“Let Me Go Get My Big White Man”: The Clientelist Foundation of Contemporary Antiracist Politics
I’ll begin by putting all the cards on the table because the political stakes of the moment are too great for coyness or politesse.1 No matter what those who propound it may believe about themselves or, more meaningfully, want the rest of us to believe about them, contemporary race-reductionist politics—i.e., what is commonly recognized as antiracist politics—is not in any way left, egalitarian, or democratic. It is not linked to any popular, insurgent, or “bottom-up” black or other political expressions. It is not oriented practically toward a vision of broadly egalitarian social transformation, nor is it at all aligned with or congenial to any project of generating a political movement toward such ends. Even when packaged as opposing an abstraction like “racial capitalism” or as advocating “both anti-racism and socialism,” this politics is incapable of adopting the standpoint of building the broad working-class solidarities that are the sine qua non of any project of egalitarian transformation, on whatever scale. In the words of socialist anti-racist Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, “we want to win white people to an understanding of how their racism has fundamentally distorted the lives of Black people.”2 That approach is the opposite of pursuing solidarity.
As we have seen consistently since at least 2015, this politics in fact is actively antagonistic toward broadly egalitarian (that is, universally egalitarian) objectives,3 and that antagonism stems from neither coincidence nor random quirks of individuals. It’s built into the claim to represent a distinctively racialized constituency and is thus a clientelist politics with roots in the arrangements that took shape at the end of the nineteenth century, characteristically identified with Booker T. Washington and other representatives of an emerging stratum of “race men” and “race women” who saw themselves as brokers of the interests of a then largely disfranchised—and thus civically mute and easily ventriloquized—black American population to the ruling class, whom these racial brokers saw as the source of effective political agency, as, that is, their other substantive constituency. That racial elite-brokerage politics, as historian Michael Rudolph West has argued in The Education of Booker T. Washington: American Democracy and the Idea of Race Relations (Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2006), is the origin of the “race relations” notion, which was from the beginning a stand-in for democratic political participation and which, as a conceptual deep structure, continues to plague how Americans think and talk about black politics. Following West, I discuss this notion’s foundations and particulars elsewhere.4 Here I want to stress two problematic features of the race relations idea that, instructively, are seldom noted.
First, that original race politics was absolutely and thoroughly a class politics. As West notes, in the race relations framework:
interests and aspirations of politicians and ministers (among Washington’s first foils), workers and businessmen, parents and teachers would no longer need to 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.”5
Race relations politics was articulated by an emerging stratum of professionals, intermediate functionaries, and aspirants in racialized systems of hierarchy that were in transition institutionally in the early years of the twentieth century in the United States as well as in British colonies in the West Indies and West Africa.6 And the sort of class politics that it was underwrote its articulation as a race politics. The material and ideological project around which the emergent stratum of black putative race leaders took shape was, in Kenneth Warren’s characterization, “substitution of black professionals, managers, and intellectuals for their white counterparts within those institutions charged with administering to the needs of black populations” or, more succinctly, establishment of “managerial authority over the nation’s Negro problem” within whatever political and economic arrangements prevailed.7
The effective allies for that project were to be sought within the ruling class, which alone had the capacity to validate the race men and women’s claims to speak for “the Negro” and to mobilize the material resources necessary to implement the stratum’s top-down programs of cultural tutelage and uplift.8 And the emerging race leadership stratum converged around conviction that “race relations” or “race adjustment” would be best realized through partnership between the “best” elements of both races. That conviction, which also underlay the common lament that segregation prevented the better classes of blacks and whites from engaging one another, decreed a particular disposition toward the agenda of racial uplift. I offer here a distinctly clear case in point:
Anna Julia Cooper, now heralded as an early black feminist, strikingly illustrates the connection between the black elite’s racial theories, uplift ideology and opposition to working-class political organization for blacks. Cooper interpreted the basis of American race conflict through the lens of prevailing historical, or neo-Lamarckian, race theories that emphasized racial differences in character or “ideals.” She then argued that blacks’ contribution to America derived from such racial traits, including “inborn respect for authority … inaptitude for rioting and anarchy … gentleness and cheerfulness as a laborer … which will prove indispensable and invaluable elements in a nation menaced as America is by anarchy, socialism, communism, and skepticism poured in with all the jailbirds from … Europe and Asia.” Later in the same text she confessed to a lack of sympathy for the workers suppressed in the 1892 Homestead, Pennsylvania, steel struggle, the eight-hour day movement, or labor unions in general; she contended that her feelings arose from labor’s ill-treatment of blacks, marshalling anecdotes and apocrypha to buttress her assertions, but at the same time she expressed strong nativist and anti-immigrant sentiments. Cooper also firmly maintained that philanthropy was to be the uplift enterprise’s main source of material support.9
Whether Cooper, Washington, Du Bois, and other representatives of the nascent race relations brokerage elite10 sought to align programmatically with the ruling class for principled, pragmatic, or cynical reasons varied among individuals and across contexts and, in any case, is beside the point. We do know that Washington’s pursuit of support from philanthropic and other capitalist interests for his Tuskegee initiative encouraged his racial counsel of acquiescence to the white supremacist order and avoidance of labor unions or radical agitation. And the dream of Isaiah T. Montgomery, founder of Mound Bayou, the all-black Mississippi town he intended to be a showplace of racial accomplishment and capacity, led him to participate actively in the mass disfranchisement of black Mississippians in 1890.11 Those cases exemplify the mischief—interpretive as well as political—enabled by the race relations framework’s insidious slippage between first-person singular and plural.
