From the Cold War to Clinton: How Liberals and Conservatives Have Separated Race From Class

It’s up to the Left to revive the interracial working-class movement of the post-War era.

Rachel Johnson February 6, 2017

The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom combined demands for economic and racial justice. (United States Information Agency / Wikimedia Commons)

In the flur­ry of post-elec­tion takes on the future of the pro­gres­sive move­ment, one con­cern has emerged most con­tentious of all: Should the Left focus pri­mar­i­ly on class, or race? Would a shift to eco­nom­ic pop­ulism reverse — or at least stall — the gains made by women, peo­ple of col­or, and oth­er mar­gin­al­ized groups?

Following the war, Northern Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats set about reversing labor’s World War II gains and blocking the expansion of the New Deal to African Americans.

While this debate first gath­ered steam dur­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry, it erupt­ed once more post-elec­tion when, 12 days after Trump’s vic­to­ry, Bernie Sanders called for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to tran­scend iden­ti­ty lib­er­al­ism by unit­ing around work­ing class issues.

Com­men­ta­tors imme­di­ate­ly start­ed sound­ing the alarm over this poten­tial back­lash against iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics. Guardian colum­nist Jes­si­ca Valen­ti tweet­ed that she looked for­ward” to the next four years of lefty men throw­ing women’s rights under the bus in the name of the big pic­ture.’ ” Activist Bree New­some, known for scal­ing a 30-foot pole to take down the Con­fed­er­ate flag in South Car­oli­na fol­low­ing the Charleston shoot­ing, offered an appar­ent cri­tique of Sanders’ posi­tion. Fram­ing iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics’ as an idea that takes focus away from work­ing peo­ple,’ ” New­some tweet­ed, is basi­cal­ly say­ing let’s ignore racism & sexism.”

It is true that white work­ing class pol­i­tics are often haunt­ed by racism, misog­y­ny or reac­tion. We have plen­ty of evi­dence that uni­ver­sal” social wel­fare can actu­al­ly mean white wel­fare. After all, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal— the largest expan­sion of the wel­fare state in U.S. his­to­ry— exclud­ed agri­cul­tur­al and domes­tic, and by exten­sion black and brown, work­ers. Fed­er­al hous­ing assis­tance, which ensured that home­own­er­ship became the bedrock of upward mobil­i­ty for the mid­dle class, exclud­ed black and brown peo­ple through offi­cial­ly sanc­tioned redlin­ing and oth­er forms of hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion. (This is an incon­ve­nient truth for those who are nos­tal­gic for a pre-iden­ti­ty lib­er­al­ism” in which Democ­rats ral­lied around the com­mon good.”) Racism is not always a symp­tom of some broad­er eco­nom­ic prob­lem. Some­times it’s the disease.

It is con­cern­ing, how­ev­er, when the media and oth­er promi­nent lib­er­al voic­es por­tray racism as the nat­ur­al out­come of a more inclu­sive class pol­i­tics. Vox recent­ly raised the omi­nous pos­si­bil­i­ty that Democ­rats may aban­don peo­ple of col­or to pan­der to the white work­ing class— but hasn’t the aban­don­ment already occurred? Might the last forty years of neolib­er­al­ism, with its shut­tered schools, dis­ap­peared jobs and over­crowd­ed pris­ons, offer suf­fi­cient evi­dence of neglect? One wor­ries that the lib­er­al tide against eco­nom­ic pop­ulism will pro­vide con­ve­nient shel­ter for the sur­vival of the sta­tus quo.

The present moment — which forces us to stare into the abyss and pon­der seri­ous­ly, for the first time, the death of neolib­er­al­ism — has much to learn from the past. Today is far from the first time left­ists have con­front­ed the chal­lenge of mean­ing­ful­ly link­ing race and class, nor is it the first time the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment has tried to stop them.

In fact, fights for racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice have his­tor­i­cal­ly been inter­twined, and black left­ists have led the charge. This his­to­ry shows that a sep­a­ra­tion between race and class is by no means inevitable: It took a con­cert­ed ide­o­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal effort by the Right and cen­ter to stop the rise of a pow­er­ful, inter­ra­cial work­ing-class move­ment. And that effort can be undone.

Black Liberation/​Red Scare

While the tan­gled rela­tion­ship between race and cap­i­tal­ism can seem time­less, the post-World War II moment was a turn­ing point. In an age of rapid decol­o­niza­tion, with black and brown peo­ple ris­ing up in work­er-led move­ments across the globe, Cold War lib­er­al­ism sought to repair the tar­nished image of the Unit­ed States as the land of oppor­tu­ni­ty.” Wide­spread racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and state ter­ror under Jim Crow became a mat­ter of geopo­lit­i­cal strat­e­gy — how could the U.S. fight a war against Com­mu­nism under the pre­text of pre­serv­ing lib­er­ty” if many of its cit­i­zens were not free? Pres­i­dent Har­ry Truman’s Com­mit­tee on Civ­il Rights issued a report in 1947 paint­ing civ­il rights leg­is­la­tion as a mat­ter of nation­al secu­ri­ty. The Unit­ed States is not so strong,” it said, that we can ignore what the world thinks of our record.”

While the Cold War era opened up a win­dow for civ­il rights to become a pri­or­i­ty, a grass­roots civ­il rights move­ment was already in full swing, com­posed of black and white rad­i­cals, labor unions, New Deal pro­gres­sives and civ­il rights activists. As the movement’s van­guard, black and Left-led unions, includ­ing the Broth­er­hood of the Sleep­ing Car Porters, the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal Work­ers and the Nation­al Mar­itime Union, fought to end racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in employ­ment and solid­i­fy jobs for black work­ers gained dur­ing the war.

In a sig­nif­i­cant vic­to­ry, A. Philip Ran­dolph and the Broth­er­hood of Sleep­ing Car Porters pres­sured Pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt to estab­lish a Fair Employ­ment Prac­tices Com­mit­tee (FEPC) charged with inves­ti­gat­ing employ­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion in the defense indus­try. Black labor activists such as Ran­dolph sought to make the labor move­ment a lead­ing force in the fight for civ­il rights — and for good rea­son. Bol­stered by the boom­ing post­war econ­o­my and Roosevelt’s labor-friend­ly poli­cies, this era saw a surge of black par­tic­i­pa­tion in unions. By World War II’s end, over half a mil­lion black work­ers were mem­bers of unions affil­i­at­ed with the Con­gress of Indus­tri­al Orga­ni­za­tions (CIO).

Ulti­mate­ly, while Truman’s pres­i­den­cy ush­ered in some land­mark achieve­ments, includ­ing the deseg­re­ga­tion of the armed forces, the Cold War severe­ly dam­aged the alliance between labor and civ­il rights. Fol­low­ing the war, North­ern Repub­li­cans and con­ser­v­a­tive South­ern Democ­rats set about revers­ing labor’s World War II gains and block­ing the expan­sion of the New Deal to African Amer­i­cans. As his­to­ri­an Jacque­lyn Dowd Hall points out, they did so, in part, by wield­ing the Cold War’s most pow­er­ful weapon: anti-communism.

The Taft-Hart­ley Act (1947) dealt the most dam­ag­ing blow to the black-left-labor coali­tion. The law allowed states to pass right-to-work” laws pro­hibit­ing unions from requir­ing all work­ers, not just mem­bers, to pay union dues. As a direct result of Taft-Hart­ley, the CIO aban­doned its efforts to orga­nize tex­tile work­ers in South, nar­row­ing its focus to secur­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing for its exist­ing mem­bers, most­ly white work­ing-class men in heavy man­u­fac­tur­ing indus­tries. Taft Hart­ley also required unions to purge all Com­mu­nist mem­bers. In response to the act and to anti-Com­mu­nism with­in its own lead­er­ship, the CIO expelled its left-wing unions, includ­ing the Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore and Ware­house Union, Inter­na­tion­al Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Work­ers, Farm Equip­ment Union, Food and Tobac­co Work­ers, and the Inter­na­tion­al Fur and Leather Work­ers Union.

The FEPC cam­paign was also a tar­get of the red scare. Implic­it­ly com­par­ing the FEPC to the Sovi­et Union, for­mer New Deal­er turned con­ser­v­a­tive Don­ald Rich­berg likened the anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion law to a nation­al police state,” and the main plank in the com­mu­nist plat­form.” Strom Thur­mond would repeat these sen­ti­ments in his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign for the Dix­iecrats, one of many seg­re­ga­tion­ists to invoke the specter of anti-Com­mu­nism to derail ear­ly civ­il rights efforts.

In a 1955 speech enti­tled The Truth about the NAACP,” Geor­gia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Eugene Cook warned that the orga­ni­za­tion was a Com­mu­nist-inspired” front, that dup[ed] naïve do-good­ers, fuzzy-mind­ed intel­lec­tu­als, and mis­guid­ed cler­gy­men.” The rhetoric proved to be a pow­er­ful tool of mar­gin­al­iza­tion. In response to attacks by Cook and oth­er seg­re­ga­tion­ists, the NAACP became a vocal sup­port­er of anti-com­mu­nism, ini­ti­at­ing a nation­al cam­paign to root out all Com­mu­nists from its ranks. As for­mer NAACP exec­u­tive sec­re­tary Roy Wilkins lat­er observed of these years: God knows, it was hard enough being black, we cer­tain­ly didn’t need to be red too.”

The fault lines emerg­ing from the Cold War extend­ed far beyond the NAACP, how­ev­er. One last­ing effect of demo­niz­ing promi­nent Left­ists of col­or (such as Paul Robe­son and W.E.B. Du Bois) and dis­man­tling the CIO’s black and Left-led unions was that it quar­an­tined the bur­geon­ing Civ­il Rights move­ment from the resources and insti­tu­tions of the old Left. The result: a weak­ened Civ­il Rights move­ment that could only achieve a tiny frac­tion of the Black rad­i­cal vision for social change. Pop­u­lar mem­o­ry of the Civ­il Rights move­ment has excised its most rad­i­cal parts — san­i­tiz­ing Mar­tin Luther King Jr.’s demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism for instance, and pit­ting him as the non­vi­o­lent antithe­sis of Mal­colm X’s mil­i­tan­cy. Nev­er­the­less, while influ­en­tial civ­il rights activists like King, Ella Bak­er and Bayard Rustin con­tin­ued to wage pow­er­ful cri­tiques link­ing race and class, they did so in an envi­ron­ment hos­tile to orga­nized labor and rad­i­cal­ism. While the movement’s most sig­nif­i­cant vic­to­ries—Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion and the civ­il rights leg­is­la­tion of 1964 and 65 — were undoubt­ed­ly trans­for­ma­tive, many of its more rad­i­cal eco­nom­ic demands remained unmet.

Divide and Conquer

In spite of the dev­as­tat­ing blow deliv­ered by McCarthy­ism, by the late 1960s and ear­ly 1970s the work­ing class was enjoy­ing a sud­den upsurge in protest. In Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Work­ing Class, his­to­ri­an Jef­fer­son Cowie notes that insur­gent labor orga­ni­za­tions like the Coali­tion of Labor Union Women, 9 to 5, the Unit­ed Farm Work­ers, the Coali­tion of Black Trade Union­ists and the League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Work­ers chal­lenged the union estab­lish­ment around issues of race, gen­der and bureau­cra­cy. Equal­ly impor­tant was the promise these orga­ni­za­tions held for inter­ra­cial sol­i­dar­i­ty. The hopes for a new coali­tion were echoed by some politi­cians, notably Bob­by Kennedy, who argued that the sur­vival of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty rest­ed on pre­serv­ing its firm com­mit­ment to eco­nom­ic jus­tice. In 1968, fol­low­ing his vic­to­ry in the Indi­ana pri­ma­ry, Kennedy told reporters that the win sig­ni­fied his chance to orga­nize a new coali­tion of Negroes, and work­ing-class white peo­ple” against the par­ty establishment.”

