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The White Republic and the Struggle for Racial Justice

Racial justice forces need to win governing power within the current system and then continue to build the strength to dismantle the racist state and replace it with an antiracist one: fight against the white republic and for antiracist democracy.

A white supremacist coup overthrew the duly elected biracial government of Wilmington, NC in 1898. Here, a group of vigilantes pose in front of the burned-out offices of The Daily Record, a Black newspaper., Wikimedia Commons

Not a day goes by without some reminder of the pervasiveness and persistence of white supremacy in this country – whether the police murder of another unarmed Black person or a new assault on voting rights or civil liberties. “Recognizing that the U.S. is a racist white republic helps ground our understanding that the racist state plays a central role in shaping and enforcing racial capitalism and systemic racism,” Bob Wing contends. In the article that follows, he details the history behind this observation and its strategic implications for our movements’ work going forward, especially the need to replace the racist state with an antiracist state. Over the next several weeks, Organizing Upgrade will be publishing a series of commentaries on this piece, and we invite readers to respond as well.

Far from recoiling at Trump’s failed coup of January 6, the GOP is avidly regrouping around him and launching an even more ruthless campaign of voter disenfranchisement to seize power. The polarization between racist authoritarianism and a multiracial democracy is white-hot.

There are many things that progressives need to do to win this historic fight. One of the less obvious, yet crucial, projects is to sharpen the conceptual understandings that guide our work.

For example, the Black Lives Matter movement, flanked by immigrant and Native struggles, has energized public appreciation of “systemic racism” and renewed Black-led antiracist activism. Among progressives, “racial capitalism” has won an enthusiastic audience as more people realize that U.S. capitalism and racism are inseparable.

As these concepts get popularized, we ought to deepen them and oppose the inevitable attempts to water them down, de-radicalize, divide and de-center the struggle against racism.

THE STATE AND WHITE SUPREMACY

I also believe that our movement needs to more thoroughly digest and strategically act upon the harsh reality that racism is, first and foremost, imposed by white racist political power. In particular, the fight against racism is choked if it does not target white power and its constituent political institutions, especially the institutions that embody and exercise the power of the state.

To help capture this, I will highlight the concept of the “white republic” and discuss its historical basis and strategic implications.

By calling the U.S. a “white republic,” I mean that the U.S. government was, from the very beginning, built by and for whites and as a dictatorship over Black and Native peoples. (It could also be called a “racist state,” which is less provocative but has the same meaning, and I will use them interchangeably.) This is why, for centuries, “American” was nearly synonymous with “white,” while African Americans were bereft “strangers in their own homeland.”

In my view, the “state” (commonly referred to as “government”) is the most potent form that ruling class power takes and wields to fashion the society as a whole in its image and interest. Laws, taxes, and armed forces are its foundations.

However, no ruling class can gain the broad social base needed for stability without forming fairly durable but still changing alliances with other social forces. Governmental laws and institutions incorporate these non-ruling class social forces and become the most potent form of these partnerships.

Thus, the dominant ruling class force of the time and place usually shapes the state. But it is also defined by the unities and contradictions between competing ruling class fractions as well as the agreements and conflicts with major non-ruling class forces, primarily those inside the ruling alliance, and even international forces. The state can also be impacted by those who may challenge it, and even occupied or toppled.

Consequently, when I refer to the U.S. as a white republic, I mean that the dominant ruling class fractions and their main alliance partners have been overwhelmingly white and united by and for the system of white privilege, racist oppression, and settler colonialism throughout its history.

White privilege and racial oppression. White privilege and racial oppression are inherently interconnected, two sides of the same coin. White privilege most famously consists of systemic economic and social benefits denied to non-whites, such as favored access to better jobs, housing, wealth, and education.

These material benefits are augmented by political power (such as the ability to vote and have one’s vote counted and the ability to influence or determine public policy), freedom (versus racist terror and discrimination), police and court protection, and citizenship, not to speak of an enduring sense of cultural and intellectual superiority.

Such privileges vary by class, gender, nativity, and other historical factors. But even today, a household headed by a white non-high school graduate has twice the wealth of a household headed by a Black college graduate. Such a family is also unlikely to suffer from voter disenfranchisement, discrimination, hate speech, or police murder.

Together these privileges constitute a formidable material, ideological, and psychological “white racial interest” and “white identity” that often undercuts the class interests and democratic sensibilities of many white people. White privilege is an indispensable glue that unites many white people of all classes with the ruling class against racial justice. It has also, from the beginning, often given rise to neo-fascist populist movements for white terror and authoritarianism like the one we see today.

