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Challenging Capitalism Can’t Be The Only Focus of the Class Struggle

Bob Herbert’s Against All Odds considers the elusiveness of racial progress when capitalism is looked at in a vacuum.

Ryan Bell

The documentary recounts the history of Harvey Clark, a 29-year-old bus driver and World War II veteran, and his wife, Johnetta, 26. They attempted to rent an apartment in Cicero, IL, and were forced out by police. In the rioting that followed, their home was burned, 70 persons were arrested and a score or more were injured. National guardsmen control the unruly with tear gas and bared bayonets. (Getty)

No col­lec­tion of sta­tis­tics can ful­ly con­vey what Bob Her­bert describes as the per­sis­tent, depraved, often mur­der­ous racial prej­u­dice and dis­crim­i­na­tion” endured by gen­er­a­tions of black Amer­i­cans. Yet they do tell a sto­ry. For every dol­lar of wealth pos­sessed by the aver­age white fam­i­ly, the aver­age black fam­i­ly has bare­ly over a nick­el. A third of black fam­i­lies have zero assets. Forty per­cent of black chil­dren live in pover­ty. A cen­tu­ry and a half after the Civ­il War, African-Amer­i­can cit­i­zens con­tin­ue to strug­gle for both equi­ty and equal­i­ty. In his new doc­u­men­tary, Against All Odds: The Fight for a Black Mid­dle Class, the for­mer New York Times colum­nist embarks on an emo­tion­al jour­ney to find out why racial progress in Amer­i­ca remains so elusive.

From the repackaging of slavery into sharecropping to the disproportionate impact of the Great Recession on African American neighborhoods, the film portrays a resilient community that is united in survival and unyielding before persistent injustice.

At a recent Chica­go Ideas Week screen­ing, the film itself was intro­duced with a ques­tion: Have black Amer­i­cans been giv­en a fair shot at the Amer­i­can Dream? The painful­ly obvi­ous answer, of course, is no.” But even as we bear wit­ness to the rig­ging, we are remind­ed that knowl­edge of this fact does not equate to an under­stand­ing of its causes.

In a cap­ti­vat­ing col­lage of archival footage and per­son­al reflec­tion, Against All Odds reminds us that his­to­ry is not an enti­ty in and of itself, but rather a col­lec­tion of events that cul­mi­nate in our present con­di­tion. From the repack­ag­ing of slav­ery into share­crop­ping to the dis­pro­por­tion­ate impact of the Great Reces­sion on African Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hoods, the film por­trays a resilient com­mu­ni­ty that is unit­ed in sur­vival and unyield­ing before per­sis­tent injustice.

Her­bert cor­re­lates the Amer­i­can Dream with eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty and social sta­bil­i­ty, both of which are root­ed in a dual foun­da­tion of good jobs and afford­able, pri­vate hous­ing. Tak­en togeth­er, these are the means that enable fam­i­lies to not only build wealth, but to estab­lish a vehi­cle for its trans­fer across gen­er­a­tions. The Unit­ed States,” he asserts, views a strong mid­dle class not just as an ide­al, but as its proud­est cre­ation.” The sub­text, of course, is the myth of the dream itself: that a life of suf­fi­cient com­fort is avail­able to any­one, regard­less of birth, so long as they are will­ing to pull them­selves up by the bootstraps.

But boot­strap­ping has nev­er been enough for black Amer­i­ca. Even when the Great Migra­tion brought 6 mil­lion African-Amer­i­cans out of the South, sys­temic racism and coor­di­nat­ed oppres­sion fol­lowed. Says Her­bert, The quest for a black mid­dle class, severe­ly ham­pered by the lack of decent employ­ment, was made all the more hor­ren­dous by the vicious and often vio­lent refusal of whites to allow blacks into decent housing.”

In cities like Chica­go, the own­er­ship class seized upon the lack of avail­able hous­ing as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for extor­tion. This forced African-Amer­i­can fam­i­lies to pay more [rent] per square foot than almost any­one else in the city — not because of the high qual­i­ty of the hous­ing, but because the demand was so great that the land­lords could charge them more for less.”

