February 11, 2018
Black Politics After 2016
By (University of Pennsylvania)

Many pundits and scholars have remarked on how the 2016 election reflected the significance of race in American politics. One strain of commentary to that effect contends that Trump’s election revealed a deep commitment to racism among white voters, especially working-class white voters, who are fundamentally alienated from a Democratic liberalism identified with nonwhites, feminists, LGBTQ people, and liberal technocratic elites.

From that perspective, the strategic moral of the Trump victory is that, as MSNBC Clintonoid Joy-Ann Reid put it in an August 29, 2017 Daily Show interview, the Democrats must recognize that they are the party of “black and brown people, of gay people, of marginalized people” and should stop longing “to be the party of the sort of Pabst Blue Ribbon voter, the kind of Coors Lite drinking voter…the sort of Archie Bunker voters” because the latter are committed Republicans. Reid imagines that, even though most Americans’ incomes have remained flat or declined and their lives have become more precarious over the period, the Democrats have been trying to appeal to those voters’ economic interests for forty years only to be rebuffed consistently because the latter care more about their “values” than their economic interests, and “the Republican party represents their values.” She also indicated, albeit indirectly, the other component of what she sees as the core Democratic base: “Democrats vote against their economic interests. If you live in New York and you make, you know, New York salary, you’re voting against your economic interests whenever you vote for Democrats; they raise your taxes. You vote your values.” Clearly, she does not have in mind the New York salaries of teachers, transit workers, butchers, nurses, home health care aides, or librarians.

To punctuate her point about the folly of pursuing the voters she caricatures with imputed consumer preferences, Harvard grad Reid, alluding to the Bernie Sanders campaign’s call for free public higher education, asserted that the Democrats are “not going to convince them by saying ‘we’ll give you free college,’” and, brushing off Trevor Noah’s query about the option of pursuing universal social policies that would benefit everyone, she made clear what conflict in “values” she considers paramount. She reduced the notion of universal social wage policy essentially to its opposite—Bill Clinton’s magical claim that economic growth on whatever terms is good for all, which she then dismissed as an erroneous conviction that “a rising tide will bring all the races together.” In her view, that conviction was wishful thinking because the central fault line in national politics concerns what she called “the racial discussion,” and she contended that “what black people generally want is a reckoning; they want to acknowledge the past and to reckon with it” but that “the country” instead “wants a pass” from that reckoning.

Another view proceeds from similar characterization of the crucial fault line but draws the lesson that Democrats should abandon the “culture war” framework and appeal to those scorned culturally conservative working-class whites who in earlier times were the party’s core electoral base. Clinton flack Mark Penn and consummate Wall Street Democrat Andrew Stein exemplified this argument in “Back to the Center, Democrats,” New York Times, July 6, 2017. They argue, “Central to the Democrats’ diminishment has been their loss of support among working-class voters, who feel abandoned by the party’s shift away from moderate positions on trade and immigration, from backing police and tough anti-crime measures, from trying to restore manufacturing jobs.” They assert that those voters moreover “see themselves as being penalized for maintaining the basic values of hard work, religion, and family.” Instead, Penn and Stein contend, the disaffected “saw the party being mired too often in political correctness, transgender bathroom issues, and offering more help to undocumented immigrants than to the heartland.” Like Reid, they argue that the key division in the electorate is over values, but they recommend that the Democrats need to bridge that divide by “embracing free speech on campuses and respect for Catholics and people of other faiths who feel marginalized within the party”—that is, tilting right on so called social issues.

Significantly, Reid and Penn and Stein share a conviction that, as the latter put it, “Big government handouts won’t win working-class voters back” and that Democrats should “reject socialist ideas” and the “siren calls of the left.” They also share a view of the working class as by definition white and conservative. Where Reid calls for doubling down on cultivating an electoral coalition centered on nonwhites, gay people, etc. in the name of appealing to the marginalized, Penn and Stein advocate moving away from that coalition—also in the name of appealing to the marginalized. Although Penn and Stein urge commitment to “greater protection for American workers,” in the same breath they call for “return to fiscal responsibility” and “reach[ing] across the aisle to show they understand that voters like bipartisanship.” They gesture toward concern for shoring up working-class living standards, but their fundamental proposal is for the party to move to the right, or in their terms, the “center.” They acknowledge no contradiction between those objectives because all their references to working people’s material concerns are platitudes consistent with their nostalgic faith in the early Clintonite/Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) formula of combining stimulation of financial sector-driven economic growth and ultimately symbolic racialized appeals—to blacks and Latinos mainly in the form of appointments and honorific displays and to (presumptively conservative) whites as “supporting a balanced budget, welfare reform, a crime bill that called for providing 100,000 new police officers, and a step-by-step approach to broadening health care”—and depending on unions for campaign support on the sole ground that “the other guy is worse.”

The tendencies that Reid and Penn and Stein reflect vie to define strategic response to the 2016 defeat within the framework of Democratic neoliberalism. They share a view that the terms of their debate should mark the boundaries of the politically thinkable for progressives. Both reject out of hand arguments that Trump’s victory signals a need to consider a social-democratic agenda; both insist that redistributive social and economic policies are less meaningful to voters than cultural or racial group identities. Penn and Stein represent Democratic neoliberalism’s right wing that calls for catering to the conservative, intolerant stances in the so-called culture war, but not so directly as Republicans, not least because the party remains dependent electorally on black, Latino, labor and socially liberal voters. That is the element of the party that interprets every victory or defeat as demonstrating the need to move to the steadily rightward trending “center” and constructs fantasy constituencies drawn from census data and opinion surveys—soccer moms, national security moms, moderate Republicans—to justify that interpretation.

