May 10, 2019
Judith Stein and the Historical Materialist Study of American Political History
By (University of Pennsylvania)

I first encountered Judith Stein’s work in the spring of 1975, during my last semester of graduate coursework. My friend, professor, and later dissertation advisor, Alex Willingham, either assigned or passed around her extraordinary new Science & Society article, “’Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others’: The Political Economy of Racism in the United States.”1 The Atlanta University political science graduate program for a time, especially in the 1970s, attracted students who often enough came from backgrounds of extramural political activism, commonly with something of a sense of defeat and with concerns to make sense of black American political development and the relation of race and capitalism.2  That article had an immediate and lasting impact within our cohort, and it has continued to this day to expand the horizons and sharpen the perspectives of undergraduates and graduate students, as many of us, and our students and their students, assign it as essential reading for anyone who would understand black American politics and political history. In that article Stein advanced an approach that roots the study of black politics within broader contexts of American political ideas, history, and political economy—that is, that understands politics among black Americans as internally dynamic and a partly constitutive subset of American politics. Therefore, when Kenneth W. Warren and I decided to put together a volume exemplifying an historical-materialist approach to the study of black intellectual and cultural history, Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought (2010), we intended from the moment we conceived the project to include “’Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” as “a foundational text for the strain of historicist interpretation” the book advanced.

Stein’s approach to the study of black politics marked a striking departure from interpretive conventions in the field, which since its origination during the decade or so after World War II had assumed its object of study to be the relation between “the Negro” (or, later, “the black American”) as a singular, substantially undifferentiated entity and either “whites” or “America.” Touré Reed describes her interpretive intervention succinctly in his contribution to this symposium, noting that she “traced the tendency of American historians to reduce black political movements to potted frameworks such as ‘accommodation and militance, self-help and protest’ to a reflexive reification of race.  As Stein put it, students of African American politics too often treat black-led movements as ‘mechanical successions of protests against racism and withdrawal into self-help,’ which functions to mystify race—divorcing racism ‘from the concrete and complex experiences of social groups in particular circumstances.’”

Among those of us who were trying to develop materialist understandings of black political activity past and present while simultaneously living through the immediacy of racial transition in local government and consolidation of a black political class in Atlanta, Stein’s article was powerfully clarifying and timely, if not epiphanic. In academic and political milieux that almost universally naturalized the notion that black politics reduced to debates among larger than life “leaders” about strategies for the race or generic “black community,” “’Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others’” stressed the significance of political differentiation and class-based popular action, i.e., political agendas stemming from differing social positions,  among black people and demonstrated that race never—not even during the period of mass disfranchisement and the descent of Jim Crow—exhausted the universe of black people’s political concerns and action. Stein contended that to “understand black history, one must examine the principal social forces affecting black people concretely and in historical time” and, specifically, that to “understand the era of Booker T. Washington, one must first examine the whole pattern of social forces affecting blacks after the Civil War, not only the racial manifestations.”3 The Populist insurgency, she argued, and black participation in it were key.

Stein advanced her argument through examining blacks’ political activity during the last decades of the nineteenth century in relation to the large political and economic forces that vied to shape politics more broadly in the region and nation. One of the article’s potentially field-altering, yet still by and large not adequately absorbed, insights challenged the view that links Washington’s prominence in the 1890s and his celebrated conflict over racial strategy with W. E. B. Du Bois. That dispute, Stein noted, did not arise until nearly a decade after Washington’s emergence, and she pointed out that in the 1890s Du Bois largely shared the Tuskegeean’s racial uplift agenda. Indeed, she made clear that Washington’s program of retreat from politics, accommodation to white supremacist dominance and pursuit of “self-help” expressed a broader disposition among black southern elites in the 1880s and 1890s. “While the movement of capital in the South impoverished most black farmers and workers,” she notes, “industrialization and urbanization produced a small black petit-bourgeoisie of businessmen and professionals. Although they were Republicans, many had the necessary ties to the white Democratic elite, an essential prerequisite for success in Southern cities. Many others did not engage directly in politics, but the black officeholders in the Republican Party reflected their needs and offered potential employment to them and their children…Black Republicans, presuming harmony between capital and labor, never challenged the foundations of Southern racism. After disfranchisement, when the hopes of marshalling black votes disappeared, they merged easily with the Washingtonians.”4

