Cops and Constitutions
(Doug Brown/ACLU of Oregon)
The cops are violating the Constitution by attacking people exercising their basic rights — — that much is obvious. The rounding up of random protestors because they “fit the description” is related to the discriminatory policing that has historically denied poor, Black, and Brown people their basic rights because they “fit the description.” It’s a form of collective punishment outside the rule of law.
The very existence of the new uniformed secret police violates our rights. But, there have been so many assaults and exceptions to the Constitution, it cannot seriously be called the “highest law of the land.” Instead, the use of secret police should reveal to us a deeply entrenched and systemic tyranny that is the political blowback from empire. In fact, we are now ruled by a system of principles and practices that are nothing short of a new imperial constitution.
Yes, the empire delivered the death blow against the Constitution and the republic it defined. But we cannot know how the murder was committed without inspecting the body. My years as a teacher made it clear that most people had never actually read the founding documents. How do we expect to transform something we do not know?
Great artists innovate new forms of art when the existing forms no longer express the times they live in or the visions they have for the future. But at the same time, the act of creation comes from knowing and mastering the older decaying forms. This is also true of the political innovations we call revolutions.
The Old Constitution
For us, the old decaying form is the US Constitution. The Constitution failed to grant “the people” any power beyond electing elites to represent them— a limited form of power now totally undermined by the two-party system never mentioned in the Constitution. The Constitution gave all power to the government and no real power to the people — compounded of course by the fact that Blacks, Women, Natives, and Mexicans who comprised a majority of the people were outside of the definition of ”we the people.”
In its original form, the proposed Constitution was still unacceptable to the minority white male electorate because nothing listed the rights of the people to protect them from the power of the state. The Bill of Rights was added by popular demand and without it the Constitution would not have been ratified. Those rights were listed in the Bill of Rights — but not granted or created by it — since they were “natural rights” beyond the legitimate power of any government to either confer or revoke. It’s not that the Bill of Rights ever worked well, it didn’t. But it did work as contested terrain to struggle over.
The first Constitution created a republic in form but one that allowed very limited democratic power even for the newly enfranchised white artisans, small farmers, and workers. The “Three/fifths Compromise” of the original Constitution institutionalized slavery, conquest, and the white supremacy that had been taking shape since the first Europeans arrived.
The Imperial Constitution
For the last seventy years, even the remaining form of the republic has been irreversibly damaged by war and empire. And as with racism, institutional structures tell the real tale. After 1950 or so Congress surrendered its constitutional power to declare war and the imperial presidency quickly took over. The people surrendered too — bullied or conned into obedience by the fear merchants of cold war anti-communism.
In short order, we had standing armies, secret police, and the military-industrial complex. All real power was quickly centralized into the executive branch. There were important milestones when that power was further consolidated: 9/11, the War on Terror, the Patriot Act, various NDAA’s, the militarization of the border, ICE attacks on immigrants, the attacks on Occupy and Standing Rock, to name a few. Mass incarceration and the militarization of police were the final jewels in the imperial crown. The systematic tyranny of the imperial constitution was ready-made and waiting for a president like Trump.
But, in fact, every President since 1950 has been a war criminal and a tyrant by definition: their power was in violation of the rule of law. And, this monster executive branch includes the rapidly growing police forces — uniformed and secret — and the new form of secret but uniformed police that have appeared in DC, Portland, and Columbus. There are eighteen secret police forces in all.
In the past cops often hid their badges before committing crimes — now we have entire police forces that both violate, and are immune from, the rule of law by their very nature. If not intent on committing crime why would police need immunity from the law they claim to enforce?
But the rubber bullets, sticks, and chemical weapons reveal weakness. Would they resort to violence if other forms of social control were working to maintain order? Or is this a domestic replay of the military’s strategy of “full-spectrum dominance?” Do they simply see all forms of dissent as a challenge to their power? All of the above?
