Racism Transformed: The Implications of the 1960s (Harold M. Baron, 1982)

Synopsis by Kurtis Kelley

This essay was originally delivered as a paper at the 8th Annual Third World Conference in the March of 1982 in Chicago, Illinois and first appeared in print in the Review of Radical Political Economics, in 1985.

In his essay “Racism Transformed: The Implications of the 1960s,” Harold Baron explores the relationship between transformations occurring within the U.S. political economy, system of racial control, and black people’s quest for self-determination. For Baron, the new racial formation, or “distinctive position of the Black community,”[1] that emerged at the time signaled a shift as pivotal as that which occurred following the emancipation from plantation slavery. Along this path, Baron maintains the central role that Black agency played throughout US history, while also demonstrating the severe restrictions placed on national Black self-determination and the similarly endemic limitations placed on Black integration into the U.S. mainstream by a political economy defined as advanced capitalism, and a system of racial control Baron defines as advanced racism.

For Baron, the history of black/white race relations can be summarized as a “succession of different racial formations.” The first racial transformation, or period of major transition in regards to the U.S. racial formation, was the selection and solidarity around Black chattel slavery by white colonists. Not only did this racial transformation entail many different processes enacted within various institutions, it also was preceded by shifts within the dominant mode of production. In a time of merchant capitalism, these shifts saw the demand for tobacco grow, which created the need for more agricultural laborers and more crops planted. For the white planter class to maintain control, they empowered the non-slaveholding whites to become invested, socially and politically more than economically, in the domination of black people. This interclass pact amongst white Americans acted to dehumanize black people in all aspects of life as a bulwark: for slaveholders to protect their elite status and for white laborers to ensure domestic economic and political stability. This fledgling white solidarity around racial terrorism in the face of potential Black (and poor white) rebellion during the colonial era has provided the skeleton of all successive racial formations.

The next major shifts that occurred within US society was the ascendancy of northern capital over the slaveholding south during the Civil War, the brief national movement for Black civil rights and reparation during the Reconstruction Era, and the viciousness by which black people were forced into the southern-based sharecropping economy and apartheid-like racial system dominated by Jim Crow laws and customs. With the Union’s victory over the confederacy, the pace at which industrial capitalism (already more entrenched in the North) matured into the dominant mode of production increased.

Here Baron asks readers to consider the implications that the rhetoric of “civil rights” had for not only political action but also for the popular understanding of black national politics and notions of freedom. Because of the structure of oppression faced by black people in the years following emancipation, the quest for “civil rights” included notions of protections against “unwarranted encroachment” by individuals or the state.[2] For Baron, these differ from “political rights” which involves “claims to be involved in governmental decision making or to receive benefits from government action”.[3] Following the end of Reconstruction, these two forms of rights were often condensed into “civil rights.” With the Northern retreat from involvement in southern states’ racial policies, black politics turned towards protecting the civil rights legally won with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, expanding them, and also organizing for survival in spite of restricted rights. As Baron points out later, however, political arguments “relying on the doctrine of equal protection under the law framed the discourse on race more in terms of the formal aspects of civil rights than in terms of power and capacity.”[4]

The agrarian ascendancy, the term Baron uses to define the racial formation typified by white southern dominance over the black community, did not undergo transformation until nearly a century after its emergence following plantation slavery. Baron outlines several historical developments which brought about shifts in the dominant modes of production and contributed to another racial transformation, such as: technological innovations related to agricultural production, the tradition of African American northern migration, the shifting labor market as a result of mass war mobilization during World War II, and anti-communist hysteria resulting in the repression of popular democratic sentiments. By the 1950s, these developments resulted in “a number of profound contradictions” within the racial control system. The effort of both elite whites and the black community in the following decade would decide the parameters of the resulting racial formation.[5]

The Supreme Court victories of the NAACP during the 1950s, and the massive resistance of white society against those federal policies, conditioned the emergence of Black mass mobilization. As integrationist civil rights politics waned midway through the 1960’s as it met this massive resistance, the “cultural-denial implication of integration became clear,” and black nationalist politics, with their focus on independent institution building to protect black culture and sustain black survival, came back to the forefront and remained until the mid 1970s. According to Baron, Black Nationalism’s relationship with civil rights is a strained one: “Since nationalism is about the sources and boundaries of political power and civil authority, the concept is by its nature not comprehensible under the categories of civil rights, which assume a unified and over-arching structure of legitimacy,” within the rights-granting U.S. state.[6]

For Baron, an implication of the Civil Rights Movement for Black Nationalist politics was a recognition that, for black communities, civil rights “was necessary but not sufficient for their survival and viability.” In reaction, white elites gave concessions such as War on Poverty programs and a degree of institutional desegregation. The dominant mode of production matured into advanced capitalism, defined as dominance through large global corporations, the larger role of the state in everyday life, and the growing influence of consumer culture. Advanced racism, the new racial formation that emerged following the civil rights era, defined so-called post-racial hidden forms of institutional racism, restrictive labor markets that keep black people in marginal jobs, and a paternalistic state that keeps black people dependent on a “bureaucratically-ordered system of supervision.”[7]

Due to the failure of the civil rights movement to bring about the realization of equalitarian treatment, Baron writes that in the early 1980’s Black politics must move beyond the notion of an “unfinished agenda” towards a larger focus on Black institutional survival and a greater recognition of the changing implications of “racism within advanced capitalism.”[8] He also warns activists against a wishful expectation of a return to the explosive and fertile political moments of the 60’s bearing similar changes, and to expect an extended “war of position” rather than a “war of maneuver.”[9]

With the turn of advanced capitalism towards widespread long-term planning, Baron urges activists to pay closer attention to the “implicit investment and planning policies” of the elite. The future of Black political mobilization must counter the “steering away from situations or strategies that involved the mobilization of the black community, especially those outside the newly-negotiated channels of legitimacy.” Only by engaging in long-term organizing of the black working class can a sustainable attack on advanced racism be mounted.

[1]Baron, Harold. Racism Transformed pg. 4

[2] pg. 14

[3] Ibid.

[4] pg. 20

[5] Ibid. 19

[6] pg. 23

[7] .pg. 30

[8] pg. 34

[9] pg. 35