Black workers and farmers were more likely to align with Populists, who presumed conflict between their interests and those of planters and industrialists. The nascent black petite bourgeoisie, with its roots in the Republican Party and commitment to an uplift politics that hinged on white elite support, assumed that racial interests could be harmonized with planters’ and capitalists’. When disfranchisement eroded possibilities for political action, “institutions like Tuskegee grew in the vacuum of black politics, and in their sponsors’ imagination assumed large proportions. Their supporters identified the existence of their institutions with racial survival and their operations as the basis of black liberation.”5 Stein thus identified a material foundation that underwrote the commitment to racial uplift ideology shared broadly among the budding race “leadership” stratum. This perspective was reinforced by the premises of Victorian race theory, which, as Kevin Gaines indicates, were also shared widely among the new black petite bourgeoisie.6 And Washington was hardly alone in hoping “that the masses would accept the dominant, and ultimately benevolent, forces in society;” nor was he the only voice who, in response to increasing black opposition to Democrats, “publicly denigrated politics.”7

Stein pointed out that elevation of Washington and the Bookerite program of withdrawal into individualism and racial self-help under guidance of the southern ruling class derived most importantly from the latter’s concern to undercut interracial Populist agitation. “Without understanding the fear engendered by Populism, we cannot understand why the ruling class elevated Washington and tried to strengthen his power among blacks.”8 She elaborated:

Washington offered Southern leaders a way to combat black insurgency. [August] Meier and [Louis] Harlan’s explanation that the Bourbons needed a black leader to “express Negro accommodation to the social conditions implicit” in the 1877 compromise does not violate the facts so much as the dynamics of history. In 1895, while Southern rulers were combating other blacks and whites whose politics challenged the compromise and the social system it embodied, some men reached out for a symbol that would deny that reality and preserve their ideology and self-conception. Then, as now, the encouragement of moderate men was not the principal weapon against radical movements. The history of Populism demonstrates that violence and intimidation were the primary weapons used to combat its challenge to the prevailing order.9

Her assessment of Washington’s political significance and its sources substantively problematized the notion of the “black leader” by broadening the scope of what should be considered black politics and situating it within its own historical contexts. In the mid-1960s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) radicals questioned the category, asking sardonically how one became recognized as such. (Langston Hughes is said, perhaps apocryphally, to have quipped in the 1940s that a “Negro Leader” was any black person with a new suit and five dollars in his pocket.)  The question persisted in mundane politics as Black Powerite and post-Black Power radical discourse hinged largely on contested claims to represent the black “masses,” and it attained a practical immediacy in radicals’ efforts to come to terms with the emerging black political class in the 1970s. Radicals failed to counter the emerging black political class effectively ultimately because of the latter’s institutional power and resources. However,  efforts to challenge the emerging elite were undercut partly by the radicals’ own embrace of racial authenticity as the criterion of “real” popular leadership.

Robert L. Allen’s powerful critique of Black Power’s corporate and class-skewed links illustrates that problem. Despite the concreteness of his analysis, his argument nonetheless dribbled off into incoherence in its strategic conclusions because he retained a commitment to an idealized “black community” as the font of legitimate political agency, which reduced to a criterion of authenticity in representing the interests of the black “masses” as a standard according to which to evaluate and challenge the new political class’s program. That left Allen with a view of strategic political direction that depended on a hash that included resuscitating Du Bois’s old Depression-era racial cooperative commonwealth notion that proposed a program of cross-class, black-controlled community development—a proposal ironically consistent with the community development initiatives taking root in black elite politics in the late 1960s—and inchoate proposals for a domestic and international Third Worldist alliance that would also include white students and radicals and the hope that automation would wean a presumptively conservative white working class and deskilled professionals from allegiance to capitalism.10

Judith Stein offers a more compelling analysis of the problem. She was not the first to note the source of Washington’s status as Negro Leader, as her reference to Meier and Harlan makes clear. However, others typically have taken the category as given and have questioned neither whence leadership status derives nor the potential political implications of its sources. Because prevailing discursive tendencies in the field have posited a singular racial subject as the irreducible site of black agency and the telos of black political history as what an earlier generation called “race adjustment” or, in postwar liberalism, “the Negro’s struggle for freedom,” and later the more insurgent-sounding “black freedom struggle” or its cognate the “long Civil Rights movement,” the default focus of scholarship has been on taxonomizing articulations of what are posited as transhistorical expressions of the collective racial voice rather than exploring strategic, interest-based differentiation in black Americans’ political thought and practice.  That dominant orientation has both encouraged and obscured the limitations of a presumption that black political history could be condensed into the personae of one, or several competing, individuals considered to embody abstract, ahistorical stances like protest, accommodation, militancy, moderation, separatism, or integration. Introduction of the notion of “intersectionality” in the 1990s, as an intervention proposing that multiple identity positions constitute the racial perspective, nonetheless perpetuates the ontological premise of a singular racial voice, albeit one that is expressed pluralistically, reminiscent of the mystery of the Holy Trinity. The intersectional claim, that is, is that the black voice is various.11

Nor did the field’s turn away from examining discourses among elites and institutional politics and toward the domestic and quotidian spheres and “everyday resistance” address that problem. Rather, because locating ostensible political significance in quotidian practices requires interposition of scholarly interpreters’ esoteric knowledge, this turn retains the ontological premise that individuals can channel and express essential racial sensibilities. Ironically, in the name of rejecting a focus on elites, the turn to the “everyday” replaces the racial authority of the generic race “Leader” with that of the interpreting professor. Moreover, to the extent that focus on the quotidian stresses pursuit of “autonomy, family, and community,” rather than public action and institutional politics, as the values definitively anchoring black aspirations, it only more deeply naturalizes Bookerite quietism by enshrining it as racially authentic.

