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.
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.
The popular claim that Trump’s election signified resurgent white supremacy is not only wrong—it’s dangerous. It grants more power to the fascist right than it deserves. Different voters and constituencies supported Trump for different reasons, not all of them rational.
The benefits that black professionals received from new urban renewal was less a change in how they define their interests than a change in opportunities to pursue those interests. There has been an underappreciation for the role of class interests in driving black housing professionals and property owners’ politics during the postwar urban renewal period.
Black studies scholarship on the whole has been plagued by “the temptation to attempt to speak on behalf of the political and social needs of some ‘black community’ outside the academy.” Declaring themselves responsible to this community, which is in no way positioned to ratify the propositions being put forth on its behalf, while disdaining the professional norms prevailing in the academy as inherently biased against the beliefs and practices necessary to carry out their work, many black scholars have been able to operate in a zone of relative unaccountability in which the narrative recounting of their own experiences and thoughts are treated as paradigmatic of “the race.”
There is no singular, transhistorical “Black Liberation Struggle” or “Black Freedom Movement,” and there never has been. Black Americans have engaged in many different forms of political expression in many different domains, around many different issues, both those considered racial and not. They have engaged in race-solidaristic formations and in close concert with others, in class-based and multiclass alliances.
Largely because of the challenge posed by the alternative political vision that Sanders advanced and the subsequent struggle over how to interpret the meanings of Trump’s victory, the 2016 election and its aftermath have thrown into relief the extent to which antiracism, and other formulations of politics based on ascriptive identities, are not simply alternatives to a (working) class politics, as Clinton’s cheesy put-down during the campaign implied. What is typically called identity politics reflects the perspective of a different class, the professional and managerial strata who are relatively insulated from the negative impacts of the four decades long regime of regressive redistribution and better positioned to take advantage of the opportunity structures it opens. That perspective suggests a reason many high-profile antiracists have become so vehement in their opposition to a politics centered on downward economic redistribution.
This is why some of us have been arguing that identity politics is not an alternative to class politics but a form of it: it’s the politics of an upper class that has no problem with seeing people left behind as long as they haven’t been left behind because of their race or sex. And (this is at least one of the things that Marx meant by ideology) it’s promulgated not only by people who understand themselves as advocates of capital but by many who don’t.
Today, race performs the function of suppressing working-class politics in the interests of both white and black political elites who are equally committed to capitalist class priorities as defining the boundary of political possibility.
Since the emergence of what has been known as “whiteness studies” in the early 1990s, proponents of the view that the white working class in the United States rejects a class-based politics in favor of commitment to white supremacy have cited W.E.B. Du Bois’s reference in Black Reconstruction In America to a “psychological wage” that whiteness offers as supporting that view and, by extension, the necessity that combating racism and white supremacy takes priority over struggle against capitalist inequality.