The class program around which the brokerage stratum converged was crafted in racial terms because a) the period in which both the stratum and its program took shape, the last decades of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth, was the moment when the race idea seemed more powerful and commonsensically explanatory than at any other in the history of human society, before or since, and b) correspondingly, the systems of hierarchy within which the stratum was embedded and defined their objectives—British colonialism and imposed white supremacy and racial disfranchisement in the United States—were explicitly racialized. And there is no contradiction or anomaly in this class program’s racial character. The precise point of “race” as an ideology is that it obscures and mystifies class agendas that are crafted within concrete material relations by displacing them onto nature. That is how race attained the verisimilitude of common sense.12 Historian Barbara Jeanne Fields captured the point exquisitely: “Race became the ideological medium through which people posed and apprehended basic questions of power and dominance, sovereignty and citizenship, justice and right.”13 And race discourse provides “a surface camouflage that makes inequality in its most general form—the form that marks and distorts every aspect of our social and political life—hard to see, harder to discuss, and nearly impossible to tackle.”14
This is not to suggest that would-be race men and women have been insincere in their commitments to pursue the interests of the race. Ideology harmonizes the principles one wants to hold with what advances one’s material interests; it produces sincerity and the appearance of consistency. Racialist ideology was hegemonic at the time of the brokerage elite’s emergence, and racial classification was a central element of its identity as a stratum. Racial brokers’ understandings of what perspectives and priorities condense the race’s interests have been shaped by their class position, their social location both within the Jim Crow order and in the capitalist political economy more broadly. In fact, the inclination to reduce black American life to its racial dimension is itself a class posture. As a discourse of political identification, race—like ethnicity and nationalism, all variants of the same phenomenon15 —provides the “surface camouflage” sustaining a synecdochic mystification, an illustration of what the Fieldses call racecraft, that agendas that would concentrate specific material benefits on smaller, discrete populations simultaneously address the needs of larger, more diffuse ones. And, as Warren argues:
This form of political action, centered on the idea of leadership, unelected but presumably attuned culturally and spiritually to the needs and desires of the race as a whole and, on that basis, able to speak for all Blacks, became the prevailing racial ideology of the last century. The idea of “Race relations” … has been virtually naturalized as the idiom for thinking about equality in the US. (BTB 372)
Black clientelist politics from its beginnings has been predicated on the conviction that a program that amounts to a racial trickle-down serves the best interest of the race. In the early twentieth century, uplift ideology, deeply embedded in hegemonic race theory, was the sleight-of-hand that justified that racial trickle-down. In the early twenty-first century, things are in some respects very different. The deferential and sometimes even obsequious tone of Washington has been swapped out for “demands,” and the demands are now for “allyship” rather than “friendship” and for the allies to give up their fantasies of white saviorship.16 But the structure—and, in effect, the appeal to ruling class and hence mainly white saviors—remains the same, and the sleight-of-hand is not that different: hegemonic underclass ideology presumes that non-elite blacks are damaged and in need of special tutelage conducted via the role-modeling ministrations of upper-status racial brothers and sisters.17 And constant assertion, both directly and indirectly through the incessant drip of disparity discourse, that all black Americans are equally vulnerable to, for example, the horrors of police terror and killing or the banality of microaggressions, feed the sense that race on some level endows black people with a hive-like experience, which implies both the sense that blacks share a racial hive mind and a corollary that a payoff to any one black person is eo ipso a payoff to all.