In “Defining the Race, 1890-1930”12 Stein laid out a generative account of black political development through the 1920s with a particular focus on articulations of racial interests and agendas by differently situated black political agents in response to changing political and economic circumstances.

The ways people define themselves are determined by their history, politics, and class. They change. The same words have conveyed vastly different meanings and encouraged diverse actions. They mean less and more than they seem. People employ strategic fictions that can be understood only in a context. They always must be understood as one element with other ideological beliefs that have nothing to do with race. And they interact with definitions made by other people, especially those who exercise power.13

For southern black farmers at the turn of the twentieth century the “sense of discrimination was part of other experiences,” and they “rooted the racial question in the conflicting aspirations of landowners and workers.”14 By contrast, among the new stratum of black intellectuals and functionaries that emerged simultaneously—and coincidentally—in the United States and the British West Indian and African colonies race had a grander meaning. Members of that class on both sides of the Atlantic tended to accept the dominant race theories and the concomitant belief that blacks as a race were underdeveloped in their capacities for appropriating the benefits of modern civilization and were therefore in need of tutelage and guidance by their cultivated strata. For African elites, whose ultimate goal was national independence, the task centered on “altering popular culture and removing divisive sovereignties. The only way that could be done was through Western economic, military, and political power. The only way the elite could lead was to lead a colonized people. Asserting the existence of a distinctive culture, black leaders proposed to modify it radically, to make it more like European society.”15

The American race men and race women saw their charge similarly, though without the imperative to direct tutelage toward national independence. Both the American and British colonial black elites depended on an organic view of race that minimized distinctions among blacks, and thus, as Stein observed specifically regarding the West Indian native, American-educated immigrant to Africa, Edward Blyden, and others, “facilitated the unification of the African elite and the identification of its aspirations with those of all blacks.”16 As that analysis suggests, she was also clear about the class character of that racial organicism.

Blyden, Du Bois, and Garvey had invented a view of the race to support a politics to address the elite discrimination they faced. Like all ideologies, their view of race attempted to interpret the world and direct behavior. Models and goals were taken from Western elite culture. Black elites imagined the majority of Afro-Americans passive and in need of their leadership. The NAACP and Urban League claimed to represent the race by default. Garvey assumed racial bonds that did not exist.17

Stein stressed that racial organicism became prominent at a time when opportunities for popular political expression were seriously diminished. To that extent, she argued, it was not surprising that race-first politics receded in the 1930s, as the New Deal, a reinvigorated labor movement and potential for engagement in urban politics opened new opportunities for popular politics among black Americans. She indicated, moreover, that blacks “did not cease using racial language; it simply meant different things from what it had in the earlier period because people had new ideas of progress, new experiences, new allies, and new politics.”18 She concluded the essay with an admonition that would serve us well to consider today, perhaps even more than when it was first published. “The search for single, autonomous, and authentic traditions in Afro-American history reflects current politics and essentialist intellectual trends. To give racial identities and language transhistorical meaning is to enter the realm of metaphysics or imagination.”19

Stein brought those insights together in her study of the Garvey movement, The World of Marcus Garvey: Race and Class in Modern Society.20 She situated Garvey and the racial-nationalist politics he exhorted through his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) within changing economic and political currents in the early twentieth century, including “the massive pressures that an expanding capitalism and alien governments placed on rural blacks, whether they were American sharecroppers, West Indian peasants, or African farmers.” In that context, “the ‘new imperialism’ at the end of the nineteenth century was accompanied by a trumpet volley of racism, but racial discrimination and racism were dependent variables. The racial experience, though pervasive, was not monolithic; it was not identical for black farmers and businessmen, lawyers and laborers, Africans and Afro-Americans. But the uprooting of old and the creation of new social roles, relations of production, and ideologies were everywhere at the center of the black condition.”21   She links Garvey’s biography and his aspirations to those changing patterns of social relations, urbanization, and the emergence of the new black professional and small-business strata, in Liberia and West Africa, Jamaica, and the United States.

