A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin, ” they explain
And the Negro’s name
Is used, it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
— Bob Dylan, 1964.
What are the origins of racial consciousness? Recent comments by our president make finding answers to this question urgent. Historians generally agree that humans lived for millennia without thinking about race. There is little evidence of concern for the color of a person’s skin until about 1400 AD. Race consciousness and racism began with the colonial enterprise of Europeans in the 15th century. Before 1400, Europeans did not think of themselves as white. Such a thought would have made no sense. Their identities were shaped by larger forces of national, religious, local, or linguistic patterns or personal ones like gender, sex, family, age, or occupation.
But in the context of the Americas, where Europeans sought to expropriate land (from brown people) and labor (from brown and black people), the idea of race and the scourge of racism emerged. We are the inheritors of that colonial project. The legacies of slavery and westward expansion have profoundly shaped our lives. So much so that they have become the very air we breathe.
Out of slavery, Americans constructed a system of racism that let white workers ride in the front of the bus, but did nothing to help them afford their bus tickets.
Slavery challenged the idea that labor, physical labor, on the farm or in the city, was worthy of wages. The United States was the only country in which slavery expanded with the industrial revolution. Slavery jeopardized the independence of working and farm families and devalued work.
White workers and farmers, struggling with new economic realities, often opposed slavery as an assault on the dignity of labor, even as they considered themselves superior to enslaved Africans. Abraham Lincoln counted on the votes of white men who opposed the extension of slavery into “the west” while favoring laws that prohibited black migration into their states or denied black men the right to vote.
This legacy of racism haunts American efforts to birth a progressive populism. President Donald Trump offers the superior feelings of a racially charged nationalism while providing tax cuts for the rich and attempting to take away affordable health insurance from the working poor. Trump promises to “make America great again” by deporting the people who grow and prepare our food, care for our elders, worship in our churches, and play with our children.
Real populism seeks social and economic justice for all. Real populists know better than to expect justice from billionaires and bosses.
Let’s celebrate hopeful periods
We will never achieve greatness by resurrecting an imagined past. Instead, let’s celebrate hopeful periods from our history. After slavery ended, we amended our Constitution and passed legislation to prohibit discrimination based on race while white and black citizens created the first public schools in the South. In the 1960s, a coalition of Republicans and Democrats passed laws (the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act) to give meaning to the work of Reconstruction.
Real populism will emerge when we elect candidates from the American working class — women, men, rural, urban, white, Latinx, black, Asian, indigenous, immigrant, native born, straight, and LGTBQ — citizen workers that unashamedly advance the interests of all Americans.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren put it this way: “I say we can care about a dad who’s worried that his kid will have to move away from their factory town to find good work – and we can care about a mom who’s worried that her kid will get shot during a traffic stop.
“The way I see it, those two parents have something deep down in common — the system is rigged against both of them — and against their kids.”
The late Sen. Paul Wellstone also pointed the way forward: “We all do better when we all do better!”
Jeff Kolnick is a professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University. This essay was written in partnership with the Tom SenGupta Forum and the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg University.
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