The class character of antiracist clientelism is even more transparent than its fin-de–siècle progenitor’s. Its proponents can defend the assertion that racism is the fundamental determinant of life chances for black Americans only via a sleight-of-hand that divests slavery and Jim Crow of their historical specificity as discrete systems of economic and social relations and construes them as almost incidental extrusions of a transcendent racism or white supremacy or, even more tendentiously, in a devil theory positing that all human history has been driven by an ontological anti-blackness. Having transmogrified material social relations into attitudes, putative evidence that such attitudes persist supports assertions that “nothing” has changed since 1619 or 1919.18 It is telling that commitment to that argument subordinates providing concrete causal accounts of how current inequalities are thereby produced and reproduced to taxonomizing apparent racial disparities as instances of the workings of trans-historical racism or white supremacy. This perspective minimizes the significance of political-economic changes since 1965, including deindustrialization, the panoply of regressive policy developments associated with neoliberalization, and the significance of the marked increases in occupational, income, and wealth stratification among African Americans.19 The point of this politics is not to identify and pursue strategies to attack inequalities or injustices affecting black Americans but to make certain that they are understood as stemming from an evanescent racism. An implication is that only inequalities that can be attributed to specifically racial sources are a proper matter for concern. Combined with the central focus on addressing racial disparities within the existing capitalist class hierarchy, those characteristics of contemporary antiracism underscore the extent to which it is a class program.
As “white” wealth and income are increasingly concentrated at the very top of the distribution, achieving parity along racial lines would do little to address the economic insecurity of the disproportionately working-class black population. For example, despite repeated assertions that the “racial” wealth gap is the most pressing concern for the race, nearly eighty percent of that wealth gap is concentrated among the richest ten percent of blacks and whites, and half of both blacks and whites have no wealth whatsoever. All the tortious prattle in the world about how wealthy whatever numbers of black individuals might have been absent racial discrimination and exclusion does not gainsay the reality that nearly half a century of neoliberal accumulation by dispossession, imposed with bipartisan political support, has more significantly intensified economic inequality and insecurity across the general U.S. population, among blacks and non-blacks alike.20 And it is not an idle quip that one of the clearest indications that a class politics is at work is denial by those advancing it that it is a class politics. As the Fieldses point out, obscuring class contradictions is and always has been the fundamental work that race does.
That applies to the idea of a “racial” wealth gap itself, which rests on a grand ideological mystification. Indeed, the extent of polarization of wealth and income both nationally and within populations classified respectively as white and black should indicate the folly of any such notion. There is no black wealth or white wealth, only wealth held by black or white individuals and households. The differences in wealth between otherwise comparable black and white individuals and households on the average, either median or mean, likely reflect, among a variety of factors, effects of present or past discrimination or exclusion. In principle, “racial wealth gap” could be a shorthand for characterizing those aggregate differences. However, race reductionism, in conflating the distinction between race as a category of social classification and race as an organic group, represents “racial” wealth as if it were owned collectively. This has been a conceptual failing of the wealth gap notion since its emergence in the 1990s. It has gone unchallenged because the hegemony of race relations ideology has implanted as common sense understanding in American society the racist reification of black people as a unitary entity to which distinction between singular and plural does not apply.
And race reductionists have an interest in perpetrating the sleight-of-hand that obscures the wealth gap’s mystified character. Recently, I was on a black nationalist inclined podcast whose host agreed that stratification by occupation, income, and wealth among black Americans is greater than among other populations classified by race/ethnicity and that the bottom half of blacks and whites alike have no wealth. Yet he insisted that the wealth gap framework holds because blacks’ “collective” wealth is much lower than whites’. But, of course, there is no black collective wealth, just as there is no white collective wealth. It may be that habituation to positing blacks as a singular entity undermines the ability to recognize that basic fact. If so, imagine a white nurse down on her luck and in danger of eviction trying to dip into the collective pot of white wealth for a subsidy, or maybe texting Elon Musk to pitch in.
How the gentrification idea operates in current political discourse is another clear case in point of the Fieldses’ racecraft. The current discourse of gentrification is the product of an effort to represent a straightforward neoliberal political-economic dynamic—diversion of public resources to support privately appropriated rent-intensifying redevelopment, i.e., regressive transfer—as a moralistic and culturalist one.
