Setting aside my more personal philosophical concerns for a moment, I need to address an issue which many of my American friends and acquaintances in particular are struggling with, and which many more are struggling to avoid dealing with: How do we define the term racism, and what needs to be done about the problem of racism today, particularly in the American context?
It has now been over 150 years since holding black people as slaves became illegal in the United States ––since those determined to hold onto those slaves lost a brutal war regarding the matter –– yet in many ways the US is still struggling to come to terms with that legacy of shame. For some it remains a matter of principle to keep believing that the federal government never should have taken away their right to own other human beings whom they considered to be their natural inferiors. Thus they consider it a matter of justifiable civic pride to hold onto flags, monuments and other symbols of their struggle to keep blacks enslaved.
For others the issue is a matter of ignoring the continuous efforts to keep darker skinned people in a position of fear and subservience, saying that since slavery has been over for so long black people should not be allowed to use the problems stemming from that institution as an excuse for the position they find themselves in; they should work harder, avoid drugs and violence more thoroughly, be more committed to family values and save money more carefully, and if they do that they can have the same opportunities as any white people have. It is rather difficult to determine to what extent the ignorance and assumptions of moral inferiority inherent in this argument are simply the result of poor education among those who hold such beliefs, and to what extent they are a matter of certain white people struggling to maintain the assumption that black people are naturally inferior and thus need to be kept in submission to their lighter skinned masters.
Others, it must be admitted don’t really care so much about the position of darker skinned people in society, but they wish to make a political football of the subject, trying to blame problems related to slavery on the other political party: either emphasizing or denying the extent to which the major parties swapped roles regarding the civil rights struggle between the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan. As tempting as it is to get distracted by proving historical points in this regard though, let me simply say that there are still manipulative con men in both parties trying to accuse the other of being racist purely as a cynical political tactic, but for poorer blacks there is little question in their mind as to which party they can expect to take an interest in their situation; and for whites who are resentful of government putting black people’s needs and interests ahead of their own, it is equally clear in their minds which party to turn to in order to try to correct this situation. Both may be mistaken in whom they have decided to trust in these matters, but the alliances which the parties have established in terms of racial interests are quite clear these days.
But this is largely a distraction from the main point I want to get to here: what will happen when white men are no longer in the position to say what sort of rules everyone else needs to live and play by? Such a day is fast approaching for the United States. It is more or less demographically certain that within the next generation, for the first time in the nation’s history, white people will make up less than half of the United States’ citizens. If something resembling a functional, honest democracy remains in place, that will mean that the various brown and black people of the country will have the possibility of bonding together and setting the rules that white people will have to live and play by. This has many white racists loading both their britches and their rifles.
This is where the word hegemony comes in. Originally an ancient Greek term for international domination, hegemony was largely re-defined by the work of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist that died in prison for taking a stand against Mussolini. Gramsci was trying to find a way of describing what enabled Mussolini to convince people to follow his orders and support his regime, even though they were seriously screwing up their own lives in doing so. Basically Gramsci theorized that the secret behind Mussolini’s power, and many other such self-appointed dictators, was that he was able to make people believe that his authority was simply part of the natural order of things. So according to this understanding of the terms, if you can convince people that you are somehow naturally entitled to be in charge, and that things will work best for everyone involved if they would just settle down and do what you tell them to, then you are in a position of hegemony. Sound familiar?
In practice we find many examples of hegemony in our world today. One of the biggest challenges in doing charitable work in Africa, in fact, is to avoid reinforcing the hegemonic structures that have caused so many of that continent’s problems to begin with. Colonial racists spent centuries working on constructing a position of hegemony for themselves there, in many cases quite successfully. Consequently, though it isn’t part of the natural order of things that black people need white people to take care of them, tell them what to do and manage their economic structures for them, many Africans –– both black and white –– keep operating on an assumption that this would be the case. Part of the solution to this problem is simply to provide native Africans with the sort of education that has previously been available primarily just to white people; part of it is to help them overcome the scourge of tribal infighting which made them vulnerable to colonization to begin with; and part of it is to undo some of the remaining structural remnants of colonial governance intentionally designed to keep local people in helpless passive submission. But those actions involve cultural shifts which could take many generations to bring about. In the meantime we still need to take empathetic action to help those who are suffering in extreme poverty. We just have to do so without perpetuating the myth that the only way they can survive is with the help of white men –– easier said than done.
