Fear, white supremacy, and wokeness: Ruling-class ideology in crisis

BY:Joel Wendland-Liu| July 12, 2021
Fear, white supremacy, and wokeness: Ruling-class ideology in crisis


Republican politicians and media personalities despise people who are conscious of systemic oppression and exploitation. They dismiss and mock such people as “woke” and are threatening to use whatever state power is available to punish them. Three recent liberal responses to this steady drumbeat toward fascism could be collectively titled, “How to Sit on a Fence: Parts 1–3.”

Since 2019 Republican Party personalities have become emotionally invested in denouncing the publication of the New York Times’s 1619 Project. Their anger and obsession with that attempt to explore new ways of understanding the odious history of white enslavement of Africans as a central pillar of capitalistic development is only part of the story. These same people were deeply shaken by demands from Black people during the first wave of #BlackLivesMatter protests in 2014 (and even more profoundly after last year) demanding a reckoning with systemic racism in public safety and ending the commemoration of the traitors who fought to preserve slavery. Republicans feared such demands could weaken white supremacy generally.

GOP voices fear admitting this particular anxiety out loud, despite how hard Republican Party boss Donald Trump has worked to make open support for white supremacy possible. Instead, they are trying to invent a fable as U.S. history with the 1776 report and the 1836 project, along with attacks on people who use critical race theory, echoing the 1990s denunciations of “political correctness,” affirmative action, multiculturalism, and gay marriage.

Trump’s 1776 report was demonstrably non-factual. And Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s 1836 project has prompted little more than new examinations of the overt imperialist land grab and subsequent war to protect racist slavery that led to the founding of the Texas Republic. At bottom, U.S. migrants to Mexico were angry that the Mexican government sought to enforce its laws, including and especially the abolition of slavery.

Worse, Kansas politicians have demanded lists of university courses that teach critical race theory, with the aim of punishing or silencing those who teach it. Republican-controlled Florida wants university students and faculty to register their political opinions with the state. In another ongoing project, Republican Party billionaire donors have created “news” websites such as “Campus Reform” that pay college students to tell on their liberal-minded professors under the guise of being journalists. Stories they collect or invent often lead to violent and abusive threats against those professors.

Ironically, right-wing indignation over “cancel culture” and emotion-laden rants against critical race theory are deliberate reactions against the upsurge of anti-racist sentiment and action that swelled in the streets in 2020. Violent police reactions and Trump’s fascistic responses to those protests did nothing to quell that surge. We saw a renewed desire by millions of people to come to terms with systemic racism, to root it out, and to reset the country’s course. This new sentiment has not only caused many Republican politicians and donors to quake, but it seems also to have dazed some liberals, like our three authors.


Fear of losing supremacy

The stakes in this conflict could not be higher. Will the U.S. finally find ways to allow the one-third of its people who have been subjected to violent and systemic white supremacy, finally, a breath of the fresh air of full political, social, and economic equality? Will white supremacy use the threat (or reality) of fascism to restore itself to full-spectrum dominance? What about the connection of white supremacy to capitalism — how far will we need to go to end exploitative class processes that rely on racism to function? Calls to justly answer these questions cause people like Tucker Carlson, Mitch McConnell, and billionaire Betsy DeVos to wake up in a cold sweat deep in the night.

The people are screaming “give us justice,” while the political system grinds away, unable to extract itself from the grip of millionaire senators who lecture us that “we have more to lose” from change.

How do our three liberal thinkers respond? In a recent book, journalist George Packer denounced all sides, offering only the standard bourgeois-democratic mythology as a solution to the crisis. (You can read lengthy excerpt from the book here.) In the process, he flubs history, ignores the reality of capitalism’s exploitative processes, and diminishes the harm of systemic white supremacy. For example, he asserts variously that “white Christian nationalism” is simply another competing ideological stance, that the Great Recession was the beginning of economic anxiety that fueled the likes of Trump, that the struggle for a “Just America” began around 2014, that the people who seek justice are “overeducated,” that people who represent “real America” are the working class (which he racializes as white), and that “identity politics” was invented in 1977. The tiresome myths abound and are too numerous to address here.

Packer names four categories of people that compete for dominance in U.S. civil society: “Free America,” “Smart America,” “Real America,” and “Just America.” He labels each a “tribe” to invoke the ahistorical notion that each functions in the way in which we are used to thinking of “tribes,” as backward, uncivilized, irrational, and divisive. This appeal to social Darwinian language aside, his assertion, his big discovery in this article, is that these factions are new and equally dangerous. In doing so, Packer positions each of the narratives as equally threatening to freedom and true American values (not that he borrows this trite platitude from the right-wing or anything like that). Trump’s fascistic orientation, Sarah Palin’s cynical appeals to “white Christian nationalism,” Tucker Carlson’s repulsive rants about “anti-White mania” dragging us to become like Rwanda, and Sen. Tom Cotton’s repugnant belief that racist slavery was necessary are moral equivalents of #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, the 1619 Project, and just about any other call for a radical disruption of systemic racism or sexism. Not to mention the demand that those systems be replaced with full social and economic equality. “America is neither a land of the free and home of the brave nor a bastion of white supremacy,” Packer insists. He dismisses both the 1619 Project and the 1776 Project as equally bad narratives that do not inspire him.

