What happened in the 1670s and 1830s—and is happening again today: How economic exploitation is connected to racial identity.

Posted on February 22, 2011


Written February 22, 2011 in response to discussions in Contemporary Social Problems and The Sociology of Whiteness at Arcadia University and to the protests in Madison, Wisconsin

Howard Zinn’s “Persons of Mean and Vile Condition” from The People’s History of the United States (1995), takes its evidence from “primary documents” from 17th century Colonial America. In it, Professor Zinn asserts that in the 17th century, land-owning elite Whites encouraged poor whites and indentured servants to group themselves with the most powerful members of society, rather than with other exploited people. Advancement of ideas of status, freedom and self-determination of poorer Whites prevented the lower classes from forming alliances with indigenous people and Black slaves, because the three groups (Indians, Blacks and poor Whites) would have outnumbered the most privileged people against whom the oppressed slaves, indentured servants and original people might have then been able to stage another armed revolt (such as Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676).

I have been thinking about Zinn’s thesis—that exploited indentured servants and other working Whites were manipulated into thinking of their racial status as more central to their identity than their class status—that they were, in actuality, persuaded to accept the rhetoric of empowerment, liberty, and White privilege trumping the necessity of revolting against their being economically used (and abused) by the powerful members of pre-America America.

I believe that this manipulation happened again 150 years later during the campaign of the man who would be the seventh president, Andrew Jackson (for whom an ancestor of mine was named). In 1828, Jackson advanced himself as the candidate, of the “common man.” The term “common man” meant several things; it referred to working White men who did not own farms of their own (whose sweat mingled with that of unpaid Blacks in building this country’s enormous wealth). The term also meant that Jackson did oppose the (even then) burgeoning power of the legal person of the corporation and of banks, also that he was a vulgarian and debaucher who drank and banged cups on the tables of the symbolic residence of American government, the White House. It seems also to have meant that he was he was neither an intellectual nor an elitist (as President Barack Obama is sometimes called), and that he was also, according to some documents, not too great at spelling. (One explanation of our ubiquitous affirmative “O.K” may have come from Jackson’s approval “oll korrect” scrawled on state papers.” Protecting the interests of the “common (White) man” meant getting the working man to ally his interests with that of the federal government, with those of White plantation owners and industrialists, and against the interests of Black slaves, and especially against the interests of Choctaw, Cherokee and other Indians, who were in 1831 marched off the land they had occupied for thousands of years.

Today, I think that this persuasion of working people to grope toward a mistaken (often Anglo-White) identity is happening again, and furthermore that it causes such people to misalign their own interests, categorizing themselves as hardworking, self-determining and indignant about “indolence” that purloins dollars from their ever-shrinking paychecks. In the name of liberty and the mythology that they can (or have already) pull(ed) themselves up by their own bootstraps, working people and members of various vocational solidarities have been talked into they idea that their decency, empowerment and identity lie with those at the pinnacle of society, Wall Street traders, bank presidents and executives of corporations who make a quarter of a million dollars per year per household or more (and who resent apportioning some of that vast prosperity) to increasingly expensive social service programs and other safety nets for people who fall on hard times, i.e. social problems—the other course I am teaching this semester at Arcadia University.

I have, of late, been filled with remorse and shame that I too have been manipulated into arguing against the interests of the most vulnerable people in the society in which I live. In a very real sense, the people in the most precarious position are those I call the working poor, that is to say, not the very bottom denizens of society, i.e. convicts in prisons, people institutionalized for other reasons, and people “poor enough” to fall under the Federal Poverty Threshold (which is about $26,000 per year for a family of four). The most vulnerable members of the society in which I live are the people not poor enough for the constellation of entitlements, subsidized housing, food stamps, and other assistance funded by a combination of the Federal governments, state governments and various other sources, such as state lotteries and “sin” taxes.

I have been seduced too. I have not been arguing on behalf of the working poor who have been mistakenly sucked into alliance with the so-called Tea Party, a tiny, vocal fragment group that is trumpeting the need to slash social programs and creeping government control of business interests and profit-makers. I was not arguing on their behalf because the barely-suppressed racism of “I’m not gonna let you take more taxes out of my pay check to redistribute it to those lazy, probably non-White urban people” is so terribly offensive to me. I was not arguing on behalf of the actual interests of working class supposed fiscal conservatives because I was filled with the joy of the potential for redemption on November 4, 2008 (the day that President Barack Obama was elected to be the 44th president of the United States). I failed to see until yesterday—when I saw more of the protests by teachers and other union members against not only the gutting of their previously-negotiated retirement funds, but also against their future potential to even bargain collectively for such plans. On other occasions, I have been vocal about the ways in which unionized teachers seem to argue on their own behalf against the interests of the students they teach.

However, yesterday I saw clearly for the first time that attempts by fiscally strapped state governments to de-fund retirement plans and other publicly funded supports of working people are in the interest of the people in the very top layer of society, and are terribly detrimental to the stability of and very foundations of justice and American ideals. I failed to see that I have a grave responsibility (as someone who teaches courses with titles like Understanding Global News, The Sociology of Whiteness and Contemporary Social Problems) that I need to explain in simple terms that a stable society, one in which my son and daughter and nieces and nephews are safe, is a society that like any good army does not leave its vulnerable or wounded behind. A good army or a secure and prosperous nation does not leave behind the people to whom it has made promises or who are in need of a hand in time of hardship. I takes them by the hand, carries them on a metaphorical stretcher, or slings them over its shoulder, though doing so may momentarily slow the advance of the whole.

Thanks to Chris Hedges, author of The Death of the Liberal Class, for this final analogy of the essay, employed in his NPR interview of February 22, 2011.