On the Racism That Defines Us

In the early-fifties, when I was in high school, one of my buddies had a close friend who was black. I was astonished when the neighbors demanded that this friend not ever show his face in the neighborhood. In 1961 I was finishing up my tour with the Navy in Charleston, SC. I got off the plane and saw drinking fountains labeled “whites only”, and signs on restaurants for colored to go to the back door, and I was astonished. I had thought race relations were improving. Years later, when I was apartment hunting in San Francisco, two elderly Jewish ladies huffed that they would never rent to “one of that type”, a sweet and lovely young African-American woman who had just left, shortly before I walked out.

Then Barack Obama ran for the presidency and won, and the racists came flying out of the woodwork like roaches in a house on fire. There was, and is, a run on gun buying, as various conspiracy theorists began talking about the coming military takeover. The internet was alive with violent racism, and still is. How naive was I in imagining that the race situation was improving. Paul Krugman’s opinion notwithstanding, it’s not, not at all. If anything, it’s worse than it has been in a century and a half, punctuated by endless murders of black men and women by violent racist police. But why? Shouldn’t we be improving?

This post by Paul Krugman lays clear the background of the racism that defines our xenophobia, and prevents us from joining the civilized nations. Those states that reject Obamacare today were all slaveholding states in 1860, with few exceptions. Although we find racism everywhere, these are states where racism and xenophobia are still rampant, a century and a half after the war.

Medicade states

Slave & free states

I don’t mean to imply that all southerners are racist, only that the number of violent and unrepentant white supremacists seems unchanged, and they are most prevalent in the slave states. We are all racist to some extent because it’s a very ancient defense mechanism, and we have to be careful it doesn’t become overt racism. But they don’t even try. They nurse their hatred.

Racial hatred of that rabid few is so great in those states that they will shoot themselves in the foot rather than enact reasonable and beneficial social programs such as the ACA, afraid that if they help the poor, someone black might be getting something they don’t deserve.

This is something I have mentioned a number of times in semi-jest, but these maps are so clear, and so compelling, that I am forced to conclude that it’s not a joke. Racism is our most serious domestic issue today, and whites from the former slave states, even 150 years after Emancipation, are still the worst offenders.

Worse, the right continues to spout coded words that everyone knows are thinly disguised ways to say that African-Americans are lazy and inferior. Too often, the message isn’t even disguised. We can dismiss such nonsense coming from the KKK, but this is not where it is coming from. It’s coming from the Republican party in the Congress and the state houses, and it’s ugly because it purposefully plays to white racism that has festered for 150 years.

Racists are afraid that
if they do anything to help the poor,
someone black might be getting something
they don’t deserve.

Once I realized that this racist disease is virtually unchanged over all that time, it came clear where the next battlefield for civilization must be.

Our national race problem cannot be overcome by improvements in welfare. Poor and bitter whites who are looking for someone to blame, along with a lot of capitalist Republicans who play on their fears, believe that black Americans have only one goal, to live their lives on welfare, paid for by Republican voters. Their hatred is so bitter, they will resist any improvement in their own lives if they think it just might help someone black. No, fixing welfare ain’t where it’s at.

The way out is Living Wage.

The single most important domestic need in the US today is Living Wage, yet almost no one understands its importance, and we waste time talking about minimum wage. We will never have justice until everyone who works can live off what she earns. Living Wage would dissolve the resentment that so many racists feel, because their own work would be recognized for the value it brings to society. Hatred is dissolved by justice, and Living Wage foments justice and contentment. Racism might even gradually become unimportant.

Living Wage would sharply diminish poverty at a stroke, and the need for welfare at the same time. It would have a multiplier effect, because poor people who get better pay will spend much of it, thus creating greater demand for goods and more employment. It might diminish overt racism, because being poor and being black would no longer be automatically connected. It would even diminish crime, as people whose only choice has been minimum wage or crime find a more benevolent option. But it won’t come easy. Republican capitalist conservatives focus their efforts on ever increasing wealth for themselves, and don’t care about the poor, and the Republican party’s slave state racists are locked into hatred that goes on generation after generation.

Everyone who lives in a country where Living Wage is the law, countries like Australia and a fair number of European and Asian countries, live lives of civilized comfort, minus the desperate scramble that characterizes Americans, black or white, at the bottom of the pay scale.

Only Living Wage will bring the US
into the realm of the civilized.
This is the battle we should join.

Living Wage will bring the US into the realm of the civilized. Every worker must be able to live decently on her earnings, regardless of the kind of work she does, and that cannot happen until we have national laws that compel employers to pay every kind of work a wage that will support a life, a Living Wage. It simply is not possible to build a decent life with wages so stingy they don’t even provide the basics, let alone the security and dignity that every person deserves. Stingy wages and the devaluing of work also perpetuate racial hatreds. This is the battle we should join.

When everyone earns a Living Wage, those who were formerly restricted by a life of quiet desperation will be able to breathe, and feel some security, and perhaps those who could only hate will also find their lives eased, and eventually come to realize that all humans have the same needs.


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