The Political Economy of Anti-Racism
This essay originated as a kind of stump speech, an effort to spell out and update an argument about the uses of anti-racism and anti-discrimination that I’ve been making for some time to audiences that might or might not be familiar with it. The idea of publishing some version of it in conjunction with Adolph Reed’s piece was Adolph’s, and the proposed venue was the left journal Jacobin; it would be, as Adolph endearingly put it, “a nicely affirmative statement about where the magazine stood on the left v. identitarianism debates.” But, although some Jacobin editors expressed interest, the idea came almost instantaneously to naught. A preliminary edit of Adolph’s piece—cutting it in half and leaving out material that he thought was crucial—made him decide to withdraw it. And, truthfully, I had been from the start skeptical. First, because—although we both respect Jacobin and have both published in it before—I was a little less sanguine about the magazine’s desire actually to make any kind of statement about where it stood on the left v. identitarian issue. And, second, because part of my argument (as suggested below in a photo taken at a talk I gave at U.C. Riverside) involves a critique of the role played by elite universities in (to borrow a phrase from Adolph’s and Willie Legette’s note on V.O. Key) “suppressing working-class politics in the service of both black and white political elites.” But, of course, both the students at schools like the ones on my list and the more-or-less recent graduates of such schools make up a significant portion of Jacobin’s readership; why would Jacobin want to publish an attack on its audience?
And not just Jacobin’s audience. When I said to Adolph that what seemed to us the bowdlerizing of his essay was at least in part a consequence of Jacobin’s need to appeal to a readership significantly composed of rich kids with short attention spans, he responded, “But that’s what I do on my day job.” As do I, and so do many of the writers for Jacobin and for n+1 and almost all the writers for nonsite.org. And, more generally, it’s almost always been true that the struggle against inequality has been championed by some of its beneficiaries as well as its victims. Both the socialist professor and the socialist student in an elite (or even, like UIC, not as elite) university inhabit a contradictory position, one that the right has always been eager to criticize in moral terms: the politics we preach are not reflected in the paychecks we deposit or hope someday to earn.
But although there may well be something morally problematic about tenured socialists with six-figure salaries, the relevant political contradiction is not the one between our ethical ideals and our actual lives. (We make no claim to virtue; we get that our day jobs are what we do for money.) The relevant political contradiction is the one between our class position1 and our politics. And the real problem—the problem alluded to in the “left v. identitarian” formulation—is not the political contradiction. It’s that when the upper-class professor is getting his or her even more upper-class students to confront the ugly truths of racism, there is no contradiction. Just the opposite. When American elites understand racism as the fundamental problem confronting American society, that understanding is an expression of their class interest, not a denial of it. Our day jobs become our only jobs. What’s wrong with the identitarian version of the left is not that its roots are in money but that its identitarianism is a defense of that money.
We can begin to see why by juxtaposing two different models of economic inequality: one focuses on the differences between individuals and is called individual inequality, the other—horizontal inequality—focuses on what development economists like Frances Stewart call “inequalities between culturally formed groups.”2 So, for example, when someone tells you the top quintile of American wage-earners makes 51.5% of American income while the bottom quintile makes 3.1%, they’re talking about individual inequality. When they tell you that the median annual income of white men is $55,166 while that of black men is $38,243, that’s horizontal inequality. “Current thinking about development,” Stewart has complained, places individuals rather than groups firmly at “the centre of concern.” But (as our familiarity with black/white income disparities like those noted above suggests) many economists have long been interested in thinking about the differences between groups not just in developing countries but in places like the U.S. as well. And recent developments have only intensified that interest, as was suggested by Paul Krugman’s declaration (during the 2016 election) that we “talk more about horizontal inequality,” that “horizontal thinking” was what was needed to understand both Democratic and Republican primaries, and that “horizontal inequality, racial inequality above all,” rather than Bernie Sanders’s “exclusive focus on individual equality” would “define the general election.”3
Whether that turned out to be true is an interesting question but for my purposes here the difference between these two ways of thinking about inequality are relevant not because they help us understand the election but because they entail two very different ways of describing our problem and therefore two very different solutions. What are the causes of the inequality between groups? Racism, sexism, homophobia—discrimination of all types. In the U.S. right now, for example, black people are substantially under-represented in the top quintile of American wealth and over-represented in the bottom, and no one who thinks about that fact for more than two seconds has any difficulty understanding why: several hundred years of slavery, another century of Jim Crow and another half century of less formal but very real racism. Indeed, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates, “no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap”4 between blacks and whites. As Coates points out, we have made very little progress overcoming this gap, and the solution he favors—reparations—looks even more unlikely under Trump than it would have under Clinton. But we can understand its point very well. If you could end current racism, and if you could restore to people everything they’d lost as a consequence of past racism, the structure of American society today would look very different.
