The American left and the “Black Question”: From politics to protest to the post-political
Toby Chow, Brandon Johnson, August Nimtz, and Adolph Reed, Jr.
Platypus Review #76 | May 2015
The Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a discussion on the politics of anti-racism and the American left on April 11, 2015 in Chicago. The speakers were Toby Chow, an organizer with Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL) and The People’s Lobby; Brandon Johnson, an organizer for Chicago Teachers Union (CTU); August Nimtz, author of Lenin's Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917 (2014); and Adolph Reed, Jr., author of Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era (1999). The following is an edited transcript from the discussion. An audio recording of the event is available online at https://archive.org/details/PlatypusPCVIITheAmericanLeftAndTheBlackQuestion.
Beneath a consensus of avowed anti-racism, the American left remains conflicted about whether and how to politicize race. This panel seeks to shed historical light on today's political impasses, asking: How has racism changed throughout U.S. history, and to what degree has racism been overcome in America? Our neoliberal and post-political present has been shaped by key periods of political conflict over race and racism, from the failure of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era through the entrenchment of Jim Crow through the abolition of legal racial segregation with the Civil Rights Movement. If we have overcome the forms of legalized racism that plagued American society before the 1960s, this victory has nevertheless failed to translate into the meaningful improvement of living conditions for the vast majority of black people in America. Instead, the general downturn since the early 1970s has been managed in a way that has worsened conditions for most black people in the context of a broader stratification and brutalization of American society. This situation demands a strident refutation of the pseudo-problem of “class versus race”; we ask today's left to consider the implications of Adolph Reed's formulation that “racism is a class issue.” With a view to how a politics of freedom would approach race and racism, what lessons can be drawn from the most significant periods in the history of the American left, such as the populist movement, the pre-WWI Socialist Party, the 1920s–30s Communist Party, and the 1960s–70s New Left? If the problem of racism has been bypassed but not overcome, leaving in place the structural conditions that have shaped racism historically, how might we recognize these structural conditions and thereby render race and racism politically tractable?
Toby Chow: The history of the Left is not really my strong point, so I am going to focus on how to render the problem of race politically tractable. From Adolph Reed, Barbara Fields, and others, I have taken a very important lesson to heart, which is that racial categories emerge out of and reinforce patterns of economic subordination. So we need an analysis of race and racism in terms of capitalist political economy. For example, Fields notes that there is a common story about slavery which she wants to debunk, which is that first white Europeans and Americans saw black people, then whites had racist ideas about black people, and because of that, whites felt free to enslave them. So first comes race, then comes racism, and then comes slavery. Fields argues that as a historical account this gets things completely backwards. The systemized enslavement of people of African descent led to anti-black racism and the category of a black race—first came slavery, then came racism, then came race. We need to understand race as a category of political economy. Now, the ways in which racial categories have produced and reproduced themselves has changed over time; the stereotypical role of blacks in political economy has changed radically. At the time of the emergence of the category of a black race, black slaves were a central labor force responsible for creating much of American wealth. Today the reproduction of racism suffered by blacks has to do with the fact that blacks are disproportionately superfluous as a labor force. The contemporary problem of the black race and the racism faced by black people today cannot be understood independently of this fact.
This is not an attempt to reduce race to class, so I hope I don’t get heard that way, and I am also not talking about understanding the “intersection” between race and class. Rather, race cannot be understood independently of class, and vice versa. In order to deal with the black question, or the problem of race in general, we need to deal with capitalist political economy. Now, people on the Left who come to this realization are often tempted to say that, in order to deal with race and racism, we need socialist revolution. Capitalism created race and racism, and capitalism sustains race and racism, so we need to abolish capitalism in order to abolish racism. That would be great! However, I want to push back on that strategy. We need to carefully distinguish the task of overcoming neoliberalism (which is the current phase of capitalism) and the task of overcoming capitalism itself. The Left currently faces the task of resolving the crisis of neoliberalism and overcoming neoliberalism; however, I do not think that there is currently any chance that we will overcome capitalism in that process. We face the task of bringing about a post-neoliberal society, and if we do this right, then we could achieve a much more egalitarian global society with a more inclusive economy, both in the U.S. and across the world. But it will still be a capitalist society.
