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Latest Chapter of Anti-Racism: Tim Wise Defends Obama

by Jack Straw

Prominent “anti-racism” activist Tim Wise appeared on the "Morning Show" of Pacifica’s Berkeley affiliate KPFA on March 1, 2010. During the show’s second hour, he asserted in an interview with host Aimee Allison that the growing opposition movement to President Obama, which he called the “Tea-bagger” movement, was essentially all about racism, motivated by the fact that Obama is of African-American background.

Wise provided an account of US history which focused entirely on race relations. He described how the government seized the land which makes up the US and gave it to “white people” through the Homestead Act. He described the post-World-War-II expansion of suburbia as a government affirmative action program on behalf of “whites.” And he essentially described the basic social dynamic in the US as being about race.

The Daily Battle has previously dealt with the question of the diversion of opposition to the dominant system into a perspective which focuses almost entirely upon “racism”. I see little reason to rehash what i discussed in that piece. However i would like to address the two key points that Wise brought up.

The land of what is now the U.S.A. was indeed seized from its indigenous inhabitants, those known today as “Native Americans,” by armed force, with the people being killed or forced to move. Eventually, those who weren’t killed or who died in migrations (to territories which continuously shrank till they disappeared) were forced to live on “reservations,” forerunners of the Nazi concentration camps and apartheid, be it in South Africa or Israel. But the assertion that the land was simply given to “white people” is so non-descriptive of the result as to be useless. The 1861 Homestead Act gave 160 acres of land at $1.25 an acre to anyone who would cultivate it for five years. However, few ordinary people were able to afford the $200 necessary to do this, so speculators moved in and bought up much of this land. The total land involved added up to 50 million acres. This amount was eclipsed during the next few years, as over 100 million acres were given by the US government (both the president and Congress) to the railroad companies, for free. [1] These companies got the best and best-located parcels.

Within a few decades, many of the farmers who settled on the Homestead parcels found themselves totally dependent upon the railroad companies for transport of their product to the processing centers (e.g., mills), upon the millers, likewise owned by increasingly fewer companies, and upon banks to finance their operations. Many lost their farms and wound up leaving for urban areas. This process of impoverishment was to lead to the Populist Movement of the late 19th Century, which made a lot of noise and effected some political reforms. However, for the most part the movement failed to stop the concentration of control of farmland and of social/political power, which continue to this day.

In fact, the seizure of land by force was not something unique to America. The Enclosures, which began in England during the 15th Century, involved the taking of land from small farmers, and well as the fencing of land which was previously “the Commons,” eventually resulting in the removal of most of the rural population. The few remaining former peasants became wage workers on the newly enlarged estates which became capitalist operations, while the people displaced were forced to move to urban areas, where they eventually became the working class which powered industrial capitalism. What took place in America is then nothing other than a local version of the Enclosures. It was even justified by the ideologues of capitalism such as John Locke using doctrines developed to justify the original enclosures and their extension to Ireland. [2] It is a process which was repeated wherever capitalism spread and established itself, a process which continues to today. Making out the American chapter of the Enclosures to be an event which is unique in history is either a sign of extreme historical ignorance or an outright lie.

Concerning the post-WWII buildup of the American suburbs through home loans, Wise likewise ignores the overall ramifications. Yes, the living conditions of many working class people of primarily European ancestry were improved, while African Americans and Latinos were until the 1970s largely left in the urban centers, which were increasingly allowed to rot. But this process also resulted in the creation of an unsustainable living pattern. This process was embarked upon as a way to stimulate business for various industries, especially housing, auto and highway construction. It was greatly facilitated by the launching of the interstate highway system, ostensibly in order to enhance military transportation. The process also created new patterns of development, as shopping centers and drive-in establishments constructed in suburbia took away business from retailers in urban centers, and increasingly industrial “parks” began to draw away both industry and office jobs as well.

This entire pattern was dependent upon cheap oil, both for fueling the car and truck traffic upon which suburbia was dependent, as well as for the construction of the structures and roads, and the plastics which became an essential feature of the lifestyle. As the global production of oil nears a peak (it may have in fact already passed it at this point), suburbia is increasingly unsustainable, and already large patches of it are looking like ghost towns. Increasingly the talk is of the end of suburbia. In the meantime, the families which moved to the suburbs have become disconnected from the communities they were a part of previously. So, the “privilege” Wise speaks of has rapidly turned into a liability, as residents of suburbia find themselves with homes whose values are plunging, dependent upon increasingly unaffordable auto-centered transportation to get around, without any community to provide support. Yet he continues to act as if living in the suburb is what people should be striving for.

Overall, Wise made no criticisms of the policies of President Obama. From this presentation, one would think that the only reason for mounting discontent with the current administration is that “whites” are reacting against the first “black” president. Host Aimee Allison, who has herself voiced such opinions before, was demonstrably happy to hear this perspective. Overall, KPFA and Pacifica have on more than one occasion spun the news in a way favorable to Obama. For example, when bad economic news is presented at all, the news anchors add that the results are “better than expected” (often even letting administration spokespeople do such spinning). In contrast, they draw maximum mileage out of anything which sounds positive. When there is no way to put a positive spin on the policies or results, the listeners are told it’s their fault, they should be pressuring Obama and his administration to do the right thing and enable him to “stand up to the right wing,” as if this really explains the pursuit of those policies.

So we witness the ongoing bailout of the financial industry’s biggest players, the continuation of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (indeed, the escalation of the latter) while the U.S. government increases the pressure upon the government of Iran, the adoption of the Bush administration’s police state measures with a few of them being renamed, the furtherance of No Child Left Behind, the selection of members of the economic elite to fill cabinet posts and advisory positions. Yet none of these phenomena were even mentioned in the Wise interview. Instead, the implications were fully that Obama is facing criticism from people who haven’t been giving him a fair chance and that a “white” president would not have been so denigrated.

This is the key problem with Wise’s analysis. He in no way questions the nature of capitalism and the nature of its rule, but only that its supposed benefits are apportioned unfairly on the basis of race. Like so many activists during at least the earlier parts of the 1960s movement, he wants everyone to enjoy the American “Dream” (George Carlin said in 2005 “they call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it"), and doesn’t raise any questions about its basic nature. At the heart of the matter lies class.

Yes, racism is still alive and quite strong, as are sexism, homophobia, ... what not. These divisions between people are what the advocates of identity politics focus upon. Capitalism however could at least theoretically exist without these, though their benefits for the ruling elite in splintering the rest of us are immense, and hence they are unlikely to press too hard for their elimination. But capitalism could not exist for a moment without social classes, as its very structure requires a working class from which surplus value is extracted to create profit for capital. This has nothing to do with “classism,” an abomination spouted by advocates of identity politics, which is all about social classes treating each other “unfairly,” as if there is a nice way to for one class to exploit another.

It is no surprise that Wise appears on the airwaves of Pacifica and other progressive media, within which the poison of identity politics has driven out Marx’s analysis of capital. But he also shows up on CNN, whose corporate managers are quite OK with raising racism and identity issues, as long as the capitalist prerogatives of profit making and control of the means of production are not challenged. This more than anything else shows the diversionary nature of the message he espouses, directing the attention of would-be activists and those who want information and understanding away from the basic aspects of the system and away from seeing how its current managers are using race and other aspects of identity to legitimate the current policies of imposing capital’s prerogatives ever more savagely.

[1] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, p 233

[2] Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View, p 157

March 26, 2010

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