What Materialist Black Political History Actually Looks Like
This rumination is sparked most immediately by reflection on the roiling debate within the academic left and the academic left dressed up as a political left that has taken shape since the 2016 election. The debate initially centered on how to interpret “white working class” support for Donald Trump, specifically, whether we should understand white people’s votes for Trump generically as indicative of their essential commitments to racism, patriarchy, homophobia, nativism, transphobia, etc. or whether some of that vote should be understood as a consequence of Democratic liberals’ failure to address working people’s concerns with economic insecurity, because of the Democrats’ commitments to the dynamics of neoliberalization that have intensified economic inequality across the board nationally and have undermined access to public goods and social supports for poor and working people generally. The practical stakes of that argument have to do with what strategic lessons “progressives” should draw from Trump’s victory with eyes on the 2018 mid-term elections, 2020, and beyond.
In early iterations of the debate, various antiracist commentators and official Democratic operatives and their propaganda apparatus at MSNBC, theroot.com, and elsewhere on the internet-chattering and posing left have insisted that Trump’s victory exposed the extent to which a deep vein of white Americans of all classes (except maybe the “woke” elements of the urbane professional-managerial strata) are committed to “white supremacy” before and beyond all else. The strategic takeaway from that view is that those Trump voters—even the estimated just under 7 million to just over 9 million who had previously voted for Sanders and at least once for Obama1—are hopeless reactionaries and cannot be relied upon as potential allies because their deepest commitments are anti-egalitarian, that their support for Trump reflected anxiety over perceived loss of status in relation to nonwhites, women, immigrants or others.2 This conviction has underwritten a contention that the lesson from Trump’s victory is that it’s not practical, or moral (the two are difficult to distinguish in this argument) to focus on increasing economic inequality and intensifying upward redistribution as the basis for left political appeals and instead that the necessary strategy should center on intensified mobilization of nominally oppressed groups, mainly nonwhite, and women as a generic category on the basis of opposition to the disparate distribution of goods and bads in the society among groups so identified and in support of the principles of diversity as generally understood in left-of-center political discourse.
As the argument has progressed, a de facto alliance between ostensibly progressive identitarians and Wall Street Democrats has come together around asserting, along with Paul Krugman and others,3 that “horizontal inequality”—i.e., inequality between statistically defined racial/ethnic groups—is a more important problem than “vertical inequality,” characterized as inequality between individuals and households. That distinction instructively makes class and class inequality disappear, which is consistent with the trajectory of American liberalism across the more than seven decades since the end of World War II. Moreover, in a sort of mission creep, opponents of what they decry as a “class-first” position increasingly have come to denounce any expressions of concern for economic inequality as in effect catering to white supremacy. This tendency, which Touré Reed has argued rests on a race-reductionism,4 has surfaced and spread within the newly revitalized Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), as even many among those who consider themselves socialists object to the organization’s selection of Medicare for All as its key political campaign on the ground that pursuit of decommodified health care for all is objectionable because doing so does not sufficiently center antiracist and anti-disparitarian agendas. I submit that there’s clearly a problem when anti-socialism is defined as socialism.
The race-reductionist argument is propelled by a combination of intense moral fervor and crude self-interest. I’ve argued in 2018 articles in nonsite, The Baffler, and Dialectical Anthropology, that, as it has evolved, the post-2016 debate has thrown into bold relief the class character of antiracist and other expressions of identity politics.5 That could be a salutary product of the controversy. It’s good in this sort of debate for the mist of ideology to burn off and the material stakes involved to be clear and in the open. However, many people who have followed or even participated in the debates have not connected the dots to see that obvious point or to acknowledge its implications. One reason for failure to do so is summed up pithily in Upton Sinclair’s quip, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Not only would pursuit of an agenda focused on addressing “horizontal inequality,” if successful, disproportionately benefit upper-status, already well-off people—as Walter Benn Michaels and I have noted tirelessly over the past decade at least, the reality of a standard of justice based on eliminating group disparities is that a society could be just if 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources so long as the one percent featured blacks, Hispanics, women, lesbians and gays, etc. in rough proportion to their representation in the general population; also, advocacy of defining the only meaningful inequality as disparities between groups is itself a career trajectory in the academy, as well as in the corporate, nonprofit and freelance commentary worlds. There’s no point trying to communicate with those whose resistance stems from such material investment; no matter what their specific content, their responses to class critique always amount to the orderly Turkle’s lament to McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—“This is my fucking job!”
