Get Out: The horror of racism, and racialist politics

By Hiram Lee
28 March 2017

Written and directed by Jordan Peele

The horror film Get Out has been popular with both audiences and critics. It is the directorial debut of Jordan Peele, best known for his work as one half of the comedy duo Key & Peele. With Get Out, Peele has said he wanted to make a film to “combat the lie that America had become post-racial.” The monster at the heart of this horror film is racism itself.

Get Out

Get Out tells the story of African-American photographer, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), and his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams). The couple is planning to visit Rose’s parents for the first time. But when Chris discovers Rose hasn’t told her parents that he is black, he worries the visit won’t go well. Rose reassures him that her parents are anything but racist, and the trip goes ahead as planned.

Rose’s father (Bradley Whitford) turns out to be a wealthy surgeon. Her mother (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist specializing in hypnosis therapy. They go out of their way to make Chris feel at home. Rose’s father makes awkward gestures to Chris, at one point telling him that he would have voted for Obama a third time given the chance. What seem at first like well meaning but misguided attempts to relate to Chris and put him at ease soon turn into something else. There is something even darker than such “micro aggressions” lurking beneath this white liberal family.

Most troubling to Chris are the African-American servants the family employs. They appear brainwashed, too satisfied with the family and their duties. They don’t behave as real people would. When the family later throws a party and the white guests appear to be sizing him up for something, it puts him further on edge.

Despite all the warning signs, Chris hesitates, hoping for the best until it is almost too late. The family intends to capture him and force him into a kind of servitude, though not quite the kind he was expecting. His failure to act sooner nearly gets him killed. This complacency in the face of racism is one of the main themes of the film.

Get Out accepts a number of conventions about race relations and begins from there. Racism, for Peele, simply exists—in the same way that evil does, or original sin. Everyone is infected by it. Its historical origins and the social forces which nourish and promote it are beside the point. Accepting this, the film is left to offer pseudo-psychological explanations for the beliefs and activities of its antagonists. This leads it into rather disturbing territory. At one point the film seems to suggest that the white family terrorizing Chris is jealous of the genetically endowed superior physical abilities of its African-American victims. Given Rose’s involvement in the conspiracy, one could even be forgiven for interpreting the film as a warning against interracial relationships. Like all such works based on racialist conceptions, one doesn’t have to follow the logic very far before one arrives at positions virtually identical to those of the extreme right.

Get Out

Since its release, Peele’s film has generated a great deal of media attention, including its share of hype and controversy. In recent weeks, Peele has been celebrated in the media as the first African-American writer-director to have earned more than $100 million with his debut film. He has cracked a key financial threshold and his success as an artist is thus confirmed for certain layers. There is a lot of talk about what it means for black filmmakers in Hollywood. Opportunity is on the horizon.

But does Get Out tell the truth about the world? Several interviews make clear Peele’s own outlook.

In an interview with the New York Times, Peele affirmed his intention to target the “liberal elite” with the film. “The liberal elite,” said Peele, “who communicates that we’re not racist in any way is as much of the problem as anything else. This movie is about the lack of acknowledgement that racism exists. In the Trump era, it’s way more obvious extreme racism exists. But there are still a lot of people who think: We don’t have a racist bone in our bodies. We have to face the racism in ourselves.”

In another interview with GQ magazine, Peele seeks to explain why there haven’t been more horror films dealing with race:

“Black creators have not been given a platform, and the African-American experience can only be dealt with by an African-American. That might be problematic to say. And now that I think about it, [The Stepford Wives author] Ira Levin is a man, and he and Roman Polanski wrote Rosemary’s Baby. Let’s say it would be scary for a white writer and director to do something that includes the victimization of black people in this way. Of course, we have this trope where the black guy is the first to die in every horror movie—that’s a way for [white filmmakers] to have their cake and eat it, too.”

The division of the world along such racial lines has the most reactionary implications. Indeed, we saw only last week how “scary” it could be when a white artist, Dana Schutz, dared to depict the victimization of a black person, Emmett Till, in her work.

Interestingly, the reactionary notion that only an African-American can deal with the so-called “African-American experience” (a racialist term that throws class and history out the window) has also been used to attack Peele’s film. In a recent radio interview, actor Samuel L. Jackson complained that the film’s star, Daniel Kaluuya, was British, saying that an African American actor would have been better suited to the role. He went on to lament the prevalence of black British actors currently employed in Hollywood. “They’re cheaper than us,” he said. In these bitter, career-motivated comments, Jackson united racialism with its perfect complement, nationalism.





Democrats debate identity politics


By Niles Niemuth
15 December 2016

In the aftermath of the victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, a heated debate has been raging in Democratic Party circles over the efficacy of identity politics and its role in the party’s electoral debacle.

Some figures within the party and its periphery have raised concerns that the overriding focus on racial and gender politics has prevented the Democrats from making an effective appeal to broader segments of society beyond those in better-off and more privileged layers of the middle class.

In a November 18 New York Times op-ed column titled “The End of Identity Liberalism,” Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla, seeking to draw the lessons of Clinton’s loss to Trump, writes: “In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

While Clinton was “at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they related to our understanding of democracy,” he asserts, “when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, LGBT and women voters at every stop.”

This focus on identity was a “strategic mistake,” Lilla writes. He calls instead for a “post-identity” liberalism that places a greater emphasis on civic duty and a new nationalism, drawing inspiration, in part, from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Lilla’s column corresponds to remarks made by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders following the election. Sanders campaigned for Clinton after failing in his bid to win the Democratic nomination, but now he is implicitly criticizing her focus on racial and gender politics. “It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me!’” he said in a recent speech. “What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”

The actual content of Sanders’ proposals is reactionary. In the name of “taking on the corporations” he advocates an aggressive economic nationalism that echoes the “America-first” trade war program of Trump. Nor does Lilla propose any serious program to challenge the interests of the corporate elite. In his commentary he makes a vague reference to the Democrats’ long-abandoned policies of social reform, but he does so to advocate not a struggle against the corporate elite, but rather a new, “left” form of American nationalism. His “post-identity liberalism” would “speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another.”

What is most striking, however, is the hysterical response such muted criticisms have evoked. The most vociferous attack on Lilla’s article has come from Columbia University law professor Katherine M. Franke, who equates Lilla with the former head of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, in a blog post published by the Los Angeles Review of Books on November 21.

“In the new political climate we now inhabit, Duke and Lilla were contributing to the same ideological project, the former cloaked in a KKK hood, the latter in an academic gown,” Franke writes. “Both men are underwriting the whitening of American nationalism, and the re-centering of white lives as lives that matter most in the US. Duke is happy to own the white supremacy of his statements, while Lilla’s op-ed does the more nefarious background work of making white supremacy respectable. Again.”