We now face an interlocking crisis of existential proportions: climate change, extreme wealth and political inequality, perpetual war and empire, the merger of the corporation and the state, the collapse of democracy, and the ramping up of racism and patriarchy necessary to weaken the people. These crises cannot be faced let alone solved by the existing order because they are the existing order.
A New Constitution?
We now have no choice but to create a new democratic system or else the interlocking crisis will come crashing down on all of our heads. Democracy will take many forms but massive protest movements that reveal and challenge the illegitimate power of the state is a huge step in the right direction. And, the secret police and the militarized police forces are the front lines of unlawful and illegitimate state power. That is why we see the good cop/ bad cop efforts to co-opt the movement with one hand and to crush it with the other. That is why Trump and the executive branch he now personifies have no choice but to double down.
This crisis of empire is the cause of so much sound and fury but this time signifying everything: the old constitution is dead, the imperial constitution rules and the new constitution awaits. Let’s see now — how do new constitutions come to be?
American Culture, American Exceptionalism, Capitalism, Climate Change, Corporate Power, Empire, Military, Organizing Strategy, Racism, Red Scare, revolutionary strategy, White Supremacy, Working Class | Tagged American Revolution, Corporate Power, Empire, Racism, War, White Supremacy | Leave a comment
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White Skin Privilege
White privilege is a thing. It’s just not the same thing the corporate Democrats use to boss us around with. The concept of white privilege was not invented by some liberal university professors. In fact, the concept of white privilege was invented by a white man: a radical activist and historian who never went to college.
Writing for the John Brown Commemoration Committee in 1965, Theodore Allen innovated the discourse on white skin privilege. Then in 1967 he co-authored “White Blindspot” and in 1969 published “Can White
Workers Radicals Be Radicalized?”
According to Jeffrey B. Perry,
Allen’s work influenced the Students for a Democratic Society and sectors of the “new left” and it paved the way for the “white privilege,” “race as social construct,” and “whiteness studies” academic fields.1
In our deep past, white privileges were granted by a “presumption of liberty” to whites that were simultaneously denied Blacks.
We can track that presumption of liberty straight to the great 2020 uprising against police violence. We are all supposed to enjoy the “presumption of innocence” but that is systematically denied Natives, Blacks, other people of color, poor people, and those that do not conform to gender or sexual norms. On-the-spot executions deprive people of color the right to be “innocent until proven guilty” and to enjoy the equal protection of the law. As “guilty until proven innocent” became the new normal it affected everyone including the white working class.
Unlike liberal interpretations of white privilege used to quiet dissent, Allen’s understanding was that white privileges are contrary to the long-term political and material interest of white people. The benefits, bribes, and appeals to white people do have a real value, which is one reason they work, but that value is far less than the value that would be produced by class solidarity and cross-racial action to raise wages, win political power and establish justice.
In 1969 Allen wrote:
The white-skin privileges of the masses of the white workers do not permit them nor their children to escape into the ranks of the propertied classes. In the South, where the white-skin privilege has always been most emphasized and formal, the white workers have fared worse than white workers in the rest of the country. The white-skin privilege for the mass is the trustee’s privilege, not release from jail, merely freedom of movement within it and a diet more nearly adequate. It is not that the ordinary white worker gets more than he must have to support himself and his family, but that the black worker gets less than the white worker. The result is that by thus inducing, reinforcing and perpetuating racist attitudes on the part of the white workers, the present-day power-masters get the political support of the rank-and-file of the white workers in critical situations, and without having to share with them their super profits in the slightest measure…2 [emphasis added]
To this day, “The white-skin privilege for the mass is the trustee’s privilege not release from jail…” Some of the prisoners can control other prisoners but never challenge the warden.
Allen’s reference to prison is not just a metaphor. Look at mass incarceration today. According to a Pew Research Center study 2010 US incarceration rates for white men are 678 per hundred thousand and 91 per hundred thousand for white women. The incarceration rate for black men is a staggering six times greater than white men, and almost three times higher than for black women. (4,347 for Black men and 260 for Black women). Yet, white men and women are incarcerated at rates much higher than those of comparable countries.
