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Yes, Racism Is Rooted in Economic Inequality

Some notes on a recent controversy.

Bernie Sanders at the Netroots Nation conference this month. Prez C / Flickr

Hillary Clinton is an astute campaigner. In a Facebook Q&A the other day, she was asked about the Black Lives Matter protesters who interrupted Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley at the Netroots Nation conference earlier this month. The inquirer, a Washington Post reporter, asked her the same question those protesters had posed to her rivals: how would she “begin to dismantle structural racism in the United States”?

Her answer was deft:

Black lives matter. Everyone in this country should stand firmly behind that. We need to acknowledge some hard truths about race and justice in this country, and one of those hard truths is that that racial inequality is not merely a symptom of economic inequality. Black people across America still experience racism every day.

Like any good politician, Clinton knows what her audience wants to hear. She also knows how to put her opponent on the back foot. Because how could Bernie Sanders respond to that? What’s he going to say — racial inequality is merely a symptom of economic inequality? He’s not going to say that. Nobody would.

Well, get ready for a hot take, ladies and gentlemen, because that’s exactly what I’ll say here. Angry responses can be addressed to the Jacobin Facebook page.


Here’s my question to the angry commenters: if racial inequality isn’t merely a symptom of economic inequality, what is it a symptom of?

I already feel like I can hear the answer: it’s a symptom of hundreds of years of slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, and urban apartheid.

Yes. But what were slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, and urban apartheid if not extreme forms of economic inequality?

What was the point of England’s colonization of Ireland if not to impose a lucrative “economic inequality” on its victims? Was the urban apartheid of Haussmann’s Paris not the “symptom” of nineteenth-century economic inequality?

And what exactly do you think all those African slaves were doing in the American South?

To quote Barbara Fields:

Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations — as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco. One historian has gone so far as to call slavery ‘the ultimate segregator’. He does not ask why Europeans seeking the ‘ultimate’ method of segregating Africans would go to the trouble and expense of transporting them across the ocean for that purpose, when they could have achieved the same end so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa.

No one dreams of analyzing the struggle of the English against the Irish as a problem in race relations, even though the rationale that the English developed for suppressing the ‘barbarous’ Irish later served nearly word for word as a rationale for suppressing Africans and indigenous American Indians. Nor does anyone dream of analyzing serfdom in Russia as primarily a problem of race relations, even though the Russian nobility invented fictions of their innate, natural superiority over the serfs as preposterous as any devised by American racists.

It’s true, of course, that racial inequality is due to hundreds of years of slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, and urban apartheid — to white supremacy. But to say so is merely to recount how one particular form of economic inequality came about. Just as the story of English imperialism is merely a history of how Ireland — even fifty years after winning independence — found itself the poorest country in all of capitalist Europe.


What Hillary Clinton is really hinting at when she says that racism can’t be reduced to “economic inequality” is racial animosity. I can’t think of what else she could mean. The new generation of radicals on Twitter like to talk about “structural” racism or “institutional” racism — but behind the verbal bravado, what they, too, are really referring to is racial animosity.

So let’s talk about interpersonal animosity, because it’s certainly not irrelevant here. That Texas trooper in the Sandra Bland video I still can’t bring myself to watch — I would be shocked to learn that he’s not a violent racist. Forget “structural” racism for a minute. Let’s talk about plain old-fashioned racism. Let’s stipulate the obvious: the proverbial “hick Texas bigot cop” really doesn’t like black people.

But can that explain why Bland ended up dead? I doubt it, because there are a lot of people the proverbial hick Texas bigot cop doesn’t like. He hates the nose-pierced vegans in Austin. He hates the liberal Jewish foundation executives in New York. He hates the Harvard WASPs who theorize about structural racism. He hates Nancy Pelosi.

But none of those groups is likely to turn up dead in a jail cell — not as likely as a black man or a black woman.

If freedom means anything, it means the freedom to go about your life without having to worry about all the people who hate you. Because let’s be honest: lots of people hate each other. Yankees fans hate Red Sox fans. Hardhats hate hippies. Nancy Pelosi probably hates that Texas cop just as much he hates her.

Yet Red Sox fans and Texas bigots don’t have to worry about ending up dead due to somebody’s animosity towards them. That is a luxury blacks in this country don’t enjoy, and if that’s not due to “economic inequality,” what is it due to?

Is it just a coincidence that the rate of incarceration for blacks is six times the rate for whites — and that the rate for whites who didn’t graduate high school is, likewise, six times the rate for whites who did? Is that not due to economic inequality?

Is it a coincidence that the white incarceration rate is almost four times greater in poor Idaho than in rich Connecticut? Or that so far just this year, cops in Oklahoma (population: 3.9 million) have killed 29 people, 18 of whom were white — more than the entire English police force (population: 53 million) has killed in the last decade?

Of course, to say that these are symptoms of an underlying inequality should only underscore the fact that, in an emergency, it’s precisely the symptoms that are the most urgent to treat. When you’re rushed to the hospital with a heart attack, you can’t simply be told to cut down on your cholesterol and be sent on your way. That’s why Bernie Sanders missed a fine opportunity to talk about police violence and racism in his flubbed appearance at the Netroots meeting. Since then, he seems to have been doing a lot better.


The connections between economic stratification and ascriptive hierarchy, between social structure and subjective affect — these issues are not new and, believe it or not, they weren’t even born in the antebellum American South.

Here’s Karl Marx in 1870, advising an activist friend in America about the Irish question:

England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.

As a social theorist, Marx unfortunately lacked the subtlety of, say, a Hillary Clinton. His “reductionist” solution was for the Irish to free themselves from their English landlords in Ireland — and unite with the English workers in England.