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.
My point is not in any way to make light of the gravity of the injustice or to diminish outrage about police violence….However, noting a decline—or substantial change in either direction for that matter—in the rate of police killings does underscore the inadequacy of reified, transhistorical abstractions like “racism” or “white supremacy” for making sense of the nature and sources of police abuse of black Americans. Racism and white supremacy don’t really explain how anything happens. They’re at best shorthand characterizations of more complex, or at least discrete, actions taken by people in social contexts; at worst, and, alas, more often in our political moment, they’re invoked as alternatives to explanation
The deeper appeal of reparations talk for its proponents is to create or stress a sense of racial peoplehood as the primary basis for political identity. This movement’s psychological project is grounded on two beliefs: first, that rank-and -file black people suffer from an improper or defective sense of identity, and second, that an important task of political action is to restore or correct racial consciousness that the legacy of slavery is supposed to have distorted or destroyed.
Most readers will know that Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a longtime progressive and respected elected official, after deciding to enter the mayor’s race at the urging of Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union President whose illness prevented her from running herself, forced Rahm Emanuel into a runoff. Many of you no doubt also know that in a recent poll Chuy scored in a virtual dead heat with Rahm with the election a few days away, on April 7.
The victory condensed in the forms of participation enabled by the VRA is necessary—a politics that does not seek institutional consolidation is ultimately no politics at all—but not sufficient for facing the challenges that confront us in this moment of rampant capitalist offensive against social justice, but neither are the essentially nostalgic modalities of protest politics often proposed as more authentic than the mundane electoral domain. It is past time to consider Prof. Legette’s aphorism and engage its many implications. And that includes a warrant to resist the class-skewed penchant for celebrating victories won in the heroic moment of the southern civil rights movement as museum pieces disconnected from subsequent black American political history and the broad struggle for social justice and equality.
Both these pieces betray a really naïve or underdeveloped understanding of electoral action, its costs and benefits, the unavoidable messiness of engaging in it. And, by the way, the same messiness applies to all efforts to build and maintain broad alliances, all of which require finding ways to navigate locating points of agreement and looking the other way at least temporarily at potentially serious differences and contradictions.
So why is a tale about a manumitted slave/homicidal black gunslinger more palatable to a contemporary leftoid sensibility than either a similarly cartoonish one about black maids and their white employers or one that thematizes Lincoln’s effort to push the Thirteenth Amendment through the House of Representatives? The answer is, to quote the saccharine 1970s ballad, “Feelings, nothing more than feelings.”