That wing of the party’s opposition to redistributive policies and its disingenuousness regarding race and reproductive rights in particular have long been well known for what they are. As early as 1991 the late Julian Bond and I co-edited a special issue of The Nation dedicated to responses to that New Liberalism—“The Assault on Equality: Race, Rights and the New Orthodoxy,” which was the basis of a subsequent book, Without Justice for All: The New Liberalism and Our Retreat from Racial Equality. Ours was by no means the only such challenge to the conservative turn spearheaded by the DLC. (It is worth recalling that both Bill Clinton and Al Gore were presidents of the DLC, which was formed in the wake of Walter Mondale’s 1984 defeat explicitly to push the party to the right.)

The 2016 campaign made clear, however, that the Democrats’ identitarian left wing also rejects proposals for a broadly solidaristic program focused on combating economic inequality. Especially telling in this regard were the attacks by random, self-anointed Black Lives Matter activists on Bernie Sanders for not declaring his opposition to “systemic racism” in a way that suited their tastes and former civil rights movement icon Rep. John Lewis’s (D-GA) and other prominent black functionaries’ denunciations of Sanders’s calls for greatly expanding social wage policy and shifting national priorities toward addressing the needs of working people as irresponsible, if not un-American.

Perhaps most telling of all was when and especially how Hillary Clinton blithely blew off Sanders’s focus on economic inequality and corporate power. On the eve of the Nevada primary, she declared to a rally of her supporters “Not everything is about an economic theory, right? If we broke up the big banks tomorrow—and I will, if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will—would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight? Would that solve our problem with voting rights, and Republicans who are trying to strip them away from people of color, the elderly, the young?” (David Weigel, “Clinton in Nevada: ‘Not Everything Is about an Economic Theory,’” Washington Post, February 13, 2016).

Her observation was technically correct but beside the point, a willful dodge. I quipped at the time that seriously regulating the financial sector would not eliminate sun spots or help Bahrain win the World Cup either, but doing so, especially in concert with social wage policies like those Sanders also proposed, could improve the lives and economic security of millions of working people and their families of all races, genders and sexual orientations. Clinton’s objective was to deflect discussion of economic inequality at a moment when the society becomes more strikingly unequal almost by the day. Paul Krugman attempted to rationalize her dodge with an argument that what he calls “horizontal inequality”—aggregate-level disparities between groups—is actually more important than inequality in the society writ large (Krugman, “Hillary and the Horizontals,” New York Times, June 10, 2016). (There are many reasons, to be sure, that former Johnson and Nixon administration functionary, Harvard professor, U.S. Senator, and Olympic caliber blowhard Daniel Patrick Moynihan, would be burning in Hell right now if there were such a place. One that is not often noted is his insidious move in the infamous 1965 report for the Johnson administration’s Labor Department, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, to characterize the problem of inequality in groupist terms, the equivalent of Krugman’s horizontal inequality, which underwrote treating it as a problem rooted in culture rather than political economy.)

Since the election, antiracist commentators and internet activists in particular have become even more aggressive in red-baiting Sanders and a politics centered on economic redistribution, and to do so they rely on a new vector of race-baiting—attacking advocacy of social-democratic politics as intrinsically racist or white supremacist. The move, as Reid implied in her response to Noah’s query, links advocacy of economic redistribution to the rightist turn urged by Penn and Stein and others, thus casting argument for appeal to working-class concerns as ipso facto an apology for white racism. Clintonites’ fabrication of the “Bernie bros” bugbear is a cynical bourgeois (or “lean-in”) feminist version of that smear intended to paint advocacy of a redistributive politics as sexist.

This political tendency has congealed around a perspective that renders “working class” as a white racial category and synonym for backwardness and bigotry and condemns working-class whites who voted for Trump as loathsome racists with whom political solidarity is indefensible. Antiracists and other identitarian Democrats reject suggestions that motives other than racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or xenophobia may have been significant in generating the Trump vote. In this struggle for interpretation, which is also a struggle over strategic direction, antiracist identitarians and the Clintonite right-wing deny that many working people, including those whom Les Leopold (“How to Win Back Obama, Sanders, and Trump Voters,” Commondreams.org, February 10, 2017) describes as Obama/Sanders/Trump voters—who were not exclusively white—may have good reasons to feel betrayed by both parties and that those reasons may have been a significant factor in their decisions to vote for Trump. In the antiracist line of argument, although having voted previously for Obama once or even twice cannot be taken as evidence that white voters were not racist, or motivated primarily by race, having voted for Trump is incontrovertible evidence that they are.

