The act of dividing potential allies and communities who could come together to rise up is one of the oldest and most infuriatingly effective tricks in the book. Too often social justice movements have splintered as a result of not being prepared to counter such moves. A key tool for countering such tactics is learning from the stories of how previous organizations and coalitions have avoided the pitfalls of divide and conquer.
“Divide and conquer” is a strategy used by elites (often understood as “the oppressors”) to break down the relationships and unity between subjugated (often along racial/class/gender lines) groups struggling for justice, freedom, and liberation, in order to maintain the status quo.
In the 1600s, the concept of “race” as we know it today did not yet exist in the British colonies that would come to be called the United States. Rather, Indigenous people, enslaved Africans, and Europeans (active settlers and indentured servants) were categorized by their national and religious backgrounds. European colonial settlements were characterized by brutal work and intense warfare as they sought to hold on to stolen land through enforced labor. In Jamestown, a moment of crisis emerged in 1676, when one settler—Nathanial Bacon—attempted to seize more land by starting a war against both Indigenous peoples and the official colonial government. Enslaved Africans and indentured servants joined together to take advantage of this instability to rebel for their collective freedom. In response, Britain sent the royal navy to disarm the rebels, and hung 23 European and African freedom fighters. Most importantly, the colonial government set in motion a legal system to keep enslaved African and indentured Europeans divided by outlawing African possession of weapons, consolidating the slave system as distinct from (and worst than) indentured servitude, and inventing the privileged status of whiteness. Together, these changes served to have indentured servants identify with the European elites through whiteness, rather than working in solidarity with enslaved Africans.
Post-Katrina New Orleans Labor
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, federal policies were put in place that pitted Black New Orleanians against mostly Latinx immigrant workers. In the first two weeks after the storm, President Bush’s administration suspended a range of labor laws that protected federal disaster workers’ health and prevailing wages to lower the costs of rebuilding. In addition, the Department of Labor suspended its affirmative action and non-discrimination policy that would have required that Black and local contractors be given preference in bidding procedures. Simultaneously, the Department of Homeland Security suspended sanctions against employers who hired individuals without immigration documentation, leading to the active recruitment of undocumented workers. In the words of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, under these policies “African American workers were locked out of the reconstruction while immigrant workers were locked in” which in turn furthered the false racist narratives that Black people don’t want to work and immigrants steal Americans’ jobs.