Neoliberalism, despite its embrace of the ideals of diversity, multiculturalism, and anti-racism, has perpetuated racial inequality, and in some ways even deepened it. How has this happened? One way to look at it is through a helpful distinction made by Nancy Fraser between personal and impersonal forms of subordination—she applies this to the question of gender, but it also applies to other categories of ascriptive identity. Neoliberalism has allowed for significant, if still limited, progress against subordination stemming from personal prejudice. At the same time, however, neoliberalism has intensified impersonal forms of subordination, which operate through market forces. These forces have disproportionately negative impacts on women and minorities of all kinds, in markets of all kinds—the labor market, the housing market, and so on. An example of how this plays out: During the 1960s, the black poverty rate in America was cut from about 55 percent to close to 30 percent, and this was at a time when America was full of racists. Under neoliberalism, when ideals of diversity and anti-racism are mainstream and totally accepted by all neoliberal elites, the black poverty rate has hardly budged—in fact, it has increased since the turn of the century. This cannot be analyzed as a result of racist bosses everywhere; it is, rather, the result of the unforgiving pressures of the abstract forces of the “race to the bottom” neoliberal labor market.
Most people in this room are probably very critical about identity politics, and rightly so, but from an organizing perspective, I feel the need to recognize that many people who want to get involved in a movement to make the world better get especially excited about the idea of doing something about inequality according to race and other identity categories. It is important to figure out how to link issues of economic inequality (and how this is exacerbated by neoliberalism) to the concerns that people have around the subordination of identity groups. From my experience with SOUL, which is based in the largely black South Side and south suburbs of Chicago, we have worked to connect the dots between the structures of racial inequality and the economy. In some cases this is easy, some of the social ills that are stereotypically associated with urban black communities such as unemployment are obviously economic issues. But also when it comes to issues such as gun violence, police violence, mass incarceration, it is not so hard to show that these issues have a class dimension and this necessitates involvement in a left economic populism that can contribute to overcoming neoliberalism.
Brandon Johnson: One of the challenges those of us who see the world in a more just, equitable way face is relating with the folks that we believe we need to spark to improve their lives. That relationship sometimes is difficult because we come from different perspectives. So I’ll talk as someone who is a working class black man teaching poor children, and as someone who grew up low-income, not poor. There’s a difference: We ate everyday, but we didn’t like what we ate. Poor folks are guessing day-to-day what they’re going to eat. We often assume the folks who are living with these conditions only see a certain way out, and that way out is ours, because we have all the answers—if we could just relate it to the destructive practices of capitalism, then black people will be free. But the harsh reality is that often times there is trepidation around the ideas that are being promoted, because black folks don’t always get down with ideas or ideals that do not automatically relate to their immediate space. They don’t, or we don’t. When you’re hungry and homeless, but supposed to come to school prepared to discuss the four causes of the American Revolution—how that’s going to relate to my economic come-up? Trayquan is not making that connection. So, while I’m having a conversation with Trayquan’s mother about why it is important to come to school, to come prepared—because this preparation is ultimately going to help galvanize our larger race so that we can improve our economic conditions—I’m also trying to convince this mother through a system that uses a measuring tool that is inherently racist.
When black folks reject Left principles, it is not because they just don’t like Left ideology, but that we’ve been presented with opportunities to “come up” before. Over and over there are these hopes that are presented to the community—hopes that if these ideas and principles are embraced, then their life will get better. Yet, as Toby has already indicated, the unemployment rate in black Chicago looks like the Great Depression.
The Left in the black community is heard, but not seen. Black folks are aware of the economic state that we’re in. We are very conscious of it. But what often happens is that you have these moments where there is a little bit of a spark, and that energy is supposed to be used to catapult us into a sustained movement, but it doesn’t happen, because the Left tends to disappear. We’re good at book studies, we’re good at having social groups, we’re good when it comes to synthesizing and analyzing the conditions within black America. But what we’re not good at is being able to have a conversation at a door with a mother who needs to know that two-thirds of corporations are not paying their fair share to the state. She also needs to know that there are millions of dollars at the disposal of our city and a slush fund of our tax dollars that can be used to reinvest in our community. But often those of us on the Left do not have the patience to be in the community long enough to address some of those immediate needs.
Black labor continues to be under attack across the country, and the conditions in our communities continue to worsen. Black educators in Chicago have been decimated; we’ve lost half of our black teachers within the last ten years. The Left must not only have real conversations, but also really promote and push substantive policies that actually deal with the harsh conditions that black workers are experiencing right now. The Left must make sure that those who are most impacted by these harsh policies are actively engaged during the organizing.
