[Ed. note: This article is an edited transcription of a talk given at the Brecht Forum in January 1998. Although the main ethnic/geographic targets of the U.S. government’s “concern” have shifted somewhat since that time, we believe that the underlying issues highlighted by the author have been posed even more strongly.]
Those familiar with Marxist theory recognize that the phrase, “the general crisis of white supremacy,” is a takeoff on what some Marxists have characterized as “the general crisis of capitalism.” This crisis was said to be signaled by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and was said to be accelerated by the Chinese Revolution of 1949, Africa’s de-colonization in the 1960s, the ouster of U.S. imperialism from Vietnam, etc. The idea was that these events indicated a crisis of capitalism that ineluctably would lead to the triumph of socialism. The theory of capitalism’s general crisis was meant to signal that capitalism’s room-for-maneuver was shrinking and that its gravediggers-the working class and its allies-were busily preparing for the last rites of that system. As we all know, events of the past decade have caused some to reconsider this theory. However, while those on the left and the right have dwelled incessantly on the devolution of this theory-or the alleged devolution of this theory and the devolution of once presently existing socialism itself-less attention has been paid to an event of similar epochal proportion, the general crisis of white supremacy, which has devolved significantly over the past one hundred and fifty years.
The general crisis of white supremacy can be said to be signaled by many landmarks, as I will attempt to show. However, in this post-Cold War world, where the fear of expropriation of private property and threats to capitalism brought by the challenge of socialism have eroded (although not disappeared), these have been replaced by increasing fears about the challenges to U.S.-style capitalism by other forms of capitalism, particularly in Asia. Thus today it can be said that we have reached a new stage in the evolution of white supremacy’s general crisis.
When and how did white supremacy begin? A number of Afrocentrists have pointed out correctly that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to speak of white supremacy in discussing the ancient world. Certainly, it’s not easy to find this doctrine in the writings of those like Herodotus who encountered Africa. Some have suggested that white supremacy-and anti-black thinking in particular-commenced in the land we now call Iraq with the massive revolt of African slaves in 872 AD known as the Zanj Revolt, and that the trauma of this revolt inspired a flurry of stories and folk tales that were then, like so many other creations from the Arab world, exported to Europe. Others would argue that white supremacist thinking commenced with the West African slave trade which Portugal and Spain and Britain and France pioneered in. Still others would argue that white supremacist thinking commenced with the much-heralded Enlightenment, as Charles Mills contends in his persuasive new book The Racial Contract.
The general crisis of white supremacy is at once a crisis of imperialism and a crisis of what might be called the white U.S. And perhaps even more, a crisis of masculinity, particularly what has been called white masculinity. Parenthetically, this latter tendency can be glimpsed all too clearly through the prism of sports. The December 8, 1997 issue of Sports Illustrated carried an article entitled “Whatever Happened to the White Athlete?” Here, interestingly, white and male, as so often happens in this nation, are conflated.
Though I’ll be speaking quite a bit about iterations of race, as my invocation of imperialism and masculinity suggests, I recognize that there are other factors beyond race that are driving the world. To validate this suggestion, all one has to do is to go back a few years and recall the alliance that prevailed during the Cold War: the headquarters of white supremacy in the United States in alignment with “colored” China against “white” Moscow. Indeed, as this alignment unfolded, I recall many heated conversations with some of my Afro-American comrades who just would not believe what was unfolding before their very eyes. I understand that distorted perception: their historical experience convinced them that the melanin-deficient always united against the melanin-enriched. I recognize that, above all, white supremacy, at least among elites, is not a thing in itself. It is, generally speaking, a mechanism designed to insure, above all, economic hegemony, private property, and the power and privilege that goes along with it. Likewise, I recognize that the ruling ideas are, generally speaking, those of the ruling elite. Thus, white supremacy has served in the first place the interests of the Euro-American elite and has been perceived by many non-elite Euro-Americans to serve their interests too. Whether or not it does so in fact is a separate question.
This concept of white supremacy-this notion that the least of those who are “melanin-deficient” should always be above any of a darker hue in all realms of society, this reality of European and European-derived hegemony-has been a persistent part of the fabric of this nation since its founding, as well as being exported by European nations (particularly Britain, France and Holland) to the four corners of the globe. When I speak of white supremacy I’m referring to this concept and its handmaiden, which has been marked by global hegemony of those of European descent. Though mainstream opinion would apply the term “white supremacist” to those on the margins, or those who heretofore have been on the margins of the society-the Ku Klux Klan and their fellow travelers, for example-I think this is a mistake.
