Splendors and Miseries of the Antiracist “Left”
Longevity has its discomforts, to be sure. It also has its compensations, one of which is that decades of recurrent exposure to variants of the same genera of intellectual and political pathologies facilitates recognizing them for what they are. To their credit, in their recent Jacobin essay, “The Trouble with Anti-Antiracism” (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/10/adolph-reed-blm-racism-capitalism-labor/), Jonah Birch and Paul Heideman do concoct some rather novel ones, and I address those here as well. But it is probably more broadly useful to begin with consideration of some of the ways they follow the familiar script.
Key among their errors of the familiar sort is the tendency that I have described as a cargo-cult politics, “the wish for some magical intervention or technical fix that will substitute for organizing a broad popular base around a clearly articulated, alternative vision that responds to most people’s pressing concerns.”1 Kenneth Warren has characterized it also as a form of argument, or non-argument, that depends on asserting the not-yet-visible revolutionary potential of political expressions that seem unformed, inchoate, incoherent, or even decidedly nonradical in the present. Such claims, he notes, typically adduce esoteric insight supposedly derived from privileged relationship to the currents in question. They also, he observes, amount to exhortations for faith in things as yet unseen, which, like the cargo cults, only those with special vision can recognize. This is an alternative to argument; it is a call for religious-like faith.2
So Birch and Heideman begin with an extravagant assertion, that “After forty years of decline and retreat, the Left is undergoing a mini-revival. This development has been driven by millennials, whose political awakening has unfolded through Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and, most recently, the Bernie Sanders campaign. In all of this, we can see the rise of a potential mass base for a left political program.” Their next paragraph, however, acknowledges that much of what can be seen at the moment are “inability to sustain high levels of mobilization” and a tendency toward “empty posturing, self-promotion, and moralism.” They omit, moreover, that reactionary “libertarian” Gary Johnson also has had significant impact among those demographic groups. How, therefore, do they see radical potential as definitive in this motion? They find it via two fallacious interpretive moves. The first is a post hoc, propter hoc fallacy, based on a reading of the postwar civil rights insurgency that would be logically impertinent if it were correct – just because B followed A does not mean that A caused, was necessary for, or even instrumental in the appearance of, B, and even if A did plausibly cause B in one historical context, that does not mean that it necessarily would in another. But their view of the trajectory of postwar black politics is shallow and ill-informed. They imagine that the postwar insurgency was initially committed to a “conservative social vision…rooted in the ideology of the middle class leadership of the black church” and later discarded that ideology in favor of “a process epitomized by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s radicalization over the course of the 1960s.” This is a potted narrative that is blind to the tensions and contradictions within black politics – including actual class contradictions – that shaped the insurgency, as well as mainstream institutional black political participation, between the 1940s and mid-1960s.
In fact, another, more richly grounded and textured perspective makes clear that their characterization of an initially conservative movement that became radical “through the course of struggle itself” is exactly the opposite of the movement’s trajectory. Preston Smith II’s important account of the constitutive tension between programs of racial democracy – an ideal of strict equality of opportunity within capitalism – and social democracy shows how the former tendency, under pressure of Cold War anti-leftism, the predominant class commitments among black civic elites, and positive reinforcement from the courts, liberal opinion-leaders, and the national Democratic coalition, became the dominant trend in the 1950s. The social-democratic tendency persisted; e.g., through the agency of A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and their Negro American Labor Council, that tendency was the originating and primary organizing force of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which became Martin Luther King, Jr.’s event only in posthumous reinvention.3 But the victory of the racial-democratic orientation in the mid-1960s – illustrated symbolically in the emergence of Black Power ideology and defeat of the social-democratic initiatives spearheaded by Randolph and Rustin — underwrote consolidation of a new black political class of public officials, functionaries, and race relations administrators as the central force in black political agenda-formation.4 And, contrary to Birch and Heideman’s odd contention that racial redistribution is actually intrinsically anti-capitalist, the record of the black political regime consolidated in the late 1960s and early 1970s is most markedly class-skewed and amounts to at best a sort-of racial trickle down. That is, on this front, Birch and Heideman simply do not know what they’re talking about.
The second interpretive fallacy on which they ground their claim—that a left resurgence lies just beyond the horizon—is also tiresomely familiar. They ventriloquize popular protest actions and impute meanings and motivations to them that the authors find congenial. On one level, this move is an expression of what all political agitators do. Across the ideological spectrum part of the militant’s repertoire is a rhetorical tactic of urging history toward one’s desired objective by asserting that it is already all but there. We all do it. In the televisual and You Tube era, especially in a context in which the left has no significant social or political capacity, imputing programmatic political motives to participants in large, essentially mute demonstrations has become a standard move in what Mark Dudzic has described as a “pageantry of protest.”5 Birch and Heideman do this regarding Occupy and Black Lives Matter, to the point even of projecting political profiles onto demonstrators in “cities like Baltimore, Ferguson, and now Charlotte” to counter my arguments regarding the class character of anti-disparitarianism as a political program. Basing themselves on what they understand to be “the logic of [demonstrators’] actions,” they assert “[p]eople do not risk their lives just to tinker with the social order, just as civil rights workers in the South did not risk theirs merely in the hopes of registering some more black voters.” Of course, describing what opposition BLM protesters may confront as at all comparable to the dangers faced by campaigners in the high period of southern civil rights activism is absurd and trivializes the conditions those activists faced. Moreover, very many civil rights workers most certainly did risk their lives “merely” to fight for registering black voters, but that is beside the point at the moment and is only another illustration of how poorly the authors understand the political history they declaim about.
This move becomes pathological when it is an instance of what Rogers Brubaker, a sociologist I suspect Birch and Heideman could benefit from reading, describes as a tendency to conflate “categories of practice” and “categories of analysis”6 and what my father characterized as a tendency to be “victimized by one’s own propaganda.” That is, the interpretive pathology is the failure to distinguish the hortatory project of working to call a phenomenon into existence by asserting that it already exists and the more scrupulously descriptive project of examining the world as it currently is.
This is a problem to which participants in insular, sectarian discourses are particularly susceptible, as are those who understand their academic work to be a program of political mobilization in itself. Theirs is a politics unconstrained by needing to think strategically because it is unconcerned with the imperative to build a deep and broad political base. No nominally insurgent expression in recent American political history illustrates this problem more clearly than the intermittent chatter concerning reparations for slavery, or slavery+, as the program of an authentically radical black politics. Advocacy of the issue has been driven exclusively by moralizing proclamations of what black Americans deserve or are “owed” (a frame of reference with decidedly non-left premises and implications7, a point to which I return below) and how elaborately the debt has accrued and been compounded across time and social contexts; at the same time proponents of reparations as a politics consistently evade discussion of how it might be possible to construct a political alliance capable of prevailing on the issue. At most, response to that pragmatic question has generated sophistries of the sort to which Birch and Heideman resort.
There are too many other wrongheaded formulations of the familiar sort in the essay to bother cataloguing. For example, another prop supporting Birch and Heideman’s assertions regarding the radical, anti-capitalist potential of BLM is their belief that “protest movements the world over” follow a standard trajectory that leads from initial expression “with ideological tools fashioned from their society’s dominant ideology” to more radical or revolutionary programs as they are directed by “the course of struggle itself.” (They seem not to notice that the first instance of this pattern that they adduce – king and country mobilizations in peasant societies – typically did not culminate in radical movements.) They proffer that trajectory as a buttress, in lieu of concrete evidence, to their contention that Black Lives Matter is on course to realize a radicalism they posit, on the basis of that purported trajectory, as immanent within it. This contention depends on both post hoc, propter hoc thinking in interpretation of the past and the fallacy of circular reasoning vis-à-vis the present.
More than a decade and a half ago I criticized similar formulations of a notion of “infrapolitics,” understood as the domain of pre-political acts of everyday “resistance” undertaken by subordinated populations, which was then all the rage in cultural studies programs. Proponents of the political importance of this domain insisted that, because insurgent movements emerge within such cultures of quotidian resistance, a) examining them could help in understanding the processes through which insurgencies develop and/or b) they therefore ought to be considered as expressions of an insurgent politics themselves. Several factors accounted for the popularity of that version of the argument, which mainly had to do to with the political economy of academic life, including the self-propulsion of academic trendiness and the atrophy of the left outside the academy, which encouraged flights into fantasy for the sake of optimism. The infrapolitics idea also resonated with the substantive but generally unadmitted group essentialism underlying claims that esoteric, insider knowledge is necessary to decipher the “hidden transcripts” of the subordinate populations; put more bluntly, elevating infrapolitics to the domain on which the oppressed express their politics most authentically increased its interpreters’ academic capital.8
I discussed those factors in my critique. However, the point in that argument most pertinent for evaluating Birch and Heideman’s confidence that the contradictions they acknowledge in BLM should be seen only as growing pains of a “new movement” is the following:
At best, those who romanticize “everyday resistance” or “cultural politics” read the evolution of political movements teleologically; they presume that those conditions necessarily, or even typically, lead to political action. They don’t. Not any more than the presence of carbon and water necessarily leads to the evolution of Homo sapiens. Think about it: infrapolitics is ubiquitous, developed political movements are rare.9
I assume that Trotskyists of their stripe still call themselves Marxists; if so, theirs is a Marxism that has more in common with geometry texts and the Baltimore Catechism than with open-ended historical materialist analysis. Indeed, the catechistic disposition is the spirit animating their snarky observation that it is “telling” – though they never indicate what it would tell if the charge were correct — that I supposedly “never engage” with any of the “massive” evidence that racial discrimination persists against black Americans. I have never denied the persistence of racial discrimination and therefore have no idea what they mean by “engage with.” I assume that what they want is for me to recite a litany of abuses or violations, doing the Confiteor at the same time, whether or not doing so would contribute to understanding or rectifying anything. I don’t have to testify to my knowledge of the existence of racial discrimination. I’ve dealt with being on the receiving end of it all my life.10 Moreover, racial discrimination and racial disparity are not the same thing. The latter does not automatically result from the former. And discrimination is often not necessary for, or even implicated in, reproduction of disparities. This is a key argument that Merlin Chowkanyun and I develop in our critique of the discourse of racial disparity.11 We do not deny the existence of racial disparities. We do argue that “racism,” accompanied by whatever adjectives – institutional, structural, postracial, etc.12 — is often not helpful for understanding the genesis of those disparities, how they are reproduced, or how to address them in policy interventions.
Instead of engaging with that argument Birch and Heideman resort to baseless observations such as their claim that I have “always prided [myself] on being ahead of the curve.” This personal characterization is a bizarre alternative to critical argument about what I actually contend. And, of course, this is yet another area in which Birch and Heideman have no idea what they’re talking about. They don’t know me or for that matter anything about me that’s not a matter of public record, in what I’ve written for public consumption. Like much in their essay, this is an instance of uninformed proclamation of what they would like to be true to fit the a priori commitments of their dogma, which, by the way, is rather surprisingly like liberal individualism in the extent to which it hinges on speculation regarding individuals’ motives rather than examination of patterned social relations and processes.
Haste to proclaim the magical ship’s pending arrival on the coastline is more an effusion of True Belief – and that’s the generous characterization — than sober analysis. And the magical predictions don’t require evidence of oppositional agency of any sort. Many in the Jacobin audience may be too young to recall how ventriloquy of the kind that Birch and Heideman and others now project onto BLM demonstrations supported proclamations of grand, transformative potential that some ersatz leftists assigned to the 1995 Million Man March and then to the 1999 Seattle anti-WTO demonstrations. More, however, should be able to remember the tsunami of almost clinically naïve pronouncements in 2008 and 2009 that the financial crash had either put neoliberalism on its deathbed or perhaps already killed it. For those who don’t recall that moment, Merlin Chowkwanyun’s fine critical assessment should be a bracing corrective.13
The authors also construct straw men and blatantly misrepresent arguments to provide themselves with easy targets. They adduce the fact that BLM has generated a program as a counter to my contention that that fact is not especially meaningful. They do so, of course, without fully addressing my actual argument:
Some, perhaps many, of the items propounded in the initial 10 Point Plan are fine as a statement of reforms that could make things better in the area of criminal justice policy and practice. Many, if not most, of those assembled under the rubric ‘Vision for Black Lives’ are empty sloganeering and politically wrongheaded and/or unattainable and counterproductive. However, the problem is not a shortage of potentially effective reforms that could be implemented. The problem is much more a political and strategic one. And the focus on racial disparity both obscures the nature and extent of the strategic challenges we face and…undercuts our ability to mount a potentially effective challenge (italics added).14
I noted as well that, reminiscent of the trajectory of Black Power, a similar moment of affectively evocative political expression, the programs articulated in the name of BLM came primarily as responses to criticisms that it lacked a program. Their relation to the actual political practice of those who purport to represent the brand – and how else are we to understand the reality beneath the fatuous justifications offered by Garza and others as to why it’s important to honor the hashtag and its originators? — is not at all clear. The notion that having a program is eo ipso an indication of being “part of a broader radicalization around issue [sic] of class and inequality” is reasonable only within the sectarian universe of resolutionary socialists15 who measure one another’s significance by whether or not they publish newspapers or have good websites.
