Race and Class: Facing the New Backlash

Against the Current, No. 129, July/August 2007

Malik Miah

IN 1967 A major rebellion/riot in Detroit, responding to an act of police violence, was the tipping point in a city where Blacks had been basically excluded from real political and economic power.

Today the city is led by African Americans, but the real economic power remains in the hands of big business — the same major corporations that have controlled affairs for decades — although these forces themselves are bruised and battered by global capitalist restructuring.

The 1967 rebellion was a turning point, however. The white backlash and fear of demands for Black Power led to white flight to the suburbs, especially after a Black-led city administration won power in the 1973 municipal election.

Today’s city of Detroit is half its historic size — down from 1.85 million in the 1950s to less than 900,000 today, about the size it was in the 1920s. Most attempts to revitalize the city have sputtered, although the downtown commercial center, left for dead in the mid-1980s, is reviving as an entertainment district.

There’s a new sinister factor in Detroit, especially on the southwest side, where much of the growing Latino population lives in fear of immigration raids and deportations. The most sickening sight in Detroit may be the building sign on the near East Side where “illegal” immigrants are detained for deportation hearings: It’s called the Rosa Parks Federal Building.

Déjà vu — Fear Mongering

Minorities are already a majority in California (though not of registered voters) and Hawaii. By 2050, if immigration continues as at present, whites will be a minority.
The counterpart to the post-’67 white backlash in the United States is today’s racist assaults on immigrant communities. Some 12 million “illegal” immigrants are seeking legal residency and/or eventual citizenship. The fears of many white working people facing a major shift in the society’s social composition and political balance are tapped by leading politicians in both major parties.

While some Blacks, Asians and even Latinos are supporting restrictions on immigrant workers, most understand the meaning of a campaign against “illegal” workers as a wedge to attack all minority rights. African Americans especially remember the code words (e.g. “states’ rights” and “qualifications”) used to oppose full civil rights.

The main tool used by racists to fight the civil rights movement for equality was fear-mongering — an orchestrated campaign to stop political progress for the Black minority. This didn’t succeed in major cities, however. Political gains were won. Economic power, while shifted to a degree, remains primarily in white hands; yet African Americans are more integrated in society than ever before, including the suburbs surrounding Detroit that were off limits for most African Americans in the 1960s.

The backlash against immigrants is also a response to more profound issues. The growing pro-immigrant rights movement, as the civil rights movement did before it, is exposing an underlying polarization in society. The debate is presented as “amnesty” for so-called illegal aliens. In fact, the real issues are political rights, labor rights, the free movement of workers across borders, and citizenship.

Targeting scapegoats for the loss of manufacturing jobs and for economic uncertainty was also used by bigots against Black civil rights when it served their interests. Poor Blacks were the cheap labor who did many jobs whites didn’t perform. The contradiction of big business hiring cheap legal and “illegal” labor, while white demagogues tap fears among white working people losing jobs, is clearly not new. Today’s victims are both the immigrants and the citizen workers.

Demagogues’ Rhetoric

CNN’s Lou Dobbs night after night argues that “illegal” immigrants are stealing “American jobs.” Avoiding the race card and declaring himself “pro American worker,” Dobbs criticizes big business, Republicans and Democrats alike. Many of his guests are ethnic minorities who oppose “illegal” immigration.

Patrick Buchanan, on the other hand, overtly plays the race card. He directly taps white fear of becoming a minority. Buchanan asserts that within 50 years a majority of U.S. residents/citizens will be people of color if the borders (read: Mexican) aren’t closed to the hordes of nonwhite aliens.

In a nationally syndicated column titled “Path to National Suicide,” Buchanan outlines his racist arguments. Here’s an extensive excerpt:

“Last week, senators meeting in secret produced a bill to legalize our 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens. If a path to citizenship becomes law, nothing will stop the next invasion. As President Bush acknowledges, 6 million tried to breach our Southern border in his first five years. One in 12 — 500,000 — had a criminal record.

“According to the Census Bureau, from mid-2005 to mid-2006, the U.S. minority population rose 2.4 million, to exceed 100 million. Hispanics, one percent of the population in 1950, are now 14.4 percent. Their total number has soared 25 percent since 2000 alone. The Asian population has also grown by 25 percent since 2000.

“The number of white kids of school age fell 4 percent, however. Half the children 5 and younger in the United States are now minorities.

“What is happening to us? An immigrant invasion of the United States from the Third World, as America’s white majority is no longer even reproducing itself. Since Roe v. Wade, America has aborted 45 million of her children. And Asia, Africa and Latin America have sent 45 million of their children to inherit the estate the aborted American children never saw. God is not mocked.