Right now, for example, about 6% of American households earn more than $200,000 a year.
But only 2% of black households do. And, by the same token, 45% of American households make under $50,000 a year but 61% of Black households do. In a world where both current discrimination and the legacy of past discrimination could be made to disappear, 6% not 2% of black households would be very rich, and 45% not 61% would be poor. Or, to put the point slightly differently—since black people make up about 13.2% of the population, they would make up 13.2% of every quintile.
By contrast, an equally miraculous end to individual inequality would look very different. It wouldn’t, of course, guarantee that each race be proportionately represented in the highest quintile but only because there wouldn’t be any such thing as the highest quintile (or, obviously, the lowest quintile). What the abolition of individual inequality would produce is universal equality, and when we contemplate the difficulty not just of eliminating inequality but even, given the history of the last 50 years, of making any significant progress toward reversing it, we realize that one of the standard critiques of reparations—it’s too radical—is pretty unfair. Actually, by contrast to the genuinely radical redistribution that would be produced by an end to individual inequality, reparations would be mildly reformist.
Indeed, in itself, the commitment to ending horizontal inequalities is so mildly reformist that it doesn’t actually diminish inequality. Redistributing skin colors has nothing to do with redistributing wealth; a world where every race was proportionately represented at every income level would be exactly as unequal as the one we have now. Arguably, however, it would have both ethical and economic advantages, or at least, that’s what its advocates believe. The problem with discrimination is that it generates what economists call “bad” inequalities. If a white male gets promoted over a Latina despite the fact that the Latina was doing a better job, that’s a bad inequality and it’s bad in two ways. It’s ethically bad because it’s unfair (the white man is being chosen for reasons that have nothing to do with merit) and it’s economically bad because it’s inefficient (since the white man wasn’t chosen for merit, the job is probably not being done as well as it could be). What anti-discrimination looks to do, then, is solve both the ethical and the economic problem—to make sure that all groups have equal opportunity to succeed and thus also to help make sure that the jobs are being done by the people who are best at doing them. Which has absolutely nothing to do with eliminating economic inequality.5 In fact, it’s just the opposite: the point of eliminating horizontal inequality is to justify individual inequality.
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. Even the Marxist anti-racist David Roediger thinks that “anti-capitalists” shouldn’t “sneer at” the goal of “evenly distribut[ing]” “poverty and inequality…across racial lines.” From his perspective, the problem is that “corporate embraces” of diversity “mask desires for the surplus value” it produces6 and “shift the terms of struggles against racism”—as if real anti-racism would get the job done. But if the job is a redistribution of wealth that will produce something other than horizontal equality, real anti-racism, just like real anti-discrimination of all kinds, not only won’t get it done but doesn’t even try to do it. Indeed, what it does instead is provide an account of failure—either you’re the victim of discrimination or you’re not a victim—so persuasive that even when it’s obviously not true, people believe it.
