LM Archives
  3:35 AM BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

Racism: the issue of our times

Linda Ryan puts the Los Angeles riots in perspective

The explosion of frustration and anger in Los Angeles at the end of April should have come as no surprise to readers of Living Marxism. From its inception, this magazine has argued that racism is the key issue of our times.

The dynamic of what Living Marxism has called 'the silent race war' is now evident not only in America, but throughout the capitalist world. It is silent because there is little discussion of racism in public, and yet it is an issue that is constantly used by the right to consolidate support for its policies.

Racism has relentlessly brutalised the black population of urban America. The division between black and white is now so intense as to make anything more than the most routine communication impossible. The geographical separation of the races in cities like LA is of South African proportions. And although there now exists a conservative black middle class, the vast majority of blacks constitute the poorest of America's poor.

One surprise

The race issue pervades all aspects of life in the USA. It is not possible to move about in New York, Chicago, Detroit or Los Angeles without acquiring a heightened sense of race. The only thing that is really surprising about the outburst of violence in Los Angeles is that such things happen relatively rarely. The events there have predictably provided an opportunity for the media to confuse matters further.

In America and abroad, politicians and the media initially had some difficulty working out an appropriate response to the outburst in LA. The failure of the courts to convict four policemen filmed beating up a black man, Rodney King, was an embarrassment to the apologists for the system. The reputation of the Los Angeles police for vicious racism made it difficult at first for the authorities to condemn the outpouring of anger which greeted the decision to let off the four policemen. Consequently, during the early stages of the unrest, official condemnations of the rioters were linked to criticisms of the jury's verdict and of the Los Angeles police department.

After two days of violence the emphasis had changed. The media were still referring to the lack of justice in King's case and the appalling record of the local police. However these criticisms had become separated from the discussion of the riots. There was a gradual severing of the relationship between the police violence and the outcome of the trial on the one hand, and the violence on the streets on the other.

Criminal lust

By now, more and more politicians and pundits were arguing that the rioters were opportunist thieves, gangsters or delinquents driven by criminal lust, rather than people reacting to injustice and police brutality. In other words, they were suggesting that racism had little to do with the rioting.

The separation of the violence from its immediate context helped to relocate the problem from that of racial oppression to that of the alleged 'culture of criminality' among America's inner-city blacks. This adjustment in the presentation of the problem was made possible by the way in which the issue of racism has been recast within American politics.

Numerous lengthy commentaries published during and after the riots illustrate how the issue of racism has been robbed of its meaning. In the abstract, observers are prepared to concede the existence of racism. Individual cases are cited, but always in a way which suggests that racism is not responsible for the inferior social position of blacks in general, or for their anger.

There are two varieties of this argument. Sometimes an individual case of racism is discussed, for example that of Rodney King, in order to underline its exceptional character. Alternatively racism is discussed as a state of mind common among individual white Americans, either in response to the unreasonable attitudes of blacks or because it is natural to possess this sort of outlook. Once racism has been defined as natural in this way, it ceases to be a political problem with a solution. And all the commentaries are quick to insist that, no matter how widespread the problem of racism, it does not explain the black response in LA.

The argument is that, whatever the attitudes of individual whites, blacks no longer suffer from systematic discrimination. The authorities and experts admit that racial discrimination did exist in the past - but no longer. As evidence, they point to the various government programmes designed to eradicate poverty and to the system of quotas implemented under different affirmative action initiatives.

The more right-wing commentators go further and argue that it is whites who experience discrimination today, since quota systems favour the less qualified black person. There is no space here to discuss the reality of the situation, except to suggest that affirmative action did no favours for black Americans. The hostile reaction to these programmes is fuelled by race hatred. Why else has hostility towards affirmative action for women been far more muted?

Blame blacks

Denying the reality of racial discrimination necessarily leads to the conclusion that black people are to blame for their plight. According to the emerging consensus, blacks are either not good enough or too lazy to make it in America. The media points to the entrepreneurial zeal and work ethic of Asian immigrants, such as the Korean shopkeepers in the Los Angeles ghetto. In true American fashion, these immigrants start at the bottom of the ladder but quickly work their way up. By contrast, commentators suggest, black teenagers are too busy having babies or smoking crack to emulate the work ethic of other communities.

Guiltless whites

Having disposed of the idea that black poverty has social causes, the argument turns back to the whites. Most commentaries emphasise that white people in America no longer feel guilty about racism. The implication is that they felt guilty about it in the sixties but have now had their senses restored. Of course, in reality most white Americans did not suffer from an overdose of guilt in the sixties either. The argument about the lack of guilt is really a coded exhortation to white people not to feel responsible for the position of blacks in society. It represents advice to white America to be indifferent to the plight of black communities.

The attempt to reassure whites about their lack of guilt is reinforced by the sinister suggestion that the American authorities have done all they can to help blacks in the past, but to no avail. All the poverty programmes and all the money proved to be useless in the face of black attitudes. Indeed, according to this interpretation, the attempt to reform urban America only made the situation worse, by making black communities even more dependent on state handouts.

Once racial discrimination has been defined out of existence, the view that black people are the problem becomes legitimised. The call for whites not to feel guilty helps to endow racial thinking with respectability. In fact this is a flexible argument, which can accommodate denunciations of the 'extreme', 'exceptional' cases of racism such as the verdict in the King case, while attacking the entire black community for its intrinsic criminality.

Race and state

The new politics of race is strengthened by the fact that it can relate to reality, by acknowledging the prevalence of racist attitudes among white Americans. It absolves the American state system of any responsibility for this problem, and accepts racial discrimination as having no contemporary relevance. Consequently, if anybody is to be blamed for the crisis it must be those who refuse to make the most of the available opportunities - that is America's inner-city blacks.

This new version of racist politics links the attacks on blacks to the denunciation of state intervention. Welfare is said to encourage sloth and punish those who work hard. This will be a familiar message to our British readers - except that in the case of the USA the argument immediately acquires racial overtones.

Only the start

The intellectual response of the authorities and the media to the Los Angeles riots suggests that there is more oppression to come. The old liberal inhibitions still prevail - but increasingly the politics of racial thinking enter into the public domain.

It might still be unacceptable for American politicians to use the language of the Ku Klux Klan, but people now feel far less inhibited about blaming the criminality of the black community for the problems of the ghetto, and dismissing any idea that blacks are the victims of American society. This trend is not surprising, since racism is one of the most powerful ways of disaggregating the working class and undermining any opposition to capitalism. The silent race war is set to continue.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 44, June 1992

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk