The “white backlash” thesis remains the dominant historical explanation for the decline of New Deal liberalism and the attendant racial inequality that persisted since. Urban historians contribute the most sophisticated nuance to the backlash argument, situating the urban/suburban divide at the heart of both political realignment and racial disparities. Judith Stein’s scholarship, while engaging with the earlier proponents of the “backlash” thesis, nonetheless offers the blueprint for an alternative history of postwar suburbs, one that links city and suburb to a shared, rather than divided, story of liberalism’s decline and widening inequality.
The U.S. labor movement’s support for Trump’s tariffs is misguided. But after decades of deindustrialization driven by a bi-partisan consensus on trade and industrial policy, the sense of desperation is understandable. Building a movement for national economic planning would be preferable, but that is easier said than done.
Stein’s key insight was that, just like labor radicals and union administrators of the collective bargaining regime, those responsible for economic policy and for addressing the accumulated racial disparities of 300 years of slavery and Jim Crow also thought that the postwar economic arrangements would go on forever. This led to what Stein called “steel fundamentalism.”
Making sense of racial politics in any period requires close attention to the political and material interests of the people who make use of racial terminology. In contrast to dominant historical and social science studies of postwar American cities, the work of Judith Stein went beyond mere acknowledgement of this basic insight. Her insistence that the social construction of racial identities is inherently political and context-dependent contributed depth and richness to her historical narratives and offered a telling critique of the politics of her peers in the field.
Granger and the League’s promotion of trade unionism as a vehicle for civil rights highlights the problem with the commonplace disposition to view the NUL and NAACP through dichotomous lenses like Bookerite or Du Boisian. Such frameworks not only look past institutional politics’ sway over the scope of these civic groups’ agendas, but they may also obscure the influence of changes in the broader political landscape over the parameters of African American civil rights.
I wonder and worry if the fashionability of the field comes from its evasion of this question. Does it spring from a hope…that capital and capitalists can regulate themselves, that in effect, capitalism can have a history sans class politics. As Stein’s work shows, this seems at best naively decontextualized—detached from the actual history of capitalism. And at worst? Then the new history of capitalism looks a lot like the ideological expression of its subject.
Stein’s work shows the depth, breadth and intellectual richness that a grounded historical-materialist perspective can bring to scholarship and understanding. She assumed from the outset that black political history could not be properly understood without situating it in relation to the broader currents within which it has been embedded and with which black agents have interacted at any given point. She never accepted analytical categories that attributed political agency to abstractions like “the black community,” “white supremacy,” or even “capitalism,” and always grounded her arguments in the issues, concerns and understandings of the groups and tendencies she studied. She saw race, class, labor and political economy as irreducibly linked.