This graph7 shows how badly off most white people are—the bottom 50% have about 2% of
white wealth (and the bottom third—that’s about 60 million people—have basically no wealth at all). So if, as Coates says, “no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap” between blacks and whites, what does this statistic—the wealth gap between the top 10% of white people and all the other white people—illustrate? Amazingly enough, an increasingly popular answer (if only among white people) is Coates’s answer: racism! I’m happy to go out on a limb here and say that racism against white people has played absolutely no role in producing white poverty but (as this graph suggests8) lots of white people have come to think not only that bias against whites is a thing but that it is a bigger thing than anti-black racism.
And we have already begun to see why this explanation makes sense to them. As Karen and Barbara Fields put it in their book Racecraft, the discourse of anti-discrimination has so “impoverished Americans’ public language for addressing inequality,”9 that we either understand poor white people as victims of racism (which they obviously aren’t) or as trailer-trash responsible for their own plight but trying to blame someone else—black people or immigrants. So, in an economy where the bottom 80% has been falling farther and farther behind the top 20% (and where most of the top 20% has been falling behind the top 1%), we get large numbers of white people experiencing themselves as losing ground, while Trumpists tell them they’re the victims of racism and liberals tell them they’re racists.
We can see this ideological imperative—you’re a victim of discrimination or you’re not a victim—at work in the now 40-year obsession (both of its supporters and its critics) with affirmative action in college admissions. Comparatively few American college students attend institutions where admissions are competitive enough for affirmative action to be relevant,10 but as inequality has increased, and as, in the words of former President Obama, we have come to believe that “education is the ticket to a better life,” college admissions have come to seem a crucial site for trying to guarantee equality of opportunity. And affirmative action—if you’re for it, as a way of fighting racism; if you’re against it, as itself a kind of racism (so-called reverse racism)—functions both to keep racial difference at the center of the discussion and to turn it into an opportunity to express class difference. In the wake of the 2016 Supreme Court decision in Fisher, a Gallup poll found that “people with some postgraduate education were the most likely to support the decision (46 percent), followed by those with a college degree (35 percent)” while only “27 percent of those with a high school diploma or a lower level of education supported the decision.”11 So, although support for affirmative action has declined in general, wealthy people like it much more than poor people do, at least if you take a college degree as a rough proxy for wealth.
Which you should. Especially a four-year degree from a competitive college. During the years in which American universities have been fighting (with mixed success) for race-based affirmative action, their students have been becoming richer,12 so rich that, today, at elite institutions, the number of students of color, even if there aren’t all that many, nonetheless greatly exceeds the number of poor students. Last fall, Harvard proudly announced that it had for the first time admitted a majority non-white class, with 22.2% Asian Americans, 14.6% African Americans and 11.6% Latinos and Latinas.13 Meanwhile the median family income for students at Harvard is $168,000.14 So it’s not surprising that, on the one hand, some relatively poor people have become skeptical of the idea that colleges become more egalitarian by seeking to admit more students of color (the idea that underlies the affirmative action theory of social justice) and it’s even less surprising that rich people (including college students themselves) remain committed to it. The photo at the beginning of this essay shows an informal list (just the places I could think of off the top of my head—so I forgot, for example, Princeton, $186,000) of the median student family income at colleges that have seen major anti-racist actions in the past year or two. These students have demonstrated an exceptional (and entirely admirable) commitment to opposing raced and gendered inequality while remaining calm in the face of class inequality.
Again, the point is not to highlight the discrepancy between the egalitarian ideals of these students and their class position since, if the equality you’re committed to is between groups, there is no discrepancy. And just as no hypocrisy is required at the elite college where you fight hard against racism, none will be required at the NGO or the job as a consultant or in finance (“Why Goldman Sachs? Diversity!”15) where you start making enough money (average salary of a Princeton grad at 34: $90,70016) to enable your kids to carry on the struggle. Actually, the need for a little hypocrisy—for virtue to pay its symbolic tribute to vice—would be an upgrade. The problem here is the literal tribute virtue’s paying to virtue—the complete identity of idealism and careerism. In other words, it’s not ethical but political.