Birch and Heideman and I apparently talk past each other regarding whether BLM should be seen as a serious political movement. Where one comes down on that question depends on how one understands what counts as a movement. I have no idea what their criteria are; I do know that, as public relations engineering has become increasingly prominent as an alternative to slow, careful organizing and constituency building, the label has been thrown around ever more promiscuously. When I refer to a political movement, as I’ve stressed for many years,16 I mean a relatively durable social and political force with a demonstrated capacity to mobilize resources and clearly defined constituencies – including actual people who have names and addresses – to advance programs and agendas with the goal of altering public policy and/or power relations. I don’t see how BLM qualifies by that standard. Activism undertaken under that name has contributed significantly to focusing public attention on patterns of police abuse and broader miscarriages of justice in the criminal justice system. However, from the perspective I indicate, extrapolations from that fact to broader claims that BLM is a substantial political movement are hyperbolic or aspirational.
Birch and Heideman may operate with a different understanding of what constitutes a political movement. I assume they do because of their insistence that BLM is one, but they don’t address that question. They seem to accept proclamation by the self-appointed spokespersons – including those who claim not to be spokespersons while obviously adopting that role – press releases, demonstrations and other staged events in the mass-mediated (including social media) pageantry of protest as adequate evidence. In any event, I thought I had also made clear that the principal reason I, in their view, “refuse to engage even with the aspects” of the BLM current that the authors presume to be “in sync with” my politics and am not interested in helping to “advance a class perspective within the movement” is that my judgment is that what passes under the rubric BLM is primarily a mélange of episodic actions and performances and is not a coherent political movement.
I know the response to that skepticism is assertion of BLM’s inner potentiality, which supporters contend is visible through a combination of esoteric interpretation and Faith and which skeptics are too jaundiced or biased to see – i.e., the cargo-cult pathology. Birch and Heideman say as much themselves:
It is of course true that “Black Lives Matter” is shorthand for a variety of organizing efforts, whose goals can sometimes be opaque. The protests of the past two years are hardly the first to focus on questions of police violence or racism. And like many movements today, Black Lives Matter suffers from chronic volatility and organizational weakness.17
Thus even they acknowledge that, as Cedric Johnson indicates in a forthcoming article, who and what BLM is are in no way clear.
The contemporary “movement for black lives” is a diverse phenomenon – horizontal, decentralized, and driven by organizations like #BlackLivesMatter, the Dream Defenders, the Black Youth Project 100, Assata’s Daughters, Freedom, Inc., Southerners on New Ground, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, as well as dozens of other youth groups, black student unions and community-based organizations. Contemporary protests have found broad support among liberals, black nationalists, socialists, clergy, politicians, civil liberties advocates, and urbanites…Of course, there are different ideological tendencies operating within the movement for black lives. Broad acceptance of black ethnic politics, however, facilitates the very brokerage politics that many activists dislike about older black civil rights organizations. The spats between black lives matter’s founders and those who sought to use the hashtag without their permission reflected a proprietary sensibility, more suited to product branding and entrepreneurship than popular social struggle. Despite the various allusions to class and insistence by some supporters that there is a class-politics at the heart of black lives matter activism, the rapture of “unapologetic blackness” and the ethnic politics that expression implies will continue to lead away from the kind of political work that is needed to end the policing crisis.18
Comparing BLM’s commitment to the romantic racialism of the National Black Convention movement and following its trajectory through the 1972 Gary Convention, which rested on a similar commitment to a romantic racialism, Johnson contends:
If the Gary Convention is the model here, then what we might expect is the fracturing of the movement into different brokerage camps, each claiming to represent the “black community” more effectively than the other, and more capable of amassing the necessary counterpower that might be politically impactful. One signpost of this possible outcome is the growing fissure among activists over school privatization and futile attempts to reconcile those differences with romantic calls to black unity…Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrice Cullors gives a sense of this problem, when she says that she will continue to work with black neoliberals because of their common bond as blacks. “That I don’t agree with neoliberalism doesn’t encourage me to launch an online assault against those who do. We can, in fact, agree to disagree. We can have healthy debate. We can show up for one another as Black folks inside of this movement in ways that don’t isolate, terrorize, and shame people – something I’ve experienced first hand.” She mistakes the core basis of political life, however. Sustained political work is held together by shared historical interests, especially those that connect to our daily lives and felt needs, not sentimental “ties of blood.”19
To what, then, are Birch and Heideman referring when they declare BLM’s potential? Which strains are the real or even the really real expressions of the tendency’s radical anti-capitalist telos? The answer, steeped in circular reasoning, is the ones that Birch and Heideman want to believe are consistent with their transhistorical, preformationist notions of how movements grow.
This is not simply a matter of stipulating different criteria for assigning the label “political movement.” BLM’s amorphousness reflects and enables another tiresome political pathology that has become increasingly common in an era when an actually insurgent left is so remote from living memory and cargo-cult politics is so prominent. Activists, typically without visible institutional connections, stage more or less flamboyant events that often evoke nostalgic associations with earlier insurgencies – civil rights/Black Power demonstrations, sit-ins, militant “street action,” even purely rhetorical appropriation of the phrase “general strike” as a reference that sounds appealingly militant, totally disconnected from any concrete practice. Prior to BLM, Occupy and, more cynically, the Tea Party were the most highly publicized illustrations of this phenomenon, which is similar to an ad agency approach to movement-building. The point of these performances is to project simulacra of popular insurgency, which then become justification for issuing press statements and manifestos and, depending on the mood of the moment and skills of the operators, being recognized as spokespersons for the fictive movement. In the public interest world such groups are described as “astro-turf,” as contrasted to grassroots.