Though the GI Bill of 1944 pro­vid­ed a range of osten­si­ble ben­e­fits for vet­er­ans of the sec­ond World War, they were far from avail­able to all. Low-cost mort­gages were a key pro­vi­sion of the law, designed to pro­mote what Her­bert calls the sec­ond pil­lar” of mid­dle-class life: pri­vate home own­er­ship. But in this pur­suit black Amer­i­cans encoun­tered even more resis­tance. While white fam­i­lies were empow­ered to buy homes and build wealth, weav­ing safe­ty nets of cap­i­tal that endowed sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions with inher­it­ed secu­ri­ty, black fam­i­lies were vic­tim­ized by cam­paigns of legal­ized theft, seg­re­ga­tion and out­right violence.

With cir­cu­lar log­ic, African-Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hoods were deemed too risky” to lend in, there­by pre­vent­ing black fam­i­lies from acquir­ing afford­able hous­ing and the sta­bil­i­ty that comes with it. Before the Fair Hous­ing Act of 1968, the FHA itself pro­hib­it­ed occu­pan­cy of prop­er­ties except by the race for which they [were] intend­ed.” This prece­dent, emblem­at­ic of the way racism was enshrined in pub­lic pol­i­cy, gave banks the free­dom to deny financ­ing on racial grounds, leav­ing prospec­tive home own­ers few options. For many, the only alter­na­tive was buy­ing on con­tract, a noto­ri­ous prac­tice that gen­er­at­ed immense prof­its for spec­u­la­tors — and crip­pled fam­i­lies in the process.

Bill Mat­ney, who came to Chica­go in 1963 as NBC’s first black reporter, explained the con­tract buy­ing process in an archival news­reel: Under the con­tract, the buy­er makes install­ment pay­ments at high inter­est, but he builds no equi­ty. If he defaults on even one pay­ment, at any time dur­ing the con­tract, he los­es the prop­er­ty and every­thing he’s paid into it.”

Thus, redlin­ing, preda­to­ry lend­ing prac­tices and mob vio­lence — like the race riots that marked Mar­tin Luther King’s 1966 vis­it to Chicago’s Mar­quette Park neigh­bor­hood — did more than con­fine black peo­ple to seg­re­gat­ed neigh­bor­hoods: These sys­tems siphoned wealth away from black work­ers and their fam­i­lies, effec­tive­ly turn­ing African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties into domes­tic colonies. You had offi­cial­dom and cus­tom work­ing hand in hand,” says Nation­al Urban League Pres­i­dent Marc Mor­i­al. It was tru­ly an Amer­i­can sys­tem of apartheid.”

Racial prej­u­dice and exploita­tive eco­nom­ics have long fueled a pol­i­tics of divi­sion that pro­tects exist­ing pow­er struc­tures. Repub­li­can strate­gist Lee Atwa­ter made that clear in 1981 when he said:

You start out in 1954 by say­ing, nig­ger, nig­ger, nig­ger.” By 1968 you can’t say nig­ger” — that hurts you, back­fires. So you say stuff like, forced bus­ing,” states’ rights,” and all that stuff, and you’re get­ting so abstract. Now, you’re talk­ing about cut­ting tax­es, and all these things you’re talk­ing about are total­ly eco­nom­ic things and a byprod­uct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.

In this infa­mous descrip­tion of the South­ern Strat­e­gy, Atwa­ter con­firmed what black Amer­i­cans had known for years — that eco­nom­ic poli­cies insti­tu­tion­al­ized their col­lec­tive mar­gin­al­iza­tion. Her­bert him­self addressed Atwater’s con­fes­sion in 2005 col­umn, relat­ing it then to Repub­li­can radio host (and for­mer Rea­gan cab­i­net mem­ber) Bill Bennett’s geno­ci­dal remark that abort­ing every black baby” would help reduce the crime rate. Her­bert deemed the GOP to be end­less­ly insult­ing to black peo­ple and over­whelm­ing­ly hos­tile to their inter­ests.” Yet some­how he con­clud­ed with opti­mism: The U.S. is less prej­u­diced than it was 20 or 30 or 40 years ago … Bennett’s twist­ed fan­tasies are a malig­nant out­growth of our polar­ized past. Our job is to keep them from spread­ing into the future.”

