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They divide both to conquer each

By Paul D'Amato | March 22, 2002 | Page 9

THE WORLD we live in is full of divisions, where groups of people are treated as second-class citizens according to some particular characteristic--language, skin color, sex or sexual preference, nationality, class, etc.

In the U.S., most glaringly, Blacks are treated to worse jobs, housing and education and higher rates of unemployment and police brutality than most whites. Latinos face similar, though somewhat less severe treatment--but often face language discrimination. Women receive lower wages than men and bear most of the burden of work in the home.

These myriad oppressions appear as "natural" divisions that cannot be overcome. But a closer look reveals that these divisions are deliberately fostered in order to prevent the exploited from uniting against the minority of rich exploiters. Oppression, in other words, facilitates class exploitation.

In the early phases of capitalism, racism justified conquest and outright plunder. Native peoples were deemed subhuman or childlike heathens who needed either to be wiped out or ruled and exploited by others.

In the New World, the planter class adopted slavery because labor was scarce. "Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery," wrote Caribbean historian Eric Williams. "The reason was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor. The features of the man…his 'subhuman' characteristics, so widely pleaded, were only the later rationalizations to justify a simple economic fact."

Therefore, argues Williams, "Slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was the consequence of slavery."

In the South, during slavery and after, racism was fostered among poor whites to prevent them from seeing that they shared with Blacks the same exploiters--the white planter class. "The slaveholders," wrote Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, "by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the Blacks, succeeded in making the said white man almost as much of a slave as the Black himself. Both are plundered by the same plunderer."

The same logic works under capitalism today. If native-born workers can be made to believe that immigrant workers threaten their jobs, if white workers can be made to hate or resent Blacks, if all Americans can be made to think that "foreigners" or "Muslims" are the enemy, and so on, it makes it more difficult for workers and the oppressed to unite against their common enemy.

In other words, racist, sexist or xenophobic ideas do not benefit workers and the poor, whatever their race, sex or ethnicity. But they do benefit the exploiters--by making sections of the exploited believe they have common interests with their exploiters based upon having the same language or skin color.

Treating one part of society worse helps bring down the conditions of all workers. The fact that, for example, women perform necessary labor in the home--raising children, cooking, cleaning--means that capitalists can pay lower wages.

Certain industries view illegal immigrant labor as ideal because illegal immigrants cannot organize unions and live in constant fear of deportation, so it's easy to pay them next to nothing.

Historically, unions have been weakest in the South. This has kept wages lower than in the rest of the country. But the reason unions have been weak in the South is, purely and simply, racism.

The antagonism of whites toward Blacks has been the secret by which employers in the South have kept workers from organizing successfully. The fight against racism, therefore, cannot be separated from the class struggle as a whole.

Only by challenging oppression in all its forms can workers unite and become the threat to capitalism that they must become if we are to win a better world.

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