Defining gentrification as a project of displacement of populations depicted as indigenous … obscures [its] source in market-driven policy and government support for upward redistribution, which undercuts serious efforts to challenge the dynamic. That mystification of political-economic forces also sustains another significant and anti-popular evasion. As the primacy of market-forces disappears into moralistic and racialized debate, the inclusion of nominal representatives of the groups held to be adversely affected appears as a satisfactory compromise. Those representatives’ racial or cultural status provides a halo that obscures the material dynamics driving the process and provides them with a form of capital— race as capital rather than “racial capitalism”—facilitating market entry and penetration in the name of the group.21
The demand that we see black Americans as a singular political entity motivated by unproblematically shared racial interests is a class program, just as it was when, in 1904, North Carolina Governor Charles Aycock, reflecting on the objective of the violent 1898 Democratic putsch that led to mass disfranchisement and installed white supremacy, declared, “We need the strength which comes from believing alike.”22 Everything hinges on the specific content of the “we.”
The second, related problem I want to address concerning race relations discourse and its premises, which, as Warren indicates, continue fundamentally to shape scholarly and popular thinking about black politics, is the quintessential fact that at its very foundation the race relations idea is racist. “Races” cannot relate because races are not real entities capable of willful activity. The notion that they are is the very definition of racism. (To recognize this fact clearly one might simply, as both Walter Benn Michaels and I have suggested independently of each other, substitute “unicorn” for “race” in the race relations construct.) And only within that fundamentally racist framework can racial elite-brokerage politics seem unproblematic. Again, the race relations idea depends on race reductionism, on assertion that discrete social characteristics or concerns of individuals or groups of people classified as black are subordinate to their racial classification and to interests, issues, attitudes, or preferences that purportedly can be read out from that classification. This fact about race relations discourse should be obvious. However, tellingly, it is unacknowledged in plain sight.
At its origins the race relations framework seemed plausible for three reasons that no longer pertain. First, because that period was the apogee of the race idea, talk about “races” engaging one another had a commonsense quality it should not have now. Second, in the early twentieth century, the great majority of black people in the United States were disfranchised and severely hampered from expressing civic voice, and that opened space for strategically positioned but ultimately self-selected individuals and groups to step into the breach to advocate for black interests, which laid the basis for clientelist politics in the electoral realm as well.23 Finally, in the early twentieth century explicitly racial issues—lynching and pogroms, disfranchisement, denial of due process and equal standing before the law, overt discrimination and exclusion—loomed so large that it was reasonable to assume that they were pre-eminently shared concerns among black people. None of those conditions sets the contours of quotidian black life or definitively constrains aspirations and action now or has during most of the more than half-century since the civil rights movement’s great legislative victories. But the race relations framework and its clientelist and racial essentialist presumptions persist unmodified in part because the key project of antiracist politics is to propagate the view that “race”—in the form of disembodied abstractions like racism and white supremacy—defines black existence as thoroughly as it did in 1922 or 1822. The primacy of this project, and its commitment to justifying a race-reductionist politics with analogies to slavery and Jim Crow, helps to make sense of how the reparations idea and its political entailments have taken hold and spread in the new millennium.
At the beginning of this century, when talk about reparations for the descendants of slaves in the United States entered mainstream journalistic and academic discourse from its niches among warrens of atavistic black nationalism and Afrocentric bookstores, I was bemused and could not understand why it had suddenly attained currency, except in the way streams of chatter become current because they become current. Then often enough I found myself asked to comment on the issue. What I considered the showstopping response then,24 as I believe it should be now, was to ask: How is it possible to imagine putting together a coalition that could prevail on that issue as a political demand? In my view, that was the showstopper because in a political democracy, even a nominal one, any significant policy intervention of that sort would at least require Congressional action, which in turn would presume a shift in popular political sensibilities such that, if not a majority, at least a substantial plurality of Americans could be assumed to support the agenda. How, my question implied, could we imagine such a shift in which a majority white electorate would support taxing themselves to pay for an agenda that would confer substantial material benefits exclusively, and explicitly, on black Americans and from which—to be clear to the point of redundance—that majority electorate, even voters in similarly precarious economic circumstances as black beneficiaries, would receive absolutely nothing?