The US rate for white male incarceration alone is far greater than every other European incarceration rate for total prisoners of all classes, races, and genders. And the Russian incarceration rate skews the statistic as it towers above every other European country at 439 per hundred thousand. The average rate for the European Union was 135 in 2006. US white women, for example, are incarcerated at higher rates than the total of all classes, races and genders of 20 European counties.
The penal system captures the effect of white privilege in a nutshell. “You got more than the Blacks don’t complain.” But so much less than justice, freedom or democracy would demand.
Yet our relative privilege allowed whites to consent to the war on drugs and vote for “get tough on crime” politicians like Joe Biden. They aimed at Blacks first but ultimately created a police state that punishes protest with violence and aims to make the exercise of constitutional rights a criminal act. We all lose, including losing our rights to a trial by jury that the Bill of Rights claims to protect. The new penal system also got tough on working-class whites as it garrisoned the entire country with a militarized force dedicated to protecting the established order.
The Psychic Wage
The privilege harder to put a price on, and one of the most serious remaining obstacles to overcoming racism is what W.E.B Dubois called the “psychological wage.“3 The psychological or psychic wage is that highly coveted sense of personal, spiritual, and moral superiority we are taught to derive from our skin color.
This psychic wage is collected, in part, by an imaginary connection with whites of high status. White privilege creates vertical solidarity that connects working-class whites to the power and glory of the rich, strong, and celebrated white elites, even though our overall political and economic interests are shared by working-class people of color. White workers are exploited by the boss and sent to die in their wars daily. Our privilege gives us the delusion that we are not who we truly are.
James Baldwin, the black writer, and visionary, put it this way:
[A]s long as white Americans take refuge in their whiteness—for so long as they are unable to walk out of this most monstrous of traps—they will allow millions of people to be slaughtered in their name, and will be manipulated into and surrender themselves to what they will think of—and justify—as a racial war. They will never, so long as their whiteness puts so sinister a distance between themselves and their own experience and the experience of others, feel themselves sufficiently human, sufficiently worthwhile, to become responsible for themselves, their leaders, their country, their children, or their fate. They will perish…in their delusions. And this is happening, needless to say, already, all around us….But the American delusion is not only that their brothers all are white but that the whites are all their brothers. [emphasis added]
Whiteness and privilege distance us from our “own experience and the experience of others.” You may feel connected to a Trump or a Clinton for an Obama, or aspire to become a general or a billionaire, but to them we are but chumps and pawns.
Horizontal or Vertical Solidarity? Class Solidarity or Class Collaboration?
Yes, it is the privileges whites have that disrupt horizontal solidarity, but when those bribes are eroded, even partially, by debt, poverty, the long term decline of wages, poor health, drug addiction, and hopelessness, their hypnotic power weakens. Young whites in particular have come to see the transparent truth that the system is rigged against them. Perhaps most of all, that the forecast of life on our planet is so poisoned and precarious that no amount of privilege will save them.
The fact that tens of thousands of white people — often from small towns — have joined the Uprising is evidence that the white privilege system is weakening.
These changes in consciousness are signs that we might again cross into revolutionary territory. The unending recession of 2008 has forced whites to choose: cling ever harder to the psychological wage, hate, and white supremacy, or join the movements toward social reform, revolution, resistance, and love.
In a broader sense, it is the corporate power that is creating a crisis in privilege as a form of social control. If the corporate state can no longer allow any meaningful improvements in the lives of everyday people — and impose only austerity and growing poverty — we can expect that both the Democrats and Republicans will increasingly turn to the psychological wage as the remaining form of compensation, bribe, and appeal. In different ways perhaps, Trump, Clinton and Obama have nonetheless resorted to the vertical solidarity of nationalism and/or corporate forms of political identity to block the political space that should be occupied by struggles over economic democracy, equality, ecology, and peace.