The back­lash to this moment is more famil­iar. Through­out this late 1960s/​early 1970s upsurge in inter­ra­cial labor orga­niz­ing, Richard Nixon and the GOP launched a coor­di­nat­ed effort to wrest white work­ing-class men from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. By appeal­ing to this con­stituen­cy on issues such as bus­ing, wel­fare abuse, and a per­cep­tion of finite resources and lost priv­i­lege, Nixon’s New Major­i­ty” sound­ed the death knell for the Roo­sevelt Coalition. 

In her book From #Black­Lives­Mat­ter to Black Lib­er­a­tion, Keean­ga-Yamat­ta Tay­lor points out that the pow­er of inter­ra­cial orga­niz­ing and work­er sol­i­dar­i­ty dur­ing this peri­od helps explain why Nixon piv­ot­ed to a strat­e­gy of col­or­blind rhetoric with racial­ly cod­ed appeals. On one hand, the rel­a­tive strength of the Black lib­er­a­tion move­ment had made out­right racism unten­able. On the oth­er, Nixon could not wage a direct attack on the John­son wel­fare state because poor and work­ing-class whites were col­lec­tive­ly ben­e­fit­ting from the War On Poverty. 

So began a con­cert­ed effort by Nixon, and lat­er Ronald Rea­gan and Bill Clin­ton, to divide the black and white work­ing class, the groups with the most vest­ed inter­est in social wel­fare pro­grams. Using sub­tly race-infused lan­guage, Nixon shored up an army of white work­ing class vot­ers that railed against the per­ceived excess­es of Amer­i­can lib­er­al­ism by the unde­serv­ing” (i.e., black) poor. In the 1990s, Clin­ton used the same rhetoric to jus­ti­fy pas­sage of his wel­fare reform bill, which slashed ben­e­fits and crim­i­nal­ized the poor, tak­ing aim specif­i­cal­ly at poor peo­ple of color.

A False Choice to Nowhere

And this brings us to our present moment. While in years past the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty has pur­sued a pol­i­cy of racial­iz­ing social wel­fare to avoid imple­ment­ing mean­ing­ful eco­nom­ic reform, this elec­tion seemed to offer some­thing new: Many lib­er­als framed eco­nom­ic wel­fare poli­cies as at best lim­it­ed in their pow­er to address racial inequal­i­ty, and at worst an instru­ment of racism. This nar­ra­tive divides eco­nom­ic issues from con­cerns of race and gen­der, por­tray­ing our present-day pol­i­tics as a zero-sum strug­gle between white, male bro­cial­ists” on one side, and women, LGBTQ peo­ple and peo­ple of col­or on the other.

This rhetoric was evi­dent through­out the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. In the weeks lead­ing up to the South Car­oli­na pri­ma­ry, Clin­ton ally Rep. Jim Clyburn offered a baf­fling cri­tique of Sanders’ free col­lege plan as a threat to his­tor­i­cal­ly black col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties (HBCUs). Nev­er mind that the vast major­i­ty of HBCU stu­dents attend pub­lic insti­tu­tions that would be cov­ered by Sanders’ plan, not the pri­vate and church col­leges” of which Clyburn is so protective

Hillary Clin­ton was her­self a will­ing play­er in this game. In a cam­paign speech, Clin­ton ral­lied the crowd by ask­ing, Not every­thing is about an eco­nom­ic the­o­ry, right? … If we broke up the big banks tomor­row — and I will if they deserve it, if they pose a sys­temic risk, I will — would that end racism? Would that make peo­ple feel more wel­com­ing to immi­grants overnight?”