Race is pivotal. The now centuries-old racist white cross-class alliance of those who support white power and privilege is central to the U.S. ruling alliance and U.S. state. For much of U.S. history, white racist coalitions dominated both of the main political parties, and there was little difference between them on racial policy. The most apparent exceptions were during the Civil War and Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era to today.

After the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for the first time in U.S. history, the vast majority of the worst racists and reactionaries migrated to one party, the Republican, while most of those left of center, including most voters of color, gravitated to the Democrats. The political and racial polarization between the parties has reached an extreme. Since the 2000 presidential election, it has become evident that the Republicans cannot win without suppressing voters of color, and the Democrats cannot succeed without unleashing those voters.

Race is the pivot of U.S. politics.

STAGES OF GOVERNING POWER

Recognizing that the U.S. is a racist white republic helps ground our understanding that the racist state plays a central role in shaping and enforcing racial capitalism and systemic racism. It helps clarify that the present-day struggle against racist authoritarianism continues a central theme of U.S. history; it’s no temporary aberration. It suggests that we can only win by building a cross-class antiracist alliance powerful enough to divide and defeat the multi-class racist forces that stand in the way of racial, social, economic, and climate justice, peace, and democracy.

It also means that racial justice forces need to win governing power within the current system and then continue to build the strength to dismantle the racist state and replace it with an antiracist one.

Virtually all the government institutions—among them the U.S. Senate, the Electoral College, the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the military, the Federal Reserve, Treasury—were constructed to serve the white republic. Racism and other forms of oppression are built into their missions, assumptions, structure, and functioning.

Struggles to defund the police, abolish ICE and prisons, and transform the Electoral College directly challenge racist state institutions. Efforts to reform these institutions can lead to significant gains, and calling for their immediate abolition is not always the best tactical choice. But we should place specific reform campaigns in the context of a strategic framework that envisions replacing these institutions with a new system of antiracist, social justice institutions.

Such a process promises to be long and complicated, but if we do not set our sights on it now, we will never get there. Unless we ultimately replace most or all state institutions that reinforce and re-embed racism, racial justice will remain a “dream deferred.” Our advances will constantly be subject to racist rollback and restoration within a system that tilts strongly in favor of white supremacy.

Twice before, U.S. movements mounted powerful challenges to the white republic: The Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights period, the Second Reconstruction. Both times the movements won historic advances but ended in the restoration of the racist state.

This time, however, the political conditions are more favorable. A third reconstruction anchored in the fight for racial justice would start us on the path to dismantling white supremacy and be a huge step forward for working class and people’s power. It would thereby lay the basis for ending the entire system of racial capitalism.

The fight against the white republic and for an antiracist democracy is the central democratic and class struggle of our time.

SLAVEHOLDERS LED THE INDEPENDENCE MOVEMENT

More than 150 years before the founding of the most infamous racist state, the apartheid state of South Africa, the U.S. was founded as a white slaveholding settler-colonial state. The new U.S. was an advanced democracy—but for white people only. It was a terroristic dictatorship for Black and Native peoples on whose land and labor the entire enterprise rested. The U.S. was not simply a “democracy with flaws that needed correcting.”

The anti-colonial independence movement in the U.S. was led by slaveholders rather than anti-slavery forces as in former slave colonies such as Haiti and Cuba. U.S. slaveholders’ main elite allies were white merchants, the biggest of whom sold the products of enslaved laborers (tobacco, cotton, rice, sugar) at home and abroad.

Their mass base was the majority of the white population of small farmers and independent tradespeople. These people were free of exploitation and endowed with historically extraordinary political and individual rights, and eyeing even more opportunity to the west.

Consequently, with the invention of the cotton gin and the burgeoning international market for cotton, the country intensified and expanded slavery and the expropriation of Native peoples while strengthening and institutionalizing the power of slaveholders, settler colonialists, and their allies to shape the country as a whole.

The U.S. was founded on federalism that gave states and localities some autonomy, and it was vast in territory compared to its population. Consequently, there were many variations in race relations, what Van Gosse calls a “patchwork nation.” There were class conflicts among whites and radical movements to expand democratic rights, such as the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements. A few states gave limited rights to a few Black property owners.

But even in the places with the most expansive expression of democratic rights, whites were in control. They excluded African Americans and Native peoples from the ruling coalition and the polity.

The Civil War and Reconstruction destroyed slavery and threatened the racist state. The revolutionary 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the Union occupation of the former Confederacy, and disenfranchisement of most former slaveholders, produced the first democratic period in U.S. history.

