Anti-racism – Class = Status Quo: The Neoliberal Argument Against Coalition
I was approached a few months ago around the idea of collaborating to make the progressive case for reparations. I’ve said before that while the idea of reparations is morally appealing I don’t believe in them as an immediate political project. It’s not clear to me that it’s possible to build a coalition around a reparative justice focused on just 13% of the population. Encouraged by a recent Twitter conversation that included economists Sandy Darrity and Darrick Hamilton where they suggested that saying reparations will never happen is cynical I’ve begun trying to think of them as an eventuality and lay out the steps to reach them. Doing this has made clear that our understanding of reparations as a form of compensation to the descendants of the enslaved is not the reparative justice that we think it to be. If we were living with the kind of understanding of justice that made reparations possible we would not be a nation where war, healthcare, education, and criminal justice are seen as profitable markets; it’s also likely that our understanding of reparations would better balance the full legacy of slavery and racism to consider their impacts on Native Americans as well as poor whites without land. We would also recognize that our current limited model for reparations wouldn’t represent a structural change. Looking at our history it should be apparent that even if the cash payout for the descendants of the enslaved happened, as long as it’s possible for anyone to fall into poverty Black people would be disproportionately impoverished again within a generation. If reparations were passed tomorrow I’d expect Blackness to be outlawed the next day.
One thing that would be necessary to make reparations possible would be a shared grasp of the history of slavery and a deeper comprehension of racism, both how it came to exist as well as what it actually is. For the purpose of clarity and accuracy, I’m recognizing racism as systemic and that any true anti-racist policy centers economics. What we typically call anti-racism, focused on individual behaviors and attitudes, is at best anti-bias, at worst, it’s counterproductive to decreasing racism as well as passing policy. This distinction between racism and bias is important for two reasons. It helps to make clear the actual purpose of anti-racist work and it helps make the case that Black people and People of Color are not the only victims of racism, increasing the potential for coalition building for anti-racism, it’s not a Black issue, it’s a working-class issue. Many think of racism as a monolithic structure moving through time, an original sin of whiteness that resulted in slavery, when racism was the result of slavery. This question from Ta-Nehisi Coates in a conversation with historian Barbara Fields represents a common misunderstanding of the origins of racism:
The idea of racism as being deliberately conceived is an imposition of our understanding of racism, a structure developed and redeveloped over centuries on its inception, which is central to a viewpoint that thinks it possible to address racism without addressing class disparities. It is ahistorical and ignores the nature of society prior to Bacon’s Rebellion, as detailed by historian Ian Berlin
So these potential tobacco barons need labor. And they will pretty much take it wherever they can, wherever they can get it. One source of course is the Native American population, and they try to use them as laborers. Another source is the European population and they will use them as laborers, as free labor but also coerced labor, so-called Indentured Servants. Indentured servants are people who are essentially enslaved for a period of years. And they will also call upon Africans as laborers.
What is interesting about what happens in Virginia is that the Virginians, and also other peoples in the Chesapeake region, in Maryland as well, do not establish the system of slavery immediately. The system is rather open. And many of these people who are of African descent who enter Virginia fall into the status of indentured servants.
Some people of African descent escape from these forms of enforced labor, and begin to behave pretty much like everyone else in the Chesapeake– that is, they try to gain access to some land and some labor to work the land, whether it is free or coerced, whether it is indentured or enslaved. And once they do they begin to do pretty well for themselves.
And of course substantial numbers of people of European descent are caught in a system of coerced labor called indentured servitude. And indentured servants, whether they are black or white, are pretty much treated the same way as slaves. Very badly.
Bacon’s Rebellion changes that, and what seems to be crucial in changing that is the consolidation after Bacon’s Rebellion of a planter class. The planters had not been able to control this rowdy labor force of servants, and slaves. But soon after Bacon’s Rebellion they increasingly distinguish between people of African descent and people of European descent. They enact laws which say that people of African descent are hereditary slaves. And they increasingly give some power to white farmers and landholders.
That increased power is not equality. Dirt farmers are not elected to the House of Burgess in Virginia; the planters monopolize those offices. But they do participate in the political system. In other words, we see slavery and freedom being invented in the same moment.
Now what is interesting about this is that we normally say that slavery and freedom are opposite things– that they’re diametrically opposed. But what we see here in Virginia in the late 17th century, around Bacon’s Rebellion, is that freedom and slavery are created at the same moment.
The slave codes created a commonality that had previously not existed between the planter class and the landless Europeans who might have been traded in poker games as indentured servants. The purpose of the slave codes wasn’t to create racism they were to keep rich landowners from being murdered by the unruly masses. Prior to the slave codes distinctions were made between people by religion or country of origin. Poor bonded Europeans had as much autonomy as bonded Africans. It had been possible for bonded Africans to own land and servants themselves. The slave codes weren’t written just to make rules for enslaved Africans, they were created to break the natural coalitions that poor, landless people, with an increasing desire for self-determination, are likely to form against the moneyed interests who preferred the power of determination. Not only were freedom and slavery invented at that moment, whiteness and racism were as well. The writers of the slave codes created whiteness explicitly to differentiate poor Europeans from enslaved Africans to stop any redistribution of the growing wealth in the colonies. In other words, racism was created to provide a deliberate punishment for an alternative to class consciousness. Our current understanding of racism obscures that it is first and foremost expressly anti-class. This is why I say there’s no anti-racism that’s not centered on economic redistribution, the activity racism was created to stop.
I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the way that we describe the effects of racism through economic measures and wondering about the degree to which the use of statistics obscures the reality of poverty. When we talk about the wealth disparity between Black and white people how does that data express the wealth of people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Jeff Bezos in relation to the millions of whites living in poverty? Adolph Reed Jr wrote:
Antiracist activism and scholarship proceed from the view that statistical disparities in the distribution by race of goods and bads in the society in which blacks appear worse off categorically (e.g., less wealth, higher rates of unemployment, greater incidence of hypertensive and cardiovascular disease) amount to evidence that “race” remains fundamentally determinative of black Americans’ lives.
