"Race" in social-historical and political context
Platypus Review 5 | May—July 2008
I would like to respond to Chris Cutrone’s article, "Review: Angela Davis 'How does change happen?'" from the March 2008 issue #3. I agree with Cutrone’s general sentiment that we as a country have failed to productively engage the problem of race, and that an honest critique of capitalism is pretty much absent from American politics. However, one does not necessarily follow the other. I disagree that a discussion of capitalism must necessarily displace a discussion of race, a term which Cutrone disrespectfully frames in quotation marks and describes as a “distraction” and “inadequate category.” I appreciate that perhaps therein lies a desire to transcend racism, but the tone of the article make it seem as if Cutrone wants the rest of us to somehow just wake up and get over race so we can talk about the “real” meat of the issue, capitalism. I do agree that the language of race is often counterproductive, complicated by centuries of taboos, underlying resentments, outward hostility, and fear. However, to further marginalize an already difficult subject strikes me as counterproductive, and quite frankly, a bit lazy.
Cutrone mentions in his article that (non-white) race is often just code for poverty, but is it not the other way around as well? When politicians talk about pursuing criminals in the “inner city” and cutting off “welfare mothers,” are they not pandering to fear and resentment towards people of color, and the assumption that non-whites are in poverty? It is certainly true that not all low-income people are brown, but in a nation (and even a world) where so many of our citizens face poverty because they are brown, any useful critique of capitalism must also incorporate discourse on race. I believe that a lack of such discourse is why people of color often balk at the thought of organizing around race-ambivalent or race-neutral philosophies such as Marxism or Anarchism versus organizing around racial identity, even when they have anti-capitalist beliefs.
We must remember that many of the canonical Marxist philosophers were white and were products of much more racially homogeneous societies than ours, and as such, held significant privilege not to think about race if they didn’t want to. Is it possible that they could not have foreseen how concepts of race and class would affect one another other in a country founded by waves of immigrants from around the world, many of whom were (and continue to be) used as disposable labor?
One can argue to an extent that race is a construct. Furthermore, it is a construct that, within a capitalist context, is often employed to justify class-based oppression, exploitation of labor, and imperialism. But however constructed we may believe race to be, it would be disingenuous, and even irresponsible, to pretend that it is not worth discussing. If I walk down the street and get beaten up by a gang of, say, working-class white kids because I am brown, it is just that—I have not been “beaten up” because I am “brown,” and I certainly haven’t been beaten up for being poor.
The anger, resentment and violence brought about by the victims and perpetrators of racism is real, and to that effect we all must do real work to eradicate it, not just hope that it will be spirited away by sprinkling some scare quotes around the issue. The problem of race affects us deeply on a subconscious level, and it is going to be hard to unlearn. Activists in positions of power and privilege must allow people of color the space to define race and racism on their terms, while educating themselves on why and how organizing tactics and philosophies that neglect race (and other facets of identity) so often fail to build successful coalitions. Those affected by racism must also realize that while organizing around racial identity can be a useful tool, we must also act across lines of gender, sexuality, nationality, and class. We need to be open to radical and critical philosophy, especially with regards to analyzing capitalism’s role in our struggle. We must remember not to confuse our aspirations for equality and justice with an amassing of individual power, prestige or wealth—or we will once again be forced look back in a few generations and realize that our achievements are “not the victory for which we have struggled.”
—Aay Preston-Myint, Chicago, IL, April 17, 2008
Chris Cutrone responds:
Black people are not poor because they are black—any more than white people are poor because they are white. Poverty and resulting social disempowerment of black people have been rationalized on the basis of anti-black racist assumptions, and poverty among black people has been successfully isolated—“ghettoized”—and so defused as a social-political issue. Welfare programs were eliminated, while most recipients were white, by reference to the idea that society had tried to help poor people for a generation but to no avail, they just cannot be helped, but must be left to sink or swim on their own. Racism played a role in sanctioning such atrocity, but this does not mean that black poverty is caused by racism. Poverty is a structural problem of American society that will not be overcome short of overcoming capitalism. As long as this structural poverty exists without an adequate anticapitalist politics to combat it, racism will take the place of the proper recognition of the social nature of the problem, and thus prevent the politics necessary to overcome it.