August Nimtz: I want to thank Platypus for inviting me, and especially for the opportunity to link up with my comrade Adolph, here. He and I go back a long time. We have roots in New Orleans, with all the lessons around race, class, and color that come with that particular experience. I am in complete agreement with his formulation that racism is a class issue—the history of the United States makes it very clear. I think one of the most instructive moments is Reconstruction, and the overthrow of Reconstruction. There is a formulation in the description that I would object to a little—“the failure of post–Civil War Reconstruction.” It didn’t fail; it was overthrown. It was a bloody counterrevolution. The way we use the term “failure” sometimes has the connotation that this was a failed experiment in democracy, so we have to be very clear. It was a counterrevolution, because what we saw beginning to happen was labor in white skin and laboring in black skin starting to come together—the ruling class was very fearful of that. Therein is a very important lesson for all of us today.
We are in an unprecedented crisis. This is a crisis of capitalism of historic proportions. Nobody in this room has seen anything like this before. Even some mainstream bourgeois economists refer to what we’re in as “secular stagnation”—that is going to be around for a long time. It takes its toll on the working class in all kinds of ways, and the working class in brown and black skin are really taking it on the chin. The black median household income on the eve of the crisis was around about 6,000 dollars. Now it’s less than 5,000 dollars. White median household wealth is around 100,000 dollars—19 times that of black median household income. In a few months the Federal Reserve Board will increase short-term interest rates. We don’t know exactly when that’s going to happen, but it will effectively lock in the unemployment rates, which means it will get worse. Of course we must understand that this is an institution that no one in this room has the right to vote on. I like that example because the way the Fed operates gets to the fundamental incompatibility between democracy and capitalism. That’s the crisis, and the question is how we get out of it. Only with the overthrow of capitalism is it possible to overcome this crisis in a way that will actually be in the interests of working people.
I spent all day yesterday at a conference on the voting rights, as this is the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which was signed in August of 1965. It is under attack. There are efforts on the part of various states as the result of a Supreme Court decision to begin rolling back sections of the Voting Rights Act. It deserves to be fought for but in a way that is probably different than many liberals defend the Voting Rights Act, and I want to see if I can make a case for looking at the electoral process from a revolutionary perspective.
The biggest obstacle that workers in black skin face—the same challenge that workers in white skin and brown skin face—is what I call the stranglehold of bourgeois lesser-evilism, the belief that we can resolve this crisis through the electoral process. To think that the electoral and parliamentary arenas are an end in themselves is to be afflicted by what Marx, Engels, and Lenin once called "parliamentary cretinism." Real politics takes place outside the parliamentary and electoral arenas, in the streets and on the barricades. I know of no example in history where fundamental change has come about through the electoral-parliamentary arena. I think the most consequential election ever was Lincoln's re-election in 1864, and that was decided on the barricades—Sherman's march to the sea. That's what made it possible for Lincoln to be re-elected. I've tried to supplement “parliamentary cretinism” with another concept, “voting fetishism.” By this I mean the mistaken belief that when you vote for either a policy or for a candidate, you somehow are exercising power. That's a mistake, and it can be very costly and sometimes deadly. When you vote, you are registering a preference. You are not exercising power. Power is something that has to be taken.
For Marx, Engels and Lenin, you use the electoral arena, the parliamentary arena, as a means to the end, in order to figure out when are the best chances for taking power, in order to count your forces. Use it to get out revolutionary ideas, measure your strength, and determine the moment when it is right to actually take power. That's the program of Lenin’s "revolutionary parliamentarism," and I want to make a case for it as an alternative to bourgeois lesser-evilism.
Adolph Reed: For just a quick trip down memory lane, August, if you recall, “Impartial Administration of Justice is the Foundation of Liberty”—that's the bullshit that’s emblazoned on the Courthouse down in New Orleans. That was burned into my brain by age fourteen, and I spit at it every time I rode past it on the bus.
Anyway, I want to start off with a handful of aphorisms. Barbara Fields would be quite happy to know that she’s being invoked in the ways that she is here. Fields has also said that race is a language through which the class contradictions of American capitalism are often expressed, and that’s a nice, pithy way to think about this. She also said more recently that the way many people these days talk about slavery—especially in cultural studies and English departments—you would think that the purpose of slavery was the production of white supremacy, not cotton.
