By Meghna Chandra.
Alas, my stricken kinsmen, the party is over: there have never been any white people, anywhere: the trick was accomplished with mirrors-- look: where is your image now? where your inheritance, on what rock stands this pride? “Stagerlee wonders”, James Baldwin
In September 2016, Hilary Clinton called Donald Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables”, the “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic— you name it”, and pledged to fight for equality for all Americans.
The image of Hilary Clinton, champion of equality, is a deliberate distraction from her many crimes against dark humanity, including but not limited to toppling Pan Africanist leader Muammar Gaddafi, leading to the reinstatement of black slavery in Libya, looting Haiti using public funds under the pretext of disaster aid, and creating the racist “super predators” trope that justified the criminalization and murder of black youth.
It is not surprising that Hillary Clinton and her followers misunderstand and misrepresent whiteness. White Americans throughout their history have not been able to understand the madness that they suffer from, namely, the delusion that they and they alone have a God-Given right to rule the world, drain its wealth, and degrade everyone who is not white. Black America has understood the invention and perpetuation of whiteness as an individual, national, and international phenomenon, and it is to Black America we must turn if we are to understand the crisis of today.
Whiteness as defined by W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, and James Baldwin, is a form of psychological, spiritual, and moral insanity that prevents those who choose to be white from seeing themselves as part of humanity. Their messages for our times speak not only to the hollowness and depravity of Hilary Clinton-style “anti-racism,” but to the crisis of whiteness in 2019 in the era of Donald Trump and imperial retreat.
The Origin of the White World Order
In Chapter 2 of Black Reconstruction by W.E.B. Du Bois, Du Bois explains the historical origin of whiteness in America during the antebellum period among both the Northern and Southern proletariat. The attitudes of the white worker towards the black worker set the foundation for the world capitalist system in the 20th century.
Du Bois explained how whiteness was not a given category and how black people had the right to vote up until the 19th century in various parts of the country. New immigrants to the US “innocently” protested slavery as a contradiction of their religious principles. However, as immigrants began to compete with black workers, who were forced to work for lower wages than whites, their attitudes changed. The white workers in the North did not support the abolition movement because they feared that freed black workers would drive up competition for white workers and impoverish them further. Even Karl Marx’s friend, Hermann Kriege, opposed abolition:
“The trade unions were willing to admit that the Negroes ought to be free sometime; but at the present, self-preservation called for their slavery; and after all, whites were a different grade of workers from blacks. Even when the Marxian ideas arrived, there was a split; the earlier representatives of Marxian philosophy in America agreed with the older Union movement in deprecating any entanglement with the abolition controversy. After all, abolition represented capital. The whole movement was based on mawkish sentimentality, and not on the demands of the workers, at least of the white workers. And so the early American Marxists simply gave up the idea of intruding the black worker into the socialist commonwealth at the time.”
By placing their material interests over “mawkish sentimentality”, white workers blinded themselves to the reality that the existence of slave labor would drive all labor towards slavery. Rather than making common cause with black labor, white labor ignored that the black worker was a part of the system of the extraction of raw material that Northern capital used to exploit the industrial worker.
Du Bois completes his picture of the white worker with the Southern white proletariat, that almost “forgotten mass of men,” ignored by everyone, including the labor movement. These men and women lived in conditions of abject poverty often worse than black slaves. In the South at the time of the Civil War, there were 5,000,000 non-slaveholding poor whites to 8,000 planters. Du Bois explained how this broad mass of white people supported their own system of oppression:
“While revolt against the domination of the planters over the poor whites was voiced by men like Helper, who called for a class struggle to destroy the planters, this was nullified by deep-rooted antagonism to the Negro, whether slave or free. If black labor could be expelled from the US or eventually exterminated, then the fight against the planter could take place. But the poor whites and their leaders could not for a moment contemplate a fight of united white and black labor against the exploiters. Indeed, the natural leaders of the poor whites, the small farmer, the merchant, the professional man, the white mechanic and slave overseer, were bound to the planters and repelled from the slaves and even from the mass of the white laborers in two ways: first, they constituted the police patrol who could ride with planters and now and then exercise unlimited force upon recalcitrant or runaway slaves; and then, too, there was always a chance that they themselves might also become planters by saving money by investment by the power of good luck; and the only heaven that attracted them was the life of the great Southern planter”
The completely irrational aspiration of poor whites that they could become slave owners prevented them from taking action against the feudal oligarchy. They would languish in poverty and barbarism waiting for the extermination of black people rather than wage a unified struggle with them against the planters. Because Southern workers had no chance against the competition of slave labor, they were driven to impoverishment, and there was no labor movement in the South to speak of.