For Franke, any move away from a politics based on racial and gender identity is equivalent to the promotion of racism and misogyny. “Let me be blunt: this kind of liberalism is a liberalism of white supremacy,” she declares. “It is a liberalism that regards the efforts of people of color and women to call out forms of power that sustain white supremacy and patriarchy as a distraction. It is a liberalism that figures the lives and interests of white men as the neutral, unmarked terrain around which a politics of ‘common interest’ can and should be built.”

These remarks are echoed by Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman, who denounces criticism of identity politics as the “primal scream of the straight white male.” She argues that those who want to “emphasise what we have in common instead of focusing on the differences” have a “delightfully kumbaya view of the world.”

Journalist Tasneem Raja, in a commentary published on National Public Radio’s Code Switch blog, which is dedicated to racial and identity politics, rejects Lilla’s criticisms as support for white supremacy. She accuses Lilla of being “keen on pulling the plug on conversations about multiculturalism and diversity” and thereby unconsciously playing “right into the hands of the newly emboldened neo-Nazis who helped put Trump in office…”

The unhinged response to Lilla’s column reflects entrenched social interests. Franke speaks on behalf of a layer of American academics for whom the politics of identity is a central mechanism for accessing positions of affluence and privilege.

Identity politics has become an entrenched industry. Many of its professional proponents have high-paying academic positions in black and gender studies. Such institutions are funded to the tune of billions of dollars and politically tied to the Democratic Party and corporate America.

According to her university biography, Franke’s research is focused on feminist, queer and critical race theory. She is the director of Columbia University’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, a member of the Executive Committee for the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality, and a member of the Steering Committee for the Center for the Study of Social Difference.

The relationship of the Democratic Party–and bourgeois politics as a whole–to identity politics is not accidental or secondary. The fixation on the politics of race and gender is inextricably bound up with the protracted shift of the Democratic Party to the right, in line with the drive by the ruling class to claw back all of the gains that workers won through bitter struggle, particularly in the 1930s and the decades following the Second World War.

For the past half century, as it abandoned any commitment to social reform, the Democratic Party adopted identity politics and programs such as Affirmative Action as its modus operandi, building up around it a privileged layer of the upper-middle class on this basis. This period has at the same time seen a historic growth in social inequality, including, and especially, within minority groups and among women.

Between 2005 and 2013, black households earning more than $75,000 were the fastest growing income group in the country, while the top one percent possessed more than 200 percent the wealth of the average black family. Despite the enrichment of this small but substantial and influential layer, the vast majority of African Americans remain deeply impoverished. Half of black households, nearly 7 million people, have little to no household worth.

At the same time, large parts of the country populated by supposedly privileged white workers, particularly in the so called Rust Belt states where Trump defeated Clinton, have been devastated economically by deindustrialization.

Identity politics found its consummate expression in the Clinton campaign, which was based on an alliance of Wall Street, the military-intelligence apparatus and the right-wing purveyors of racial and gender politics.

The proponents of identity politics such as Franke are opposed to economic and social equality. They regard any orientation to working people on a class basis as a threat to their own racial- or gender-based privileges. They are deeply hostile to the working class—black and Latino as well as white.

The anger that these forces direct toward Lilla will be turned with even greater intensity against a politically independent movement of the working class

Cornel West: Trump Will Be a Neofascist Catastrophe and Clinton a Neoliberal Disaster

West is ready to turn his back on the Democratic Party.

Photo Credit: YouTube

Polls indicate that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got a four-point bounce from the heavily scripted Democratic Party Convention. But it is hard to know the depth and intensity of support from Sanders activists passionate enough to earn themselves a place at the convention. Those are the kinds of activists that could help Clinton the most come November. Yet, an informal survey of dozens of Bernie delegates indicates a lack on enthusiasm for the Clinton cause. No doubt, the decision by prominent Bernie booster Cornel West to go for Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein won’t help.

However successful Clinton was in racking up impressive wins in the primary cycle, her actual vote totals were higher in 2008, when she faced off with then-senator Barack Obama.

As early as March, Super Tuesday results made it clear there was a potential enthusiasm gap when the vote totals from 15 states showed 3 million registered Democrats who had come out in 2008 had decided to stay home. In Texas, turnout dropped by 50 percent. In South Carolina, there was a 40-percent drop in the African-American turnout from the watershed 2008 primary.

Consider the key swing state of Ohio. In the 2016 primary election, Clinton only garnered close to 680,000 votes, compared to the nearly 1.1 million she polled in her victory in 2008.

In 2012, Cleveland, in Cuyahoga County, was one of three urban locales where a wave of young minority voters carried the day for Obama, delivering the three states he needed to win. (The others were Philadelphia, and Florida’s Broward County.)

The Ohio Battleground

So how are things these days in Cleveland, site of that pivotal Obama win in 2012? Downtown Cleveland is enjoying a robust revitalization, but there are also vast swaths of the rest of the community in which factory buildings lie vacant.

There are close to 6,000 zombie homes — homes their owners believe are in foreclosure, even though the bank that holds their mortgages never completed the legal process to foreclose — a physical legacy of the foreclosure crisis which is still felt here. Some 20,000 have already been torn down, and for the homeowners in the poorer part of town, property values have dropped by as much as 80 percent.

As the Republicans gathered in Cleveland to nominate Donald J. Trump as their presidential candidate, a public policy and social action forum dubbed IMPACT took place at Mount Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, one of the city’s largest African-American congregations. The forum featured Cornel West, the “provocative democratic intellectual,” as he bills himself, as its keynote speaker.

Mount Olivet’s traditions run deep. It was founded in the 1930s and served as the base of operations for Martin Luther King Jr., when he came to Cleveland.

West, professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary and professor emeritus at Princeton University, was one of Senator Bernie Sanders’ most ardent supporters among African-American leaders, and several congregants were anxious to know whether the influential public intellectual was going to support Hillary Clinton in the general election.

But West, who served on the Democratic Party platform committee as a Sanders pick, told his audience he was supporting the Green Party candidate Jill Stein, because of her policy positions, “calling for reparations, calling for the massive release of all prisoners who are there for soft drugs… [She is also calling for a] massive redistribution [of wealth], a green jobs program…siding with the Palestinians… [and is] concerned about the violation of international law by the United States.”

“I am going to fight against Trump,” West pledged, but “in this case I am opting for third-party Sister Jill Stein.”

For West, the welfare reform and crime bills President Bill Clinton signed into law helped set the stage for the mass incarceration of African Americans, and the loss of a generation of parents to the penal system.