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. Occupy, for instance, proceeded from premises at least overlapping a tendency I have described as the Myth of the Spark,20 the notion that single events or dramatic acts can in themselves galvanize mass mobilization. That was also the dream that too many enthusiasts crafted for themselves about the Sanders campaign. Fetishization of the power of social media feeds the fantasy that movement-building can be automatic and instantaneous. That disposition is exacerbated in a context in which organizing as a project of deepening and broadening an actual base through building solidaristic relationships around shared interests is not part of an activistist culture in which radicalism is more posture and performance than strategic pursuit of a program.21 The strains of Trotskyism and anarchism popular in some activist quarters are drawn to spontaneist and voluntarist approaches to politics, which fit comfortably as well with the logic of insta-celebrity generated through Potemkin internet and social media campaigns.
From that perspective, one of the most revealing and chilling features of the BLM phenomenon has been the unself-conscious clarity with which Alicia Garza and other of its prominent personalities represent, and no doubt genuinely understand, crafting and projecting their individual personae as identical with advancing political objectives.22 The potential for opportunism is great because the inertial material imperatives impel in that direction and unrestrained because the “movement” has no concrete constituency to which its spokespeople are accountable. What we get instead are shopworn calls to distinguish the really authentic BLM voices – i.e., what DeRay McKesson was until he wasn’t – from the fakers and hustlers and those who are genuinely grassroots from those who aren’t. So Birch and Heideman finger McKesson as epitomizing a “black professional class selling a desiccated form of opposition to racism as radical politics.” What distinguishes this “desiccated form of opposition to racism” from the good, radical anti-racism they insist is out there? The only clue we have is that McKesson embodies the former. Yet a year ago he embodied the latter! This kind of political differentiation grounded on claims to racial authenticity rehearses the product cycle in the hip-hop industry in the 1990s, in which an act started out packaged as authentic or hardcore, attained success and became crossover and thence became a target against which those that follow proclaim their own real authenticity. This sort of politics is also, as we’ve seen at least since Black Power, a hustler’s paradise. And all the millennial versions of New Age-y bullshit about leaderlessness and structurelessness obscure the fact that absence of organizational mechanisms of accountability enable anyone to say anything, or deny anything said, in the name of the “movement.”
Overestimation of the political significance of protest and a related, all too familiar problem of confusing militancy and radicalism contribute to exaggerating the significance of eruptions like those associated with BLM. Militancy is a posture; radicalism is linked to program for social transformation, and protests do not necessarily challenge power relations at all. In some ways, as political scientists have pointed out for generations, they can validate existing power relations insofar as they appeal to established authority to accommodate their demands and pursue more effective incorporation into extant governing coalitions.23 Although they are so commonplace now that most people no doubt rehearse them unreflectively, presumptions that protest actions and militant postures are intrinsically radical or follow a natural trajectory leading them toward radicalism depend on the nostalgic wishful thinking and forms of fallacious reasoning I’ve already discussed.
But Birch and Heideman’s narrative is also plagued by their utter innocence of the history of the last half-century of black politics, which is truly astonishing, especially in light of their profound self-assuredness, though I suspect the former may be a key enabling condition for the latter. They show no knowledge or understanding of the relation of black political development to the growth of the large national, state, and local public-private anti-discrimination and diversity apparatus, or of the broader incorporation of black people into the various distributive regimes, market-based and not, that constitute and reproduce hegemonic neoliberalism. At this moment, in one tiny illustration of this phenomenon, my mother is engaged in dealings with a black-owned or black-fronted firm – not clear whether it’s for-profit or a non-profit NGO — that is enmeshed in a web of boondoggles outsourced from the Road Home program that the state of Louisiana created and administers in concert with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide assistance to people who suffered property damage in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Granted, the Road Home is an extraordinary policy intervention, and this is a trivial illustration. But this instance’s trivial and quotidian character is in a way the point. This sort of public-private, outsourced, marketized or semi-marketized activity is a node in an ever-expanding and reorganizing array of opportunity structures generated through neoliberalism and that contribute to its legitimation as everyday reality. More accurately, this activity and the individuals and organizations that participate in it constitute neoliberalization as an evolving political-economic, cultural and ideological order. People reproduce their material existence, not to mention pursue the entrepreneurial dreams that attest to the extent of Thatcherite ideological victory, through such nooks and crevices in the social administrative apparatus, whose public and private extrusions become ever more difficult to disentangle.24 At the same time, those structures and processes of neoliberalization are enmeshed with evolving black politics. The fact is that black people not only have access to these opportunity structures; they also participate in the processes that generate, shape, and legitimize them. The ambiguous relations of many prominent BLM figures and other black antiracist voices to the corporate and nonprofit interests that drive the assault on public goods and working people’s living standards underscore the class contradictions that antiracist politics papers over.
The black political regime that emerged out of contestation and negotiation over the terms on which the victories of the 1960s would be consolidated institutionally was rooted from its inception in the dynamics simultaneously articulating market-driven pro-growth politics from the municipal level through national Democratic politics.25 It is not simply that the center of gravity of black politics accommodated to the regime of regressive redistribution and punitive social policy as it took shape and became hegemonic. Race-conscious black political discourse and practice, grounded on underclass ideology and a sharply class-skewed communitarian rhetoric of uplift and self-help26 and racial redistribution – anti-disparitarianism — as the crucial metric of social justice helped to define the left wing of Democratic neoliberalism over the 1980s and 1990s. Moreover, black people participate as active and committed agents in the processes of neoliberalization, public and private – charterization of public education, devolution and outsourcing of the social service sector, direct and indirect attacks on public goods and labor standards in the name of individual enterprise (e.g., Uber, which openly promotes itself as providing opportunities for black Americans) or “community development,” private contracting at all levels, including the rent-intensifying real estate development that is unhelpfully called gentrification. Any serious left critique of black politics has to take those dynamics into account and must proceed from examining the actual complexities and contradictions, including class contradictions, in contemporary black political life.