Neither Southern nor Northern white Laborers could see that their interests lay in making common cause with black labor, because they could not recognize black labor for what it was— the founding stone of modern industry. In emphasizing material interests over morality, whites ironically strengthened world capitalism, laying the basis for World War and Depression. As Du Bois concludes:
“Indeed, the plight of the white working class throughout the world today is directly traceable to Negro slavery in America, on which modern commerce and industry was founded, and which persisted to threaten free labor until it was partially overthrown in 1863. The resulting color caste founded and retained by capitalism was adopted, forwarded and approved by white labor, and resulted in subordination of colored labor to white profits the world over. Thus the majority of the world’s laborers, by the insistence of white labor, became the basis of a system of industry which ruined democracy and showed its perfect fruit in World War and Depression…”
Whiteness as War
In his essay “The African Roots of War”, Du Bois links whiteness to the allegiance to the European nation state and acquiescence to war. The essay explains the true cause of World War I as the struggle over which Western power will control the wealth of Africa. In this struggle, the white worker aligned with white capital to share the spoils of exploiting the dark world.
“…the white workingman has been asked to share the spoil of exploiting ‘chinks and niggers.’ It is no longer simply the merchant prince, or the aristocratic monopoly, or even the employing class, that is exploiting the world: it is the nation; a new democratic nation composed of united capital and labor. The laborers are not yet getting, to be sure, as large a share as they want or will get, and there are still at the bottom large and restless excluded classes. But the laborer’s equity is recognized, and his just share is a matter of time, intelligence, and skillful negotiation.
Such nations it is that rule the modern world. Their national bond is no mere sentimental patriotism, loyalty, or ancestor-worship. It is increased wealth, power, and luxury for all classes on a scale the world never saw before. Never before was the average citizen of England, France, and Germany so rich, with such spending prospects of greater riches.
Whence comes this new wealth and on what does its accumulation depend? It comes primarily from the darker nations of the world–Asia and Africa, South and Central America, the West Indies and the islands of the South Sea…”
In exchange for agreeing to war, white people in advanced industrial countries were offered the opportunity to share in the spoils of war by increasing their living standards as consumers and reaping the psychological benefits of being “white.” The cleverest among them were given the opportunity to join the class of exploiters. This point would be echoed two years later by Lenin in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, in which Lenin traces the evolution in the world capitalist system towards war as the outcome of anti-imperialist rivalry, the bourgeoisification of the proletariat of advanced capitalist countries, and the opportunism of Social Democrats in supporting war over humanity.
Whiteness, in other words, meant seeing yourself in alliance with empire, rather than as a part of a world movement of workers. It meant trading solidarity for material comfort, knowledge for ignorance, and humility for imperial arrogance.
After World War II, the United States occupied the role that a war-torn Europe had played in maintaining the system of colonial exploitation. From the War with Korea to the War in Vietnam, the United States assumed the mantle of guardian and guarantor of the white world order.
In Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech “Beyond Vietnam” he says the white American nation means “those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments….” He speaks of the evils of empire that must be rejected and replaced by a revolution of values:
“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Dr. King understood the White World Order as a fundamentally anti-human one that not only murdered innocent people abroad but divested Americans of their humanity. In order to move forward as a people, Americans would have to give up the values that defined whiteness— racism, materialism, and militarism—and embrace wisdom, justice, and love. In order to save America from its spiritual death, Americans had to redirect money spent on oppressing others to programs of social uplift and healing. To give up whiteness meant giving up war and embracing peace.
The 2016 Election: A Crack in the Mirror
The Election of 2016 was an unprecedented event in American history. A politically incorrect, crude talking billionaire with zero political experience assumed the throne of the imperial presidency. He campaigned on ending the Trans Pacific Partnership, ending open borders, opposing regime change wars like the one in Libya that deposed Gadaffi, and putting America first by giving jobs back to the forgotten American victims of the global world order. Bastions of the Western World Order like the Financial Times, New York Times, and Washington Post regularly lambast him for his “recklessness”, “corruption”, and “bigotry”.
The truth is, America is itself “reckless”, “corrupt” and “bigoted”; Donald Trump cracks the mirror of white America. As James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time:
“…a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror. All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there.”
White America cannot look at its pathology, and instead pathologizes the rest of the world. To look at its own self beyond the solipsism of the mirror would be catastrophic. By painting Trump and the dispossessed poor whites as the bigot, it tries to absolve itself of its crimes, but it cannot.