Part of the problem the United States faces today is that it has been unable to find an organizing principle as potent as white supremacy since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Those of European descent have been accustomed to being favored over those who are not and find it hard to accept that the international community has mandated that such practices are considered today to be odious. Hence, we see today these wild and hysterical attacks on Affirmative Action. Historians as diverse as Theodore Allen (The Invention of the White Race, 2 vols.), David Roediger (The Wages of Whiteness), Noel Ignatiev (How the Irish Became White), Alexander Saxton (Rise and Fall of the White Republic), Neil Foley (The White Scourge), Michael Paul Rogin (Black Face, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants and the Hollywood Melting Pot), and other writers too numerous to mention have pointed to an unassailable aspect of U.S. life. How was it that those who warred on the shores of Europe-English vs. Irish, French vs. German, Russian vs. Pole, Serb vs. Croat, Northern Italian vs. Southern Italian, Jew vs. Gentile-all of a sudden are reconstructed as whites upon arrival on these shores? The price of the ticket, as James Baldwin pointed out, was that this whiteness-and this white supremacy that went along with it-was pivoted on the idea that others-those not part of the Pan-European world-would not be allowed into the hallowed halls of whiteness. Though both the New York Times and the Washington Post have recently taken note of aspects of this scholarship, their efforts to trivialize it cannot obscure that these writers have touched upon a sensitive and important aspect of U.S. history and society.
This construction of whiteness was an essential part of the bourgeois democracy inaugurated by the so-called American Revolution of 1776. In short, among other things, 1776 marked the overthrow of the divine right of monarchs and the rise of the divine right of propertied “white” men. This new dispensation lent justification to the expropriation of the land of Native Americans and Mexicans, the enslavement of Africans, the barring of Asians from citizenship so that their labor could be exploited freely. In short, since counterfactual thinking is becoming the rage among bourgeois historians who, according to the New York Times, see such thinking as anti-Marxist, we of the left need to ask the counterfactual question of whether the 1776 Revolution was a boon for the darker denizens of this land. I think that serious questions can be raised about this. The anti-slavery movement was much stronger, much earlier in Great Britain than in what came to be the United States. Slavery was abolished in the British territory decades before it was abolished here. London was much more aggressive and vigorous than Washington in seeking to curb the African slave trade. And, of course, you all know that one of the factors that drove the revolution of 1776 was the desire of the settlers-the colonists-to keep moving west, seizing the land of the Native Americans, stocking it with African slaves. And, of course, Britain did not necessarily want to subsidize that venture and that was one of the factors that led to the revolution.
This construction of whiteness also marked the beginning of the original identity politics, which has forced others not constructed as “white” to construct an identity politics of their own. What needs to be investigated further is how so-called “white identity” has been constructed not only on the basis of skin color but, as well, on the basis of privilege, conservatism, protection of the status quo. The racialist outlook that is said to be contradictory to the philosophy of those avatars of the Enlightenment-Hume, Kant, and of course Thomas Jefferson and his horrid musings, Notes on Virginia-should actually be seen as resting near the heart of their thinking. This is precisely why it has been so extremely difficult to extirpate racism from this nation-this nation that represents the embodiment of the Enlightenment. It required a bloody civil war to rid this land of slavery and it required the threat of thermonuclear destruction for Jim Crow laws to be removed from the books (more on this point later). Now, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, is it any surprise that there has been a regression and attempt to return to the bad old days before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Affirmative Action?
In his fine Ohio University dissertation, Japan and the Rise of European Colonialism in Africa, the historian Richard Bradshaw points out that Africa served as a negative example for Tokyo. Japan recognized that if it did not change rapidly, then what had befallen this vast continent would befall Japan as well. Thus the decade of the 1860s, which witnessed both the emancipation of African slaves in the United States and the Meiji Restoration in Japan (1868), can be said to mark the beginnings of the general crisis of white supremacy-the beginning of the end of the original identity politics.
