On the Continuing Prevalence of Racism

Invasion Day ‘Every miserable fool,’ wrote Arthur Schopenhauer, expressing a great truth not only about nationalism but racism as well, ‘who has nothing at all of which he can be proud, adopts as a last resource pride in the nation to which he belongs; he is ready and happy to defend all its faults and follies tooth and nail, thus reimbursing himself for his own inferiority.’[1] For those who had nothing else going for them other than the false pride of things they had no say in, such as the color of their skin and the geographical location in which they were born, the two were natural refuges, and it was equally natural that they went together. Thus the observation regarding the American variety of nationalism from Toni Morrison to the effect that, ‘in this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.’

Given such truisms, one might be forgiven for wondering however naively if perhaps, in light of recent major atrocities of history like the Holocaust and continuing catastrophes like the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, such revolting specters of human ignorance and hate might not inspire significantly less hateful and ignoble attitudes and conduct amongst the rest. The history of human societies, soaked in blood and the misery of countless anonymous millions lost to the false pride of nation and ethnicity, would certainly strongly indicate the appropriateness of such a move far more broadly.

We are, after all, living now in the 21st century, where abundant technological wizardry indicates degrees of development in some areas of society appropriate for the age of our civilization. In other areas, in other hand, our collective development comes nowhere near to what we might expect given our copious opportunities to evolve further. In societies like Australia, this is particularly true where our cultural development is concerned. Other western countries that have existed for far longer have even less excuse. We find then a more or less pervasive imbalance between our technological progress and our cultural progress, such that the former often becomes subject to the irrationalities associated with the latter.

One can certainly appreciate the value of racist bigotry to the original colonial invaders of the Australian continent; it was clearly in the interests of the white colonists to believe along with Daisy Bates that their role as colonists was to ‘smooth the pillow of a dying race.’ In this respect, the racism that manifest as benevolent paternalism (as it so often seems to) greased the wheels of land theft and genocide by enabling the delusion that the inhabitants were racially inferior heathens and savages who needed saving from themselves and ‘civilizing’; white supremacism enabled the white invaders to morally disengage from their historical crime and reconstruct their theft of the land as a moral action carried out in the best interests of its victims.

To this way of thinking, it was the fault of the original inhabitants for not having taken the land as property and cultivated it that entitled Europeans to apply their morality selectively. The paradox of this logic of course was the way it was used as a pretext to kill, rob and enslave the indigenous population; bringing civilization to the Australian continent ultimately meant killing and enslaving the inhabitants, usurping their sovereignty, stealing the land and then inventing a racist ideology to justify it by way of blaming the victims after the fact.

While such thinking is certainly ugly, fraught with internal self-contradictions and profoundly criminal, one can at least put it in context by relating it to the need of white invaders to rationalize their historical crimes and shift the blame for them back onto their victims. If the land was empty, if it was Terra Nullius as originally decreed, and the people who to all intents and purposes appeared to inhabit the land weren’t actually people to whom human standards applied, then it was free for the taking. In this day and age, on the other hand, we know what crimes against humanity were committed in the name of European invasion of Australia, just as we know what crimes against humanity were committed in the name of white supremacism in other parts of the world. Two centuries removed from this era then, why is racism so prevalent when, from a historical perspective at least, it seems to have served its function?

We may find some introductory clue for this otherwise inexplicable set of circumstances in the film The Shawshank Redemption. At one stage in this film, the old prison librarian, Brooks, hangs himself after getting paroled and finding himself unable to readjust to life on the outside world. Such is his dependence on the tightly controlled world of Shawshank Prison that, left to his own devices, he experiences intolerable existential crisis. ‘In here he's somebody, out there he's nobody,’ comments the narrator, Red, here played by Morgan Freeman. Institutionalization of this kind is typical of the kind of internalization of authority that has fascinated social psychologists throughout much of the last century.

In pursuing their fascination for authoritarian psychology, social psychologists have, in the past, tried to understand not only what motivates some individuals to construct authoritarian systems of which Shawshank Prison is in this instance a metaphor, but also what motivates others to support them. This question arises in the main out of the paradox of people supporting elitist policies that fly in the face of their own material interests as workers and as people, much in the manner of our white collar racists at home in Australia. Why was Hitler able to draw such a large following? What was it about the character of a Stalin that he was able to hypnotise people with his cult of personality? Why do people preference political systems tantamount to social prisons over their own freedom?