Back in America, meanwhile, the racial and cultural hegemony has its own implications, complexities and ugly aspects to be dealt with. Many southern white leaders in the mid-19th century, while trying to justifying themselves as slave-holders, theorized that God intended black men to be under the control of white men since the days of Noah, constructing a vast number of theological, anthropological, evolutionary and historical arguments to back up this claim. Losing the Civil War and the legal right to hold slaves did not eliminate their deep existential commitment to these arguments, and consequently many these arguments have been passed down through the 5 or 6 generations since slaves were set free. The core element of these arguments is an implicit belief that for a modern western society to continue to function in a stable and sustainable manner, white people need to be in charge, and the rules that everyone else as well needs to live by are those formulated by white people. Those who continue to believe in and perpetuate such a myth –– whether of white, black, mixed or other racial origin themselves –– are part of the American cultural problem of assumed white hegemony.
White hegemony has had a rather diverse history in the United States. In the time of the “founding fathers” it was quite explicitly part of the nation’s ideology. If you have any doubts about this look up the Supreme Court case of Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823): buying property from a native tribe doesn’t count as a legal transaction, because only white men could be party to binding legal contracts. In the time following the American Civil War there was a relatively brief period during which some former Confederate leaders recognized black people as partners in the process of democratic governance, but that was swiftly brought to an end in the 1890s by the infamous “Jim Crow” laws. Those who took part in mixed race political parties, including such as former generals William Mahone, James Longstreet and even P.G.T. Beauregard, were labelled as traitors to their race and as much as possible systematically forgotten. Blacks who could not be trusted to support “respectable” white leaders were systematically prevented from voting.
Publicly murdering a black person or two every now and again helped keep them in a submissive mood. Beyond that, making sure that services for white people were kept separate from services for black people gave the former a certain sense of security and superiority over the next few generations. I won’t detail the extent of the racist crimes that extended from the Hayes presidency to the Truman era, but suffice to say, in those years there was never any question of black people being given equal rights and opportunities in American culture. It was only with desegregation rulings of the US Supreme Court in the 1950s, and the courageous civil rights protests of the 1960s, that black people’s rights to recognition as people, and the federal government’s responsibility to protect their rights as people, started to be taken seriously in US law.
Most southerners have gradually started to accept black people as teammates, co-workers and fellow citizens over the past couple of generations since then, but this has not been a smooth or painless process. For many the unspoken limit to their tolerance for their darker-skinned neighbors has remained the principle of white hegemony: as long as black people are willing to abide by the basic rules set for everyone by the white people –– who need to remain in exclusive control of all mechanisms of legislation and administration in the nation –– then we can allow them to live and work in peace together with us. As long as things seemed to work smoothly on that basis many optimists even claimed that racism had ceased to be a problem in the United States… until that trouble-maker Obama came along.
Obama brought together the oratory flare of the black Protestant church tradition with the benefits he gained from a liberal white upbringing, an Ivy League education and an interracial late baby boomer’s sense of cool. This combination enabled him to win the hearts and minds of pretty much all black and brown people in the US, with a large enough minority of white people supporting him for him to handily become as the first non-white president of the nation. This sent a shock-wave through the racist community: it wasn’t so much that this dark-skinned president was initiating dangerous policies for the nation (though many would try to claim that this was the case), but he rather posed an existential threat to their basic belief that for things to operate properly in the nation white people need to remain in charge. All of a sudden the willingness of whites to peacefully coexist with their darker-skinned neighbors as long as they were willing to abide by basic white rules started to get a lot less clear. Coexisting under rules that a black man had helped put in place wasn’t something they were ready to sign off on!
