Whether you are politically inclined to the left or the right, consider yourself a conservative, a liberal or something else altogether most people agree that we are in a bad way. This belief has manifested in two of the most important movements of our time: the Tea Party and Occupy. Surely, these two movements have stark differences; however, sadly, they are too often juxtaposed as completely opposite, as wanting totally divergent outcomes. Nothing is farther from the truth. The Tea Party and Occupy stem from the same place: economic exploitation. What makes them appear polar opposites is the same wedge that has been driven between poor people since the inception of this country: whiteness.
Nathaniel Bacon to Ted Cruz
Perhaps you can recall your high school American history course, maybe you can even remember being taught about Bacon’s Rebellion. What you were taught was probably limited to some version of the following: Nathaniel Bacon was a Virginia frontiersman who organized other disillusioned farmers and demanded a change in the ruling system of Virginia, specifically the removal of Governor William Berkeley. This history probably skimmed over the fact that Bacon and his crew were upset at the failure of Berkeley to retaliate on Native tribes in the region (this in and of itself demonstrates a belief in the superiority of whiteness). The aspect of Bacon’s Rebellion that is often skipped completely is what it did to further the creation of our current racial order. Bacon’s Rebellion is one of the earliest manifestations of the investment in whiteness that still dominates our economic, political, and social discourse today.
Bacon’s Rebellion consisted of former indentured servants who were not treated much differently than slaves. The ideas of black inferiority and white superiority were not yet engrained in the ways we see them today; this all changes after Bacon’s Rebellion. Because the elites recognized the potential for a multiracial alliance between the economically oppressed European indentured servants and African slaves they instituted and enforced an incredibly brutal racial caste system and hierarchy. Europeans were now, by virtue of simply being white, objectively treated and thought about as better. Blacks, on the flip side, were further dehumanized. The result is the horrors of American slavery and system of white supremacy.
What is important to recognize about this is that it springs from the desire of elites to maintain their economic advantage. The elite used the most obvious difference, skin color, to divide, conquer AND PREVENT the formation of a potentially revolutionary multiracial alliance. This tactic is still being used today– only slightly more sophisticated.
Because whiteness was now elevated it came with a culture, a set of norms. Not the least of these norms is adherence to capitalism and the free market. This culture persists as American capitalism and whiteness evolve together, one giving life to the other. It is because of this investment in whiteness poor Europeans in America do not have the benefits enjoyed by European countries today such as: Single-payer health care, free higher education, strong unions, thirty-five hour work weeks, vacations, etcetera. Worse than simply missing out, working class and poor Americans of Europeans decent actively work against these common sense services because the dominant narrative tells them they are “welfare” and reserved for “those people” i.e people of color.
This perverse investment in a concept originated to maintain the economic oppression of poor Europeans and Africans is playing out today as Tea Party Republican Ted Cruz has lead the charge to shut down the government rather than accept the Affordable Care Act as law. Tea Partiers all over the country are passionate about getting “their country back” insinuating that if the government would stop trying to help those lazy, good for nothing people of color and just let the market work they would be able to scale the socio-economic ladder. It is this belief in the market that is at the core of the investment in whiteness. The Tea Party simply believes the government is an obstacle to their market success, it is here that their intersection with Occupy is informative.
Occupy is framed as being anti-capitalist and pro-government. In some ways that is true. Occupy does not hide its anti-capitalist sentiment and some of their rhetoric would suggest a faith in the fundamentals of electoral politics and the core of our government. It is the belief in the inherent goodness of the government that separates them from the Tea Party. Where the Tea Party believes the government should be secondary to the free market, Occupy believes the government should correct the inequalities of the market: that the government, if made up of the right kind of people, can provide equality, peace and prosperity.They neglect to understand that it was the government that codified white supremacy in law, that is to say, traditionally, the US government is not the best vehicle for racial justice. Therefore, Occupy remains in no better standing in terms of investing in the harmful ideology of whiteness than the Tea Party. Neither Occupy nor the Tea Party understands that they are serving their purpose, that they are furthering the aims of the power structure by fighting each other.
While Occupy is screaming about the Tea Party, and the Tea Party is screaming about Occupy neither is actually screaming at the enemy: whiteness. It is whiteness that paved the way for the Tea Party to put so much faith in the market (part of the promise of being included in the club of whiteness is economic opportunity). It is whiteness that blinds the Occupy movement and keeps them from realizing their potential. If these groups would understand that they are being separated by design, that this separation dates all the way back to Nathaniel Bacon, and that the only possible outcome of bickering is to watch as elites continue to prosper off their work then we would see real economic progress in this country.
It is important to understand that this economic progress, which is quite clearly the goal of both the Tea Party and Occupy, is only attainable by understanding whiteness is the enemy. When I say whiteness is the enemy I don’t mean people of European decent, I mean the culture and set of norms that were set up to systematically benefit Anglo-Saxons at the expense of everyone else. Identifying our enemy is important because it frees up our energies to build the type of multiracial alliances that were so threatening to the power structure during the 17th century. Imagine if we could develop economies that met the needs of the people and left nobody on the margin. Imagine if our basic human dignities were not assaulted daily in the name of profit. Imagine if our government was truly accountable to the people. What would need to be occupied? Why would we need to be nostalgic for times of increased oppression and discrimination? We wouldn’t. We could simply be.