That is why my colleagues and I who authored “On the End(s) of Black Politics” singled out as problematic “the conceptual and political confusion that underwrites the very idea of a Black Freedom Movement.”27 Formulations like Black Freedom Movement and Black Liberation Struggle suffer from the circularity problem: they posit what needs to be demonstrated through historical and political analysis. This is not simply a formal flaw. Those formulations impose an idealist coherence, what is in effect a racial supra-consciousness or the teleological equivalent of a vanguard party, that obscures the history of political differentiation among black Americans and its significance for understanding both past and present. They posit a transcendent goal – empty signifiers like “freedom,” “liberation,” or “self-determination” — that most crucially unites and defines black Americans’ political aspirations. This presumption that a deeper racial truth, constant across historical and social contexts, guides black politics requires diminishing the significance, and often enough necessitates the procrustean erasure, of the historical specificity of political dynamics involving black Americans at any moment in order to sustain the teleological narrative of fundamental continuity.
This problem and its counterproductive implications are apparent in the many versions of tortured analogy – e.g., “new Jim Crow” – purported, ever more convolutedly, to fit contemporary racial disparities into reductionist narratives that reify the white supremacist ideology and practice hegemonic at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth as the essential normative center of gravity of American politics and thus the source of racial disparities in the present. This interpretive commitment hinges on a fundamentally static view of race/racism and the primacy of its social power. Which is to say, this view of race’s primordial force – uniting top-shelf racists like Madison Grant and Charles Murray with earnest anti-racists like Birch and Heideman – may be the one thing in the last century that really hasn’t changed. In response to these increasingly tortured attempts to preserve monocausal narratives stressing the centrality of racism in explaining apparent inequalities, Chowkwanyun and I observe that “they bring to mind Kuhn’s account of attempts to accommodate mounting anomalies to salvage an interpretive paradigm in danger of crumbling under a crisis of authority.”28 The further away we move from conditions under which black Americans confronted officially enforced and tolerated subordination and discrimination on openly and directly racial grounds, the more Rube Goldberg-ish arguments that “racism” nonetheless remains the fundamentally causal force determining black Americans’ and other nonwhite groups’ life chances must become. As I have argued, a key effect of that commitment to race-first political interpretation is to shift the fulcrum of debate from examination of the discrete, contextually specific dynamics that reproduce inequalities to the label we must attach to them.
Reactions from antiracist/BLM activists to Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, like those from entrenched black political elites, threw this tendency’s class character into bold relief. Entrenched elites were often explicit in casting their class commitments in racial terms. In the run-up to the South Carolina primary, former civil rights movement icon and fifteen-term U. S. Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) and fellow long-term black Congressman James Clyburn (D-SC) emphatically denounced Sanders’s proposal of free public higher education as irresponsible. Clyburn opposed it partly on the ground that, in expanding the options available to students, in this case black students, it would disrupt the captive market currently sustaining the tiny, fiscally precarious HBCU on whose board he sits. Lewis was more blunt and combative in expressing his commitment to neoliberal principles, attacking the very ideal of non-commodified public goods:
I think it’s the wrong message to send to any group. There’s not anything free in America. We all have to pay for something. Education is not free. Health care is not free. Food is not free. Water is not free. I think it’s very misleading to say to the American people, we’re going to give you something free.29
Antiracist activists took another tack. In part, the practice that emerged of disrupting Sanders events to demand his ritual acknowledgement that “black lives matter” or to say the names of designated victims of police violence was only another iteration of a hoary stratagem, attacking targets most likely to be sympathetic and kicking in open doors to demand voice or standing not justified by links to actual constituencies or demonstrated political capacity. This is a lineal descendant of the “mau-mau” style pioneered by Black Power radicals. In some instances, e.g., former Palin supporter Marissa Johnson’s disruption of a Sanders talk at a Social Security rally, the stratagem seemed to express confusion and catharsis along with self-promoting hustle; in others, e.g., former embezzler “Tia” Oso’s Netroots disruption, it seemed more like straight hustle. Some interventions reasonably raised suspicions of Clinton campaign sabotage activity. No matter what the motivations, those dramatic actions, as well as other race-first reactions to Sanders’s campaign, including Ta-nehisi Coates’s criticism of Sanders’s refusal to endorse reparations,30 all dismissed the campaign’s platform as not sufficiently relevant to black Americans’ concerns.
As a campaign minion, I found myself often asking Sanders’s antiracist critics how any of the social-democratic items on his platform would not disproportionately benefit black people. None disagreed, but too many, especially those who considered themselves radicals, insisted at least in the logical thrust of their objections that black people’s status as union members, homeowners, low-wage and unemployed workers, public sector workers, retirees, current or potential college students, veterans, people concerned with immigration policy and likely to be adversely affected by neoliberal trade policy, people likely to benefit from universal health care, and people who live within a changing climate all must be subordinate to their generic racial classification. That mindset and its inadequacy for crafting strategies to counter neoliberal capitalism is an important illustration of the problem addressed in Willie Legette’s epigraph to nonsite.org’s new black politics section: “The only thing that hasn’t changed about black politics since 1965 is how we think about it.” Moreover, no matter what bizarre sophistries the likes of Birch and Heideman put forward to counter this contention, a politics of racial redistribution is fundamentally a class politics because its focal point is, as the characteristics of actual black politics I have discussed here indicate, pursuit of racial parity in distribution of goods and bads within the framework of hegemonic neoliberalism.
