News & Politics

'You Calling ME a Racist?' Why It's So Hard for Whites to Confront Their Own Failings

A look at history illustrates a clear and disturbing pattern of institutionalized advantages for whites.

Statement: Racism is deeply embedded in our system. 

Response: Don’t you dare call me a racist!

One of the obstacles to creating a less racist society is the enduring confusion over individual attitudes as distinct from social and economic policies and practices. As Arun Gupta put it recently, “The social practices of racism have fused with market relations, making racism rational, effortless, and invisible.”

Systemic white racism not only impacts our economy and politics, it confuses our thinking. It inhibits our ability to see continuity from when plantation capitalism began in 1619 to the present. Whites are detached from the “historical roots and routes” of their identity and experience, as Canadian scholar Rajanie (Preity) Kumar explains it. 

We don’t get much help understanding this. No school, no media, no religion teaches whites about racism with regard to slavery or genocidal policies toward indigenous people. To the contrary, most of the time, those institutions play a major role in perpetuating the confusion. Pay attention to how often discussions of racial topics in the media include weasel terms like the "racial divide” or “racial tensions,” instead of the word "racism." It is hardly surprising, therefore, that most whites think they have neither a connection to the white racism of the past nor much awareness of any responsibility for the racial reality of the present.   

The following examines current racial reality by describing two subsystems of today’s plantation capitalism. Just as our ancestors could decide where they stood on Jim Crow segregation or slavery, we have choices, too. 

Mass Incarceration

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.—Article One, Section 3, U.S. Constitution 

James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson and the rest of the white males who came up with that Grand Bargain were quite proud of their “compromise.” It solved a tough problem for them: how best to institutionalize slavery while not giving too much representation to the states that had the most slaves.

Many constitutional defenders argue the whole three-fifths thing is misunderstood. They point out correctly that it wasn’t about slavery per se. Consequently it couldn’t have been intended to define slaves as lesser humans. Rather, it was just a formula to resolve a balance of power conflict between states with many slaves versus states with fewer. (Keep in mind that at the time there were slaves in every state in the union.)

Perverse though it may be, the apologists have a point. The three-fifths clause could hardly have been intended to define slaves as lesser humans. For most of the protagonists in the debate, slaves weren’t humans at all. They were property, like a horse, a barn, or a plow.

Elsewhere, however, the Constitution does address slavery directly. For example, Article IV Section 2 says, 3: No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

The spirit of the Constitution is clear. Slaves were “lesser humans.” Whether by a factor of zero or three-fifths is essentially beside the point. 

To state the obvious, chattel slavery as it existed until the Civil War is no more. The formal system known as Jim Crow is gone, too. Yet racial disparities are obviously still very much with us. Today’s mass incarceration of blacks is one example of how the system adapts and recreates itself in new ways. 

When the economy was based on agriculture, most people, including blacks, lived in rural areas. In the post-Reconstruction era, the rapidly industrializing nation faced a labor shortage. 

Mass incarceration then relied on arresting blacks on criminal charges such as vagrancy.  Once in the criminal injustice system of that period, they were then placed into labor bondage to emerging corporations such as U.S. Steel. Douglas Blackman’s book Slavery By Another Name documents how this incredibly cruel and brutal process was created in the late 1800s and continued largely intact thorough the 1950s. 

Fast-forward to more recent times. By the latter part of the mid-20th-century, plantation capitalism had evolved to a state of having a permanent labor surplus. Thus, the need for a new approach: removing blacks from the labor force. Enter the so-called war on drugs and other mechanisms of the cradle-to-prison pipeline. 

It is revealing to look at a rarely examined aspect of the mass incarceration of blacks today that is a direct descendent of the compromise concept that enshrined the three-fifths-of-a-man language in the Constitution.  

These days, most African Americans live in cities. Most prisons are in rural or semi rural areas. Prisoners can’t vote. But as with the three-fifths formula, they do count toward establishing the population of the districts where they are incarcerated for determining representation in state and federal elections. 

Thus, incarcerating lots of black people increases the electoral power of mostly white rural areas. At the same time, it removes voters from urban areas and it diminishes the number of “persons” included in the urban headcount.

Michigan is typical of how it works. Predominately black cities like Detroit, Flint and Pontiac lose population while mostly white prison cities such as Jackson, Munising, Adrian and Ionia gain population and thus representation. In a collateral benefit, the jobs of supervising disproportionality black prisoners go disproportionately to whites.