The vertical solidarity of white privilege should make us very wary of other forms of vertical solidarity that have been a typical tool of the elites. Tokenism and machine politics establish a political and spiritual connection when people identify with the managers of war and empire because they share the same gender, sexuality, color, class, or national origins. 5
Privilege, vertical solidarity, and the psychic wage remain potent means of maintaining social control at home and empire abroad. In the same way white privilege blinds white people to their own invented identity and the depth of racism, imperial privilege blinds all of us to the ongoing imperial project with its constant bloodletting and profit-making that has become our way of life.
Our best move is to take on the most deeply entrenched form of privilege: white privilege. For that, we need to organize the white working class.
It’s Not Academic.
Debates continue over Allen’s assertion that the white race and white privilege was invented as a conscious and deliberate act of the oligarchs. Was it that, or the general outcome of the historical conditions of the time? The key argument for activists, however, is that white racism is not itself innate and therefore can be changed. History is made by human action. Sometimes human acts are conscious, even conspiratorial. Other times we contribute to change through a multitude of human decisions; local and global, visionary, and parochial.
But the political world is not an academic debate. It is up to us to prove that white racism is not innate in white people and that racism can be changed by activism.
- The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight against White Supremacy. p 8-9
- Ted Allen, Can White
WorkersRadicals be Radicalized p. 175
3. W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction [New York, 1935], pp. 700-701.
5. For more see Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, Chapter 3.
Movement Culture, Organizing Method, Organizing Strategy, Racism, revolutionary strategy, Strategy, Uncategorized, White Privilege, White Supremacy | Tagged Movement Strategy, Organizational Culture, organizing | 2 Comments
“ Their (the poor “whites”) own position, vis-a-vis the rich and powerful . . . was not improved, but weakened, by the white-skin privilege system.”
“The ‘white race’ is the historically most general form of ‘class collaboration.”
Theodor W. Allen*
Also at Counterpunch
The Time Is Ripe To Protest. The Time Is Ripe To Organise.
At no time since the ’60s has social upheaval and activism created so many opportunities to oppose racism. It is time to engage each other in a struggle over what it means to be white and a worker in America. And that engagement will be most successful in the world’s best classroom: movement building, organizing, and activism.
The uprising against police violence is history in the making. Why? Because the people are on the move. No movement can succeed without unleashing the creative energies of the millions. While many questions remain, the big one for the long game: What is the relationship between organizing and protest? Reflecting on the failures of the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King said:
Yet in candor and self-criticism it is necessary to acknowledge that the torturous job of organizing solidly and simultaneously in thousands of places was not a feature of our work….Many civil rights organizations were born as specialists in agitation and dramatic projects; they attracted massive sympathy and support; but they did not assemble and unify the support for new stages of struggle.
Can we build long-lasting organizations to carry on the struggle and spirit of the most important popular uprising in recent history?
Resistance To The Vast Militarized Penal System
Like many times in our past, Black people have led the way. In the midst of the pandemic, the great 2020 uprising has revealed deep systematic dysfunction and crisis. Can we seize this opportunity to engage white people in questions of power, race, class, and empire?
Over the past few decades, the American people have created a vast militarized penal system that is now the most powerful institutionalized racism in the US. And like the forms of institutionalized racism that preceded it, the penal system is an effective form of social control.
The system controls through discriminatory and militarized policing, on-the-spot executions, slave-like prison labor, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipeline, restriction of trial by jury, lengthy and mandatory sentencing, and predatory fine, fee, and debt traps.
The penal system’s gigantic sweep and size constitute nothing short of a preemptive war against the most rebellious: the young, people of color, the poor. The movement for social change and equality will fail unless we confront the vast militarized penal system. It controls us all black and brown and white.
