One of the more annoying things I heard some white people say during Barack Obama’s presidency is that he shouldn’t identify as black since he was half white. Curiously, it was extremely rare that I heard anyone refer to him as a “mulatto” which was once the legal term for this in many jurisdictions which determined whether or nor someone could be enslaved.

In fact, there were a whole plethora of terms in the New World for people of partial black ancestry, many of which originated in Haiti: e.g., Quadroon (half mulatto and half white), Octoroon or Metif (half Quadroon and half white), Griffe or Sambo (half black and half mulatto), Sacatra (half Griffe and half black), Meamelouc (half white and half Metif), Quarteron (half Meamelouc and half white), Sangmele (half quarteron and half white), Mango (half Griffe and half black). They even had words for people who were as little one-sixteenth (hexadecaroon) or one sixty-fourth (Sang-mêlé) black.

This tendency to classify people by their percentage of African ancestry was imposed by white people as a justification to deny others their rights or even to buy and sell them. It wasn’t invented by black people, but it forced them to see themselves as a group, and a group that actually could not make fine distinctions about what constituted blackness.

More than anything else, what marked someone as black is that custom or the law treated them as a subclass of human beings based on ancestry rather than appearance.

For poor whites, the most important thing was that they were not put in any of these classifications. This meant they were free to move about and to sell their labor. Their material conditions might be desperate but at least they couldn’t be enslaved. Eventually, the men among them were even granted to right to vote, and this added another important distinction that separated them from blacks.

So, this is the origin of race consciousness among non-land owning or property poor laborers. It’s why most people still consider Barack Obama more black than white, and why Obama feels this way himself.

I thought about this when I saw that a former marine and police officer is running for office in Kentucky as a Democrat and emphasizing the poor whites share a distrust of the legal system with blacks:

[John] Hicks argued that in places like the 6th District, there’s actually more commonality about mistrust of the police and the legal system among different racial and ethnic groups than it might appear…

…“I think the priority has to be to understand that everyone does have a difference of opinion. But that doesn’t make us that different because social justice, criminal justice issues affect everyone in this district,” Hicks said. “People of color don’t trust, and for sometimes very good reasons, because they feel the criminal justice system is broken.”

“And poor white folks in a rural part of this district, they also don’t trust the criminal justice system, largely because they can see that it’s geared towards wealthy folks because you can’t be working at Tire World in Nicholas County, making eight, nine, 10 bucks an hour, and post a million dollars bail when you get charged with a crime — and a wealthy person can,” Hicks said. “And that commonality, that thing that makes us far more alike than different, has to be talked about in these times.”

I hope that Mr. Hicks is correct that poor whites in Kentucky can relate to the Black Lives Matter protesters in the streets, but I am highly skeptical. The white guy working at Tire World in Nicholas County for ten bucks an hour may not be able to afford bail, but he’s also unlikely to be wrongly arrested or brutally mistreated by the police. In fact, these advantages basically constitute his sole claim to superiority over similarly situated blacks. Were blacks to suddenly stop suffering these injustices and indignities, all distinctions between them would disappear. Therefore, whether consciously or not, the poor white’s sense of self-worth is tied up in an inextricable way with the continuation of a system of oppression against blacks.

This is the legacy of a very old way of classifying and treating people, and it’s stubborn in its effects. The persistence of this way of thinking is why socialists continually fail to get Americans to think primarily in class terms.

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