April 30, 2010

Paving with good intentions

Well-meaning efforts against racism ignore broader questions of emancipation from capitalism

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De jure segregation ended some forty years ago and American social norms mostly bar the public expression of racist sentiment or stereotype. Yet by any measure—access to quality healthcare and education, rate of incarceration, etc.—black Americans remain proportionally worse off than their white peers. There remains a color line, but why?

This question has bred a whole genus of specious answers. Take the Bell Curve genetic inheritance theory: poor genes make for poor IQ, poor IQ makes for poor minds, and poor minds make for poor people. For slightly less controversial variations, substitute “welfare queen” or “culture of poverty.”

Rightly uncomfortable with transferring blame for a social pathology onto its victims, “anti-racism” activists offer another explanation. Racism, they claim, persists—invisible, yes, but it is inherent in oppressive social structures caused by the instincts of white society. For instance, when faced with two equally qualified candidates, employers will hire the one with the white sounding name. Such unconscious discrimination stalks black Americans, dooming them to social death. The persistence of the color line, this “anti-racist” explanation suggests, is a problem of race relations. Change the race relations—through multicultural education, affirmative action, and supporting black-owned businesses—and the color line will vanish.

Now, no reasonable person could be against the races getting along, and so all good folk are “anti-racist.” No one wants to be the recalcitrant white guy, unwilling to duly atone for his privilege. Therefore it’s easy to maintain a broad consensus among all well-meaning students that racism is wrong and ought to be destroyed. And the way you destroy racism is by upending people’s racist assumptions. The less people hold such assumptions, the weaker racism’s hold. Nostalgia for the 1960s gives this view the patina of legitimacy, reminiscent of Freedom Schools and sit-ins, suggesting that one is participating in an age-old struggle against oppression that’s as just as it is timeless.

This temptation is strong but misleading. In the Civil Rights movement, blacks organized to fight an entrenched political establishment from which they were violently excluded. “Racism” wasn’t understood as mere bad attitudes or symbols—it named definite social, political, and economic structures; in other words, state power. White supremacy referred explicitly to the situation following Congressional Reconstruction (1867-1877) in which the defeat of integrated Reconstruction governments was followed by segregation and racial disfranchisement. The Civil Rights movement was strategic in ways that “anti-racism” today is not: It aimed at a specific political objective, the universal fulfillment of civil and political rights, which was ultimately achieved.

African Americans were ultimately granted full voting rights, guaranteed by the federal government by 1965. The possibility for blacks to struggle over state power opened up for the first time. But what would they struggle for? After ending de jure segregation, leaders of the Civil Rights movement, like Martin Luther King Jr., attempted to address and resolve the social position of American blacks. Bayard Rustin urged cooperation with the labor movement. But the means of attack proved inadequate, and the attempt failed. Sensing an opportunity, militant activists turned to slogans such as “community self-determination,” and exhorted their colleagues to promote racially segregated cooperatives, movements, and institutions. Their demands weren’t more radical than the despised liberals, Rustin and King: “Black Power” was merely the politics of representation, appeals to home rule that amounted to replacing one set of elites with another.

Today’s proponents of “good race relations” take a less militant tone, but they, too, look inward. First, you cultivate the sense of group identity or consciousness: create your own organizations, politics, theories. Next, you engage strategically with other groups: town hall meetings, coalitions, ad hoc committees. Finally, you introduce “intersectionality”: everyone has his or her own oppression—race, gender, sexuality, class—but some people are affected by more than one; by crosscutting one and the other and mixing things up we can generate respect and a healthy appreciation for difference. The possibilities for progress, it seems, are endless.

So endless, in fact, that nothing is ever really achieved. Since the ascendance of militant identity politics, capital has continued to accumulate among a wealthy few, and social disparities between the rich and the poor continue to increase. Race pimps and queer pushers offer up easy remedies to a difficult problem: Don’t think about changing an entire social structure; think about racism and homophobia—or both at once. But when activists substitute “good race relations” for social politics, the working poor—white and black, gay and straight—suffer. The degradation of the inner cities, the break-up of the union movement, and the defeat of substantive political reforms all follow in the wake of the Left’s failure to mount a serious political opposition.

Standing in the way of such politics is anti-racism’s vehement anti-Marxism. Reacting to putative economic determinism, anti-racists write off anything associated with Marx as fundamentally misguided. They demand we take stock of race first, blithely suggesting that only when we get rid of our racism can the real politics begin. But activists have become complacent in believing that awareness of injustice is enough to change it. Such thinking derives from the logic of civil rights, in which the Federal Government enforces fair play. And there is no end of analysis in the non-profit world of the disproportionate impact of x on y people. Foundations love this stuff. Practically, it’s just hang-tight, don’t-rock-the-boat middle-class reform.

Anti-racist activism is demography, not politics. To solve problems, we need to understand them; and to solve social problems, we need to understand society: that is, capitalism. None of this is to deny that racial injustice exists, or that blacks and other marginalized groups need redress. Yet we can’t achieve social justice by trying to dole out and enforce minority rights. Under capitalism, there is no right to dignified employment; there is no right to not be in poverty, because capitalism requires the poor to serve as a labor reserve. And as long as such a structure is in place, marginalization will be incessantly reproduced. Anti-racism won’t fix this any more than a boxer can strike her own shadow. One could almost say it’s become part of the problem.

—Greg Gabrellas is pursuing a Master of Arts degree in the social sciences.