Monday, August 24, 2009

Racism and the American class system

The US class system has always expressed itself through the fiction of 'race'. Race is a vital means by which labour markets are stratified and managed. Ellen Wood has argued that capitalism's use of racism and other modes of oppression reflects its "systemic opportunism", but I am increasingly inclined to disagree. David Roediger's account suggests that capital accumulation requires means of stratifying labour markets. It is not only efficient, but evidently necessary, to have a labour system in which different functions and rewards are allocated according to some supposedly 'natural' (but actually arbitrary) distinctions. With this conviction in mind, I encountered a piece by Walter Benn Michaels for the London Review of Books, in which he argues that "even if we succeeded completely in eliminating the effects of racism and sexism, we would not thereby have made any progress towards economic equality". Further, "Progress in fighting racism hasn’t done them [the working class] any good; it hasn’t even been designed to do them any good." (Just to point out - Michaels is wrong. A significant component of, say, the Great Society and 'affirmative action' programmes were designed to alleviate white poverty and unemployment.)

Having encountered his writing before, I gather that Michaels is a bit of an intellectual tough guy and provocateur. There's a niche for this kind of writing, and within the confines of a kind of liberal ideology his case makes sense. If it was possible to have a non-racist capitalism, the kind that some Sixties activists and civil rights workers hoped might emerge, then one might cynically conclude that a focus on race is counterproductive for the left. Maybe, as Michaels argues, focusing on racism actually lets the class system off the hook. But if capitalism needs 'race' or some analogue function to operate efficiently, then even that cynical attitude is self-defeating.

One way to look at this argument is consider the case that Michaels does - that of the arrest of a relatively wealthy (Michaels says 'rich', suggesting that despite his focus on class, he doesn't have a particularly rigorous conception of it) African American academic, named Henry Louis Gates. Michaels pretends that Gates' status shows that the elite has been 'diversified'. In furthering his case, which is that only the invisibility of Gates' class status led to his harrassment, he also omits to mention that the officer was perfectly well aware of Gates' position, having viewed his ID, and therefore wasn't cowed by it. He also doesn't mention that the reactions of the officer, the national police bodies, the media and the political class, were not cowed by Gates' being 'rich' either. In fact, what the case showed was that even the expanding black middle class and professional layers are also subject to police violence and harrassment. It also showed that most of the established media, police and political class will defend the officer involved in such instances. It showed that racism remains a crucial part of the way the capitalist system in the US operates. No doubt Gates' class position made it more of an issue for debate, stoking up a little bit of that legendary 'white liberal guilt'. But it didn't stop the system from being racist.

The sequel is important. Shortly after the arrest took place a colleague of the officer concerned named Justin Barrett wrote to a newspaper columnist complaining of unfair coverage. He described Gates as a "banana-eating jungle monkey". He said that if he had "been the officer he [Gates] verbally assaulted like a banana-eating jungle monkey, I would have sprayed him in the face with OC deserving of his belligerent non-compliance." (Coverage here). The phrase "banana-eating jungle monkey" was apparently repeated four times in the missive. Now, there are two interesting points about this. My argument at the time was that the officer who carried out the arrest refused to apologise largely because his colleagues told him he didn't have a thing to apologise for. I think they told him not to put his tail between his legs, to remember that if he said sorry he was dropping every one of his friends and colleagues in the dirt. 'If one of them can accuse us of this and get away with it,' one can imagine them saying, 'they'll all be doing it - and we won't be able to move for law suits and the bosses breathing down our necks.' Barrett's words, if you ask me, confirm that this is exactly how his colleagues in the Boston Police Department felt and still feel about this. So, that's the first point - that a major centre of state power was implicated in a defence of white supremacy in this case. The second point that arises is that when Barrett was interviewed by Larry King on CNN, King not only 'accepted' his patently insincere apology on the nation's behalf, but suggested that 'we all' might have to apologise with him. That suggests to me that there's a certain amount of unofficial affirmative action on behalf of white racists going on. There's a preemptive forgiveness for such bestial sentiments that would never be extended to the much less offensive comments of, say, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. So, in the case that Michaels chooses to highlight as an instance in which there is some competition between class and race (as opposed to contiguity), and some sense in which the proof of class seniority might vitiate the effects of racism, the evidence points to precisely the opposite conclusion: even when it is proven that Gates has rock solid, gold standard, upper middle class respectability, he's still suspect, still treated as the villain when a cop smacks him down. There is more to say about this, but I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I'm too angry at the moment to say it.