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.
Despite his longstanding socialist sympathies, DuBois was repelled by the specter of revolutionary violence, hence his admiring account of the moderation of the southern slaves. They “showed no disposition to strike the one terrible blow which brought black men freedom in Haiti…. for the simple reason that there was an easier way involving freedom with less risk.” They went on strike.
As politics changed, the organic model that had dominated black thought since the 1890s lost its power to persuade. Blyden, Du Bois, and Garvey had invented a view of the race to support a politics that addressed the elite discrimination they faced. Like all ideologies, their view of race attempted to interpret the world and direct behavior. Models and goals were taken from Western elite culture. Black elites imagined the majority of Afro-Americans passive and in need of their leadership. The NAACP and Urban League claimed to represent the race by default.
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.
As artist and urbanist, Theaster Gates is his own patron, his own institution, his own LLC. He is start-up and content creator combined. Though artists have long engaged in corporate parodies, Gates goes beyond the twee anarcho-entrepreneurship of the Bernadette Corporation or the politicized media takeovers of the Yes Men. He creates new art spaces as anchor institutions in blighted blocks. His works propel white creative types to penetrate black areas of the city formerly unknown to them. His renown encourages art tourists to travel beyond the usual downtown museum circuit. But Gates does not draw attention with mural paintings or large public sculptures. Gates’ artwork is, simply, real estate. And there is real money at stake.
To lay out, as clearly and as programmatically as we could, the reasons why despite protestations to the contrary, antiracism, understood as insisting on the symmetry of fighting discrimination and fighting exploitation, suppresses the development of a working class politics rather than offering a road to it. To make this point, the essays printed here, perhaps a little more insistently than our previous responses to critics, attend to the way that antiracism is an expression of the class position of those of us who produce the bulk of the commentary on injustice, and who routinely confront race and gender disparities in our everyday lives.
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.