This “a pox on all your houses” approach to today’s culture wars is echoed by Yale historian David W. Blight, who extensively quotes Packer’s ideas in the New Yorker. While Blight endorses the more complex and thorough historical research at the heart of the 1619 Project, he, too, obliquely dismisses it by implying that it is imprecise (apparently forgetting that his own profession is inherently subject to revision). He suggests correcting history this way may “feed right-wing conspiracists a language that they are waiting to seize.” His dismissal actually appears to do the work of the right-wing conspiracists for them. It certainly ignores the reality that the right will “seize” any critical historical account and declare it a betrayal of American values.

Princeton historian Matthew Karp also pursues this logic for Harper’s. After exposing the crude and whitewashed narrative at the heart of the 1776 Project, Karp gives a hearing to critics of one of the 1619 Project’s arguments. Nikole Hannah-Jones, 1619 Project creator (and Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur “genius” grant awardee), argued, in essence, that one of the motivations for the 1776 revolution was that many leading colonials in North America feared that the British government aimed to abolish slavery, making independence necessary to preserve the capital and labor basis of their wealth.

Karp refers to several historians but specifically names two — Eric Williams and Christopher Brown — to dismiss the thesis. He notes that these two historians regarded British abolitionism as a marginal social movement. In making this claim, Karp appears to level devastating evidence against the slavery-as-cause thesis. By naming these two scholars — Williams, an Afro-Caribbean subject of British colonialism and the British cultural historian Brown — Karp seems to offer authoritative “insider” accounts of British politics.

This assertion, however, doesn’t fully explain away the slavery-as-cause argument. A fear of abolition leading to a break with the metropole need not be based on a true or accurate picture of British politics. As award-winning historian Gerald Horne has written in his book The Counterrevolution of 1776, which wields large amounts of documentary evidence, white fears of London’s “seeming” steps toward abolition were matched only by their ongoing anxiety about annihilation at the hands of the people they had enslaved. Fear as a motive for action need not always be founded on real events.

London had already banned slavery in the homeland, and growing concern about the negative role of racial slavery in the empire’s international conflicts created pause about the viability of the institution. A fear that abolitionist trends would redound to their material disadvantage (along with London’s limits on the colonial desire to launch invasive conflicts on Native lands) drove the political motives of many independence seekers. Indeed, loyalists were more inclined to hold anti-slavery views and to critique the hypocrisy and brutality of the abhorrent system. In the case of British abolition, the evidence shows that genuine steps to curtail, limit, and end the repulsive slave system had been taken.

Horne’s primary and secondary evidence for his argument is fairly extensive and available in hundreds of footnotes. The companion book to Counterrevolution, Negro Comrades of the Crown, as well as two prequels, The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism and The Dawning of the Apocalypse, and three related books, Confronting Black Jacobins, Race to Revolution, and The Deepest South, further document these and closely related themes.


Racism and original sin

Karp follows his shaky counter-argument by juggling a handful of metaphors ineptly. He disapproves of the 1619 Project’s reference to slavery as “original sin” and as something in our national “DNA.” Various essays in the 1619 Project use these metaphors to ask their readers to understand how slavery and white supremacy shaped the historical development and current conditions of U.S. capitalism, politics, and social institutions. Karp believes, however, that these metaphors construct history as an unchanging, static narrative that militates against notions of progress. He fears students will develop wrong-headed ideas about how history works. I can assure Karp, and others, that after teaching numerous 1619 Project essays in multiple courses, students are not the simpletons that policymakers and pundits insist they are. They are deeply interested in critically thinking about the details and implications of this new approach to this country’s history. They can study difficult metaphors that challenge their received ideas of U.S. history without losing their capacity for critical thought.

As any Christian theologian or biologist will tell you, these metaphors don’t deny the reality of social change. Indeed, the “original sin” and the DNA metaphors also reference optimism about the possibility that horrific abuses can be ended. Change may occur under the revolutionary circumstances of a single event such as the crucifixion of Christ or the disastrous introduction of toxins or disease into an environment. Or they can change through the day-to-day process of seeking redemption or in natural evolutionary mutations.

Change may produce differences without social progress, however. A Christian may promise her pastor on Sunday to follow Jesus’s command to love her neighbor, but show her hate for the poor on Monday. In this vein, Malcolm X, speaking on reform and gradualism, notably wondered how anyone could consider the partial removal of a knife from someone’s back as progress. Too many participants in today’s culture wars are content with leaving the knife partially in the back of the oppressed and exploited while expressing satisfaction with progress. Some want to push it back in deeper.


Crisis of ruling class ideology

Packer’s “Four Americas” thesis is catchy, and it is earning him some money from book sales. But it reveals something more fundamental about American society than he is willing to admit. The crisis of racial capitalism is exposed by the ruling class’s inability these days to control the narrative that defines American values. Capitalism has been failing for some time, and larger numbers of Americans are coming around to see it. For six decades, capitalism has failed to match its earlier growth, innovative and dynamic development, ability to effectively manage the world system through imperialism, and its military might.

