Tonight Americans will turn on their TV’s, check their Facebook pages, watch YouTube and otherwise plug into the opinion-forming current of mass media. What they will see, hear and read from that mass media, corporate-owned and corporate-controlled, will try to persuade them that they live in a country torn in two by race. A country where police shoot unarmed black men because whites hate blacks. A country where blacks react to these shootings with the desire to kill whites. Millions of Americans will believe tonight that they live in such a country. They will be wrong.
The recent killings of black men by police in Baton Rouge and near St. Paul may have been in part motivated by racism. We do not know and may never know. We do know, however, that African Americans are killed by police at a rate disproportionate to their percentage of the population. We also know that the majority of those killed by police are white. The conclusion to be drawn from these facts is not that race plays no role in police shootings, but that it is not the only factor involved, even in the shooting of unarmed persons. Another conclusion to draw is that anti-black racism plays no role in the majority of police shootings in the United States.
We also know that three of the six officers who killed Freddie Gray in Baltimore were themselves African American, in a city where the chief of police and the mayor are also African American. So just what is going on here?
Chris Hedges writes astutely this week in Truthdig, “Police officers carry out random acts of legalized murder against poor people of color not because they are racist, although they maybe, or even because they are rogue cops, but because impoverished urban communities have evolved into miniature police states.”
Racism is a vile and, in one form or another, almost ubiquitous symptom in American society. But Hedges implies that it is a symptom. It does not occur naturally or instinctively. Nor can the exceptional violence of American society, where homicide—by police and otherwise—is rampant, be blamed upon white racism. Rather, what we are witnessing in America is a kind of undeclared but brutal martial law, where police are charged with suppressing and terrorizing what Hedges calls “internal colonies” of poverty and despair. It is the system that creates poverty and despair that is the actual disease.
But why is racism one of its symptoms? Why are people of color disproportionately poor, disproportionately incarcerated and disproportionately murdered by police?
Because it helps the rich stay rich.
In his important book American Slavery, American Freedom, historian Edmund S. Morgan draws our attention to the fact that in the Virginia colony racism was imposed from the top down. To slow the flood of indentured whites and black slaves running away together, intermarrying and establishing independent communities, the rulers of the colony outlawed intermarriage. From the beginning, then, America has been a country in which racial segregation has been a useful, perhaps necessary, tool of social control for those in power. The most dangerous social development the elite could imagine, then and now, is a united working class, one that refuses to be divided against itself on any grounds, demanding its liberation.
The current Hollywood film Free State of Jones has been attacked by the corporate press for hinting at such a development. A fictionalized account of a little-known passage in U.S. history, Free State of Jones tells the story of a group of deserters from the Confederate army who have come to realize that, as poor men, they are fighting for the interests of their oppressors. The deserters join ranks with runaway slaves and together they liberate much of southern Mississippi from Confederate control. Predictably, most of the mainstream reviews of the film have been reactionary and race-based, finding fault with the movie for lionizing a group of poor whites from the Civil War South. Facts be damned.
And Americans are coming to know the facts. Although the media would have us believe we are hopelessly “divided by race,” to quote a recent New York Times headline, the diverse multitudes that turn out for protests of police shootings prove otherwise. And those multitudes look an awful lot like last year’s striking teachers in Chicago and striking autoworkers in Detroit, like striking nurses and Verizon workers, and like protesting workers and students in France and Greece and Spain.
With increasing frequency (though much less frequency than is warranted), the working class sees itself in the corporate media as a class in rebellion, in the streets. That is why Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, for all their differences of style and emphasis, share the same message: The system must be preserved. It is not capitalism that is crushing the people, not the billions of dollars spent militarizing the country’s police forces into a domestic standing army that are killing people, not debt and privatization that are squeezing them dry. It is race.
For Trump’s followers, the answer is more law and order, and in the wake of the mass shooting of police officers in Dallas, the security state will take advantage of the official state of mourning to ratchet up its levels of control. For Clinton and the upper middle class liberals of the Democratic party, the answer lies in a softening of race relations—but not too soft, because we must remember that race and gender will forever divide us and forever determine our understanding of the world.
The news this week is grim. But the police killings, and even the predictable reprisals, will not cease until the underlying cause, the chasm between rich and poor, is addressed. But we should take heart. The fear of the elites, their militarization of the police, their censored news and propaganda press, these are a reflection of our power. It is the power of a people who are coming together.
Photo source: reuters.com