The Anti-Trump movement labeled Trump as a fascist and white supremacist. The implication is that they are not also fascist and white supremacist. Black America cannot believe in the moral authority of a pre-Trump American order because they have long been the victims of it. As Baldwin says:
“…white people, who had robbed black people of their liberty and who profited by this theft every hour that they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand. They had the judges, the juries, the shotguns, the law–in a word, power. But it was a criminal power, to be feared but not respected, and do be outwitted in any way whatever. And those virtues preached but not practiced by the white world were merely another means of holding Negroes in subjection”
White America preaches moral authority, fairness and justice, and equality, but black America knows that it is a lie. The illegal wars all over the world, the destabilization of anti-imperialist governments, the mass imprisonment of black men, the gentrification of cities under Democratic-Party governments perpetrated by white people with Black Lives Matters signs is the truth to this lie.
Trump’s crack in the mirror has spread throughout the western world. Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times describes Trump as a “world historic figure” because:
“…he broke decisively with the elite consensus about how the US should handle its relationship with the rest of the world. Previous presidents had either denied the erosion in American power, or sought quietly to manage it…”
Another Financial Times article by Edward Luce laments that Trump is “on track to splinter the West” by suggesting breaking from NATO and its allies, seeking alliances with Vladmir Putin, and pursuing peace in North Korea. The fact that Donald Trump refuses to stand for “human rights” as defined by the West enrages them. As Donald Trump said during an interview with Bill O’Reilly in which O’Reilly accused Putin of being a killer, Trump said “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”. In a follow up interview on The Morning Joe, he said “I think our country does plenty of killing also… There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, a lot of killing, a lot of stupidity”.
The assessment of Trump as a break from the Western World order is shared not only by the champions of the West, but by its enemies. President Bashar-Al Assad, who is leading his country against the United States’ regime change war against Syria, said of Donald Trump:
“As for Trump, you might ask me a question and I give you an answer that might sound strange. I say that he is the best American President, not because his policies are good, but because he is the most transparent president. All American presidents perpetuate all kinds of political atrocities and all crimes and yet still win the Nobel Prize and project themselves as defenders of human rights and noble and unique American values, or Western values in general. The reality is that they are a group of criminals who represent the interests of American lobbies, i.e. the large oil and arms companies, and others. Trump talks transparently, saying that what we want is oil. This is the reality of American policy, at least since WWII. We want to get rid of such and such a person or we want to offer a service in return for money. This is the reality of American policy. What more do we need than a transparent opponent?”
Trump’s transparency is a refreshing break from the lies of whiteness. It is only in cracking the mirror that white America can move beyond its lies towards a different kind of future.
The Crisis of Whiteness, the Search for White Leadership and the Hope for Peace
James Baldwin speaks of whiteness as a fiction, a moral choice made by whites to choose “safety over life,” to dehumanize black people, to place their material desires over the survival of their own children. He says that the black community has paid a terrible price for the lack of moral leadership in white communities, and that “those who believed that they could control and define Black people divested themselves of the power to control and define themselves.”
In the age of deindustrialization and neoliberalism, the gap between whites and blacks has narrowed, with whites being pushed into more dire straits as their communities are ravaged by deindustrialization, unemployment, opioids, and a feeling of pessimism and despair. Non-Hispanic whites are the only ethnic group in America that has seen a fall in life expectancy. Midlife expectancy among whites has decreased sharply because of suicide and drug overdose, alongside an increase in reports of poor health, mental health, chronic pain, and deterioration of liver function.
In our times, what is needed is a moral leadership in the white community that guides white Americans, who are perhaps more disillusioned than ever with the idea of American supremacy enforced by endless wars away from whiteness towards humanity.
The Civil Rights Movement
The most sacred example of this leadership in our recent history is that of white people who participated in the Civil Rights movement. Unlike the white labor movement that put material interests above human equality, the white students and workers who participated in the Civil Rights movement were inspired by the moral courage of nonviolent freedom fighters and the clarity of black leadership. They understood the movement not as a movement for diversity in the halls of power, but a revolutionary movement for the rebirth of American society.
Anne and Carl Braden were some of the most remarkable examples of this leadership. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Dr. King singled out Anne as one of the few whites in the movement who correctly grasped the significance of the social revolution of the Civil Rights movement. Anne Braden was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1924 and raised in Anniston, Alabama, the site where the original Freedom Riders were firebombed. She moved back to Louisville to work for the Louisville Times when she realized the depravity of the white supremacist legal system, and the role that white Southern women played in justifying the murder of black men. She speaks of following the call of her black comrades to choose to be a part of the “other America” that struggled against slavery, formed cross-class alliances throughout Reconstruction, and fought against injustice.
In 1954, the Bradens bought a house in the Louisville suburbs on behalf of Andrew Wade, a black World War II veteran looking for a decent place to raise his children. The Wades faced threats and violence as soon as they moved into the neighborhood, including a bombing under the window of their 3 year old daughter. Rather than persecute the people who blew up the bomb, the State of Kentucky persecuted the Bradens for buying the house as part of a “communist plot”. Carl Braden was sentenced to 15 years in jail and a $5000 dollar fine, but after 8 months, his conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court on a technicality. As Anne said:
“The anti-communist sort of hysteria that was gripping the country and the anti-black hysteria that was certainly gripping the South all got rolled up in a ball and rolled at us. We were traitors to our race, we were communists, we were evil, we were the devil”
Rather than cowing down to red-baiting, Anne Braden wrote The Wall Between as a memoir of the case, using it as a platform to publicize the struggle against housing segregation.