Not only did my query not stop the show; it did not even amount to a speed bump for reparations enthusiasts. Not once in the twenty-two years since I first asked it has that question elicited a substantive, pragmatic response. The typical response to the question is fatuities of this sort:
It’s not really good enough to say that we should be opposed to reparations because it’s hard. All issues connected to race in this country have been difficult to assemble coalitions around. In the nineteenth century the idea that you could actually build a movement against slavery seemed like an impossibility. And yet people engaged in that process certainly helped to shape a political atmosphere that created the conditions for slavery’s abolition.25
This comment is a non-response to my standard question about the reparations issue; it is also mistaken on its own terms and, moreover, mistaken in a way that underscores the point of the question it dodges. Clearly, it was possible to build a nineteenth-century movement against slavery, one powerful enough to drive the elites of eleven slaveholding states to perpetrate treason in a desperate attempt to save what they understood to be their “peculiar institution.” But anti-slavery became a powerful movement precisely because it drew support from many different constituencies that opposed slavery for their own discrete reasons. Some opposed slavery out of not entirely irrational or bigoted fear of being displaced by a degraded workforce; slavery was, after all, the quintessentially extreme form of degraded labor. Some opposed it out of principled conviction of the economic and moral superiority of free labor and fear that slavery’s expansion would undermine the nation’s economic health and republican values. Some opposed it as an outrageous injustice against those in bondage, without necessarily embracing racial equality as a principle.26
The other common response to the pragmatic question is a call to acknowledge that black Americans “deserve” some recompense for slavery and other injustices, which also deflects from the pragmatic question and begs many others concerning who else might “deserve” what and why, as well as the many other thorny questions opened by the sort of reparative justice that formulation evokes. The history of capitalism, as all class societies, is an account of the exploitation, degradation, and brutalization of workers.27 If injustices perpetrated on one’s remote ancestors were a basis for claims to compensation today, very many more people would have grounds for such claims, and that is especially likely if we consider treatment that would not have been considered injustices then but would be now. That approach to social justice is impracticable and unwieldy because it would require adjudication not only of which individuals are eligible for compensation but also what kinds of past injustice, or current injustice projected onto the past, should qualify as compensable. (Advocates of reparations for African Americans may argue that slavery is a sui generis injustice; others are likely to see the matter differently.)
The proposition that desert on the basis of special injury should be the standard of eligibility for social benefits is moreover at odds with a left-egalitarian politics because it is anti-solidaristic. It is the opposite of the socialist principle that everyone in the society is entitled to a reasonable and secure standard of living, consistent with prevailing norms for a decent life. In addition to its reformulation of pursuit of social justice as a tort action, reparations politics thus comports with neoliberalism in that it rejects universal benefits for partial, segmented, ultimately invidious social policy.
For several years, especially because its supporters seemed to relish talking about it but were uninterested in assessing strategies for pursuing it politically, I assumed that the sudden fixation on reparations talk may have been the equivalent of a fad, or comforting class-skewed popular hysteria, not unlike the early 1990s fixation on racial “double consciousness” that swept through elements of the black professional-managerial strata28 or, more recently, the notion that black people are beset with inherited racial trauma that can show up in a distinct racial biology (which, incidentally, brings contemporary antiracism into complete lockstep with Victorian racism—and worse than that, it may be useful to recall at this moment of reactionary political mobilization29). It might persist a while longer than other PMC fads, I suspected, because reparations talk makes for the sort of ponderous babble academics and high-minded liberals like to wax on about: it provides occasion for unrestrained display of parlor-game cleverness and pompous moralizing with no fear of an outcome that could either lighten one’s pockets or threaten current class relations, and law professors can be enticed by the whiff of possible tort actions down the road.
Instead, the reparations idea not only has not waned; it has become the normative cornerstone for discussion of black politics. It is now one prong of an unholy trinity of ideological precepts that anchors discussion of black politics. The others are the conviction that racial (or other ascriptive group) disparity is the primary, if not sole, actionable metric of unjust inequality and the insistence that we understand current inequality or injustice affecting blacks via analogy to slavery and Jim Crow. Together, these three foundational premises demand that we separate racial inequality, understood as simple disparity, from dynamics of inequality produced by the capitalist political economy and that we situate the sources of current racial inequalities as lying in trans-historical abstractions such as racism, White Supremacy, and anti-Blackness. This is one reason that formulations like “both antiracism and socialism” or “racial capitalism” are only dodges, not unlike “vaccine hesitancy,” as attempts to assert a dubious position without having to defend or be accountable for doing so. In contemporary politics antiracism and anti-capitalism are not only distinct; they are contradictory and mutually exclusive as both explanations and warrants for practical action. This fundamental antagonism has become ever sharper since 2015.
