Many people say that racism is simply an attitude or a prejudice of one people toward another people. That allowed Republican senators to make the ludicrous claim that Sonia Sotomayor was a racist, during the hearings on her Supreme Court nomination.
In reality, racism is a historically developed set of practices, institutions and beliefs that systematically subordinate racially oppressed people to an inferior status in every area of life. It dates back to the 17th century and its genesis lies in the practical economic and political requirements of the interwoven systems of predatory colonialism, slavery and nascent capitalism in the "new world" at that time.
These systems of oppression and exploitation in the Americas needed not only an unlimited supply of unpaid or underpaid labor, but also a system of rationalization - racism - to legitimize the theft of lands and resources and the unparalleled subjugation and/or enslavement of peoples of the Americas, Africa and Asia.
Because slavery and other forms of subjugation were tied to a young but expanding system of capitalism, racist oppression and exploitation had a particularly brutal and bloody character. No longer did the subjugated produce for a local market; now they produced commodities for consumers in distant lands and in the context of an expanding world system of production for the sole purpose of accumulating capital and maximizing profits.
With the overthrow of slavery within our borders, a major breech in the system of racist oppression, exploitation and ideology occurred. It at once forced the slave owning/planter class and its supporters to retreat, and created a more favorable terrain for the freed slaves and their allies to secure new rights and recast the struggle against racist ideas.
This moment, however, proved fleeting. Only a decade after the end of the Civil War, a counteroffensive by the old ruling class in the South and its allies in southern and northern states restored them to power and crushed the interracial movement that had advanced democracy in the post-war aftermath.
The system of slavery didn't get a new lease on life, however. The old unpaid slave labor mode of production gave way to a new one, resting on underpaid labor (sharecropping and extractive industries), lynchings and other forms of vigilante terror, and legalized and comprehensive discrimination against African Americans and other peoples of color.
In short, the pre-war reactionary coalition, defeated on the battlefield, was able after a brief retreat to regroup, violently seize political power, and then construct with the continued use of coercion (by state and non-state entities like the KKK) a new system of racial oppression and exploitation - popularly called Jim Crow. While its structural features (political, economic and ideological) were new, its racist essence remained the same.
It wasn't until nearly a century later that the modern civil rights movement upended these legal forms and structures. But, as Martin Luther King said more than once, racism, though no longer legally sanctioned, persisted in day-to-day life.
Moreover, in some ways racism worsened as it took on new material (deindustrialization) and ideological ("reverse racism") forms, shaped by the exploitive pressures and crisis tendencies of globalizing capitalism, the unraveling of the New Deal coalition, and the rise of the extreme right in the early 1980s.
Seen through this optic, the election of Barack Obama constitutes a historic moment and turn in the struggle against racism and for social progress for our nation. It carries the potential to set in train a new era of racial progress, multiracial unity, and overall progressive advance.
Of course, Obama's stunning victory, as significant it was and as promising as it is, doesn't eliminate in one fell swoop the structures and institutions that are the material ground on which racist oppression and ideology rest in the early part of the 21st century. Nor does it mark a withdrawal from political life of the forces of reaction and racism. Proclamations of a post-racial era are exceedingly premature.
In fact, the election of the nation's first African American president has triggered a new racist counteroffensive in much the same way as the North's victory in the Civil War set into motion a racist and revanchist counteroffensive by the former slaveholders and their allies.
The new racist counteroffensive, much like the earlier one, hopes to turn the clock back. It aims to strip away the legitimacy of the first African American president in ways that are both coded and crude (witness the use of the "n" word and other vicious epithets). But it also hopes to obscure the democratic, class, and human bonds shared by tens of millions of American people of all nationalities and colors, introduce racial fissures in the coalition that elected the president, and restore the power of right-wing extremism and authoritarian rule.
My guess is the Republican Party and the teabaggers will not be successful, but only if their racist barrage runs into a powerful anti-racist response not only from people of color, but also from the white majority and white workers.
To no small degree, the success of this anti-racist struggle depends on the ability of white people to understand that racism not only impacts the dignity and life prospects of people of color, but also cuts against their own material and moral well being. Nothing is so corrosive of working class and people's democracy and reforms than the poison and practice of racism. If unchallenged, it could lead to disaster, via a much uglier version of the Bush-Cheney administration.
This possibility should be a wakeup call for all democratic-minded people. At the same time, the fact that a multi-racial movement, in which labor played a special anti-racist role, elected an African American president and, after a pause, is getting back into the swing of things and scoring some victories - the most recent being health care legislation - is reason for confidence, albeit a sober-minded confidence, about the future.