Mexico, Iraq, and the Two-party System: Studies in White Supremacy*

Manifest Destiny

From the annexation of Mexico to the occupation of Iraq, a common theme threads its way, as a kind of political ethos legitimizing brutal intervention in the name of democracy. While the first instance couched itself in a new ideology called “Manifest Destiny,” the second attempted a more juridical form of projective self-defense called pre-emption. These constitute the end-points of a 150-year period in which the US has intervened aggressively in other nations over a hundred times.1 A common structure inhabits the political justifications for these interventions, which seem strange at the hands of a democratic government and system. But the same structure is seen to inhabit the machinery of that democracy, namely, its two-party system. It is the nature of that structure that I wish to examine here.

During the Congressional and popular debates on the annexation of Mexican territory in 1846, a peculiar dilemma arose (RMD, 231). Should the US annex or colonize the Mexican territory? Many whites opposed annexation in favor of colonization because they feared that accepting the Mexicans as citizens would corrupt the racial purity of Anglo-Saxon society. Those who opposed direct colonization feared that colonial governance would corrupt the purity of US republican institutions. In short, the status of the territory’s people was a secondary consideration, abrogated in the name of an institutional sanctity that doubly warped alleged democratic principles. By the interventionist ethic contained in Manifest Destiny, Anglo-Saxon society was ordained to settle and govern the continent; this was not in question. The debate was never over whether to attack Mexico as a sovereign nation, but only when (RMD, 236).

Thus, the concern was self-reflective. The issue, far from being the welfare of the people inhabiting the territory seized, was the structural effect that seizure would have on white American society; that is, the effect of “bringing civilization” to other lands was to be judged with respect to the purveyor, the US itself, rather than the recipient (RMD, 240). In the Congressional debate, annexation was deemed preferable if the land could be considered empty, which would resolve the problem of the present inhabitants in favor of an extreme racialization. “Bringing civilization” or “democracy” to the land would then simply involve settlement by whites. The territory need only be redefined as empty to make its governance consistent with the white republic’s projected “civilizing mission.” The actual existence of other inhabitants (Mexicans and indigenous societies) was reduced to a kind of corruption of the land itself, one that would exact a moderate toll for taking it as a resource. The “democratic mission” then became one of implanting (or importing) a white society (which, for many, meant importing slavery as well), rather than enabling a form of “democratic” civil society to flourish among its present inhabitants.

Thus, the “civilizing” or “democratizing” project implicit in US intervention consisted in conflating its self-image with the practice of “clearing the land” (if not of the actual inhabitants, then of their claim to status as human). In other words, the annexationist procedure racialized the land in order to deracialize the territory as an emptiness (RMD, 167). The prior inhabitants were subjected to a massive act of dis-recognition, in order to ultimately reduce them to some form of servitude.

An analogous situation has unfolded in the occupation of Iraq. Though the announced rationalizations for invasion referred to both “rescue” from tyranny and “self-protection” from threat, the act of “bringing democracy” has involved the massive destruction of the former social infrastructure of that nation, as a mode of structurally “clearing the land.” The contracts given to a small select group of corporations to rebuild and reconstitute that infrastructure, among which Halliburton and Bechtel are the main beneficiaries, constitute a form of filling the void created by the invasion’s destructiveness with elements of EuroAmerican social origin and construction. As a corporate annexation of the Iraqi economy, their aim is to privatize Iraq’s public assets and local resources, and impose themselves as institutions upon the Iraqi populace and economy.

It was immaterial that no legitimate cause for invasion existed. It didn’t even matter that this was widely known, and formed the basis for global opposition to the invasion before the fact.2 The ethos of the invasion proclaimed the cause of “bringing democracy” to those bereft of it, though the real participants in that democracy would be the corporations implanted upon the “cleared land.” US self-recognition of its international policing function provided sufficient impunity for this operation; the sovereignty of nations was erased, and Manifest Destiny was projected on a global scale. Ultimately, the US intention to maintain military bases in Iraq signifies that its project of “handing over the reins” to a sovereign Iraqi government is a metaphor for another form of annexation.

