Class, Race, and the People Between Them
It is no secret that as a society we are as divided as ever. In the news we see young people being shot down in the street for a range of petty offenses or even for no clear reason at all. We see people marginalized for having the gumption to be poor in our supposedly perfect society where everyone who works hard can get rich. These two issues, class and race, are often treated separately, which in my view is a fatal mistake. For the sake of this essay, I will focus on the Americas, however the conclusions presented here can be generalized to the greater world as a whole.
Today we see inextricable parallels between the poor of this world and those of racial minorities. Yet these perfect candidates for unbreakable solidarity divide themselves by race. Why does the white proletariat in the United States and abroad flagrantly vote against its own interest choosing reactionary racist businessmen to represent it in the “democratic” organs of bourgeois capitalist society? The short answer is it doesn’t. The proletariat is not inherently divided and only became as such after a long period of careful manipulation by the various upper classes of society in order preserve their own power. To truly see this, we must first travel to the past.
The first example of racial divisions among the lower class that was without a doubt artificially created was the “Sistema de las Castas,” devised by the Spanish to keep the Americas in check. It gave anyone even born in the Americas (Creoles) less power than Peninsulares, or those born in Spain. But its main feature was its racial constructs. It invented the term mulatto and mestizo, both for mixed races of the Americas(1). So why did the Spaniards do this? Was it because they truly believed that other races were lesser than they? To an extent, this is true, but not in the way one would expect. The debate between Spanish friar Bartolomé de las Casas and Dr. Juan Gines de Sepulveda gives us a view into the Spanish psyche. Despite their disagreements on how the natives should be treated, they did see the Native peoples as lesser, albeit in different ways. Las Casas viewed them not as violent savages, but as a noble however fragile people, while Sepulveda viewed them as a race fit for slavery (2). While this is particularly odious either way, it does prove that the System de las Castas was not constructed for the sole purpose of subjugating a race, because the neither truly viewed the native peoples as threats. So why was it created? Obviously to ensure that the Spanish colonies, which were quite a long way from Spain, did not all of a sudden betray the king. It gave those closer to Spain the most power, and that power diminished as the people became less ethnically Spanish, and therefore father from the crown. The final result is a Latin America deeply divided by race, with those other than the dominant Mestizo and white populations viewed with suspicion, as well as internal suspicion between those groups. It has also created a vestigial system of Native oppression all around the Americas culminating in conflicts like the Mexican civil war, and more recently, the ongoing Zapatista revolution in Chiapas (3).
So what does this have to do with class? After the American Revolution, many more revolutions occurred in Central and South America. But why? After seeing the American bourgeoisie’s success in attaining independence without changing the local social order, the local bourgeoisie, made up of almost entirely Creoles, took the opportunity. Wealthy people like Simón Bolívar took control of the revolutions and cemented themselves as the new rulers of the land (4). It was at this moment that the Creole caste of Spanish society became the rightful landowners in their respective new countries, rather than as caretakers for the Spanish crown. The creoles became the Caudillos. A race structure only created to ensure political dominance morphed into a class structure that persists and is used to subjugate even more people than before.
Take Bacon’s Rebellion as another example. Or rather, look at the reaction to it. Despite the rather reactionary cause of Bacon’s rebellion in 1676, it was supported by the lower classes of both black and white complexions in Virginia. This terrified the upper classes of Virginian society. If a significant enough population of white servants (who were at this time essentially slaves themselves) banded in solidarity with the black slaves, the American bourgeoisie would topple, much like it did in Haiti more than a century later. Recognizing this, the Virginian establishment pardoned most of the white servants, while giving the slaves much harsher sentences (5). This gave the white servants an immediate leg up on their black counterparts. In the immediate aftermath, rights usually only granted to Burgesses were somewhat extended to white servants, further widening the gap between servants and slaves. This lulled the white servant into believing that his grievances were fulfilled. I am brought back to the phrase, as I often am, ‘bread and circuses’. As time went on, this separation continued, eventually growing more complex and ingrained. The policies of segregation in the Twentieth Century have clear roots all the way back to the Seventeenth Century.
It is often said that hate is learned. So when an entire society is hardwired to hate, we must ask ourselves why. How is it that we have come to hate? How is it that entire people groups are forced out of modern society or marginalized away from town centers simply for existing? If we look at this in historical context, it becomes immediately clear that the discriminatory attitudes that have caused so much suffering in the Americas are but modern manifestations of ancient reactionary policies.
So what can be done? Clearly, the only way to release society from these deeply ingrained divisions is to rip the bandage off and move them by force. Revolution is the only way to permanently alter society. It should be explicitly emboldened in the goals of any revolutionary movement or party to emancipate the working classes of all colors and creeds, and to unite the proletariat, taking careful consideration of the historical and purposeful divisions created by the upper classes of a bygone era. The revolution fights not only against the present efforts of the bourgeoisie, but also the lasting consequences of the past efforts. The revolution must fight against all past systems of oppression, in order to attain a future without any.
- Set of Casta Paintings. Ca. 1750. Private Collection, n.p.
- Hanke, Lewis. “The Great Debate at Valladolid, 1550–1551.”.” The Roman Catholic Church in Colonial America: 47–52.
- Cockcroft, James (1992). Mexico: Class Formation, Capital Accumulation, & the State. Monthly Review Press.
- Bolivar, Simon. “Jamiaca Letter.” Letter to an Unk. English Gentleman. 6 Sept. 1815. MS. Kingston, Jamaica.
- Zinn, Howard. “Drawing the Color Line.” A People’s History of the United States. London: Longman, 1980. N. pag. Print.