History and politics
Those thinkers and actors in a certain anticapitalist critical-theoretical and revolutionary political tradition, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lukacs, Benjamin, Adorno et al., did not emerge out of a hyper-racialized social context like the U.S. The depth and meaning of anti-black racism in the U.S. is peculiar to its history; it is not a matter of ethnocentrism, national oppression, or any other form of cultural chauvinism, etc. Despite (or perhaps because) Marx did not share the concrete social context of such a racist society as the U.S., he recognized very clearly the stakes of the American Civil War against slavery that “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded” (Capital, 1867), a formulation that remains unsurpassed. Black Americans are American, as American as any “white” American could possibly claim to be. At the same time, the history of anti-black racist oppression is inseparable from the development of capitalism. And, historically, socialism has been the most consistently anti-racist form of politics.
It was not any supposed lack of awareness or insensitivity to the issue of racism that caused black radicals of the “Old” Left in the 1920s–30s such as Claude McKay and Paul Robeson, inspired to Communist politics by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, to have failed to articulate a “black” power ethos or practical political principle, but because this would have cut against the grain of their actual progressive-emancipatory politics. These figures were not lacking in black “pride” or political militancy, but they were part of the truly heroic (and truly tragic) history of radicalism of the early 20th Century that now lies obscured behind the more recent history of the 1960s and the aftermath of its failures (which were more farcical than tragic). As Davis pointed out in her Jan. 24 lecture I reviewed, the real historical background and basis for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s-60s was the earlier “cross-racial” organizing of workers, in the South—where it meant risking one’s life, white or black—as well as in the North, in the 1920s–30s, when it was actually much more difficult to do this than it would have been in the 1960s, but which the “Left” of the ‘60s failed to even try to do, rationalizing their failure with separatist Black Power ideology.
The late-’60s Black Power turn was the result of the failures and frustrations of the limitations of the liberal integrationist politics of Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, et al. But this was not because King et al. were somehow lacking in “black” consciousness—as was scurrilously implied by Malcolm X with his famous “house nigger”-”field nigger” rhetoric—but because the practical politics of liberal-reformist integrationism could not address adequately the issue of capitalism, though King et al. were concerned with labor issues (the 1963 March on Washington was “for jobs and freedom”). Coming as we do today after the manifest inadequacies and failures of the policy reforms of the Civil Rights era, we can fall victim to naturalizing the logic of the Black Power turn of the late ‘60s and think of it and the attitudes we inherit from it as some kind of necessary stage. But this would be a mistake, and not only because the Black Power turn was not a turn to the Left, but rather to the Right—the Black Power turn was a conservative recoil, an adaptation to defeat and dashed expectations, a lowering of horizons that involved the unwarranted assumption of the intractability of white racism—a sin much worse on the part of the “white” radicals who embraced this perspective than perhaps for the black radicals who articulated it.
More importantly, we can and must say today, more than 40 years later, that post-Black Power politics has obviously failed—and much more miserably than the Civil Rights Movement—to improve the social conditions for black people in the U.S.—as Adolph Reed, who I cited in my review of Davis, for one, has written about extensively, for instance in “Black Particularity Reconsidered” (AKA “The ‘Black Revolution’ and the Reconstitution of Domination,” 1979/86), pointing out the highly detrimental effects of “posing as politics.”—But whereas earlier black radicals of the 1920s-30s moved on from the charlatanry of Marcus Garvey et al. to the liberal, radical and socialist politics of W. E. B. Du Bois et al., the “politics” informed by the ‘60s-’70s “New Left” regressed backwards along the same path, to Ron Karenga inventing holidays like Kwanzaa, etc., by the 1980s even rehabilitating Booker T. Washington’s avowedly conservative notions of “self-help” and waxing nostalgic for the “black community” of the segregated conditions of the Jim Crow era (see Henry Louis Gates, Jr., et al.), and affirming “black culture” as already constituting a valid political realm of “everyday acts of resistance” (see Robin D. G. Kelley et al.)—all the results of political failures on the “Left.” As Bayard Rustin pointed out at the advent of the Black Power turn, “Passionate self-assertion can be a mask for accommodation” (quoted in John D’Emilio, Lost Prophet: the life and times of Bayard Rustin, Free Press, 2003, p. 475).