The upshot of that view is to write off what, according to Larry Sabato’s estimate (“Just How Many Obama 2012-Trump 2016 Voters Were There?Sabato’s Crystal Ball, June 1, 2017), may amount to between nearly seven million and more than nine million voters, many of whose support for Trump surely stemmed from concerns more complex than commitment to white supremacy. Some percentage of those people, and there is no way to know how many until we try to connect with them politically, voted for Trump at least partly for reasons similar to those for which they voted for Obama (see, for example, Leslie Lopez, “‘I Believe Trump Like I Believed Obama’: A Case Study of Two Working-Class ‘Latino’ Voters, My Parents,” nonsite.org, November 28, 2016). Dismissing those voters, and, more to the point, dismissing appeals to broad economic and social wage concerns, leaves as the only political possibility for the left a version of the coalition Reid adduced as the Democrats’ proper base, including the key component she evoked but did not mention explicitly—Wall Street and Silicon Valley money.

Another prominent former Clintonista, Douglas Schoen (“Why Democrats Need Wall Street,” New York Times, October 17, 2017), in arguing for strengthening Democrats’ ties to Wall Street, provides a window onto the character of that coalition. He attacks the left vision of “wealth redistribution through higher taxes and Medicare for all, and demonizing Wall Street” and dismisses calls for a $15/hr. minimum wage and increased banking regulation as “ineffective, negative, and coercive.” Like Penn, his former associate, and Stein, Schoen proposes the same tired DLC bromides—more deregulation, business-friendly economic policies along with a sop that those policies “must prioritize entrepreneurship, small business growth and the expansion of job-training and retraining programs”—that have contributed to intensifying upward redistribution and the backlash against it. He even touts Clinton’s deregulation of the telecommunications industry and repeal of Glass-Steagall as great accomplishments to be built upon. It would be difficult to script an approach more at odds with the frustrations that both Sanders and Trump tapped into in 2016. I doubt, however, that Schoen is so much out of touch with that popular frustration as that he wants to squash its expression. His assertion that “the party has left behind” fealty to the financial sector and lurched leftward cannot be taken seriously as an empirical assessment. He wants to preempt any such shift and reassert the mantra that there is no alternative to a political agenda driven by Wall Street.

Schoen’s version of the DLC mantra also shows how commitment to diversity distinguishes Democratic from Republican neoliberalism. After scoring the left for its irresponsible and unpopular extremism, he cautions, “For the 2020 election, some the party’s strongest potential presidential candidates—Senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris as well as Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor—should not be dismissed simply because of their current or past ties to Wall Street.” Harris and Booker emerged as possible contenders for the 2020 nomination far too soon after the last election, and it is certainly reasonable to suspect that, notwithstanding whatever else may appeal about either of them, their early prominence has to do in part with the fact that they are nonwhite and linked to the financial sector wing of the party. Early efforts to create a groundswell for them bring to mind similar efforts to invent John Kerry in 2004 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 as prohibitive favorites—partly on the claim that they could best raise financial sector money—and thereby foreclose policy debate in service to the imperative to close ranks around the supposedly eventual nominee. Patrick and Gillibrand have been on the national stage longer, and, as an African American and a woman, both with close Wall Street ties, they also fit the bill as representatives of identitarian neoliberalism, which it is worth recalling that Barack Obama embodied as Wall Street’s preferred candidate in 2008. The absurd recent Oprah moment underscores this element’s desperation to hit upon the winning identitarian neoliberal formula, or at least to make certain that the quest for that formula exhausts “progressive” political debate.

The baseline premise linking Reid’s, Penn and Stein’s, and Schoen’s stances is out of hand rejection of calls for broadly redistributive policy or frontal challenges to economic inequality. It is not news that Penn, Stein, and Schoen embrace that view. As debates proceed over ways forward for progressives, it has become clear that the left-identitarian stance Reid exemplifies is no less committed to the market-driven economic and social policy framework. Exposing that continuity is an unanticipated outcome of 2016, and progressives would be wise to take it into account.

Largely because of the challenge posed by the alternative political vision that Sanders advanced and the subsequent struggle over how to interpret the meanings of Trump’s victory, the 2016 election and its aftermath have thrown into relief the extent to which antiracism, and other formulations of politics based on ascriptive identities, are not simply alternatives to a (working) class politics, as Clinton’s cheesy put-down during the campaign implied. What is typically called identity politics reflects the perspective of a different class, the professional and managerial strata who are relatively insulated from the negative impacts of the four decades long regime of regressive redistribution and better positioned to take advantage of the opportunity structures it opens. That perspective suggests a reason many high-profile antiracists have become so vehement in their opposition to a politics centered on downward economic redistribution. As Kenneth Warren et al. put it in “On the End(s) of Black Politics” (nonsite.org, September 16, 2016)

antiracists…remain attuned to a vision of justice defined by ensuring equal access to hierarchically distributed social goods such as family wealth (and redressing historical impediments to the accumulation of wealth rooted in discrimination). Indeed in making frequent recourse to the adjective “narrow” in chastising a politics that roots inequality in economic exploitation, antiracists and identitarians have positioned the idea of racial justice as a critique of, rather than an expected consequence of, socialism. It is largely for this reason that, as Walter Benn Michaels has noted…“the commitment to identity politics has been more an expression of…enthusiasm for the free market than a form of resistance to it.”