We can pursue this analogy between Mexico and Iraq a step further. Today, among the people descended from Mexicans annexed 150 years ago, there is a roughly tripartite breakdown of self-identification. Some speak of themselves as Latinos, some as Chicanos, and others as hispanics, reflecting varying forms of identity-construction: Latino identifies with Latin America and its own 20th-century anti-colonialist processes; Chicano identifies with the particular society and traditions of the southwest (Spanish and Native American) over which the US rolled in its process of annexation; and hispanic identifies with the US, with its white Anglo-centric focus. As the historic effect of an ethnicization of Spanish surnames through discrimination and political exclusion at the hands of Anglo-American governance, they signify different ways of dealing with or culturally surviving the fact of colonization and its attendant derogations. A similar breakdown can be seen emerging in Iraq. Comparable to “Latino,” there are the insurgents (rebels, terrorists, or Baathist remnants, etc.); the Iraqi civilians who simply identify as such would be analogous to “Chicano;” and the Iraq Governing Council represents that minute stratum which (corresponding to “hispanic”) collaborates with, and thus accepts assimilation into the occupation.

The impunity that is claimed in these interventionary situations has broader implications, however. The arrogation of impunity allows the conflation of policing functions with certain final judgments on other sovereign nations—in particular, those concerning their “democratic status.” A nation is given democratic or undemocratic status when the policing entity says so. Under impunity, the US becomes judge and jury, proclaiming at will which nations are to be deemed democratic and which not, backed by its interventionary steamroller. Thus, a host of constitutionally elected administrations have been policed and found derelict pursuant to the self-reflexive judgments of the US: Sandinista Nicaragua, Chavez’s Venezuela, Arbenz’s Guatamala, Sukarno’s Indonesia, Allende’s Chile, etc. The actual participation and will of those nations’s people becomes secondary to US determination of their situation, which it then substitutes for them, disappearing them behind that determination. And popular resistance to US judgment will get consigned to either ignorance or criminality, to be met with raw power (as in the above-mentioned cases) as the ultimate prerogative of impunity.

A double crisis haunts the operation of impunity, however. Internationally, the ethos of impunity adopted by the US puts all nations at risk. In their uninterrupted diplomatic dealings, they have to be careful not to appear recalcitrant. And domestically, the US presumption of world enforcement means that any demonstration of inadequacy will immediately escalate to the level of political crisis. Impunity works only as long as the presumptive cop can pull it off. The Iraqi resistance has placed the US in a crisis. On the one hand, the US gets caught in the contradiction of advocating democracy while suppressing it at every turn in Iraq: Iraqi newspapers, self-organized elections, and free speech have all been thrown in the same pit as their sovereignty. And on the other, the domestic coherence of US policy has crumbled, not only in the exposure of the lies and pretense upon which that policy is based, not only in the internal economic instability that the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq were supposed to prevent, but in the clear abrogation of all US ideals and ideologies in the attempt to export them.  In a sense, it is the dilemma of annexation in 1846 coming home to roost in 2004.

These dilemmas of annexation, over 150 years apart, were prefigured in the Declaration of Independence. In that call to revolution, the principle of equality was proclaimed, while the revolutionaries themselves, by the end of their war in the 1780s, were quite wedded to the notion that the US was to be “white nation.”3 Black people were categorized as non-citizens through a host of alternate designations: for instance, as ciphers (the 3/5 rule), a moral problem (Jefferson), aliens (Taney), an inheritance to be repatriated to Africa (Monroe)4—anything but what they were, the primary working class of the nation. They did the work in the principal economic sector of the US at the time of the revolution, the plantations—which were, from the beginning, mass-production agribusinesses producing commodities for an international market, under the aegis of a corporate colonial structure. The conflation of coerced “participation” (as enslavement or bond-labor) with non-participation (the withholding of citizenship) is mirrored in the later problematic of annexation, the refusal of recognition as a form of incorporation with the land.

Let us look, then, at the structure of racialization that produced the Declaration’s dilemma, which appears again and again as a self-righteous paradox of interventionism. The structure of racialization concretizes the process of invention of race and whiteness, in the 17th-century colonies, as it evolved alongside the juridical structure of slavery.