Stein’s account is meticulous in taking stock of the nuances of layered dynamics in Liberian national politics, among competing black elites and other political interests in the United States, and within Garveyism itself—the UNIA’s disparate tendencies, factions and internal ideological contradictions. Crucial among those contradictions was Garvey’s “marriage of racial liberation and racial enterprise.” Taking issue with interpretations that attribute Garveyism’s demise to legal repression, betrayal by other blacks, or the failure of the Black Star Line, Stein argued that the Garveyite vision was inadequate for the urban-industrial society that consolidated after World War I. Again, she grounded the movement in the pertinent historical perspective.

The history of the Black Star Line was typical of the fate of small enterprises from the boom of the war to the bust of the depression of 1920-1921. The fall in shipping rates and the contraction of trade made the combination of meager capital, inexperience, and the influence of hucksters and misleading brokers a fatal one. The sinking of the Black Star Line was more significant only because of the political and social program it put forward. Created by political calculation and the popularly experienced subjective needs of the black petite bourgeoisie, it was the most ambitious effort to transform racial enterprise into a vehicle for militant politics.

Racial business enterprise could not be a solution for the problems of blacks in industrial society. Under various umbrellas traditional working-class issues would compose the substance of black politics. This was not so obvious in the 1920s, but the Great Depression of the 1930s would provide elegant and decisive proof.22

Stein’s work on black political history was enmeshed with her interests in the history of the left, labor, and public policy in the twentieth century United States. She was fundamentally a political historian in the best sense. (Her 1968 Yale doctoral dissertation was on “The Birth of Liberal Republicanism in New York State, 1932- 1938,” and John Blum was her advisor.) Political history declined in reputation as an academic subfield over the 1980s and 1990s as the “new” social history and the various extensions of its preference for “history from below” became dominant. Political history came to be stereotyped as short-hand for a hidebound, implicitly conservative field of study that reified formal institutions and denied human agency. In the early 2000s a mainly younger cohort of historians sought to renew political history by reconsidering the significance of political institutions, and they pursued this course partly through engaging with political scientists interested in that discipline’s new fields of American Political Development and Historical Institutionalism. Stein, though, was always skeptical of social historians’, perhaps especially leftist social historians’, inclinations to fetishize history from below and the focus on scouring the past for sources of quotidian agency characterized as a generic “resistance.” She never wavered in her conviction that understanding political development required close examination of both the internal and external dynamics shaping political tendencies, organizations, and groups and the contingent, more or less idiosyncratic forces operating within them, competing and contending class forces and ideologies, institutional politics, and, of course, the backdrop of political economy and its contradictions.

In that sense, her work shows the depth, breadth and intellectual richness that a grounded historical-materialist perspective can bring to scholarship and understanding. She assumed from the outset that black political history, for example, could not be properly understood without situating it in relation to the broader currents within which it has been embedded and with which black agents have interacted at any given point. She never accepted analytical categories that attributed political agency to abstractions like “the black community,” “white supremacy,” or even “capitalism,” and always grounded her arguments in the issues, concerns and understandings of the groups and tendencies she studied. She saw race, class, labor and political economy as irreducibly linked. All of her work stands out for its conceptual scope, historical depth, and attention to the concrete details through which actual history is made.

Her truly magisterial study of postwar economic and civil rights policy, Running Steel, Running America: Race, Economic Policy, and the Decline of Liberalism,23 wonderfully displays these characteristics of her work. Running Steel is an extraordinary book, which lays out an account of postwar American political development through a central focus on the steel industry and the impact of national foreign and domestic policy on the industry and its decline. As I wrote in a review, “[t]he book brings together very concrete and complex accounts of several disparate currents in postwar United States history—civil rights enforcement, national economics, foreign affairs, poverty and race relations policies, the politics and policies attendant to industrial restructuring, and the emergence of a new liberal politics.”24 In doing so, that study, along with her final published book, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the 1970s,25 as Thomas Jessen Adams suggests in this symposium, “can serve as a model for those of us who want to understand capital as process, the historical ways in which capitalists have exercised power in their interests as capitalists, and how this power has been curtailed in various ways at particular moments through collective, i.e. class, politics.”

Several contributors here discuss Running Steel’s important contributions. Among them is her rejection of the simplistic “white backlash” thesis that had become an orthodox explanation for the rightward shift in national politics over the 1970s and 1980s. Rather, she focused on a liberal turn in the mid-1960s that disconnected racial inequality from political economy and redefined it in the language of discrimination, which she linked to the simultaneous disconnection of poverty from political economy and its formulation as the product of groups’ cultural deficits and counterproductive individual behavior. She reconstructed the debates, especially around ways to address blacks’ disproportionately high rates of unemployment, underemployment and income inequality by means of federal fair employment practices legislation.