In trying to develop a response to this question, Wilhelm Reich, a former student of Freud’s in Germany and a practicing psychoanalyst in Austria, prepared a number of treatments of the subject of authoritarian psychology, most notable amongst which was The Mass Psychology of Fascism. In this book, Reich argued that moralistic repression of all the personal drives towards individual assertion and self-fulfillment, be they physical or existential, diverted such energies instead into service of the totalitarian state. For the loyal subject of the Nazi state, Reich argued, the stereotype of the Jew provided a suitable scapegoat for its destruction of their individuality, and war a suitable outlet for otherwise frustrated energies (cue L7’s Wargasm).

With these aspects of Nazi social engineering taken care of and the bread and circuses arranged to keep the peasants from revolting, Hitler was able to bring the entire nation of Germany behind a militaristic project that resulted comprehensively in its destruction.

Most interestingly about Reich’s analysis was his observation that the dynamics driving the Nazi war machine were anything but limited to Germany in the 1930s; anything but, in fact. They were, Reich concluded, merely a dangerously acute example of subjective psychological and emotional tendencies that were far more pervasive in individual human subjectivity. There was, in other words, a little bit of Hitler in all of us — various attempts to portray the Nazi leader as somehow something other than human, as opposed to someone who was in reality all too human, as were those who marched forcefully in lockstep behind him straight to their own destruction.

Another German, Erich Fromm, reached similar conclusions. Fromm, who was a student of Jung, took a less mechanistic approach to authoritarian psychology. He argued in books such as The Fear of Freedom that the power of totalitarian regimes in particular derived in the main, not so much from the repression of personal physical drives, but from the inculcation and development of a relationship of emotional attachment to and dependence on authority. Many people, he found, had essentially the same kind of relationship with the state and with religious hierarchies that they had with codependent romantic partners.

Not only were these kinds of codependent political relationships ruinous of happiness, wellbeing and the capacity of people to function effectively as individuals, Fromm argued, but they were also destructive of their ability to function outside of them; thus the longer and more inured people became to them, the harder it was for them to leave. Rather than being strong, healthy and vibrant individuals capable of standing on their own two feet, they became repressed, dogmatic, rigid and inflexible, fearful of their own shadow even before they got to the newsstand, and paralyzed by terror in the face of real freedom. For adherents to institutionalized religion who had reified their ideologically driven codependency into an imaginary paternal figure, such freedom was tantamount to rejection or abandonment, and no less painful a prospect.

For those who stood to gain politically and financially from such relationships, the logical tendency from their point of view was to try to encourage them as much as they could. But then the desire to do so was not, in and of itself, enough to engineer the necessary dynamics; they were missing some kind of incentive to put the hook in potential victims. This was found partly in a sociological phenomenon David Roediger discussed in his eponymous The Wages of Whiteness, or what might and can more generally also be described as the ‘wages of privilege.’

Roediger’s book title as well as his area of study derived from an observation made by the famed W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote of a ‘public and psychological wage’ white masters paid to white workers as what amounted to a bribe for obedience.[2] The function of this social bribe was to induce the white working class to identify with their masters on the basis of what was essentially an accident of birth, the colour of their skin. Naturally siding with their masters came at the expense of demonstrating solidarity with their fellow workers, regardless of their ethnicity, with whom they shared concrete and tangible economic interests.

From a historical perspective, payment of the ‘public and psychological wage’ in the name of promoting an authoritarian psychology favourable to the maintenance of social and economic hierarchies was the root cause of racism. For historian Frank Van Nuys, racism constituted ‘the great national safety value,’ a means for propertied classes to take the heat out of class conflict within capitalist society.[3] This was an ever-present threat to the stability and security of the political establishment, the primary function of which James Madison, Father of the US Constitution, defined at the founding convention of the United States in 1776 as defending ‘the minority of the opulent from the majority’ — a prescient observation about the true nature of state power that somehow never made it into the high school history textbooks.

The utility of the ‘national safety valve’ derived in the main from its potential as a means of shifting the blame for the harmful and destructive consequences of class rule onto minorities too numerically weak to organise effective opposition. Primary amongst such consequences was ever-increasing wealth inequality, which only tended to exacerbate the dysfunctionality of purportedly democratic processes given the power imbalances associated with it, and the ability of moneyed cliques to dominate the political process and turn it ever more to the service of their own vested interests. If subject populations of black people, collectively subject historically to crimes against humanity such as the institution of chattel slavery, were poor, it was because they were lazy and stupid. In such notions was a ‘public and psychological wage’ for even the laziest and most dim-witted white-skinned worker, permitted thereby to indulge of their vanity, credulity, negativity, hatefulness, slavishness, sanctimoniousness and cruelty all in the name of moral rectitude.

