From racial division to class unity

The stages of development of the ideology of race in the United States

The dream deferred?

By 1970, the ruling class had weathered rebellion, violent confrontation and militant rhetoric, but it had achieved its goals. It had greatly expanded domestic industrial capacity. It had maneuvered to create a system of neocolonies tied to U.S. banks and financiers through credit and investment. U.S. control over the international monetary and credit systems, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, had been consolidated. The U.S. had established itself as the foremost military power in the world. Through the anti-communist campaigns of the 1950s and the Cold War, the ruling class had succeeded in crushing any and every strain within the working class movement that sought to unite the working class across color lines and had succeeded in indoctrinating entire generations of Americans that such ideas were "communist" and therefore "anti-American."

This success hinged on the phenomenal U.S. economic expansion in the 25 years after the war. The expansion arose from unique circumstances: Virtually sole access to the destroyed economies of Asia and Europe and the markets of the newly independent former colonies. Domestically, this meant jobs at decent wages (delivered by a union structure stripped off its "communists" and dominated by business unionism.) It also meant creating and/or expanding a vast range of industries and government services, which were necessary to facilitate the production of commodities and the provision of adequate supplies of labor in an economy developing truly global parameters. Public programs proliferated at all levels of government, which provided increased opportunities for employment, education and advancement and a minimum social welfare safety net (unemployment, welfare, etc.). All this created a standard of living unknown anywhere else in the world. Outside the ruling class, the primary beneficiaries of the expanding world economy were white skilled workers and professionals in particular and - buoyed up by affirmative action contracts and the expanding government bureaucracy - the upper strata of African Americans. Influential African American leaders and capitalists in the North and the South were integrated into the ruling class. Throughout the country there was a wave of elections of African American officials elected through the Democratic party.

The mass of African Americans became part of the industrial working class. Some, particularly those in the skilled trades, also shared in the economic bounty of these years. The majority of African Americans, however, were caught in a downward economic spiral just at the point that the crushing weight of segregation was being lifted. The legacy of slavery locked African Americans into the unskilled and semi-skilled sectors of the economy. As Jeremy Rifkin points out in his book The End of Work, "African Americans had long toiled at the bottom of the economic pyramid, first as plantation slaves, then as sharecroppers, and finally as unskilled labor in northern factories and foundries." Although African Americans were initially able to improve their standards of living through even limited access to jobs in such industries as steel, auto, chemical and rubber, by the mid-1950s unskilled jobs had begun to dry up. New advances in automation were introduced at the simplest and lowest level of industry - in unskilled work - the very area in which most African Americans were concentrated. "Last hired and first fired" began to take on a new meaning. Huge masses of workers were cast into permanent unemployment and poverty, and African Americans descended at twice the rate of whites. This process only accelerated with the broader application of electronic technology by the late 1970s and 1980s. By 1990, 50 percent of African American men between 20 and 40 were unemployed and one out of three African Americans lived below the poverty level. Businesses fled the cities, and with them millions of white and African American middle class and working class families who could afford it moved to the suburbs. The central cities became increasingly African American and poor in the 1960s and 1970s, a trend that has only intensified over the past 25 years. Such were the results of, in Rifkin's words, "automation makingblack workers obsolete."

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