She focused on the competing approaches laid out by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, “which prohibited employment discrimination but did not tackle the structural roots of black unemployment,”26  and S. 1937, sponsored principally by Senators Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) and Joseph Clark (D-PA) and supported by United Auto Workers (UAW) president Walter Reuther, A. Philip Randolph and others, which embedded the fair employment practices legislation in a broader manpower bill that centered on robust labor market intervention, including extensive job training and public works employment. That bill recognized that much, if not most, black unemployment was the proximate result not of discrimination but of industrial restructuring that produced joblessness.

Stein discussed the political calculations that preempted passage of the broader bill, including civil rights leaders’ institutional investment in the controversial Title VII once it passed and their reasonable concern that, although many preferred the scope of S. 1937, the increasingly tenuous political climate made an effort to substitute the broader bill for it too dicey a proposition. They feared the worst possible outcome, that they would lose Title VII and not win S. 1937. Nevertheless, she argued, the victory of the narrower Title VII approach had long-reaching consequences and entailments, which she tracked through a careful examination of how it played out in efforts through the 1970s to improve blacks’ employment situation in the steel industry which was beset by decline. She demonstrated how the adversarial legalistic orientation of Title VII’s anti-discrimination focus both failed to address the larger framework of deindustrialization and posited a zero-sum relation between black and white workers in that context of increasingly insecure employment for all.

Running Steel also dispenses with the apparent anomaly of President Richard M. Nixon’s support for the Philadelphia plan that warranted affirmative action in the building trades. As Stein made clear, the plan originated in the Johnson administration; Nixon inherited it.  She argued that the view that Nixon’s support for affirmative action was anomalous or “ironic” expressed “the political consensus of the 1990s rather than the 1970s” and rested on the later period’s erroneous assumption “that the source of black gains in the civil rights era came from the affirmative action programs begun by Nixon.” She noted that, like Nixon’s own staff, many civil rights advocates at the time thought his affirmative action plan was “impotent” and pointed out that it had “only meager support from the civil rights organizations. Most people believed that other, labor-supported measures, such as the creation of public jobs, were worth more to black workers than the Philadelphia plan.” It was historians writing in a subsequent era that stressed affirmative action’s importance for black economic advancement who have found civil rights leaders’ lack of enthusiasm ironic.27 “Such prominent black leaders as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) lobbyist Clarence Mitchell and U.S. Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, to say nothing of civil rights advocate Bayard Rustin, may have been wrong [in their opposition or indifference], but historians have an obligation to explain the way these black spokesmen saw the Philadelphia plan.”28

Employment inequality in construction seemed especially salient because the work was more visible than factory or office employment. The building trades’ reputation as a bastion of active hostility to black aspirations was reinforced by the intensity with which the craft unions defended their guild prerogatives. Moreover, as interpretive backdrop, the trope of the working class as white, male, conservative and disconnected from political economy had become culturally hegemonic during the postwar years, thanks to the relentless assertions of journalists and social scientists. And Nixon capitalized on the notorious 1970 “hard-hat” riot in New York City against antiwar protesters to claim that what corporate media immediately dubbed evidence of a “blue-collar backlash” against radicalism and civil rights advances was an expression of the frustrations of the conservative “Silent Majority.”29 Nevertheless, patterns of black employment in the industry were in fact not worse than in other industries. Stein reported that, as of 1964, “blacks composed 13.5 percent of the contract construction industry and that of these black workers, a higher proportion of them were craftsmen than were craftsmen in most other industries.” And she indicated that with respect to racial representation “their record was slightly better than in blue-collar skilled work in general and much better than in white-collar occupations.”30

Nixon’s support for the Philadelphia plan, it turns out, had much less to do with civil rights—nor a diabolical intention to use affirmative action to foment racial enmity—than with his concern to reduce inflation by undercutting wage structures in the construction sector.

The White House and the business community believed that the motor of rising prices was high construction costs, pushed by the wages won by powerful unions…Chamber of Commerce head Winston Blount, a large nonunion contractor from Alabama, convinced executives of the nation’s leading companies to create the Construction Users’ Anti-Inflation Roundtable in 1969. Its head was Roger Blough, who had retired from U.S. Steel the year before. The group merged with the Labor Law Study Group to form the Business Roundtable in 1972. The Roundtable would lead the business offensive against unions during the 1970s. The campaign against the building trades was the spring training of the new adversarialism.31

One member of Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) encouraged him to mobilize “’public opinion behind the twin objectives of increasing minority employment in construction and of restraining construction costs.’” Other advisors were egging him on to go after the construction unions and the Davis-Bacon law that mandated prevailing wage levels for federally supported construction. CEA chair Paul McCracken, in urging repeal of Davis-Bacon, suggested that “as with the Philadelphia plan, the government can emphasize the benefit to minority workers, thereby partially offsetting the expected strong adverse reaction by craft unions.”32 McCracken and others hoped to gain cover for an attack on unions and labor protection by drawing on the hoary claim, going back to Bookerism, that unions were impediments to black aspirations. Even in construction, however, as Stein indicated, black workers fared better with union contractors than in nonunion operations.33 Instructively, when the Philadelphia plan failed to bring down construction wages, Nixon walked away from it and turned to other measures intended to exert downward wage pressure by loosening the labor market and undercutting legal protections.

