Sunday, August 30, 2009
Race is class - this is the point that won't go away. My cursory look at how the American race 'question' presents itself has always taken me toward two topics: class, and anticommunism. One cannot talk about class without talking about labour, and therefore about how labour is managed, stratified, waged, etc. Therefore, one cannot talk about race, in a Myrdalian way, as if it was just a set of dogma rather than a socially constructed institution with decisive implications for the class structure. How can one talk about the suburbanisation of 'blue collar' labour without considering 'white flight'? And how can the decline of 'blue collar' manufacturing labour be considered apart from 'globalisation', or rather the global stratificaton of labour created by capitalism in the era of white supremacy? Equally, any history of anticommunism is incomplete without at least discussing how it was initially conceived as a racial counter-conspiracy: against the Jews, against Germans, against African Americans, and finally against Russkies plotting to have unfit countries achieve "premature independence". The liberal and social democratic variants of anticommunism did not perform any better in this respect than the conservative variants.
The thread that ties anticommunism and racism at a conceptual level, I think, is the issue of "self-government", ie democracy. In American racial thinking, self-government is a cultural state attained by Anglo-Saxons and Teutons, a condition in which people are able - on account of god-chosenness, race experience, and fine blood lines - to control their primitive urges toward sin. This was not just a conservative position, but a staple of turn-of-the-century progressivism. In contemporary discourse, one doesn't speak of Anglo-Saxons and Teutons but one may, with a certain respect for racial propriety, discuss the prospects for self-government in similarly culturalist and mystifying terms. This is an art that the neoconservatives refined, but it is not just reactionaries who hold to such views. In a very contemporary parlance, the liberal religious philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams has expressed the belief that the persistence of evil proves that people are no more equipped for self-government than they ever were: she, perhaps unreflectively, referred to the spectre of sometimes genocidal 'failed states' as examples of what she meant. Communism, being in theory the most advanced state of self-government available to humanity, represents for such thought both an unrealisable utopia and a recognisable dystopia. For southern segregationists, self-government for African Americans was unrealisable (utopia), and the attempt to impose it would inevitably result in such disorder that some possibly 'totalitarian' dictatorship would emerge to keep order (dystopia).
A notorious image from the history of the segregated south is that of white conservative protesters bearing placards that read: "Race Mixing Is Communism". This image was chosen for the cover of Jeff Woods' Black Struggle, Red Scare (Louisiana State University Press, 2004). I think there is a commonsensical reaction to this, which is to conclude that the protesters were either hysterical and deluded, or instrumentalising a much more widely accepted anticommunist discourse for the purposes of promoting an unpopular racial agenda (I think Woods' case is a mixture of these two). Given the alarmist tone of reactionary propaganda in the US, and given the fact that American southerners have, since the Wilson era at least, represented themselves as the most patriotic Americans of all, these commonsensical conclusions seem to be more than justified. But I think they are wrong. My suggestion is to take the reactionaries seriously. When they said "Race Mixing Is Communism", they meant something important and relevant by it. It is manifestly wrong to think that 'race mixing' is identical with communism, but the claim was not just a ruse, nor was it blind panic. For such people, white supremacy was meritocratic. It reflected the innate, natural differences between people (and, as a corollary, the difference between the white labourer and the white owner was just as natural, if mitigated by blood solidarity). To attack the race system was to introduce a principle that was, to them, a state-sponsored attack on a well-maintained, meritocratic free enterprise society.
In the same way, you'll notice, when bourgeois ideologues want to mystify class relations without reference to race, they reach for the same combination of naturalising and culturalist tropes. Either the allocation of rewards and punishments reflects some innate biological differences between people, or it corresponds to a kind of ethnicity in which class itself is spoken of in 'native' or 'tribal' terms - one's "roots", "tradition", the signature cloth cap, the pub, the East End argot and lifestyle (as described in various sentimental best-sellers), etc. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously attributed to African American culture a "tangle of pathologies", which he held responsible for inhibiting their social advancement and maintaining them in a state of disproportionate poverty. Similarly, UK politicians are inclined to interpret the polarisation of wealth within Britain's class structure as a result of the unchecked laziness, decadence and sexual promiscuity of the 'underclass'.
One could conclude from this that race overlaps with class in mainly discursive ways, but this would be to miss the point. The point about the "colour bar", whether it operates formally or de facto, is that it excludes non-white labour from certain positions, or substantially reduces their participation in those roles. These positions are sought after for the levels of skill, responsibility, autonomy and rewards entailed in them. But those social facts about the job - skill, responsibility, autonomy and rewards - are interpreted by racist institutions as natural or cultural facts. Thus, 'whiteness' = skill, responsibility, self-government and the rewards those qualities deliver. In much the same way, the socially produced imperative to drive workers harder and extract more free overtime labour is interpreted as a particular expression of one's culture and personality, ie. as a reflection of one's 'flexibility'. So, what race does is not just overlap with class, but constitute it, rendering its demarcations more intelligible in the terms of bourgeois ideology. The imperative of anticommunism in such a system being to defend, with greater or lesser reservations, the balance of wealth and power in capitalist societies, it follows that the disproportionate distribution of non-whites among the unemployed, poor and imprisoned - however lamentable it may be for liberal anticommunists - is not too far from meritocratic justice.
There are other ways to come at this topic, but the basic relationship is as crucial to understand today as it ever was. After all, as Tim Wise has pointed out, the delirious charges of socialism against the Obama administration are not neutral with respect to race - neither Clinton nor Bush faced similar charges over ambitious programmes of government spending, whether on healthcare or on the military. There is surely a sense in which socialism, for some people, "is little more than racist code for the longstanding white fear that black folks will steal from them". If it's not the DVD player, it's nothing less than the country itself that "black folks" are supposed to be eloping with. And a good white conservative meets such a threat as he would any common burglar: gun in hand, trigger happy, fully convinced that the life he is about to annihilate is worth less than a toaster. The defence of property is, in American politics, cosubstantial with the defence of the prevalent racial order. The 'American dream', (a PR initiative floated in the 1930s but really taking hold during the anticommunist hunts of the 1950s), was always white, and so it largely remains.