Purblindness to identitarianism’s ever more clearly exposed class character also rests on naively habituated ideological thinking. Most of us operate with more or less vague or inchoate recognition that the past included bad old-timey times marked by openly racist practices like slavery and compulsory racial segregation, genocide against Native Americans, Chinese Exclusion, imposed gender hierarchies, etc. In lieu of examining the discrete sources of inequality in the present, antiracist ideology in particular depends on asserting superficial analogies to those earlier historical periods when racial exclusion and discrimination were more direct impediments to black Americans’ and other nonwhites’ social position and well-being. Thus, for example, Michelle Alexander proposes that contemporary mass incarceration be understood as a “new Jim Crow”6—though even she allows that the analogy doesn’t work—and expressions of outrage at miscarriages of justice in the present commonly allude to practices associated with slavery or the segregation era.
As I have argued, such assertions are not to be taken literally as empirical claims; they are rhetorical. No sane or at all knowledgeable person can believe that black Americans live under similarly constrained and perilous conditions as they did a century ago or longer. Those analogies and allusions carry a silent preface: “(This incident/phenomenon/pattern makes it seem as though) Nothing has changed.” Yet the claim itself presumes that things have changed because the charge is essentially a denunciation of objectionable conditions or incidents in the present as atavistic and a call for others to regard them as such. Attempting to mobilize outrage about some action or expression through associating it with discredited or vilified views or practices is a common gambit in hortatory political rhetoric, more or less effective for a rally or leaflet. But this antiracist politics is ineffective and even destructive when it takes the place of scholarly interpretation or strategic political analysis.7
Political controversies in contemporary New Orleans provide an apt frame of reference for demonstrating antiracism’s limitations, and class character, as a politics. Antiracist political critique failed abysmally after Katrina to mobilize significant opposition to elimination of low-income public housing or to the ongoing destruction of public schools. In a context in which black people participate as administrators, functionaries, contractors, and investors—all in the blesséd name of racial representation—in the commercial opportunities provided by privatization and destruction of those institutions, that politics, which posits an abstract “black community” against an equally abstract “racism,” could not provide persuasive responses to the blend of underclass ideology that stigmatizes public housing as an incubator of a degraded population or that proffers culturalist explanations for failing schools.8
Debate over displacement for upscaling redevelopment, including proliferation of the Airbnb industry, is another powerful case in point in that city as elsewhere. In opting for a language of “gentrification,” opponents of displacement, often without necessarily intending to do so, cloud a simple, straightforward dynamic—public support of private developers’ pursuit of rent-intensifying redevelopment—with cultural implications that shift critique away from the issue of using public authority to engineer upward redistribution and impose hardship on relatively vulnerable residents. Instead, discussion of gentrification slides into objections about display of privilege, and lack of recognition or respect that, notwithstanding the moral outrage that accompanies them, accept the logic of rent-intensifying redevelopment as given and demand that newcomers acknowledge and honor aboriginal habitus and practices and that the “community” be involved in the processes of upgrading.
The same racial or cultural discourse has unhelpfully shaped opposition to charterization of public education by focusing on the racial dimension of the process. The fundamental problem with Teach For America and the corporate privatizers for whom TFA are shock troops, after all, is not that the missionaries are mainly white and unfamiliar with native culture or even that many of them are tourists building extracurriculars for their graduate and professional school dossiers. Those are only idiosyncratically distasteful features of a particular line of attack on one front in a broader war on public goods and the idea of social solidarity, in line with marketization of all human needs.
And that sort of culturalist discourse also opens opportunities for petty, and not so petty, entrepreneurship in the name of respect or recognition of the community, within the logic of neoliberalization. Race reductionism enables a sleight-of-hand in which benefits to individuals can appear to be victories for the generic racial population or community. The more deeply embedded a groupist notion of fairness or justice becomes as common sense, the more easily that sleight-of-hand works under labels like “community empowerment,” “voice,” “opportunity,” or “representation” to propel and legitimize accumulation by dispossession.9
This takes us back to Sinclair’s dictum, which underlies the material truth of antiracist politics and other expressions of identitarianism that are hostile to politics based on class solidarities. Yet even the crudest self-interest depends on ideological mystification for legitimacy. And race/racism—the former term is inconceivable without the latter—has always worked in exactly that way; only now, in the aftermath of the victories of the 1960s, it can work to the benefit as well as the detriment of nonwhites. The cornerstone of race ideology, which is not now and never has been incompatible with capitalism, is presumption of ontological-level differences among human populations apportioned into racial groups. Just as nineteenth and early twentieth century white supremacists insisted that fundamental differences preempt political alliances based on common material conditions, antiracists posit whites’ transhistorical—and thus primordial—commitment to racial supremacy toward the same end.
