BAR Book Forum: Paul Ortiz’s “An African American and Latinx History of the United States”
The United States is based on a system of racial capitalism that endures to this day.
“The Virginia Planters and Pennsylvania Bankers of the 1770s would have loved Trump.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Paul Ortiz. Ortiz is a professor of history and the director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida. His book is An African American and Latinx History of the United States.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Paul Ortiz: Those who want to understand the pervasive character of racism and inequality in contemporary society can learn much from African American and Latinx History of the United States. The book recasts US history as a working-class history of struggle. I discuss the underpinnings of oppression as well as resistance from the 1770s to present. I build on the works of Oliver Cromwell Cox, C.L.R. James, Cedric Robinson and other revolutionary thinkers to demonstrate that the United States is based on a system of racial capitalism that endures to this day.
The early capitalists rooted their new system in the violent expropriation of others. This included warfare, colonialism, racial slavery and the theft of indigenous lands in Ireland, Africa, the Americas and elsewhere. Capital creates “racial differences” between people in order to generate profits and to limit the power of laborers. “Jim Crow capitalism” is a term used more recently by historian Jordan Camp to describe the system of legal segregation used to disenfranchise African American workers for generations. Today, some white employers in Florida pay Mexican American workers lower wages compared to their white counterparts. (Employers call this “opportunity.” Immigrants call it the “Brown Wage.”) These differences make it difficult—but not impossible—for the working class to defend its economic interests.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
A) We must continue to work towards the resurgence of internationalist thinking.
African Americans developed the idea of emancipatory internationalism as a movement ideology to emphasize solidarity between freedom struggles in the United States and those elsewhere in the years following the American Revolution. Black abolitionists and their supporters in the antebellum era articulated the idea that their individual rights depended on supporting the emancipation of oppressed people in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and other parts of the world. It was a worldview rooted in the experience of seeing slavery and racial imperialism extinguishing liberty across the hemisphere. It would blossom repeatedly again in the philosophies of the Civil Rights Movement, the Chicano & Puerto Rican movements in the 1960s as well as in El Gran Paro Estadounidense, or the Great General Strike of 2006.
B) We must recover our faith in the power of ordinary workers to transform society. In my chapter on the struggle against racial capitalism, I give numerous examples of how the poorest workers in the 1930s—not Franklin Roosevelt—forced the great political opening that created the New Deal. African American women workers at the Charleston, South Carolina Bagging and Manufacturing Company organized one of the first occupation strikes of the Great Depression era. Defending their strike against the cops, the women strikers demanded a minimum wage of 12 dollars a week. This was the same "blanket wage" recently negotiated in the textile and tobacco industries under the New Deal’s National Recovery Administration. Black women’s fight in Charleston for a uniform minimum wage affirms their roles as pioneers of the resurgence of radical labor activism that birthed industrial unionism as well as paving the way for the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935. African American women at Charleston Bagging and Manufacturing were struggling to expand the scope and scale of the New Deal to their workplaces and communities. Unfortunately, racial capitalism excluded most workers of color from New Deal protections.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers willun-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
The book challenges ideas of American exceptionalism to demonstrate that from the outset of US history, “inequality was enforced with the whip, the gun, and the United States Constitution.” I want readers to un-learn our misplaced love of the Founding Fathers, and the terrible habit we have of claiming that tyrants like Donald Trump are “not living up to the origins of our nation.” Bullshit. The Virginia Planters and Pennsylvania Bankers of the 1770s would have loved Trump. The trust we have in “American institutions” is misplaced because these institutions were not created for people like us. When I look out on the audiences that are showing up for my book lectures, I frequently tell them that “85% of you were completely excluded and worse in the concept of the creation of the United States. The Founders had no love for you or for us.” If we are going to put our faith in anything, it is in the struggles for justice that Indigenous people, slaves, workers, and immigrants waged against the 1% between the colonial period to the present.