But in less than fifteen years, a renewed cross-class white consensus for white supremacy and Indian removal decimated Reconstruction. Sharecropping, prison labor, Jim Crow segregation, disenfranchisement enforced by racist terror, lynching, and genocide again excluded Black and Native peoples from the fruits of their land, labor, and rights–and spread to encompass Mexicans and Chinese.

The white republic, now led by northern industrial and finance capitalists instead of slaveholders, was restored and settler colonialism expanded into global imperialism.

CIVIL RIGHTS: THE SECOND RECONSTRUCTION

The U.S. racist state was once again threatened in the 1960s, this time by the Black-led Civil Rights and Black Power movements, flanked by the Chicana/o, Native, and Asian American movements, the anti-Vietnam war and international solidarity movements, white student radicalism, widespread workers’ strikes, and the women’s and gay liberation movements.

These movements won great victories, revitalizing, broadening, and deepening the post-Civil War amendments with the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Immigrant and Nationality Act, and the War on Poverty. They expanded the New Deal to include people of color (though domestic and farmworkers were still excluded from many benefits). It was a Second Reconstruction.

But the Democratic Party leadership’s commitment to the Vietnam War undermined these gains, split the antiracist movement, and opened the way for a rapid Republican-led white backlash. Black enfranchisement could not overcome a 90% white electorate backed by the racist power of the state.

Former McCarthyite Richard Nixon won election in 1968 on a racist law-and-order program. Ronald Reagan consolidated the white cross-class consensus to destroy the antiracist movements and re-enforce white power. These resulted in decades of conservative Republican rule and a fractured, centrist Democratic Party. Nixon and Reagan’s all-out attacks stifled the peoples’ movements.

Colorblindness, meritocracy, privatization, fiscal conservatism, and neo-liberalism became the ideological cloaks for the new corporate racism. The Rainbow Coalition mounted a powerful challenge to Reaganism and Democratic backsliding but could not sustain itself.

Matt Bruenig’s summary of a Federal Reserve study was on point: “Whites are so advantaged that the median wealth among white families headed by someone with less than a high school diploma ($51,300) is larger than that for Black families headed by someone with a college degree ($25,900) and Hispanic families with a college degree ($41,000).” Meanwhile, about two million people are imprisoned, and unarmed African Americans are still being murdered on the streets by police—who usually get off scot-free.

The Civil Rights movement ended the white dictatorship, but the U.S. government is still mainly built for and by white people. Lani Guinier aptly dubbed it “The Tyranny of the Majority.”

NEW CHALLENGES TO THE RACIST STATE

The victories of the 1960s also set in motion two significant developments that would mature into today’s challenge to the racist state. Massive immigration and electoral mobilization among people of color changed the political landscape, starting in the 1990s.

Racial Demographic Change. The de-racialization of immigration policy won in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 as part of the Civil Rights revolution ignited a vast increase in people of color. In 1965 Latinas/os numbered approximately four million and Asians only 1.2 million. Today there are more than 60 million Latinas/os and 18 million Asians in the U.S., along with millions of immigrants and their U.S.-born descendants from the Middle East and Africa.

By the early 1990s, it became common to project that people of color would become the majority of the U.S. population by about 2040.

Electoral alignment in communities of color. Meanwhile, African Americans, Asians, Latinas/os, and Native peoples steadily increased their voter turnout and became more politically aligned as a progressive Democratic bloc. Blacks powered the voter turnout, especially starting in 2000. By 2012 their voter participation eclipsed that of whites for the first time. Latina/o voting grew as millions gained citizenship and communities organized in opposition to the anti-Latina/o, anti-immigrant Republican politicians in California in the 1990s and nationally since.

Asian Americans have transformed from a majority Republican vote in the mid-1990s into a 70% Democratic vote. Arab and Native voter groups report heavy Democratic voting and claim that Arabs were a key to flipping Michigan and Native voters helped to win Arizona in 2020.

Energized by alarm over the Republican election fraud in the 2000 presidential race, opposition to the (second) war in Iraq, burgeoning economic inequality, and the Great Recession, a vigorous progressive movement among whites joined the new people of color electoral alignment. This emerging “new majority” scored its first big victory in Barack Obama’s election in 2008.

Together, these changes lay the basis for a Third Reconstruction—a challenge to the white republic that could be more powerful and durable than the first and second reconstructions.

