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America’s racism, divisiveness is wearing on our constitution


(March 23, 2016) — During this strange presidential campaign, several candidates are spouting wishful thinking about what our nation’s founders believed.

Consider this:   “Ted Cruz has spent a lifetime fighting to defend the Constitution. Our nation’s founding document and the supreme law of the land was crafted by our Founding Fathers to act as chains to bind the mischief of government and to protect the liberties endowed to us by our Creator.”

Cruz has one thing correct about the Founding Fathers. They did craft the Constitution to act as chains to bind. But these chains bound slavery to liberty, enforced servitude to free labor, and agricultural production to plantation elites.

constitution-slaveryWashington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were all enslavers, made wealthy and comfortable through the forced labor of people they owned. Slavery was not incidental to our nation’s development, it was at the core of the founders’ reality and their vision for America.

Capitalism, both in the South and the North,  depended on cotton. Cotton production increased from less than half a million bales in 1820 to almost five million in 1859. This was possible only through the exploitation of slaves, whose population grew from a million and a half to close to four million. By 1850 cotton was responsible for more than 50% of all exports from the United States.

Northern financial capital reaped its rewards from the slave economy in loan repayments through the sale of cotton and slaves. New England textile factories realized profits off the products of slavery.  Northern insurance companies, shippers, and cotton brokers all joined in. This was the dynamic of pre-Civil War American capitalism — based on the enslavement of four million people.

Enslaving people enabled whites, from all classes, to see other people as powerless, not like you or me, but one of “them,”  separate, and second-class citizens. It enabled white elites to enhance and embed their economic and political power, to exploit people by playing each of these “others” off against each other and against white waged workers.

Donald Trump labels Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers, while we all depend on their labor.  Muslims fleeing ISIS are considered evil, not welcomed as refugees. Nothing new here: Wave after wave of immigrants, Irish, Chinese, Mexicans, Italians, Jews… all were portrayed as threats to the American way of life. So were the Native Americans we conquered. So were the slaves who rebelled.

But here is the thing for fans of Donald Trump: white racism underlies the economic diminishment of the white working class.

The death rate for middle-aged whites now exceeds that of non-whites in our states. Mortality has gone up among working class whites, in particular through suicide, drug use, and alcoholism. That is, the death rate is driven up by hopelessness. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Wages have stagnated for 20 years, child care costs and tuition have skyrocketed, pension plans have been taken apart, people lured into buying homes by the fast deal-makers at Washington Mutual have gone bankrupt and lost all their assets.

So what does this have to do with racism? Everything. Because from the beginning of our country, right up to the present,  the powerful and the privileged, including some candidates for President, have used race, power, and privilege to divide whites from blacks and Hispanics and Asians and Native Americans.  Racism disables solidarity.

Racism holds that awful promise that somehow, you are better than that person, and you have more in common with the people who are taking advantage of you than the people who do the same jobs, have the same or worse disadvantages as you do, and worry, perhaps even more than you, about their future and their children’s future.

If we continue to enable the dominant culture to divide us from each other, only the powerful win. Only Donald Trump wins. No one else wins, not whites, not blacks, not Hispanics, not Muslims, not Jews, not gay people, not immigrants. We can all be fired.

As Americans, we can embrace a better pathway for our democracy, our freedom and our children, for both hope and solidarity. The Statue of Liberty provides us with that moral grounding:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


John Burbank is the executive director and founder of the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle. John can be reached at

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