Ethiopia’s defeat of an invading Italian force in the 1890s and Japan’s defeat of Russia in the war of 1905 are also important signals marking the general crisis of white supremacy. As Bradshaw points out, there was a relatively close relationship between the emperors of Japan and Ethiopia before World War I, including serious discussion of merger of the two royal families, akin to such mergers as were then seen among royal families in Europe. However, it is striking to note that those in Japanese society who considered themselves to be lineal descendants of Enlightenment thinkers were quite willing to go along with racialist thinking. Thus we recall how the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Japan was quite willing to accept so-called “honorary white” status in apartheid South Africa, and had no qualms about continuing trade with racist regimes in Southern Africa despite the global call to sanctions. On the other hand, it was the Japanese leftist Sen Katayama-who attended Fisk University, Du Bois’s old alma mater in Nashville, Tennessee and played a prominent role in founding the Communist parties of Japan, Mexico and the United States-who helped to turn his Tokyo-based party against racism, a point made eloquently by the Jamaican-American writer Claude McKay in his poignant memoir, A Long Way From Home. The ultra-right in Japan, which adopted primitive chauvinist thinking from their dealings with Korea and other Asian nations, were in some ways more advanced than the descendants of the Enlightenment in Japan when it came to dealing with the Africans. Of course, this was probably due to an effort to gain tactical advantage over the United States and its allies, particularly within the United States itself, for it was the ultra-right in Japan that assisted in the formation of the Nation of Islam in the 1930s. This signaled a further stage in the progress of white supremacy’s general crisis, whatever the liabilities carried by Tokyo and the Nation. In a number of fascinating articles, the historian Ernest Allen has detailed this de facto alliance between the Nation of Islam and Tokyo, an alliance that culminated in 1942 with the mass arrest and jailing of Black nationalists of various stripes including Elijah Mohammed, because of their supposed pro-Tokyo sentiment.
The historian John Dower, in his book War Without Mercy, points out a facet of World War II that has escaped the attention of all too many of us. Particularly in the Pacific theatre, the war between Tokyo and Washington was heavily inflected with racism. Walter LaFeber, in his book on U.S.-Japanese relations, cites the words of former U.S. President Herbert Hoover, speaking in 1942, to illustrate the depth of racialist thinking in the United States at that juncture. Said the former U.S. president:
When the Japanese take Burma, China, and organize the forces of discontent in India, we are looking in the face of something new. The white man has kept control of Asiatics by dividing parts of them against the other [each against the other] and generally establishing an arrogant superiority. Universally, the white man is hated by the Chinese, Malayan, Indian and Japanese alike. Unless Japanese leadership is destroyed, the Western Hemisphere is going to confront this mass across the Pacific. Unless they are defeated, they will demand entry and equality and there will be twenty-five years of Asiatic flood into South America that will make the Nazis look like pikers and we will have to go through with it until we have destroyed Japan. That may take a million American lives and eight or ten years but it will have to be done.
Of course, in order to get African-Americans and other oppressed nationalities to reject the Black nationalists-and others who felt that we would have been better off, and certainly not worse off, if Tokyo had defeated Washington-the United States had to retreat from some aspects of white supremacy, thus deepening its general crisis. The so-called “white primary,” which disallowed those few African-Americans who could vote from casting their ballots in primary elections, was ruled unconstitutional. There was a campaign against segregated blood banks. Indeed, as some historians have noted correctly, what we now celebrate as the civil rights movement-accelerating in 1954 with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education-accelerated initially with World War II.
February 1942 was a real turning point in the evolution of white supremacy’s general crisis. This was the period when, a few months after the lightning attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese troops swept the European powers out of Southeast Asia. This was the time when London dispatched an emissary to India in an attempt to enlist anti-colonial forces in the war against Japan. Independence for India was promised by London if only anti-colonial forces would stand by the U.K. The reputed reply from the anti-colonial forces was basically that the U.K. promise was akin to a rubber check written on a crashing bank. Indeed, the fighter for Indian independence S.C. Bose led thousands of Indian fighters who aligned with Tokyo against London. Interestingly enough, Bose has been recognized as a national hero in India. Certainly, hatred of white supremacy was stirred by Tokyo in Malaya and Indonesia particularly. Tokyo played on the fact that the Malay majority was subjected to a special oppression by the U.K., and as a result, Japan gained numerous adherents there. Something similar happened in Indonesia. The Dutch were so keen on maintaining this colonial jewel that even after World War II ended, they continued to fight a brutal campaign against Indonesian independence despite the fact that Holland itself had been devastated by Nazi Germany and its coffers had been depleted.