“Now people say, ‘Brother West, she’s better than Trump.’ That’s true, but Trump is about as low a bar that anybody could ever have,” West told his audience.

“We are in a tough situation. Of course, you know this is a swing state, so you have to make judgments in very wise ways,” West said. “But you don’t want to lie to yourself. Hillary Clinton comes on and says, ‘I have been fighting for children all my life.’ Which children do you have in mind?”

People on welfare, West explained, are “primarily women and children.” The welfare bill Bill Clinton signed, which ended the federal Aid to Families With Dependent Children and replaced it with block grants to the states, West said, “was a bill Ronald Reagan would have not signed.” He added, “It was only signed for political purposes.”

West took issue with assertions by Hillary Clinton campaign boosters who say she has “been fighting for black folks for 40 years.”

“Get off the symbolic crackpipe,” West urged the audience. “You don’t have the evidence for that. That’s like telling me you have been flying in a flying saucer last night — you were dreaming, hallucinating. Give me some witnesses.”

“Now, of course, Sister Hillary is very clever because what does she do, especially with black folk?” West continued. “[She says,] ‘I am the only one that represents the legacy of Barack Obama.’ Of course, Barack Obama is an historic figure. We can never take away the symbolic breakthrough of having a black man in the White House built by black slaves — never, never, not at all.”

“But they bailed out Wall Street without Main Street, that upset me. Drones dropped on innocent civilians. How many children so far?” West asked. “Press won’t tell you: 231 children.”

“A child in Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan has exactly the same value as a child in a vanilla suburb or the chocolate ‘hood. [I know] because I have been to vacation bible school: ‘Jesus loved the little children/all of the little children of the world/red, yellow, black or white/they are precious in his sight.’ So don’t tell me that an American baby has more value than a baby in Pakistan when it is killed,” West said.

“If that makes you unpatriotic, then I am taking the cross over the flag. That’s how I roll,” he continued. “That’s how I was raised…when the flag undermines the cross, I choose the way of the cross. If you go the way of the cross, get ready for some serious crucification — the cost of discipleship what it is to be a Christian.”

West said he understood why so many African Americans admire the president, but urged them not to lose their critical discernment.

“It is the most wonderful thing that my child sees a black man in the White House. I understand that. I got kids too; I have grandkids they have been empowered by Michelle [Obama]. They have been empowered by Barack, in example, at the symbolic level. I don’t just live life just symbolically. I live it at the level of substance too. Black child poverty is higher now than it was in 2008. That ain’t symbolic. That is substantial.”

West was asked by a member of the audience for his election predictions.

“I think Trump will be a neofascist catastrophe and Clinton will be a neoliberal disaster,” he answered. “So we are between a rock and a hard place. We have to gird ourselves, fortify ourselves for serious struggle. They are both tied to Wall Street. They are both dangerous in that way.”

Citing conditions in her hometown of Cleveland, an audience member asked West about the impact of gentrification. People are losing their homes through tax foreclosures, she said, and nuisance abatement actions — “a little-known type of lawsuit that gives [a] city the power to shut down places it claims are being used for illegal purposes,” according to ProPublica.

“I view it as land grab and a power grab,” West said. “It’s upper-middle-classes that want to move back into the cities for closer access to their jobs and leave precious and poor working people dangling with very little for a place to go.” Because “working-class and poor people have less money to donate to campaigns and elections and so forth,” West said, community groups will have to step up their resistance. “In Harlem, we have been wrestling with this for decades,” he said. “Harlem is now 49 percent vanilla.”

After the speech, Jon Lentz and I sat down with West for a brief discussion. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

ROBERT HENNELLY:  We know there are 6,000 zombie homes in Cleveland. Fifty percent of Cleveland’s children are living in poverty. In Philadelphia, there are 40,000 vacant lots and homes. In the last eight years, we’ve seen the largest loss of African-American household wealth in the history of the republic. Why is that not emerging as a central issue of the presidential campaign?

CORNEL WEST:  Well, it’s just very difficult to shatter the neoliberal hegemony and the public conversation. The neoliberal ideology comes in a number of different colors. It could be Bill Clinton, it could be Barack Obama, it could be Hillary Clinton. And that neoliberal hegemony means that to trying to raise the issues of poverty — not just black poverty, but poverty across the board, to really zero in on Wall Street domination of Congress, to really zero in on corporate power, to really zero in on the military industrial complex — that’s a difficult thing. Neoliberal press, neoliberal politicians — it’s hard to get fellow citizens to look at the world through a very different lens as opposed to a neoliberal lens.

RH: It seems we’ve had this metaphor we’re stuck in for decades now of a war on poverty, and there seems to be more poverty. War on drugs, more drugs. War on terror, more terror.

CW: More terror, that’s true.

RH: You’re one of the few public intellectuals who are linking the economic expenditure for war with these other public ills. Why aren’t we discussing the collateral damage of this never-ending war?

CW: Of course, the first thing to keep in mind is that we don’t even expose precious fellow citizens [of members of the military] to the bodies of soldiers who are killed in Afghanistan and other places. So you already have a hiding and concealing of the realities of war. We’ve been at war for over 14 years, 15 years, in Afghanistan.

Then you’ve got 54 percent of the budget as a whole going to military expenditures, and a lot of that actually is not fully accounted for because there are certain unlimited expenditures when it comes to the Pentagon, but no serious discussion about that. There is a consensus, Democrats and Republicans, Obama and [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell, on this dominance of military expenditure, and [that] makes it very difficult.

When King said the bombs that dropped in Vietnam also landed in ghettos — and by ghettos he didn’t just mean black ghettos—he meant brown barrios, he meant white brothers and sisters in Appalachia, indigenous brothers and sisters on the reservations. There’s just no money [for social investment].

So we’re in a logjam. That’s what neoliberalism does. It’s a logjam when you allow for corporate power on the one hand, military industrial complex on the other hand and then think to be progressive is only talk about social issues.

RH: One of the things you seem to be in touch with is that since 2008, for working people, the economic situation has continued to unravel.

CW: Absolutely.

RH: According to the National Association of Counties, out of 3,069 counties, only 7 percent have recovered by their measurement.

So in other words, we are not really seeing our social circumstance reflected in our media, which leaves us in isolation. What’s a consequence of that, politically and spiritually?

CW: Well, I think the first point to keep in mind is that through a neoliberal lens, recovery is measured by how well the stock market is doing, and how well corporate profits are doing. And they have been doing very well. I just [look at] the QE2 — the quantitative easing — coming out of the Federal Reserve…because that’s the benchmark.