Mass incarceration of African Americans also improves the prospects of whites in the intense competition for too few jobs. And it works to preserve and renew the white narrative of blacks as intrinsically inferior humans prone to criminal behavior.

So, another win for white people. That’s the thing about institutional racism. It is self-perpetuating because it is adaptive. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Importantly, these days, racist results need not require denouncing blacks per se. (Of course many whites still do that, too.) We now have codes and euphemisms that do that for us. Thus the system only needs to be “tough on crime” and run Willie Horton-style TV ads to justify the systemic outcome. 

The recipe is fairly simple. Demonize African American males from Willie Horton and Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Then add in three-strike laws, draconian mandatory sentencing guidelines, stop-and-frisk, rigged courts, the war on drugs, and other techniques. The next thing you know, as Michelle Alexander so effectively documents in her book The New Jim Crow, there are more African Americans condemned to a lifetime of convictions, probation, parole and supervision than there are in college. 

The Long Arc Of Grand Bargains

Back now to the three-fifths formula but from a different perspective. That compromise established a “Grand Bargain” pattern that continues to this day. The formula is this: Some powerful white people have differences of opinion, class interests, property relations, political power or whatever. The basis of the compromise that resolves their conflicts is that something bad will happen to black people, or that nothing good will happen, or that something good that might have happened doesn’t.  

As Paul Finkelman, a law professor at Albany Law School explains,“Specifically, the three-fifths clause provided the extra proslavery representatives in the House to secure the passage of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (bringing Missouri in as a slave state); the annexation in 1845 of Texas, which was described at the time as an "empire for slavery"; the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850; the law allowing slavery in Utah and New Mexico; and the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 (which opened the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain territories to slavery). None of these laws could have been passed without the representatives created by counting slaves under the three-fifths clause.” 

A more recent illustration of how the Grand Bargain repeats itself is the New Deal. Difficult as this is for today’s liberals to grasp, the entirety of the New Deal was a Grand Bargain between those who wanted to alleviate pressure from economically desperate industrial workers potentially attracted to socialism and Dixiecrats whose highest priority was to preserve Jim Crow segregation. 

Thanks in no small part to the enduring power that the three-fifths clause gave the South, the Dixiecrats won. From Social Security to the National Labor Relations Act and everything in between, the New Deal created a social contract that was weak for all workers and especially so for blacks. (Ira Katznelson’s book Fear Itself is essential in explaining how these Grand Bargain trade-offs played out.)

Bankrupt Detroit Is Struck By A New Grand Bargain

It happens. The white power structure messed up.

Starting in the 1950s, as Detroit’s African-American population grew, the white power structure slowly, steadily and surely stripped the city of assets: factories, financial support for schools and other key institutions, public transportation, city services, population and, most importantly, control of its own destiny. 

White flight and the rampant segregationist policies of government, banks, churches and individuals kept African Americans confined to the city. The uprising of 1967, the threat of school busing in 1972 and the election of African-American mayor Coleman Young in 1974 intensified the hostility of whites to Detroit. 

A maze of regional “authorities,” NGOs, special taxes and fees, foundations, suburban interventions in Detroit politics and new state laws relentlessly diminished the political and economic power of Detroit’s predominately black population. And darned if it didn’t come to pass that in 2013 Detroit was legally declared BANKRUPT!

Imagine, then, the surprise of the local white ruling class when the bad men from Wall Street said they would use the bankruptcy process to sell the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), or at least its most valuable artworks, in order to satisfy their financial claims.   

How could this be? From the governor’s office to the mansions and boardrooms in wealthy white suburbs, powerful white men said, “But wait! We fixed this when we created new structures to take management of the Museum away from the city.” “Not so,” said the Wall Street vultures. “Our lawyers will find loopholes. We will take those Van Goghs and Picassos and sell them wherever we want.”

“No, you won’t,” said the suburban power brokers. “We will outwit you.”

And so they did. They forged a Grand Bargain. Foundations, corporations, individuals and even the state legislature would pledge money over the next several years to build a firewall around the art. That’s the Grand part. Oh, and some of the funds would also be used to “reduce” the amount that retirees would lose from their retirement benefits. That’s the Bargain part. 

To be fair, the DIA is a treasure. It surely is an asset to the region and Detroit. Its current director, Graham Beal, has done a fine job of making it interesting and accessible to residents of the city. Shipping off any of its precious works to far away hyper wealthy collectors would benefit neither Detroiters nor suburbanites. 