Indeed what helped to impel both anti-colonial struggles abroad and anti-Jim Crow struggles at home-both of which were, objectively, struggles against white supremacy-was the simple idea that in order to galvanize their fighting forces against fascism, the bourgeois democracies like the U.S., Holland and Great Britain proclaimed the Four Freedoms and the Atlantic Charter, and then discovered that victims of white supremacy at home and abroad had decided that these proclamations of democracy should be applied broadly, i.e. to themselves. More specifically, the United States and its allies were coming to recognize that white supremacy applied broadly could come to jeopardize their own national existence. In other words they would come to recognize that there was a suicidal aspect to white supremacy.
But it was not just World War II that marked the new stage in the devolution of white supremacy. There were a number of important events that came in the aftermath of World War I that were also pivotal in this process. At the Versailles peace conference settling World War I, Japan put forward the then-revolutionary concept that international law should not recognize racial distinctions amongst nations. This simple concept was resisted stoutly by the U.S. administration headed by the Virginia segregationist Woodrow Wilson (of course, he later crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and became governor of New Jersey). This was the same president who hailed a vulgar racist film Birth of a Nation and imposed an all-encompassing Jim Crow on Washington D.C. The rejection of Tokyo’s simple proposal was one of the many factors that worsened relations between the two nations, and these worsening relations led inexorably to World War II.
But it was not just Japan’s Versailles proposal that marked World War I as a turning point in the general crisis of white supremacy. Out of the ashes of the war came the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 which, as noted earlier, had been thought to mark the onset of the general crisis of capitalism itself. What is difficult to dispute is that, for whatever reasons-the detractors say unscrupulous and hypocritical tactical advantage, the advocates say solemn principle-for whatever reason, Moscow became one of the firmer opponents of white supremacy, providing assistance that led to the ousting of European colonialists from China in 1949; from Angola and other parts of Africa in 1975 and earlier; and from Vietnam, which was able to oust U.S. imperialism also in 1975. In his new book, Sunset at Midday, Govan Mbeki-Deputy President of the Senate of South Africa, leading member of the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, and father of Nelson Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki-states explicitly that a turning point in their struggle against apartheid came in 1978 after a lengthy visit to Vietnam and the USSR by ANC and SACP members that led notonly to pledges of increased support, including military training, but also to advice on strategy and tactics.
Another turning point that deepened white supremacy’s general crisis in Southern Africa was the military assistance provided by socialist Cuba, particularly in 1988 in Southern Angola, where a joint Angolan, Cuban and Namibian force routed Pretoria’s praetorians. In fact, one of the main bones of contention between Moscow and Washington was this anti-colonial support. This opinion was voiced repeatedly, particularly by advocates of white supremacy at home like Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
From the other side of the ledger, many African-American intellectuals and advocates of the working class-like Paul Robeson and Shirley Graham, Langston Hughes, Claudia Jones and many others-early on expressed sympathy for the Soviet Union, which they saw as an objective force causing their own country to retreat from the more egregious aspects of Jim Crow. Though W.E.B Dubois did not join the Communist Party until 1961, as early as his first trip to the USSR in the 1920s, he expressed his support for Bolshevism. Of course, those sentiments did not endear Du Bois and company to those who ruled or to many of those who inhabited the United States. Du Bois was purged from the NAACP in 1948. After becoming a citizen of Ghana, Shirley Graham Du Bois encountered difficulty in obtaining a visa to return to the U.S., the land of her birth. Robeson was ostracized, denied a passport, and hounded by murderous mobs at Peekskill, New York and elsewhere. However, this was an essential component of a process that led to the devolution of Jim Crow and a deepening of white supremacy’s general crisis. Historians like Brenda Gayle Plummer, Penny Von Eschen, Mary Dudziak and others have pointed out repeatedly that the erosion of U.S.-style apartheid was a direct function of U.S. fear that Jim Crow was allowing the USSR to gain an advantage in a world that, after all, was comprised disproportionately of victims of white supremacy. How could the United States purport to be a paragon of human rights virtue in the Cold War competition with the USSR when it tolerated Jim Crow?