It’s not what is the quality of life of everyday people, of working people. And as you rightly say, there has been no recovery there, not in the real economy. In the stock market, indeed. So you miss the social misery that’s out there, and of course, [the presidential candidacy of] Donald Trump is part of the backlash. He is part of the deeply right-wing populist backlash because so many of white working-class brothers and sisters, but especially the brothers, are hurting, and that hurt is real. But unfortunately it’s not geared toward accountability toward elites at the top; it’s scapegoating the most vulnerable on the bottom.

RH: If we pull back a bit, we know that our young people, 16- to 24-year-olds, have a crisis. In New York City, 30 percent of black men between the ages of 20-24 are not working and they’re not in school. Globally, the figure is 50 percent — 7 million in Mexico alone. At some point, don’t we have to call into question the social obligation of capital to employ this generation. And how do we do that?

CW: The good news is that there is a magnificent moral, spiritual and political awakening taking place among the younger generation in the midst of the American empire. The Bernie Sanders campaign was a great example of young folk comin’ alive, becoming involved.

What is it now, 58 percent of young people across race and class say socialism is preferable over capitalism? Why? Because what they have lived has been more and more the underside of capitalist order, which is one of massive unemployment, decrepit education, unbelievable student debt. But also, spiritually — it’s a dog-eat-dog world, obsessed with the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not get caught.” That way of being in the world is being called into question among the younger generation. And in that sense there’s tremendous signs of hope.

JON LENTZ: One more thing: There is discussion about the framing of the protest message of Black Lives Matter as opposed to All Lives Matter. Some folks raise the example of Martin Luther King Jr., and say, “Well, we don’t want to have these Black Lives Matter folks; they should frame their argument the way King did; his was the right way to approach these issues. Any thoughts on that?

CW: Martin Luther King Jr. went to jail more than 40 times because he loved black people. He didn’t go to jail because white lives matter. Now in jail, on the way to jail, after he got out of jail, he still loved white brothers and sisters, but he didn’t go to jail for white brothers and sisters. He went to jail for black people.

So that I think our white brothers and sisters in the Republican Party need to recognize that when I and others say Black Lives Matter, when [I say] my mama matters, I’m not saying their mother doesn’t matter. But I’m saying we’ve lived in a society for so long where my mother didn’t matter, where black people have not mattered. That’s Martin Luther King’s message. His love message is one that starts at home, but it spills over to precious white, precious brown, precious yellow and precious other colors because we are all human beings in that sense.

JL: Is there anything the Black Lives Matter movement can learn from Martin Luther King’s example that they are not doing?

CW: We all could learn from Martin in terms of having more love, courage, vision and sense of service, absolutely.

Robert Hennelly has worked as a broadcast and print journalist for more than 30 years.


White America’s ‘Broken Heart’

On Sunday, at the Corinthian Baptist Church in Des Moines, former President Bill Clinton, looking frail and sounding faint, stumped for his wife, working through her qualifications with a husband’s devotion and a Svengali’s facility.

But one thing he said stood out to me for its clear rhetorical framing.

He attributed much of the anger that’s present in the electorate to anxiety over a changing demographic profile of the country, but then said: We are going to share the future. The only question is: What will be the terms of the sharing?

This idea of negotiating the terms of sharing the future is an expansive one, on both ends of the ideological spectrum, but it also seems to me to be an internal debate white America is having with itself.

Much of the energy on both the left and the right this cycle is coming from white Americans who are rejecting the direction of America and its institutions. There is a profound disappointment. On one hand, it’s about fear of dislocation of supremacy, and the surrendering of power and the security it provides. On the other hand, it’s about disillusionment that the game is rigged and the turf is tilted. It is about defining who created this country’s bounty and who has most benefited from it.

White America is wrestling with itself, torn between two increasingly distant visions and philosophies, trying to figure out if the country should retreat from its present course or be remade.

The results from the Iowa caucuses revealed that Republican caucusgoers gave roughly even support to the top three finishers — Ted Cruz, a much-loathed anti-institutional who has shown a pyromaniac’s predilection for wanting to torch Washington rather than make it work; the real estate developer spouting nativist and even fascist policies with the fervor of a prosperity preacher; and Marco Rubio, a too-slick-to-be-trusted stripling who oozes ambition with every obviously rehearsed response.

On the left, the white vote was nearly evenly split in Iowa between Hillary Clinton, a pragmatist who believes that the system can be fixed, and Bernie Sanders, a revolutionary who believes that system must be dismantled. At least on the Democratic side, age, income and liberalism seemed to be the fault lines — older, wealthier, more moderate people preferred Clinton and younger, less wealthy and “very liberal” people preferred Sanders.

Clinton won the support of nonwhites in Iowa 58 percent to Sanders’s 34 percent. This gap also exists — and has remained stubbornly persistent — in national polls, and in some polls is even wider. For instance, according to a January Monmouth University Poll, nationwide black and Latino support for Clinton was 71 percent as opposed to 21 percent for Sanders. At this point, this is a settled issue for nonwhite voters, and those voters are likely to be Democratic primary king- or queen-makers.

During Bill Clinton’s speech on Sunday, he brought up the recent report about the rising death rate among some white people in America.

As Gina Kolata reported in November in The New York Times:

“Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans. Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling.”

He rattled off the reasons for this rise — suicide, alcoholism and drug overdoses — and then concluded that these white Americans were dying of “a broken heart.”

It was, again, an interesting framing: that these people dying of sadness and vice were simply the leading edge of a tragic, morbid expression of a disappointment and fear shadowing much of white America.

America has a gauzy, romanticized version of its history that is largely fiction. According to that mythology, America rose to greatness by sheer ruggedness, ingenuity and hard work. It ignores or sidelines the tremendous human suffering of African slaves that fueled that financial growth, and the blood spilled and dubious treaties signed with Native Americans that fueled its geographic growth. It ignores that the prosperity of some Americans always hinged on the oppression of other Americans.

Much of America’s past is the story of white people benefiting from a system that white people designed and maintained, which increased their chances of success as it suppressed those same chances in other groups. Those systems persist to this day in some disturbing ways, but the current, vociferous naming and challenging of those systems, the placing of the lamp of truth near the seesaw of privilege and oppression, has provoked a profound sense of discomfort and even anger.

In Sanders’s speech following the Iowa caucuses, he veered from his position that this country “in many ways was created” on “racist principles,” and instead said: “What the American people understand is this country was based and is based on fairness.” Nonwhite people in this country understand that as a matter of history and heritage this simply isn’t true, but it is a hallowed ideal for white America and one that centers the America ethos.

Indeed, the current urgency about inequality as an issue is really about how some white Americans are coming to live an experience that many minorities in this country have long lived — structural inequity has leapt the racial barrier — and that the legacy to which they fully assumed they were heirs is increasingly beyond their grasp.

