Left Forum NYC 2010: On anti-black racism in the U.S.

The American Left and the “black question” — from politics to protest to the post-political

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Tim Barker (Columbia University), Benjamin Blumberg (Platypus) and Pamela C. Nogales C. (Platypus) at the Left Forum in New York City, Pace University, March 20, 2010. Audio recording available at: <https://archive.org/details/PlatypusAtLeftForumNyc2010TheAmericanLeftAndTheblackQuestion>

The black American political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. recently wrote an essay on “The Limits of Anti-Racism” for the Left Business Observer, in which Reed stated that anti-racism as politics has clearly failed.  Earlier, Reed had written about the Hurricane Katrina disaster that pointing to racism may prove to be an unacceptable “distraction” from more substantial politics.  Reed also pointed out, however, that “race is a class issue,” thereby bypassing, productively, the usual “race vs. class” antinomy that has long plagued the American “Left.”  Considering that, at present, anti-black racist attitudes have appreciably diminished, while the social conditions for the vast majority of black Americans have worsened and not improved since the 1960s, seen clearly in declining statistics of social welfare and employment, as well as more spectacularly in mass criminalization and incarceration, this raises serious issues for problems considering the question of American “race and class” for the “Left.”  But perhaps this question has passed into history, now.

The present moment may be a good occasion for a thorough and critical reconsideration of anti-racism as politics, both with regards to today, and retrospectively, as regards the history of the American Left, in what Ben Blumberg has termed its “Unmet Challenge.”  The point is that if the problem of anti-black racism in the U.S. has been an “unmet challenge” perhaps it will remain so, as it has now passed into history.  Today, it may be less a matter of an existing challenge for the Left, but more the legacy of a historically missed opportunity for the American Left, a missed opportunity for which we continue to pay a steep price in the attenuated possibilities for a social-emancipatory and anticapitalist politics today in the U.S.

Clearly, the historical problem of anti-black racism in the U.S. has been resolved to a certain extent, but in the most politically conservative way possible.  What the historical phenomenon of the Obama Presidency symbolizes with regards to the problem of anti-black racism is the historical result of a combination of: 1.) middle class anti-discrimination initiatives; with 2.) the post-1960s economic downturn (in which real incomes have declined for the American working class by as much as 40%) and labor union decimation; and 3.) culturalist politics.  It has meant a naturalization and not an overcoming of the supposed black-working class divide.  The “Left” since the 1960s, especially since the Black Power turn, has played into this supposed divide, with terrible results both for the vast majority of black Americans and for the American working class and Left politics as a whole.

I am going to offer a very provocative formulation of this problem: that what was most specific and peculiar about American anti-black racism historically was also an expression of its greatest emancipatory potential regarding capitalism.  There is a great historical paradox in that the worst, most thorough-going historic racism in modern history, that of the condition of blacks in the Jim Crow-era Southern United States, coincided with the historic height of working class political movement and empowerment.  I wish to raise this paradox as a question: What was the relation between the development of working class organization and politics and the exacerbation of racist divisions in American society?  How was the “racial” division of the American working class an expression of the self-contradictory character of working class politics under capital? — Relatedly, how was it that CIO unionism in the 1930s, which meant challenging segregation through inter-racial organizing, became, by the 1960s, the spectre of labor unions as conservative institutions: as white working class job trusts, excluding black workers?

Rather than taking on this very important question directly, I want to point out that, to my mind, there has been a false resolution of this historic problem in the transformation of American racism since that time, away from its sui generis “race color-caste” character (as in the “one drop rule” etc.) to harmonizing with the more globally typical racism associated with ethno-cultural divisions in society.  In the post-1960s era, specifically, there was a romance of alternative models of racial identity, for instance in Brazil.  But Brazil is a very brutal place for black people, if for different reasons of political history than the U.S. is.  The degree to which the U.S. becomes more like Brazil in its racial dynamics, with a stark distinction between conditions for black middle class and (sub-)working class people, I think that this represents a regressive and not progressive trend.  Let me explain.

The transformation of black Americans from a “race color-caste” into an “ethnic” or “culturally” distinct group, for instance seen in the substitution of “African-American” for “black,” has meant the passing of an opportunity to overcome the specifically racist (and not “cultural”) division of the American working class, in a potential transformation of working class organization and politics in a progressive-emancipatory and anticapitalist direction.  Combating racist divisions was once an issue around which it was possible to organize workers for radical politics.  No longer.  The task of working class political integration was displaced into middle-class integration through the model of ethno-cultural “diversity.”  Whereas race was once a class issue, an issue for the American working class as such, it is now much less so, and hence it has ceased to be the same kind of issue — and challenge — for the Left and American society it once was.  It has become the more direct matter of poverty.

Racism could have been a revolutionary issue, but was depoliticized, at least as an issue for the working class and for an anticapitalist Left.  Now more than ever “race is a class issue” (in Reed’s sense), but it is now so in a way that (as Reed has noticed) can only be addressed effectively in purely class terms, as an issue of the black working class and so-called “underclass.”

There is an irony of the earlier turn-of-the-20th century American socialist Eugene Debs’s declaration that socialism had nothing to offer blacks apart from their interests as workers. This was (mis)taken, especially by the 1960s “New Left,” to be, not merely inadequate, but some evidence of American “Old” Left or working class racism.  But this formulation by Debs turns out to have been the actual historical task — long since failed — of the Left, up to the present.  The problem is: how do we fulfill Debs’s task today?  How do we make “racism” into a “class issue,” as Reed put it, after racism per se seems to have been defused as a political issue in American life? — Perhaps we don’t!

It may seem that the W.E.B. DuBois/NAACP and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. program (of supposed “middle class” integrationism) has been fulfilled, but really it was the Booker T. Washington program of accommodation to an invidious class and “racial” situation which has ultimately succeeded.  The black working class has been effectively “handled” by increasingly effective middle-class black political leadership (primarily in the Democratic but also the Republican Party), while its grievances have been successfully neutralized as a political matter in American social life.  We have not only Obama but, more significantly, a host of black cops and prison wardens (not to mention U.S. military commanders) supervising the degradation of social life.  These are not Uncle Toms or “house Negroes,” according to the old imagination, but rather a new, post-1960s black middle class of managers of American poverty.  This is the deeply conservative-reactionary character of social politics in our time.

For black Americans did not want recognition of their supposed “cultural” differences (think of Obama listening to Jay-Z on his I-Pod while shooting hoops at the White House), but have demanded, more basically, increased life-chances in American society.  They have received one but not the other.  We have gone all the way back to the beginning, in this sense.  This is the way in which Debs’s formulation haunts us today.

It is not the 1960s-era politics of “Black Power” and cultural politics of the ’70s–’80s that comprise our open wound in the present, but rather the deeper post-Reconstruction era failures of American working class politics, which has shadowed historical developments ever since.  It is not the historical figures of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers or Marcus Garvey who stand accusingly over the present, but rather Fredrick Douglass and Paul Robeson — and hence MLK and DuBois, but in the less familiar guise of a labor-Left and not a “racial” politics.  MLK’s “dream” has only apparently been realized; his core demand for “jobs and freedom” (the slogan of the 1963 March on Washington) for all Americans has clearly not.  What was supposedly a “reformist” demand turns out to be the most revolutionary of all. | §

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