Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Facing Blackface

On the 160th birthday of the White Homeland (the state of Oregon).

As a kid growing up in Connecticut in the 1970's, browsing the few available TV channels that there were, one of the things you would be exposed to now and then was white men with darkened faces doing supposedly comedic skits mocking Black people. This came mainly in the form of re-broadcasts of older, black and white movies and TV shows, as far as I recall. If you grew up in the UK at that time it was the same, incidentally, and in some other countries they still haven't gotten the memo that blatantly racist entertainment is no longer acceptable on prime time.

Hearing the pundits dissecting the simultaneous scandals threatening to bring down the government in Thomas Jefferson's state of Virginia, the debates playing out just remind me of how it was that Trump got himself elected, and how US history has played out over the course of centuries.

As a student of history and a regular world traveler I've developed a little perspective by now. All the countries in Europe that I travel in regularly are way better off than the US, overall. People seem happier, less stressed, they work less, have much more disposable income, free health care, inexpensive housing, in many countries most workers are in a union and the vast majority of them earn actual living wages. Not only do they not need a second job, but they think the idea of one is completely nuts.

I'm often shocked when I tell my fellow Americans about what life is like in some of these countries, and I get this response – including from people who consider themselves to be progressives – “those are small countries with homogeneous populations, so that sort of thing can work there. It's different here in the US.”

While the last part is true – it's different in the US – the first part is mostly just nonsense. It may be accurate that the size of the US makes organizing a national movement here harder than in a much smaller country, but the idea that the more prosperous countries of Europe are homogeneous is plainly ridiculous to anyone who has actually been to a major European city, and therefore the idea that it's impossible to have prosperity and diversity at the same time is false.

The underlying assumption in this false narrative is that large numbers of people of color in a society inevitably means the society has to be poor and crime-ridden. Although many European countries are both prosperous and ethnically diverse, the US is indeed largely poor and crime-ridden, and it is an even more ethnically diverse society than anywhere in Europe, so perhaps it makes sense to attribute this poverty and crime to the fact that the society is so diverse?

This is certainly what the mocking white men in blackface would have us believe, along with their white-hooded, church-burning brethren – including of course the current occupant of the White House, who comes from a family line of such people, though he likes to pretend otherwise.

In actuality, there is more than a grain of truth to the idea that there is some kind of association between the widespread poverty in the US and the ethnic diversity of the society. But the causality here is not that people of color somehow cause poverty or are inherently prone to the condition. It's that racism is continually used again and again to sow hatred and division in slightly new ways, always serving the purpose of maintaining the disunity in society required for the profit margins to be so much higher for the capitalists in the US than they are for their European counterparts.

There are the really obvious ways racism has been used as a sledgehammer of oppression through all of the means familiar to anyone who's heard of the Civil Rights movement and its more recent iteration in the form of Black Lives Matter. But in many ways the most powerful manifestation of racism that has successfully kept the US so poor and so divided for so long is the notion that permeates every element of the tradition of blackface humor in the US – the idea that “at least I'm better than you.”

There are many divisions in many societies, but you don't have to spend much time traveling to realize that the kind of broad-based notion of working class solidarity -- and even the notion of the existence of a thing called the working class – that clearly exists to a huge degree in countries like Great Britain, France, and Germany, is largely absent here. It's replaced by a society full of people who are more apt to identify themselves by other categories, especially by race.

Duped into an internalized belief in its own superiority, the majority group categorizing itself as white tend to classify their economic position in life with a descriptor that may or may not precede the word “middle.” They can be “middle class,” “lower middle class,” or “upper middle class.” Those identifying as “upper middle” are often very well off but don't want to brag. The “lower middle” are generally one missed paycheck away from life on the sidewalk, but to admit their destitute situation, in so many cases, is akin to admitting that they in fact are not better than those other people that they have learned their whole lives are their inferiors.

Every working class struggle here has to be fought on at least two fronts – there are always ethnic divisions sown that need to be overcome in every class conflict in the United States. The result of this centuries-old handicap is what we see today. The election of Donald Trump on his explicitly racist platform, the century-long history of the opposition Democratic Party as the self-proclaimed party of the white man, and these white men dressing in blackface a full generation after the Civil Rights movement are all symptoms of this pernicious divide.

The struggle against the bipartisan rule of the billionaire class that in other countries might take a more direct form – like a movement of the working class against the neoliberal onslaught of budget-cutting, deregulation and austerity we are being deluged by in so many countries, such as the sort of movement we see today in France -- is absent here. Instead of launching a militant movement to challenge capitalism itself, we seem always to be busy appealing to a corrupt, collapsing system to be more fair and less discriminatory, even as the system itself survives through fomenting discord. We seek more representation among the corrupt political bodies, within Hollywood's propaganda machine, among the ranks of law enforcement, and on the boards of the failing banks.

My adopted state of Oregon is an instructive example in the role of racism and perceptions about racial differences in shaping the US. Prior to the Civil War, once Indian land had been sufficiently taken over through disease, war, violence, fraud and broken treaties such that a territory had achieved a white settler majority, it was eligible for statehood. When Oregon was eligible, the question of whether to enter the union as a free state or a slave state was dealt with by banning both the institution of slavery and the presence of most people of color.

Exclusion Laws punishing people of color for existing in the state were not repealed until 1926. The small Black population the state began to develop in the 1940's is currently being rapidly lost, along with much of the rest of the working class population of the state, due to the skyrocketing cost of housing caused by the very deregulated, ultra-profitable capitalist class that racism has played such a pernicious role in preventing us from effectively challenging here in the USA.

This month is Oregon's statehood anniversary – the territory was recognized by the US Congress as a state on February 14th, 1859. Perhaps the founding fathers of the White Homeland would be happy to know that the race-mixing they feared 160 years ago is still feared by many white people today, and Black people are still mocked by white frat boys with shoe polish.

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