Even the celebrated Afro-pessimist, Ta-Nahisi Coates, has found cause for hope in the current protests over the police killing of George Floyd. In an interview with Ezra Klein, he pointed out a stark and promising difference between the rebellions in American cities in the 1960s and these ones: the participation of white people.
Have we finally solved one of the great problems of American history—the disunity of the working class? Many historians, especially on the left, are obsessed with this question. During my Ph.D. oral exams, one of my tormentors asked: who wrote “Why is There No Socialism in the United States?” (Answer: Werner Sombart). Another author posed the question this way:
Why is the United States the only advanced capitalist country with no labor party? This question is one of the great enduring puzzles of American political development, and it lies at the heart of a fundamental debate about the nature of American society.
Those of us who think it would be good if you could hang on to your health insurance when you get laid off in a pandemic, or who wish they could join a union at work (almost five times as many as now belong to one, according to this article) think that these are important questions, and some of us suspect they are connected to another oft-asked question about our history: where does American racism come from?
One such person was Martin Luther King, Jr. who outlined a theory that simultaneously addressed both questions in a speech at one of the important milestones of the Civil Rights Movement. Here is an extended excerpt from that speech, delivered in Montgomery Alabama, on March 25, 1965 at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March. (Audience reactions are in parentheses)
The confrontation of good and evil compressed in the tiny community of Selma (Speak, speak) generated the massive power (Yes, sir. Yes, sir) to turn the whole nation to a new course. A president born in the South (Well) had the sensitivity to feel the will of the country, (Speak, sir) and in an address that will live in history as one of the most passionate pleas for human rights ever made by a president of our nation, he pledged the might of the federal government to cast off the centuries-old blight. President Johnson rightly praised the courage of the Negro for awakening the conscience of the nation. (Yes, sir)
On our part we must pay our profound respects to the white Americans who cherish their democratic traditions over the ugly customs and privileges of generations and come forth boldly to join hands with us. (Yes, sir) From Montgomery to Birmingham, (Yes, sir) from Birmingham to Selma, (Yes, sir) from Selma back to Montgomery, (Yes) a trail wound in a circle long and often bloody, yet it has become a highway up from darkness. (Yes, sir) Alabama has tried to nurture and defend evil, but evil is choking to death in the dusty roads and streets of this state. (Yes, sir. Speak, sir) So I stand before you this afternoon (Speak, sir. Well) with the conviction that segregation is on its deathbed in Alabama, and the only thing uncertain about it is how costly the segregationists and Wallace will make the funeral. (Go ahead. Yes, sir) [Applause]
Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote. In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland. Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races immediately after the Civil War. There were no laws segregating the races then. And as the noted historian, C. Vann Woodward, in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, clearly points out, the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land. You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.
Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. (Listen to him) That is what was known as the Populist Movement. (Speak, sir) The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses (Yes, sir) and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses (Yeah) into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.
To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. (Right) I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, (Yes) thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. (Yes, sir) And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.
If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. (Yes, sir) He gave him Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, (Yes, sir) he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. (Right sir) And he ate Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. (Yes, sir) And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, (Speak) their last outpost of psychological oblivion. (Yes, sir)
Thus, the threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses alike (Uh huh) resulted in the establishment of a segregated society. They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; (Yes, sir) they segregated southern churches from Christianity (Yes, sir); they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; (Yes, sir) and they segregated the Negro from everything. (Yes, sir) That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society: a society of justice where none would prey upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality. (Yes, sir)
We’ve come a long way since that travesty of justice was perpetrated upon the American mind….
King was hopeful that finally, the American working class might unite. You can understand his optimism in this moment, before George Wallace ran one of the most successful third-party presidential campaigns in American history, stoking a mostly working class (mostly white) backlash against the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, the anti-war movement, college students, rising crime rates, urban disorders, and Black Nationalism. That was 1968. As of March, 1965, when King spoke in Montgomery, white people had participated significantly in the freedom rides and the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and a president from a former slave state had put his full support behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965, saying in a televised address to the nation: “it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.”
For those of us who believe in democracy, it was one of the most hopeful moments in American history, alongside Congress's endorsement in 1776 of the phrase “All men are created Equal,” and the 1863 delivery of a presidential proclamation abolishing slavery as an “act of justice.”
