Every time racial disparity is invoked as the lens through which to see American inequality, the overwhelming role played by the increased inequality in the American class system is made invisible. And this is, of course, true on the right as well as the left—think of all the conservative commentators defending the police by invoking the spectre of black-on-black murder. And then think of the widespread agreement among criminologists that the Gini coefficient “predicts murder rates better than any other variable.” Conservatives who try to blame black crime on race and liberals who try to blame it on racism are both missing the point. If you want to distinguish between the left and the right, the relevant question is not what they think about race; it’s what they think when race is taken out of the equation.
Despite its proponents’ assertions, antiracism is not a different sort of egalitarian alternative to a class politics but is a class politics itself: the politics of a strain of the professional-managerial class whose worldview and material interests are rooted within a political economy of race and ascriptive identity-group relations. Moreover, although it often comes with a garnish of disparaging but empty references to neoliberalism as a generic sign of bad things, antiracist politics is in fact the left wing of neoliberalism in that its sole metric of social justice is opposition to disparity in the distribution of goods and bads in the society, an ideal that naturalizes the outcomes of capitalist market forces so long as they are equitable along racial
Stein’s 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 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.
There is no singular, transhistorical “Black Liberation Struggle” or “Black Freedom Movement,” and there never has been. Black Americans have engaged in many different forms of political expression in many different domains, around many different issues, both those considered racial and not. They have engaged in race-solidaristic formations and in close concert with others, in class-based and multiclass alliances.
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.
Today, race performs the function of suppressing working-class politics in the interests of both white and black political elites who are equally committed to capitalist class priorities as defining the boundary of political possibility.
Since the emergence of what has been known as “whiteness studies” in the early 1990s, proponents of the view that the white working class in the United States rejects a class-based politics in favor of commitment to white supremacy have cited W.E.B. Du Bois’s reference in Black Reconstruction In America to a “psychological wage” that whiteness offers as supporting that view and, by extension, the necessity that combating racism and white supremacy takes priority over struggle against capitalist inequality.
The most immediate challenge we face now is to prepare for what is going to be the political equivalent of a street fight that we’ll have to wage between now and at least 2018 just to preserve space for getting onto the offensive against the horrors likely to come at us from Trump, the Republican congress, and random Brown Shirt elements Trump’s victory has emboldened. At the same time, however, we need to reflect on the extent to which progressive practice has absorbed the ideological premises of left-neoliberalism.
Proliferation of this Kabuki theater politics among leftists stems in part from the dialectic of desperation and wishful thinking that underlies the cargo-cult tendency; it is commonly driven by an understandable sense of urgency that the dangers facing us are so grave as to require some immediate action in response. That dialectic encourages immediatist fantasies as well as tendencies to define the direct goal of political action as exposing, or bearing witness against, injustice.
A politics whose point of departure requires harmonizing the interests of the black poor and working class with those of the black professional-managerial class indicates the conceptual and political confusion that underwrites the very idea of a Black Freedom Movement. The prevalence of such confusion is lamentable; that it go unchecked and without criticism is unacceptable. The essays that appear in this section will critique this tendency and offer in its stead a vision of what we think ought to be.