It was precisely because efforts to erode Jim Crow were induced so heavily by the force of global pressure that when this pressure was eased with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States began to retreat almost automatically on racial reform. In other words, one reason the counterattack against racial reform has been so rapid and so successful is that the reform itself was instigated so decisively by global considerations. Once those considerations were altered it became easy to retreat to the status quo ante. I daresay that if meaningful racial reform accelerates in the United States, no doubt it will be prompted by global pressure or a global crisis. I might add parenthetically that since the marginalizing of Du Bois and Robeson, African-American leaders, particularly those of the NAACP, have been loath to become involved in international affairs, precisely because U.S. rulers get so upset when these alliances are made.
The problem for white supremacists, of course, is that it is difficult to bring back every aspect of Jim Crow, not least because the world has moved beyond those bad old days, though some would seek to bring them back. Yet this failure to have an even more rapid retreat on the Human Rights front is deepening the general crisis of white supremacy. Though the stock market is booming, downsizing continues, along with growing inequality of wealth and income. Many Euro-Americans find it easy, in the absence of class consciousness, to attribute these trends to Affirmative Action or so-called “racial preferences.” Demagogic leaders find it simple to point the finger at the minorities, rather than at the holier-than-holy market forces, in seeking an explanation for why so many Euro-Americans are being left behind.
Similarly, one of the problems associated with the retreat from both whiteness and white supremacy is the composition of the Euro-American community in the United States. It is comprised disproportionately of the subalterns of Europe: Irish Catholics, Southern Italians, Albanians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, Slovaks and many others who can say with some justification that their being redefined as white here has been a savior. Samuel Huntington of Harvard, the political scientist who advised apartheid South Africa during its last days, sees another problem with the composition of the “white” community in the United States. In a recent issue of Foreign Affairs he complained that Armenian-Americans, with their devotion to their homeland, could jeopardize U.S. access to the vast pools of oil in Armenia’s historic enemy, Azerbaijan-just as Jewish-Americans and their devotion to Israel, could complicate U.S. efforts to improve relations with Iran and other nations with petroleum.
Moreover, the dissolving of the glue of anti-communism has chipped away a bit at so-called “white unity.” For example, there have been sharp squabbles between Serbian-Americans and Croatian-Americans because of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Part of the success of whiteness has been its ability to shield the United States from the ethnic conflicts that have torn Europe apart, but the ouster from rule of Communist Parties in Eastern Europe may serve to erode a bit this adhesive. This internal stress, which includes a growing movement among the melanin-deficient to reject not only white supremacy but the concept of whiteness itself, is an essential element of white supremacy’s general crisis.
Likewise, just as one can seriously question whether the 1776 Revolution was a boon for people of color in this nation, one can ask the same even more heretical question about the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. White supremacy is so much a part of the fabric of this nation that strong external pressure is required in order for it to recede. In other words, one can question rather seriously whether the collapse of the Soviet Union was a step forward for people of color in this nation since it was no accident, as we Marxists like to say, that white supremacy retreated concomitant with the advent and strengthening of the USSR. Further, I find it at least curious that in 1989 Communist parties were ousted from power in Europe, but not in Asia or Latin America.
Of course, there was the perception held by some that this strong external pressure necessary to bring domestic racial reform now would come from Asia, in light of the fact that two of this country’s major competitors, Japan and China, just happen to be on this most populous of continents. As Doug Henwood points out in his useful book, Wall Street, “growth rates in Asia over the last several decades have no precedent in the history of capitalism,” and these rates “are two or three times what the United States and Britain experienced at their peaks.” Even Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard-the “Dr. Kevorkian of the global economy,” with the demented theories of shock therapy that he has prescribed for economies from Eastern Europe to Bolivia-has acknowledged, in an important recent article in ForeignAffairs, that the economies of Asia are well on their way to supplanting those of what he calls the “West” in being the major engine of the global economy. He adds, I think correctly, that “the Southeast Asian currency crises of 1997 are not a sign of the end of Asian growth, but rather a recurring of a difficult to predict pattern of financial instability that often accompanies rapid economic growth.”
