“Black unbelonging — black Americans as historical outsiders — is at the heart of our Constitution.”
When I was asked to contribute to BlackAgendaReport.com, I took seriously the word “agenda” in the site’s title. What should be our agenda now, in 2017, as we face down the ills of American society? These ills are not new to us, of course. And though Trumpism is indeed a threat and an active danger, we as black people have faced much worse. This is not to minimize the loss of black lives at the hands of the American police-state, nor is it to minimize the recent resurgence of Nazism and white mob rage. It is to say that these acts of race hatred, and other techniques of race prejudice, predate Trump and are likely to continue long after he is out of office. Just as the election of Nelson Mandela did not erase inequality and prejudice in South Africa, the election of Barack Obama did not eliminate racism and capitalist injustice here in the United States. All of this means that we must be ever vigilant in protecting our lives and our families, in cultivating resources and education in our communities, and in fighting for equal access to advanced health care and preventive medicine for all, regardless of income.
“Acts of race hatred, and other techniques of race prejudice, predate Trump and are likely to continue long after he is out of office.”
If this sounds like socialism, I suppose that’s because it may be closer to socialism than democracy. Democracy has not served well persons of African descent living as Americans. Let me be clear here: Democracy, as it came to be redefined in the 20th century, has never existed in the United States and probably will not come into being, short of all out and bloody revolution. This is so because democracy, as the form of government adopted by the nascent American nation-state in the 18th century, arose in support of the new forms of capitalism born during that era. Capitalism is defined as a modern economic process that breaks from traditional economic processes largely oriented toward subsistence. Instead, capitalism’s principle, as Karl Marx formulated it, is “Money > Commodity > More Money.” Max Weber wrote of capitalism as defined by “profit, and forever renewed profit.” While traditional economies were driven by need (food, housing, clothing, warmth, that is, those things required in order to live), capitalism is driven by the accumulation of wealth, which became its end and raison d’être. In pre-capitalist economies such as those that predominated in Africa, people accumulated wealth to live. In modern capitalistic Euro-American economies, the attention turned to living to accumulate wealth.
Though capitalism is said to have existed since the sixteenth century in Europe, one might persuasively argue that it emerged in the fifteenth century with the advent of Portuguese ship building, which permitted them access to Africa and tribal prisoners of war. The well-known trans-Atlantic triangle, in which Europeans fomented wars among African tribes, arming one side against the other in anticipation of trading for the human spoils, not only expanded upon the “discovery” of America, but also permitted the emergence of Europe’s industrial revolution. It is by now a commonplace among most of us, if not among the general American population, that the wealth of the West and, in particular, the wealth of America, was built upon the unrecompensed toil of black workers. And if the linkage between race, slavery, and capitalism is well understood in black radical thought, it seems that the linkage between racism and democracy is not as deeply examined.
“The wealth of America, was built upon the unrecompensed toil of black workers.”
I am speaking here of the deep linkages, not simply those on the social surfaces in which people of color, largely black, red, and brown, are excluded from what we often call the benefits and protections of democracy. I am arguing that we should look upon democracy with great caution because it is a mode of government that politically expresses the capitalistic desire for wealth among the nation’s white upper-class. (When African-descended people join the ranks of the rich and wealthy, they have usually done so through capitalistic means.) The white poor and working classes are also excluded from the ideals of democracy, though their exclusion is veiled by white embodiment. That is, while they may benefit from their whiteness as the gatekeepers for the upper class, and while the white middle-class may serve as an aspirational buffer-zone between impoverishment and wealth, they too are excluded from the full benefits of democracy.
Let me try to explain my meaning by way of a revisionist and radical re-reading of a condensed discussion of capitalism and nationalism. In doing so, I hope it will come clear that American democracy exists independently of neither capitalism nor nationalism. Once, some 20 years ago now, I submitted a dissertation chapter to my advisor, a noted African Americanist, for approval. In response, he wrote two single-spaced pages of sharp comments and criticism, which began something like this: “I don’t know why you keep writing about this nationalism crap. Don’t be a second-rate social scientist when you could be a first-rate humanist.” A second-rate social scientist I am not, for I’m no social scientist at all and don’t aspire to the label. What seems clear, however, is that all humanists must be cognizant of the deep relations between and among the various concepts and philosophies that order our world and in many ways constrain and threaten our very lives. Each of us bears a responsibility to our communities to understand these threats at their deepest levels. And our understanding must in turn guide our actions and activism.
“While traditional economies were driven by need (food, housing, clothing, warmth, that is, those things required in order to live), capitalism is driven by the accumulation of wealth.”
