In both An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States and Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz digs into the roots of violence buried deep within the country’s history. From the election of Donald Trump to the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, American violence has been on unprecedented display. The pandemic has likewise exposed some of the nation’s starkest disparities, not only in justice and health-related issues, but also along racial and class divides. Now, as states consider relaxing stay-at-home orders in response to the economic crisis health restrictions have led to, the country is witnessing the armed occupation of state capitals, emotionally charged protests and the outright denunciation of science and research.
Dunbar-Ortiz helps put these contemporary events in a historical context. “The United States was founded as a capitalist state and an empire on conquered land, with capital in the form of slaves,” she writes in Loaded, as she traces violence from the nation’s founding to today. “The capitalist firearms industry was among the first successful corporations. Gun proliferation and gun violence today are among its legacies.” This legacy helps explain American gun culture and the conspicuous display of firearms at the COVID-19 “reopen” protests.
High Country News recently spoke with Dunbar-Ortiz about what these events have to say about the nation’s propensity for violence, tolerance of white supremacy and the push for profits over the health of the populace. The following conversation has been edited for length.
High Country News: Do you think the armed protest at the Michigan Statehouse was allowed to happen because the perpetrators were white and by extension not considered a threat to those in authority?
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: It’s complicated. No one can imagine an all-armed Black group coming to the Statehouse at all, for anything. They would be killed, massacred. Or let’s say Asians, or Native Americans or Latinos. Of course, it’s white privilege. But what I think is that it’s not that (those in power) don’t see it, it’s (that) they actually fear the power of these people. Politicians are not stupid, and they know in their hearts when the president of the United States gives practically an order, certainly permission, for these types of people to act, then that’s power. Even here in California, they’ve come to Sacramento twice. They had an armed protest at City Hall in San Francisco. And you really saw our governor here stepping back and saying, “Well, yeah, maybe some of the smaller counties, it may not apply to them.” It’s really scary, because it works.
HCN: This notion that certain segments of the population should die for the economy is striking. How is the acceptance of mass casualties — whether of Indigenous peoples, children in school shootings, or the elderly and immunocompromised during a pandemic — part of the American psyche?
RDO: U.S. capitalism has always had to have surplus labor — half of the people unemployed — in order to keep wages down. But with technology and the end of industrialized mass labor, they’re no longer needed by the system. With mechanized agriculture, they’re not needed as agrarian workers. Back in the ’80s, it was almost uncontroversial when Earth First!, the most radical of the environmental movements, the most militant, came up with this anti-immigration thing at the border because of overpopulation — the idea that the border should be tightened, taking that reactionary stance for the environment rather than reviewing how capitalism works and attacking the kings of capital.
The practice of eliminating people is baked into the country’s founding, Constitution and military, so of course it worms its way into everyone’s mind that it is OK to just eliminate a whole group of people, so more white farmers can have land. At the core of the country, it’s always there as a possibility, not just for people who have bad immune systems or are old or who are homeless. This idea to just get rid of them. “Herd immunity” — it shouldn’t be used that way — to “cull out” the older people and those who are at risk, and that will be a good thing. But you know, of course, for Native people and Latinos and most African Americans, most people really revere their elders as sources of knowledge and teaching. I realize, though, that that has changed a lot, because I think these arguments that a lot of the scientists were giving on the national level, and the governors, that you have to do these things to protect your grandparents. I don’t think that really counts for anything when people are so broken down and (culturally) separated from their family.
HCN: When you look back over time, from the founding of the United States to today, do you see variations in that reliance on violence or death, or does it just take new forms?
But instead of organizing against that system of capitalism, they are easily redirected — because of white supremacy — to attack the immigrants coming in and “taking their jobs.” Of course, these are jobs they won’t do anyway.
RDO: The advent of capitalism came with the looting of the Americas, that accumulation of wealth, and then the founding of capitalist states, and with the Industrial Revolution — which, in the United States, was based on slavery. When slaves freed themselves, Reconstruction didn’t work, and they continued to be necessary agrarian labor. Capitalist states kept importing immigrants to keep surplus labor.
They really worried, after World War II, when so many young men were killed from every country in Europe. In Western Europe, they were absolutely frantic, because the workers could demand such high wages. They could bargain. That’s why, in Germany and France and Britain, they have such good unions, free health-care systems. They won all of that because there was no surplus labor. And then those countries started importing Turkish labor, Kurdish labor, African labor, to create surplus labor. That’s how capitalism works: It’s only real profits come from what the wages are for workers.
With the technological shift from industrial production — although it’s still going on; it’s just exported to China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, where they’re still working factories — in the United States surplus labor is no longer needed for profits. So much of it is finance or specialized or highly technical that the unemployed of every class, especially the white and unemployed, are the most worried. But instead of organizing against that system of capitalism, they are easily redirected — because of white supremacy — to attack the immigrants coming in and “taking their jobs.” Of course, these are jobs they won’t do anyway. They’re not going to work in meatpacking plants and the fields of California. But the system is so good at diverting their attention to people of color as the enemy — to get rid of them, and everything will be all right.
HCN: That seems like it would inevitably lead to more conflict.
RDO: That is a problem, and it’s a permanent problem, even with the overthrow of capitalism. What do people do who are so work-oriented? I know we used to have dreams, when I was a young activist, of a world without so much work, where we could work two hours a day and still get wages. This would be the kind of socialism that works for people’s good and not for profits, so people find a lot of things to do when they’re not on the job, or spending most of their lives in jobs that they don’t like. There’s a necessity to have things to do. They feel that purpose, but mainly it’s that you have to have that in order to eat, survive or feed your family, not because you love the work.
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