Thus, puzzling over the intensity and obdurateness of scholars,’ pundits,’ and advocates’ commitments to racialist interpretations of the sources of manifest inequalities and disparities despite their consistent failure to produce either adequate political or policy response or systemic critiques of the dynamics reproducing inequalities more broadly in American society, Chowkwanyun and I conclude:
The discourse of racial disparity is, when all is said and done, a class discourse. Even the best of the studies analyzing the racial impact of the crisis, for example, in focusing on racial disparity in subprime mortgage markets and foreclosure rates, sidestep a chance to interrogate the very limitations of the hegemonic commitment to homeownership altogether. More generally, automatic adoption of the racial disparities approach avoids having to conduct the detailed work that would situate ascriptive status within the neoliberal regime of accumulation that mitigates its influence. Repetitiously noting the existence of segregated neighbourhoods and how they decrease property value (real and perceived) and increase the likelihood of subprime mortgage is to identify a result, albeit one that is surely repellent. It does not tell us with much exactitude what institutions, policies, actuarial models, and systems of valuation produce those results, or more generally, what sociologist Mara Loveman describes as the “extent a particular essentializing vocabulary is related to particular forms of social closure and with what consequences.” It substitutes in its place pietistic hand-wringing and feigned surprise over results that can hardly be surprising.31
That is an element of our critique of racial disparitarianism Birch and Heideman do not address, and it is one that speaks, in ways to which I’ll return, to their claim that strategies encouraging “asset-building” for black Americans somehow constitute a radical challenge to capitalist market dynamics. For now, I want to indicate another pathological feature of the black freedom movement/black liberation struggle notion. Because those formulations diminish the significance of historically specific tensions and conflicts in favor of an idealized transhistorical truth of black politics, they generate no grounded criteria for evaluating differences among black political actors at any point in time. Like Black Power and other nationalist discourses, the sole standard for judgment in this frame of reference is authenticity.32 So Birch and Heideman can see contradictions in black politics only as the product of a “middle class misleadership” or read my critique of class dynamics playing out under the race-first rubric of BLM in personalistic terms, as imagining my objection as a charge that activists “desire to join the ranks of an upwardly mobile black managerial class.”
To be fair, though, I should address some of the more original political and interpretive pathologies Birch and Heideman display. Although this one is not exactly original, they show a distinctive penchant for non sequitur syllogistic fallacies. In discussing 1990s welfare reform, they assert, “If racism was central to selling a reactionary social policy that was ultimately motivated by capitalist class interests, shouldn’t challenging racism be important in derailing class attacks?” Of course, it does not follow logically that simply because ingredient A (e.g., militants’ commitments to biblical inerrancy) may have been implicated in congealing or legitimating a pattern of inegalitarian social relations (e.g., severely restrictive anti-abortion legislation), attacking A is necessary to undo that pattern. As many scholars have shown, moreover, no matter how prominent racialist tendencies may have been in emergence of regimes of durable inequality, they may be no more than marginally relevant for maintaining and reproducing, or undoing, those inegalitarian regimes.33 Birch and Heideman sidestep this issue with a rhetorical dodge: they assert that capitalist markets “lock in” patterns of racial inequality, which, they imply, makes it necessary to attack those patterns in racial terms. Apparently they find that phrase deeply meaningful, as they repeat it several times in ways that suggest that it explains something. It doesn’t; it’s the same sort of alternative to explanation – the same sort of dodge — as the once ubiquitous “takes on a life of its own.”
Some of their self-confidently propounded errors suggest either blinding self-righteousness or problems in reading comprehension, for instance in the way they take issue with my discussion of racialization as an ongoing phenomenon that is not necessarily limited to the phenotypic typology of “races” with which we are most familiar. I believe they consider themselves responding to an articulation of my argument that race should be seen as one of a class of ideologies of hierarchy based on ascriptive differentiation, that is based on what people purportedly are rather than what they do. These ascriptive hierarchies mediate and manage regimes of stratification
by defining populations and assigning them ascriptively to what come to be understood as appropriate niches of civic worth and entitlement. [They] evolve and are enforced formally through laws, public policies, and quasi-official means – such as officially tolerated but unofficially enacted preferences and coercion – and informally through popular ideologies, social practices, and normative sanctions. From this perspective, race appears as a social category that has evolved to denote an especially durable kind of ascriptive civic status in the context of American capitalism and the political and ideological structures through which it is reproduced as a social order.34
I ground that contention historically for the United States:
Although the race idea began to take coherent shape as a metric of hierarchy by the eighteenth century, in the ways we currently presume to understand it, both substantively and evocatively, race became fully delineated within a more general pool of discourses of ascriptive differentiation only in the middle to late nineteenth century. Moreover, for the first third of the twentieth century at least, during the period when race thinking’s hegemony was at its apogee, feeblemindedness was a social classification equally arbitrary, equally considered fixed by heredity and immutable, and often as substantively life-determining as race and gender. For much of that period so also was classification as a habitual criminal. The latter status seems to be making a comeback, led by the classification of sexual predator. As a consensually commonsensical Other (and who could even for a breath imagine not suppressing sexual predation, itself a usefully ambiguous and ideological category?), the image of the sexual predator is an utterly uncontroversial focal point for the diffuse anxieties, condensed as stigma and opprobrium, that can spearhead social panic and propel the steady advance of the public/private punitive apparatus and attendant political economy appropriate to neoliberalism.35
In particular, they take issue with my suggestion that, in light of that understanding of racialization as a social and historical process, the “urban underclass also may be well on the way to becoming a discrete, race-like population…and one that draws legitimizing verisimilitude partly from the ways that it does and does not overlap already marked ascriptive populations defined by racial narratives.” I ask:
how would we classify, say, an underclass that has become: (l) understood as a discretely marked, degraded, and self-reproducing population in the ways that are now associated with undesirable and stigmatized racial groups, defined by essentializing narratives that hover opportunistically between biology and biology dressed up as culture; (2) by our current folk norms, multiracial in composition, albeit most likely including in perceptibly greater frequencies than the general population people who would be classified as black and Latino “racially,” though as small enough pluralities to preclude assimilating the group ideologically as a simple proxy for nonwhite inferiors; and (3) separated in comparatively unambiguous ways rhetorically and perhaps even in quotidian recognition and the everyday public/private exercise of arbitrary police power from the larger populations that remain understood “racially” as black and Latino but have become normalized, perhaps on a model, mutatis mutandis, of the civic incorporation of those populations that became white “ethnics”? That is, how would [an antiracist perspective that sees race as transhistorical] handle the victory of the social vision and ideal according to which “racial” difference could be recognized without stigma or marginalization and in which levels of socioeconomic inequality and disparities disappeared between the familiar racially defined populations—not counting the relatively greater number of individuals offloaded, as it were, from the nonwhite racial populations to the underclass? In this circumstance “race” would exist but arguably no longer in the same kind of politically significant way. The political and ideological work of stabilizing capitalist hierarchy that we now associate with race would be done by other categories of ascriptive differentiation that could appear all the more plausibly as natural because they had been shorn of a lexicon of race rendered less effective through successful contestation over time. This is not an entirely fanciful possibility. It would be a realization of an ideal and social vision that has underlain a strain of black civil rights activism since the consolidation of the Jim Crow regime at the end of the nineteenth century.36
Birch and Heideman imagine that they refute this argument – which they take to illustrate “the confusion that marks [my] recent writing” and evidence of how I “so badly [misread] the contemporary political economy of race” – by noting that racial discrimination persists and asserting that “the white poor are not being racialized. While the immiseration of white rural communities across the country has led conservative intellectuals to turn a jaundiced eye to the mores and culture of the white poor, this has not led to seeing them as part of a common ‘race’ as poor black Americans.” They insist, “Rather, the elite view of poor whites seems to be returning to what it often was in the era before the New Deal, when the ruling class was perfectly frank in its evaluation of the inherent inferiority of white workers [my italics]. Then as now, this in no way implied a convergence of position between the white and black poor in the country’s ascriptive hierarchy of race.”
