An Interview with J. Sakai
EC: In the early eighties you wrote Settlers: Mythology of the White Proletariat, a book which had a major impact on many North American anti-imperialists. How did this book come about, and what was so new about its way of looking at things?
JS: Settlers completely came about by accident, not design. And what was so “new” about it was that it wasn’t “inspiring” propaganda, but took up the experience of colonial workers to question how class really worked. It wasn’t about race, but about class. Although people still have a hard time getting used to that – it isn’t race or sex that’s the taboo subject in this culture, but class.
Like many radicals who struggle as organizers, i had wondered why our very logical “class unity” theories always seemed to get smashed up around the exit ramp of race? At the time i’d quit my fairly isolated job on the night shift as a mechanic on the railroad, and was running a cut-off lathe in an auto parts plant. The young white guys in our department were pretty good. In fact, rebellious counter-culture dope smoking Nam vets. After months of hanging & talking, one night one of them came up to me and said that all the guys were driving down to the Kentucky Derby together, to spend the weekend getting drunk and partying. They were inviting me, an Asian, as a way of my joining the crew. Only, he said, “You got to stop talking to those Blacks. You got to choose. White or Black.”
Every lunch hour i dropped in on a scene on the loading dock, where a dozen brothers munched sandwiches and had an on-going discussion. About everything from the latest sex scandal to whether it was good or not for Third World nations to be getting A-bombs (some said it was good ending the white monopoly on nuclear weapons, while others said not at the price of endangering our asses!). Plus the guy from the League of Black Revolutionary Workers in our plant area had recruited me to help out, since he was facing heavy going from the older, more established Black political tendencies ( various nationalists, the CPUSA – who had great veterans, good shop floor militants – etc). And, why would i go along with some apartheid agenda anyway? Needless to say, the white young guys cut me dead after that (though they later came out for me as shop steward, which shows you how much b.s. they thought the union was).
That kind of stuff, familiar to us all, kept piling up in my mind and got me started trying to figure out how this had come about in the u.s. working class. So for years after this i read labor history and asked older trade union radicals questions whenever i could. Finally, an anarchist veteran of the autoworkers’ historic 1937 Flint Sit-Down strike told me that the strike had been Jim Crow, that one of the unpublicized demands had been to keep Black workers down as only janitors….or out of the plants altogether. This blew my mind. That’s when it hit me that the wonderful working class history that the movement had taught us was a lie.
So i decided to write an article (famous writer’s delusion) on how this white supremacy started in the u.s. working class. i didn’t know – maybe it was in the 1920s?, i thought. So Settlers was researched backwards. i knew what the conclusion was in the mid-1970s, that white supremacy ruled the white working class except in the self delusions of the Left. “No politician can ever be too racist to be popular in white amerikkka”, is an amazingly true saying. Settlers was researched going back in time, trying to find that event, that turning point when working class unity by whites had dissolved into racial supremacy. 1930s, 1920s, pre-World War I, Black Reconstruction, Civil War, 1700s, 1600s, i kept going back and back, treading water, trying to touch non-white supremacist ground. Only, there wasn’t any!
By then it was years later in our lives, and i’d been recruited into doing national liberation movement support work. And was reading Black nationalist writings. One day i caught a speech in which u.s. whites were referred to as “settlers”, meaning invaders or interlopers, as in South Afrika and Rhodesia. Of course, white history always talks about settlers with the non-political connotations of pioneers or explorers or the first people to live in an area (native peoples didn’t count as real people to euro capitalism. They were part of the flora and fauna). This was a moment of the proverbial light bulb turning on in my mind!
First chance i got, i asked the UN representative of an Afrikan liberation movement if he thought u.s. whites as a society, including workers, were settler oppressors in the same way as Rhodesians, Boers, or Zionists in Israel? He just said, “Of course.” Upset, i demanded to know why he didn’t tell North Americans this. He only smiled ironically at me, and i won’t even bother telling you what certain Indian comrades said. So Settlers didn’t involve any great genius on my part, just finally listening to the oppressed and what the actual historical experience said about class. Finally.
From there it was hard research work, but no conceptual leap at all to see that in general in u.s. history the colonized peoples have been the proletariat, while the white working class has been a labor aristocracy. This has been camouflaged in capitalist history by retroactively assigning white racial membership to various european immigrant peoples who weren’t “white” at the time. For instance, when leading u.s. capitalists started the “Interracial Council” to promote patriotic nationalist integration during World War I, the “races” they wanted to bring together were the Irish race, the Welsh race, the Polish race, the Lithuanian race, the Hungarian race, the Sicilian race, the Rumanian race, and other Europeans that we now think of as only nationalities within the white race. Shows you how race is another capitalist manufactured product.
So groups who we think of as “white” today, were definitely not considered “white” in the past. Like in the Midwest steel mills just before World War I, when native-born American WASP men were all foremen and skilled workers – what was called “white man’s work” – while the back-breaking laboring gangs were made up of “Hunkys”, Eastern Europeans. Like immigrant Finnish workers, who weren’t citizens, didn’t speak English, weren’t considered white but “Mongolian”, who were oppressed like draft animals in small town mines and mills in the Northern Midwest, and who made up something like 60% of the total membership of the early communist party. They wanted armed revolution right then, just like against the Czar, and most of them were actually imprisoned or deported. Wiped out as an oppressed class and national group. It’s a long distance in real class from those oppressed revolutionary women and men to the middle-class pedants and would-be commissars of today’s Left. Settlers goes through this real class history.