But that’s the thing about Grand Bargains; everything about them isn’t necessarily bad for everyone. They’re just always bad for black people. In this case what was bad was that whites got to keep control of all of the art. Pensioners, mostly black, did not get to keep all of their retirement benefits. 

As Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan, put it,  “Add it all up, and at least 75 percent of the estimated $7.3 billion in debt and obligations being shed in bankruptcy comes in the form of cuts to retirees.”

The cuts are so severe that on Nov. 25, 2014, the Detroit Free Press reported that “pensioners will receive a mailing in early December that will contain details on how to apply for income assistance if pension cuts will put them below the poverty line, state attorney Steven Howell said.”

It’s true that defenders of the Grand Bargain, most vociferously the bargainers themselves, argue that they defended the pensioners in the Detroit bankruptcy. The whole point is that without their deal, they say, pensioners would have taken an even bigger hit. 

But is that really the whole story?

It’s only a story if you accept the premise that the retirement benefits of public workers should be at risk in a government fiscal crisis. And it conveniently ignores all the facts that tie the very same Wall Street financial interests to other efforts to eliminate workers pensions. Not to mention that among the wealthy backers of the bankruptcy Grand Bargain are many who are generally no friends of workers. 

Set that aside. As we now know, stronger financial players successfully worked various levers of the system to overpower the legal claims of the pensioners. As things played out, there is no evidence whatsoever that the Grand Bargain reduced by even one penny what Syncora, Financial Guaranty Insurance Co. (FGIC) or other big creditors would have gotten out of the bankruptcy without it. 

To the contrary, if anything, the net effect of the Grand Bargain was to intensify the treasure hunt. Lo and behold, they found parking garages, riverfront real estate and other City-owned assets to turn over to the Wall Street companies.

Curt Guyette also notes that there was something unique about the Detroit bankruptcy. Thanks to the machinations surrounding the state controlled emergency management imposed on Detroit by the State government, those with a vested interest in Detroit had very little power within the bankruptcy process.

Kevin Orr, a Washington, D.C. based corporate attorney and Jones Day, his former law firm, reported to right-wing, anti-union governor Rick Snyder.  They were running the show, not Detroit's elected officials. To make matters even worse, Jones Day was representing two of the biggest Wall Street creditors in the case. 

Comparing Detroit’s bankruptcy with that of Stockton, California, both of which took place during roughly the same time frame, dramatically illustrates why this mattered: “Stockton, California, won court approval of its plan to exit bankruptcy by paying bond investors pennies on the dollar while shielding public pensions, in a case watched by other cities facing heavy retiree costs,” reported the Bloomberg News on Oct. 30,  2014.

Stockton city officials fought to protect the pensions of their workers, and they succeeded. In the Detroit case, unions representing pensioners fought vigorously. But they had no allies with any leverage in the proceedings.

Grand Illusions

Grand Bargains of necessity embody grand illusions. The orgy of self-congratulation from those who powered through the terms of Detroit emerging from bankruptcy is a case in point. It lowers yet another layer of fog over the causes of the disparity between low- to middle-income pensioners as compared to wealthy Detroit art patrons or Wall Street wheeler dealers. 

Pensioners did not invest their careers in what they knew to be a risky asset—retirement benefits. To the contrary, through their unions, they negotiated pension benefits as part of a total compensation package. Money that might have gone to higher wages was instead allocated to fund retirement benefits. And retirees and their unions quite reasonably expected that the plain-as-day language enshrined in the Constitution of the State of Michigan protected those benefits. 

Sophisticated financiers on the other hand made a calculated risk when they sold bonds and credit swaps to the city of Detroit. In exchange they received interest rates that were determined by a market whose very purpose we are told is to price-in that risk. 

Ultimately though what’s most disturbing about the Detroit Grand Bargain is not the unfair and illegal cuts imposed on pensioners, bad as those are. It’s how the Grand Bargain perpetuates the system of white supremacy and white advantage.  It powerfully reinforces the incredibly self-serving white power idea that the whole thing was about problems that were entirely created by the overwhelmingly African-American residents of Detroit. It is baked into the white-man’s burden perspective that the segregationist bankers, “philanthropists,” politicians, businessmen and media who created Detroit’s problems in the first place now had to come to the city’s rescue. 