This purported refutation both misses the point and reveals more than its authors may intend. The foundation of my argument is that the active ingredient, as it were, that makes race a meaningful category of distinction among people is that it is a species of a genus of social hierarchies based on ideologies of inherent difference that define populations arbitrarily and mark them for assignment to distinct niches in systems of civic worth and entitlement. It is the presumption of the “inherent inferiority” of white workers that partly motivates my suggestion that, as the political-economic and cultural significance, and the moral valences, of “race” evolve, it is not unlikely that taxonomies of ascriptive hierarchy will also evolve, as will the meanings and significance assigned to “race” within them. (As I also argue, ideologies of ascriptive hierarchy are most effective when they are naturalized and accepted as unthinking common-sense truth. Successes in challenging racial and gender hierarchies over the past half century or more have rendered those discourses more contentious and thus less effective.)
Birch and Heideman make clear that they have no sense of racialization as a process and that they succumb to taxonomic fetishism regarding what qualifies for the race label. What would make the “inherent inferiority of white workers” distinct from the inherent inferiority of blacks are historically contingent specifications of the features and implications of their respective inherent inferiorities. The latter are plastic and evolve over time and context. Being black simply does not mean the same things – either denotatively or connotatively — in 2016 as it did in 1916 or 1816; this is yet another reason that transhistorical constructs like “black freedom movement” and “black liberation struggle” are wrongheaded. At the height of race science’s cultural force, as many as 36 different “racial” populations were held to exist in Europe alone, and many race scientists in Britain were absolutely convinced that the English working class was racially different from the aristocracy. It is possible to contend that only the familiar, phenotypically based taxonomy can qualify for the race label if and only if one reifies that historically specific taxonomy as reflecting an essential reality and accepts a primordialist – i.e., racialist – notion of race. Birch and Heideman acknowledge as much in their insistence that what they surmise to be the racial conjuncture pertaining at the moment is what race is and will be. No amount of pro forma rehearsal of belief in social construction will make that move other than what it is. In this respect, these authors exemplify a contradiction at “left” antiracism’s conceptual core: it hinges on the fantasy of a non-essentialist racial essentialism. No matter how elaborate, clever, absurd or heroic the efforts or how genuine and powerful the will to do so may be, it is simply not possible to square that fucking circle.
I have saved consideration of Birch and Heideman’s most inventive and amazing error for last. It is genuinely difficult to find an appropriate way to characterize their extraordinary misreading of Walter Benn Michaels as a Beckerite. After much reflection on the question, the most charitable terms that come to mind are willful or dishonest. If their argument had only one author, I’d entertain the possibility that monomaniacal fixation might have led to this breathtaking error. But shouldn’t we assume that one of them would have caught the other’s misreading? The likelihood that they collaborated on it conjures the image of Beavis and Butthead.
Rather than “endorsing” Becker’s argument that “capitalist markets will dissolve income inequalities that are not based on real differences in ability,” Michaels argues that a politics that centers on combatting disparities on the basis of race, gender or other categories of invidious discrimination is consistent with – and in practice in our political present legitimizes – Becker’s ideal of nondiscriminatory markets as the realization of an efficient, and therefore just, society. That is, Michaels objects to diversitarian or anti-disparitarian models of social justice because substantively they accept and proceed from Becker’s ideal. His observation, which they quote, that “markets are good for producing an ethic of antidiscrimination, [and] antidiscrimination is good for producing success in markets” is an objection to the claim that an anti-disparitarianism politics can advance a left program of social justice. Indeed, the contention that discrimination undercuts market efficiency has been a central tenet of liberal anti-discrimination, then diversity, policy since the mobilization for World War II and the Double V campaign, and it was a key element of the NAACP’s brief against racial discrimination and of the lament of the nascent black professional-managerial class at the turn of the turn of the twentieth century. It is no denunciation of strict anti-discrimination enforcement to point out that it does not challenge economic inequality or neoliberal patterns of distribution in general or that, when proposed as the central focus of a left politics, it effectively limits the horizon of left political imagination to the framework of neoliberalism’s reproduction.
Birch and Heideman evade this reality with a potted account of blacks’ displacement from agrarian employment in the postwar South and particular vulnerability to the impacts of urban deindustrialization that has no bearing at all on the claim they want to sustain regarding anti-disparitarianism’s, and thus antiracism’s, intrinsic challenge to capitalist market forces. No one except rabid neoclassical ideologues, and certainly not Michaels, believes that market forces will dissolve either discrimination or entrenched disparities on their own or denies that anti-discrimination measures, more or less broadly conceived as compensatory, are necessary to reduce those disparities. That has been the thrust of a half century of civil rights enforcement at federal, state, and local levels. By absurdly linking Michaels (and thereby me by implication) to Becker, and by not addressing that history of civil rights enforcement, they apparently believe they can assert with a fog of bluster that mechanisms intended to smooth and enhance market dynamics are indeed – through a deep-structural relation that only they can see – challenges to market capitalism. Come to think of it, willful and dishonest are not mutually exclusive.