Ideologies gain traction when they connect with the agendas and perspectives of significant interests in the society. Reparations talk did not wither away like a fad partly because it advances a notion of social justice that harmonizes with hegemonic neoliberal sensibility.30 Michaels and Warren make the point succinctly:
The very idea that justice consists in restoring to people what they would have had if the labor market or the housing market or the loan market hadn’t taken it away from them is just another version of the reforms we’re presented with every day, reforms that identify fairness with the supposedly efficient functioning of the market. From the replacement of public schools with charters to the replacement of cabbies with uber drivers, neoliberalism argues that the only solutions to the inequalities created by markets are more efficiently functioning markets. And that the true victims of capitalism are not all the workers impoverished by exploitation but only those workers even more impoverished by discrimination. (RWF)31
As reparations talk proliferated, it incorporated the premise that “wealth,” not income, is the true measure of economic security and a related mystification, blending the neoliberal imperative to make the capitalist labor relation invisible and the black bourgeois nationalist ideal, that entrepreneurialism, not employment, is the proper racial path to success, dignity, and worth. The unholy trinity of precepts grounding black politics within neoliberalism obscures the reality that those two premises establish a “black” politics on the priorities and worldview of the investor class; they ensconce the discourse and program of social justice within the framework of asset accumulation and wealth management. Insistence that only aggregate black/white differences matter for assessments of actionable inequalities denies the significance of class differentiation among black Americans.32 It is instructive in this regard that commemorations of the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa pogrom centered on destruction of the supposedly vibrant black business district —“Black Wall Street” 33 —as though that was a crucial loss for all black Tulsans or even black Americans writ large. When race-reductionist politics recognizes class difference, racecraft turns it into Gemeinschaft on the presumption that more black inherited wealth would be good for the race as opposed to good for the people who actually inherited. Similarly, because argument by historical allegory reduces the black experience in British North America and then the United States to unremitting and undifferentiated collective racial suppression, broken only by inspirational narratives of individual racial accomplishment against herculean obstacles, its most crucial effect is to deny the possibility of politically meaningful differentiation among black people. That is itself a class gambit, fully—pace the Fieldses and as pithily exemplified by Governor Aycock—in keeping with what “race” exists to do.
Illustratively, I participated on a panel on black politics34 sponsored by the Brand New Congress35 in May 2020 that also featured three congressional candidates endorsed by BNC and the Justice Democrats, including Cori Bush from St. Louis. Another panelist, Isiah James, a candidate for the 9th Congressional District seat in Brooklyn, took sharp exception to the notion that any meaningful class differentiation exists among blacks. To support his objection, he adduced first the potted oppression porn narrative of black history and then asserted its “nothing has changed” punch line for contemporary politics: “when this country was founded on a system of racism that said that you could never reach a certain stratum because of your skin color, you might be the upper echelon of what America considers below or beneath them; so just because you’re a black person making six figures a year you can still be gunned down in the street like a dog because you look a certain way.” James’s objection makes clear the ideological work the ensemble of postulates and premises that ground contemporary race reductionism does in camouflaging a class politics.
As James’s objection indicates, insistence that we understand all of politically meaningful black American existence, past and present, as hemmed in tightly and universally by constraints imposed by racism also conveniently enables representing a class program as a generically racial one. And this gets us closer to the heart of the problem with contemporary race reductionism, and why viewing it as a different sort of egalitarian or “progressive” politics, parallel to what has been understood historically as the agenda of an anti-capitalist left36—merely a different selection from the social justice buffet—is at best mistaken and strategically counterproductive for those committed to ideals of egalitarian transformation.
Being clear on this point requires taking account of the purely performative nature of the radical-seeming expressions emanating from race-reductionist politics, such as the various groupings that operate under the flag of Black Lives Matter, episodic demonstrations protesting police killings or other outrages, protests against Confederate and other monuments purportedly celebrating racists or racism, or calls for prison abolition, defunding police, and other nodes of activity centered on protest-style mobilization. Notwithstanding the possible desirability of some of the proposals activists promote, the activism generally has a Potemkin quality. It evokes a sensation of popular mobilization largely by trading on mass-mediated imagery often staged to recall the high period of mass action in the civil rights movement and Black Power. Self-appointed Voices who purport to ventriloquize a popular black “community” propound militant-sounding rhetoric that similarly conjures images of black insurgent politics from days of yore. However, this activist politics has no institutionalized popular constituency—real people with names and addresses who participate in shaping, ratifying or vetoing the demands, assertions, and strategies of the visible activists who project their views and agendas onto an amorphous mass.37
This ersatz radicalism’s evocation of an earlier era of popular mobilization leaves an impression—by linking it rhetorically to the issues that generate the protest demonstrations (both genuine outrages like police terror and abuse, neighborhood displacement or systematic discrimination or denial of civil rights and radical-sounding, yet impossible or pointless demands, e. g., removal of every public honorific commemorating any supposed racist)—that the upper-status agenda centered on the “wealth gap” and class-skewed anti-disparitarianism (investment in black-owned businesses, more awards for high-end black artists, more black corporate CEOs, etc., and always more racial “representation”) is rooted in an authentic popular politics.38 And this version of racecraft works in two familiar ways. First, as I have stressed, positing a singular racial agenda or a reified black community, “liberation struggle,” or “freedom movement” conceals the class character of what is an increasingly sharply class-skewed “racial” political agenda. Second, this Potemkin populist militancy works through the racist ontology intrinsic to the race relations idea.