Inequality has been a feature of the African-American condition in this country since the first black feet touched this ground.

Last month, the MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes tweeted: “This campaign is starting to feel more and more like a long, national nervous breakdown.” For white America, I believe this is true.

Racialism, art and the Academy Awards controversy


By David Walsh
30 January 2016

The controversy continues over the failure of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to nominate any African-American or other minority actors or directors for an award this year.

According to innumerable media commentators, the lack of Academy recognition for several films directed by or featuring African-Americans—including Straight Outta Compton, Creed, Beasts of No Nation and Concussion—is proof of the 6,200 Academy voters’ prejudice; and, still further, that race constitutes the essential foundation of society and its cognition. Therefore, how any given individual understands the world is determined, at the most fundamental level, by his/her racial identity.

The New York Times and its various critics and columnists have been particularly active in advancing a racial-gender perspective in art that has sinister implications.

As to the supposedly snubbed films, both F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton and Ryan Coogler’s Creed are relatively formulaic, individualist “success stories,” with nothing terribly distinctive about them except their immediate settings. The first is a shallow, self-serving work about the rise of “gangster rap,” the second, which has a few modest charms, centers on the training of a young boxer (Michael B. Jordan) for a big match by the aging, ailing Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).

Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, about child soldiers in an unnamed West African country, eventually turns into, in the words of the WSWS review, “a virtually unwatchable catalog of crimes.” Idris Elba, a gifted actor, here plays a conventional psychopathic warlord (Charles Taylor, Joseph Kony, etc.), the sort of figure useful to the proponents of great power intervention. Peter Landesman’s Concussion is a well-meaning, limited film about the severe risks of playing professional football, with Will Smith in the lead role of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-American pathologist.

Would nominations of Creed, Straight Outta Compton or Beasts of No Nationfor best picture, Gray or Coogler for best director, or Smith, Elba or Jordan for best actor have been merited?

It is difficult to answer this in the abstract. On the whole, this group of “African-American” films and acting jobs belong to a thick middle stratum of mediocrity, with no special respect for skin color, gender or sexual orientation, that emerges from the American film assembly line each year. These three or four films are neither better nor worse than many of the other 300 or so eligible for Academy Awards. None of them investigates deeply, or even indicates strong opinions about, existing realities for the mass of the African-American population, or anyone else for that matter.

In any event, there is no evidence that racial prejudice had anything to do with the fact that these films and actors were not nominated. A number of Academy members have made their opinions known on this issue, with some feeling. In an open letter published in the Hollywood Reporter, screenwriter Stephen Geller addressed the proposal of Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the Academy, to “diversify” the membership and weed out “inactive members.”

Geller, who wrote the script for the adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), challenged the Academy chief’s assumption that those who have not had jobs in the industry for a decade were “responsible for the lack of diversity in the Academy, as well as in the film industry.” He wrote, “There are as many reasons why one doesn’t get an assignment or a film deal as there are reasons why a performer doesn’t get a nomination by the Academy.” He termed the plan to revise the rules concerning diversity “nothing more than a ‘false flag’ issue,” and asked, “What Academy, historically, ever has dealt with contemporary realities? For better and for worse, that has never been its role.”

Documentary producer and director Milton Justice (Down and Out in America, 1986), also in the Hollywood Reporter, referred to the failure of David Oyelowo to win a best actor nomination last year for Selma, writing, “Maybe there weren’t enough actors in the actors’ branch who thought he was good enough to be nominated. I’m not in the actors’ branch, but I certainly didn’t think he was very good in the part.”

Referring to Isaacs’ plan to add more minority and women members to the Academy, Justice asked rhetorically, “If there were more black actors in the Academy, would that have assured David Oyelowo’s nomination? Would it have assured more black nominees this year? Do black people only vote for black people? Did I vote for Sean Penn in Milk because I’m gay?! The whole idea is both insulting to blacks and to the Academy members, who presumably vote on artistic merit.”

Indeed, Isaacs’ plan, praised by virtually every media outlet, is based on a thoroughly reactionary premise, that female or black voters will obediently nominate female or black films, filmmakers and actors. With this move, the Academy is moving in the direction of racial quotas, official or de facto.

The New York Times, as noted above, is at the forefront of the effort to promote the arguments of figures like director Spike Lee and actors Jada Pinkett and Will Smith, who have declared their intention not to participate in this year’s awards ceremony February 28, and to push racial politics in general.

In a January 15 piece, “Oscars So White? Or Oscars So Dumb? Discuss,” theTimes introduces excerpts from a conversation among its chief film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis and critic at large Wesley Morris with this comment: “Are these the whitest Oscar nominations ever? Or just the most recent Academy Award whiteout?”

In the discussion that follows, Scott refers to the “shocking—or maybe not so shocking—whiteness of this year’s field of nominees.” After noting that the Academy has “done a reasonably good job of recognizing black talent” in recent years, Scott observes, “Spike Lee’s lifetime achievement award feels like belated and inadequate compensation for a career’s worth of slights. At the movies, we may be in the age of Chi-Raq and Straight Outta Compton, but the Academy is still setting the table for Guess Whos Coming to Dinner.”

The gravitational pull of his politics—and the fear of offending Lee’s supporters—is decisive here, because if Scott were objective in his artistic assessment, he would recognize that Lee has made a series of incompetently written and directed films, malicious, selfish and backward in their point of view.

Scott later comments, “The Academy’s blunder reflects the structural biases of the movie industry, which in turn reflects deeply embedded racism in the society at large. And no institution is immune.” Dargis chimes in, “My point being that the lived, embodied experiences of the membership greatly matter and that sometimes even the most well-intentioned white people just don’t seethe racism and sexism in front of them.”

It is foul to argue that “whiteness” is the chief difficulty with this or any year’s Academy Awards, and, in fact, to address art and culture in such terms.

The Times ran a piece January 22 headlined “The Oscars and Hollywood’s Race Problem,” by Roxane Gray, which returned to the theme, and another column January 27, “The Oscars and Race: A Stir Over Rules to Change the Academy,” by Cara Buckley.

In the latter, after noting that the number of black acting nominees in recent decades has reflected the percentage of blacks in the general population, Buckley writes, “But the representational proportionality of black nominees applies only to the acting categories. Let’s look at all of the awards the academy doles out, across all categories, and see how they break down by ethnicity. Let’s look at all the films Hollywood churns out and do the same: Few of the roughly 300 features eligible for best picture last year told stories from the points of view of women or minorities. Besides, we’ve been fed narratives from an overwhelmingly white male perspective since Hollywood began.”