African American and Latinx thinkers theorized outside of both the nation’s borders as well as beyond its mythologies in order to challenge the crises facing them inside of the belly of the beast. They did not believe that a return to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers or the principles of the U.S. Constitution would solve their problems. This realization was based on experience and the ability to weigh national founding myths against the icy realities of history. The Colored American asserted in 1840 that, “Now our Government is a government of slaveholders and has been so for more than forty years. Slavery has made war and peace for us, embargo and non-intercourse; it has set up and pulled down protective and banking systems.” Abolitionist Francisco P. Ramirez, the founder of El Clamor Público, a Los Angeles-based Spanish-language newspaper wrote in 1855 that, “The United States’ conception of freedom is truly curious. This much lauded freedom is imaginary…To buy a man for money, to hang or burn him alive arbitrarily, is another great liberty which any individual has here, according to his likes. This happens in the United States, where slavery is tolerated, where the most vile despotism reigns unchecked—in the middle of a nation that they call the ‘Model Republic.’”
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
The intellectual heroes who inspire me and appear in the pages of An African American and Latinx History of the United States, are the individuals and groups who combined rigorous research and investigation into social problems with committed and strategic social justice organizing. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed that, “Education without social action is a one-sided value because it has no true power potential. Social action without education is a weak expression of pure energy.” A significant base of my scholarship rests upon the work of individuals such as Ernesto Galarza (1905-1984), the Chicano labor historian who carried out enduring studies of the exploitation of farm workers—but also worked as a farm worker union organizer in the 1940s and 50s. I also draw heavily from the research of W.E.B. Du Bois, a brilliant sociologist who was also the editor of the NAACP’s The Crisis, once the premier propaganda organ of the civil rights movement.
“The issue of Black-Brown conflict and unity was the most important political issue of our time.”
The greatest heroes in An African American and Latinx History of the United States however are women intellectuals such as Amy Jacques Garvey (1895-1973) who took over leadership of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and its brilliant newspaper the Negro Worldafter Marcus Garvey was imprisoned. Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez is a personal role model, and without her, this book could not/would not have been written. Betita Martinez was a kick-ass Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer in Mississippi in the 1960s. Subsequently, she became a pivotal organizer in the Chicano movement in New Mexico and later, California. Before all of this however, Betita carefully studied colonialism as a staff member of the United Nations Secretariat. Betita has taught generations of younger organizers that we must pursue domestic political struggles through the prism of hemispheric anti-colonialism and democratic struggle. In response to a question she received at a forum at UC-Santa Cruz in 2008, Betita stated plainly that the issue of Black-Brown conflict and unity was the most important political issue of our time. She also organized “An Open Letter to Black Americans from Latinos” in 2003 which urged us to understand that “We are both being screwed, so let’s get it together!”
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
An African American and Latinx History of the United States urges readers to imagine the creation of social movements that burst the boundaries of the nation state. This is not some kind of utopian vision; it is rooted in case studies of centuries of struggles against oppression. Generations of revolutionaries and anti-slavery activists in the Americas dreamed of and created hemispheric liberation movements. During the Mexican War of Independence (1810-21) José Maria Morelos and other Mexican revolutionaries reached out to the United States for support against European colonialism and Spanish tyranny. Subsequently, when Mexican people gave sanctuary to runaway African American slaves in the Antebellum period, that is an example of a hemispheric liberation movement. When African Americans created the Cuban Anti-Slavery Movement during Reconstruction, that is also an example of a hemispheric liberation movement. In the 1920s, Black newspapers lionized Augusto César Sandino and other Latin American freedom fighters against US imperialism while W.E.B. Du Bois pointed out that “The government of American banks” was responsible for Jim Crow in the United States and US tyranny abroad. These were truly global critiques of injustice!
Towards the end of World War II, the Haitian and Mexican delegations at the Inter-American Conference on Problems of War and Peace held in Chapultepec, Mexico, re-introduced the idea of a hemispheric conception of democracy. They argued that post-war peace in the Americas hinged on not only equality between nations of the Americas but also equality within the nations. This analysis hinged on understanding Nazi Germany as a nation that waged global war based on ideas of white racial supremacy. Eager to defend legal segregation, the United States tried to undermine the Haitian and Mexican diplomatic positions.
Scholars have erased or have forgotten these incredible moments of solidarity and internationalist democratic theorizing because they (we!) are complicit in the evil idea that US Americans have nothing to learn from the citizens of the Global South. This pernicious idea underpins liberal and conservative “humanitarian interventionism” where the US reserves the right to use non-profits, NGO’s and military invasions to “teach democracy” to the rest of the world. ¡Basta Ya!
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for thePolitical Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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