The Creation of a Colonial Structure of Racialization

When the English first arrived in the Americas in 1607, they did not think of themselves as white, and there was no juridical concept of slavery in English law. Significantly, they did not begin to refer to themselves as white in the sense of that being a social category rather than a descriptive quality until the 1690s, almost a century later. The trajectory of this transformation, which was then conceptualized as race by European thinkers of the mid-18th century (Linnaeus, Buffon, Kant, etc.), coincided with the evolution of slavery itself. The colony’s self-racialization as white in relation to its African bond-laborers (racialized as black) only culminated well after Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, and as a direct response to that rebellion. And significantly, the codification of slavery marked only one of its many dimensions.5

The impetus for this process lay in various distinctive aspects of English colonial structure (in comparison with the Spanish). These included: 1) its corporate form of organization;6 2) the initial mass cultivation of tobacco (a drug with a ready market in Europe); 3) the particular form of wealth represented by chattel, both English and African (which eventually militated for the legislation of perpetual servitude of the Africans); 4) the auction markets that hyper-commodified African bond-laborers; 5) the enactment of matrilineal servitude status (contravening the central tenet of patriarchy); and 6) the passage of various anti-miscegenation laws—the last two measures providing a socio-economic basis for the eventual biologization of the differential between people that became known as “race.”

Bacon’s rebellion was a critical upheaval against English rule that almost put an end to the colonial adventure in Virginia altogether. Bacon was a young plantation owner, newly arrived in the 1670s, who organized the small farmers, mostly freed English indentured laborers living on the periphery of the colony as a buffer between the colony’s center and the indigenous. For them, the only way to augment personal wealth and thus gain political influence was to seize land outside the boundary of the colony. Bacon led bands of farmers on unprovoked raids against the nearby Algonquin societies and then attacked the Colonial Council for insufficiently protecting those same farmers against the Algonquin counter-attacks. When the rebellion was quelled, after six months of strife, both English and African bond-laborers were found in solidarity and under arms in Bacon’s ranks. Panicked by this discovery, the Colonial Council sought ways to obviate any further concerted action against itself.7

Its first step, after the return of social stability, was to initiate a fear campaign among the English, by means of warnings against the threat of “Negro rebellion” (as it was termed in the colonial statutes). These warnings made reference to the extreme hardships and social disruptions suffered during Bacon’s uprising, by suggestion shifting the onus for social disruption from the historical reality Bacon had acted in to an imagined eventuality at the hands of the growing population of African bond-laborers; in other words, it deployed the English past to demonize the Africans in English eyes. By thus inculcating a form of social paranoia, the Council sought to unite all the English, from elite to bond-laborers, against this projected threat of an “enemy within” (RR, 63). Previously, English and African bond-laborers had made common cause in attempting to escape the hardships of their servitude. The campaign to isolate the Africans in the colony was accompanied by an importation of many more to shift the plantation labor force wholly over to African labor. The Council also required plantation owners to augment the severity and brutality of labor conditions. While ostensibly to prevent rebellion, that provided the Africans all the more reason for it. And this is the mark of its paranoid intention, to make the need for rebellion palpable rather than alleviate it through eased working conditions or non-enslavement altogether.

In 1682, the Council codified slavery as such, legislating permanent and perpetual chattel status for all Africans.8 It thereby created an absolute juridico-economic hiatus between the Africans as laborers and the English as a multi-layered colonial administration. The resulting social differential between the English and the Africans presaged the structure of racialization itself, which must be understood as above all a system of social categorization. In particular, it provided an economic and juridical basis for English solidarity, a closing of ranks as the inculcated response to the Council’s fear campaign. English solidarity against the paranoia projected toward the Africans thereby imparted to the Africans a character of total alterity. Thus, the colony coalesced around a mode of social consensus and social identification under duress. In the socio-cultural consensus engendered by that coalescence, the English began to see themselves categorially as white (RR, 65ff). It was both a transformation of color signifiers from descriptive to categorizing, and a transformation of social identification from English to white. Both mark the operation of racialization.

Though originally the Africans were referred to as “Negro” (from the Spanish for black) because descriptively dark, that term had stood in binary relation to “English” in colonial parlance. That is, both were generic references to geopolitical origin (England and Africa). The legislated invention of an absolute social Otherness across the hiatus of slavery provided the basis for the shift in language, transforming the color terms into social categorizations. Once those symbols referred to categories, they also referred to the social relations behind them, and became racializing signifiers—ultimately, the names for “races.”

Variations of color had, of course, been noticed by the Europeans as they cohabited with people in other continents. The use of color as descriptive distinction was immediate; and a purity criterion for colonial administration was insisted on in order to preserve its links to European monarchy and its colonial hegemony against any claims by future creole or mestizo generations. Because the spectrum of skin shade is continuous, with no natural breaks, it was the colonial insistence on their purity (first as European, and then in the 18th century as white) that established the first arbitrary division in the world’s people according to color. In other words, the Europeans’ purity criterion for whiteness, expressing a political necessity engendered by colonialist aggressions, had to evolve through a number of socio-cultural stages before it became the necessary condition for the eventual European invention of race.