Reid and others reject efforts to reinvigorate a politics based on broad solidarities and egalitarian redistribution from a standpoint that accepts the deeper dynamics of market-driven inequality as natural. The antiracist objection is, in effect, that black concerns are limited to racial disparities—blacks’ relatively unfavorable position in aggregate distribution of the society’s good and bad outcomes among statistically defined groups, Krugman’s “horizontal inequalities.” But, as the society becomes ever more starkly unequal across the board with respect to wealth, income and all that follows from those economic inequalities, insistence that disparities between groups are the true metric of social justice does more to justify the larger system of inequality than to challenge it. By that standard, as Walter Benn Michaels and I have often argued, the society would be just if one percent of the population controlled ninety percent of the resources so long as that one percent were itself twelve percent black, seventeen percent Hispanic, fifty percent female, and so on. Eliminating disparities without addressing the deeper structures that generate, reproduce, and intensify economic inequality in general would still leave large majorities of blacks, Hispanics, women, LGBTQ people, etc. poorly off and economically insecure. And this does not apply only to wealth disparities; as my colleague Marie Gottschalk points out in Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, eliminating racial disparities in incarceration would still leave us with the largest imprisoned population in the world.

The limitations of contemporary antiracist politics have not been much noticed or commented upon, in large measure because we are accustomed to think about the nexus of race and politics, and black politics in particular, in terms rooted in a notion of “race relations,” which presumes that blacks and whites—or “black America” and “white America”—are basic, indivisible units of political interest. Historian Michael Rudolph West, in The Education of Booker T. Washington: American Democracy and the Idea of Race Relations (Columbia University Press, 2006), points up the anti-democratic premises and corrosive effects of the race relations idea as it took shape at the end of the nineteenth century in the context of massive disfranchisement of black voters and imposition of the segregationist regime that effectively denied blacks’ citizenship rights. The race relations framework, West argues, appealed to white elites because it sidestepped the troublesome fact of blacks’ constitutional claims to full and equal citizenship by proposing a focus on the evanescent issue of how the “races” relate as an alternative to matters like denial of rights and equal protection under the law. He notes that “interests and aspirations of politicians and ministers, workers and businessmen, parents and teachers would no longer be expressed by way of the normal, if potentially messy, institutional channels through which Americans settled their conflicts and competition. Instead they would be mediated through the good offices of ‘Negro leaders’ ever mindful of where their mandate comes from and the requirement placed on them as a first principle ‘to cement the friendship of the two races’” (56-57), on terms, of course, set by the white elites.

For most of the twentieth century, throughout the period when legally enforced racial subordination and officially countenanced discrimination were injustices that, in principle if not always in practice, confronted the race universally, it was reasonable to assume that black Americans were united across the board in opposition to enforced racial inequality and in support of equal opportunity. That is, the basis for presuming a unitary black agenda rested on concrete historical facts of life rather than racialist mysticism. That was the reality expressed in W. E. B. Du Bois’s pithy 1940 apothegm, in response to an apocryphal interlocutor’s quest for a definition of the Negro, “the black man is a person who must ride Jim Crow in Georgia.” Yet, black Americans’ politics even then was more complex than shared opposition to specifically racial injustice. A year before Du Bois’s observation, political scientist Ralph Bunche discussed the limits of a politics based on racial unity. He criticized the National Negro Congress, a militant black united front organization, because its effectiveness was undercut by its “assumption that the common denominator of race is enough to weld together, in thought and action, such diverse segments of the Negro society as preachers and labor organizers, lodge officials and black workers, Negro businessmen, Negro radicals, professional politicians, professional men, domestic servants, butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers.”

As Bunche’s criticism suggests, black political differentiation was significant even in the midst of the Jim Crow era. Moreover, race never exhausted the universe of black Americans’ political concerns. From Emancipation through the 1960s, black political engagement was not restricted exclusively to racial issues. In the late 1870s blacks in Virginia aligned with white workers and small farmers in the proto-populist Readjuster Party that elected a governor and a U.S. Senator. In the 1880s, membership in the radical Knights of Labor included roughly 60,000 blacks. In the 1890s, the Colored Farmers Alliance, black expression of the Populist insurgency, had 1,250,000 members, and in 1894 an interracial Populist-Republican Fusion alliance won statewide power in North Carolina as well as in several municipalities in the state and was re-elected by a larger margin in 1896. In New Orleans in 1892 black workers participated with whites in a general strike that withstood employers’ and white supremacist politicians’ efforts to break their solidarity through racist agitation. In the 1930s and 1940s and beyond, black activists generally presumed that unionization and expanded social wage policies were necessary conditions for continued black advancement.

Black political debate and action through the early 1960s focused on concrete issues—employment, housing, wages, unionization, discrimination in specific venues and domains— rather than an abstract “racism.” It was only in the late 1960s and 1970s, after the legislative victories that defeated southern apartheid and restored black Americans’ full citizenship rights, that “racism” was advanced as the default explanation for inequalities that appear as racial disparities. That view emerged from Black Power politics and its commitment to a race-first communitarian ideology that posited the standpoint of an idealized “black community” as the standard for political judgment, which Bayard Rustin predicted at the time would ensue only in creation of a “new black establishment.” It was ratified as a commonsense piety of racial liberalism by the Report of the Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—popularly known as the Kerner Commission, after its chair, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner—which asserted that “white racism” was the ultimate source of the manifold inequalities the Report catalogued as well as the pattern of civil disturbances the commission had been empaneled to investigate.