Is Buckley, swept away by the self-involved, exclusivist ideas that dominate her milieu and conformist to the core, even aware of what she is saying? That artwork should be categorized and presumably appreciated according to whether it represents a male or female, black or white perspective? Whether she likes it or not, Buckley is setting up this basic standard: women gain more from art produced by women, Jews from work created by Jews, African-Americans from “African-American art,” etc.

The Times columnist categorizes the world in terms of race, ethnicity and gender. She assumes that perspective is framed by race and proceeds to elevate that to the level of a worldview. It is no exaggeration to point out that, in ideological terms, Buckley and others, in their obsession with race, are spouting a conception of society and art identified historically with the extreme right.

The Nazis asserted the existence of distinct “Aryan” and “Jewish [Bolshevik, liberal, degenerate]” cultures, separated out “Aryan music” from “Jewish music,” and so forth. They classified human beings collectively as “races,” with inherited characteristics, as one commentator notes, “related not only to outward appearance and physical structure, but also shaped internal mental life, ways of thinking, creative and organizational abilities, intelligence, taste and appreciation of culture, physical strength, and military prowess.”

Whether they like it or not, those who view art and culture in racial (or gender) terms and make race (or gender) the basis for a theory of aesthetics give credence to and encourage this type of filth.

Serious artwork has an objectively truthful, relatively universal character. None of the great works of art from which men and women, of every national or ethnic origin, learn and gain were created on the basis of racial or gender exclusivism. Such a vile, self-obsessed outlook, shared by the New York Times critics and the upper-middle class advocates of identity politics, is antithetical to genuine artistic creation. Racial, gender and sexual politics have done immeasurable damage to filmmaking and art generally over the past 40 years. Not a single major work or figure has emerged from this subjective, self-centered crowd.

A truly great film performance involves powerfully expressing—through an individual characterization—something profound and concrete about the reality of the times and the nature of the social relationships that shape human psychology. Such a work or performance raises feelings and moods beyond the limitations of the circumstances under which the work was created.

This gives rise to the viewer’s heightened sense of the universal and intensely meaningful quality of a work. It entails an aesthetic-intellectual process on the part of both the artist and the viewer, “reading the secret code inherent in things, people and events” (Voronsky), that is the opposite of self-centeredness and racial or gender restrictiveness.

One can think of many such performances in global cinema, from Anna Magnani in Open City, Jean Gabin in Grand Illusion and Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath, to performances in the work of Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Welles, Chaplin, Ray, Fassbinder, Hitchcock, Hawks, Murnau, Keaton, Pasolini and many others.

American filmmaking at present does a generally miserable job of portraying American life. The well-heeled African-American petty-bourgeoisie in Hollywood does not speak for or artistically represent African-American working class life, the life of the overwhelming majority of the black population. The black nouveau riche elements are consumed with hostility and contempt for the “great unwashed.” Nothing would compel such people, who have “made it big,” to direct their attention to conditions of exploitation and social misery.

As we argued in a previous article, the solution to American filmmaking’s “diversity problem” will not come from the entry of directors who differ from the current crop only in their ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. That would simply represent more of the same—more complacency, more self-absorption, more trivia.

To “diversify,” in fact, to revolutionize film and art in our day means, first and foremost, the introduction of great historical and social themes.

The Baltimore upheaval: On race and class in America


12 May 2015

In the aftermath of the eruption of anger in Baltimore, Maryland over the police killing of Freddie Gray, the media and political establishment are seeking to conceal the real social and political issues at stake.

The killing of 25-year-old Gray last month—only one of the latest in a wave of police murders around the country—triggered clashes with police, demonstrations that spread to other cities and a police-military occupation of the city that was only lifted last week. While Gray’s murder was the catalyst, the scope and magnitude of the social discontent was fueled by the destitute conditions confronting working-class youth in the city’s poorest, largely minority, neighborhoods.

Much of the political elite that runs Baltimore is African American, including the current mayor, police chief and the majority of the city council. Although this fact has seriously undermined the arguments of the proponents of identity politics, it has not stopped them from insisting once again that the essential division in American society is race, not class.

On Sunday, the New York Times published a lead editorial, “How Racism Doomed Baltimore.” The newspaper, which sets the tone for what is described as “liberal public opinion” in America, declared that conditions in the city could only be understood within the context of the city’s legacy of racism and segregation.

“Americans might think of Maryland as a Northern state, but it was distinctly Southern in its attitudes toward race,” the Times editorialists write before giving a potted history of the state, from efforts to disenfranchise black voters in 1905 to more contemporary examples of racial segregation in public housing.

The desperate condition of young low-income men, the newspaper says, cannot be understood outside of the context of the “century-long assault that Baltimore’s blacks have endured at the hands of local, state and federal policy makers, all of whom worked to quarantine black residents in ghettos, making it difficult even for people of means to move into integrated areas that offered better jobs, schools and lives for their children.”

The “tensions associated with segregation and concentrated poverty place many cities at risk of unrest. But the acute nature of segregation in Baltimore—and the tools that were developed to enforce it over such a long period of time—have left an indelible mark and given that city a singular place in the country’s racial history.”

That Baltimore, like many cities in the north and the south, had a history of racial segregation is of course true. However, if a reader of this column were not familiar with the politics of Baltimore, they might be excused for believing the city is run by the Ku Klux Klan and that its police force is made up of Night Riders covered in white sheets.

The Times does not mention that the political establishment in the city is predominantly African American, or that half of the Baltimore Police Department is black. Indeed, three of the six cops indicted for Gray’s killing, including the driver of the police van charged with murder, are African American.

The relentless police violence in Baltimore stems not from racism but from class oppression, which the black politicians defend no less than their white counterparts. Unable to contain her hatred and fear of the city’s youth after sporadic rioting erupted the day of Gray’s funeral, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declared, “Too many people have spent generations building up the city for it to be destroyed by thugs who are trying to tear down what so many fought for. They are tearing down businesses, destroying property.”

Rawlings-Blake speaks for a whole layer of wealthy African Americans who have a stake in defending their property and wealth and overseeing a system that produces ever-greater poverty for black and white workers alike. This corrupt social layer includes countless academics, politicians, preachers, millionaire “civil rights” leaders and black entrepreneurs who have benefited from government funding for minority-owned businesses and African American university programs.

Alongside the Times are various pseudo-left organizations that have long promoted identity politics in order to subordinate the interests of workers and youth to the Democratic Party. They represent the strivings of a segment of the upper middle class that uses the politics of race, gender and sexual identity as part of efforts to gain more of a share of the wealth exploited from the working class.