In particular, the notion of the race leader as “unelected but presumably attuned culturally and spiritually to the needs and desires of the race as a whole,” as Warren points out, remains, along with the race relations framework that it reproduces, “naturalized as the idiom for thinking about equality in the U.S.” (BTB 372). A simple comparison exposes the racist folly of this category. The officially recognized black American population is appreciably larger than the entire population of Canada. The notion that any random individual, even an elected official, could speak authoritatively for all Canadians is preposterous on its face. Yet the notion of the generic “black leader” is unquestioned, taken-for-granted truth in discussion of black American politics. And what qualifies one to be a black leader and who or what agencies recognize claims to the status are questions that do not arise. They do not arise because the answer is the same now as it has been since September 18, 1895: one becomes a black Leader by being recognized as one by the ruling class and its opinion-shaping institutions.
That is one reason I have argued that there is no question of corporate cooptation of organic movement leaders to pervert the radical egalitarian goals of Black Lives Matter and other racial populist initiatives. Anti-disparitarian politics operates within the neoliberal worldview. As Michaels and I indicate:
What we’re actually saying every time we insist that the basic inequality is between blacks and whites is that the only inequalities we care about are those produced by some form of discrimination—that inequality itself isn’t the problem, it’s only the inequalities produced by racism and sexism, etc. What disparity discourse tells us is that, if you have an economy that’s getting more and more unequal, that’s mainly generating jobs that don’t even pay a living wage, the problem we need to solve is not how to reduce that inequality and not how to make those jobs better but how to make sure that they aren’t disproportionately held by black and brown people.39
This is an ideal of social justice that harmonizes perfectly with the neoliberal ideal, which makes it not at all surprising that nearly $2 billion in corporate donations and pledges flowed into antiracist interest-group coffers in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. That fundamental harmony also means that there was nothing anomalous about Van Jones’s collapsing in tears of joy upon receiving scum of the earth Jeff Bezos’s $100 million or Kimberlé Crenshaw’s dig, yet another salvo in her on-going attacks on the left, that “every corporation worth its salt”40 had done more to support antiracist causes than the Democrats or the left. And, to the extent that antiracist activism is as much as anything else an element of a strategy for pursuit of careers in the Racial Voice industry, it can be, and has been, an actively obstructionist force attempting to undercut and derail organizing for broadly redistributive policies.
Where Darity puts the price tag for closing the racial wealth gap at an unthinkable $11.2 trillion,41 the liberal mainstream’s principal icon of reparations chatter, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has indicated that reparations could boil down to something as vaporous as “the full acceptance of our collective biography—the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely,” implying that material compensation may not be necessary.
“Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate, the kind that [the late Rep. John Conyers’s] HR 40 proposes,” he says, “we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion.” Insinuating that the exercise alone has the potential to check racism’s eternal sway, Coates asserts that “the recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie.”42
Coates’s penchant for substituting metaphor for analysis is more than mere rhetorical flourish. His reliance on moralistic abstractions not only allows him to skirt the political challenges that would confront a movement centered on material compensation for African Americans alone but also accommodates bipartisan indifference to the damaging effects of neoliberal economic and social welfare policies on disproportionately black and brown working people. Leaving little doubt that his case for reparations owes more to Dr. Phil or even the Rite of Exorcism than the Freedom Budget, Coates concludes his discussion of Conyers’s HR 40 by declaring: “What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.”43
Coates is hardly alone in acknowledging that reparations may not amount to much other than more systematic scolding of white liberals. And that tendency also underscores that it is at bottom an ideological class program. Joy-Ann Reid, we may recall, in one of her many denunciations of Bernie Sanders, averred that black people don’t care about free public higher education or downwardly redistributive universal policies and programs. Black people, in her view, want “the racial discussion.” She asserted that “what black people generally want is a reckoning; they want to acknowledge the past and to reckon with it.” She complains, however, that “the country … wants a pass” from the reckoning.44
On a similar note, I was struck during the second Sanders campaign that reparations advocates who understood themselves to be more broadly leftist, even some in or near the campaign’s inner circles, repeatedly hectored Sanders and others by trying to identify some version of—some generic position they could describe as—reparations that he would endorse. Some of those efforts trickled down even to me, though I indicated that the entreaties were a waste of time because I had no influence with Sen. Sanders or clout in the campaign. At the time, I couldn’t understand why those hectoring thought it was so important to have Sanders say that he supported something that might be called reparations no matter how insubstantial or watered-down. I assumed it was probably a search for a face-saving gesture for those who supported the campaign and wanted to overcome their race-reductionist friends’ and associates’ hesitancy to get on board or at least to buffer themselves against the latter’s criticism.
