American culture is imbued with fears that African Americans will someday repay the violence and oppression that has marred their history in this country, according to linguist and cultural critic Noam Chomsky. Speaking with philosopher George Yancy about the roots of American racism, from Native American genocide to anti-black discrimination, Chomsky emphasized the ongoing impact of black enslavement and subjugation in the U.S., saying “fears that the victims might rise up and take revenge are deeply rooted in American culture, with reverberations to the present.”
Chomsky was speaking with Yancy as part of an ongoing New York Times series of discussions around race. Early in the conversation, Yancy noted that contemporary American conversations about terrorism often omit “the fact that many black people in the United States have had a long history of being terrorized by white racism.” Chomsky cited the fact that slaves had arrived in the colonies 400 years ago, and were largely responsible for America’s early economic strength.
“We…cannot allow ourselves to forget that the hideous slave labor camps of the new “empire of liberty” were a primary source for the wealth and privilege of American society, as well as England and the continent. The industrial revolution was based on cotton, produced primarily in the slave labor camps of the United States.”
Slaves were highly efficient producers, Chomsky states, and “[p]roductivity increased even faster than in industry, thanks to the technology of the bullwhip and pistol, and the efficient practice of brutal torture.”
With the end of slavery came an immediate need to criminalize African Americans to ensure a bustling—and free—labor force. Chomsky notes “that blacks were arrested without real cause and prisoners were put to work for these business interests. The system provided a major contribution to the rapid industrial development from the late 19th century.”
More recently, Reagan helped drive this process of profiteering off the criminalizing of black bodies through the war on drugs. Chomsky says the policy “initiated a new Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s apt term for the revived criminalization of black life, evident in the shocking incarceration rates and the devastating impact on black society.”
Chomsky also discussed America’s long history of atrocities toward its native population, and the historical revisionism of figures such as Teddy Roosevelt, who pretended that white colonizers had been benevolent invaders. He noted that in reality, America’s native peoples had been “extirpated” or “expelled to destitution and misery.”
“That’s only a bare beginning of the shocking record of the Anglosphere and its settler-colonial version of imperialism, a form of imperialism that leads quite naturally to the ‘utter extirpation’ of the indigenous population, and to ‘intentional ignorance’ on the part of beneficiaries of the crimes.”
The refusal to acknowledge this history of oppression, violence and genocide may be the most disturbing and terrible tendency of America’s dominant culture. “Perhaps the most appalling contemporary myth is that none of this happened,” said Chomsky. He added:
“There is also a common variant of what has sometimes been called ‘intentional ignorance’ of what it is inconvenient to know: ‘Yes, bad things happened in the past, but let us put all of that behind us and march on to a glorious future, all sharing equally in the rights and opportunities of citizenry.’ The appalling statistics of today’s circumstances of African-American life can be confronted by other bitter residues of a shameful past, laments about black cultural inferiority, or worse, forgetting how our wealth and privilege was created in no small part by the centuries of torture and degradation of which we are the beneficiaries and they remain the victims.”
Chomsky and Yancy touched upon Ferguson, Gaza, and the similarities between the two, and Islamophobia in the post-9/11 age. As they closed, Yancy asked Chomsky about possible ways of putting an end to racism.
“Racism is far from eradicated, but it is not what it was not very long ago, thanks to such efforts,” Chomsky said. Cautiously hopeful, he added: “It’s a long, hard road. No magic wand, as far as I know.”