Comparatively, over the last 25 years China’s growth rates have overshadowed U.S. growth rates. From another angle, the liberalization of the Russian economy after 1991 led to shrinking growth rates similar to the general average of the global South. It hasn’t yet returned to anywhere near the Soviet era’s economic output, putting the lie to the inherent advantage of capitalism. While China has alleviated extreme poverty for 800 million of its people and successfully fought the COVID pandemic, the U.S. political system couldn’t mobilize a coherent national response to the pandemic, leading to the deaths of at least 600,000 of our neighbors and loved ones. In fact, the U.S. appears unable to manage a necessary response to worsening economic problems.

In my lifetime, the mythological unending economic improvement of U.S. life has proven false. Rates of profit and capital value depend more on bookkeeping tricks like stock buybacks, financial speculation, deeper rates of exploitation (consider the $7.25 minimum wage), and the gutting of social services driven by tax privileges for the rich.

Because of white supremacy — the original sin — deepening exploitation hits hardest in communities of color, where rates of poverty, unemployment, lack of adequate access to healthy food, healthcare, and education endure. Almost three of four people trapped in the injustice system are people of color, while cops kill Black people at twice the rate at which they kill white people. Cultural and physical genocide appears to be a primary function of U.S. social institutions. The American values that have created and perpetuated this reality are the ones that social justice warriors wielding the tools of critical race theory seek to destroy.

Packer’s reading of the competing narratives serves at least one useful purpose. It reveals fault lines in the ruling class’s ability to use a coherent ideological system that draws support from various social forces to give it legitimacy. The proper function of a unified narrative about “American values” is to hide the dominant power of the ruling class behind stories about equality, justice, and merit universalized as the experience or potential experience of any American. Packer mourns the loss of this function and laments the negative role of all players in the breakdown of ruling ideas.

The people must reimagine and reconstruct a “Real and Just America.” Let’s reject Packer’s false claim that (white) workers make up the (white) “Real America.” Such racist distortions seem to deny that 8 of 10 people of color are essential in the working class. Stop propping up the myth of white working class. A multi-racial, multi-gendered, multi-national class of essential workers — nurses and medical techs, teachers, retail workers, autoworkers, drivers, dockworkers, IT specialists, public employees, agricultural, and food-processing workers — are also social justice warriors, critical race theorists, multiculturalists, and woke. They are not “overeducated” or economically privileged, but rather are smart, real, and just. And they are demanding real freedom.

Packer’s narrow idea of “Real America” isn’t much different from Trump’s. Trump depended on the overt exploitation of white racism and an objectively un-democratic electoral system in 2016 to win. Since then, he and his cronies have sought to reinforce the alignment of capitalist and non-capitalist class forces by giving his agenda a working-class face. To do so, he deployed the same myth, identifying whites as “hard-working Americans” and, ironically, “tax-paying Americans,” etc. His aim was (and is) to elevate a racialized section of “Real America” — which is generally declining in numerical advantage and political power — to a pseudo-ruling position alongside capitalist masters.

Trump took the strategy into the realm of fascism. From the moment he took office, he drew his party closer to extremist elements: the militias, neo-Confederates, and other neo-fascist elements. His intent was to align the far-right, nationalist, and militaristic sections of the ruling class more closely with white supremacist inclinations that flourish among whites in the petty bourgeoisie and infect parts of the working class. Intent on his restoration to power after a humiliating defeat, his allies are using voter suppression along with demonizing their opponents as dangerous “anti-white” radicals to re-mobilize whites.

There is no reason for liberals to play footsy with this strategy out of deference to making too-clever-by-half points about the 1619 Project or out of fear they too may have to adjust themselves to an egalitarian society.

The U.S. ruling class’s theory of democracy is demonstrably contradictory and hypocritical. A 20-year war in Afghanistan, for what? Nearly as long in Iraq? A criminally inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic? The reality that banks are too big to fail, while the vast suffering millions are too small to notice? Who could ever believe that an inability to address — let alone the deliberate intention to worsen — poverty, racism, sexism, environmental destruction, homophobia, and transphobia are democratic impulses? The system has no more cover stories. This fundamental truth is what Packer and friends are detecting but unable to see clearly.

Packer and friends insist on defining a center, a single national narrative that retains civility. With it, however, they seek to avoid a necessary struggle for liberation by the most oppressed and exploited.

Packer and friends are, as Bob Dylan might say, sitting on a barbed-wire fence.

Image: Don Sniegowski (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).


    Joel Wendland-Liu teaches in higher education. He uses critical race theory and Marxism in his research and award-winning teaching. He is the author of The Collectivity of Life and numerous scholarly articles. He is a member of the AAUP and is deemed “dangerous” by Campus Watch, a right-wing, pro-white supremacy blog that is funded almost completely by right-wing billionaires and millionaires who control the Republican Party.

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