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Capitalism is Racism: An Update on the New Orleans Tragedy
by Thomas Harrelson    Dissident Voice
Entered into the database on Monday, February 20th, 2006 @ 19:14:49 MST


Untitled Document

In September 2005, while the world was watching the tragedy of the New Orleans flood unfold, I made the cynical observation that it was the poor and working-class African Americans who were going to be left out in the cold permanently as a consequence of that nightmare. It was claimed in the earlier article that this situation is due to the inherent character of capitalism, which is best described as having a “dog-eat-dog” nature, which means that the big dog will always eat the little one.

The September article opened with the statement, “The late Malcolm X said that: ‘You cannot have capitalism without racism’....” This claim can be understood when considered in the historical context of the fact that the early (white) capitalists in America were, among other things, slave holders while the early African Americans were brought here by force and violence in order to be slaves for the purpose of maximizing profits for the rich land owners by reducing labor costs. As a result of this vicious practice, the African American people were brought to America in such a circumstance that they were actually considered to be material resources, or property, rather than being economic earners, or humans. Later, after the slaves gained their freedom, these good people continued to be held at the very bottom of the economic ladder without any real means of climbing above whatever rung of that ladder its builder, the white “master class” of capitalist ownership, made available to them. Since it is a basic tenet of capitalist economics that those at the top will always rise at a more rapid and greater rate than those at the bottom, those at the bottom will inevitably always remain there.

This fact is apparent when we look at the economic data regarding the disparity of wealth in the US. It has been estimated that 28% of the total net wealth in America is held by the richest 2% of families while the top 10% holds over 57% of that wealth (if we exclude homes and other real estate from the factor the concentration of ownership is far greater). A New York Times article (Jan. 29, 2006) titled “Corporate Wealth Share Rises for Top-Income Americans” states,

In 2003 the top 1 percent of households owned 57.5 percent of corporate wealth, up from 53.4 percent the year before, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis of the latest income tax data. The top group's share of corporate wealth has grown by half since 1991, when it was 38.7 percent.

In 2003, incomes in the top 1 percent of households ranged from $237,000 to several billion dollars.

This same article goes on to say, “For every group below the top 1 percent, shares of corporate wealth have declined since 1991. These declines ranged from 12.7 percent for those on the 96th to 99th rungs on the income ladder to 57 percent for the poorest fifth of Americans, who made less than $16,300 and together owned 0.6 percent of corporate wealth in 2003, down from 1.4 percent in 1991.”

Therefore, when we then take into consideration that entire races of peoples have been forced by negative economic and historical events to start out in this economy at the bottom, we then begin to recognize the inherent racism in capitalism. The wealth of Latino and Black households is less than one-tenth the wealth of White households in America today. In a recent discussion about the disparity of wealth in America the economist Jared Bernstein, co-director of research at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C, stated, “Minorities tend to be concentrated on the lower end of the spectrum whether we're talking about income or wealth,” and, “If you're talking about wealth, the gap between white wealth and black wealth is very extreme because wealth is a more historical variable than income. African Americans by dint of their history in this country have had much less opportunity to accumulate wealth over time.”

Meanwhile, after any academic, economic and historical analysis is completed, we find ourselves again in the very real present and watching while the continuation of this same economic racism is being played out in New Orleans. In our September article, it was observed, “Who owns the most -- and most valuable -- property in New Orleans...? It is the wealthy white business owners, not the poor, African American working families who're struggling to survive. This means that it is the white owners who get priority in all matters regarding the securing and restoration of the city. The business owners were able to evacuate in a safe and timely manner, they will be able to afford to rebuild their homes and businesses and it is their property which is given priority even over the very safety of the good African American people who aren't quite as well off as they are and were therefore left to fend for themselves in this disaster.

“This has always been the modus operandi in America. It is always ‘the privileged’ classes who are given priority while the poor and people of color are considered to be second and third class citizens at best. Americans try to fool themselves with the naive idea that racism is a thing of the past; but we have just witnessed a form of capitalistic, institutionalized racism which is in a large part responsible for the deaths of thousands in New Orleans. One of the most frightening things about this is that it is such an inherent part of the capitalist system that most people are blind to it. Here the metaphor of not being able to see the trees for the forest is most appropriate.”

In the above statement it was noted that the wealthier (white) home and business owners were the ones who will continue to be given priority “regarding the securing and restoration of the city” while the lower income African Americans will continue to be forced to fend for themselves. This statement was challenged at that time and said to be a negative and judgmental speculation, but history has born out the truth of these words.

It was reported in a headline of the Jan. 27, 2006 New York Times that a “Study Says 80% of New Orleans Blacks May Not Return.” Why might they not return? The article states, “New Orleans could lose as much as 80 percent of its black population if its most damaged neighborhoods are not rebuilt and if there is not significant government assistance to help poor people return.” This can basically be understood as a result of the fact that the $85 billion which the US government earmarked for restorations will be used first for infrastructure reconstruction, second for rebuilding the economy -- which basically means restoring (white owned) businesses -- and then a small remaining amount for rebuilding homes. Based on this economic hierarchical system, we can also assume that it will be those homeowners with the strongest economic ties to their community, that is property owners with larger holdings, business owners, etc who will be first in line for these funds (as America's economic historical precedent would confirm). The NYT article states that the most damaged areas of New Orleans, which includes the (majority black population) Ninth Ward, may not be rebuilt at all. This, in itself, is an assurance that a large percentage of the African American community of New Orleans will probably never return to their homes and lives.

It was reported in the same NYT article that, “Elliott B. Stonecipher, a political consultant and demographer from Shreveport, La., said that unless New Orleans built housing in flood-protected areas for low-income residents, and also provided support for poor people to relocate, chances were good that many low-income blacks would not return.”

“If they didn't have enough resources to get out before the storm,” Mr. Stonecipher said, “how can we expect them to have the wherewithal to return?”

The article also said that the Bush Administration opposed bills in Congress to give further aid to New Orleans' residents to rebuild their properties because they have already allocated $85 billion and that was a good start, while they don't think that there is a clear enough recovery plan in place to consider giving more.

This is what it all really boils down to here in this capitalist nation; and why it was so easy to predict these sorry events from the start. Those with the resources (the haves) will be able to return to their communities and rebuild their homes and lives while those good souls who -- for no other reason than the fact that their entire race has been oppressed by centuries of greed, violence and bigotry in the US -- do not have the resources (the have-nots) will be forced to find habitation wherever they may and begin again at the very bottom of that same economic ladder which has worked so well for its maker and so poorly for the rest of us.

Thomas Harrelson is a peace activist, a leftist and the editor of Leftward.net.