Racism as an organic wedge

Check out this episode of Fresh Air, on Kirk Wallace Johnson’s new book, The Fisherman and the Dragon: Fear, Greed, and a Fight for Justice on the Gulf Coast, examining a surge of racist activity along the Texas Gulf Coast against Vietnamese refugees. It’s a fascinating and troubling story that, as the author says, really speaks to the moment we’re in.

There is a deeper complexity to the racism itself that lurks near the surface of this conversation that the author dismisses too easily, at least in the interview. Several of the white people he interviewed in 2020 professed regret for their actions in 1979, and a few of them apparently claimed their actions weren’t race-based, that their intent was economic, not racial. There is a good deal of “delusional” justificatory rhetoric added on (that is the author’s characterization, accurately in my view), but this basic claim needs to be given more consideration because there is nothing delusional about their economic distress.

We can effectively dismiss the justificatory rhetoric for what it is, regretful people trying to recast the events and beliefs they regret most. It should also make us weary, but not dismissive, of the claim that their grievance was economic not racial, that the tensions resulted from economic distress not because of the presence of those minority individuals.

I think a better way to put the grievance might be, as the author characterizes the situation at the end of the interview, that the first manifestations of a significant economic crisis brought on by environmental destruction provoked fear in white go-it-aloners, who saw the relative security of a minority group (who, unbeknownst to and unlike the lone wolves, were pooling their resources to succeed as a group) and took that for the cause of their problems.

Easy scapegoats are everywhere for any issue at any moment. Without the cognitive wherewithal to avoid that trap–one of the supreme failings of our public education system, at least at the time and especially in rural communities–who could resist finding an easy solution so apparent to the casual viewer?

Consider the far-right response to the pandemic response in Michigan: “MY GOVERNOR IS AN IDIOT” proclaimed yard signs, flags, t-shirts, bumper stickers and all other manner of decorative gear. The Governor herself dismissed the attacks, saying effectively, like so many other Democratic state and local leaders across the country, that she’d be satisfied as long as they’re alive afterward to hate her. But there she was, a public figure, taking the lead in the spotlight of a diffuse public health response: an easy scapegoat. You cannot castigate a virus. I said that in a Michigan Radio clip a few years ago, and I’ll keep saying it: many people want someone to blame, an easy scapegoat, so they can go back to work at their wage-earning jobs.

Of course there are very clear culprits in the loss of those fishing jobs along the Gulf Coast, namely the fossil fuel companies who destroyed the coastal ecosystem, the executives orchestrating it and the employees complicit in it, as well as the state officials who promoted the destruction of the coastal ecosystem for short-term profits.

I don’t know which companies they are, who heads them or has headed them, let alone how a concerned citizen like myself could contact them. This is not common knowledge.

Given that cloudy uncertainty around multinational fossil fuel corporations (which, by the way, brought jobs in so other people could (barely) sustain themselves), if I’m a white person in a town historically full of white people, and suddenly there’s a group of people with different skin than me just as the resource is beginning to fail on which I had been (barely) sustaining myself and my family, who am I, an average lightly educated working-class US citizen, going to blame? Who will be my scapegoat?

This is racism as an organic wedge; but the wedge is different from the issue driving the wedge. In this case, the mallet forcing the wedge is the precarity in which working-class people live.

A couple definitions are in order at this point. First of all, by ‘organic’ I mean grassroots, bottom-up. In other words, there was no one there above them directing white aggression against a minority group.

By precarity, I mean something like what Judith Butler means by the term: I mean that state of existence on the edge, when any one illness or natural disaster drains everything of value from a family and sets them even further into poverty. By precarity I mean that anxious way of living on meager paychecks and trying to make them meet the needs of the moment.

But we cannot ignore an underlying mentality the has permeated our society, going largely unquestioned.

“How will you live without a job?”
“How will you eat without a job?”

The idea that every human being needs a job is dangerously misguided. True, part of a full life includes occupying oneself in a meaningful way. Also true, one of the duties of a human being who chooses to live among other human beings is to contribute to that community to the best of one’s abilities in a needful way. But jobs? That’s a mentality perpetuated among the working- and middle-class, from which the capitalist-class has benefitted handsomely.