This development of the productive forces in Asia has been greeted with hysteria in the United States. The leading conservative Japanese politician Shintaro Isihara has a point when he notes that the United States, as the leading representative of the Pan-European world (or “whites,” as they like to call themselves), feels challenged by this growth even though it has been of a capitalist nature. The veritable cheering in the United States at recent setbacks of the Southeast Asian economies also suggests that capitalist solidarity only extends so far. Compare the U.S. reaction to economic growth in Asia with its reaction to the development of the Euro, the common European currency, which bids fair to displace the dollar as the international currency of choice. This could have a disastrous impact on the U.S. economy, driving up interest rates as the United States is forced to strain to attract foreign capital to continue financing its staggering deficits, and perhaps forcing the slashing of government programs ranging from AIDS research to education, or alternatively, creating pressure for increased taxing of the wealthy. In USA Today, on September 10, 1997, economist Lester Thurow suggests the Euro might spark a flight from the dollar and compares its introduction to the historic transition from British to U.S. leadership in the global economy. An article in the National Law Journal of September 1, 1997 suggested that the European Union and the Euro “would be a more formidable opponent than the Soviet Union ever was.” The Euro, it is reported “will increase the importance of Europe as a financial center and will lead to the rise of London and Frankfurt, Germany and the decline of New York as the financial capital” of the capitalist world.
Despite the possible cataclysmic effects of the Euro on the U.S. economy, one finds little of the hysteria that one found, for example, in the late 1980s with the “bubble economy” in Japan. Though the European Union has developed a military alliance, the Western European Union, which can best be described as NATO without the United States and Canada, there’s much less hand-wringing about the challenge from Europe compared to the apprehension about Asia’s rise. Indeed the New York Times on December 1, 1997, carried a stunning article: Russia, Germany and France have agreed to meet “to lay the foundation of a relationship that Moscow hopes will serve as a counterbalance to United States influence in Europe.” Yet contrast this with the nervousness about Japan which inspired Newsweek cover stories claiming that Tokyo was “invading” Hollywood, when Sony bought Columbia Pictures and best-selling tomes had proclaimed the coming war with Japan. Of course, when Italian interests bought MGM there was no such hysteria.
Just as during World War II, racialist thinking has arisen on both sides of the Pacific. Some of you may recall the publication in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, of the book by Shintaro Isihara and Akio Marita, then leader of Sony, entitled The Japan That Can Say No. Interestingly, Isihara and the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed have come out with a new book published in Japan as The Asia That Can Say No. This, of course, accompanies a book recently published in the Republic of China called The China That Can Say No. Many of these books have similar themes. Mahathir, the Malaysian Prime Minister, is the lineal descendant of those nationalist forces who were propelled into influence by Tokyo during World War II. You may recall-and this was a major paradigm of the post-World War II era-that Britain with United States aid fought a bitter war against Communist-led forces in the nation that would become Malaysia to insure that a nationalist like Mahathir could come to power. In this latest book, he and Isihara argue that “Japanese occupation ultimately led to Malaya gaining its independence from British colonial rule.” The authors confirm a central tenet of those who are opposed to white supremacy by writing, “it was Lenin who said that European prosperity was based on exploiting the cheap labor and abundant resources of the colonies.” They add, “there was no free market system, only captive markets in the colonies. Europe surpassed Asia through plunder and exploitation.” They warn the United States to not even think that they have a military advantage over Asia, since “the new reality of international politics is that armed might is no longer effective.” They castigate the Gulf War and add tellingly, “If the United States can get away with this, peddling arms throughout the Middle East, intervening militarily to protect the supply of oil and arm-twisting Japan to foot the bill, then the white race still rules the world.” They warn, “we may have to form an Asian united front against Americanization.” They declare, “it is impossible to communicate with Americans as well as we do with Asians.” I guess they’re conflating Americans and whites, themselves. Back to the quote: “Color is one reason.” Repeatedly they complain of the “racial prejudice that underlies white society.” They remind their readers that white supremacy-the global hegemony of those of European descent-has not been eternal. They remind us that when Genghis Khan invaded Europe in the 13th Century “Caucasians adopted Mongol-style haircuts and shaved eyebrows and even their bandy-legged gait.” The implication was that in the 21st century one can expect eye operations by Euro-Americans so they can look more Japanese or Chinese. They even resort to a bit of Afrocentrism writing that “Jesus was a person of color.” They suggest that the inability of Europeans and Euro-Americans to accept this simple fact helps to account for their ongoing hypocrisy, their confusion and anger toward peoples of color. Despite the financial problems of Asia, they write, “Asia’s problems are the minor aches and pains of a growing Olympian ready to compete for the gold medal,” while the problems of the United States are “those of the out-of-shape has-beens staggering to the sideline.”
