It’s Not Just Class: The Fight for Racial Justice Is Inseparable from Overcoming Capitalism

David Roediger August 2, 2017

The Chicago Teachers Union has rooted their struggle in anti-white supremacy. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On the sur­face, it would seem easy to think about race and class togeth­er. Not too long ago, I would have regard­ed a chal­leng­ing for­mu­la­tion in C.L.R. James’s clas­sic book The Black Jacobins as giv­ing an ele­gant, if a lit­tle vague, solu­tion to the ques­tion of how we do so: the race ques­tion is sub­sidiary to the class ques­tion in pol­i­tics,” James wrote, and to think of impe­ri­al­ism in terms of race is dis­as­trous.” But, he imme­di­ate­ly added, to neglect the racial fac­tor as mere­ly inci­den­tal is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.”

The quote still res­onates pow­er­ful­ly, but I now think of it as being more a state­ment illus­trat­ing how deeply our prob­lems run than as a solu­tion to them. James sees the two cat­e­gories as dis­tinct, sep­a­ra­ble, and need­ing to be ranked, in ways I no longer do. Nev­er­the­less, his van­tage pro­vides a good basis for mutu­al­i­ty and com­mon work among those with dif­fer­ing inflections.

As move­ments ebb and flow, exist­ing strug­gles make one ter­rain seem more attrac­tive at one moment, less at oth­ers. It ought, then, to be pos­si­ble to dif­fer about the spe­cif­ic emphases on race and class across time and place while not vil­i­fy­ing each other.

For a very long time it has been dif­fi­cult to talk mean­ing­ful­ly about the ebb and flow of either strug­gles against class oppres­sion or of those con­test­ing racial injus­tice. For near­ly half a cen­tu­ry in the Unit­ed States, we have over­whelm­ing­ly expe­ri­enced ebbs and await­ed flows.

Near­ly fifty years ago, when I first encoun­tered the words quot­ed from C.L.R. James, U.S. labor strikes of over 1,000 work­ers aver­aged 300 per year, some­times reach­ing well over 400. In 2009, five such strikes occurred; in 2014 eleven; in 2015 twelve. Today when the words strike” and U.S.” are paired we tend to think of mil­i­tary drones.

Union den­si­ty, the tra­di­tion­al mea­sure of labor’s decline, has also tak­en a hit, with a third of work­ers orga­nized in the mid 1960s and a tenth — far less than that in the pri­vate sec­tor — in 2015. I still wear a fad­ed old T‑shirt oppos­ing a gen­er­a­tion of give­backs” in union con­tracts, but the unions that do still exist are now in the third gen­er­a­tion of defen­sive struggles.

That same peri­od wit­nessed the end to the great advances of the Black free­dom move­ment and a turn toward strug­gles to keep 1960s mea­sures in force. Since the 1980s, racial jus­tice activists have played defense by attempt­ing to slow the timetable of the dis­man­tling of affir­ma­tive action and by pre­serv­ing vot­ing rights.

When I wrote the intro­duc­tion to How Race Sur­vived US His­to­ry just a decade ago, I did so with a post-it note near my com­put­er with 7x” twice writ­ten on it, remind­ing me of the facts that young African-Amer­i­can men were impris­oned sev­en times as often as whites and that white wealth out­paced African-Amer­i­can wealth sev­en­fold. Today that lat­ter fig­ure is a fac­tor of sixteen.

The dis­ori­ent­ing impact of such a long peri­od of defeat can hard­ly be over­stat­ed. In the 1950s and 1960s, a peri­od of intense and con­stant strug­gle for gains by work­ers and by the civ­il rights move­ment, the per­me­abil­i­ty of the cat­e­gories of race and class emerged in sharp relief.

The expand­ing hori­zons cre­at­ed by the move­ments against racial oppres­sion made all work­ers think more sharply about new tac­tics, new pos­si­bil­i­ties and new free­doms. The spread of wild­cat strikes across col­or lines is one exam­ple. The high hopes Mar­tin Luther King Jr. invest­ed in both the Poor People’s Cam­paign and the strike of Black san­i­ta­tion work­ers in Mem­phis remind us of a peri­od that could test ideas in prac­tice and could expe­ri­ence, if not always appre­ci­ate, the ten­den­cy for self-activ­i­ty among peo­ple of col­or to gen­er­ate pos­si­bil­i­ties for broad­er work­ing-class mobilizations.

Opti­mistic think­ing pro­claims that things have recent­ly turned around. It Start­ed in Wis­con­sin is a fine book on the 2011 mass demon­stra­tions against Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union leg­is­la­tion, but those strug­gles were defen­sive, ulti­mate­ly elec­toral and sound­ly defeat­ed. Or per­haps it start­ed” with the 2008 sit-in at the Goose Island facil­i­ty of Chicago’s Repub­lic Win­dows and Doors, but that was a defen­sive strug­gle against a plant clo­sure, involv­ing 200 work­ers, and the plant closed. Or, how we hoped, Occu­py start­ed it” again in 2011.

It start­ed” is inter­est­ing­ly most often applied to move­ments seen as pre­sent­ing class demands, but the qual­i­ty of such move­ments remains very far from turn­ing into quan­ti­ty. Spec­tac­u­lar work­ers’ protests have occurred, espe­cial­ly those of the immi­grant rights march­es and strikes of 2006 and of the recent mobi­liza­tions of Black Lives Matter.

These strug­gles have won gains in some instances, but they are too eas­i­ly con­sid­ered non-class mobi­liza­tions based sim­ply on iden­ti­ty. Mean­while the labor strug­gle most able to sus­tain itself, that of the Chica­go Teach­ers Union, has also been the one with the most sophis­ti­cat­ed and ener­getic anti-white suprema­cy politics.

