Indians of the reservations, the poor Latinos of the barrios and the poor whites of Appalachia, if you could get them to put aside their differences and unite around the meagerness and exploitation they all had in common, you’d have the makings of a movement that would break the old paradigms.

King had in mind nothing less than radical transformation, musing about “a democratic socialism” and arguing for a guaranteed income [UBI much?] and a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged.” “True compassion,” he wrote, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

LEONARD PITTS, JR.

Expand the Protests

While I wholeheartedly support protesting, looting, and rioting, I do not believe them to be effective nor sufficient methods of creating meaningful change.

I do not think the current protests are asking for enough. Changing a few laws around the institution of policing is not enough. It does not address the gross economic inequality that lies at the root of not just American police brutality but also mass injustice and unnecessary human suffering worldwide. What we need is the “radical redistribution of political and economic power” that King called for more than 50 years ago. What we need is the overthrow of capitalism.

Capitalism Must Go

Capitalism and the classism it creates and depends on lies at the root of racism and police brutality. If you want to address these issues, you must address Capitalism

But those are not the only evils of Capitalism. It is also the force that is driving ecological destruction and climate change. Capitalism, if left unchecked, will literally kill us all. Furthermore, in the pursuit of profit capitalism inflicts gross iniquity upon millions upon millions of people in the Third World.

What is Capitalism? In America, it’s all of us. Our entire society, our entire way of life, is built on the exploitation of the natural and human worlds. So I want to expand Black Lives Matter. Because really, that means American Black Lives. What about African Black Lives? What about the 9 million people who starve to death every year? Do their lives Matter? What about the sweat shops that employ 80% women? Do their lives matter?

Let’s expand the fight and make that radical change King spoke about a reality. As he said, it’s not just about black people, it’s about all oppressed people, everywhere.

I know I’m a privileged white male. And again, in no way am I trying to diminish or take from the BLM movement. I’m inspired by it. But if you support BLM, then you should support oppressed people of all stripes and colors.

Oppressed Lives Matter, Worldwide.

Just as there is White Privilege, there is First World Privilege. Our comfort and affluence comes at the cost of the exploitation of hundreds of millions in the “Global South.”

Ending police brutality and systemic targeting of black people is crucial and mandatory, but it’s not enough. I believe that the radical redistribution of political and economic power that King called for is the same revolution that Marx called for a hundred years before him.

I put forth that the modern American lifestyle is fundamentally immoral due to its utter dependence on exploitative capitalism. To all those who support BLM and consider themselves an ally to oppressed people, I encourage you to examine how your lifestyle contributes to the very oppression you speak out against.

We are all one people. Capitalism serves the few at the great expense of the many. Capitalism. Must. Go.

How?

As I said earlier, I don’t think protesting, etc. is enough. So what is? I have two practical actions to suggest.

  1. Don’t pay your taxes. The rich and powerful care about only one thing: money. So hit them where it hurts – their pocketbook. A general tax strike would absolutely bring them to the negotiating table. They live off of us. Their biggest fear is us realizing this, just as it was in the American South in the 1700’s.
  2. Meet as many of your own needs as possible. Grow your own food. Learn to sew your own clothes, work on your own car, etc. Until we the people are once again self-sufficient, the elites have us in the chains of the “silent compulsion” of the market.

We are in a class war. The rich are winning. It’s time for that to change.

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