Buenos Aires. The Katrina disaster exposed the lies of Bush’s doctrine of “total security”. As it has been repeatedly stated in progressive circles in the past weeks, it became blatantly clear that the government was all too ready to protect the people’s safety against terrorism after September 11, only because that was useful for their plans to launch a war for oil and world supremacy. But Katrina showed that Bush was not interested in security per se: or, didn’t he take a long nap before he sent some help to the people of New Orleans? Didn’t he budget on disaster-control provisions?
After the disaster, the leaders of the Afro-American community strongly denounced that those people had not been protected before the hurricane happened, nor helped after it did, only because they were black. These allegations sparked a heated debate in the press: We all know that racism is still there in the US, but is it possible that it remains so strong as to make the President “forget” about thousands of (black) lives?
Quite expectedly, Republicans denied those accusations, by pointing out their many African-Americans and Latinos in high posts, etc. What was more unexpected, at least to me, was to see the mayor of New Orleans arguing that it wasn’t a case of racism. His voters, he argued, were discriminated against not because they are black, but because they are poor. Indeed, the fact that the government first sent soldiers to protect private property, and only later to aid the population, seems to point to that conclusion.
The mayor’s intervention in that debate was rather perplexing. If he was defending the government from charges of racism, Was he then implying that, had it “only” been a case of class discrimination, the deaths would have been more “acceptable”? Does he believe that those people were poor and also black for some curious coincidence?
In his own strange way, the mayor is right. It is a matter of class. What is wrong is to believe that, for that reason, it was not a matter of race.
The mayor’s way of making sense of the disaster, and also the arguments the Republicans use to defend themselves from allegations of racism, are still caught in the old, delusive conceptualization of racism and class. According to the traditional way to understand race issues, racism is about constructing binary, biological oppositions (white/colored) and ascribing to each completely different attributes. Thus, if white are constructed as superior and coloured as inferior, then whites have the right to exclude and dominate the coloured. Unlike the biological construction of race differences, class differences were (and still are) usually perceived as somewhat less “unfair”, if only because poor people always have the chance to overcome poverty; in other words, they are not excluded for ever due to some inborn characteristic.
As the Condoleezas find their way into power, and some individuals of minority groups actually acquire wealth and even social status, it gives the impression that, albeit slowly, racism is fading away. African-Americans, after all, are no longer excluded due to their skin color. This moderately optimistic conclusion, however, fails to see that class and race do not constitute two alternative systems of difference, but function interwoven in the same symbolic system devised by capitalism. Indeed, for all its racist implications, the narrative of capitalism as “Western civilization” never excluded the “inferior races” completely.
On the contrary, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have argued in their seminal Empire, modern racism operated by ordering racial differences according to their degree of deviation with regard to the white/wealthy/educated man. Thus, “deviant” characteristics were differentially integrated in a gradient of proximity and remoteness from (white/wealthy/educated) “normality”. But the most important function of modern racism, from the viewpoint of bourgeois ideology, was not so much to keep biological types apart by means of strong binary oppositions (white/coloured), as to use racial differences to produce social hierarchies.
Relationships of power and exploitation can be instituted and reinforced through different devices, racial hierarchies and prejudice being one of them. And there is no need to remember here the role that racism played in the organization and legitimization of two of the most important episodes in the making of capitalism: colonialism and the reintroduction of slavery. But racism, unfortunately, is not something of the past alone. A somewhat different type of racism still performs a similar function today. This “new racism” is not based on essentialist biological assumptions – most people would accept today that all races are “equal”- but has reframed the distinctions between peoples as “cultural” or “social” differences.
Seemingly less essentialist, these alleged “cultural” distinctions permit the ordering of differences in more flexible hierarchies (that is, hierarchies that do not imply that those below cannot but be there), but nevertheless help to institute capitalist domination and exploitation. Thus, for example, the policies of African countries are to a great extent designed by Western institutions, while African Americans still occupy the bottom layer of society -two facts curiously resembling the times of colonialism and slavery.
Yet, no one would argue today that that is because black people are biologically inferior: their present subaltern situation is only due to “social” or “cultural” causes. Theoretically, there is no impediment to their becoming autonomous or doing as well as their other (white/wealthy/educated) fellow humans: it is just that they are incapable or less capable at the moment. In this way, cultural and sociological signifiers have taken the place of the old biological ones in the construction of social hierarchies that, however, still have an unmistakable racial component.
Leaving the most irritant biological categories behind, class ideology still employs race as a way to create distinctions and construct social hierarchies. In the social hierarchies that capitalism and bourgeois ideology invents and constantly rebuilds, biological, cultural, national, or social differences may overlap and to some extent be interchangeable. The mayor of New Orleans was right and wrong at the same time: the death and suffering of his constituency was due to their class, but also (and for the very same reason) to their color.