So this is not a matter of whether one chooses to prioritize “race” over “class,” etc., but rather how one understands the problem of racism and how capitalism is understood as a context within which changes in social problems like racism (becoming better or worse) take place. Capitalism is a global social system that determines the value and employment of human activity (or “labor”) and its reproduction in ways over which people have remained relatively powerless as individual and social agents. Capitalism is the reason why there is such a thing as “disposable” labor, why human beings as potential laborers are subject to being “disposed of,” and all the social consequences of this. So both social categories of “race” and socioeconomic “class” find their conditions of greater social context in the dynamics and historical changes of capital. (This is also true of issues of gender and sexuality. See the potentially seminal but largely neglected essays by Juliet Mitchell, “Women: the Longest Revolution,” 1966; and John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” 1983.)
Not simply “race” and “class,” but racism and capitalism and how they are related need to be addressed by any purportedly social emancipatory politics. The ways the “Left” has tried—or failed to try, and found excuse from trying—to address the problems of racism (as one would need to do in organizing the working class) since the 1960s have been worse than inadequate, and have turned into ideological distractions and political dead ends, bogged down in a host of pseudo-problems (that, for instance, Barack Obama was able to identify in his speech—against the desperate last gasp of racist politics by the Clintons et al.), whereas, according to Rustin’s critique of the Black Power turn, “the real cause of racial injustice . . . is not bad attitudes but bad social conditions” (“The Failure of Black Separatism,” Harper’s Magazine, January, 1970). Without a practical political focus on capitalism, the social conditions for racism will remain unaddressed, and racism and the problems affecting black people and others can continue.
“Race” is a pseudo-biological category that deserves to be placed in quotation marks because it is not “real;” it is not to be naturalized and taken for granted as a point of departure, but rather needs to be attacked as the very thing to be overcome. An anti-racist politics, a politics opposed to any form of racism, cannot just assume “race” from the start without becoming confused and confounded.
Black “racial” identity is a negative not a positive value and cannot be rehabilitated or inverted for it has only ever meant degradation. We ought not to forget that anti-black racist sentiment—the disqualification of individuals rationalized by reference to their blackness—is just as prevalent among blacks as among whites and other groups in the U.S.
As Frantz Fanon put it very succinctly over 50 years ago, in Black Skin, White Masks (1952), “What is often called the black soul is a white man’s artifact,” “For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white,” and “The Negro is not. Any more than the white man.” We ought not to forget this.
Because we all share a social destiny in capitalism, one which we must work through and overcome in order to undermine the social conditions of possibility for racism (which are modern in nature), as Fanon also said, perhaps most outrageously, “Long ago the black man admitted the unarguable superiority of the white man, and all his efforts are aimed at achieving a white existence.”—I strongly encourage all those interested in the possibility of overcoming racist oppression to read closely and ponder and internalize deeply the theses in the Introduction and Conclusion of Fanon’s brilliant and profound book.
“Sickness and madness”
The world might not have been very ready to overcome capitalism up to now, but it has been more than ready to overcome racism, and so there’s no reason to resign ourselves to it or treat it as more of an obstacle than it need be. The persistence of racism—including the accommodation of it on the “Left”—is the surest sign of the barbarism of our times. And so “racial” consciousness can be nothing other than debilitating and fundamentally depoliticizing. As the late Malcolm X characterized his regrets about his participation in the black nationalist Nation of Islam,
“[I] remember the time [when a] white college girl came into the restaurant who wanted to help the [Black] Muslims and the whites get together and I told her there wasn’t a ghost of a chance and she went away crying. . . . Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping Black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then—like all [Black] Muslims—I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years. That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days—I’m glad to be free of them.” (Interview with Gordon Parks, 1965)
It’s incumbent upon us on the “Left” to try to root out and eliminate such “sickness and madness” as completely as possible, for it is nothing other than an obstacle to social emancipation or even the possibility of reform.
As the psychoanalyst Fanon pointed out, such “race” consciousness is an expression of wounded narcissism, a traumatic fixation on the past, and resulting paranoia, problematic for a healthy reality principle, and maintaining the past in the present at the expense of the future.
Identifying one’s political consciousness and practice as racially “black”—or “white”—is, as Fanon put it, citing the German Idealist philosophical tradition, an evasion and abdication of working through the “pathology of freedom,” work that must be based on the “refusal to accept the present as definitive.” |P