Elizabeth Warren, the senior U.S. senator from Massachusetts, made a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention on Monday, reading Donald Trump for filth and building the case for Hillary Clinton as a champion for working class people.
But the most sobering passage in her speech had little to do with either Trump or Clinton. It was a lesson in American history — and it spoke volumes about the anger, articulated through racism, that's being expressed by many of Trump's supporters.
"'Divide and conquer' is an old story in America," Warren told the crowd gathered in Philadelphia. "Dr. Martin Luther King knew it. After his march from Selma to Montgomery, he spoke of how segregation was created to keep people divided. Instead of higher wages for workers, Dr. King described how poor whites in the South were fed Jim Crow, which told a poor white worker that, 'No matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.'
"Racial hatred," Warren concluded, "was part of keeping the powerful on top."
In a political environment where conversations about race are too often reduced to vague platitudes about love, hate and accepting each other's differences, Warren's words stand out as uniquely nuanced. Racism has always been functional. It was advantageous for rich people in the Americas from the very beginning, starting with the wealthy planters of the early colonies and lasting through today.
"Virginians had always felt threatened by the danger of a servile insurrection," historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote in his 1975 book, American Slavery, American Freedom, "and their fears increased as the labor force grew larger and the proportion of blacks in it rose."
Morgan was describing the class-based anxieties that existed in Virginia during the mid- to late-1600s. In 1676, a white colonist named Nathaniel Bacon led a violent insurrection against the colony's ruling political class, backed by a small army that included both poor whites and enslaved blacks.
This multiracial coalition of fighters, Morgan wrote, was terrifying for those in power at the time.
"The answer to the problem, obvious if unspoken and only gradually recognized, was racism, to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous slave blacks by a screen of racial contempt," he explained.
"[The] segregation of the races was really a political strategy employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land." — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking in Montgomery, Alabama in March 1965
Martin Luther King Jr. described a similar dynamic in the post-Civil War South, during a speech he made in March 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama.
"Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races," King said. "... [The] segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land."
King explained how white plantation and mill owners were able to make poor white laborers work for "near-starvation wages": By threatening to fire them if they complained and replace them with formerly enslaved blacks, who would have to work for even less money.
In both cases, racial division became encoded in America's social and legal fabrics, creating a caste system that still exists, in many forms, today. These divisions remain easily exploited, which is why we have Donald Trump: a man who shamelessly redirects similar fears of declining white economic power toward outsiders — namely Muslims and Mexican criminals and "rapists" — for his own political gain.