In fact there was an idea, and the idea was Marxist ...Joan Didion was discussing the women's movement when she wrote those words but it is a sad truth that when progressives join the struggle for the rights of particular groups they often do so for Marxist reasons. Not Marxism in the sense of bringing about communism. It's Marxist in the way the history of the oppression in question is analyzed. No reasonable person is going to argue that racism hasn't been a horrific thing in the history of the USA or that there remains work to be done in decreasing it today. What the creators of this podcast want to do is to get you thinking of the problem in Marxist terms.
John Biewen prepares us for this right at the start of the episode by claiming Americans don't care much about their history. He no sooner makes this claim that he starts to shuffle away from it. And little wonder: the obvious question, "Compared to who?", would devastate his claim. But, the double-shuffle achieves its end and now we're off to do an historical analysis.
That historical analysis, tellingly, begins by brushing off a whole lot of history. We brush right by the already established case of chattel slavery in the Caribbean and the 1619 landing of 20 slaves at Jamestown on board a Dutch ship to move to the much-discussed case of John Punch. And it should be much discussed. It’s one of those stories that makes us nauseous to read it is so horrible. But what should we conclude about “whiteness” from this story?
Here's what we're supposed to conclude.
As we’ll see, the innovations that built slavery American style are inseparable from the construction of whiteness as know it today.That’s the big claim the podcast makes. Don’t think, the claim goes, that emancipation solved anything, that civil rights laws solved anything, so long as “whiteness” exists there can be no justice. These were steps forward but the job isn't complete until we deal with whiteness.
Meanwhile, let's turn back to John Punch.
John Punch an indentured servant ran away in the company of two other indentured servants. All three were caught and brought to court. What happens next is awful
Whereas Hugh Gwyn hath by order from this Board brought back from Maryland three servants formerly run away from the said Gwyn, the court doth therefore order that the said three servants shall receive the punishment of whipping and have thirty stripes apiece. One called Victor, a Dutchman, the other a Scotchman called James Gregory, shall first serve out their times with their master according to their Indentures, and one whole year apiece after the time of their service is expired by their said indentures in recompense of his loss sustained by their absence, and after that service to their said master is expired, to serve the colony for three whole years apiece. And that the third being a negro named John Punch shall serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere.Now, it might seem obvious to you what is awful and why it's awful. It certainly seemed obvious to me: the court assigned a man to perpetual servitude, aka slavery, because of the colour of his skin. This is a true story about racism and oppression that surpasses anything Kafka could have imagined for horror. The podcast sees it as something else.
Biewen tells us that "whether the Judge consciously intended this or not, his decision was a gift to rich landowners”. Notice that qualification; "the consciously intended this or not”, is an admission that there is no evidence that he intended any such thing. There is no evidence that this is anything but a racist decision by a racist judge in a racist colony. Keeping that in mind, let’s have a look the quote from Suzanne Plihcik, Associate Director of the Racial Equity Institute, that immediately follows this telling admission.
The story of race, folks, is the story of labor. They needed a consistent, reliable labor force. And they could not have a consistent, reliable labor force if that labor force was banding together and challenging the authority of the colony.The institution and maintenance of slavery based on race, we're told, was really a move in a larger class struggle. We're told! We're not given anything that looks like evidence for this. The claim is that slavery was a brilliant divide-and-conquer strategy that gave poor-but-free whites a reason to identify with rich slaveowners and not with the people the producers of the podcast want us to think of as their natural allies. The result is a multi-class coalition that supports the economic status quo. That’s a big part of what “whiteness” means.
That argument should remind you of something else. Think of the common progressive complaint that poor whites keep voting against their interests. Another way of understanding that is that poor whites keep voting for their interests as they understand them and not as progressives would define their interests for them. Poor whites insist on seeing themselves as having a shared with others in supporting and maintaining an America they think of as having been great and that can continue to be great or be made great again. For progressives this a problem and the name of the problem is whiteness.
Now you can understand the progressive strategy that this podcast promotes. Whatever might be said about race and racism, “whiteness” is a multi-class coalition that maintains the economic order. The argument is that the real goal of analyzing “whiteness" is to maintain political and economic power. Getting rid of whiteness, really means not getting rid of racism but overthrowing the existing political and economic order.
It follows from this that the more intractable racism is, the better. The goal is to cast racism as an indigestible problem, that is to say, to make it impossible to achieve any progress without substantially changing the political and economic structure of the country. From this episode on, what started as an interesting podcast slowly becomes more and more tedious.
There is, I think, one more interesting point to be made. I said above that the tendency of people both poor and not poor to support the status quo is a big part of what whiteness is for progressives. There is another huge component, however, and this other aspect is where the real problem is. I'll get to that next week.