Stein’s examination of the Philadelphia plan and the complexities of affirmative action efforts not only corrected the historical record; she simultaneously flagged a limitation of more recent liberal and left-inclined scholarship and commentary shaped by political struggles over affirmative action during the 1980s and 1990s, the tendency to project contemporary norms and orthodoxies anachronistically onto earlier periods—even to the point of puzzlement, rather than reconsideration, upon not finding evidence sustaining those projections. This critique of anachronism ran through much of her work on race, labor and political history.  In that light, her observation that “black leaders had not given up on the urban unemployed” through the Nixon and Ford administrations and therefore considered “other items, namely public jobs” as more meaningful than interventions like the Philadelphia plan34 is significant because it signals the ever more sharply class-skewed evolution of black elite politics after the 1970s.

Cognizance of that evolution could facilitate recognizing the ideological and programmatic work that proliferation of underclass ideology did—especially once black sociologist William Julius Wilson and other liberals legitimized it as a variant of racial liberalism in the late 1980s and early 1990s—in rendering the black working class invisible and reformulating black unemployment as a problem of cultural inadequacy requiring tutelage and moral rectification rather than jobs. (While it is true that Wilson has consistently stressed the need for jobs programs, that he has done so within the framework of underclass discourse, especially through his focus on “concentrated poverty,” vitiates that message and has instead abetted the debacles of welfare “reform” and the elimination of low-income housing under the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HOPE VI program.35 ) It is instructive that presidential candidate Barack Obama invoked this ideology in 2008 not only to reassure white voters that he would not support racial favoritism for blacks but also to communicate his “tough love” racial bona fides to black political elites.

Stein’s analyses of the limitations of the Philadelphia plan and of efforts to define and redress blacks’ employment grievances in the steel industry highlight the problematic class perspectives that shaped anti-discrimination efforts in the Title VII framework. The experts crafting the Philadelphia plan were hampered by class-biased assumptions that seriously underestimated the levels of skill differentiation in “blue-collar” construction work.36 In steel, the NAACP and Justice Department officials tried to define issues resultant from structural economic contradictions through the lens of the noneconomic notion of discrimination.

Litigation in steel addressed situations where, despite the abolition of racial rules, modernization and shrinking employment had combined to produce less change than the reformers had originally envisioned. To meet this situation, civil rights lawyers expanded the idea of racial discrimination to justify policies designed to protect blacks from the results of automation, poor education, and structural change. The legal rationale was to remedy the discrimination of the past, but the trigger was the current loss of jobs. This redefinition was accepted by the courts after the urban riots in 1967 and 1968, but it set off new waves of conflicts among black and white workers, many of whom faced similar situations.

Title VII translated labor issues into discourses about a bias unrelated to the changing economy. Joined with the War on Poverty, it produced new dualisms—affluence vs. poverty, suburbs vs. slum, and white vs. black—that simplified social reality and reconfigured American politics.37

Perhaps Running Steel’s most penetrating conclusion with respect to illuminating the connection between policies formed in the 1960s and their bearing on the current political situation is Stein’s assessment of the evolving place of race and racial ideology in national political debate.

During the 1960s, the nation attributed black unemployment to racism; during the 1980s, black unemployment came to be seen as a preference for idleness—whether caused by welfare, lifestyle or family structure. In both eras, racial ideology mystified the sources of black unemployment and shored up the legitimacy of institutional arrangements. But race was only a way station on the road to a broader goal. Reagan indicted welfare abusers, usually those with dark faces, but the newest Republicans, triumphant in 1994, indicted the welfare system as a whole. The next year a “Million-Man March” of African Americans in support of family values and self-help came to the same conclusion. In 1996 a Democratic president signed a bill ending the federal government’s commitment, made in 1935, to poor mothers and children. The decision was a symbol of a new bipartisan consensus.38

One of the hallmarks of Stein’s work was insistence on the political dimension of political economy and emphatic rejection of an easy determinism. In that light she stressed that the victory of the noneconomic Title VII approach was not inevitable. She reconstructed the often mundane political dynamics that led to that victory, showing the alternative courses that existed at various points in crafting civil rights and anti-poverty policy, parsing the political forces, interests, perspectives, and agendas that shaped the debates and the constituencies that formed around, and institutionalized, the policy outcomes.