The leading cheerleader for the bankruptcy from day one, the Detroit Free Press, captures the whole sick point of view:

Rhodes entered the seventh-floor courtroom in the federal building on Friday at 1 p.m. on the nose, hitting his mark as promptly as he had every other day in court. He kept no one in suspense. In less than a minute, he spoke these words:

“The court concludes that the city’s 8th amended plan of adjustment meets the legal requirements for confirmation. Accordingly, the court confirms that plan.”

Cheers and applause broke out down the hallway in Rosen’s stately chambers,[Rosen is the retired federal judge who negotiated the Grand Bargain], where he and a large reception of dignitaries, including Gov. Snyder, Sen. Majority Leader Richardville and others watched the ruling on closed circuit TV.

Rhodes said the grand bargain “borders on the miraculous.” He said the city’s plan was fair and viable. He waxed enthusiastically about the DIA’s importance as a crucial building block of a thriving Detroit. He praised the pensioners for voting for the plan, while acknowledging the cuts they accepted would cause real hardship.

Rhodes’ approval enshrined the grand bargain into law.

“Your enduring and collective memory of what happened here, and your memory of your anger about it, will be exactly what will prevent this from ever happening again,” he said.

“We have used the phrase the grand bargain to describe the group of agreements that will fix the city’s pension problem. That description is entirely fitting. In our nation, we join together in the promise and in the ideal of a much grander bargain. It is the bargain by which we interact with each other and with our government, all for the common good. That grander bargain, enshrined in our Constitution, is democracy. It is now time to restore democracy to the people of the City of Detroit.”

In several recent interviews, Judge Rhodes, who retired on Feb. 18, 2015, upped the ante of self-congratulation with still more lavish praise for the outcome of the bankruptcy and the Grand Bargain in particular. In especially interesting comments in a Feb. 20, 2015 Detroit Free Press interview, he said he regretted that Detroit wasn’t able to use the bankruptcy to eliminate defined benefit pensions altogether. 

Shockingly, Rhodes also said he never believed that creditors had a legally sustainable claim to any of the assets of the Detroit Institute of Arts. In other words, the entire Grand Bargain process was a charade because, although he kept his mouth shut at the time, the bankruptcy judge in control of the case never thought the DIA art was legally at risk to begin with.

The Personal and the Political

Statement: Racism is deeply embedded in our system. 

Response: Don’t you dare call me a racist!

The mass incarceration of blacks and the Detroit bankruptcy Grand Bargain each perpetuate a pattern of institutionalized advantages for whites. Similar subsystems sustain white racial advantages in healthcare, longevity, income, wealth, life-threatening interactions with police, real estate, finance, education and virtually every other aspect of life. 

Does that mean nothing has improved for African Americans? Of course not. Does it mean that life is never difficult for whites? No. Does it mean that white racism is not dehumanizing and disempowering for whites? No. Whether they are aware of it or not, white racism is dehumanizing and disempowering for whites.

Does it mean that we are irrevocably locked into a zero-sum organism that requires that in order for blacks to do better whites must do worse? Absolutely not, even though that viewpoint is actively advanced by those most vested in maintaining white racial advantage. 

But the enduring power of systemic white racism does bring us to this: every white person has a choice. We can either condone the status quo that perpetuates advantages for whites or we can support changes in attitudes, policies and behaviors that would reduce black/white inequities and make a better life for all.

To say it as plainly as possible: those who support change are anti-racists. Those who support the status quo are racists. So are those who abstain, since that too operates to keep things as they are.    

Does that seem harsh? Perhaps. But if it does, it is because for 500 years white people have wanted to have it both ways. We are attached to the advantages we enjoy from a system rigged in thought and deed against blacks. At the same time, whites also want to be seen by ourselves and others as morally pure, even superior. To paraphrase former Texas Governor Ann Richards, despite the system being rigged in favor of whites, we deeply prefer to believe we hit a double when in reality we were born on second base.  

Were you taught that whether by acts of commission or omission all Germans bore some degree of responsibility for the Holocaust? I was. The term “good German” captures the part played by those who were passive in the face of that evil. 

In the same vein, we seem to have little trouble preaching to Muslims that they should denounce and restrain those who defame their religion by committing acts of terrorism in the name of Islam. 

By that same logic, isn’t it time for anti-racist whites to repudiate the racists within our tribe, too?

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article originally appeared as a four part series in the Michigan Citizen.

Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit based writer and activist.  He is co-editor with Karin Aguilar-San Juan of The People Make The Peace: Lessons From the Vietnam Antiwar Movement

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