The white right fights back. The modern far right, founded in the early 1960s to reestablish white supremacy in the wake of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, grasped the political implications of these changes and moved more quickly than the progressive forces. Already galvanized by their near-defeat in 2000, they began to reorganize to preserve the white republic within hours of Obama’s election.

The far right decided they must seize the Republican Party from the traditional conservative elite and triumph in the general election to implement the vast anti-democratic program that they knew was necessary to accomplish their aims. They openly embraced the most violent and myth-driven sections of the white supremacist right and harnessed technology to build a vast rightwing media apparatus that could evangelize the racist rightwing narrative, inoculated from mainstream “fake news.”

The far right almost succeeded in the 2012 presidential election. They won the early primary votes but failed because their candidates kept self-destructing. Romney, a traditional conservative, won the nomination by default.

In 2016, the white supremacist right unified behind Trump and took control of the GOP. The Trumpist bloc successfully radicalized tens of millions of white conservatives into white nationalist reactionaries who were willing to discard their supposedly cherished democratic traditions and institutions to strengthen the racist state.

Under today’s political conditions, the racist far right can now defend the white republic only by shredding accepted democratic norms, unleashing a tsunami of categorical lies and outlandish conspiracy theories, and mobilizing the most violent white supremacists and Nazis.

This is the true meaning of “Make America Great Again.”

For 12 of the last 20 years, the presidency has been held by Republicans who lost the popular vote and came to power only by the racist and anti-democratic Electoral College.

PROGRESSIVES PICK UP THE PACE

The progressive ecosystem moved more slowly and failed to see the racist, authoritarian strategy behind the far right’s vicious attacks against President Obama. Dependence on Obama demobilized many progressives. Many more failed to believe in the importance of the electoral struggle.

But we have picked up the pace. Occupy detonated the public debate about economic inequality. The early BLM movement started to shift public understanding of how central racism is in this country. In 2016, Bernie Sanders carved out space for progressives in electoral politics for the first time in decades. Immigrant rights groups mounted unprecedented May Day demonstrations in 2006 and have done so each year since.

The gigantic Women’s Marches and powerful #MeToo movement set the early tone for the anti-Trump resistance. Standing Rock marked renewed activism among indigenous people. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and aggravated all existing inequalities. And last year’s historic BLM uprisings were the most extensive street actions in U.S. history.

Combined with the consequential danger of a Trumpist victory in 2020, these led most of the left and progressive movements to finally center the fight against white supremacy. They threw down to defeat the right at the ballot box (often from independent platforms) for the first time since the 1930s and rallied to protect the results. The forces that took this stance expanded their base, power, and infrastructure. They potentially make up the nucleus of a coalition strong enough to beat back the attempt to re-entrench the racist state.

But to further build this movement, another level of strategic understanding may be crucial.

A CROSS-CLASS FRONT AGAINST THE WHITE REPUBLIC

Racist authoritarianism is at the crux of the current political polarization. On one side stands an overtly racist alliance mobilized to reinforce the racist state by force. On the other is a broad and diverse anti-right alliance.

But even if we win, we will still face another strategic stage of the struggle to eliminate racism: dismantling the racist state and building an antiracist, social justice one.

The struggle against racism is pivotal foremost because it distorts, impoverishes, and shortens the lives of more than 100 million U.S. citizens and residents who before long will become the majority of the country. It is also pivotal because:

The white republic is the primary obstacle to democracy and socio-economic justice in the U.S. We have many big problems, especially climate change. But, politically, the cross-class racist social/political forces are the main enemy of all progressive forces. Their defeat is a precondition to open the way to significant social progress on all fronts.

We narrowly won this round, but the white supremacist right still holds power in most states and counties and on the federal bench. They were within a few tens of thousands of votes of winning the presidency and the Senate. Far from chastised by the response to their January 6 coup attempt, they are already ramping up an even more vicious campaign of voter disenfranchisement.

To decisively defeat racist authoritarianism, we must overcome political disenfranchisement and win substantial reform of many institutions, laws, and policies such as the filibuster and gerrymandering. We will also likely be compelled to abolish (or transform) the Electoral College and, for the first time, establish a one-person, one-vote democracy in this country. (This goal is best accomplished by energizing the state-by-state referenda that change the way each state allocates its electoral votes. A constitutional amendment is politically impossible for the foreseeable future.)

The fight over the Electoral College started after the 2000 presidential election debacle but needs to be revitalized. Otherwise, we will probably be mired in decades of aggravated struggle with the seditious right over wafer-thin margins in shifting battleground states, even as we win the popular vote.