The final stage of that process, at the end of the 17th century, was the organization of an arbitrary system of violence against the now-enslaved Africans: the slave patrols (RR, 67-69). The patrols were conscripted from poor whites (farmers and laborers) under elite control. Their stated purpose was to contravene any signs of organization or autonomy among the slaves, and to stop or recapture runaways. They rapidly generated a style of gratuitous aggressive violence against all black people, claiming that such violence was a response to discovered obstinacy or rebelliousness. For the English, the patrols’ violence in the guise of counter-violence legitimated not only the organization of the patrols, but the entire institution of slavery. It both valorized their white solidarity against the black population, and validated the paranoia that had produced it.

Politically, the patrols engendered two substructures of the social hierarchy. For the poorer whites, the patrols were a means of gaining approbation and patronage from the elite: lacking suffrage, they took on a totalitarian social role as further integration into the colonial consensus. For the plantation owners, the violence opened the possibility of paternalism, a form of protection racket in which security was offered to slaves against patrol violence in exchange for good behavior, or for trustee and informant activity. The violence generated allegiance among the English to whiteness and a barracade behind which to feel sanctified and civilized about the slave conditions they had imposed on the Africans.

It is this confluence of paranoia, solidarity, and violence that constitutes the structure of racialization. Where violence heightened the sense of paranoia upon which social consensus depended, that fear in turn produced a necessity for social solidarity around the structure of enslavement, that is, a sense of paranoid solidarity that further legitimated violence as its expression. The violence, in justifying the paranoia, and rationalizing the social solidarity it necessitated, became a pole around which a social identification with whiteness could coalesce as a coherent cultural identification, in the sense of an allegiance to being white (RR, 70).

In light of this history, a revision or reconceptualization of the notion of “race” is necessary. “Race” is something one group does to another; that is, “race” has to be understood as a verb, and not a noun. The verb is “to racialize”; and all aspects of its development as a system of social categorizations (developed by whites as the structure of their social identification as white) are relational within the framework of hierarchy.

Ultimately, the colonists’ sense of white racialized identity provided an ineluctable differentiation from England, a disparity of allegiance which formed the basis for the independence movement. Independence did not involve a program for social or political change; the colonial structure was satisfactory for the colonial elite. It expressed a distinction in social identification. This is reflected in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence: “When, … it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another.” The colonists had come to see themselves as a different “people” from the English. Though they had English origins, their allegiance had shifted, and driven them to lay total claim to the slave system of agricultural mass-production from which their white identity had emerged. It was from within that racialized identification that the revolutionaries understood their endeavor to be the founding of a “white nation,” and that “the people” they represented were white people (see note 3).  Subsequently, white racialized identity, as supra-national, was incorporated into European thinking through theorization of “naturalists” like Buffon, and informed the Europeans’ later aggressions on other continents; yet whiteness as reflecting a racialized form of social categorization had its origins in the Virginia colony (RR, 71f).

Ultimately, the cycle of paranoia, white solidarity, and violence repeats itself in the development and operations of Jim Crow from the 1880s onward. In the wake of Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation was instituted to reconstitute racialized social categorization. Slavery was replaced by debt-servitude and sharecropping. Paranoia took the form of the demonization of black men along sexual lines. Segregation and disenfranchisement statutes concretized white social exclusiveness and solidarity through socio-political exclusion of black people; and the violence of chain gangs and open collective mob violence against the black body valorized the differential in civil status, and made the paranoia seem real. White mob violence, in “proving” the “threat,” constituted the ritual enactment that drove the reconstruction of white consensus and white racialized identity.

We might recall the public killing of Jesse Washington in 1916. 15,000 people showed up, and watched the men who took him out of jail kill him by slow torture. There had been newspaper announcements, a date and time given; and the railroad had put on extra trains going into the town for that day. The entire society was consensually involved in this act. As Ida Wells points out, it was the public (and state-sanctioned) aspect of the event that produced the feeling of sanctity among whites, convincing them that their abstract criminalization of black men was just, and that Jim Crow laws were necessary to stem the tide.9

Conversely, it is the sense of sanctity in criminalizing the other that serves to decriminalize the crimes of violence against that other, who is then seen not as white society’s victim, but as aggressor by his mere existence. This structure is repeated in police profiling, in a long list of arbitrary police murders (Amadou Diallo, Tyisha Miller, etc.), and in the formation of a prison-industrial complex with a prison population of over 2 million. White social sanctity is preserved in seeing all this as a social defense against a “problem,” rather than recognizing the problem of social injustice that white supremacy itself constitutes.

