On the purpose of racism and ways to defeat it

by David Ost
Professor of Political Science

Racism happens for a purpose. It is not just hate. It persists because some people gain from racism. Historically, obviously, landowners and cotton growers profited enormously from slavery. Capitalists gain when there is a group of people who can be paid less and exploited more, because they are “seen” as unworthy. Dominant-race or dominant-ethnicity workers who are always economically vulnerable often see an advantage to racism because it buttresses their claim to be paid more and exploited less: “we’re not like them, we obviously deserve more.” The New Deal was great for helping whites, via housing benefits and rights for workers in large factories. But those gains were possible in large part because black and brown workers were relegated to cheaper, more exploited jobs in other economic sectors. As is now well-known, in the United States, racism allowed the New Deal to help whites, as housing benefits and labor rights went almost entirely to whites, while African-Americans and Mexicans did cheap labor.

Fighting racism is thus very hard because, precisely because racism helps certain groups, who don’t want to lose what they have and so will continue with the racism, though they will make symbolic changes when they must. So, to succeed, the people who are involved with the movement, who sympathize, must stay firm. They won’t win quickly, and won’t win easily, but they need to persist past the current phase of symbolic changes and keep adding pressure. Meaningful change can mean revamping police departments, and it can — and should — mean also making it easier for trade unions to organize and win. Most minority workers stay poor not only because they’re minorities (and have to contend with structural impediments to building wealth) but because they work in jobs without unions, where employers can fire at will.

One of the worst things to witness these past months is employers forcing the lowest-paid workers to work dangerous jobs — precisely the jobs that everyone else needssomeone to be doing in order for these same “everyone else” to stay and work at home. We all know what’s going on: the poorest and most vulnerable people have literally been dying so that the more privileged can live well. This is the best (i.e. worst) example of how racism helps people! Racism is helping the more privileged people literally survive, by literally risking the lives of others. Many thousands of “front-line” transit workers, bus and subway drivers, delivery workers, nurses aids, janitors — all very disproportionately minority workers — have died, so that the rest of us can live.

Fighting racism means changing labor and union rules to give the vulnerable workers more strength, make them less vulnerable. It’s not just a matter of legislatures changing policies, but of allowing workers to organize for themselves by preventing employers from crushing unions, which they can now do easily.

Many scholars in universities, both political scientists and sociologists, teach courses on social movements, but few add unions into the syllabus. I do so because historically unions have been the most successful fighters against inequality of all sorts, including racism. In the 1930s, trade unionism became a mass movement because union activists began organizing workers in the new assembly-line factories. The CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) built up trade unions by organizing everyone, by fighting racism in their ranks. And the results, unsurprisingly, were benefits for everyone. When workers stopped fighting each other, the unions could make sure that everyone got paid better, got treated better. And these unions transformed America too, because after World War II, unions were a key constituency of the Democratic Party. Democrats needed unionists to win elections, but unions were now anti-racist, so the Democratic Party started taking anti-racist stands — most notably with the civil rights plank of the 1948 Democratic Party, which led the southern Dixie Democrats to run their own racist candidate for president, Strom Thurmond).

Yet while unions have long been key to fighting racism, they are not a cure-all solution. In the 1970s, the civil rights movement was strong, but white workers were declining economically, due to both the recession and the high-quality production goods coming from countries like Japan or Korea. In this context, even many white trade unionists reembraced racism, insisting that they, as dignified union workers, were more deserving than “protesting and riot-causing” blacks.


We know from social movement theory that movements thrive when new political opportunities open. And right now there are clearly political opportunities. The horrific video of the murder of George Floyd offered an initial “opportunity”: everyone saw it and were disgusted by it, thus creating a certain social “allowance” for protests. Other opportunities were opened by Trump’s racism and corona-incompetence: people sitting at home, hearing nothing from on-high except misinformation, lies, and racial nastiness — all this created huge opportunities for protests.

And political authorities are now taking notice, and doing what they can to encourage symbolic changes like the toppling of monuments so that the profiting off of racism can continue. It is very likely that a year from now we will be asking, “why weren’t there more significant changes? Why has so little been done?” Biden may become president, but he will have to be pushed, as will many of his voters. Again, racism can be fought only when people are ready to sacrifice the privileges they get from racism. That won’t be easy.

Massive demonstrations are effective. They’re effective when they’re disruptive, thus getting people to take notice. And they are effective when organizers “innovate the repertoire,” meaning when they do new kinds of actions that people are unfamiliar with, thus causing new people to take notice. Both of these conditions have been met in recent protests. That marches against racism included so many non-blacks made them even more noticeable to a wider public.

Recent official changes — disallowing chokeholds, eliminating Confederate symbols — show that the movement has had a very wide echo. But when social movements get big, the targets of protests must respond. At first they try to do very little. They try to make symbolic changes, to ease the tension and stop people from mobilizing. This often works. Symbolic change does matter, but sometimes it becomes a distraction. Durable change requires political power. It is important, for example, that Bernie Sanders has chosen to work with Joe Biden in order to push Biden towards more significant changes, rather than the moderate ones Biden is most comfortable with. But people will not only have to vote, they also need to fight against Republican efforts to suppress the vote.

This is a watershed moment. More people are talking about racism and inequality than at any time in the last 50 years. That is hugely consequential. But people must continue talking about it, and avoid being distracted by minor concessions. Fighting racism can and will help everyone in the long run. But because it hurts those who benefit from racism today, it is hard to bring about. Yet the fact that we’re talking about such issues — provided we keep doing so, and we keep the talk in mind when we vote — can help make fundamental change possible. We have a chance today that we haven’t had in the last couple of generations. And students can stand on the front line. It’s an exciting time to be a student, and they can, and should, work hard to set in motion the changes that are now more possible than they’ve been in a long time.