How many times have you heard people say the events of 9/11 “changed everything?” Well, yes and no.
Yes to the obvious, the U.S. as the target of Mideast terrorists who slew thousands of innocent people. No, however, to America’s criminal justice crackdown underway prior to that fateful day.
Before 9/11, the crackdown was aimed largely at the nonwhite population. Now this official campaign of incarceration, intimidation and observation has expanded.
Currently, some anti-war whites are in the cross-hairs of law enforcement. And with much more publicity, I might add, than many darker-skinned folks got when confronting the criminal justice system before 9/11.
The current crackdown to make America safe and secure after 9/11 was foreshadowed by the U.S. government’s war against drugs and nonwhite immigrants. One result of these dual, domestic wars is that the U.S. currently has 2.1 million people living behind bars.
The U.S. also has a total of 6.6 million humans now in prison, on parole or probation. These marginalized folks are disproportionately poor blacks and to a lesser extent poor Latinos.
After 9/11, the Bush White House, led by Attorney General John Ashcroft, has tried to muzzle political dissent against its foreign policy of preventive attacks on sovereign nations. As a result, some white dissidents are getting increased attention from law enforcement.
The “Man” snooping into their library reading and traveling habits, for example. In contrast, black and brown folks have lived with racial profiling from the authorities as a matter of daily course prior to 9/11, with scant notoriety.
Before 9/11, such U.S. government repression was just not on the radar screen of many whites, anti- or pro-war. Yet during that time, black and brown people in the U.S. were at-risk from SWAT teams and INS raids, detailed in Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis by Christian Parenti (Verso Books, 1999).
Why such government repression against the nonwhite population before 9/11? Here are two reasons.
First is that this policing kept the unemployed out of sight and mind in the prison industrial complex, and politically neutered. In this way, they were less likely to organize and rebel against the status quo in the ways that groups such as the Black Panthers and Brown Berets did during the 1960s.
U.S. rulers learned this much from that era of social unrest. What’s the excuse for the rest of us?
Second, real and threatened immigration raids in America have kept foreign workers desperate. Thus they are less likely to join unions.
This tendency depressed their wages, and the wages of other workers. The latter group were perhaps unaware of how the job market functions, swayed by official myths about level playing fields created by modern competition freed from labor unions.
In the meantime, some immigrant workers hit the road for a job due to U.S. foreign policy that forced their countries to open up to corporate America. Its food exports, for example, have driven peasants off the land, into cites, and across U.S. borders to find work for wages.
America’s wars against some drugs, and Third World immigrants foreshadowed the post-9/11 campaign to defeat global terrorism. Both U.S. government wars have used the imagery of a menacing, nonwhite “other.”
Right-wing talk radio has also contributed to this distortion of reality. Such “shock jocks” on the airwaves have helped to forge a false community of interests between white elites and workers against the nonwhite hordes, a stunt of stunning proportions.
In this distorted view, one threat is foreign, while the other is domestic. The target audience for such skin color propaganda has been and is some of America’s white population.
Many are alienated and dehumanized. This dysfunction I blame in big part on the capitalist system that makes nature and people into commodities for exchange on the market.
Most white working folks, like millions of others with slightly more skin melanin, are now dealing with cascading social crises. One is the jobless recovery.
Some officials have said that relief is on the way. On Oct. 20, for instance, Treasury Chief John Snow predicted that the U.S. economy will create two million new jobs by the next presidential election.
What kind of hourly jobs? Well if the past is any indication of the future, nine out of every 10 will be non-union jobs.
The lesson? Workers divided by the economics of racism are more likely to get non-union wages.
Lower pay means that workers have to labor longer to make ends meet. Snow did not mention that fact from government statistics in his rosy prediction for a jobs boom during the coming year.
All the more reason for the political strategy of engineering fear of the nonwhite “other.” It can (and does) misdirect attention away from the common struggle to find hourly work that covers the cost of food, health care and transport.
The racialized approach to keeping the majority down and divided seems “natural” in America. It is, after all, the most imperial of all nations, with its growing number of police, prisons and wars.
One thing is apparent. The events of 9/11 have changed the official face of “globalzation.”
That is some of what the anti-war movement is voicing in its opposition to the administration’s war plans at home and abroad. Let this political awakening flower.
Let us not forget, however, during this flowering to unpack the domestic roots of the current attempt to roll back civil liberties. The past is alive in the present.
SETH SANDRONSKY is a member of Sacramento Area Peace Action and co-editor of Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive paper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org