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Campbell on racism

The always awesome Will Campbell has an article online about Elvis Presley as a redneck that provocatively explores the nature of racism in America:

America is a racist society to the core and we all know it.  Ah, we have dressed it up now.  We don’t need a Bilbo, a Pitchfork Ben Tillman to scream “nigger!” from the courthouse steps on election eve to keep poor whites voting right.  We have code words.  Is it not obvious that last year’s election had to do with race. When we heard talk of welfare abuse it meant welfare for black people, though statistics show more whites than blacks on welfare,  when we heard, “…get rid of affirmative action,” it was from those wanting to hang on to the piers of privilege being mildly threatened by enterprising and struggling minorities.  “Teen-­age pregnancies” meant black teenagers having babies. “Crime in the streets and let’s build more prisons” was a euphemism for incarcerating and executing more black people. Was that not obvious?  And is it not manifest already that the next presidential campaign will be waged on that same cunning and pernicious ground?  Perhaps not as brazen as the Willie Horton syndrome but the message will be loud and clear.

I think I can make a case that the poor, white, rural, working class, the redneck, is guilty of less true racism than any other group in white American society.  Not guilty of less prejudice, perhaps, but less racism.  There is a distinction that must be made between racism and prejudice. And between racism and racialism for that matter. (Racialism.  A concept that you might want to consider.)  I am not saying that all or any one of the poor, working class are without prejudice.  History would not bear me out.  We can be educated, or converted out of prejudice; sheer raw, naked bigotry.  But racism is a condition; the structures, the institutions in which we move and breathe and have our being that give white males the advantage.  That is what racism is.  Every one of us afflicted with this incurable skin disease called whiteness is a racist.  That does not mean we hate black people or wish them ill.  It simply means that our skin color has given us ascendance.  That is what racism is.  Prejudice is something else.  Something on a more conscious level.  The “redneck” is less racist because he operates from a base of considerably less power. It is not the poor, rural, laboring class that produces the rulers, the governors, the managers of this present age that harbors the racist cycle.

The article is from 1995, by the way, just to put the “last election” comments in their proper context.


  1. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    I don’t share your enthusiasm for Campbell, Halden, and one reason is that I’m always left puzzled by arguments like this. If poor laboring whites are “less racist” than professional-managerial whites because they have less power, shouldn’t Campbell be saying that class is the deeper and more intractable problem, not race? Aren’t the privileges of upper-crust whites a function of class? If so — and let me just say that I think class is more significant than race as a determinant of social and political power — then shouldn’t Campbell be directing his anger more at capitalism, not at “racialism,” which we’re supposed to “consider” but which he doesn’t even bother defining?

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink
  2. Theophilus wrote:

    The old boys’ club (elite whites) has been pitting the good ol’ boys (poor whites) and the homeboys (poor blacks) against each other in America for hundreds of years now. Right now, it’s the poor blacks who are the elites’ official Protected People®, while the poor whites are The Problem®. A hundred years ago, it was the reverse. It keeps the lower-class masses distracted from the elite puppet masters quite nicely, yes?

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
  3. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    Theophilus — Exactly. Which is why racism is largely a hegemonic strategy employed to protect the structure of class. But which is why Campbell’s kind of critique is of only limited value.

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 4:36 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Probably a fair critique, but I would say that Campbell is speaking very specifically as a southerner out of and into a sort of cultural milieu in which certain of these things need to be said. I also think that elsewhere he does talk about class and capitalism in helpful ways.

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Permalink
  5. Theophilus wrote:

    That’s kind of what I was digging at. I’ve been thinking about thos sort of issue after recently rereading “The Redneck Manifesto” by Jim Goad, which might be considered an angry, smart-aleck apology for working-class white culture, framed in class-warfare terms. I loved the book for how it took Marxist theory that is usually presented in very high-brow academic fashion and brilliantly translated it into simple, high-impact English.

    And I think the class dynamic explains the racism I’ve seen among my own Mennonite neighbours. Back in Europe, they were anti-Semitic, just like their neighbours. But now that they are North American evangelicals, they tend to be quite philo-Semitic, reserving their racial prejudice for Aboriginal people more than anyone else, at least in the Western Canadian context. The flimsiness of the anti-Semitism of the relatively non-elite Mennonites suggests that they were taking cues from their ruling elites, rather than building their own prejudices from the ground up.

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 8:05 pm | Permalink
  6. dan wrote:

    Cf. Where We Stand: Class Matters by bell hooks. One of the best studies I have read on the relationship between class and other hot topics like race or gender (written, of course, by a black woman who grew up poor).

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 8:09 pm | Permalink
  7. Tiny Fat Kiwi wrote:

    Poor white people are not less racist than the rest of us, Will Campbell not withstanding. In my line of work, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard “I guess if I was black, then . . . OR I guess if I was Mexican” they’d get the government benefits they were looking for. I am less certain than some about the causes of racism and prejudice, but a lot of it is simply that if you grow up around prejudice, you tend to be prejudiced yourself.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 7:01 am | Permalink
  8. i agree with dan. bell hooks just blows up this topic. she has this great story about how when she bought a nice car how she stopped letting people borrow it (“it might get a scratch.”), and that was an indication something was wrong.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 8:24 am | Permalink
  9. kim fabricius wrote:

    Ivan Petrella, in Beyond Liberation Theology: A Polemic (2008) refers to the error Gene first highlights as “monochromatism”, and describes it as “the most important debilitating condition found in US liberation theologies as it afflicts black, womanist and Hispanic/Latino(a) production indiscriminately.” If I understand Petrella’s argument, colour and gender discrimination are the smoke above the factory of the material context and conditions of wealth and poverty, and therefore class.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

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