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The GOP’s “Southern Strategy” Shows How White Supremacy Fuels Class Exploitation

A deliberately created racial hierarchy makes poor whites align with the superrich against their own interests.

Anti-racist protesters raise fists toward supporters of the Confederacy at the Alamance County Courthouse at a rally with the Burlington-Alamance March For Justice and Community in Graham, North Carolina, on July 11, 2020.

Starting in the early 1970s, the Republican Party began to draw voters away from the Democrats by appealing to racism and racial anxiety in the electorate; Republicans called it their “Southern Strategy.” By 2000, with the presidency of George W. Bush, the Republican Party (and the U.S.) had been taken over by people who celebrate and emulate the Old South plantation system of social control — a rigid hierarchy featuring dominance of whites over people of color, of men over women, of humans over the natural world, and of violence and militarism over relationship-building and negotiation, with rich white men asserting unquestioned authority. Republicans then drove moderates out of the party.

Sara Robinson, who documented this history in 2012, concluded, “We’re now living in an America where rampant inequality is accepted, even celebrated. Torture and extrajudicial killing have been reinstated, with no due process required. The wealthy and powerful are free to abuse employees, break laws, destroy the commons, and crash the economy — without ever being held to account.” Under this regime, the rich continually grow richer and the poor poorer, while the middle class grows steadily more insecure, demoralized, angry and often resentful. The rich feed white working-class and middle-class resentment by arguing that the government is taking white people’s “hard-earned money” and handing it to “undeserving” people of color. By this means, the rich convince many working-class whites to oppose social welfare programs and thus harm their own economic interests.

Why would white working-class and small-business people (some Tea Partiers, for example) vote against their own interests to keep billionaires in charge? It’s a fair question because the difference is stark between what the U.S. population wants and what Republicans in Congress aim to deliver.

About two-thirds (64 percent) of the public favor a wealth tax on the superrich. Republicans oppose it. More than 80 percent of the public favors more federal aid for states, localities and workers, which Republicans in Congress oppose.

Sixty percent of the people support stricter controls on guns; Republicans in Congress say “No way.” Two-thirds of voters favor the most recent $3 trillion “Heroes Act” economic stimulus passed by the House — but Republicans in the Senate have, so far, promised to “cast it aside.”

The 2017 Republican proposal to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was supported by only 17 percent of the electorate. The Republican 2017 tax cut was supported by only 30 percent of the people.

“If there’s an idea popular among conservative billionaires and nobody else, Republicans are probably pushing for it now,” political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wrote recently.

How can a major political party, facing a general election on November 3, simply disregard the preferences of large majorities of voters?

Republicans are relying on two techniques — both honed to perfection in the Jim Crow South between 1877 and 1965. The most basic technique is wealthy white overlords taking advantage of everyone else, particularly Black and Native people and other people of color, while providing “psychological income” to exploited white people. The second technique is clever vote suppression.

“Psychological Income” Is a Substitute for Real Income

Psychological income is social status that allows white people to feel superior to people of color. In modern times, this “psychic income” has proven sufficient to retain the loyalty of many white people who are enduring job loss, stagnant wages and frozen prospects for advancement.

Racism has been used to divide and conquer the working class since colonial times. During Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676, white servants and Black slaves joined together to overthrow their local British overlords; they burned Jamestown to the ground. As historian Edmund S. Morgan tells us in American Slavery, American Freedom, the wealthy white Englishmen who then held all political power “had always felt threatened by the danger of a servile insurrection” but now their nightmare came alive.

From then on, the white overclass did what it could to foster white supremacist thinking. They emphasized the concept of “race” in ways no one had before, passing a series of laws that gave special privileges to all whites, including the poorest servant. Soon, whites could carry guns; Blacks could not. Whites could be taught to read; teaching Blacks to read was declared a crime. Whites could testify in court; Blacks could not. Any Black could suffer 30 lashes if he “shall presume to lift up his hand against any Christian. This was a particularly effective provision,” Morgan tells us, “in that it allowed servants to bully slaves without fear of retribution, thus placing them psychologically on a par with masters.”

Racism was then used for the next 340 years to “divide and conquer,” successfully preventing white and Black working-class people from making common cause against their exploitation by the white overclass.

As psychologists would say, rich white people created an “in group” alliance with not-rich white people, in opposition to an “out group” comprising people of color. Till today, the rich can exploit not-rich whites and still retain their loyalty by playing up whites’ sense of superiority to the out-group. Thus not-rich whites get “psychological income” from being told (and telling themselves) they are superior to people of color. Exploited white people even defend the system that is exploiting them.

In his book, Dying of Whiteness, physician Jonathan Metzl describes white people voting against not only their own financial well-being, but also their biological wellbeing. Early in the book he quotes a 41-year-old white man named Trevor, who drove a cab for 20 years until the Hepatitis-C virus and an inflamed liver forced him into retirement and poverty. Because Tennessee had refused to expand Medicaid coverage under Obamacare, Trevor could not afford the medical attention that could save his life, so he was dying a slow, painful death. Yet he still said there was “no way” he would ever support or sign up for Obamacare. The status supposedly conferred by whiteness convinces many whites to harm themselves even unto painful death. They see themselves as “taking one for the team.”

And so, to confront this tangled web of oppression, only an agenda that focuses on uprooting white supremacy entirely will suffice. The “benefits” of whiteness — both mythological and institutional — exist because of a deliberately constructed racial hierarchy that is entrenched in the very foundations of this country. Acknowledging that reality is step one. We can no longer try to appeal to Republican working-class white people by assuming they will get on board with a class-based agenda unless we confront the structural racism that prevents them from aligning themselves with their own well-being.

Black youth organizers are currently leading a movement to defund the police and take on the very roots of anti-Black violence. We all must listen.

We can wonder endlessly why some white people are voting against their own interests — or we can turn our attention to the core of the solution: dismantling the institutions of white supremacy.

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