Understanding Ferguson: A Radical Economistic Approach

Undoubtedly, the two-week drama in Ferguson, Missouri – where some kind of encounter between officer Darren Wilson and unarmed teenager, Mike Brown, resulted in Brown being shot several times and killed – and the subsequent explosion of indignant rage on the streets, caught many people (including myself) by surprise.  It’s been a while since we had a domestic uprising of this magnitude, over the topic of racism in policing.  (The Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman debacle could get rowdy, but at least people’s emotions found a release through the media and social media.)

Perhaps the most telling outcome of this drama is not the incidents of police repression on protesters, with at least one armed cop telling peaceful demonstrators to “fuck off” or he would “fucking kill them.”  Far more interesting, from a societal perspective, is the reaction that Ferguson has caused, both in the media and among public discourse.  People seem to be lining up into two opposing camps, the “pro-police camp” and the “anti-injustice” camp.  Some are hollering over how another cop is poised to get away with racially-motivated murder, while the other camp insists that Mike Brown *must* have done something to justify the kind of reaction that Mr. Wilson gave him.  In a way, it has a nauseating similarity to the kind of “my side right or wrong” attitudes that dominate the Israel-Palestine conflict, despite the fact that both sides have plenty of legitimate transgressions and legitimate grievances to count.

The polarization can be plainly seen in recent national polls that show huge gaps in opinions on the topic of race relations in policing, between black and white respondents on the one hand (80% vs 37%), and also between Democrats and Republicans (67% vs 22%).  I can draw two major observations from this split:

1.  The election and re-election of a (partially) black man to the United States Presidency, does *not* mean that America is anywhere close to becoming a “post-racial society”; and

2.  The partisan divide on attitudes toward Ferguson and race relations clearly indicates that race is still a factor in the political arena.  Whether to blame closet racism on behalf of the Right, or an overzealous tendency by the Left to see racial injustice behind every stone, or some combination of both – you be the judge.

The question is, why do racial tensions seem to continue running so high in the era of the first black president?  And this is where my theory of capitalist inequality comes in useful, plus the tendency of American society to repress criticism of capitalism.

There’s a strange irony that comes to mind here.  Back in the 1960s, when the Left of that era tried to draw a connection between racism and capitalism, their reasoning was actually a whole lot less valid than the same reasoning would be today.  Between the Depression years of the 1930s and the “postwar” years of the 1950s/60s, the plight of white American workers improved dramatically (in large part thanks to union activism in the 1930s, courtesy of those evil Socialists and Communists).  But racial injustice for blacks remained deeply entrenched in the 1950s, despite a greater level of economic justice for white workers.

In that sense, the inequalities between blacks and whites seemed less to do with capitalism per se, than it did with traditional cultural bigotry.  While American socialists and progressives of the 1960s may have appealed to the cause of racial justice, and the civil-rights movement of the same time borrowed many tactics from the 1930s labor movement, the parallels between the two things seemed to have more to do with general resistance to oppression, than they did with two intertwined forms of oppression.

Fast-forwarding nearly 50 years, we are in a much different scenario.  While black Americans continue to get the “short end of the stick” in everything from net worth, to unemployment rates, to the criminal justice system, the economic system has fundamentally changed in a way that has hurt the relative position of working-class whites, and especially working-class MALE whites.  Wages have gone essentially nowhere since the 1970s, even as the economy and total national wealth continue to soar.  At the same time, the same political movement that working-class white men tend to identify with (Republican conservatism), continues to zealously preach the virtues of free-market capitalism and bootstrap economics.  They continue to believe that the rich deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor – “don’t blame the system, blame individual character traits.”

Think about that for a moment.  If Reagan-style capitalism rewards people according to what they deserve, and anybody who’s struggling economically is doing so because of poor personal lifestyle choices, then how do working-class white conservatives emotionally process such a belief system?  They are afraid to blame the economic system because they’ve been mentally conditioned to think of such criticism as communistic, un-American, disloyal, and in general “evil.”  So they must psychologically come up with an explanation that doesn’t have such blatant cognitive dissonance.  And knee-jerk racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. is one obvious way to deal with an internal fear of criticizing capitalism.

(In addition, “The Ghost of Joe McCarthy” can also explain why hardcore conservatives attempted to create a “Third Red Scare” in the Obama era:  could part of their desire to label Obama and the progressive movement as Marxist socialists, be an angry denial of some subconscious realization that some of Karl Marx’s predictions on capitalism may be coming true?)

In any case, the 2008 capitalist crisis only added to the unease created by 30+ years of wage stagnation.  But alas, rather than find common ground with their black counterparts, many white working Americans instead went mental – literally.  They stocked up on guns and joined militias, “End Times” religious cults, etc.  And through all this, they continued to fail to come to a realization that the ECONOMIC SYSTEM was increasingly stacked against them through absolutely NO fault of their own.

And so, it’s not unsurprising that capitalism’s betrayal of many white American workers, has left them psychologically vulnerable to knee-jerk bigoted attitudes.  And it’s little surprise that because of this – plus the success of the economic ruling class in blocking a policy agenda that might help tens of millions of ordinary Americans of all skin colors – black Americans feel an increasing frustration at the prospects for a better and fairer future. Add a few Trayvon Martins and Mike Browns to the foul concoction, and you’ve got a ticking time bomb for social unrest.

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In such difficult and disheartening times, it can feel utopian to claw around for a serious solution to our problems.  But ultimately, it’s a task that must be done.  So here is my basic idea:

First of all, I sincerely believe that improving race relations will require more interracial social interaction.  Now more than ever before, rather than pointing fingers at each other, we need to encourage white and black Americans to hang out with each other more – find out what kind of common personal interests they may have, and discover that they can laugh and cry together just fine.  (Not to mention romantic feelings for one another!)

The other big problem is getting white and black workers to see their common economic cause.  Indeed, that might be one way to cultivate personal friendships among the two groups.  This is why I love the “Fight for 15” so much.  Although a large hike in the minimum wage  (phased in carefully to avoid too many negative employment effects) would disproportionately benefit workers of color, there are plenty of white workers who would also benefit.  Many of these are the same workers who we are trying to reach and relieve from their inner cognitive dissonance.

None of this will be an easy task to undertake.  But Ferguson is but a symptom of deeper structural tensions in our society, and at least some of those tensions can be traced back to capitalism’s betrayal of the average American citizen.  And the agenda of the Economic Left happens to benefit two groups of people very strongly – working-class whites and working-class blacks – in a way that could relieve at least SOME of the racial tensions that sadly persist in early 21st-century America.

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