U.S. imperialism is boxed in by its reliance on financing from Japan, at least up to this point. This became clear on June 23, 1997, when the U.S. stock market suffered one of its largest drops since October 1987, due to random comments made at Columbia University by the Japanese Prime Minister, Hashimoto. Now the United States is becoming militarily closer to Japan, as the recently signed defense arrangement between Tokyo and Washington-which some interpret as being aimed at Beijing-tends to indicate. However, the problem for the United States, of course, is that they would like to be closer to Tokyo and Beijing than those two powers are to each other, and the question is: Will they be able to accomplish this goal? At the same time, according to the Far Eastern Economic Review, the recent currency crisis in Southeast Asia has raised fears in Washington and on Wall Street that a so-called “Asian Monetary Fund” is developing to challenge the U.S.-dominated IMF.
Simultaneously, the latest best-seller in the United States projects the coming conflict with China. It proclaims the need for a new cold war aimed at containing Beijing whose economy may become larger, by some measures, than that of the United States within the next few decades. This book follows hot-on-the-heels of the critically acclaimed book that I mentioned earlier, entitled The Coming War with Japan. The Washington Post of December 14, 1997 carries the words of former Reagan administration trade official Clyde Prestowitz who states “The Asian brand of capitalism is dangerous to the world economy’s health.” Once socialism was seen as dangerous to the world economy’s health; now the Asian brand of capitalism is seen as the antagonist. The man who is arguably one of the most powerful in this country, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, gave resonance to this idea when, speaking before Jesse Jackson’s recent conclave on Wall Street, he gleefully compared the ongoing currency crisis in Asia to the ouster from power of Communist parties in 1989. However, what he fails to acknowledge is that what we are witnessing in Asia is not the crisis of a continent, but the crisis of a system that is in place on both sides of the Pacific. Professor Ha-joon Chang-who is of Korean descent but teaches at Cambridge in the U.K. and is the author most recently of The Political Economy of Industrial Policy-argued recently in the Los Angeles Times that the crisis in South Korea was a product not of over-regulation but of loose regulation. Thus the deregulation prescribed by the IMF was an inappropriate remedy. In any case, he argues, the crisis originated not in what he calls “the real economy”-that is to say manufacturing-but rather in the financial and banking sector. In any event, keep in mind that the British-based weekly The Economist has been confidently predicting the implosion of the Japanese economy at least for the last fifteen years, during good times and bad. However, they did not predict that the Savings & Loan crisis in the United States would portend the implosion of capitalism in the United States.
Still, the present crisis in Asia is the crisis of a system; it is not the crisis of a continent. At the moment, however, it most directly impacts South Korea-where tens of thousands of U.S. troops have been stationed since the early 1950s-and Indonesia, whose leader, Suharto, came to power in 1965 in a bloody anti-communist coup that was supported by Washington. Terms like “the Asian flu,” “Asian contagion,” and “Asian Meltdown” remind me of how AIDS was viewed in the 1980s as an exclusively gay disease when, in fact, it was a human disease. These geographic designations may only serve to heighten a pervasive anti-Asian bias that lurks just beneath the surface of U.S. society and bubbles to the surface at particularly tense moments, as with the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the unfortunate and excessive targeting of Asian-American contributors to electoral campaigns that occupied so much attention in 1997. Professor Enrique Carrasco of the University of Iowa Law School wrote in the L.A. Times (which has been much more perceptive on Asia than the excessively Atlanticist New York Times and Washington Post) that the kind of rhetoric used to describe this financial crisis can easily fuel racism. Likewise, the harsh IMF prescriptions for affected economies were being interpreted – particularly in Malaysia-as U.S.-sponsored efforts to choke off competition from actual and potential Asian rivals. In the absence of class consciousness, such bitterness could be easily transmuted into a kind of anti-whiteness as opposed to the anti-imperialism that was so popular in Southeast Asia during World War II.
