The author, a former corporate journalist like Hedges, reminds him that white workers betrayed Black workers and class solldarity, not the other way around.
“Is coddling racists your best advice for winning the class war?”
Dear Chris Hedges:
I read with great interest your February 15th essay entitled Cancel Culture: Where Liberalism Goes to Die, in which you make several compelling points, key among them your assertion that a souped-up capitalist culture is both the wellspring of our national discontent and the iceberg which will inevitably capsize the American experiment. Duly noted as well was your reproach of a venal, out-of-touch liberal elite that views the white working class as “deplorables,” and invites authoritarianism with its muzzling of Trump on social media platforms.
Less convincing was your averment that silencing “politically incorrect” speech runs counter to the aims of racial justice and your appeal for empathy for the mostly white mob that converged last month on the nation’s capital with bad intentions. After offering the example of Rev. Will Campbell – who ministered to both the Ku Klux Klan and black civil rights activists – you referenced a Washington Postanalysis which found that nearly 60 percent of a sample of 125 defendants charged in the January 6th attack “showed signs of prior money troubles, including bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the past two decades,” you wrote:
“Campbell would have reminded us that the demonization of the Trump supporters who stormed the capital is a terrible mistake. He would have reminded us that racial injustice will only be solved with economic justice. He would have called on us to reach out to those who do not think like us, do not speak like us, are ridiculed by polite society, but who suffer the same economic marginalization. He knew that the disparities of wealth, loss of status and hope for the future, coupled with prolonged social dislocation, generated the poisoned solidarity that give rise to groups such as the Klan or the Proud Boys.”
We cannot heal wounds we refuse to acknowledge.”
Indeed, forgetting is the worst violence, which is why your failure to identify the most gaping wound on the national body politic was so stunning. The principal reason that the American people can’t have nice things is that we live in a de facto apartheid state constructed by white workers’ Biblical betrayal of African Americans since the end of the Civil War. For the better part of 166 years, white laborers such as those who attacked the Capitol have conspired with white landowners, industrialists and financiers to slander, fleece, lynch, rape, exploit and murder blacks who they view as competitors rather than comrades, and ATMs rather than allies. Or, as the slain black radical George Jackson wrote:
“The major obstacle to a united left in this country is white racism.”
And so forgive me if I glibly decline the invitation to your white pity party on behalf of the vast majority of 42 million African Americans in language that recalls both Ella Fitzgerald and Justin Timberlake:
Cry Me a River.
“Your failure to identify the most gaping wound on the national body politic was stunning.”
The Capitol Hill mob was heavily indebted, you say? Do tell. Blacks are twice as likely as whites to be saddled with poor credit scores, according to a 2016 study; in fact, whites earning $25,000 annually are likely to have better credit than blacks earning between $65,000 and $75,000. African Americans who earned their bachelor’s degree from a four-year public university in 2012 owed an average of $3,500 more in school loans than white graduates that year and the default rates widen, rather than narrow, over time, as blacks who earn less than whites struggle to keep up with their payments. Moreover, regulators have fined lenders such as Toyota, Fifth Third Bank and Ally for overcharging black and Latinos for car loans and African Americans, on average, pay between $300 and $500 more for an auto loan than do white borrowers. One-in-three blacks between the ages of 18 and 64 have past due medical bills compared to one-in four whites in the same cohort. African Americans are twice as likely to be in arrears on bills including water or utility bills and more likely to have their service disconnected or even lose their home as a result of a lien. And payday lenders absolutely feast on black women.
But nothing represents the racial Ponzi scheme that is the U.S. economy better than subprime mortgages which are often referred to as “racialized lending” in other parts of the world. An analysis by the Economic Policy Institute of data compiled at the zenith of the real estate boom found that 53 percent of all black borrowers were issued subprime loans, compared to a quarter of white borrowers. Another study found that between 2004 and 2008, only 6.2 percent of white borrowers with a credit score of 660 or higher received a subprime loan while the rate for black borrowers with similar credit scores was 21.4 percent. In fact, the lending disparities actually widened when households with higher incomes were compared, meaning that an African-American family earning more than $200,000 annually was more likely to be given a subprime loan than a white family making less than $30,000, leaving New York University Sociology Professor Jacob Faber to conclude that borrowers of color were targeted not because they were credit risks, but because they weren’t.
The difference is that in the nation’s most prosperous majority-black community, the Washington, D.C., suburb of Prince George’s County, Maryland, one in every 624 homes is in foreclosure, while across the Potomac River in Fairfax County, Virginia, where two of every three residents is white, the ratio is one in every 5,189 homes.