The same cycle of paranoia, white solidarity, and violence characterizes the assault on Iraq. A nation thousands of miles away, one which had suffered incredible bombing in 1991 (the ordinance dropped on Iraq proper during the 6 weeks of that assault was the conventional equivalent of 6 Hiroshima-size A-bombs), and had then been subjected to 13 years of total trade embargo, was presented to the American people as a threat. If most people believed the alleged threat, it was because it touched one of the most fundamental levels of cultural being of the “white republic.” Though great opposition developed quickly against the planned assault on Iraq (based on recognition that it would violate both international law and democratic ethics), once the invasion occurred, most of that opposition evaporated. The customary solidarity generated by military violence took hold. Significantly, there was little black participation in the organized opposition, but there was profound oppositional sentiment in the black media, in part because black people have cause to fear becoming the “Iraq within,” bearing the brunt of state repression.

The 1846 assault on Mexico in Texas had been accomplished through a similar self-referential cycle of fear, white consensus, and violence—fear of the corruption of the purity of US democratic institutions (for which the land had to be “cleared” and its inhabitants dehumanized), and nationalist unity around a messianic and exterminationist democracy, for which the violence of invasion stood as affirmation that the idea of “bringing democracy” to the territory was real.

White Supremacy and the Two-Party System

The purity of democratic institutions was, in the historical debates around Manifest Destiny, an extension of the purity concept of whiteness. And in the evolution of the two-party system, a further extension of the structure of racialization expresses itself. The force driving US political process toward a two-party system historically was none other than the question of slavery and the disenfranchisement of the black voter. An examination of this process will be appropriate to the present discussion, especially since the concept of the two-party system was further called in question, in the 2004 election, because of the occupation of Iraq and the political polarization around that fact, coupled with the policy equivalence between Bush and Kerry, or between Republican and Democratic Party positions. And in the background there lurks the memory of the massive disenfranshisement of voters of color in Florida, 2000, that gave Bush the White House, and paved the way for the present wars and occupations.10

The disenfranchisement of the black voter has been a major issue throughout US history. It was hotly debated right after the Revolution, imposed in most states before the Civil War, opposed by means of paramilitary operations during and after Reconstruction, and flaunted in the face of Constitutional guarantees of the right to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The drive to disenfranchise black people continues today through massive felony incarceration for misdemeanors and victimless crimes, for which they lose suffrage. According to Paul Haygood, more than 13% of potential black voters are currently disenfranchised.11

The following vignette will perhaps give a flavor of the issue’s early character. In 1800, a group of free African-Americans from Pennsylvania petitioned Congress to end the slave trade and begin the abolition of slavery altogether. A mere 24 years had passed since the Declaration of Independence had proclaimed all to have the right to liberty. Though the petition was mild in its terms, and correct in its utilization of respectable channels of political expression, it was rejected outright by Congress, and resulted in a debate on the denial of the right to petition for African-Americans (NS, 34).

In general, the experience of African-Americans (until the massive voter registration drives in the 1960s) has been that any attempt to exercise citizenship resulted in attempts to curtail that right, often simply by violence. Direct violence has frequently served as a substitute for disfranchisement; in Massachusetts, for instance, where black suffrage had not been banned, in 1850, mobs of white voters drove any black person who attempted to vote from the areas of the polls (NS, 91). The attempt by African-Americans to vote was the cause of massive white riots in the 1830s in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Boston.

Indeed, while arguing against abolition in 1836, Senator Leigh of Virginia pointed to the several white mob riots that had occurred in those cities, and asked what those riots might have been had there been general emancipation. No question was raised about possibly charging the white mobs with criminal behavior, or bringing their instigators to justice. Rather than be marked as illegal, the white mobs were understood by Leigh to be simply demonstrating the Anglo-Saxon propensity to dominate and “enslave other races” (RMD, 209). It was a covert way of claiming that black people should properly be enslaved so that good “civilized” whites would be spared the necessity and indelicacy of mob barbarity. During the same period, abolitionist whites who argued for emancipation were the ones criminalized and attacked for inciting or potentiating even greater mob violence.