Clear thinking is particularly needed nowadays, for this crisis will inevitably affect the U.S. economy, potentially in disastrous ways. Globalization, which has been trumpeted so in recent years, is a two-way street. South Korea, for example, will no doubt use its devalued currency to export ever cheaper goods to the United States, which may impact the U.S. auto industry negatively. South Korea may be unwilling to purchase larger amounts of agricultural products from California. Thailand is already trying to return planes worth hundreds of millions of dollars to U.S. manufacturers. Boeing will sell fewer aircraft. FLUOR is a huge engineering and construction combine based in Southern California and heavily dependent on the Pacific rim, with this region accounting for about twenty percent of their 14 billion dollars in revenues. However, suggestive of the fact that this crisis, in a sense, has been overstated-surprising as that may seem-is that the crisis may be benefiting Greater China. Taiwanese interests have been active in recent weeks buying up enterprises in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, which of course are cheaper because of devalued currency. Certain interests in mainland China have been acting similarly. Since the overseas Chinese bourgeoisie already dominates the economies of Southeast Asia, this further investment, no doubt, may increase ethnic tensions, which can lead to a further escalation of ethnic tensions across the board.
Added to this mix is another factor. The United States moving to the Right has led not to a proliferation of Clarence Thomas-like figures amongst African-Americans, but instead to the rise of a militant conservatism, with anti-white overtones, as evidenced by the Nation of Islam.
I do not feel that I am going out on a limb when I suggest that the general crisis of white supremacy may very well deepen in coming months and years. Those interested in deepening the general crisis of white supremacy can engage in a number of paths. Scholars can deepen our understanding of whiteness and white supremacy. Activists should begin taking a more global viewpoint and should be alert to falling victim to subtle and not-so-subtle Asian bashing that is becoming quite prevalent in U.S. society. Activists can argue for reparations for those who have fallen victim to white supremacy. That includes, minimally, Africans and African-Americans. Minimally. This should also include the escalation of our struggle to preserve and extend Affirmative Action. We should also realize that when relations between Asian nations and the United States become more complicated, the Asian-Pacific community in the United States suffers. This is certainly the lesson of the Japanese-American internment of 1941-45, and it is also the lesson brought by the murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1980 when tensions with Japan were just beginning to rise along with the “bubble economy.” But today this obvious lesson of history takes on a new meaning, for relations with Asian nations are becoming more complicated in the context of white supremacy’s general crisis. This suggests increased scapegoating of the Asian-Pacific community and in the United States efforts to increase enmity between the Asian-Pacific communities and other minorities, particularly African-Americans.
The campaign finance revelation also suggests another point. The Democratic Party has become heavily dependent upon donations from Native Americans in the gaming business, from trade unions with substantial minority memberships, and from Asian-Americans. Despite the purely formal character of its adherence to civil rights philosophy, the appearance of the Democratic Party in some leading quarters is seen as a threat to certain powerful interests-as shocking as that may seem to some of us. In this context, we must escalate our efforts to defuse race and ethnic tensions, particularly by building and strengthening unions. Of course, we must welcome the recent victories of the AFL-CIO in the UPS strike, efforts to organize the United Airways Workers, etc., and also the proliferation of gender-based organizations. In this sense, of course, we must welcome the strengthening of the AFL-CIO women’s section. We must also escalate our efforts to build alternative political parties such as the Labor Party, the Greens, the New Party, California’s Peace and Freedom Party, and other alternatives to the hegemony of the Democrats and Republicans.
Witnessing the devolution of white supremacy will not be a pretty sight, nor will it be an easy process. The campaign finance revelations, for example, suggest that many in the Euro-American community feel that it is legitimate for Canadians and British to intervene in U.S. elections or for the U.S. to intervene in electoral processes from Mongolia to Poland to Nicaragua, but it’s illegitimate for not only Asians but even Asian-Americans to be involved in the U.S. electoral process. This is further evidence that static notions of white supremacy have not kept pace with the changing racial correlation of forces globally. But again, the building of mass organizations, particularly unions, cutting across racial and ethnic lines, is the surest guarantee that we can provide a soft landing for white supremacy as it undergoes, hopefully, its final and well-deserved death throes.