Their contention that pursuit of asset-building strategies for black Americans to equalize the racial wealth gap is a radical anti-market intervention requires a claim that approaches the point at which fanciful crosses the threshold into stupid.37 They aver that making “the black share of household wealth equal to the black share of the population, would require tens of trillions more dollars going to black families, most of whom live either below the poverty line or in spitting distance of it.” (I don’t know what they mean by “spitting distance,” but for the record, the black poverty rate is roughly 28%.) They seem not to recognize that pursuit of economic equality through increasing household assets is about as far away from challenging capitalist market forces as can be. It would be the equivalent of redistributing the chips at a casino crap table. One wonders what they think capitalism is and how it works, how it is reproduced on a daily basis.
In addition, the issue of wealth disparities is more complex than they make out, and some apparent racial disparities stem from more complex sources. Here as well it may have been helpful if they bothered to engage with the arguments Chowkwanyun and I make about this issue. They also resort to a really threadbare antiracist sleight-of-hand in adducing remedies for the wealth gap that can be and are pursued without any reference to anti-disparitarian ideology. And like their and others’ reparations blather, they offer no clues how the massive transfer of wealth can be attained in a context in which what passes for a left, as Dudzic and I observe, “is no longer even capable of affecting the wage structure in the auto industry or intervening in urban development decisions in Brooklyn.”38 I guess it will be won one Socialist Worker newspaper sale at a time.
I would be remiss not to take the opportunity Birch and Heideman provide to address the C.L.R. James cult in a public forum. I understand the inclination to see James as a romantic political figure. I remember coming across the special issue of his work Radical America published in 1970 and reading it with great interest, as well as The Black Jacobins and the reprint edition of History of Negro Revolt published in the early 1970s as History of Pan-African Revolt. I was somewhat bemused by the discovery of James in the late 1980s and 1990s and then a little apprehensive about seeing him invoked ever more frequently and ritualistically as an authoritative voice on matters bearing on black American radical politics. It was clear before long that enthusiasm for James showed signs of an academic cult in formation. Another comrade, prompted by Birch and Heideman’s genuflection before the icon, recently asked Cedric Johnson and me what we make of the James thing. Cedric’s response was pithy and exactly on the mark. The sources of James’s appeal as a romantic figure for a strain of Anglo-American academic leftists, he observed, stem from his image as a “larger than life, international persona, self-identification as a ‘black European’ and his love of Thackeray, cricket and other subjects that were appealing to academic cultural studies in the years before his death, more than anything else.”
The fact is, however, that James was never a significant participant in black American political debate or practice, and his time in the United States, I have sometimes remarked, was on the political equivalent of a tourist visa. He never had a deep understanding of black American political dynamics and was pro forma and naïve in his analysis of forces at work and assessment of possibilities in black politics. I made that point to him when we were on a panel together at the University of the District of Columbia in 1976 or 1977 in response to his complaint about how unsophisticated black Americans were in not involving themselves in the global Pan-African insurgency that had been going on in his head.
Finally, the shoddiness39 of Birch and Heideman’s essay raises questions about Jacobin’s editorial practices. The magazine has all too frequently published similarly uninformed and politically irresponsible articles on Brazil, Ireland, the Chicago mayoral election, race and politics in the U.S., and perhaps other topics I don’t follow as closely. Most, if not all, that dreck has come via the International Socialist Organization, Socialist Alternative or versions of those Trotskyist sectlets from elsewhere in the world. Perhaps there are ideological tensions within the editorial collective as well as institutional pressures at play in reproducing this pattern of stark intellectual and political unevenness. I know also that Jacobin is committed to not being a “line” publication, which is a respectable objective.
Whatever its sources, this unusual approach to publication has produced results that cast doubts about intellectual and political seriousness and integrity. In some cases the problem may be a naïveté about the etiquette of dealing with authors and running a journal. For example, less than a week after soliciting Barbara and Karen Fields to publish a comment on the Philando Castile incident and the discourse about race and victimization by police that it condensed (“Did the Color of His Skin Kill Philando Castile?”), the magazine showcased a half-baked polemic against them by George Ciccariello-Maher (“Yes, Philando Castile Was Killed for the Color of His Skin”), which amounted to little more than self-righteous proclamations upbraiding the Fieldses for not sufficiently appreciating the power of white supremacy.
The problem with publishing Birch and Heideman’s essay goes beyond possible breach of etiquette. Their essay is not only shallow, uninformed, and deplorably reasoned; it is also contradicted directly and elaborately by articles the magazine has published by Jay Arena, Cedric Johnson, Touré F. Reed, Kenneth Warren, and others in addition to Michaels and me. Yet Birch and Heideman write as if this literature and its arguments do not exist. Based on what they write, I wouldn’t expect much more from them, but what are Jacobin’s editorial responsibilities? My point is not at all to suggest that the magazine should refrain from publishing anything attacking me, Michaels, or anyone else who has published in it previously. Debate is important and necessary, and Walter and I certainly can take care of ourselves. But publishing some arguments that say x and some that say not-x without urging authors advancing the different positions to take account of the others’ does not amount to serious debate.
Jacobin wants to take socialist ideas to a cohort of younger leftists, I understand, and I assume that objective includes a desire to provide a platform for differing views in service to the project of deepening left thinking and action. But, surely, the editors don’t see the magazine’s function as merely a message board; there must be some views and arguments that they recognize as inimical to the magazine’s mission or that might undermine its credibility. And one might think that a minimal editorial obligation would be to urge authors to engage in some way – that can mean challenge sharply or reject but through honest confrontation — with contrary arguments the magazine has previously published bearing on the same topical areas. Moreover, I and many others who’ve published there know that the magazine’s editors can be notoriously interventionist. But when it comes to the under-researched, under-argued, by-the-numbers sophistries emanating from the apparently favored sectarians, it is difficult to imagine that any quality control applies. This inclination, which now ample evidence affirms, calls into question the purported commitment not to be a “line” publication, by the way.