There’s a strain of “anti-racism” that clings to the idea that programs that redistribute wealth towards delivering health care or a living wage universally would be inadequate by leaving racial disparities intact or by not addressing personal bias. The argument is completely disingenuous. For example, the ACA cut the Black uninsured rate by a third, Medicare for All wouldn’t make all Black people wealthy but it would address the racial disparity in ability to utilize healthcare. Whether intentional or not the underlying argument they’re making is for fewer Black people in poverty and more Black billionaires not one where Black poverty is no longer possible. I’d suggest that it’s an argument that rejects justice and requires looking at whiteness as if it’s as much of a monolithic structure as our historical idea of racism. I’d also suggest that it’s an anti-class argument, which makes it an anti-anti-racism position. When I say that the argument requires looking at whiteness as monolithic the pretense is that all whites benefit from racism more or less equally. In this framing white poverty is irrelevant because of racism. In a sense, because opportunities like the Homestead Act and the GI Bill excluded Blacks from those opportunities to grow wealth, we speak as if that means they were universally beneficial to whites. In this framing, unlike Black victims of racism white people experiencing poverty only have themselves to blame, there’s no system negatively impacting them (except there is). Remembering its origins, racism is about deprivation. The actual race of the person deprived is less important than that deprivation. Talking about the statistical distribution of poverty allows us to ignore that these policies always impact more whites. Poverty is disproportionately Black, brown, and red and numerically very white. When we say that 9% of whites, 22% of Blacks, and 20% of Hispanics live in poverty it’s not immediately clear that we’re talking about 8.7 million Blacks, 11.2 million hispanics and 17.5 million whites. This reality is what I’m referring to when I say that even with reparations it would be a generation before poverty was disproportionately Black again. Even the way that we talk about poverty veils the fact that the precariousness is a result of our economic system not anyone’s race:
There’s another important lesson to learn from this data: while lots of Americans experienced a “spell” of poverty during those years, only 3.5 percent of the population was poor for all 36 months. So how we think about poverty is all wrong: it’s a much more common occurrence than people realize, and the chronic, persistent, generational poverty that features so prominently in political rhetoric and media coverage is very much the exception, rather than the rule.
We can step back even further, and look at the likelihood that any American will encounter poverty at any point over the course of their entire adult lives, thanks especially to research done by Mark Rank at Washington University in St. Louis. What his work tells us is that more than 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will be poor for at least a year. Over the same period, more than half will be poor or nearly poor, with income at 150 percent of the poverty line, or about $27,000 annually for a family of three.
How do we talk about this reality in relation to statistical disparities? Does it suggest that addressing the statistical disparities might be less important than addressing poverty overall?
The reason that all of this matters right now is because there are a number of people who say that they’re both interested in addressing poverty as well as racism who are focused on discrete actions that address neither. These people either don’t understand the task at hand or are not actually interested in it. Considering the class positions and platforms of the people who say not calling white people racist is the same as coddling racists, I’m going to submit that they’re not interested in the task at hand, perceiving that the economic redistribution that anti-racism represents will impact them negatively. While this discussion grew out of critiques of Bernie Sanders’ comments on the Governors’ races in Florida and Georgia it has metastasized somewhat. Sanders made a point to call the campaign of DeSantis racist while avoiding calling voters racist on the basis of their vote. His framing that some might have given into their affinity/implicit bias because they were uncomfortable with voting for a Black man has been taken as a factual explanation for the vote absent any actual polling of voters. People want him to call those voters racist and are accusing him of coddling racists for not doing it. The reason the conversation has moved away from Bernie is that the premise is laughable as long as it remains connected to anything as concrete as the FL election. Is it accurate to call voters racist for not supporting Gillum while re-enfranchising disproportionately Black felons when we haven’t asked why they voted? Keeping the conversation focused on discrete actions avoids any discussion of purpose. Sure, calling white people racist might provide some satisfaction of moral superiority, but what’s the larger goal?
Here, I want to be completely clear about my own goals. I’m interested in continuing to grow a multiracial class-based coalition focused on redistributing wealth to make our nation exponentially more egalitarian and humanitarian than the force for the destruction it is now. I’m letting history, theory, and practice be my guide. Recognizing that racism is a class issue that disproportionately impacts Black people it’s easy to see that white people working in multiracial class coalitions were anti-racist not because they were centering Black problems, but because they were centering their own. Many of the people arguing that not calling white people racist is coddling racists deny this history. The irony is that they’re erasing and dismissing examples of anti-racist whites while saying that whites interested in universal policies now are insufficiently anti-racist. They are wrong. If your interest is in policing attitudes, making sure no one ever says anything that reflects the perspective of someone raised in a society grown from the wealth derived from the unreconciled genocide of Indigenous and African people that’s fine, I guess. I’d say the payout for that huge effort was insufficient. If my depiction of this form of “anti-racism” seems ungenerous it’s because I can see no other purpose for what essentially amounts to shaming. I welcome anyone to try to convince me otherwise. Seriously. I can’t get people to answer basic questions on Twitter. It has me saying things that feel big, bold, and potentially wrong. I want the dialogue. Instead, I find myself sitting in Twitter silence with the statements realizing that they’re not that big or bold, just true. For example:
- “anti-racism” without class is at most anti-bias
- you can’t affect racism by focusing on individual bias
- you can’t address racism without addressing class
- no successful movement against racism has ever started by addressing personal bias
- the movement from civil rights as economic rights has contributed to the rise of authoritarianism and growing wealth disparity