If food is never free, then you must work a job if you want to survive. We are the only species that pays for what nature gives freely. We pay first with the sweat and effort to produce the foods and then we pay again to consume them. The vast majority of us actually pay a third and a fourth time to have the waste removed from the curb and via plumbing. We don’t have to live like this.

But the fact of the matter is, we have been living like this, and the working-class mentality was as strong in 1979 as it is today. The prime motivator for anyone who grew up as I did in a working-class household is a paycheck. It isn’t success or satisfying ambition. It isn’t about giving back to a larger community or anything so rosy-eyed as that. It is about bare economic survival in what is taken for granted as a ‘dog-eat-dog’ socioeconomic system.

Dear miner, they will slave you ’til you can’t work no more
And what’ll you get for your living but a dollar in a company store
A tumbled-down shack to live in, snow and rain pours in the top.
You have to pay the company rent, your paying never stops.

Sarah Gunning, “Come All You Coal Miners”

Nothing about what I’m saying agrees with or sanctions these men who claim that there was nothing racial about what they did. There obviously was, and there aren’t enough burning bottles in the world to absolve them of that. (This little detail, of a priest telling one of them to write down every vile thing he’d done, stuff it into a bottle and then light it on fire: how simple to absolve oneself! A little bottle-fire, and away you go!)

These men were obviously targeting a minority population based on their ethnicity. But this targeting was a scapegoating. And this changes how the incidents ought to be considered. Tensions emerged and then escalated in response to larger threats to people’s already precarious existence.

I would not ever suggest we absolve those men of what they did, how they thought and what violence they’ve perpetrated. But I would urge us all to look under the surface to see the systemic precarity itself within which the working-class are forced to work paycheck-to-paycheck for their basic survival. This is the central issue of the racial tensions along the Gulf Coast at issue in the book.

Precarity is also the chief source of the anti-immigrant mood that has taken hold among so many in the WEIRD world. People are angry that their jobs have gone overseas. So deeply engrained is the hustle that the hustle itself is never questioned. Instead, people are angry that their opportunities to hustle are gone and the precarity they face has been made that much worse.

Part of this has to do with a view of economic affairs as zero-sum, though things are only zero-sum among the capitalist class who operate within a monopoly-oriented mentality. There is no reason for the average working-class person to feel that they are in competition for a limited economic resource.

People definitely fault the corporations who moved their operations overseas, but the corporations are as nebulous in their minds as in mine, appearing as vague entities devoid of individual actors to blame. But they hear politicians, Republican and Democratic, talking about immigration, first whether or not it was a “crisis,” and now how to address what has come to be taken for granted as a “crisis.”

They don’t hear anyone talking about the history of human migration globally, let alone the history of migration back and forth through the area that has only relatively recently acquired a border through it. They aren’t exposed to the depravities faced abroad, nor are they aware of the violence driving so many people to flee as refugees. How could they understand what would drive someone from their country?

They have rarely heard any politician fault a company for ‘bringing down costs’—a euphemism for firing domestic laborers in favor of much cheaper foreign labor. Never has any national politician so far as I know called out the private equity firms that restructured our economy one business at a time. There is no show of actual leadership from our leaders. Instead of reorienting the discussion appropriately, our elected representatives merely deflect blame from themselves and their corporate donors. But deflection requires a target, a scapegoat. And what better scapegoat than the nebulous concept of ‘China’? Immigrants and migrant workers, that’s what. Here’s a population at hand, visibly different, and crucially without any economic, social or political power.

We could even tackle this without overhauling our socioeconomics too radically. What if instead everyone had a basic universal income and, at the same time, there was a strong intervention in the markets to keep basic necessities affordable to anyone? What if, instead of handing corporations so much money, we gave each other that money directly? Fine, keep your capitalism if you must, but let our government concern itself with the people, not corporations employing them. Without the underlying precarity holding down the white people featured in the book, would they have ever been radicalized?

What could these people have contributed to their community and our larger society? One of them laid the groundwork for radicalization online. What a waste of another brilliant mind. If we could only make it a practice of looking beyond the surface, of considering the circumstances that lead individuals to hate and not merely the circumstances of any one hateful act or utterance, we would find the socioeconomic causes that lead groups to form in opposition to one another.

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