The “democratic” excuse that, if the majority thinks and acts this way, it has to be accepted as their democratic will, only signified that “democracy” was to be a purely white prerogative, that the democracy envisioned by white people was only white democracy (NS,14f). It further signified that the violence of white people against black was not about defending white identity against an assault upon it; rather, it was about the very construction of that white identity. In other words, those riots played the same role as did the slave-patrols in the 1730s and the White Citizens Councils in the 1960s.

It was in this context that the two-party system evolved. After the 1820s, a multiplicity of parties had formed: Democratic, Whig, Liberty, Know-nothing, Free Soil, and Workingman’s parties. Against the Democrats, who represented the ruling interests of the plantation south, the other parties evolved around two major issues, slavery and states rights. Opposition to slavery was proposed through various strategies: abolition, non-extension to the new territories, gradual emancipation, transportation to Africa, etc. And free African-Americans fought against the slave system through abolitionist societies, speaking tours in Europe, yearly conventions to push for suffrage, and by moving to Canada.

As anti-slavery sentiment gradually coalesced (which would eventually result in the formation of the Republican Party), a strange checkerboard effect emerged in political alignments. Though the Democrats generally defended slavery, there was a radical wing that saw slavery as evil and anathema to American ideals. And though the anti-slavery sentiment attacked slavery as evil, it had a conservative wing that supported segregation. In effect, the issue of emancipation threw the two factions against each other, and at the same time divided each down the middle12 (Z, 183). What produced this political checkerboarding was the structural problem of obtaining national existence as a political movement and/or party. If one entered politics, one had to envision having a national political presence to have any real effect. But the desire to obtain a national presence meant that a party had to reduce its program to what was arguable in all areas. Thus, it dictated that no principled ideological stance could be adopted on the central question of slavery or abolition.

This meant that the anti-slavery movement, as the many parties that composed it gradually coalesced into one party (the Republican), had to present itself as being anti-black, so that the white vote would not flee to the Democrats (as Horace Greeley pointed out at the time  (NS, 88)). Thus, these antislavery parties by and large opposed black suffrage, recognizing that any black vote it received for opposing slavery would also cost it white votes. The proslavery party recognized in turn that freed slaves would align themselves with the anti-slavery party, and thus opposed black suffrage. In effect, the politics of slavery reduced itself to expediencies, opportunisms, and lowest common denominators. And debate on the issue often devolved to racial name-calling among whites.

In other words, the actual issue addressed across these political differences was not the implementation of constitutional democracy but what kind of white hegemony to construct, and how whiteness was to be conceived as a social structure. The issue was reduced to a language that accepted white supremacy, in which two contesting positions on the politics of slavery were more proximate than distant. Beyond the question of the issues of race and suffrage being subservient to regional politics, race was instead the language in which parties framed issues with respect to each other.

What was truly at stake—the real anti-slavery and anti-segregationist interests of black people—was rendered politically ignorable by white politics. Instead, those interests got re-expressed as the common pretext for refusing black suffrage, out of fear that black people, as a form of bloc or a third party, would obtain control of the balance of power as the tie-breaking vote in close legislative contests (NS, 76f). For example, in New York, the black vote was considered to have been the deciding vote between Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans. After 1821, when the (Jeffersonian) Republicans succeeded in restricting the vote in New York to “white male citizens” (NS, 82) and the few free African-American men with sufficient property, black people were still considered to be the deciding factor on anti-slavery issues (NS, 90).

In other words, rather than be a way of making democracy efficient, the two-party system formed around how to make democracy exclusive, as a way of making the structure of white hegemony efficient.

Of course, had there been no segregation, and no obsessive noticing of “black people,” voting or not, there would have been no “black vote” as such, nor a black interest in counter-exclusionary expression. African-Americans faced the political arena through a veil of white exclusion that whites could then proclaim would produce an independent black politics and a “black vote,” if permitted to do so. In effect, the “black vote” was produced by that white act of noticing. Thus, the familiar circle emerged. Black people were excluded from voting because the possibility of their forming an independent black political force was seen as a threat, while it was their exclusion that created the necessity for their becoming an independent black political force. In short, the logic of noticing the “black vote” rendered electoral politics white.