Reduction of black politics to a timeless struggle against abstractions like racism and white supremacy or for others like freedom and liberation obscures the extent to which black Americans’ political activity has evolved and been shaped within broader American political currents. That view, which oscillates between heroic and tragic, overlooks the fact that the mundane context out of which racism became a default explanation, or alternative to explanation, for inequality, was a national debate over how to guide anti-poverty policy and the struggle for fair employment practices in the early 1960s. Left-of-center public attention to poverty and persistent unemployment at the beginning of the 1960s divided into two camps. One, represented most visibly by figures like Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz, Senators Joseph Clark (D-PA) and Hubert H. Humphrey (D-MN), United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, and black labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, argued that both phenomena stemmed from structural inadequacies in the postwar economy, largely the consequence of technological reorganization, especially in manufacturing. From that perspective, effectively addressing those conditions would require direct and large scale federal intervention in labor markets, including substantial investment in public works employment and skills-based, targeted job-training.

The other camp saw poverty and persistent unemployment as residual problems resulting from deficiencies of values, attitudes, and human capital (a notion then only recently popularized) in individuals and groups that hindered them from participating fully in a dynamic labor market rather than from inadequacies in overall economic performance. In that view, addressing poverty and persistent unemployment did not require major intervention in labor markets. A large tax cut intended to stimulate aggregate demand would eliminate unacceptably high rates of unemployment, and anti-poverty policy would center on fixing the deficiencies within residual populations. Job training would focus on teaching “job readiness”—attitudes and values—more than specific skills. Liberals connected to the Ford Foundation and the Kennedy and Johnson administrations saw chronic poverty as bound up with inadequate senses of individual and group efficacy rather than economic performance. That interpretation supported a policy response directed to enhancing the sense of efficacy among impoverished individuals and communities, partly through mobilization for civic action. The War on Poverty’s Community Action program gave that approach a militant or populist patina through its commitment to “grassroots” mobilization of poor people on their own behalf. In addition, Community Action Agencies and Model Cities projects facilitated insurgent black and Latino political mobilization in cities around the country, which reinforced a general sense of their radicalism. At the same time, however, those programs reinforced liberals’ tendencies to separate race from class and inequality from political economy and to substitute participation or representation for redistribution.

Both camps assumed that black economic inequality stemmed significantly from current and past discrimination. A consequential difference between them, though, was that those who emphasized the need for robust employment policies contended that much black unemployment resulted from structural economic factors that were beyond the reach of anti- discrimination efforts. To that extent, improving black Americans’ circumstances would require broader social-democratic intervention in the political economy, including significantly expanded social wage policy. As Randolph observed at the 1963 March on Washington, “Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practices Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers, black and white? We want integrated public schools, but that means we also want federal aid to education—all forms of education.” The other camp, in line with then Assistant Secretary of Labor Moynihan’s Negro Family jeremiad, construed black unemployment and poverty as deriving from an ambiguous confluence of current discrimination and cultural pathologies produced by historical racism. For a variety of reasons having to do with both large politics and small, the latter vision won.

As the late historian Judith Stein summarized the outcome in her important account of the period, Running Steel, Running America: Race, Economic Policy, and the Decline of Liberalism

the causes of both poverty and black unemployment were separated from the workings of the economy. The War on Poverty redirected both its own and the Labor Department’s manpower programs from the skilled to the unskilled, from adults to young people, and from whites to blacks. Discussions of unemployment, underemployment, and low wages were replaced by discourses on inadequate motivation, education, and culture, factors limiting a person’s ability to take advantage of opportunity.

Defeat of Democratic liberalism’s social-democratic tendency was underscored by the failed effort to organize around A “Freedom Budget” for All Americans, issued in 1966 by Randolph and the AFL-CIO’s new A. Philip Randolph Institute. The Budget’s objective was to reduce unemployment to less than three percent by 1968 and poverty to no more than one or two percent by 1975. Programmatically, it called for increasing the federal minimum wage to a level that would lift the working poor out of poverty; providing guaranteed income above the poverty level for those unable to work; guaranteeing access to affordable, good-quality housing for all; access to proper medical care for all, as well as educational opportunity for all, “up to the limits of their abilities and ambitions, at costs within their means;” expansion of funding for the public sector to repair and improve physical infrastructure; maintenance of adequate environmental standards; and expansion of public transportation. By then, however, the window for possible social-democratic intervention had closed, partly because substantial new social spending had been precluded first by the terms on which the Johnson administration implemented the tax-cut Kennedy Keynesians had proposed to boost aggregate demand and then by the requirements of funding the Vietnam war. (The Freedom Budget argued, to no avail, that it was possible to fund both its recommendations and the war.) Stalwarts like Sen. Clark, who only a few years earlier had called for a policy of aggressive labor market intervention, in 1967 dismissed the Freedom Budget as a nonstarter: “I think in the best of all possible worlds, it would be a wonderful thing, but as a matter of pragmatic politics, it seems to me utterly unrealistic.”

