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Class, racism and Obama’s speech

Published Mar 19, 2008 9:29 PM

It is seldom that the great, multinational working class in the United States gets much recognition in the mass media. Virtually nothing is said about what all workers have in common and what therefore makes them a class: the exploitation of their labor by huge conglomerations of capital, which now straddle the globe.

Instead, those who sell their ability to labor in exchange for wages—whether they sweat in the hot fields, dig in the mines, change sheets and bedpans, or battle a computer all day—have been defined as consumers, or constituents, or taxpayers if they had jobs. And if they got relatively decent pay with benefits—a shrinking number—they weren’t even allowed to be in the working class anymore. Especially if they were white, they were described as “middle class.”

But have you noticed that lately workers are being taken note of in the columns of the media pundits—and specifically “white workers”? How did they make this amazing comeback?

“White workers” are being mentioned in connection with the Democratic presidential primaries, and especially the campaign of Barack Obama. It is being broadly hinted that he might not make it because of the racism of “white workers.”

This is indeed turning reality on its head.

It was not white workers who introduced slavery into this country. It was white merchant capitalists and their customers in the slave trade: rich land owners who didn’t want to pay wages to white farm workers. They jumped at the chance of super-exploiting a people stolen in the millions from their homeland and brought in chains to be sold as chattel, with no human, social or political rights at all; who could be whipped, starved and beaten until they either obeyed their “masters” or died.

It was not white workers but Northern industrial capitalists who, after winning the Civil War, allowed the restoration to power of the Southern aristocracy and the return of a form of semi-slavery with the sharecropping system—again, to the benefit of the rich land-owning class there. It was not white workers but white bosses who tried to defeat the early unions in this country by devising strategies to pit white against Black in hiring and breaking strikes.

It is to Obama’s great credit that he has rejected this insidious effort to blame racism on white workers. In his remarkable speech on race on March 17, he discussed both the righteous anger in the Black community against all the many legacies of slavery that still exist and also the fears of whites who are losing their jobs. He talked about how conservative politicians and commentators exploit those fears on behalf of a “corporate culture” that has led to “a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.” He called on the African-American community to continue to “insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life” but also to bind “our particular grievances—for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs—to the larger aspirations of all Americans—the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who’s been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family.”

It was a remarkable talk because it was made within the framework of a political system shaped and dominated by the super-rich U.S. imperialist ruling class, which has owned both major political parties lock, stock and barrel for generations. It was not a break with this system, but it was a break with the unwritten rules of what has been considered acceptable speech within this system.

That Obama said he would not disown the Rev. Jeremiah Wright—although he did criticize his views—is another break with the unwritten rules, and one for which he will surely be castigated in the months to come. Obama was supposed to kneel down before the 24/7 blitzkrieg of denunciations that have streamed out of the televisions, radios and print media ever since Fox aired a segment of Wright’s sermons. Instead, he used the attacks to explain in his speech why there is such pent-up anger in the Black community. That it was Fox-TV, the pit bull of billionaire Rupert Murdoch, which began this racist attack on Obama just proves once again that racism comes from, and is constantly being reinforced by, the rich ruling class, not the white workers. It is fear that white workers may be won over to Obama—and eventually to a united struggle with Black workers—that has sent the right wing of the ruling class ballistic.

As the U.S. lurches into an economic crisis of unfathomable depth, nothing is more important than building Black-Brown-white unity to fight in the interests of the millions of workers who are being ripped off by this profit-mad capitalist system.