Racial Wedge Politics Invented In Colonial America

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Racial Wedge Politics Invented In Colonial America

There is only one minority that is dangerous to most Americans. And that is the wealthy, privileged elite that rules over everyone else.

Black and brown Americans have known this truth for a long time; others have have only recently had these conditions thrust on them. Yes, the pain and suffering of the white working class is real, but so far the diagnosis has focused on symptoms and not the actual cause.

"Black and brown Americans have known this truth for a long time; others have have only recently had these conditions thrust on them. Yes, the pain and suffering of the white working class is real, but so far the diagnosis has focused on symptoms and not the actual cause." (Photo: Getty)

If your high school education was anything like mine, you'll be as surprised as I was to learn that there was no "white race" in our country until the idea was invented by some white plantation owners in Virginia around 1676.

It's hard to believe today, but prior to their arrival here, the Europeans had never thought of themselves as "white." Ninety percent of the colonial population of Virginia consisted of Africans, some of them enslaved and others indentured servants, and poor European tenants and laborers. Not only did all of them share deep grievances against the ruling plantation owners, but for three generations, blacks and whites had intermarried, worked, celebrated and mourned together. Questioning any of this wouldn't have entered their minds. Notions of mutual aid and common cause were second nature.

So, what happened? A small army of poor (black) Africans and poor (white) English frontiersmen realized they were getting their asses whupped by the landed aristocracy. This ragtag militia, led by the Englishman-turned-rebel, Nathaniel Bacon, attacked the royal English government and burned Jamestown to the ground. Ultimately, the overmatched uprising failed, Bacon died of illness, and 23 of his followers were hanged as traitors.

Recognizing that another insurrection was possible and might spread, the terrified ruling circle of planters needed a scheme. Their great trick was to drive a wedge between white and black workers. On the one hand, draconian laws were passed that punished whites for associating with blacks. On the other hand, financial rewards were bestowed on whites who captured runaway slaves. Perks like owning a small piece of land and a few minor legal rights were granted to poor whites, and their status versus blacks was elevated.

Over time, an artificial bond was created between elites and the white working class. This was the genesis and evil genius of creating "white identity" where none had existed. Gradually, working class whites came to believe they were better human beings by virtue of their skin color. The strategy, under various guises, has been working for 400 years, even though there's nothing natural, nothing biological about it.

Stock market guru and political pundit Marc Faber spews the fear and hate-mongering used to keep people apart who should be allies when he writes, "Thank God that white people populated the Americas, and not the blacks. Otherwise the United States would look like Zimbabwe, which it might one day anyway."

Faber is today's embodiment of the Virginia plantation owner. In recent years, communities of color have been scapegoated for the white working class's entirely justifiable grievances over decreasing wages and benefits and a precarious future where better opportunities for their children are slipping away. As the late George Carlin quipped, "No matter how hard you work, no matter how hard you try, you're screwed because it's all fixed. There's a club and you ain't in it."

Black and brown Americans have known this truth for a long time; others have have only recently had these conditions thrust on them. Yes, the pain and suffering of the white working class is real, but so far the diagnosis has focused on symptoms and not the actual cause.

That is to say, there is one minority that is dangerous to most Americans. It's the wealthy, privileged elite that rules over everyone else, those who own and benefit from our deeply dysfunctional economic system. Other than worrying that lower- and middle-class whites will catch on that immigrants, Muslims and blacks are not the ones threatening their well-being, these folks have never given a rat's ass about us, our children, or our grandchildren.

Finally, some people want to depict Trump sympathizers as fact-resistant, bigoted rubes. I've never bought this, and the sweeping claim that all 62 million Trump voters are racists, incapable of thinking and acting in their own interest, is smugly condescending. Many were reacting to betrayal by Democratic and Republican politicians.

I've never doubted that white working class folks, if privy to all the facts, are one pillar in constructing a social movement -- outside the hopeless two parties of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton -- that can change our country. For me, that feels like our best and last hope.

Gary Olson

Gary Olson, Ph.D., recently retired from the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. Contact: olsong@moravian.edu

 

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