From the lips of a Demo­c­ra­t­ic politi­cian who has played a cen­tral role in cement­ing and con­sol­i­dat­ing the neolib­er­al con­sen­sus, we should view such rhetoric with a high degree of cyn­i­cism. The notion that racism oper­ates pri­mar­i­ly out­side of the realm of eco­nom­ic struc­tures will­ful­ly ignores the cru­el real­i­ty that mil­lions of work­ing peo­ple of col­or face, while also rel­e­gat­ing eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal issues to the realm of per­son­al choice and cul­tur­al val­ues. By this def­i­n­i­tion, racism is pri­mar­i­ly a prob­lem of social atti­tudes. Clin­ton is fol­low­ing the exam­ple of Pres­i­dent Dwight D. Eisen­how­er, who defend­ed his grad­u­al­ist approach to civ­il rights by remark­ing, You can­not change people’s hearts mere­ly by laws.” This is not only reduc­tive, it’s dan­ger­ous: It dis­miss­es racism as a fun­da­men­tal­ly intractable prob­lem of the heart,” not the state.

In response to Clinton’s rhetor­i­cal ques­tion about the big banks: Seri­ous finan­cial reform and a clamp-down on cor­po­rate greed would most cer­tain­ly sig­nal an impor­tant step in the fight against racism. For con­fir­ma­tion, one need only con­sid­er the col­lapse of the U.S. hous­ing mar­ket, or the preda­to­ry loans tar­get­ing African-Amer­i­can and Lati­no bor­row­ers, or the dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of fees banks force on African Amer­i­cans — what then-Depart­ment of Jus­tice offi­cial Thomas Perez referred to as a racial surtax.”

Of course, reg­u­la­tion of the bank­ing indus­try will not, by itself, fix the eco­nom­ic dev­as­ta­tion fac­ing poor and work­ing-class peo­ple of col­or. For exam­ple, home­own­er­ship and unequal access to wealth accu­mu­la­tion have also played crit­i­cal roles in cre­at­ing and sus­tain­ing racial dis­par­i­ties in the U.S. for gen­er­a­tions. The Left needs to learn from the Move­ment for Black Lives, as well as the long black rad­i­cal tra­di­tion, and mobi­lize against the root forms of racial and eco­nom­ic injus­tice — in finance, hous­ing, jobs, pub­lic edu­ca­tion, health­care and the crim­i­nal jus­tice system.

There is an alter­na­tive — one that dis­avows a false choice between so-called iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics” and col­or-blind social wel­fare poli­cies. Such a path would com­bine broad-based eco­nom­ic reform with a gen­uine, rather than pan­der­ing, com­mit­ment to racial jus­tice. It would draw the crit­i­cal con­nec­tions between race and cap­i­tal­ism, address­ing for exam­ple, the plun­der of black Amer­i­cans at the heart of our munic­i­pal court sys­tem, or the sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship between over­fund­ing police depart­ments and pri­va­tiz­ing pub­lic education.

If we lis­ten to Clin­ton and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty estab­lish­ment, this path is too ide­al­is­tic to pur­sue with a cryp­to-fas­cist in the White House. Undoubt­ed­ly, we’re liv­ing in an age when even the most basic civ­il lib­er­ties are under assault. But steel­ing our­selves against the imme­di­ate onslaught should not mean hew­ing to the cen­ter — if the Left wants to cede no fur­ther ground to fas­cism, a pol­i­cy of defen­sive mod­er­a­tion will not be enough.

The prob­lem of racial inequity will nev­er be con­front­ed if it remains con­fined to the ter­rain of cul­ture and indi­vid­ual iden­ti­ty, and detached from its eco­nom­ic roots. Key to the strug­gle will be wrest­ing con­trol of the nar­ra­tive from polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic elites, who will go to great lengths to pre­serve the sta­tus quo. The new move­ment must under­stand efforts to frac­ture inter­ra­cial class sol­i­dar­i­ty his­tor­i­cal­ly, as part of a long-stand­ing tra­di­tion of both the right and center-left.

Above all, the Left must not aban­don its com­mit­ment to chal­leng­ing the know­able dev­il, our eco­nom­ic order, which has giv­en us forty years of racial dev­as­ta­tion and promis­es more of the same.

Rachel John­son is a writer based in Chica­go. She holds a mas­ter’s degree in U.S. his­to­ry from North­west­ern University.
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