While it’s true that the U.S. has experienced debt bubbles since at least 1873, policymakers’ response to the Great Recession represents a seismic shift in the way that government regulators have typically handled such crises. Rather than force creditors to accept a reduction, or “haircut” on their loan portfolios – thereby freeing up consumers’ cash and restoring the buying power that fuels a demand economy – the Obama administration bailed out the grifters, purchasing toxic paper from unscrupulous lenders for 100 cents on the dollar, repaying the investors who purchased the liar’s loans and other fraudulent financial instruments, and showering the big banks and corporations with trillions in cheap money in a bid to effectively re-inflate the speculative bubble and send the stock market soaring again. Left holding the bag were the borrowers, disproportionately us “mud people” as blacks were often referred to by the mortgage brokers peddling “ghetto loans.” It wasn’t just Wall Street bankers who were in on the con, however, but white workers as well, who could leverage financial advantages gained over 400 years of settler colonialism to join the oligarchs in fleecing the low man on the capitalist totem pole, flipping homes, borrowing against them, and even acting as the middleman in the fraudulent transactions.
“It wasn’t just Wall Street bankers who were in on the con, however, but white workers as well, who could leverage financial advantages gained over 400 years of settler colonialism.”
The result is that African Americans lost half of their wealth during the Obama years –more than at at any time since the collapse of the Freedman’s bank in 1864 – and today own 1 percent of all assets in the country, according to Mehrsa Baradaran, a law professor at the University of California-Irvine. That figure is virtually unchanged from January 1st, 1863 when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
A study published last year by Citigroup found that racial discrimination against African Americans since 2000 has cost the U.S. economy $16 trillion – equivalent to nearly one year of Gross Domestic Product – in lost economic activity. Such yawning disparities can only be contextualized as part of a racial kleptocracy in which all institutions –banking, real estate, the criminal justice system, schools, organized labor and the news and entertainment media – conspire to nickel-and-dime blacks and keep us from obtaining capital that is the cornerstone for self-sufficiency. But as either Hegel or Henry Ford could advise, when blacks lose buying power that deficit will eventually bleed into the broader economy as businesses lose customers and are forced to lay off workers. In a trend that began well before the onset of the pandemic, commercial activity in the U.S. plummeted to a historic low in 2020, and the Federal Reserve is keeping the zombie economy afloat by printing money; one fifth of all U.S. dollars in circulation was printed in 2020.
The imminent cataclysm is rooted in whites’ historic rejection of appeals for class solidarity made both by black workers, and even Karl Marx himself who took a break from writing the first volume of Das Kapital to pen a letter in 1865 exhorting whites in the U.S. to embrace the freedpeople in their labor struggles. That same year, white laborers in Baltimore successfully lobbied their bosses to fire 100 black caulkers and longshoremen, who responded by raising $40,000 to buy their own shipyard and manage it as a workers’ cooperative.
“Even Karl Marx himself penned a letter in 1865 exhorting whites in the U.S. to embrace the freedpeople in their labor struggles.”
Within six months the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company employed 300 blacks in Baltimore and other cities along the Atlantic seaboard at an average wage of $3 per day –roughly $250 in today’s dollars – and as the cooperative expanded began to hire white laborers in addition to blacks. According to the Marxist historian Phil Foner, a black caulker named Issac Myers pleaded with white delegates to integrate their unions at an 1869 meeting of the National Labor Union in Philadelphia.
“ I speak today for the colored men of the whole country,.... when I tell you that all they ask for themselves is a fair chance; that you shall be no worse off by giving them that chance; that you and they will dwell in peace and harmony together;... The white men of the country have nothing to fear from the colored laboring man. We desire to see labor elevated and made respectable; we desire to have the highest rate of wages that our labor is worth; ... And you, gentlemen, may rely on the support of the colored laborer of this country in bringing about this result.... American citizenship with the black man is a complete failure, if he is proscribed from the workshops of this country.”
Continuing, Myers invoked the Baltimore stevedores’ cooperative efforts:
“ We gave employment to a large number of the men of your race, without regard to their political creed, and to the very men who once sought to do us injury. So you see gentlemen, we have no prejudice.”
White labor leaders, of course, declined, providing industrialists with a ready supply of strikebreakers, culminating in the Red Summer of 1919 when an angry white precariat roamed the country attacking African Americans. These racial antagonisms continued largely unabated until the onset of the Great Depression (which, coincidentally, began in the black community three years earlier than in the greater U.S.), when, out of desperation, white leaders of the newly organized Congress of Industrial Organizations –perhaps most notably an Australian longshoreman named Harry Bridges –began to integrate organized labor.
Working together black and white employees created the most prosperous working class in the Industrial Age, yet even as the CIO lifted Americans’ living standards, thousands of whites walked off the job to protest the hiring of the best, and not the whitest. Read one flier exhorting white transit workers to strike in Philadelphia in 1944:
"Your buddies are in the Army fighting and dying to protect the life of you and your family and you are too yellow to protect their jobs until they return. Call a strike and refuse to teach the Negroes. "
The celebrated head of the United Auto Workers, Walter Reuther, exemplified this class sedition. Reared in West Virginia, Reuther was the only nonblack speaker invited to speak at the 1963 March on Washington, yet it was later revealed that his union was at that time “negotiating discriminatory union contracts that locked black workers in de facto segregated job classifications in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act,” according to Foner. By 1960, according to data compiled by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, black workers accounted for seven-tenths of 1 percent of the skilled labor force in Detroit auto plants, yet 42.3 percent of the entire workforce. In the 1973 documentary, Finally Got the News, about the radical League of Revolutionary Black Workers, one sympathetic white autoworker recalled:
“I took three tests, now one of the math tests I took I didn't do too well on. The fella who was running the tests said ‘well I tell you what: you go home and study up on this a little bit and come back and see me in a week.’ I know Goddamn well he wasn’t going to tell that to any colored boy.”
