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
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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