After Selma, King began to shift his focus from legal rights for African Americans to economic progress for all of America’s poor people. In 1968, his Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched a national “Poor People’s Campaign,” which “demanded economic and human rights for poor Americans of diverse backgrounds.” And King died while organizing a union for garbage collectors in Memphis. (The union was AFSCME, which my white father belonged to at the time.)
King’s hopeful moment in 1965 evaporated in the upheavals of the late 60s—in Vietnam, violent urban uprisings, assassinations, and a conservative political wave.
There is reason to think that the current moment of hope on the left will be more resistant to a “white backlash” that divides the working class. A poll taken June 10-12 found that 64 percent of Americans support the protests of the George Floyd killing. By contrast, 60 percent of Americans said they had an unfavorable view of the totally peaceful 1963 March on Washington at the time, which featured King’s “I have a Dream” speech, perhaps the most inspiring oration in human history. (Link: more polling data on public opinion of Civil Rights Movement.)
We would do well, however, to never underestimate the power of race to divide the American working class.
In a recent interview with Anderson Cooper, Cornel West expressed his hope for positive outcomes out of the current protests, but concluded with the caution of someone who has been down this road before:
We’ve got hope in the form of motion, but we have to get ready for the backlash. We have to get ready for the neo-fascist clamp down, because it’s coming. It is coming.In his book, Future-Focused History Teaching, Mike Maxwell argues that the purpose of studying history is to reveal principles that will guide us in the present as we try to shape the future. It’s not that history repeats itself, but we can find patterns that tend to recur. Awareness of those tendencies is one of the great sources of wisdom about human affairs and effective citizenship.
West understands one of the recurring patterns in American history, that the class of people King referred to as “Bourbon interests” have often been successful at driving a wedge between different groups of working class people—especially black and white—to prevent them from forming a solid block that might pass legislation to make America more equitable, and redistribute power and prosperity downward. And of course, the working class does have divergent interests, so solidarity is always fragile.
The question for the marchers and the organizers, for the leaders of BLM and other organizations in the struggle, is how to organize a wedge-resistant movement. So far so good. After an initial burst of anger led to a round of arson and looting, the protests have become generally peaceful and orderly—a contrast to the overreaction of law enforcement—the tear gas, the rubber bullets, the bullying of the press—and public support has increased.
I would like to suggest that an even more powerful way of solidifying white support would be to emphasize the ways in which the aims of the movement are good for white Americans too.
For example, although America’s obsession with law and order has led to a disproportionate impact on black people, it has also harmed white people significantly. According to the Washington Post, in 2019, police shot 10 unarmed black people and 20 unarmed white people. Statistics on total killings of unarmed people at the hands of police are harder to come by, but one database that includes statistics on shootings and deaths like George Floyd’s estimates that 28 black people and 51 whites were killed by police that year.
Of course, African Americans make up only 13 percent of the population and they accounted for 35 percent of those deaths. But are the 51 white people who were killed inconsequential? Would be we happy if those numbers were proportional to population? If 10 unarmed black people—13 percent of the total—were killed in 2019 and 69 whites? Or is the total number—79—just too big no matter the color of the victims?
Conservatives would have us believe that these rates are perfectly acceptable given the relative rates of violent crime in black and white communities.
But according to statistics I found on Wikipedia—at “killings by law enforcement officers by country”—the US ranked 21st out of 60 countries with 46.6 killings per 10 million people. If you look at only the nations with advanced industrial economies, the US is in a class by itself. Canada was the closest, with 9.7 killings per 10 million. Germany had 1.3; France 3.8; the UK .5. These discrepancies are similar to what we see with incarceration rates.
Though African Americans also make up a disproportionate number America’s incarcerated, the rate for just whites—306 per 100,000—is anywhere from 15 times (Germany) to twice (England and Wales) the incarceration rate in comparable countries. (According to my very rough calculations based on numbers from Pew and Wikipedia.) And some studies suggest that class may be a more significant factor in who is jailed than race—or at least that it is not irrelevant.
I recently posted this cartoon on my facebook page:
Perhaps, though, the answer to “All Lives Matter” should be more along the lines of: good point; white people are also victims of our national obsession with law and order: let’s address the problems of mass incarceration and aggressive policing in a way that benefits all Americans. The BLM movement might even post a few pictures of white people killed by police on its site.
It seems likely that my fellow human beings are, on average, at least as good and decent as I am, in which case, they take the rights of their fellow citizens and what they perceive to be the common good into consideration when casting their votes and acting as citizens. But self-interest also comes into the equation.
King understood this, as did his rivals in the Black Power movements of the late 1960s, who said: “No group should go into an alliance or a coalition relying on the ‘good will’ of the ally…. All parties to the coalition must perceive a mutually beneficial goal based on the conception of each party of his own self-interest.”
My daughter, Lindsey Jordan, recently wrote a long piece on Instagram addressing the question of why George Floyd’s death has inspired so many white people to come out on the streets—more than after previous killings of black people by police.
I think the biggest reason white people care more right now, is because for the first time white people feel a general sense of fear, unrest, and confinement themselves. They too feel fear when walking out of their houses, or unease at the anger of others and how strangers might perceive them and their choices. Inequality in the US at the moment is on full display and it’s harder to not acknowledge how little power we have and how little we are looked after when our government is so slow to take action and the public suffers financially while the biggest corporations and the richest people benefit. Now everyone in the US can more so sympathize with (or are at least more so forced to confront) what black and brown people feel all the time— and I think without completely realizing it, the distress and frustration and anger and confusion and helplessness white people feel as a result of this pandemic is causing us to empathize more, and understand more how distressing and immediate the problem of racism is. A country that is willing to kill and beat its citizens, one that lets the people that commit these atrocities go unpunished, is also a country willing to let its people down— and not take care of them— during a global pandemic.
Lindsey’s analysis is backed up by this comment from a listener of the NPR podcast Code Switch:
During COVID I've also felt a physical vulnerability in the face of the virus that's made me more empathetic and shifted my priorities to some degree…. In some ways I think that increased vulnerability has also re-sensitized me toward images of violence against black bodies, which my privilege had allowed me to tune out to some degree before.
The Code Switch hosts and their guest, Nicole Fisher, ended the podcast on a pessimistic note—they wished white people were acting out of a nobler set of motives than self-interest, or the irrational feelings that Fisher says arise during quarantines and have stimulated rioting and protests in many quarantines past. I guess I’m more cynical than them about human motivation, because I don't tend to trust coalitions built on selflessness or piety.
Past interracial coalitions and movements like the Populist Party of the 1890s that King spoke of have fallen apart when white people came to see their self-interests as in conflict with the interests of black folk. The concept of “loss aversion” helps us see why. According to one definition, it’s “a cognitive bias that suggests that for individuals the pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining.” This is why revolutions generally arise from groups of relatively well-off people—people who have something to lose. The American rebels of 1776 were some of the most prosperous people on the planet at the time.
And sometimes perceptions matter more than reality. Black and white sharecroppers in the 1890s unified because they shared common economic interests—they were both victims of a system of agricultural labor that was not that much better than slavery. But propagandists managed to convince them that what W.E.B. Du Bois called the psychological wage of racism—the feeling of being superior to all black people and some concrete benefits that came with it—was more valuable than escaping the sharecropping system. It’s hard to imagine that such propaganda could be as successful today. We live in very different times. But you never know.
Enough blue collar union democrats drifted away from the Democratic Party and the New Deal coalition in the 1970s to make the rise of Reagan conservatism possible. The causes of that drift are complicated and it’s impossible to separate them, but most historians (though not all ) think race played some role—that the so-called “Southern Strategy” was parallel to the Bourbon appeal to white sharecroppers in the 1890s.
So, as always, we are left with questions. Will this moment of apparent interracial unity be more long-lasting than similar moments in the past? Will the black and white protesters form the core of a political coalition that holds together long enough to elect a government that will support policies that address the unease of both white and black protesters? And among the white majority of American voters, what combination of rational and irrational, self-interested and altruistic motives will somehow come together in the weeks and months and years ahead. It’s good to feel hopeful, but better to have a plan that is informed by reality, how people behave, how things really work in a democracy and what the lessons of history suggest.
Some related readings
Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.
Mike Maxwell, Future-Focused History Teaching.
Lawrence Goodwyn The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America.
WEB Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880.
Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. (Michael McCord sees parallels between Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and Trump’s habit of stoking of grievances. “The Southern Strategy wasn’t solely about race. It was about a new way of politics. Nixon’s cynical poison would infect every cultural wedge issue imaginable in the following decades.”)
Ross Douthat, "The Second Defeat of Bernie Sanders," New York Times, June 23, 2020. This came out after I posted here and offers a less hopeful vision of the protests. See also, this comment on the article, which predicts that the BLM protests will morph into a Sanders-style movement.