Rustin saw politics through a concrete, strategic lens, which provided a perspective that has become increasingly remote from both academic and activist experience. Indeed, as demonstrated in the essays selected here, he explicitly rejected the moralistic discourse that he saw undergirding much of Black Power and New Left politics, as well as the tendency to reduce the sources of inequality to psychologistic factors like prejudice, discrimination, or a generic racism.
The close parallel between fin-de-siècle racist ideologues’ assertions of the primordial and immutable nature of white supremacy and contemporary race reductionists’ can provide perspective helpful for ascertaining what lies behind the impulse to insist, in the face of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that nothing has changed for black Americans and, yet more strikingly, Hartman’s dismissal of Emancipation as a “nonevent.”
All this makes crystal clear why proponents of race-reductionist politics are so unmoved by criticism based on effectiveness for generating a popular politics or for winning egalitarian reforms at all. Just as with the Bookerite progenitor, developing and advancing a popular politics is not the point at all. It is a politics geared toward bending ears of and currying favor from elements of the ruling class and their gatekeeping minions. The real constituency race-reductionism seeks to address are the “big white men (and women)” who have the power to validate Voices and agendas geared to advance black investor class interests as representing the unproblematic good of the race and thereby use race to do the same thing the ruling class ideologues of militant white supremacy used it to do at the end of the nineteenth century.
A crucial characteristic of the current situation is that the antagonism between the pragmatic and the visionary that liberals have often used as a cudgel against left aspirations and programs—the ubiquitous “now is not the time” or “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”—is passé. The way forward, both to avert the most dangerous possibilities and to begin working seriously to change the terms of political debate, is to push for and propagate a public good framework for government.
We absolutely do not need to figure out how to make anti-racism anti-capitalist. We need to figure out how to start trying to build a mass movement around appealing to the material needs of the broad working-class.
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.