In Dubois's second autobiography, Dusk of Dawn, published in 1940, there’s a chapter in which he has an apocryphal conversation with an apocryphal visitor from a foreign land who is trying to understand what race is in America. They go through all the technical specifications that support racial classification. He dismantles every one of them. Finally, he tells an unbelievably frustrated foreigner, “The black man is a person who must ride ‘Jim Crow’ in Georgia.” Eight years later, sociologist Joseph Sandy Himes, brother of Chester Himes, in a really interesting essay called “A Sociological Redefinition of the American Negro Group,” says that to be a Negro is to be available for treatment as a Negro. A final saying, from a good friend, colleague, and comrade of mine, Willie Legette: The only thing that hasn't changed about black politics since 1965 is how we think about it and talk about it. — That may be the most crucial aphorism of them all.
There is no Left in America today. A lot of people embrace left politics and a left social vision, but there is no Left, if what you mean by Left is a social force that has the capacity to intervene in shaping the terms of political debate. If we started off from that presumption—what the Left is and what it needs to do and be—then the first task is to try to figure out how to build a Left. However pessimistic or undesirable that may sound, it would help us if we take a little of our collective effort to think about this.
I would like to trouble a different aspect of the panel’s account, which has to do with the formulation of racism being “transformed.” If you stop and think about it for a second, what it does is reify racism, because it dehistoricizes racism. I know it’s a common formulation—even among people who consider themselves to be giving Marxist accounts of racism—but there is a fundamental tendency to ontologize racism as a category, and by that I mean, to treat racism as a thing that has the capacity to do shit. Thomas Holt, the historian from the University of Chicago, did this book on the color line in the 21st century, and all the way through he does this—he is following Stuart Hall, which I think is seldom a good idea. For instance, he talks about how racism has transformed itself from the 17th century up to last week. Well, if racism is “transforming itself,” then racism must be a thing that has some kind of consciousness. What if we take a step back from the presumption that suffuses American political debate, from the center wing of the Democratic Party to whatever flavor of Trotskyist it is that you have to deal with at the moment: the presumption that racism is a sui generis kind of injustice.
Another data point in support of my claim that there is no Left is that our situation is such that the theater of a left debate is on MSNBC or AlterNet or in academic departments. Even in the cases like Ferguson or other instances of police brutality or racialized inequality, the debate quickly moves from the injustice itself to a conversation about whether it is racist. All the participants in this kabuki theater have an interest in maintaining discussion on those terms. It is so familiar, and that is how we’ve come to organize. The different strains of the Alinskyite position—that you go to people where they are, and you develop them and let the issues emerge, and as they develop, more good stuff will happen—these have all run their course. It has run into the dead-end of the NGO-ization of black politics, at a minimum, and the consolidation of a professional managerial stratum of race relations. So everyone has an interest in—I wouldn't call it a diversion—but in doing what feels good, which is discussing class issues and class contradictions through this second-hand metaphor.
We can see a pattern in moments of left insurgency in the U.S. The moment in the mid-1940s, for instance, when left penetration was at its greatest in American policy making—when the full-employment bill passed the senate, when FDR passed the Second Bill of Rights—capital mobilized and defeated the labor forces. I realize now that the defeats are not what is most important. What is most important is the compromised, second-best options that emerged and consolidated after the defeat. The second-best compromise was fundamentally culturalist: culturalist populism, with a shift in the normative foundation of the struggle for black rights. There was a moment like that in the mid-1960s, where the victories of the Civil Rights struggle had been won, and where now, as Bayard Rustin made clear, it doesn't even make sense to call it a Civil Rights movement anymore, because the struggles that black Americans faced were fundamentally class struggles. To cut to the chase, Black Power and its sequelae were the culturalist compromise. Culturalism is not an alternative to class politics. Culturalism is a class politics—but it is a politics of a class different from that which a vast majority of us in this room are fighting for.
The best way to avoid a debate about class reductionism is to stress what capitalism is and how it makes sense to think of it. Capitalism is not just class relations or production relations; capitalism is a social and cultural order that solidifies, consolidates, mediates, and is reproduced through social relations. I've been arguing for some years now that the best way to view race—as with gender, “feeble-mindedness” in the 1920s, and many other categories—is as one species in a genus of ideologies concerning ascriptive differentiation and hierarchy. By that I mean hierarchy as what you supposedly “are” instead of what you do. In that sense, it is not race or class, and it is not race or capitalism. Race is one of the means—the technologies—of reproducing hierarchy that all class societies have: English Victorian scientists, for instance, were absolutely convinced that the English working class was racially different from the aristocracy.