In the same way, she showed that the postwar economic restructuring that eventually became known as deindustrialization was not the simple product of domestic or global market forces or abstract laws of capitalism but derived considerably from conscious policy decisions. In the case of steel, the imperatives of Cold War foreign policy warranted subordinating the needs of the domestic industry to currying favor with allies by giving them open access to the U.S. steel market. This inclination stemmed partly from an arrogant faith in American industrial prowess that led policymakers to assume that the steel industry was impervious to foreign competition—even from states that heavily subsidized their steel producers and dumped imports.  Aversion to a national industrial policy in a context in which other states more or less aggressively pursued them exacerbated the domestic steel industry’s difficulties. And steel was not the only industry affected.

The merchandise trade deficit of 1971 demonstrated that steel was not the only industry affected by public policy. Devaluation of the dollar and the continuing worldwide boom in 1973 and 1974 reduced the deficit, which allowed the nation to continue to live complacently with postwar assumptions. Even after the quadrupling of oil prices in the fall of 1973 produced crises throughout the developed and developing worlds, the society immunized itself from the results. The strategic need to anchor Cold War alliances via access to U.S. markets gave the government a strong incentive to downplay the problem. Intellectuals adopted organic models—cycles of young, mature, and aging industries, or sunset and sunrise sectors—which made the changes seem natural. Economists discovered that corporate managers were slow to modernize and that workers were overpaid. “Green” sensibilities anesthetized the middle class to industrial decline. The new consumer movement and transnationals stressed the advantages to buyers in the wide-open American market. These cultural values and interest were enhanced by the growing political weight of the nonindustrial sunbelt.39

This was the context in which Jimmy Carter rose to the presidency as a nominally anti-establishment candidate who became in important ways the warm-up act for Reaganism. Carter rejected industrial policy in favor of an agenda that pursued deregulation, promoted competition, and encouraged imports, all of which exacerbated the problem of deindustrialization. Reagan, benefitting from Carter’s failures, which included the Volcker recession, took the next, more radical steps. “Policies promoting free trade, deregulating industry and financial markets, discouraging unions, and reducing safety nets assumed that if capital is freed from government and social obligations, the whole society will benefit. The menu of production was taken to be less important than the alleged efficiency of capital allocations. The assumption that business success would eventually produce labor well-being replaced the New Deal article of faith that capital and labor would prosper together.”40

For Stein, however, “although corporations organized mightily during the 1970s,” the story of the transition to a new regime was not as simple as the rise of a new business/Republican alliance or the inexorable power of the right.

The oppositional heritage of the 1960s offered little to counter the offensive. Liberals, the New Left, and an array of advocacy groups cut their teeth on foreign policy, civil rights, and the environment. They too had believed that American affluence was permanent. Academics on the left assumed that if change were to come at all, it would come from an exploited Third World, revolting against American economic domination. This worldview bred a generation that had never grappled with American economic questions. Civil rights law addressed the injustices of the past, not the economic realities of the present. The EPA was enjoined from taking costs into consideration in the Clean Air Act amendments of 1970. When confronted with a steel crisis in Youngstown, Ohio in 1977, New Left economists attempted to finesse it and the market by creating a community-owned steel plant. Suspicious of the state, industry, and unions, they attacked social democracy, which they called corporate liberalism, and interpreted agreements like the consent decrees as accommodations. These attacks on the state sounded very similar to the growing criticism from the right.41

In Pivotal Decade Stein turned her characteristically acute lens to those dynamics that eventuated in deindustrialization and the finance-driven economic, political and social order we now describe as neoliberalism. At her death, she had been at work for several years on another manuscript that would have extended the analysis developed in Running Steel and Pivotal Decade to the 1990s and emergence of Clintonism. It is all our loss that she was not able to complete it.

I will say finally that I met Judith just over a decade after my initial encounter with the Science & Society article, which I had been teaching since my first academic job. The occasion of our meeting was when we were on a panel on the first Jesse Jackson presidential campaign at the old Socialist Scholars Conference in New York, when my book on Jackson’s campaign had just come out and hers on Garveyism was in press. We were relieved to bond as critics when we talked several weeks before the panel, where we were indeed practically the only skeptics in the auditorium and united in the face of disbelief and hostility from nearly all the flavors of leftist in attendance. That began a deep friendship, comradeship, and mutual appreciation, both intellectual and political, as well as personal, that lasted until she died. We were on the shortest short list of early morning phone calls to check in, kvetch about politics and the state of our fields, share gossip and news of little victories and life in general, e.g., the ongoing saga of repairs of water damage resultant from an eccentric upstairs neighbor’s apartment conflagration, and, of course, to share in her exultation or offer solace, depending on the fortunes of her beloved “Rafie” Nadal.  Her enthusiastic identification with Nadal’s fortunes was surpassed only by her genuine glee, almost giddy delight, at the progress and successes of her students at City College and the Graduate Center. Judith Stein was a great friend, colleague, and teacher—supremely generous, honestly supportive, and fiercely loyal. It has been a pleasure to know her and to be counted among her friends. Most of all, though, she was, and her work remains, the greatest model the last half-century has produced of what the historical-materialist study of political history can and should be.