Look­ing around, I won­der. While Her­bert is right to cel­e­brate the hope and per­sis­tence that under­write black America’s sur­vival, we must reject any attempt to equate sur­vival with a jus­tice that is long over­due. Are we real­ly less prej­u­diced as a nation? Or has big­otry just large­ly been sub­sumed by cryp­tic pol­i­cy and abstrac­tion? Indeed, more than 50 years after Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. fought the hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion described in Matney’s news­reel, preda­to­ry lenders have revived con­tract buy­ing on Chicago’s West Side.

Bar­bara J. Fields, an Amer­i­can his­to­ry pro­fes­sor at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and author of Slav­ery, Race and Ide­ol­o­gy in the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca, has described the social con­struc­tion of race as akin to that of witch­craft — an ide­ol­o­gy that both derives mean­ing from and ascribes mean­ing to lived expe­ri­ence, yet lacks a ratio­nal basis. In this view, one prob­lem with our nation­al con­ver­sa­tion about racism is that it relies on an assump­tion of a pri­ori racial cat­e­go­riza­tion that sim­ply doesn’t exist. If we tru­ly seek to end racism, we must dis­man­tle the struc­ture of race itself.

Doing so means we must rec­og­nize that the con­cept of race is inex­tri­ca­bly bound to social real­i­ty. There­fore, any attempt to unpack racial ide­ol­o­gy by iso­lat­ing it from gen­er­al prin­ci­ples of social orga­ni­za­tion will be insuf­fi­cient by def­i­n­i­tion. Nowhere is this clear­er than in the way prof­it-dri­ven insti­tu­tions have exploit­ed African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties, only to turn around and use that very exploita­tion as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for dis­in­vest­ment and fur­ther mar­gin­al­iza­tion. An hon­est, struc­tur­al analy­sis of racism in Amer­i­ca is sim­ply impos­si­ble with­out under­stand­ing its cap­i­tal­ist dynamics.

In the Q & A fol­low­ing the screen­ing, Her­bert focused heav­i­ly on this dis­tinc­tion between race and class, dis­miss­ing cri­tiques of the eco­nom­ic sys­tem as some­how inde­pen­dent of the top­ic at hand. But to con­fine our vision of racial jus­tice to the exist­ing pre­sets of cap­i­tal­ism — espe­cial­ly when the very met­ric for that jus­tice is eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty and mid­dle class sta­tus — is crip­pling at best. We sim­ply can­not hope to build a new world if we resign our­selves to the blue­prints of old.

So it is not with­out irony that we are told in the film’s final moments that racial prej­u­dice needs to be fought against relent­less­ly” because it has­n’t been fought against near­ly hard enough” — prob­lem­at­i­cal­ly imply­ing that vic­to­ry in the bat­tle against oppres­sion will be deter­mined by will alone. Such a por­tray­al can­not help but con­jure the ghost of Sisy­phus, wrestling per­pet­u­al­ly against the immense grav­i­ty of our nation’s racist lega­cy: If we only pushed hard­er, he seems to sug­gest, we could roll away the boul­der of racial injus­tice once and for all.

But this con­cep­tion again belies the fun­da­men­tal nature of sys­tems. After all, it is not just the stone against which Sisy­phus must strug­gle, but also the rela­tion it bears to the moun­tain slope. Like­wise, lift­ing the curse of sys­temic racism will ulti­mate­ly require tak­ing dyna­mite to the moun­tain itself.

With pride and humil­i­ty, Against All Odds paints a por­trait of black America’s resilience — a strength Her­bert cel­e­brates with tan­gi­ble emo­tion. His con­clu­sion is a hope­ful asser­tion that the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty will con­tin­ue to over­come the struc­tur­al injus­tice that sur­rounds it. Yet, for all its opti­mism, the film ulti­mate­ly fails to embrace the rev­o­lu­tion­ary vision required to dis­man­tle our col­lec­tive mis­con­cep­tions about class and race, there­by risk­ing com­plic­i­ty in their maintenance.

Her­bert was absolute­ly right to call racism a malig­nant out­growth of our polar­ized past,” but if we are to suc­ceed in its erad­i­ca­tion, we must also rec­og­nize it is equal­ly fed by the struc­tures of our present.

InThe​se​Times​.com read­ers who would like to watch Against All Odds should click here.

Ryan Bell is a rad­i­cal activist, philoso­pher and In These Times Fall 2017 edi­to­r­i­al intern. He lives and works in Chicago.
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