That’s the more insidious basis of the impulse to argue for the primacy of race in contemporary politics via allusion to the past. Like all forms of race-reductionism it masks a class-skewed agenda. That underlying reality helps make sense both of why antiracists seem unconcerned that their elevation of challenging disparities to the paramount, if not exclusive, goal of egalitarian politics is entirely consistent with neoliberalism’s regime of intensifying economic inequality and why their de facto alliance with corporate and Wall Street Democrats against the conventional left has been automatic and untroubling.
So I’ll conclude as I’d initially intended to begin this rumination, with several postulates about black American political history to counter the idealist mystifications that posit a primordial white racism or a transhistorical, reified White Supremacy capable of acting in the world on the conviction that, as Nihkil Singh and Joshua Clover most recently characterized it in a Verso blogpost, “black lives matter less.”
Slavery was fundamentally a labor relation, not an extreme system of race relations. To paraphrase Barbara and Karen Fields, its objective was to produce cotton, sugar, tobacco, and rice, not white supremacy. Its appeal to the planter class was that it secured a labor force that had no rights or recourse, not that it was a permanent sadistic camp. Historian Kenneth Stampp quotes a slaveowner’s succinct explanation: “For what purpose does the master hold the servant? Is it not that by his labor, he, the master, may accumulate wealth?”10 An irony of the view that defines slavery as institutionalized brutality is its implication that slavery without extremes of brutalization might not be objectionable.
The segregationist regime was an historically specific social order based on disfranchisement of the vast majority of blacks and a substantial percentage of whites, imposed by southern elites after defeat of the interracial Populist political insurgency in the late nineteenth century. It was defined by an extensive, legally codified system of racial subordination. That order was not fully consolidated before World War I, and its institutional foundations were crushed by the late 1960s. That is, it was a regime that prevailed for roughly sixty years, depending on location.
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 Cedric Johnson has argued forcefully, contemporary scholarly discussion reads “black politics”—the ethnic pluralist group politics articulated mainly since the 1960s—back anachronistically onto the varying and pragmatically grounded political expressions in which black Americans have engaged since Emancipation, which he describes as “black American political life.” Political differentiation has been as common among black Americans as among all others. Moreover, issues bearing specifically on race or racial disparities have never exhausted, or exclusively defined, black Americans’ expressed political concerns.
As a corollary of 3, the issues driving the postwar southern mass mobilization against segregation and the emergent black interest-group urban politics in the North and West, and the big city South, were distinct. Lumping them together under a blanket construct like the “long civil rights movement” does not help us comprehend the discrete features of either or, more important, the distinct trajectories each set in motion.
Black Power was not a mass, radical insurgent movement. It was a militant expression of ethnic pluralism. Radicals of various sorts—including ideological race nationalists—occupied its fringes, but the driving and commanding forces of Black Power politics were always the assertive elements within the new black political and professional-managerial class that emerged from opportunity structures opened by the victories of the Civil Rights movement, the dynamics of urban demographic transition and incorporation into governing regimes, and War on Poverty, Model Cities, and foundation-funded programs. Nominally radical groups, such as the Black Panther Party (BPP), the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and others with less cachet among the left, were not serious alternatives, certainly not the romantic “roads tragically not taken” of post-New Left fantasies. General Baker, longtime United Auto Workers activist and co-founder of both the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, was emphatically clear that those tendencies were entirely specific to Detroit and the centrality of the union in local Democratic politics. The BPP was founded in 1966, and by the end of the decade was already in disarray, especially outside Oakland, as a result of police repression, to be sure, but also of their political incoherence.
Neither Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, nor Stuart Hall can tell us anything strategically useful about the black American political situation. Appeals to their putative wisdom stem from academic leftists’ romantic attachments and commitments to race-reductionist politics. Malcolm was dead before nearly all the big events understood to define “The Sixties” had occurred. Fanon died several years before Malcolm, and in any case his focus was always elsewhere; he gave only the most general, perfunctory attention to the United States. James’s time in the United States, as I have said, was on the political equivalent of a tourist visa. He was not enmeshed in black American politics and understood its internal and external dynamics in only an abstract, formalist way. The same pertains to Stuart Hall. Attachments to the likes of Malcolm, Fanon, James, and Hall are more totemic than intellectually or politically productive. There is a more pernicious aspect of embrace of those figures’ supposed cultural authority. Each is read as propounding trans-contextual insights about “race.” And such insights are necessarily race-reductionist.