Racism and Social Reform

The United States has a long history of white supremacy. This phenomenon has played itself out in the courts, the workplaces and the streets of this country. It is both supported by and is an integral part of the nation’s economic and legal system. The features of this supremacist history include barbaric acts like lynchings and vicious attacks on individual Black residents by vigilantes like the Ku Klux Klan. It also exists in the way police departments are constructed and police are trained; the manner in which mortgages are arranged and even how living spaces are rented and sold. Most tellingly—at least as a means of illustrating just how deeply this system of white supremacy is ingrained in the psyche of our nation—it rears its ugly head frequently in US social movements ostensibly designed to make the country a more progressive place.

It is this latter case that is the subject of a recently-republished text by Robert L. Allen and Chude Pamela Allen titled Reluctant Reformers: Racism and Social Reform Movements in the United States. Originally published in 1974, this new edition features a forward by Jamelle Bouie and a 1983 postscript which addressed the social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. Even though there is nothing on the last forty years of US social reform movements, the text remains a useful, even essential history of the movements it does discuss.

Reluctant Reformers is a rewrite of the history of US social reform movements. Beginning with an examination of the movement to abolish slavery and the moral outrage which fueled it, the text informs the reader that many of the white abolitionists did not consider Black men and women to be their equal. For these readers and those already aware of this fact, the authors go deeper, examining various personalities in the movement—William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and the Grimke sisters foremost among them. They look at Garrison’s high-minded morality and his disagreements with Frederick Douglass when Douglass moved beyond Garrison’s sponsorship and began publishing his own abolitionist newspaper, The North Star. This section also describes the various views of the abolitionist movement in regards to the enfranchisement of Black men and the faction of the movement wishing to repatriate freed slaves back to Africa.

Frederick Douglass and the question of the vote for Black men were also important to the question of women’s suffrage after the Civil War. Douglass, who was friends with two of the primary organizers of the women’s suffrage movement—Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton—found himself on the outs with the suffrage movement as it moved towards a position that not only stopped fighting for the right of suffrage for Blacks, but often used overtly white supremacist language that played on white fears of a Black-led government. This was a far cry from the position of most female women’s rights advocates before the Civil War and Reconstruction, when they proclaimed that the struggle for equal rights for women and Black people was a shared struggle. The fact that they were manipulated into separating the struggle proves not only how the political system divides the people of the United States to its benefit, but also how deeply ingrained the doctrine of white supremacy is in the psyche of white-skinned citizens.

It should go without saying that the issues of class are an integral part of the history discussed in this text. This is no more apparent than in the chapters detailing the populist movement of the late nineteenth century and the entire history of the US labor movement up to the original date of the book’s publication in 1974. The story these chapters tell is one that includes both cynical overtures to Black farmers and workers for their support and overt racism on the part of unions and other workers’ associations denying Black workers membership. There are , of course, exceptions to these situations—the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) being perhaps the prime example of a union that openly recruited working people of all races. The fact that employers and their allies in the forces of the repression decimated the IWW sums up how such efforts were perceived pretty succinctly. It is an important and unfortunate truth that the vestiges of white supremacy continue to be a factor in the way many labor unions are not only perceived, but in how they actually go about their business, even today. (Indeed, as the current president of a union local, racism is a manifestation the union must maintain a constant vigilance against).

Reluctant Reformers casts a critical and even harsh eye on the progressive and left movements in the United States. Suffice it to say, the authors identify the progressive movement as a middle class movement of “conservative reformers.” This characterization is based on the movement’s support of imperial wars and the fact it did (and does) not challenge the capitalist economy of the United States or the racist assumptions that helped form and fuel it. As for their discussion of socialism and its various incarnations in US history, the sentence they quote from the socialist leader Eugene Debs explains much: “We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races.198) This statement not only ignores the existential role slavery and white supremacy played in the development of the US economy and class system, it denies that working class Black people in the United States face a special oppression in addition to the oppression they face as workers. It is important to acknowledge that Bernie Sanders expressed a slightly modified version of Debs’ opinion during his 2016 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. After being confronted by Black Lives Matter activists, Sanders opened a dialogue with those activists and their allies, and began to modify his understanding and approach on the issues associated with that special oppression.

Even though this text is almost forty years old, reading it now makes it clear how much remains to be done on the US Left to address the role of white supremacy in the modern world. If there is one element of this particular section that remains poorly expressed on the Left, it is how white supremacy exists in a world where Black women and men hold positions of power in politics, the military, the arts and business. The authors touch on a crucial element when they point out that the appearance of these individuals in these places of power and the economic uplift of a small segment of non-white population in the United States represents a new period in the history of racism. The current period is defined by separating culture from the economics of imperialism; economics which defined and define the relationship of the Global North to its neocolonies and client governments in the rest of the world. As long as this relationship exists, the system of white supremacy will remain in place. Nothing short of a worldwide upheaval is likely to change that.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com