Suffice to say the next US president succeeded in getting elected by bringing together all of those who shared these fears and resentments of the increasing status and influence of darker-skinned people in society, together with those who became economic losers because of automation that came with the IT revolution and because of increasingly internationalized trade. His core message was the dishonest claim that he could basically turn back the clock in terms of demographics, human rights and technology to a time when these formerly middle class whites’ incomes and positions in society were more secure. Probably few people were ignorant enough to believe this message at face value, but if this guy would push back against blacks, immigrants, global financial interests and “progress” in general, that would be close enough to satisfy the base he was building. From there having an opponent who was even easier for the heartland to hate than he was proved to be enough to put him this crooked rich boy from New York over the top in terms of the Electoral College vote. Even so, it shocked many Americans, and pretty much all of the rest of the world, that an American national election could be won on the basis of such ugly sentiments and blatantly false claims. In the famous words of Apollo 13, “Houston, we have a problem!”
For all the international humiliation that this administration has brought on the United States in its first year, however, one thing remains clear: as long as the US maintains its current constitutional democratic structure, the reactionary defense of white hegemony which brought this president to power is destined to be defeated and eliminated over the course of the next generation. As hard as white Bible Belt Baptists, Amish, Mormons and other such groups try to encourage their women to have “quivers full” of kids, and as hard as they try to stop non-Europeans from being able to immigrate to America, within the next 40 years white people and self-identified Christians will make up less than half of the US population. The Obama presidency was merely the first shot across the white hegemonists’ bow, signaling the impending end of their era. The current crop of racists and reactionaries controlling the Republican Party now have to decide how they are going to deal with this.
I qualify this prediction, however, with an awareness that there are supporters of the current president who are so committed to the principle of white hegemony that they would rather destroy the American system of government than to allow white hegemony to come to an end. We have seen more and more of these people on the streets of America this summer, and as the likelihood of the current president being removed from office before the end of his first term increases, there is an ever increasing chance that his most blatantly racist and reactionary supporters will attempt to violently prevent the constitutional processes in question. So one of the serious questions to be asked is whether the US constitutional structure and civil society will be strong enough to hold these reactionaries in check. I hope and believe so, but I also hoped and believed that Americans would be intelligent enough not to elect the current president to begin with. Likewise in the early 1930s most people would have hoped and believed that such an advanced society as Germany would be able to prevent a violent reactionary racist group like the Nazis from winning an election and seizing power there. We’ll see what happens.
The main message for Americans today to recognize is that things will not remain the same, and they certainly will not go back to the way they were in the early 1950s. There will either be bloody chaos leading to the demise of the United States as a constitutional democracy and a global power, or their will be a tense yet peaceful transition out of white hegemony into a more genuinely multi-cultural and tolerant society. This latter alternative, however, will require that, rather than trying to unilaterally set all the rules which darker-skinned people must live by and beat them into submission to those rules, white Americans must, learn to listen more carefully and respectfully to the interests, concerns and yes, demands of non-whites. Preferably they should learn to do this sort of listening before they lose their majority status entirely. If there is one thing that the past decade has proven beyond doubt though, it is that a significant number of white Americans still have a lot to learn in that regard, and a high degree of resistance to the learning process. Even so, hope remains.
For other “developed” western countries the demographic shift is less inevitable, but the need to establish sincere and productive inter-ethnic dialogues is just as critical. Fortunately most countries can approach this new situation with a cleaner slate than the United States, but former colonial powers in particular still face some major challenges in learning to listen to their darker-skinned citizens. Yet I firmly believe that if this challenge is faced with sincere mutual respect and a desire to more sincerely live up to our ideals of respecting the value of every person as a person, there is good reason to hope for the best.
May God protect us from ourselves in any case.