Resolution of the debates over persistent unemployment and poverty and the fate of the Freedom Budget marked a definitive turn away from social-democratic intervention in manpower and social policy. Not only did the Keynesian tax cut, and then Vietnam, preempt new social spending. Passage of a watered-down version of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act in 1978 affirmed the defeat; the Carter administration palliated black elites with appointments and then imposed austerity on working people of whatever race. Stagflation and economic instability in the mid-1970s justified retrenchment that only deepened and became hegemonic over the Carter-Reagan-Bush-Clinton years and culminated in New Democrat Bill Clinton’s declaration in his 1996 State of the Union address that “The era of big government is over.” Having abjured political-economic critique, many left-liberals came to accept the reigning assumptions of neoclassical economics as the equivalent of unalterable nature and to treat persisting inequalities, as Stein indicates, as deriving fundamentally from deficiencies of the poor and economically marginal populations themselves and/or from ethereal forces like racism or sexism.

The fact that the major civil rights victories were consolidated on terms that reflected defeat of the social-democratic tendency in the liberal-left had significant consequences for black politics and for the role of race and interest-group dynamics that would take shape over the next half century. In the early 1960s civil rights advocates understood that manifest racial inequality, especially economic inequality, often did not result from direct discrimination. Randolph and Rustin were perhaps most visible but not alone in recognizing that complexity. Most of the prominent civil rights leadership preferred an approach that tied fair employment policy to pursuit of a full employment agenda, but Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act focused on discrimination to the exclusion of structural economic forces, and the bill’s passage on those terms altered opportunity structures in a way that at least softened that preference for many. “Like the analysis of poverty,” Stein observes, “the causes of black unemployment were first joined to the economy, in 1963, and then divorced from it in the legislation of 1964.”

In the 1963 Senate Hearings on S. 1937, which would have incorporated Fair Employment Practices legislation into a more robust manpower bill, Senator Humphrey and Labor Secretary Wirtz emphasized that “institutional” processes that did not involve intentional discrimination accounted for much of black disadvantage in the labor market. Within five years “institutional racism,” popularized by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton’s Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, the Kerner Report and other widely read texts, had become a conventional formulation intended to fit those ostensibly nonracial institutional factors into an antiracist ideological and policy discourse. The formulation was partly a pragmatic adaptation to a legal framework that recognized invidious racial treatment, but not unequal outcomes produced by more diffuse market forces or institutional practices, as a basis for remedial action.

As a concept, however, institutional racism also fit within a new black politics in the 1970s. With the rise of a stratum of black public officials and functionaries enabled by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, changing urban racial demography, and expanded opportunity structures, black politics largely settled, as political scientist Cedric Johnson has argued, into a routine racial interest-group affair, an ethnic politics, that accommodated to the national retreat from redistributive social wage policy by defining a specifically racial agenda limited to challenging disparities and demanding ultimately symbolic appointments and honorific recognition. Consistent with West’s observation regarding the race relations idea, this black ethnic politics requires abstracting away from the many materially and personally meaningful identities that black people share with others to condense around race as a singular concern. It requires, that is, that black people disappear from and often be contrasted to broader categories of teachers, students, homeowners, landlords, renters, clerks, parents, stamp collectors, steelworkers, public employees, electricians, cable technicians, carpenters, people concerned with health care, climate change, foreign policy, etc. Blacks’ disappearance as autonomous citizens has been facilitated by proliferation over the 1980s and 1990s of the imagery of a benighted, pathological black “urban underclass” that exists only as an object of policy, as a problem population to be administered, not the subjects of political decision-making. Illustrative of how pervasive that just-so underclass story has become, candidate Barack Obama only fully established his racial bona fides in 2008 with “tough-love” speeches directed against a stereotypically pathological black underclass that he gave before black congregations and the NAACP convention.

Especially in a context in which downwardly redistributive social and economic policies are defined as “off the table,” in the phrase Clintonites deployed to preempt debate over single-payer as a goal in early 1990s health care reform, the horizon of properly black political aspiration can extend only to pursuit of group parity in the distribution of good and bad outcomes in the society, even as it becomes increasingly unequal in general. From that perspective, the injustice of the subprime mortgage scam lies in the extent to which it targeted blacks; the problem with intensifying inequalities of wealth and income is that blacks may be disproportionately disadvantaged, and the crucial outrage of the criminal justice system—from rampant carceralization to patterns of policing that authorize law enforcement officers to abrogate the Constitution with impunity and to preempt the roles of prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner—is that blacks are disproportionately victimized in it. This inclination to reduce injustice and inequality exclusively to their racial components is precisely the reason Michaels, Warren et al. (and, for the record, I am one of that essay’s co-authors) and others characterize contemporary antiracism as a critique entirely within bipartisan neoliberalism and therefore a rhetorical and ideological legitimation of that larger regime of inequality.

Antiracist reactions to Bernie Sanders’s challenge and its invigoration of a redistributionist left illustrate the extent to which this race politics is at bottom a class politics. Dismissal of Sanders’s agenda and assertions that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, living wage, and national health care, for example, somehow were not black issues underscores that this turn in black politics is committed to an agenda restricted to combating racial disparities within prevailing structures of inequality. Thus, in its purview economic redistribution seems racially inauthentic, but the annual controversies over group parity in awards of Oscars, Grammies, and other accolades appear as burning social justice issues. Only ideological blinders can block out the implication that a fair share of acclaim for Ava DuVernay, Nate Parker or Rihanna is, or should be, more important to black Americans than general access to decent, secure employment and retirement, health care and a vibrant public sector.