With angry youth in the streets of Baltimore denouncing the mayor and other black officials, the International Socialist Organization (ISO)—which hailed Obama’s 2008 election as a “transformative event in US politics, as an African American takes the highest office in a country built on slavery”—has suddenly discovered a “black elite” whose interests are at odds with the majority of minority workers and youth.

The problem, however, is that these “black elected officials” defend the “racist system!”

The ISO’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor—an assistant professor in Princeton’s African American studies department—tells us, “Black elected officials have largely governed in the same way as their white counterparts, reflecting all of the racism, corruption and policies favoring the wealthy seen throughout mainstream politics.” This “powerful Black political class,” she continues, “helps to deflect a serious interrogation of structural inequality and institutional racism.”

In other words, the problem is, according to Taylor, that the black politicians are simply not aggressive enough in their promotion of identity politics. Never does she suggest that there is a fundamental unity of interests between black and white workers.

The New York Times, the ISO—which is essentially an auxiliary agent of the Democratic Party—and the political establishment as a whole are determined to prevent any real examination of the social and economic structure of America because they all defend the capitalist system, which is the source of poverty and police brutality.

It has been 50 years since the Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles, one of the first of a wave of urban uprisings across the United States in the 1960s. The call made in the 1968 Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders for massive government spending to stop the country’s drift towards racial and economic polarization was never realized. Instead, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” programs gave way to massive outlays for the Vietnam War, with politicians declaring that it was impossible to provide “guns and butter.”

The five decades that have elapsed have seen the deindustrialization of major manufacturing centers like Baltimore, combined with an unrelenting destruction of social programs. At the same time, sections of the African American upper-middle-class have been elevated into positions of privilege and power.

By the time of Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, the Democratic Party had completely repudiated its association with the reforms of the New Deal and Great Society periods. Clinton gutted welfare programs to provide an ample supply of cheap labor for the rich, including a growing layer of black capitalists, and passed the 1994 Federal Crime Bill, with its notorious “three strikes” provision that has helped create the largest prison population in the world.

Since taking office Obama has only escalated these reactionary policies. Today the American ruling class will not even provide “guns and water,” as tens of thousands of low-income residents in Baltimore and Detroit are seeing their water service shut off for unpaid bills. The only “urban policy” Obama and the ruling class have is to try to contain the explosive social tensions with police military repression.

Whatever role racism might play in any particular act of police violence, the events in Baltimore expose the fact that above all class is the determining factor. With nothing to offer masses of people, the political and media representatives of the ruling class, along with the upper-middle-class boosters, are determined to block the development of a politically conscious and united movement of black, white and immigrant workers and youth against the profit system.

Jerry White

Hiding in plain sight: the history of the War on Drugs

Hiding in plain sight: the history of the War on Drugs

By Paul Bermanszohn

On August 13, 2015

Post image for Hiding in plain sight: the history of the War on DrugsThe War on Drugs was a direct response to the African American uprisings of the 1960s. Its racist and repressive effects continue to be felt today.

Photo: A scene of the 1967 Newark Rebellion, by Don Hogan Charles.

Recent US history, from the 1960s until today, shows the War on Drugs to be a crusade of repression against African American people, incarcerating millions to prevent a renewal of the struggle for freedom.

We need to look at the whole picture of this drug war, not just a fragment or a piece of it. Most writers on this subject either get lost in the details or cannot see past the lie that the US is a “democracy.” In either case they often fail to see the realities of this history, even though the facts are clear. Presenting well-known events in chronological order clarifies the inner connection among these events and brings out their larger significance.

Indeed, placing the history in sequence makes it plain: the Great Migration brought on a Great Rebellion. A vindictive Great Repression was orchestrated to crush the Great Rebellion and prevent its continuation. Masked as the so-called “War on Drugs,” which has swept millions into prisons and jails across the US, the Great Repression has, in effect, punished generations for the “sins” of their ancestors — those who dared to rebel.

This repression is still underway today. Its effects are clearly racial. But, camouflaged as a “War on Drugs,” it has allowed the country’s rulers to appear “colorblind” or race-neutral — as if they are merely enforcing the law.

The Great Migration

In the early 20th century, fleeing the decaying Jim Crow system of agricultural labor in the fields and farms of the South, millions of African Americans moved out, seeking jobs in the military-industrial centers of the North, the mid West and the West. From World War I to the 1960s, millions migrated from virtual chattel slavery in the South to wage slavery in the North. They found little improvement.

Herded into old ghettos, or into quickly-created new ones, they found discrimination, barely habitable housing with a constant threat of dislocation by projects of urban renewal, or “Negro removal.” Giant housing projects, little more than stacks of shacks, were built to house the many migrants. Overcrowded and neglected schools provided poor or non-existent education for their children.

The misery was compounded by relentless police abuse. When Malcolm X spoke of “the so-called Negro out here catching hell,” he was talking about (and to) this group. Malcolm lived this experience and became the spokesman of urban ghetto dwellers. The desperation and outrage experienced by these migrants made explosion inevitable.

The Great Rebellion

Violent repression of civil rights demonstrators seeking basic respect combined with the migrants’ sufferings to ignite a series of mass urban uprisings across the US. These insurrections are generally seen as individual explosions, city by city, but to grasp their cumulative significance we need to see them as a single process: African Americans striving for freedom in racist America. The rebellion was at the heart of the ’60s and drives American politics to this day, even under the nation’s first black president.

These rebellions are generally dismissed as “riots” and their significance erased.

Kenneth Stahl titled his website and book on the Detroit Rebellion of 1967 The Great Rebellion, but I expand the use of this term to include all these uprisings. Virtually all were precipitated by violent police attacks or rumors of such attacks. Since officials often lie, it is impossible to know what exactly happened in every case, but at any rate a large number of uprisings took place across the country: over 300 cities rose up in the ‘60s, according to the best estimates.

The first insurrection, in New York City, was touched off by a police murder. The initial focus of the demonstration, called for by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was the disappearance of three civil rights workers in Mississippi. However, when in the early morning of July 16, off-duty police Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan killed 15-year-old African American student James Powell, CORE decided to change the focus of their protest to police brutality in Harlem.

The protest was peaceful, but rage at the murder grew into a mass confrontation with police. Bands of looters operated in Harlem’s streets at night. Upheaval soon spread to Bedford Stuyvesant. After the New York City insurrection abated, like a series of aftershocks, smaller uprisings took place throughout the area, in upstate NY, NJ and Pennsylvania.

A year later, on August 11, unrest broke out in Watts, LA. Among the first targets of looters were gun stores — and they made full use of their weapons. For almost a week, people fought the police and army to a standstill. Black and white looters working together led King to state that “this was not a race riot. It was a class riot.” The Situationist International even treated the rebellion as a “revolutionary event,” with looting seen as a rejection of the commodity system, “the first step of a vast, all-embracing struggle.”