I write about nationalism because it can be found at the nexus of so many challenges facing African America. Capitalism is a function of nationalism, and nationalism, because it morphs from age to age and generation to generation, is not easily defined. In general, we might begin by distinguishing nations from nation-states. A nation may be thought of as a well-defined community or set of communities whose members are joined together through cultural practices (e.g. common language, religion), common descent (i.e., racial/ethnic identity), and occupy a common territory. Many nations may exist within one nation-state, since the nation-state is really a concept that formalizes a nation or a collective of nations into a political entity. The political form of the “state” brings with it the notion of “power” on national and international planes: it ensures protection by local and national forces (police and armies); it may derive its legitimacy to rule via some sort of consent, given willingly or unwillingly, by the people it is said to represent; and it can take different forms, such as a democracy (the U.S.), a monarchy (Great Britain), or a social democracy (Germany, France). Thus the nation-state possesses a highly mythological character: it imagines homogeneity in the face of its own diversity; it calls for creation stories that make of its diverse people one people, a “melting-pot.”
Though this is a short and admittedly insufficient discussion of capitalism as a function of nationalism, it is probably most important to understand the nation-state as a mythological space of belonging. Black unbelonging — black Americans as historical outsiders — is at the heart of our Constitution. The Constitution had to be amended in order for the government nominally to recognize us as persons, not simply because of our history of enslavement and oppression, but because of our very blackness and its meanings from the 15th century onward. That lack of recognition and the fact of our blackness has left nearly as forceful a legacy as American slavery itself.
“The nation-state possesses a highly mythological character: it imagines homogeneity in the face of its own diversity.”
The heritage of black unbelonging holds implications for our being seen as unentitled competitors for national resources who have, as one of my undergraduates said to me, “already been given so much!” In America, white individuals, and especially white men, are imagined as bearers of national sovereignty, and all are placed in an imagined parity of status, no matter their actual income or class. This imagined parity is a strong tool in the pocket of the white elite, which regularly uses it to shore up their power. As everyday white Americans have embraced the creed of the nation since its founding, they have committed themselves to its prosperity and its global competitiveness. Its competitiveness is based upon the sort of economy in which it sees its strength (e.g., tourism and wine in France, manufacturing in China). And thus with the emphasis upon a modern economy powered by capitalism, ever increasing wealth and military prowess has become the goal of many nation-states, America foremost among them. Outsiders are not only foreign, but they are competitors, a threat to be obliterated.
The dignity of the white individual, often tied up with the prestige of his/her nation, would, at times, border upon chauvinism: e.g., that America is the greatest nation-state in the world; that other nations and nation-states are inferior. It is easy to see how these claims regarding the economic character of a foreign nation or nation-state can easily, if erroneously, be attributed to its members. And while some critics deny a tight connection between a nation’s economy and its politics, history has repeatedly shown that economies, and especially economic elites, strongly influence a nation’s politics. The example of the political lobbyist makes this case, as do numerous examples of malfeasance by politicians in return for campaign contributions. The victory of Citizens United, in which corporations were granted personhood in the eyes of the law, puts the nail in the coffin. The ways in which economic elites and corporations should ethically function in the politics of a government have long been debated, but the undue influence of these forces in the political sphere makes democracy impossible since large swaths of the electorate are effectively silenced through corporate and other economic entities seeking to sway and even author legislation that benefits national elites.
“In America, white individuals, and especially white men, are imagined as bearers of national sovereignty, and all are placed in an imagined parity of status, no matter their actual income or class.”
What should be our agenda in the face of these forces? 120 years ago, in his 1897 inaugural address before the newly founded American Negro Academy (“The Conservation of Races”), W.E.B. Du Bois argued that people of African descent in America needed to work together in solidarity for not only the progress but also the survival of the group. In “The Technique of Race Prejudice” (1923), he wrote that the “real deep and basic race hatred in the United States is a matter of the educated and distinguished leaders of white civilization,” that is, the national elites of which I speak above. In his 1928 novel, Dark Princess, he expanded his call for solidarity beyond the racial “nation” of African America; he opened the call to all peoples and nations of all colors and ethnicities who were oppressed and dispossessed via capitalist avarice and the West’s hunger for colonies.
In a favorite essay of mine from 1938, “The Revelation of Saint Orgne the Damned,” (“Orgne” is an anagram of Negro) Du Bois writes that the attack on modern democracy, a political theory that was never truly practiced or actualized in the U.S. (not even at the time of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the Voting Rights Act of 1965), began in France in 1787 and “rose to crescendo” 150 years ago in 1867, “when our forefathers were enfranchised.” In this sesquicentennial of the early enfranchisement of black men, when we find ourselves still kept from full access to the vote by large corporate entities working to suppress us, we should heed Du Bois and other elders who have bequeathed us their thought, their work, and thus their love. We were warned decades ago of the false face of democracy. And yet, in an admonition that resonates with today’s call to “stay woke,” Du Bois cautioned us in 1938 that “we are not yet awake” (1069) to the shortcomings of democracy.
