Race and Gender Faultlines
The faultlines in U.S. politics over race and gender are becoming extremely obvious. But this is hardly new. This country, including it’s great promise, was built on the genocide and stolen land of Native peoples and the chattel slavery of Africans–and almost every civilization throughout history has oppressed women.
As a white, male, Southerner, I continue to grieve at the way the Powers That Be use race and gender to exploit not only women and racial minorities, but also poor whites. Poor and lower-middle class whites continue to allow racism to be used to harm our own best interests. Slavery didn’t help poor whites–because free labor beats cheap labor every time! So how did rich white slaveowners convince thousands of poor whites in the South to fight and kill and die so that other people could continue to own human beings as property??
After the Civil War, during the Gilded Age of Robber Barons (our current economic inequality is reaching those levels), the Populist movement rose up fight money power with people power, led by Tom Watson, a Southern white who tried to forge a multi-racial coalition to overcome economic exploitation. Racism was used to break up the coalition and, by the end, Watson himself had become a racist demagogue who supported the worst of the Jim Crow segregation laws.
In the North, they used race and ethnicity to set Irish against Italian against Pole–and all of them against African-Americans, while the rich laughed all the way to the bank.
The first women’s movement came from the involvement of white women in the work to abolish slavery–and women’s rights were championed by black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass. But when the only version of the 15th Amendment (banning restrictions on voting based on race) which would pass enfranchised only black males, a schism appeared between the movements for racial and gender equality. Hurtful things were said on both sides.
This reappeared during the Civil Rights movement and the 2nd Wave Feminist movement: Remember Stokely Carmichael’s infamous comment that the only role for women in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was “prone!”
Race affects even the healthcare debate: Bill Clinton has rightly mentioned several times that we came closest to getting universal healthcare under Harry Truman’s post-WWII presidency. That’s the time period when Canada and most of Europe adopted universal healthcare and was a perfect time for us to do so as well. Truman had campaigned on completing Roosevelt’s New Deal. Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress. Healthcare expenses were a much lower percentage of the economy. But it was blocked by Southern legislators, despite the fact that the South would have benefitted most and contributed the least to the plan in taxes. Why? Southern legislators feared that universal healthcare would force them to integrate their hospitals! (They were probably right. Southern hospitals were finally integrated after the 1965 passage of the Medicare and Medicaid Bills–which were nearly blocked by Southern Senate filibusters!)
And no one should be surprised at the Black/Latino split in the U.S. (though it is not as wide as white media pundits make it out). In many places following the Civil Rights movement, white power brokers would allow one “minority position” in city councils or business boards, etc. so that Brown presence meant no Black presence and vice versa. White politicians would and still do condemn a black owned business, wipe it out, and rebuild with a white company–and hire all Latino workers to build the new construction.
This election could end tragically with divisions along race and gender lines. The Powers of repression, economic exploitation, ecological degradation, and military imperialism could get their way by exploiting our fears and resentments. Or we could refuse to let that happen this time.
Regardless, we clearly need more national conversations–real dialogues–on race and gender matters. They will not always be comfortable, especially for white males. We have benefitted from our race and gender even when we have not asked to–and when we are struggling ourselves it can feel as if we are blamed for what others have done in our names.
Healing has to begin somewhere. Let it begin in each of homes, churches, and communities.
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