The same thing happens with the notion of a “minority.” The concept of “minority” belongs to democratic procedure. Each time a vote is taken on anything, a minority will exist. But it exists only in that vote, and as a result of that vote, and not “as such” in the voting arena. When a group is designated a “minority,” it is through some level of participatory exclusion by a majority group that establishes its majoritarian status through such exclusion. A minority group differs from an electoral minority in that the latter is produced by a vote while the former, the “minority” group, is a group that is outvoted in some essential sense before any vote is taken. In other words, there is no such thing as a “minority”; there is only a process of “minoritization” at the hands of a majoritarian group.

Ultimately, in a similar fashion, the idea that the “black vote” could be nothing but a swing vote, prior to consideration of any real issues, in order to disenfranchise the black voter in principle, was based on paranoia (the same paranoia that underlay the structure of racialization itself). Indeed, African-Americans themselves were conscious that the influence they could wield electorally was limited; it could express itself only at a ward level, and would not extend to the legislature as such. Such an extension would have required a third (black) party, an option generally rejected by black political groupings because it would have meant losing the influence they did have within the major political tendencies. In New England, without black disenfranchisement, no independent black political parties appeared, nor did black caucuses form within the existing parties. In other words, when communities of free black people sought political expression, it was within channels, and tended to establish the same kind of party loyalties that whites did. When the Liberty Party brought together various anti-slavery movements in 1840 in a still fluid political arena, many African-Americans hesitated to support its program, though it bespoke their interests, thinking it might antagonize both the Whigs and the Democrats, upon whom the issues of slavery and enfranchisement would concretely depend (NS, 88).

But such eventualities did not dissuade the advocates of disenfranchisement. Neither did the fact that African-Americans typically rejected colonization (in either Africa or Central America) because they felt themselves to be Americans, like whites. White paranoia toward black political involvement as an alien influence created black politics as an alien influence for whites. The sentiment for disenfranchisement proceeded as if white hegemony could be preserved only if no black participation were allowed, and the issues of government reserved as white issues.13

In sum, black suffrage was the arena on which the two white factions maneuvered with respect to each other, and crystalized themselves into a white two-party system. It was the white obsession with noticing the black vote as such, rather than how that vote was deployed, that defined white politics. While the content of the debate was whether African-American would constitute a tie-breaking vote between the two parties, it was the formal question of whether African-Americans should vote at all, debated by whites, that became what decided the balance of power between the parties. In effect, the paranoia of white self-referentiality defining an alien and hostile “black vote,” and violating that black vote by excluding it from the democratic process, rendered party politics the assertion of a white solidarity against it. Thus, the three dimensions of white racialized identity (paranoia, consensus, and violence) constituted the dynamic by which the two-party system was produced, as the most efficient means of deciding white political issues in the face of a white sense of threat from an imagined black politics.

Even white abolitionists in the early 1800s fell prey to thinking in terms of white consensus. They tended to agree that black people were poor, untrained, unprepared, uncivilized, etc. (ignoring the genius and capability for social organization displayed by merely surviving the constancy of white hostility, as Du Bois has pointed out). The original abolitionist project too often broke down in accepting the notion that black people had to prove something. No one suggested that it was white people who needed to be improved, or to prove themselves, by recognizing the criminality of their racist enterprise, or the immorality of their segregationist stance.

And it has been upon this foundation that a structural futility has been built into third-party organization. This futility does not derive just from the single-delegate district and the winner-take-all electoral system (both of which are specifically adapted to a two-party procedure).  It derives originally from the exclusion of the black franchise, based on a tradition of overriding (white) unity, which transforms itself into a paranoid monopolization of the political field, allowing no inclusion of forces from outside that political supremacism.  We need to remind ourselves that during the formative years of the two-party system, the targets of this exclusion were African-Americans or Mexicans.  The exclusion worked because it was coherent with the contradiction between the nation’s social ideals and the existence of slavery.

Our current political campaigns, that of 2004 as well as those of the last few decades, are emblematic of this structure. The “lesser-of-two-evils” idea is itself a euphemism for a fear internal to the party structure that obsessively substitutes itself for political principle. Political principle is rejected in favor of instrumentalities and expediencies. A principled candidacy is, in effect, proclaimed to be one that cannot win. And it is significant that the “lesser-of-two-evils” idea first appeared in the 1820s around the question of emancipation in the north. Given the choice between emancipation and slavery, between communities of free black people and the continuation of their imprisonment in the slave structure, the latter was considered by most whites to be the lesser of two evils. The acceptance of this mode of systematized fear, rather than an ethos of forthrightness, is a paranoia at the heart of all US political practice.

