Marxist theory rests on the assumption that white workers do not benefit from a system of white supremacy. Indeed, Marx argued of slavery, the most oppressive of all systems of exploitation, “In the United States of America, every independent workers’ movement was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured part of the republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”19from Arizona’s Rancid History » Counterpunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names:
Marx was not alone in assuming that racism, by dividing the working class along ideological lines, harmed the class interests of both white and Black workers. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass stated unambiguously of slaveholders, “They divided both to conquer each.”20 Douglass elaborated, “Both are plundered and by the same plunderers. The slave is robbed by his master, of all his earnings above what is required for his physical necessities; and the white man is robbed by the slave system, because he is flung into competition with a class of laborers who work without wages.”21
Capitalism forces workers to compete with each other. The unremitting pressure from a layer of workers—be they low-wage or unemployed—is a constant reminder that workers compete for limited jobs that afford a decent standard of living. The working class has no interest in maintaining a system that thrives upon inequality and oppression.
Indeed, all empirical evidence shows quite the opposite. When the racist poll tax was passed in the South, imposing property and other requirements designed to shut out Black voters, many poor whites also lost the right to vote. After Mississippi passed its poll tax law, the number of qualified white voters fell from 130,000 to 68,000.22
The effects of segregation extended well beyond the electoral arena. Jim Crow segregation empowered only the rule of capital. Whenever employers have been able to use racism to divide Black from white workers, preventing unionization, both Black and white workers earn lower wages. This is just as true in recent decades as it was 100 years ago. Indeed, as Shawki points out of the 1970s, “In a study of major metropolitan areas Michael Reich found a correlation between the degree of income inequality between whites and Blacks and the degree of income inequality between whites.”23 The study concluded:But what is most dramatic—in each of these blue-collar groups, the Southern white workers earned less than Northern Black workers. Despite the continued gross discrimination against Black skilled craftsmen in the North, the “privileged” Southern whites earned 4 percent less than they did. Southern male white operatives averaged…18 percent less than Northern Black male operatives. And Southern white service workers earned…14 percent less than Northern Black male service workers.”24Racism against Blacks and other racially oppressed groups serves both to lower the living standards of the entire working class and to weaken workers’ ability to fight back. Whenever capitalists can threaten to replace one group of workers with another—poorly paid—group of workers, neither group benefits.
Thus, the historically nonunion South has not only depressed the wages of Black workers, but also lowered the wages of Southern white workers overall—and prevented the labor movement from achieving victory at important junctures. So even in the short term the working class as a whole has nothing to gain from oppression.
...consciousness is a changing, not static, phenomenon. The dynamic is such that workers’ objective circumstances are always in conflict with bourgeois ideology, as evidenced by the exceptional instances of multiracial unity even in the South during Jim Crow.
Roediger’s analysis misses this active dynamic of class struggle central to Marxist theory—in which workers’ objective class interests collide with “the ideas of its ruling class.” New Orleans workers demonstrated the volatility of this dynamic, in a racially united general strike in 1892, followed by murderous race riots in 1900, and then a successful union struggle of white and Black workers in 1907. Marx described in the Communist Manifesto: “This organization of proletarians into a class…is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier.”27
Much as the Knights of Labor contradicted itself by campaigning against Chinese immigration while welcoming women, Blacks, and most other immigrant workers into its folds, individual workers also hold contradictory ideas inside their own heads. Workers are neither dupes nor romantic heroes, but active agents in a process of determining their genuine class interests.
The statistics below show the shift in public opinion between the late 1950s and the 1960s, as the Civil Rights Movement grew:
In 1958, fully 94 percent of respondents to a Gallup Poll opposed interracial marriages. In 1959, 53 percent said that the Brown decision “caused more trouble than it was worth.” By 1964, 62 percent supported a law to guarantee blacks "the right to be served in any retail store, restaurant, hotel or public accommodation," according to a Harris survey. Only one in five said they sided with Alabama authorities when police broke up a protest march in Selma in 1965. By 1964, a majority of the U.S. population said they supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act and opposed segregation laws. By 2003, 73 percent said they approved of interracial marriage and 90 percent said they would be willing to vote for a Black presidential candidate."