One result of liv­ing inside of dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances not of our own choos­ing is that it has been too easy for some to sup­pose that our dif­fi­cul­ties have been caused by pay­ing too much atten­tion to race, to gen­der, or to sex­u­al­i­ty (where mass move­ments have also effect­ed some sig­nif­i­cant reforms), and not enough atten­tion to class.

When these argu­ments press fur­thest and most sim­plis­ti­cal­ly — for exam­ple, in the writ­ings of the lit­er­ary schol­ar Wal­ter Benn Michaels — we are pre­sent­ed with the view that neolib­er­al elites coun­te­nance demands based on race, gen­der, and sex­u­al­i­ty in order to divert atten­tion from the real inequal­i­ties of class.

Such a con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry trades on the ker­nel of truth that elites, bureau­cra­cies, and the judi­cia­ry do per­sis­tent­ly attempt to shift the terms of strug­gles against racism, sex­ism, and homophobia/​transphobia into soporif­ic vagaries regard­ing diver­si­ty” and mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism.”

Cor­po­rate embraces of the val­ue of diver­si­ty” are, it is true, not antiracist. Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism does instead reg­u­lar­ly mask desires for the sur­plus val­ue pro­duced by diver­si­ty. But this hard­ly makes pop­u­lar antiracist strug­gles irrel­e­vant or inim­i­cal to address­ing class oppression.

Benn Michaels’s analy­sis courts at least three major problems.

First, it los­es track of the extent to which work­ing-class peo­ple par­tic­i­pate in and shape ini­tia­tives such as immi­grant rights, trans rights, and antiracist mobi­liza­tions and there­fore miss­es work­ing-class vic­to­ries as momen­tous as those won in the 2006 mass actions by immi­grant workers.

Sec­ond, it sub­sti­tutes denun­ci­a­tion for attempts to build coali­tions encour­ag­ing those oppressed in dif­fer­ing ways to come togeth­er and deep­en the demands of all.

Last, it locates the fail­ures of orga­nized labor out­side and inside the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty as exoge­nous to those move­ments them­selves, imag­in­ing that doing more of the same will work out fine, or would if mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism were only defeat­ed. The recent fail­ures of orga­nized labor are much bet­ter under­stood as fail­ures of the labor lead­er­ship than the result of being out­foxed by multiculturalists.

Benn Michaels argues that demands for racial jus­tice now func­tion as mere cov­ers for main­tain­ing class inequal­i­ties. As proof he claims antiracists allow that in their ide­al soci­ety pover­ty and inequal­i­ty would con­tin­ue and mere­ly be even­ly dis­trib­uted across racial lines.

The evi­dence that this is in fact a wide­ly expressed posi­tion among antiracists is very scant. But, to be clear, the achieve­ment of the equal­i­ty amidst oppres­sion so ridiculed by Benn Michaels is — though impos­si­ble with­out a broad­er social trans­for­ma­tion — not a goal that anti-cap­i­tal­ists should sneer at as mere­ly pro­vid­ing vic­to­ries for neoliberalism.”

Again and again, con­tem­po­rary debates on race and class involve char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of the exist­ing dis­course and poli­cies as hope­less­ly tilt­ed towards race at the expense of class. We need to bend the stick in one direc­tion, it is said, because every­one else, or per­haps just lib­er­als and neolib­er­als, so bend it in the other.

So many well-posi­tioned writ­ers imag­ine that an increased empha­sis on class can only come by ton­ing down the race and gen­der talk that it is hard to see how they main­tain the stance that they are lone­ly fig­ures sac­ri­fic­ing to tell the truth. Aca­d­e­m­ic emphases and those of NGOs are said to struc­ture race-first dis­tor­tions. Inject­ing a word about class becomes an act of extra­or­di­nary free­think­ing courage, defy­ing a deck stacked against any such men­tion. No mat­ter how repeat­ed­ly such men­tions occur they get to count as speak­ing truth to pow­er — itself per­haps an over­rat­ed practice.

On one lev­el, as a Marx­ist who began writ­ing in the 1970s when it was some­what eas­i­er to be one, I get it. But we are hard­ly with­out plat­forms. More­over, per­ceiv­ing such a tilt­ed-towards-race sta­tus quo some­times cre­ates too easy an alliance between those who wish to com­bine emphases on race and class and those who would rather see race off the agen­da alto­geth­er on the the­o­ry that the pover­ty of peo­ple of col­or means that they can ben­e­fit from class-based reforms with­out the need for spe­cif­ic antiracist demands.

Capital’s con­tin­ued dom­i­nance lim­its progress towards elim­i­nat­ing racial inequal­i­ty. By the same token, inroads toward that goal do chal­lenge the log­ic and lim­it the room for maneu­ver of cap­i­tal­ist man­age­ment. As the Lon­don-based social­ist thinker Sivanan­dan has observed, in recov­er­ing a sense of oppres­sion,” white work­ers must con­front their alien­ation [from] a white- ori­ent­ed cul­ture” and arrive at a con­scious­ness of racial oppression.”

Strug­gles for racial jus­tice are sites of learn­ing for white work­ers, of self-activ­i­ty by work­ers of col­or, and of plac­ing lim­its on capital’s abil­i­ty to divide workers. 

This piece has been excerpt­ed from the intro­duc­tion to David Roedi­ger’s new book Class, Race, and Marx­ism, avail­able now from Ver­so.

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