 [1] Judith Stein, “’Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others’: The Political Economy of Racism in the United States,” Science & Society 38 (Winter 1974/75): 422-63; reprinted in Adolph Reed, Jr., Kenneth W. Warren et al., Rethinking Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2010).

2. Adolph Reed, Jr., “Reflections on Atlanta University Political Science,” National Political Science Review 9 (2003): 236-45; for illustrations of the intellectual tendencies partly shaping the department see Endarch: A Journal of Theory (1974-1976), and Adolph Reed, “Black Electoral Politics,” Atlanta Voice (February 9, 1974).
3. Stein, “’Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,’”426.
4. Stein, “’Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” 440-41.
5. Stein, “’Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” 442.
6. Kevin Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 19-46.
7. Stein, “’Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” 442.
8. Stein, “’Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,’” 445-46.
9. Stein, “’Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,’” 447.
10. Robert L. Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America: An Analytic History (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969), 230-39.
11. See, for example, Cathy J. Cohen, The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Patricia Hill Collins, “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought,” Signs 14 (Summer 1989): 745-73. Ange-Marie Hancock, “W. E. B. Du Bois: Intellectual Forefather of Intersectionality?” Souls 7 (2005): 74-84.
12. Judith Stein, “Defining the Race, 1890-1930” in The Invention of Ethnicity, ed. Werner Sollors (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press).
13. Stein, “Defining the Race,” 78.
14. Stein, “Defining the Race,” 87.
15. Stein, “Defining the Race,” 83.
16. Stein, “Defining the Race,” 84. “Most of the elite’s experiences transcended colony, region, or even continent. They were mobile, united by their ambitions, closer to one another than to Africans in the countryside. The racial identification erased troublesome differences.”
17. Stein, “Defining the Race,” 103.
18. Stein, “Defining the Race,” 103.
19. Stein, “Defining the Race,” 103-4.
20. Judith Stein, The World of Marcus Garvey: Race and Class in Modern Society (Baton Rouge & London: Louisiana State University Press, 1987).
21. Stein, World of Marcus Garvey, 4.
22. Stein, World of Marcus Garvey, 152.
23. Judith Stein, Running Steel, Running America: Race, Economic Policy, and the Decline of Liberalism (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).
24. Adolph Reed, Jr., “Review of Running Steel, Running America,New Labor Forum 4 (Spring-Summer 1999): 130.
25. Judith Stein, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the 1970s (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010).
26. Stein, Running Steel, 69.
27. Stein, Running Steel, 149. Judith Stein, “Affirmative Action and the Conservative Agenda: President M. Nixon’s Philadelphia Plan of 1969” in Labor in the Modern South, ed. Glenn T. Eskew (Athens, GA and London: University of Georgia Press, 2001), 190.
28. Stein, “Affirmative Action and the Conservative Agenda,” 183.
29. Penny Lewis, Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2013), 159-85, discusses the hardhat riot and the general mythology of working-class conservatism.  Lewis notes that from the war’s beginning to its end polls showed that class and education were related inversely to support for the war.
30. Stein, “Affirmative Action and the Conservative Agenda,” 184.
31. Stein, Running Steel, 150.
32. Stein, Running Steel, 151.
33. Stein, Running Steel, 151-52; “Affirmative Action and the Conservative Agenda,” 191-92.
34. “Affirmative Action and the Conservative Agenda,” 196.
35. For critiques of Wilson in this regard see Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Liberal Technocrat,” The Nation (February 6, 1988) and “The ‘Color Line’ Then and Now: The Souls of Black Folk and the Changing Context of Black Politics” in Renewing Black Intellectual History, ed. Reed and Warren, 273-82 and 300-2, n. 87; Larry Bennett and Adolph Reed, Jr., “The New Face of Urban Renewal: The Near North Redevelopment Initiative and the Cabrini Green Neighborhood” in Adolph Reed, Jr., ed., Without Justice for All: The New Liberalism and Our Retreat from Racial Equality (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999), 187-90; Touré F. Reed, “Why Moynihan Was Not So Misunderstood at the Time: The Mythological Prescience of the Moynihan Report and the Problem of Institutional Structuralism,” nonsite.org (September 4, 2015) and “Between Obama and Coates,” Catalyst 1 (Winter 2018): 35.
36. Stein, “Affirmative Action and the Conservative Agenda,” 194-95.
37. Stein, Running Steel, 69-70.
38. Stein, Running Steel, 321.
39. Stein, Running Steel, 318.
40. Stein, Running Steel, 319-320.
41. Stein, Running Steel, 320.
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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