What stands out more clearly now, though I still think the motives of the persistent appellants were most likely those I suggest, is that the willingness to keep whittling down the content attached to the word “reparations” was also an indication that the notion has no clear programmatic substance even among militant supporters. Reparations talk—like kayfabe belief in Wakanda—no doubt does psychologically or emotionally gratifying work for some enthusiasts. Its point as a politics, however, is instrumental. As was apparent upon its entry into public discourse at this century’s beginning, not least because of the Rube Goldberg-like arguments advocates put forth to justify the demand as a practical politics, 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.”45 And, again, as should have been clear from the outset, that is also a class project. In 2000 Randall Robinson published The Debt, which was central in projecting the reparations idea into the spotlight.46 He could not have been more explicit about where he sought the effective source of political agency: “Until America’s white ruling class accepts the fact that the book never closes on massive unredressed social wrongs, America can have no future as one people.” He was also explicit in his Tory lack of regard for social-democratic concerns. “Lamentably,” he says, “there will always be poverty.” His problem is that black people are statistically overrepresented at the bottom.
When Joy-Ann Reid racialized the idea of the working class as white, the corollary was that blacks could not be part of it; they can be only black. From that perspective, the definitive political concerns and aspirations of all black Americans are racial, and that is how Reid could declare that an empty abstraction like “a reckoning” is more important to black people than health care, housing, decent jobs and income, education, or secure and dignified retirement. Consistent with West’s, Warren’s, and others’ critiques of the race relations idea at its inception, all black people can be folded into a “racial” agenda that reduces black Americans’ political interests and concerns to their racial classification and to a concrete programmatic agenda defined by the perspective of the investor class.
As Michaels and Warren demonstrate, the sensibility underlying reparations discourse, which posits that the objective of social justice consists in “restoring to people what they would have had if the labor market or the housing market or the loan market hadn’t taken it away from them,” is not only entirely compatible with neoliberalism but actively affirms its foundational ideological commitment to market fundamentalism (RWF). This restorative notion of social justice is consistent with the neoliberal premise that “the only solutions to the inequalities created by markets are more efficiently functioning markets. And that the true victims of capitalism are not all the workers impoverished by exploitation but only those workers even more impoverished by discrimination.”
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. (E.g., I have pointed out repeatedly since 2006, regarding struggles in post-Katrina New Orleans against destruction of public housing, charterization of the public school system, publicly-subsidized residential displacement, and other facets of the intensifying regime of regressive transfer, that race-reductionist agitation has been utterly ineffective in slowing down, much less defeating, any of those reactionary initiatives or generating a durable egalitarian political opposition.47 And that criticism has never called forth a single defensive or challenging response from activists, scholars, or commentators.) 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 distinctive facet of the current expression of Bookerite politics is that, precisely because the fact of increasing intra-racial stratification resultant from the civil rights victories of the 1960s and 1970s undercuts simple presumptions that all black Americans are in the same boat, race-reductionist ideologues are under pressure constantly to assert homogeneity of racial interests. And, as Isiah James’s claim illustrates crudely, that often enough entails appropriating outrageous injustices perpetrated disproportionately against poor and economically marginal black people—George Floyd, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling—to argue for closing a “racial” wealth gap that, for all intents and purposes, exists between the richest ten percent of black people and the richest ten percent of white people.
Finally, when seen from the perspective I’ve laid out here, it’s worth noting that the flood of ruling class money that poured into race-reductionist causes and groups in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder also coincided with the effort to stamp out the last embers of the nascent popular left tendency mobilized by Bernie Sanders’s campaign. From that vantage point, it seems reasonable to muse that, to paraphrase Voltaire, if race reductionism didn’t exist, Jeff Bezos and his ilk would have had to invent it. Fortunately for them, but not so much for the rest of us, it was already there masquerading as radical opposition to “white supremacy.”