“And white America is in flight.”

In case you didn’t get his main point, Buchanan elaborates:

“All over the Western world, multiethnic, multicultural countries are coming apart over language, ethnicity, and history. The Soviet Union broke into 15 nations, Yugoslavia into half a dozen. Czechs and Slovaks divorced. Scots want separation from England. Catalans and Basques seek independence. Corsicans and Bretons want out of France. Northern Italians want to secede. Only immigrants who prefer Ottawa prevent Quebecois from breaking free of Canada.

“As we see from the election battles in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Mexico, race and ethnicity are not receding as issues, but rising. In South Central Los Angeles, black and Hispanic gangs are at war over race and turf.”

In other words, when the Black, Brown and Yellow hordes become the majority in state after state, the “cultural wars” of the past will lead to actual civil wars and the break up of the country.  The “elites” must stop this regression, Buchanan urges.

While some may laugh or believe that Buchanan is a lunatic and not a reflection of the mainstream, consider one simple fact: a majority of Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein and Iraq had something to do with the 9/11 terrorist attack organized by Al Qaeda. Vice President Dick Cheney continues to spread that big lie and falsely argues that unless the United States continues and “wins” its occupation of Iraq, “the terrorists” will get us here.

The leading 2008 Republican presidential candidates (and several of the Democrats) all proclaim in similar demagogic rhetoric the same fear-mongering argument about Iran. Patriotism of this type is the refuge of scoundrels and true enemies of freedom. Lies, lies and more lies — yet without being countered by facts and working people rejecting it, that fear-mongering method does work as history shows.

A liberal columnist, Paul Krugman, who supports immigrant rights, writes in his May 25 The New York Times column, “Moreover, as supporters of immigrant rights rightly remind us, everything today’s immigrant-bashers say — that immigrants are insufficiently skilled, that they’re too culturally alien, and, implied though rarely stated explicitly, that they’re not white enough — was said a century ago about Italians, Poles and Jews.”

Krugman explains that democracy itself is what’s at stake in the attack on immigrant rights:  “But the straight economics [of immigrants’ role in the economy] was the least of it. Much more important was the way immigration diluted democracy.

“In 1910, almost 14 percent of voting-age males in the United States were non-naturalized immigrants. (Women didn’t get the vote until 1920.) Add in the disenfranchised blacks of the Jim Crow South, and what you had in America was a sort of minor-key apartheid system, with about a quarter of the population — in general, the poorest and most in need of help — denied any political voice.”

Free Flow of Labor

Even business community pundits are concerned about these attacks on immigrants. In a commentary written for the June 4 issue of Business Week, by Michael Mandel headlined, “Can we have free flow of goods and capital without free flow of labor?” explains, “In a world increasingly borderless, barriers won’t work.”

The free flow of capital across borders with few restrictions is what big business seeks. Labor should demand that same access across borders for working people. The most effective way to end discrimination and super-exploitation of foreign or immigrant labor is to allow it to seek work everywhere freely. If that freedom of movement occurred (although it’s not the same as having citizenship and the right to vote), it would strengthen the rights of all workers.It would also enhance the ability of unions to organize these and other workers.

While big business commentators like Mandel support free labor, domestic nationalism makes that impossible. Racism and nativism are more powerful political tools to each state’s ruling parties. A big failure of the left and organized labor has been to not fight for open borders and free movement for labor.

Most businesses prefer underground or “illegal” labor — and a handful of H-1B visas for skilled labor (those with Bachelor’s degrees in specific fields). The new immigration bill in Congress gives these more educated immigrant workers more slots while skilled U.S. labor has a harder time getting higher paying jobs.

Lesson of 1967

The key lesson of 1967 Detroit — relevant to today’s immigration debate — is that the rebellions of the 1960s followed the victories of a mass civil rights movement.

Those victories, and the rebellions, would ultimately make it possible for a powerful Black Power political movement (including electing big city mayors and thousands of other state and national representatives) that led to real integration of the governmental and corporate institutions. The riots/rebellions were a culmination of a mass social movement, not the last gasp of a defeated population.

Today’s anti-immigration campaign is the continuation of the conservative hostility to Black political power in the 1960s. Buchanan and Dobbs above all oppose the new civil rights leaders of the immigrant rights movement.

The demagogues tap the anger and fears of misguided whites (and others). But the future that  these sectors fear is rooted, in fact, in the economic shifts in society. The economic problems of the working middle class can’t be solved by racism or immigrant bashing.

How to push back? The new backlash, like the old ones, requires a mass response. It means building a broad united front — ideologically, politically and otherwise — among all ethnic groups, labor unions, and traditional civil rights groups.

ATC 129, July-August 2007