Photo by @christine fisher
The Uprising is a Challange
Can white activists confront white racism at a time of intense class conflict? The never-ending recession of 2008 has intensified wealth inequality across the board with the upward redistribution of wealth falling hardest on people of color but hitting whites too. Good full-time jobs are going and they are not coming back.
The pandemic resulted in mass unemployment and mass misery. The pandemic bailouts of corporate America — passed by a unanimous Congress — reinforced ruling class power, made inequality far worse and gave the elites cover to attack us all by doubling down on austerity.
There is a widespread understanding that the economy and political system are rigged. One of the main rigs is the class line: corporate power is the government now. Once the insatiable demand for power and profit drive government, representative democracy can no longer deliver significant economic benefits to everyday people. The Uprising, Standing Rock, Occupy, the Sanders campaign, the resistance to Trump, and other events have revealed the discontent of millions of white people and our willingness to stand up. We have the capacity to help create progressive social movements and even make history.
But the working class has deep flaws that have until now proven fatal: it is divided. Race, gender, sexuality, and age cut us up in many ways. If history is a guide to action we can retell a crucial part of the tale by making a challenge to white supremacy central to our organizing efforts. To do that, white people must combat the system of white privilegesthat have long been the primary means by which racism has divided the working-class.
The idea of privilege does not mean we are not exploited by the bosses, killed by cops, unjustly imprisoned, or used as cannon fodder — we are ruthlessly exploited in many ways — but because of our class not because of our skin color.
Those white privileges are a hidden web of arrangements in housing, education, health care, law enforcement, election procedures, and voting that further rig the system against people of color. But because white privileges have been so deeply entrenched for so long they often seem to be neutral measures of merit, at least to white people. How do we shine a light on this blindspot?
Action is the best way to reveal the truth. Systematic racism is historic and collective and cannot be wished away by simply having better attitudes, being born to progressive parents, or being “nice” to people of color. You can’t just give it up, even if you want to, except through joining the social movements for change and organizing at the point of privilege. White organizers and activists who challenge the system have taken the first crucial step in transforming white privilege into class solidarity. Many organizing projects await. We can expect no easy victories.
Organize Our Own?
As the ’60s revolution came up against the wall of interlocking obstacles, civil rights organizers experimented with Black Power and Women’s liberation. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Jo Freedman, Shulamith Firestone, and the authors of “To the Women of the New Left” offered up some hard-won knowledge.2 They told a sometimes bitter but compelling truth: organizers were most effective working within their own communities.
Speaking to the Organization of Afro-American Unity, Malcolm X put it this way.
Now if white people want to help, they can help. But, they can’t join. They can help in the white community, but they can’t join. We accept their help….They can…work in the white community on white people and change their attitude toward us.3
“Organizing your own” is not a call to white separatism, but a way to lay the basis for authentic coalition movements in which working-class whites see their own destiny bound up with that of black and brown people.
In Black Power and White Organizing, Anne Braden, a legendary southern white civil rights organizer, wrote:
Certainly the inherent needs of poor white people are reason enough to organize—they, like poor black people, are ill-fed, ill-housed and lacking in opportunities for education, medical care, political expression, and dignity. But I think what we are recognizing is that these white people will never be able to solve these problems unless they find ways to unite with the black movement seeking the same things.
It was true back then and it is true today.
My purpose is not to present false either/or choices. The organizational forms we create are up to the local situation and local actors. White organizers can, and are, making real contributions in multi-racial organizations and movements. But one way or another, we white organizers must reconsider ways of talking and organizing around white supremacy and white privilege.
Luckily for us, we can follow the work of the great white working-class intellectual, Ted Allen, as our north star. We can start with the strategic implications from his classic work: The Invention of the White Race.
*Both quotes cited in Jeffrey B. Perry, The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight against White Supremacy p. 2 and p. 5
- See Chapter 8, Sara Evans, Personal Politics. “Women of the New Left” cited by Evans p. 200.
- Malcolm X, By Any Means Necessary, 58.