A Socialist Labor Party Statement—


Why It’s Still With Us

Few problems demonstrate more graphically the vicious and antisocial characteristics that the present social system engenders and prolongs than racism. Moreover, that problem has, time and again, exposed the hypocrisy and opportunism of politicians and various reformers, both so-called liberal and reactionary. Decades of lip service to minority rights and legislative action at the local, state and federal level intended to extend and protect such rights have, at best, had only limited impact on some of the more overt effects of racism.

Taken as a whole, however, it is a grim and paradoxical fact that racial tensions, bigotry and intolerance are on the increase throughout the nation. Hate crimes are reportedly at an all-time high. Why? Unfortunately, as with many serious social issues and problems, the current increase in racial strife does not lend itself to an easy explanation or a simple one-dimensional answer. In fact, as the Socialist Labor Party has noted in earlier treatments of racism and related matters, issues connected to civil rights can seldom be readily answered with strictly theoretical arguments or abstract formulations unsupported by concrete material evidence and logical reasoning. Thus, a categorical answer to each of the increasing and varied number of racist incidents is not possible because individually and collectively those incidents stem from a more complex issue with many ramifications that need to be considered in their entire social context.

Specifically, to understand why virulent racism is still with us, one must take into account that while a great deal of effort has been made, particularly since the civil rights movement made its appearance in the 1950s, to minimize and alleviate the effects of racism, nothing whatever has been done to eliminate the cause, namely, the irrational, strife-ridden, class-divided capitalist system under which we live.

As the Socialist Labor Party, in its publication Capitalism: Breeder of Race Prejudice, noted: "Once one understands the nature of the strife-ridden capitalist system and the economic and material factors at work in this society one can readily see why the speciously attractive theory that prejudice may be overcome through education and scientific refutation of the race-haters’ lies is doomed to failure. For this theory is based on the fatuous premise that race prejudice may be overcome by reforming people’s minds while leaving untouched the social and economic conditions that breed [and feed] prejudice.”

This is not to say that there are none among the defenders of capitalism that realize that economic factors play a very significant part in determining racial attitudes. For example, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, in a recent column warning that “A generation of bigots is coming of age,” noted that recent data “strongly suggests that progress on racial attitudes is being reversed—with contributions from both races. Worse, this is happening at a time when the economic pie is shrinking [sic] and competition for jobs increasing. If the economic trend continues, racial intolerance is likely to grow.”

Cohen went on to note that those “programs” that resulted from the civil rights movement and may have tended to encourage attitudes of racial tolerance somewhat “were instituted during a period of [relatively] sustained economic growth, a boom time especially for college graduates, when jobs were plentiful. That’s no longer the case.”

It is significant that some of the most intense and sustained opposition to efforts to extend economic and social equality to black people has come from white workers whose economic and social positions are closest to those of black workers. Any improvement in the status of black workers is viewed as a “threat” by white workers in the job and housing markets where the two are in constant competition. The same is true in the field of education. Those fears are exacerbated by economic crises. Racism intensifies and spreads rapidly under the prod of sharpened competition for diminished job and housing availability.

More than a century ago, Frederick Engels observed, or rather explained, that “Competition is the completest expression of the battle...which rules in modern civil society. This battle, a battle for life, for existence, for everything, in case of need a battle of life and death, is fought not between the different classes of society only, but also between the individual members of those classes. Each is in the way of the other, and each seeks to crowd out all who are in his way, and to put himself in their place.” (Condition of the Working Class in England)

The efforts of black workers and their families to improve their conditions, particularly in the decaying urban ghettos, have led to another threatening development. Those efforts have been seized upon by racist groups and distorted into “explanations” of the worsening conditions in those disintegrating urban ghettos, thereby not only detracting attention from the real cause, but enticing white workers into their reactionary groups and activities. Whatever success the racist demagogues and reactionaries have had in doing so is due primarily to the blindness of the white workers so enticed to their own class interests. Instead of making the connection between the problems and concerns of black workers and the origins of their own problems and fears, those white workers have aligned themselves with their real enemies.

What makes all this even worse is the growing attachment of young people to the racist movement. As a column on the op-ed page of the Aug. 25,1993, New York Times noted: “The white supremacist movement in the United States wears a new and terrifying face. You could see it in the photographs that ran with the hundreds of newspaper articles in July about a plot foiled in Los Angeles to murder Rodney King [and a number of others]....

“The police say that this hellish scenario intended to ignite a race war was masterminded by a 20-year-old man...a former Eagle Scout turned neo-Nazi...[described by] one newspaper [as] ‘the epitome of the all-American boy.’”

One thing is certain. So long as the destructive competitive spirit generated by capitalism continues to permeate every aspect of society, racism will not only prevail, in many respects it will grow worse. For it is primarily a product of the conflicts generated among workers of all races as a result of the competition for jobs, housing and social services, all of which are steadily falling further below the need and the demand.

The record of failure that marks decades-long efforts to eliminate racism attests to the impossibility of overcoming that evil by a narrow and contrived approach to any or all of its manifestations. It illustrates the need to treat those manifestations, not in isolated frameworks, but in their full social context. Bluntly stated, the negative results to date are due to the fact that the basic cause of racism hasn’t been admitted, let alone addressed.

As Robert Coles, a Harvard psychologist, put it during the bitter conflict between blacks and whites over school busing in Boston almost 20 years ago: “The ultimate reality is the reality of class. Having and not having is the real issue. To talk only in terms of racism is to miss the point. Lower income whites and blacks are both competing for a very limited piece of the pie.”

If workers want to end that self-defeating competition, it is necessary that they realize that racial antagonisms are a tactical measure of capitalism to prevent working-class unity. A working class conscious of its political and economic potentials and of the means to achieve a livable world for all, can put an end to economic insecurity and the interracial distrust it breeds by putting an end to capitalism.


Socialist Labor Party of America, P.O. Box 218, Mountain View, CA 94042-0218 • www.slp.org • socialists@slp.org

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