restricted access 54 Stirring the Ashes: Race, Class, and the Future of Civil Rights Scholarship
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54 Stirring the Ashes: Race, Class, and the Future of Civil Rights Scholarship FRANCES LEE ANSLEY The /I class model" of white supremacy portrays it as a means to justify and enhance class dominance and thus to strengthen existing relations of economic power. This function gives racism its central status in American political life and assures its survival . This is the source of racism's strength and resilience. The class model addresses how, in a white supremacist system, the poor people of all races come out on the short end while the people of the dominant classes appear to extract extraordinary benefits. The "class domination model" sees racism as an economic tool of the dominant classes, assuring the existence of a reserve army of labor. Minorities are forced into a marginal underclass , cutting them off from their natural class allies and making them vulnerable to abuses and economic manipulation. This system of super-exploitation sanctions extra profit and creates an underclass that can be summoned, moved, or rebuffed almost at will, thereby facilitating the mobility of capital and improving the system's ability to control and channel investment. Economic realities such as the great migrations of black labor earlier in this century, the marginal character of many black jobs, the high unemployment among minorities , and the low wages of many people of color support this picture of white supremacy. The class domination model also has a "political face," which posits that white supremacy not only allows super-exploitation of blacks, but also blocks potential class-based action by splitting the working class. Exploited classes divided against each other have less power compared to the relatively united exploiting classes. The constant reminder to whites that others are willing to work for less makes minority workers a helpful instrument of discipline to be used against their relatively privileged white counterparts. Concrete historical examples confirm this divide-and-conquer pattern. The frequent use of blacks as strike-breakers during Jim Crow days and the well-known contributions of racism to breaking unions in the South and elsewhere are two instances where this dynamic operates. As changes have occurred in our economy and in public opinion, civil rights scholars have found cause for both hope and fear. A deep shift away from industrial production, increasing automation, and a decrease in the domestic demand for unskilled labor are making the old economic uses of racial oppression look less and less functional. The effectiveness of race as a dividing wedge has not disappeared, but changed. For example, overt bigotry, despite its resilience and undeniable presence, has suffered significant blows in popular consciousness as a result of the civil rights struggle. 74 CORNELL L. REV. 993 (1989). Copyright © 1989 by Cornell University. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Cornell University and Fred B. Rothman & Company. Copyrighted Material 328 Frances Lee Ansley Meanwhile, the costs of racism to our system have dramatically increased since the close of World War II. These costs include domestic unrest and damage to our national prestige in a post-Nazi, Cold War, and decolonizing world. The fate of blacks in this country has been an international question since the America~ slave trade began, but we have often lost sight of that dimension. Civil rights scholars have noted these changes and have drawn different conclusions about them. Adolph Reed recognizes the altering landscape but still pictures economic realities as the driving force behind race policy. Sidney Willhelm sees the change in economic conditions as evidence of a worse fate for blacks who, rather than being liberated, are now expendable: "[B]lack labor is no longer necessary to economic needs of capitalism or for the state economy; black people are increasingly becoming superfluous.... [T]here is no white need for blacks.... [We are now confronted with] an economy of uselessness."} On the other hand, some civil rights scholars have found hope in the changing geopolitical pressures and in the rising costs of white supremacy to those in power. For example, the NAACP argued to the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education2 that visible race remediation would help the United States defeat Communism in the war "for the hearts and minds of Third World people...."3 Their arguments clearly expressed the hope that racism and our economic system could be uncoupled, and that such an uncoupling would serve the long-term interests of the existing order. At any rate, a number of developments challenge the class domination model. Traditional benefits of white supremacy...