And the demand for a working-class politics cannot be met by adding class to race and gender. This is in part because most actually existing intersectionalists are not very interested in class, but even if they were, the great attraction of intersectionality is precisely that it can absorb class too into the logic of discrimination, which is to say, into the neoliberal theory of inequality. On this theory, the fact of being born poor is a problem in the way that the fact of being born Black or Latino or a woman can be—if it keeps you from having an equal opportunity to succeed. In other words, we should treat class difference like race and gender by understanding poverty not as something we should get rid of but as something we should help people overcome. Hence the goal of what Kimberlé Crenshaw calls “intersectionally minded reform”17 is not to eliminate class difference (any more than it is to eliminate racial or sexual difference); it’s to eliminate classism—to eliminate people’s obstacles to success, give poor people a chance to become rich. And insofar as the goal of the educational system is understood as giving everyone an equal opportunity to succeed, a truly intersectional university system would seek what’s now called economic diversity as well as racial diversity.
There are two reasons, however, why the commitment to economic diversity is doomed to fail. The first is practical—if elite universities achieved a proportional representation of poor people on the model of the proportional representation of ethnicities, almost all the students they now have would be sent home and almost none of the students they would have instead would be able to pay the tuition. The second is more fundamental. Even if we could overcome the practical obstacles; even if we could turn the elite colleges into schools for the 99%; even if we could go one step farther and make it possible for everyone to go to college, and one step farther than that and make it possible for every college to be as good as Harvard’s supposed to be, it would still make no contribution to economic equality. In this utopia, we’d all have the equivalent of a Harvard degree. But we’d be entering a job market in which there wasn’t very much demand for that degree.
Here’s a list of today’s twenty fastest growing jobs:
The first thing you might notice is that, despite endless talk about the jobs of the future demanding a higher education, only five of these require a B.A. In other words, you’ll need to have a college degree for about 7.25 million of these jobs; for the other 30 million you don’t. The second thing you’ll notice is that the ones requiring a B.A. are the high-paying ones. Which is the whole economic point of going to college and which is why higher education has nothing to do with equality. As things stand now, all universities are selling inequality—the advantage we hope our students will have over students who have attended colleges that are in some way inferior to ours or over students who haven’t gone to college at all. We want our students to be software developers and operations managers, not waiters and home health aides. Of course, if we were to universalize that advantage—everyone going to an Ivy plus—it would stop being an advantage and it would make education itself more equal. But it wouldn’t make the world more equal. It would just mean that the people doing most of the jobs on that list—selling clothes, French fries and personal care for $21,000 a year—would be doing so with a college degree. And, instead of selling inequality (as we do now), colleges would be selling the justification for it. As in, we gave you the chance to get a first-rate education; if you couldn’t make it pay, that’s on you. Which is precisely—in a period of inequality—what makes the appeal to education so prevalent. The more vividly a society depends on exploited labor, the more eager it is to tell the exploited they had a fair chance to become exploiters.
Of course, right now the majority of personal care aides (number 1 on our list) are women of color with no more than a high school education. In the neoliberal intersectional everybody-goes-to-Harvard utopia we’ve been imagining, a lot of them would instead be white men with political science or marketing degrees. But they’d still be making $21,920 dollars a year. And right now, a relatively smaller number of (mainly) white (mainly) men compete for a slightly smaller number of high-paying jobs. Our utopia would exponentially expand the number of people competing for those jobs. But it wouldn’t exponentially expand the number of jobs.
The point of free higher education should not be intensified competition. The point more generally of a progressive egalitarianism should not be to leave inequality intact while changing the skin colors of both its beneficiaries and its victims. The point most generally should not be trying to teach everyone how to code so they won’t have to become personal care aides or fast food preparers. These are the jobs there are; somebody is going to have to do them, and a just society should be less interested in trying to help people escape them than in making it desirable to keep them. It should, in other words, be more interested in turning bad jobs into good jobs than in trying to make sure that the bad jobs go to people who our educational system says deserve them.