Campaigns for other key institutional transformations are also underway. These include significant reforms to the voting rules, rights restoration for formerly incarcerated felons, campaigns against gerrymandering, expanded paths to citizenship, union rights, and universal access to health care. And, of course, struggles to defund the police and abolish prisons and ICE.

As we take on the formidable task of defeating the far right at the polls, the progressive forces will also need to gain the political power to dismantle or radically transform the racist state institutions, or racist authoritarianism will remain a serious danger. Such a movement would combine electoral, street, media, cultural, and intellectual organizing to change every facet of U.S. life.

Targeting the country’s central racist political institutions will bring staunch racial justice forces face-to-face with some anti-right allies. Most moderates and liberals will fight the white supremacists. But many may hesitate, block, or even go to the mat against us over implementing the transformative policy, institutional, and system changes necessary to bring racial justice into proximity.

If we are to defeat the far right, we should strive to keep the broadest possible coalition intact. However, the struggles internal to the democratic bloc and our ability to build a powerful independent left will markedly impact our immediate and long-term prospects of success.

The white republic has produced its opposite: a powerful antiracist movement of people of color and whites, mainly Black-led, determined and able to lead other social forces to overturn it. The struggle for social justice in the U.S. is a multi-class, multi-racial, multi-national, multi-sectoral fight. Once called the Rainbow Coalition, we need a new concept that evokes a shared identity among the U.S.’s oppressed and progressive people today. I believe the two main historically consequential enemies of this front are racist authoritarianism and climate change.

Numerous issues divide this broad front, such as the struggle between those who resist racism and those who accommodate it among people of color; the fight between inclusion and exclusion in the working-class movement; ethnic, racial, gender, and class divisions among people of color; overcoming white privilege, patriarchy, homophobia, and transphobia in the movement; centralizing climate safety in our program and strategy; continuing to expand and deepen antiracist unity; and of course the balance of political and class forces and program. But the 2020 election and the massive BLM and other Black-led racial justice actions showed that only a broad front can be victorious.

The only period of U.S. history where class was the main animator of a mass fight for social justice was the 1930s. At that time, the newly emergent, massive, and economically homogeneous industrialized working class was bitterly exploited, stripped of rights, just getting organized—and galvanized by the Great Depression and a powerful left/center alliance.

Before the 1930s and especially since the 1960s, cross-class movements have surged to the forefront. These include the struggles against racism and those for Native sovereignty, women’s and LGBTQ liberation, immigrants’ rights, peace, and environmental sustainability. The advent of a mass racist, authoritarian far right that threatens democracy and the imminent dangers of climate change makes this even more evident now. As the most organized section of the working class, labor remains a crucial piece of the anti-right front. We need to strengthen it.

Right now, the primary form that broad unity against racist authoritarianism takes is electoral opposition to a Republican Party that is all in for white tyranny. The unity includes generally voting Democratic to defeat it. Divisions within the anti-right front are also reflected within the Democratic Party. Therefore, it is a vital terrain of both unity and struggle between progressives and the ruling class and elitist forces who still dominate its electeds and various structures.

The U.S. left is only beginning to develop an effective strategy to move the Democratic Party leftward simultaneous with strengthening the entire front against the right. Such an approach would require developing at least as much sophistication in operating “inside” the electoral arena and halls of power as in building massive organizations and movements “outside” the electoral arena, and synergizing the two.

To develop, much less implement, that kind of complex strategy, it is necessary to create powerful left/progressive forms independent of the Democratic Party and independent of ruling class forces. We can work inside and outside the one and in complicated unity and struggle with the other. In both, we will face obstacles that the structures of the white republic put in the way of our fight for governing power.

We need to build the independent strength of the most determined racial, social, climate, and economic justice constituencies—those that understand that inequality, war, and environmental destruction are rooted in capitalism and that the corporate class is an unstable opponent of racism and authoritarianism. This is crucial to our capacity to finally defeat the white supremacist right, transform or replace the racist institutions that dominate the country, and to reconstruct society based on peace, sustainability, and justice.

The fight to prevent the re-entrenchment of the white republic and replace it with a systemic racial justice democracy is central to the class and democratic struggles in the United States.

Bob Wing has been a racial justice organizer and writer since 1968. He is thankful for the editorial advice of many fabulous co-workers and co-thinkers, and to OrganizingUpgrade.com. The reader can find most of Bob’s writing at www.bobwingracialjustice.org or Toward Racial Justice and a Third Reconstruction (Lulu Press).