Contemporary antiracist politics hinges on the premise that race, or racism, continues to determine the political, social, and economic circumstances of black people much as it did at the turn of the twentieth century or even earlier, under slavery. That premise underlies and drives assertions that, for example, mass incarceration is “the new Jim Crow” or a latter-day slavery. DuVernay’s documentary, 13th, all but argues explicitly that the Thirteenth Amendment’s clause exempting “punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” from its blanket prohibition of involuntary servitude was intended to leave space for reintroducing slavery, now through mass incarceration. (To those who may object that DuVernay’s documentary does not openly make such a claim, I submit reports from several colleagues at universities in different parts of the country, including my own experience at Penn, of undergraduate students who have advanced it explicitly.) Ta-Nehisi Coates hammers incessantly on the note that racism or white supremacy is a transhistorical, unchanging, and ontological force which white people generically are either committed to, driven by, or both and that that force—an urge to engage in “the plunder of black bodies”—is the singular explanation of disadvantage, inequality, or injustice experienced by black Americans.

It is instructive that Coates and others who argue that racism remains the most potent force generating racially invidious inequalities commonly invoke superficial analogies with earlier historical moments when racial classification much more directly limited black people’s life chances. They do not attempt to explain how racism produces those outcomes in the present; the analogy stands in lieu of explanation. Michelle Alexander even acknowledges in the book that popularized the “new Jim Crow” analogy in relation to mass incarceration that, when all is said and done, it is not an accurate description of current conditions. The objective of antiracist politics is less to explain, and thereby inform strategies for addressing, the dynamics that generate and reproduce inequalities than to assert a claim that “racism” is the label that should attach to any and all injustices affecting black people. So, notwithstanding their dismissals of calls for grounding leftist strategy on challenging broad economic inequality as “class reductionist,” advocates of contemporary antiracism in fact embrace a race reductionism.

There is a logical contradiction at the core of this form of antiracist argument. Analogies to earlier historical moments when racial classification directly constrained black people’s life chances are so central to the reductionist arguments that ground antiracist politics because racism is now negatively sanctioned in contemporary American culture. It is conventional wisdom today that racism was the principal cause, or at least principal justification, of black inequality during slavery and southern Jim Crow segregation; slavery and imposed racial hierarchy are repugnant to contemporary sensibilities. That means, however, that denunciation of current practices or relations through analogies to those earlier regimes of injustice seems powerful rhetorically precisely because of a presumption that the claim is not true. For the claim to have the desired force, those making it must assume that things have changed because the charge is fundamentally a denunciation of objectionable conditions or incidents as atavistic and a call for others to regard them as such.

As Yale Law Professor James Forman, Jr. has argued, regarding the trope that mass incarceration is a new Jim Crow, such analogies both diminish the importance of the victories of the last half-century and trivialize the dangers and constraints—the concrete manifestations of explicitly racial oppression—that defined the earlier periods. The most superficial knowledge of the past and observation of the present should establish that black Americans do not live under the same restricted and perilous conditions now as in 1865, or for that matter 1965. The contention that racism singularly defines black reality is therefore not an empirical claim, even though many advancing it seem earnestly convinced that it is. It is a lament that racism persists as a force impeding black Americans’ aspirations, that no matter how successful or financially secure individual black people may be, they remain similarly subject to victimization by it. The claim carries a tacit preface: “(this incident/phenomenon/pattern makes it seem as though) nothing has changed.” In practical terms, it is an assertion that race/racism should remain the default frame of reference for discussing any and all inequalities bearing on black Americans.

Persistence of racialized patterns of inequality and expressions of open bigotry give this reductionist perspective a ring of truth, and struggle against specifically racial injustice has always been a central component of black Americans’ political activity. In addition, for at least a quarter-century political elites, the commentariat, and academics have propagated a notion that black politics consists in drawing attention to specifically racial injustices, chiefly identifying disparities. Even black concerns with issues that affect the population across the board, e.g. climate change, nonetheless seem to require assertion of a particularly racial impact. The “blacks have it worse” trope is at this point, like an ejaculation in the Catholic liturgy, a predictable reflex in political argument centered on disparity as the lone truly actionable injustice. Rhetorically, that claim is not a call to popular political action but a demand for recognition based on moral priority.

Like any ideology that gains traction, race reductionism also has a material foundation. Black ethnic politics consolidated around exponential growth of a stratum of office holders and public functionaries, and it has encouraged and reinforced development of what might be called a political economy of race-relations or diversity management. That includes a burgeoning, multibillion dollar diversity industry that extends to corporations and universities, where pursuit and monitoring of diversity is woven into human resource functions and overseen by in-house diversity professionals and administrators and freelance consultants. Insofar as diversity is valued in personnel policies, the significance of this political economy, and the ideology that emanates from and underwrites it, ranges far beyond those who work in the diversity/race relations economy directly. Diversity as a norm of fairness pervades the professional-managerial strata and ratifies an ideal of social justice that harmonizes seamlessly with market-driven neoliberalism because it combines celebration of difference and aggressive pursuit of equality of opportunity, to the exclusion of economic redistribution. This is the essential truth reflected in the subtitle of Walter Benn Michaels’s book, The Trouble with Diversity, namely that we—at least in the professional-managerial strata—have come to “love identity and ignore inequality.”