This is why, to be as blunt as possible, although you can’t think class without race and sex and you can’t think race and sex without class, class matters more than race or sex. The fact that these jobs pay so badly is a problem that can’t be fixed—that isn’t even addressed—by our efforts to devise a fairer system for deciding who should be forced to take them. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t oppose racism and sexism and homophobia as vigorously as possible; it’s just to say that it’s capitalism not racism or sexism that has created these jobs and that if we’re not opposing capitalism—if we’re not trying to minimize the difference between the care aides who make $21k, the nurses who make $68k, the doctors who make $300k and the Health Care executives who make $3 million—we can fight discrimination from here until hell freezes over but we will not have made the slightest dent in economic inequality.
It’s importantly true that racism and sexism have played the central role in selecting the victims of American inequality but it’s also true and just as important that they have not played the same role in creating the inequality itself. Paying workers less than the value of what they produce does that. And anti-racism and anti-sexism can help make the selection fairer but they don’t make it unnecessary, which is a fact that the current forms of resistance to Trump and the fetishization of his racism and of white supremacy tend to make invisible.
In the wake of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, as everyone remembers, the President kept insisting there were good people on both sides, which caused some members of his economic council, led by Kenneth C. Frazier, to resign in protest. Frazier is a rare figure, one of the very few African-Americans in the overwhelmingly white and male world of Fortune 500 companies, and he was widely praised at the time for, as some people put it, “speaking truth to power,” standing up against the administration’s willingness to countenance racism just as he had stood up against racism, sexism and homophobia in his own career. But if one (completely accurate) way to look at Frazier and at the very few other minority CEOs is as warriors against discrimination, another (equally accurate) way is to note that their contribution to fighting discrimination, their success in the business world, is indistinguishable from their contribution to the increase in economic inequality we began by noting.
When Frazier resigned from the presidential manufacturing council, he said, “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal” (suggesting that he definitely got the horizontal equality message). Trump responded by tweeting
Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President’s Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!
If Trump himself had the slightest interest in lowering drug prices, much less in making healthcare available to everyone, this would at least have raised the question of what to do about a right wing populism that really was populist. In fact, however, he has no more interest than Frazier in lowering ripoff drug prices and, of course, neither of them has ever shown the slightest interest in Medicare for all. (Merck doesn’t even want to let people import their medicines from Canada.) In other words, it’s what Frazier and Trump have in common that does the most damage to working class people and, incidentally, to working class black people.
Here’s another way of putting it. If what we want is a more economically equal society, the endless time and energy spent debating whether our president is a racist is completely beside the point, as is the whole debate about whether it was “racial resentment” or “economic anxiety” that got him elected. Even the (marginally) more sophisticated suggestion that in a structurally racist society it doesn’t matter whether he’s a racist is beside the point, as is the whole idea of structural racism. Because insofar as economic inequality is the problem, redistribution, not proportional representation, is the solution. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight discrimination as well as exploitation; the mere fact that neoliberalism likes anti-racism doesn’t make anti-racism wrong, and there can be no justification for tolerating any form of discrimination. But it does mean that the relation between fighting discrimination and fighting exploitation is asymmetrical: fighting exploitation is a way of fighting the effects of discrimination (if nobody were poor, black people and Latinos would not be disproportionately poor), but fighting discrimination is not a way of fighting exploitation (if nobody were the victim of racism or sexism, lots of people would still be poor).
My point in this paper has been to argue against a liberal egalitarianism that, taking discrimination as its central problem, imagines a justified inequality as its solution. Remember the personal care aides. About 85% of them—making $21,920—are women, about 25% are African American, 10% Asian, 20% Hispanic or Latino, the rest white. Without racism or sexism, this would be incomprehensible. But the end of racism and sexism would make no difference to the rapidly increasing number of people working that job. Without a politics organized around class—fighting not for the interests of women of color but for the interests of personal care aides—the left, when it comes to economic inequality, is just the good conscience of the right.