Q & A
I want to go back to the point that it would take a socialist revolution to overcome racial inequality. I think a lot of people in this room might agree with this point, so why is it that #BlackLivesMatter did not become a moment of opportunity for the Left in America to mobilize around this question, even when a lot of people were in the streets? It seems like this has been a lost opportunity for the Left.
AR: Frankly, I don’t think the opportunity ever was there. I think this speaks to another problem that we have: There is a difference between demonstrations and strategic political action. One of the problems with #Occupy—and with anything that’s got a hashtag in front of it—is that people have trouble recognizing the distinction between the pageantry of protest and a strategic political action. Often, people don’t want to acknowledge that there is a difference. There’s a solipsism about this kind of politics. I remember seeing demonstrations in Berkeley after the Eric Garner verdict, and what struck me were the shots of young people lying down in the front of Amtrak trains and taking selfies.
Another anecdotal experience: In my grad class we were discussing an article on the logic of how social movements form and pursue power—how they consolidate and reformulate themselves—and a student says to me that he’s got a problem with this model, because there is no space in it for viewing hip hop as a form of politics. I then calmly try to give him an account of how people came to see hip hop as an expression of politics in the first place—what was happening inside academic life, how insurgent politics outside of the university were in retreat, and so on. I got through all of this, and then he said, “but those young people who embrace this really do believe it’s a politics.” So it seems the standard, “if you believe it, then it is true” is now where we are!
My point here isn’t that young people are stupid and self-absorbed. This is, rather, a testament to the fact that there is no organically rooted left politics. When I was 21, I was stupid. But I turned 21 in 1968, so there were grown people around me fighting struggles, and back then we didn’t say to our more experienced comrades, “Shouldn’t you be asking what we think?” No, we wanted to learn, and we knew we didn’t know shit.
AN: Well, long before #BlackLivesMatter, many of us were involved in what we used to call “police brutality work.” We tried to work with young people and tried to help people understand why police brutality exists: It is a class question, fundamentally. We used it as an avenue, as an opportunity, to try to get people to think about the larger picture. What Adolph said about elders is very important, but it’s not only the absence of the elders—often times it’s also the sins of the elders. One of the reasons why, I am convinced, the Civil Rights Movement transpired is because of the sins of the elders in the labor movement. The labor officialdom voted for the war drive and took the no-strike pledge. The absence of a working class leadership for the Civil Rights Movement resulted in the prominence of a petty-bourgeois layer.
AR: It’s not just the defeats that do us in but the second-best alternatives that we are able to salvage after the defeat. Remember that for a good 20-year period in American political life, the first 20 years after the end of WWII, it was impossible to use terms like “inequality”—unless you were talking about race. Nor could you say “economic injustice” or “redistribution.” There was no place for them anywhere, in any respectable political debate, so people who had been leftists faced the conundrum of getting behind defense spending and the kinds of economic growth that fit with Cold War policies as a way to improve the conditions of working people. Later on this bit the Left in the ass. I would just punctuate this by saying that what eventually developed into full-blown neoliberalism began in the John F. Kennedy administration, just to be clear. I don’t know if anyone has any Camelot fantasies out there—bury them, if you do.
Toby said that there was a crisis of neoliberalism but not of capitalism, and that politics designed to reorganize neoliberalism rather than capitalism are possible in the present. But where is this crisis of neoliberalism? If we’re talking about stagnation, it’s bad, but it doesn’t seem qualitatively worse than how it has been for a while.
AR: There’s no such thing as an objective crisis, and I think this is kind of the point of your question—crisis is a political category. Crisis exists only to the extent that people make a crisis, politically. Since the crash, there have been leftists all over the world claiming this is the end of neoliberalism, these are the final paroxysms of neoliberalism, it is on the respirator. I’m thinking, well, then who is going to pull the plug? There is nobody out there to do it.
One of the problems that we have in this country, ideologically, is how many people have, even unwittingly, swallowed the Golden Age illusion, the idea that somehow the 30 years after World War II were a new order, the new normal. We go after the bourgeoisie for violating the social compact, but in fact those 30 years represent the anomaly that needs to be explained. The explanation is simple: We had class power. When we didn’t have it anymore, guess what happened? Everything went back to normal. |P
Transcribed by Divya Menon, Markus Niedobitek, Josh Price, Danny Jacobs, and Pam Nogales.