Death in the streets—and the fields: The privilege, promises and violence of white supremacy

08/17/2017 11:37 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2017

The deaths this month of Mexican farmworker Honesto Silva Ibarra from heat exhaustion in the berry fields of northern Washington State, and civil rights activist Heather Heyer, intentionally run over by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Virginia were distant, but not unrelated events. While the forms of violence were different, their deaths are grounded in the same, violent, racialized conditions. Conditions aggravated by the actions of terrorists in the streets and the passive aggressive stance of the police and the White House.

How did things get so bad, so fast? While President Donald Trump has a pattern of encouraging race-based violence for his own rhetorical convenience, the relationship between ultranationalist street thugs and the social conditions in which immigrants on H2-A work permits can be worked to death are rooted in America’s history of racial caste.

In colonial America, there was little social difference between African slaves and European indentured servants. They formed one, undifferentiated group of inferior social status. But when they began organizing together against their colonial owners, the Virginia House of Burgesses introduced the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705. These laws established new property rights for slave owners; allowed for the legal, free trade of slaves; established separate trial courts for whites and blacks; prohibited Black people from owning weapons and from striking a white person; prohibited free black people from employing whites, and allowed for the apprehension of suspected runaways. They not only established white privilege, the Codes legalized whiteness, itself.[1]

By definition, privilege is an exercise of power that allows one group to enjoy access to some good or resource—from airline seats to personal freedom—based on the exclusion of others. In this case, the Burgesses represented the propertied gentry of the prosperous colonies. The system of white privilege consolidated power of the gentry over the multitude, and of poor whites over blacks. The point of the Codes was to stop the men and women whose labor produced the gentry’s wealth from forming alliances that challenged the colonial status quo. But to ensure allegiance to the tiered system of economic exploitation, colonial elites had to offer more than just token privileges to lower class whites, they also had to offer the promise of prosperity.

The promise made to poor and indentured whites was this: these privileges (rather than a change in political power) will ensure your economic prosperity—if you work hard. This caveat is critical. The point of the slave and indentured systems was to ensure a supply of labor (primarily agricultural) for the production of wealth that would eventually accrue to the gentry, the rising industrialists and the finance sector. The overarching moral rationale anchoring these entitlements was the proffered superiority of the recently legislated (and biologically groundless) white race.

The fusion of white privilege, the promise of prosperity and the convenient myth of white supremacy became the triadic foundation of the U.S. racial caste system upon which the wealth of the new nation was built. (See Michelle Alexander’s explanation of racial caste: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.)

From the Civil War through the Gulf wars, prosperity was held out, carrot-like before the working class. The triad of promise, privilege and supremacy, adjusted to periods of economic booms and busts, alternately emphasizing one aspect while downplaying the others. Many Americans—including Asians, Latinos, African Americans and others—climbed the ladder to the middle class. Many more did not.

The problem today is that there are no new territories to conquer; no places where white privilege can provide a settler’s advantage to poor, working whites—or any other workers, for that matter. On the contrary, after 30 years of globalization, levels of economic inequality have reached unprecedented proportions. The myth of full employment only holds if we include poorly-paid and part-time jobs. Capital needs America’s working classes more for what they can consume than for what they can produce.

As the middle class disappears and working-class white America falls farther and farther behind, white privilege has become a dull tool, and the promise of prosperity increasingly dim. White supremacy has moved from the shadows to the light, becoming the primary pillar of racial caste. The “rise” of white supremacist groups is a reflection of a system in crisis. Betrayed by their creators, white supremacists harbor a visceral fear of social irrelevance. Supremacist railing over “reverse racism” and the threat of “white extinction” is an angry reaction to the decreasing effectiveness of white privilege in attaining prosperity. Their own use of terror—a violent form of political messaging crafted to paralyze any opposition with fear—says: “We will exterminate you, first.”

White supremacy has become the face of fascism in a period of globalization.

But the objective of fascism is not simply a return to prosperity or the recovery lost privileges—it is to seize power. The paramilitary bands of white street fighters are the shock troops for a larger, political movement that aims to establish a “new order” in time when U.S. capitalism, adrift and losing its social credibility, is suffering a profound crisis of leadership. Unlike the anarchist “antifa” groups battling white supremacists in the streets, and the conservative neoliberals demanding a stripped-down form of government, fascists do not reject the state. On the contrary, an all-powerful national government is precisely the instrument of power they require to impose their agenda.

Fascism is not the only social project of 21st century America, nor the most extensive, but it is quickly organizing into a potent political force. That the White House cabinet is dominated by a mix of fringe fanatics, billionaires and no less than three military generals is a dangerous development—notwithstanding the political ineptitude and low approval ratings of Donald Trump. Emboldened with promises of power, white supremacists first turn their rage against the most vulnerable, then against anyone standing in their way. All that that must be done is nothing. If congress does not stop the White House, and the White House continues in disarray, these gun-toting shock troops will eventually turn against anyone who is not them.

This is why the rise of white supremacist violence and the toxic constellation of power in the White House should alarm everyone who believes in democracy, human rights and their own security. It is why we urgently need to construct strong community relationships and broad-based social movements for equity and basic human rights. It is why we should demand that domestic terrorists be prosecuted, hate groups banned, and the supremacist violence operating under the guise of free speech be outlawed. These are the counterpoint to the system of racial caste and a bulwark against the turn towards fascism in the streets—and. the presidency.

[1] From “A Foodies Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the political economy of what we eat” by Eric Holt Giménez, published by Monthly Review and Food First (in press).

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