“By 1960, black workers accounted for seven-tenths of 1 percent of the skilled labor force in Detroit auto plants, yet 42.3 percent of the entire workforce.”
Despite widespread defections by whites, an argument can be made that the workers were winning the class war as the nation approached its bicentennial. By 1973, a third of the workforce was unionized, and blacks, in turn, accounted for a third of all union members, fueling a record 424 work stoppages in 1974, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Such militancy earned workers in 1973 their largest ever share of national income –about 51 percent of GDP– and the fewest Americans living in poverty, roughly 1-in-10. That same year, the nation’s wealthiest 1 percent took home only 4 percent of GDP, their smallest share ever. In an interview, Marlon Brando explained what inspired him to send Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse the Oscar he’d won for the Godfather in 1973 as a protest against ugly Hollywood stereotypes.
“The blacks have brought about changes because they were just damn angry about it and they thumped the tub and threatened and made some noise about it but if they had just been silent and thought ‘well gradually wisdom will come to those who are in the business of the movies and they will do right by us’ the day would never have come. We have a lot to be grateful for that the blacks were as insistent as they were . . . ”
Brando’s class consciousness stands in stark contrast to Reagan’s tribal appeals to white Democrats, the bloodthirsty mob that stormed D.C. in January, or the white patients interviewed by the psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl in his book, Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland. Metzl explained how whites’ racial animosities shape their support of the very things –guns, and cuts to health care, social services and education – that are literally killing them. Similarly, while many observers have noted that white youths are awash in a deluge of opioids, there has been little public discussion about the role that racism has played in fueling addiction among whites. Studies have shown that while white doctors underprescribe opioids and other painkillers for black patients who they’ve criminalized as addicts, they tend to overprescribe for white patients who they see as human beings like themselves.
In your broadside, Mr. Hedges, you praise Rev. Campbell’s steadfast refusal to “cancel” racists. I did not know Campbell and so take you at your word that he was a good man but is coddling racists your best advice for winning the class war? I am reminded of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, inspired by the teachings of Adam Clayton Powell Sr. at Harlem’s Abyssinian Church, didn’t return to his homeland to minister to Hitler but to kill him. Similarly, at a 1969 Students for a Democratic Society conference, a 27-year old graduate of the University of Chicago’s Law School, Bernardine Dohrn proposed:
"The best thing that we can be doing for ourselves, as well as for the Panthers and the revolutionary black liberation struggle, is to build a fucking white revolutionary movement.”
You also mention the firing of a white, longtime New York Times journalist, Donald McNeil, after staffers complained about his use of the “N-word” while retelling a joke. I cannot imagine a black reporter at the Times uttering an anti-Semitic slur and keeping his job, but that aside, I met McNeil, and his ex-wife, Suzanne Daley, more than 20 years ago when I was assigned to head the Washington’s Post’s bureau in southern Africa. I would not describe McNeil as a racist, but he was, in no sense of the word, an ally. I remember a spokesman in the new black-majority government warning me to steer clear of the couple if I had any hope of developing official sources because they were widely regarded as sympathetic to the old white-minority apartheid regime. On another occasion, McNeil and I were discussing the revelation that a young, black Times reporter had fabricated several stories and interviews. When the subject turned to the now-late black managing editor, Gerald Boyd, who was eventually fired for the scandal, McNeil exploded, complaining that Boyd had never distinguished himself as a journalist in the first place, and shouldn’t have been in such a position of authority. Among black journalists, Boyd’s reputation was that of a black “yes” man, who shucked-and-jived for the benefit of white editors but I had never before heard anyone criticize his journalistic skills; he was, from everything I knew, as qualified as anyone in the Times newsroom, including his boss, Howell Raines, who won a Pulitzer for his reminisces of his black “Mammy” while growing up in Alabama. The last time I saw McNeil was at his going-away party in Johannesburg, where I was one of only two blacks in attendance – out of at least 30 people – who was not a member of their wait staff.
It has always struck me as ironic that white Americans’ self-obsession lessens their self-awareness. Your plea for understanding comes when blacks are treated almost daily to videos of white police officers pepper-spraying 9-year-old black girls, body slamming to the ground black teenage girls, strangling to death handcuffed black men begging for their life or hunting down a black jogger in the street as though he were some wild boar.
Perhaps, white workers would do well to heed the advice of one Fyodor Dostoevsky who wrote in The Brothers Karamazov:
"Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others."
A former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Jon Jeter is the author of Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People and the co-author of A Day Late and a Dollar Short: Dark Days and Bright Nights in Obama's Postracial America. His work can be found on Patreon.
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