The political economy of race relations management has grown symbiotically with neoliberalism. The symbiosis may be clearest in the privatization, outsourcing, and overall retraction of social services, as claims to authentic representation of “community” voices and perspectives factor into criteria for awarding contracts and standing in policy processes that are increasingly insulated from democratic oversight and accountability. The norm of representation as embodiment of appropriate categories of identity gives private and nonprofit contractors an easy standard of legitimacy that collapses possible differences on policy issues and directions into vacant liberal proceduralism (having a “seat at the table”) and Victorian racialist mysticism (“reflecting the perspective of the X”). The symbiotic relationship shows up also in the ways that a politics grounded on identity can obfuscate dynamics of economic inequality and dispossession by rendering them in cultural terms.

Debate over displacement for upscaling redevelopment is a case in point. In opting for a language of “gentrification,” opponents of displacement, often without intending to do so, cloud a simple, straightforward dynamic—public support of private developers’ pursuit of rent-intensifying redevelopment—with cultural implications that shift critique away from the issue of using public authority to engineer upward redistribution and impose hardship on relatively vulnerable residents. Instead, discussion of gentrification slides into objections about display of privilege, and lack of recognition or respect that, notwithstanding the moral outrage that accompanies them, accept the logic of rent-intensifying redevelopment as given and demand that newcomers acknowledge and honor aboriginal habitus and practices and that the “community” be involved in the processes of upgrading. A similar racial or cultural discourse has unhelpfully shaped opposition to charterization of public education by focusing on the racial dimension of the process. The fundamental problem with Teach For America and such privatizers, after all, is not that the missionaries are mainly white and unfamiliar with native culture or even that many of them are tourists building extracurriculars for their graduate and professional school dossiers. Those are only idiosyncratically distasteful features of a particular line of attack on one front in a broader war on public goods and the idea of social solidarity in line with marketization of all human needs.

And that sort of culturalist discourse also opens opportunities for petty, and not so petty, entrepreneurship in the name of respect or recognition of the community, within the logic of neoliberalization. Race reductionism enables a sleight-of-hand in which benefits to individuals can appear to be victories for the generic racial population or community. The more deeply embedded a groupist notion of fairness or justice becomes as common sense, the more easily that sleight-of-hand works under labels like “community empowerment,” “voice,” “opportunity,” or “representation” to propel and legitimize accumulation by dispossession.

The symbiotic relation between antiracist politics and Democratic neoliberalism helps to make sense of the vitriol with which so many antiracist activists have reacted to Sanders and the renewed interest in challenging economic inequality. Notwithstanding copious evocations of the heroic period of black insurgent activism, this politics is not directed toward generating the deep and broad solidarities necessary for building an insurgent political movement. It is an insider, elite-driven interest group politics that is concerned less with reducing inequality than with establishing and maintaining what Kenneth Warren describes as “managerial authority over the nation’s Negro problem.” As West observed regarding the race relations framework’s emergence at the dawn of the twentieth century, claims to speak for black concerns in this politics do not depend on demonstration of accountability to any specific constituencies of black people. From Coates and other pundits to the many random Black Lives Matter activists those who expatiate about black Americans’ lack of interest in social-democratic politics claim interpretive authority based on the mysticism of organic racial representation and, most immediately, recognition by corporate media and elites as authentic voices.

That is a crucial context within which we should understand antiracists’ tendency to align with Wall Street Democrats in denouncing calls for general redistribution and their insistence that Trump’s victory most meaningfully expresses the depth of commitments to white supremacy, sexism, and homophobia particularly among “white working class” voters. The contention that working-class disaffection from Clintonite neoliberalism most of all expresses backlash against blacks and others is an argument, as Clinton’s snide dismissal of Sanders indicates, that economic inequality is not a central concern for blacks, women, immigrants, LGBT or transgender people. A year into the Trump presidency and unimpeded Republican control of Congress and of most state governments has confirmed what many on the left have known all along, that the right’s agenda is an all-out attack on working people, no matter what their racial and gender classifications and identities or sexual orientations. The alliance of Democratic neoliberalism and an identity-based notion of social justice has contributed to this nightmarish outcome precisely by diminishing the significance of a policy orientation that abets upward redistribution and intensifying economic inequality and racializing the working class as white losers. Doubling down on that approach, as Clintonites and race- and gender-reductionists exhort, will not effectively counter the right’s strategy. The real lesson of 2016 is that we need both to mobilize for 2018 and 2020 on a basis that focuses on the concerns and anxieties that working people share across those categories of identity and to organize for the longer term to cultivate those solidarities as part of building a movement that can change the terms of debate to pivot on how government can best provide for the security and welfare of the vast majority of the population who must work for a living. This means, among other things, that we must be confident in rejecting claims—no matter how flamboyantly adorned they are with moral posturing and evocations of past insurgencies—that black Americans or other nonwhites, immigrants, women, LGBTQ and transgender people somehow will spurn access to quality affordable housing, health care, education, secure employment with decent wages, benefits and rights and protections on the job , and high-quality public goods and services as not pertinent to them.

About the Author

Adolph Reed, Jr. is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in race and American politics.


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