The Bradens joined an organization called the Southern Christian Education Fund (SCEF) that was dedicated to reaching and bringing the white Southerner into a coalition with the black Southerner. She wrote for a newspaper called The Southern Patriot that reported on the Civil Rights movement in the South, making Civil Rights workers aware of the work going on even before the movement gained momentum. The efforts of the SCEF to organize the poor of Appalachia in the Southern Mountain Project, were the basis of white participation in the Poor People’s Campaign.
Anne and Carl Braden inspired and mentored dozens of activists, including union organizer Kay Tillow. Tillow got her start in activism on the picket line with the NAACP. She went South to participate in Civil Rights struggles in Hattiesburg and Atlanta. She worked with a group called the Appalachian Committee for Full Employment in Eastern Kentucky and marched on Frankfort for jobs and freedom in 1964. She went on to become a union organizer with United Electrical Workers and 1199 National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, organizing majority white bargaining units into a black-led civil rights union in places like Wilkes-Barre, Butler, Spangler, Huntington, Washington, and Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. She cites the Civil Rights movement as the foundation, strength, and moral compulsion behind the Anti-War movements and Labor movements:
“I think that the Civil Rights Movement was the foundation of the ability of people to do the other organizing. I think that that was the catalyst and the strength and momentum. That was the powerful movement that really changed the country, made it totally different, and made it possible for people to do these other kinds of things… The power of common people coming together is very compelling and gives you all kinds of ideas about what you might change.”
Some whites who stood for equality became martyrs. Postman William Lewis Moore, Reverend Bruce Klunder, Reverend James Reeb, Civil Rights workers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, housewife Viola Liuzzo, and seminary student Johnathan Myrick Daniels were murdered by those white people whose whiteness had divested them of their humanity.
The Young Patriots
Another example of white leadership that rejected whiteness is The Young Patriots, a group of poor whites who came out of Civil Rights organizations of the early 60s. They joined the Rainbow coalition led by Black Panther, Fred Hampton, that aligned with anticolonial struggles in the third world against American imperialism. They adopted the Confederate Flag as their symbol because they understood the Civil War as a battle between Northern industrialists and a Southern oligarchy, with poor whites caught between. As they said in their newspaper
“From historical experience, we know that the people make the meaning of a flag… This time we mean to see that the spirit of rebellion finds and smashes the real enemy rather than our brothers and sisters in oppression.”
They also adopted the flag in defiance of the middle class student white left which in its guilt ignored poor whites and valued political correctness over learning from the people.
As they wrote in the February 17, 1970 issue of The Black Panther
“The Patriot Party is dealing with the survival of our people–the poor and oppressed white people. We’re sick and tired of certain people and groups telling us “there ain’t no such thing as poor and oppressed white people,” that’s where the Patriot Party comes in–we’re that ‘no such thing’–we’re the people from all over Babylon–north, south, Appalachia–where our children die at four because of starvation and indecent housing–the poor and oppressed white people. The so called ‘movement’ better begin to realize, that–first of all-we’re human beings, we’re real; second–we’ve always been here, we didn’t just materialize; and third–we’re not going away, even if you choose not to admit we exist”
The Young Patriots demanded that the middle class student movement recognize the existence of poor and oppressed white America because they are the underbelly of whiteness and the proof of its lie. Were they a force today, what would they have to say to the legions of white poor who rejected the candidate of regime change and hypocrisy? What would they say to the upper middle class intelligentsia of the Democratic Party that supports regime change war but paints Trump voters as backwoods racists? How would they handle the contradictions among their people?
Challenging whiteness today means waging a war for peace against the true deplorables of American society: the war mongers and the globalized intellectual class that claims the moral superiority of the West. Throughout history, extraordinary white Americans arose to join the “other America” that opposed materialism, militarism, and racism. They imagined a new America in what Dr. King called “creative relationship” with blacks.
The rise of white poverty and imperial retreat means that the objective conditions are more ripe than ever to destroy the myth of white supremacy. It is not only possible, but necessary to win a beloved community through a positive peace.
- W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880
- W.E.B. Du Bois, “The African Roots of War”
- V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism
- Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam”
- Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
- James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
- James Baldwin, Sonny’s Blues
- Anne Braden, The Wall Between
- Anne Braden: Southern Patriot (2012 Film)
- Amy Sonnie and James Tracy, Hillbilly Nationalists