By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
In the context of the responses to the lynchings of African Americans by police and racist citizenry, greater and much needed attention has been focused on the question of race and racism in the U.S. Particular attention has been raised about the historic and current oppression and demonization of African Americans, i.e., anti-Black racism. While this awareness is critical, we must at the same time recognize that the racism which we have encountered since the origins of this country is integrally linked to the larger system of racial capitalism.
“Race,” that is the artificial division of humanity based on manufactured inferiority and superiority, was imposed on North America and Latin America by European colonists/invaders, beginning in the 16th century. Such a division had not previously existed but became an essential means to guarantee that the settler-colonies could sustain themselves in two respects. First, there was a need for an oppressed workforce to perform all of the tasks necessary to make the colonies thrive, in the interests – of course – of the colonial elites.
Second, given the numbers of laboring people in the colonies, compounded by the existence of Native Americans who were resisting the invasion of their lands, the colonial elite had to find a way to pit the laboring population, along with the Native Americans, against one another. In that moment, during the 1500s in Latin America and beginning in the 1600s in North America, race was born as an essential element of how capitalism came to work.
Race and racism has created a social hierarchy that has successfully pitted groups against one another. In Latin America, this hierarchy is extremely complex: there are divisions of humanity into myriad of groups, depending on the amount and extent of European, Native American, African and mixed blood someone has. In North America, the British were not so much interested in the future of mixed blood people. They, and later the U.S., were interested in removing Native Americans (from their land and from the Earth); keeping people of African descent suppressed; annexing and ultimately suppressing the people of northern Mexico; and turning vast numbers of Asians into quasi-indentured servants.
Migrants from Europe, over time, became “White,” that is, they were admitted into the club that gave them advantages over anyone of color, advantages such as gun ownership, a different relationship with law enforcement, a better chance at housing, jobs, etc., though no guarantee of either success or wealth.
None of this is to minimize what African Americans have experienced. Rather, we need to put this all into a larger context. Police violence against African Americans, for instance, has been mirrored by the police violence experienced by Chicanos and Native Americans since the 19th century. East Asians were, for years, locked into “Chinatowns,” “Japantowns,” and “Manilatowns,” where criminal activity was encouraged by White society and economic opportunities for advancement were limited, at best.
As we build movements such as #BlackLivesMatter we need to recognize that we do not stand alone in the face of racism and White supremacy. The racial hierarchy ironically helps us to identify potential allies against injustice.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the host of The Global African on Telesur-English. He is a racial justice, labor and global justice activist and writer. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.