The agreement of the two 2004 candidates, Bush and Kerry, which is more pronounced than that of previous campaigns, reflects an emphatic call for consensus. That call is only the logical response to the siege mentality created by a pretension to world domination (as manifest by the invasions of sovereign nations, a military-oriented economy, and an ideology of permanent global hegemony as per the Project for a New American Century document). It is to consolidate that consensus that the violence which now stretches from war to Homeland Security operations and Patriot Act surveillence is promoted, legitimizing the invented and trumpeted “dangers” from non-aggressive places like Cuba or Venezuela.

In the sense that paranoia today drives both political parties, the two-party system itself, and US foreign policy, the insistence on consensus toward that policy—evinced by the programmatic parity between the two parties in support of a stance of violence both abroad and toward people of color at home—is all too familiar. That familiarity is acceptable to most Americans because it reflects the most fundamental socio-cultural structure of this society, the structure of racialization and white supremacy.


1. Prof. Zoltan Grossman tabulates well over 110 instances of US military intervention in the world ( See also, Noam Chomsky, Murdering History; Michael Parenti, Imperialism 101, (City Lights, 1995); US War Crimes in the 20th Century (Milwaukee Pledge of Resistance); Richard Grimmett, Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-1999 (Congressional Research Service Report, May 17, 1999).

2. Among the many articles on this, see Russell Mokhiber & Robert Weissman, “12 Reasons to Oppose War in Iraq,” Dissident Voice, Feb. 21, 2003. They are the authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for Mega-Profits and the Attack on Democracy (Common Courage Press, 1999)

3. These revolutionaries not only legitimized slavery in the Constitution; they also established, in the Naturalization Act of 1790 (one of the first major legislative acts of its first government), that the US would be a “white republic.” See William Wiecek, The Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism in America, 1760-1848 (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977), chapter 3. For an interesting discussion of the relationship between the economics of slavery and the racialization of political representation, see Derrick Bell, And We Are Not Saved (Basic Books, 1977), Chapter 1. From Benjamin Franklin in 1751 to Andrew Johnson in 1864, and including such luminaries as James Madison, John Jay, and Jedediah Morse, proclamation was made in private letters and in public (moreso after 1800, when the question of abolition of slavery was raised seriously) that the new American nation was to be a “white nation” (see RR, pp. 25, 67).  Of course, once the white racialized identity universalizes itself, or norms itself as “the” human, it no longer sees itself “proclaiming” this except when under duress.

4. Thomas Jefferson, Notes from Virginia. Chief Justice Taney in the Dred Scott Decision (1856).

5. Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race, Vol. II (NY: Verso, 1997).

6. On the importance of the corporate form of organization, see my discussion in RR, chapter 3.

7. The history and motivation of Bacon’s Rebellion is much disputed among historians, even today. What is undisputed is its representing a significant moment in the development of colonialism on the American continent. See Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: Harper & Row, 1980); T.H. Breen, “A Changing Labor Force and Race Relations in Virginia, 1660-1710,” in Shaping Southern Society, ed. T.H. Breen (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976); Bernard Bailyn, The Origins of American Politics (New York: Knopf, 1968).

8. William W. Hening, Statutes at Large: The Laws of Virginia (Richmond, 1809), pp. 492ff.

9. See Ida Wells, On Lynching: Southern Horrors (NY: Arno Press, 1969).

10. Greg Palast, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. (NY, Plume: 2003)

11. Ryan Paul Haygood, Black Commentator, June 10, 2004. According to Haygood, of the 4.7 million people disfranchised by felony conviction in the US, 1.4 million are black males, or 13% of the adult black population. This does not count black females.

12. Arthur Zilversmit, The First Emancipation: Abolition of Slavery in the North (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1967), p. 183.

13. Edgar McManus, Black Bondage in the North (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1973), p. 184.

Frequently cited works are represented in the text by the following abbreviations (listed in order of their first appearance):  RMD=Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981);  RR=Steve Martinot, The Rule of Racialization (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 2003);  NS=Leon Litwack, North of Slavery (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1961).

This entry was posted in 37, Volume 19, No. 1. Bookmark the permalink.