The American Architecture of Racism: Nature and Dynamics
The sine qua non for comprehending the role of racism in American presidential elections is the imperative of situating it in the broader crucible of the American capitalist political economy. Fundamentally, this is because racism emerged as part of the development of capitalism in the United States. Neither was dependent on the other in order to exist or change (Quijano and Ennis 2000: 534). Nevertheless, racism continues to be a tool in the hands of the American bourgeois class as it endeavors to keep the subaltern classes divided. It is therefore difficult for the subalterns to forge a transracial alliance and wage a struggle against the deleterious effects of capitalist plunder and exploitation. The travails of racism have been dynamic, responding to the imperatives of the development of the American capitalist political economy. Central to the changing role of racism in the political economy continues to be resistance from the dominated racial groups, particularly African Americans, and the responses by the American ruling class have shaped the dynamics of continuity and change.
In the context of the American capitalist political economy, racism has shaped and has been shaped by a confluence of cultural, economic and political currents. Carter Wilson discusses the ways these interlocking process operate:
racial oppression is sustained within an exploitative and oppressive economic structure.
This structure shapes the formation of a racist culture that functions to reinforce patterns of racial oppression. The state, operating within this economic and cultural context, generally supports and legitimizes oppressive relations (Wilson 1996: 16).
The cultural current is anchored on what Cornel West (1983) calls “cultural practices.” These are the transmission valves through which racism is injected into and sustained in American society. And this has been done in several ways. Fundamentally, the idea of race was a way of granting legitimacy to the relations of domination initially imposed by slavery (Quijano & Ennis 2000: 534). That is, the emergent cultural substructure rationalized the mode of production, the relations of production, and the asymmetries in power between slave holders and slaves. These contours have remained intact, but their public manifestation has reflected the changing dynamics of the political economy. Cultural practices shape racial identities: the social construction of who people are (white, black, ...), the myths (including the “whites are superior and non-whites, including blacks are inferior” thesis), and the resultant racial pecking order in American society.
Another function is that the cultural current has provided the crucible in which both white and non-white groups have been socialized. In turn, this has conditioned and shaped perceptions, attitudes and the behavior toward racism. The construction of racial language” is critical to cultural practices. Appellations such as “nigger” and “colored” were developed as references to blacks and racial symbols and mirror images, especially about non-white groups are developed. The dominant Euro-American culture also sets the parameters within which discourses about racism takes place. The overarching tenets are: (1) the causes of racism are not lodged in the American capitalist political economy but are attributable to individual pathologies; (2) the whites who designed and implemented the system of slavery are now dead; hence, their descendants, who did not participate in the scourge, cannot be held responsible for the “past”; and (3) aggrieved minority groups such as African Americans need to forget about the past, and simply work with whites in a “color blind society.” Clearly, this is an ahistorical, simplistic and hubristic framework for shaping discourses. This, among others, led Eric Holder (African American), current attorney general of the United States, to remark, “Americans are cowards when it comes to the issue of discussing race” (Murray
At the vortex of the economic current is the exploitation of the subaltern classes in the various sectors of American society. Through racial segmentation. the racial divide makes it easier for the American bourgeoisie to “divide and rule” both white and non-white members of the subaltern classes. In other words, racism is used to undermine class solidarity. To make matters worse, relative economic advantages continue to go to people who are socially categorized as white (Strong 2007: 1).
Politically, racism has operated in various ways. At the national level, the federal government continues to develop political and legal arrangements about race depending on the phases of the development of the capitalist political economy. For example, during the “era of the old racism” (from the seventeenth century to 1964), African Americans were denied citizenship and the rights appertaining thereto.
When African Americans protested against the American “apartheid system,” the state mobilized the full battery of coercive instruments—military, police, and security forces—to suppress and repress them. However, given the dynamic nature of the American political economy, the political racism nexus continues to change as well. Like the economic and cultural currents, the relationship between the political sphere and racism is dependent on the imperatives of the capitalist system, as well as the conundrums posed by resistance from the subalterns. For example, it was in this context that the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were enacted into law in 1964.
The burdens of racism African Americans continue to bear in the United States can be examined against the background of the development of the American capitalist political economy. The 1964 Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were epochal developments for African Americans. As a consequence of their struggles for racial equality and justice, the “American democratic capitalist state” was forced to legally end the “old racism,” characterized by blatant acts of racism legitimized by “Jim Crow laws.”
However, the “old racism” has been replaced by the “new” one. Although African Americans now have “legal equality” with whites, this has not abolished the practices of racism (Alan 2007: 1). Under the “new racism,” the scourge has assumed a more subtle de facto complexion variously referred to as “institutionalized racism” (Better 2007). The new genre of racism continues to adversely affect the capacity of African Americans to effectively exercise the rights and privileges of citizenship. African Americans lag well behind whites in virtually every area of social life: they are about three times more likely to be poor, earn about 40 percent less, and have about an eighth of the net worth (Bonilla-Silva 2006: 1—2). They also receive an inferior education compared to whites, even when they attend integrated institutions. In housing, black-owned units comparable to white-owned ones are valued at 35 percent less (1). Similarly, race remains a major determinant in access to employment, health care, and justice (Better 2001).
One of the major dimensions of the American architecture of racism is the collective portrait of African Americans that has been developed. Based on stereotypes, the portrait has been used to dehumanize and demonize African Americans. It is not possible to discuss all the stereotypes and attendant images that continue to shape and condition the portrait. African Americans are portrayed as lazy people who do not want to “work hard” like whites. The resultant stereotype is that they depend on the government for “handouts” through the welfare system. African Americans are also characterized as “predatory” and generally associated with criminal activities. Similarly, they are portrayed as violent, “uncultured,” loud, and predisposed to vulgar profanity. At the intellectual level, African Americans are painted as ignorant and “empty headed.” In terms of consumption, they are branded “avid lovers of fried chicken and barbeque ribs.”