“W.E.B. Du Bois argued that people of African descent in America needed to work together in solidarity for not only the progress but also the survival of the group.”
Socialism is seen by many as a counter to capitalism, but that is a misunderstanding. Socialism, like communism, is an alternative to democracy, and one that can actively counter the big money now nurturing our democratic ills. Du Bois urges us to use our collective financial resources as voting power in addition to the ballot, which is under siege and weakened by capitalist democracy. Realize that if an ideology is anti-Semitic, or anti-Muslim, anti-Latinx or anti-gay, anti-poor or anti-working class, it is also, as Frantz Fanon taught us, anti-black. In the end, difference in America is continually been denigrated. Thus difference is blackened.
Voting with our dollars is a small beginning, but it’s a beginning. Don’t buy where you’re not respected. Be sensitive to small insults known as micro-aggressions, from so-called “nude” articles from high fashion houses such as Chanel and Valentino (beige makeup is not “nude” for most of us), to department chairs who call activist faculty “friends,” but nonetheless think it wise to refrain from supporting activist boycotts and protests. Advocate health care for all, and stop watching Fox — this means anything from football games to “Empire” to other black shows and films Fox backs so that they can use black money to oppress black people. Call upon Black Hollywood and black athletes to stop prostituting their talent to Fox. (Remember, for those of us who can recall this far back, Martin, In Living Color, and other black shows, in addition to the NFL, which is largely staffed by black players, gave Fox its foothold when it was just a fourth network one had to struggle to pick up on UHF.) Don’t just be a democrat, be a progressive, and tell our black representatives to be progressives, too. Know that being a Republican today means ascribing to some variation of racism, whether one is a conscious racist or not. Don’t just give your money to Tyler Perry (or any other money maker in the entertainment industry) because Madea is funny and we’re no longer embarrassed by her. Familiarize yourself with his philanthropy and that of other “stars” (as fans, our dollars are essentially funding their philanthropy) and demand that they support progressive causes. Jay-Z and Beyoncé should be today’s Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee: their ethics should be in evidence every day, courageously in the mold of Harry Belafonte.
“Du Bois cautioned us in 1938 that “we are not yet awake” (1069) to the shortcomings of democracy.”
Angela Davis tells us that freedom is a “constant struggle.” Racism in America is part of a world historical system of global violence against the vulnerable. Slavery, discrimination, and genocide plague not only people of African descent (consider the Armenian genocide in addition to the Holocaust), but these sorts of expressions of greed and base immoral power have happened and will occur again, when conditions are ripe for them. Be steadfast, and be not discouraged. Change without bloody revolution is painstakingly slow and may not come to fruition during our lifetime. Yet action informed by black radical thought is action for the betterment of all humanity. As Du Bois and the scholar Hortense J. Spillers have told us, black culture, which has largely resisted the lure of rampant capitalism, has the power to serve as a conscientious example.
Rebecka Rutledge Fisher, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
1. Some nation-states, including the U.S. and Great Britain, are also empires, in that they claim power over territories that are not fully integrated under their sovereignty. It was once argued that in order to be considered a nation-state, governments had to encourage their people to shed their disparate origins and cling to a single national identity. Hence President Teddy Roosevelt’s demand, in an 1895 speech, that Americans refuse any sort of hyphenated identity, such as Italian-American. This is also the reason that so many German immigrants at the turn of the 20th century refused to speak German both at home and in public. It was considered un-American to continue such practices.
2. As sociologists and human geographers have noted, such mythologies are ingenious inventions that allow rulers to play upon the sentiment that arises from the feeling of belonging to a national community. This kind of sentiment is easier to cultivate in an old nation-state such as Great Britain that can willingly forget the diverse ethnic origins of even the English, who coalesced out of the merging of the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. It is more difficult to cast aside, as we have recently seen, in Spain’s Catalonia, which came into being after the conquest of Spain by Muslim Arabs and Moorish Berbers from North Africa, and has long manifested separatist leanings.
3. W.E.B. Du Bois, Writings. New York: Library of America, 1986. Pg. 1063. Du Bois here refers to the the first law in American history that granted African American men the right to vote. In 1867, Congress passed a law requiring the former Confederate states to include black male suffrage in their new state constitutions. Congress also overrode a veto by President Andrew Johnson, thus allowing suffrage by black men in the District of Columbia.