Naturally the same was also true for what might be termed ‘the wages of patriarchy.’ Just as the minority of the opulent to whose defense the political establishment was so singularly devoted were able to pay a ‘public and psychological wage’ to the white working class, so too were they able to pay another to the male working class, regardless of ethnicity, thereby dividing it along the gender line as well as the colour one. The ‘wages of patriarchy’ paid to male workers in the idea that women were subordinate to men, served just as well as those of ‘whiteness’ to massage our cowardice and brutality, encouraging an abusive relationship of emotional and psychological codependency with our exploiters. Either form of ‘public and psychological wage’ or both in combination were often effective in neutralizing constructive responses to class antagonism that, channeled into labour organising and social struggle, could have produced meaningful change.

In this way did payment of the ‘wages of privilege’ provide a strategy for the political establishment to avoid accountability for its leading role in creating and exacerbating wealth inequality and all that encompassed in terms of social misery. By creating scapegoats out of the greatest victims and privileging various groups within the subject classes along multiple fault lines of gender, ethnicity, sexuality and ability amongst others, political classes ruling in the name of defending the minority of the opulent could, in the words of Cheryl Harris, utilise the great national safety value in ‘evading rather than confronting class exploitation.’[4]

From this perspective, the enduring value not only of racism, but also of an entire spectrum of forms of discrimination, for the white working class becomes more apparent. Naturally the public and psychological bribes for the white working class in the form of token privileges from the white ruling class are not and can never be enough to constitute their emancipation from the alienating character of a society divided into classes of haves and have-nots. By the same token things like the continuing gap in living standards and life expectancy between indigenous and European Australians continues to be explained away according to the illogic of white supremacy on the basis of the cultural and/or racial inferiority of the black population. On this basis, the dire poverty and marginalization of the latter is explained away as a product of their collective incapacity for hard work as opposed to historical dispossession, genocide and oppression — another example of blame shifting that feeds into the collective vanity of anglo-capitalism.

The fact that Terra Nullius was ever allowed to stand is unconscious statement of the vacancy of a national culture built on a gulag of penal settlements, built atop stolen land. That being the case, the continued appeal of racism and other forms of discrimination might be explained in terms of a general lack of anything more tangible for the purposes of nation-building than a century-old failed military campaign; in this sense racism provides a means of reconstructing out of nothing a sense of legitimacy for that which in reality ultimately amounts only the naked and brute exercise of state power. Racism has always been serviceable to the needs of the moneyed few; it clings to the institutions that service their vested interests like the ghosts of the dead whose land was stolen from underneath them. So too does it cling to the institution of working class racism, which finds in indigenous Australians and other minority groups a convenient scapegoat for its own cowardice and unconscious shame regarding its own emotional dependence on authority — a feeling that dogs it and yet finds neither any means of expression, nor relief.

For the working class racist then, the white power structure thus represents a kind of national safety blanket to which they can cling as a way of avoiding having to ever stand on their own two feet, and think and act for themselves. Such types are the first to say in the face of principled critiques of capitalism the well-trodden excuses about people not being capable of taking control of the conditions of their own work and lives — though what they inevitably mean is that they are not capable of taking control of the conditions of their own work and lives. They merely project their own incapacity onto the rest of the world around them, once again to avoid having to face up to themselves and their own subjective existentialist malaise.

If Australia began as a penal colony, as it did, then one might argue that the conditions faced by the early convicts were not that much different to those faced by the various characters in The Shawshank Redemption; if Australia as a penal colony was essentially an open-air prison, then the convicts transported to Australia were no doubt subject to the same authoritarian dynamics of brutalization, institutionalization and emotional dependence on authority. Merely federating and declaring a democracy does not make such dynamics go away, any more than it does the crimes that accompanied European colonization. The continuing prevalence of the kind of racism that provides a public and psychological wage to the white working class indicates that we are institutionalized yet, that in profound ways we remain a penal colony.

The bars of the penal colony still remain; they have only migrated into our heads in the form of our institutionalization and our emotional dependence on authority. In that sense then, the only real difference between the past and the present is the space between them. While we might find it easier to walk between them today than others did in the past, as long as we do not reconcile with our past, and as long as those of us to whom they are made available continue to take the wages of whiteness, we remain prisoners of our own history.

[1] Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, London; Penguin Classics, 1973.
[2] Roediger, David. The Wages of Whiteness. New York: Verso, 1991, 12
[3] Van Nuys, Frank. Americanizing the West: Race, Immigrants, and Citizenship, 1890-1930. University Press of Kansas, 2002, 16.
[4] Cheryl Harris, 'Whiteness as Property.' Harvard Law Review (1993): 1707-1791.


Ben Debney is a PhD candidate at Deakin University in Burwood, researching moral panics and the political economy of scapegoating, ‘The Oldest Trick in the Book.’ He is the author of a satirical novel, The Booger Peril: A History of Things to Come. More of his work is available online at bendebney.com.

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