(As I See It column)
BY SAM MANUEL
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Howard Dean recently told a Des Moines newspaper, "I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." Dean is now the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. Liberal dailies like the Washington Post and New York Timeshave editorialized that the remark is simply a sign of the former Vermont governor's lack of political savvy.
Others aim their fire at the hypocritical character of the attack by Dean's Democratic opponents. After all, each of them knows Dean has been making this remark about pickup trucks and Confederate flags—sometimes pickup trucks and gun racks—for nearly a year. He has said it on at least three occasions: to a reporter for the Denver Post in March, at a meeting of Blacks in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in February, and again that month at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee, where he got a standing ovation after making a similar point.
Prominent bourgeois figures who are Black, from Jesse Jackson to Colin Powell, have largely been silent or have dubbed the remark as a "wrong metaphor" while saying that Dean's basic point is right. And what is the point? Dean clarified his remark in a return engagement in Des Moines, telling students at a local high school that he had used the description to refer to working-class, white southerners who vote Republican. With recent gubernatorial losses to Republicans in California, Kentucky, and Mississippi, several prominent Democratic politicians have warned that the party is veering too far to the left.
This is another way of saying bourgeois politics in this country is shifting slowly to the right. Under the pressure of the world economic and social crisis, this trend will continue. Dean's remarks about the Confederate flag are an attempt to pitch his message in tune with this rightward shift, not to identify with "white southern workers."
The picture of the South emerging by implication from Dean's remarks is completely false. It is not true that most "whites," even in the South, sport Confederate flags on their vehicles. The massive battles for civil rights for Blacks in the 1950s and '60s substantially broke down the racial prejudices of millions throughout the country. They paved the way for common struggles by Blacks and others against racist discrimination and violence that have continued to this day. This has been particularly true in struggles for union recognition like the strikes by shipyard workers and others who formed United Steel Workers of America Local 8888 in Newport News in 1978. In 1987 some 20,000 protesters, many of them white, marched in Forsyth, Georgia, in response to a white supremacist rally there. And on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January 2000 more than 50,000, again many of them white, marched in South Carolina to demand that the Confederate flag be removed from the state capitol building.
Dean's demagogy perpetuates the reactionary view that there is a section of our class that has some common interests, by virtue of light skin color, separate and apart from the interests of the toilers around the world. Any attempt by working people and youth to chart a course of action that makes any concession to the false notion of "whites" as a group only leads to subordinating the concrete fight to defend the most oppressed layers of our class to maintaining the relatively better-off status of more privileged layers, and feeds the ultraright. That is the logic of Dean's past comments that affirmative action should be based on class, not race. He might have added "not sex."
That course weakens the fighting unity of the class as a whole. Defense of affirmative action and abortion rights, and opposition to raids by la migra against immigrants and police violence against Blacks and Latinos are essential parts of any program that seeks to unite working people against the class of wealthy exploiters.
The capitalists use so-called racial differences only for the purpose of justifying oppression and superexploitation. It is a fiction, a form of mystification. In a speech published in the Pathfinder bookMalcolm X on Afro-American History, the revolutionary leader challenged the pseudo-scientific classification of "races."
"And actually Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid—there's no such thing," Malcolm said. "These are so-called anthropological terms that were put together by anthropologists who were nothing but agents of the colonial powers, and they were purposely given that status…in order that they could come up with definitions that would justify the European domination over the Africans and the Asians."
What isn't a mystification is that human beings with dark skin and all people of color have been singled out by capitalism to be subjected to oppression and superexploitation. This common oppression of Blacks in the United States and their fight against it have forged a common consciousness as an oppressed nationality. That consciousness and the fight for Black rights is progressive. The gains won out of the struggle to eradicate this oppression benefit all working people. But there is no oppression of human beings based on light skin color. Most "whites" are workers or farmers and are exploited, not because of their skin color but because of their class. There is no oppressed white nationality. Any fight by working people that attempts to start from the so-called interests of "whites" as a group is reactionary.