In 1966, there were 43 civil disturbances of varying intensity across the nation, including a notable uprising in Chicago, where the Puerto Rican community exploded into a week-long rebellion after a police shooting. On April 4, 1967, King delivered what is probably his most important speech: Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. The relevance of this speech is often downplayed, and if mentioned at all, it tends to be portrayed as King’s speech opposing the US war in Vietnam. It was much more.

In the address, King embraced the world revolution saying, “if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” He called the US government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and called for an end to “the giant triplets of racism, materialism and economic exploitation.”

The speech galvanized the anti-war movement. Just eleven days later, on April 15, 1967, over 400,00 people marched to the UN to demand an end to the war. It was the first demonstration I ever attended. I vividly remember the excitement in the gathering place, Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, still packed with marchers, when word came that the front of the march, which filled the streets the whole way, had reached the UN over a mile away. The movement’s power continued to grow as the spirit of revolution spread.

In just a few years, the US military began to disintegrate. Eighty percent of soldiers were taking drugs. Combat refusals, naval mutinies and fragging incidents — soldiers shooting their officers — became widespread.

In 1967, over a hundred instances of violent upheaval were recorded. Most notably were the uprisings in Newark, were the violence was sparked by rumors of a black cab driver being killed by police after decades of housing discrimination and massive black unemployment, and the one in the Motor City, Detroit, where 43 people were killed after 12,000 soldiers descended upon the city in an attempt to quell the protests.

The Great Repression

The year ’68 proved to be the watershed. The Rebellion reached its peak and the initiative was seized by the forces of order, who subsequently organized the Great Repression. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was killed, probably bygovernment assassination. His murder, one year to the day after his revolutionary speech, strikes some as a signal sent by the government to deter people from taking the revolutionary path. If this is so, it did not work. Following King’s murder the largest insurrection occurred. Over 100 cities exploded.

The Holy Week Uprising was the most serious bout of social upheaval in the United States since the Civil War. The largest insurrections took place inWashington, D.C., Baltimore, Louisville, Kansas City, and Chicago — with Baltimore experiencing the most significant political events. The Liberal Republican Governor of Maryland, Spiro T. Agnew, gathered African American community leaders and subjected them to a dressing down for not supporting the US government strongly enough. Seeking to divide and conquer, he said: “I call upon you to publicly repudiate, condemn and reject all black racists. This, so far, you have not been willing to do.”

Agnew’s speech received national headlines and led to his role in the presidential elections later that year, which centered on the urban uprisings of the preceding decade and created the miserable legacy of today. US politicians refined a coded language to conceal their racial motives. The Republican candidate Richard Nixon ran against the liberal Democrat Hubert Humphrey. The civil rights movement drove not only the KKK; it also drove overtly racist language underground. It did not end either.

The election centered on Nixon’s call for “law and order,” a slogan that meant a tough response to insurgents (called “rioters”) and the still popular notion that politicians should be “tough on crime.” Crime, disorder and violence became synonyms for being black.

Nixon eagerly stated to work on a war on drugs before his inauguration. Early in his presidency, he outlined his basic strategy to his chief of staff: “[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

Nixon’s diabolical efforts to develop a War on Drugs along these lines involved the highest officials in the US government, including William Rehnquist, later appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by Reagan. Nixon initiated a war on crime as well as the War on Drugs, setting the pattern for future presidents.

Following in his predecessors’ footsteps, Reagan outdid Nixon in his get-tough-on-crime policies and oversaw the steepest rise in incarceration rates. Bill Clinton signed into law an omnibus crime bill in 1994, increasing capital offenses and the federal “three strikes” provision mandating life sentences for criminals convicted of a violent felony after two or more prior convictions, including drug crimes. He poured over $30 billion into militarizing the nation’s police. His group, the Democratic Leadership Council, brought much of the Democratic Party to embrace coded racial politics in order to win over white voters.

For a new beginning

As a movement to stop violent police repression grows across the nation, some of our current rulers seem to understand that they have a tiger by the tail. The Clinton team has begun to suggest that mass incarceration might end. Clinton, herself, as part of her presidential campaign, called “for a re-evaluation of prison sentences and trust between police and communities.”

The Black Lives Matter movement recognizes that discontent fueled by mass incarceration contributes to the movement to stop police murders. Less well-recognized is that granting the police immunity is itself part of the generalized repression of African Americans. The system of mass incarceration rests on a high degree of police discretion in choosing whom to suspect, interrogate and arrest, and in how to do these things. Restricting the police can hardly be allowed if the police are to continue the overall project of racial repression.

Part of developing a new revolutionary movement is to reclaim our history. The masters keep us enslaved by blinding us to our collective strength. The story of the ‘60s uprisings is one rich in power and agency; this is the reason why the rulers want to erase this period from the collective memory altogether.

At the same time, we must also recognize that the uprisings of the ’60s failed. Despite the vast strength revealed in the Great Rebellion, our enemies were able to use the images of violence and looting to further the divisions in US society and to institute their vengeful repression with at least the passive consent of the “white” majority. Time and again, the mainstream media proved a powerful tool in promoting the image of black and brown people as violent, criminal and dangerous.

It must be acknowledged that widespread looting and violence frightened the “white” majority, making it easier for the rulers to split the people and institute the Great Repression. King’s revolutionary non-violence had a much different effect on the American people. This must be pondered by serious revolutionaries.

Conditions for a new revolutionary movement are gradually maturing. There are growing rebellions seeking a new way of life throughout the world. In the US, an ever-spreading movement affirms the value of black lives as increasing numbers of European-American youth take up the struggle of African Americans as their own. Such a movement may, in time, bring an end to the socially constructed notion of whiteness, eliminating a key pillar of the rulers’ domination.

In the Virginia colony in the 17th century, the masters were horrified to see African and European laborers combine to seek to destroy the system of enslavement. Their response was to create a sharp division in condition between their African and their Europeans slaves. They “invented” the white race to split the laborers and preserve their power — a remarkably effective and durable approach.

Race is a social construct devised and manipulated by our masters to maintain their rule. Only by eliminating class society, which continues to depend on racism, can racism as such be swept away.

Paul Bermanszohn, son of Holocaust survivors, is a retired psychiatrist and lifelong political revolutionary. He was shot in the head in an assassination attempt in the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, in which five of his close comrades were killed. His web site is Survival and Transformation.

This article is an edited version of a talk presented at a meeting of the End the New Jim Crow Action Network, on 14 July 2015 (Bastille Day), Kingston, NY.