The Retreat from Race and Class
by David Roediger
As the twentieth century started, indeed at almost exactly the same moment that W. E. B. Du Bois predicted that the "color line" would be its great divide, Eugene Victor Debs announced that the socialist movement that he led in the United States could and should offer "nothing special" to African Americans. "The class struggle," Debs added, "is colorless." As the century unfolded, the white Marxist left, schooled by struggles for colonial freedom and by the self-activity of people of color in the centers of empire, increasingly saw the wisdom of Du Bois's insight and tried hard to consider how knowledge of the color line could illuminate, energize, and express class struggles. We would increasingly turn to other passages from Debs, including one expressing a historical insight that he could already articulate in the early twentieth century but that his colorblindness kept him from acting upon: "That the white heel is still on the black neck is simply proof that the world is not yet civilized. The history of the Negro in the United States is a history of crime without a parallel."
As the twenty-first century starts, the idea of a colorless struggle for human progress is unfortunately back with a vengeance. Such is of course the case on the right in the United States, where what the legal scholar Neil Gotanda and others have called "colorblind racism" has underpinned attacks on affirmative action and even on the collection of the race-based statistics necessary to show patterns of discrimination. The high-sounding, ostensibly freedom-loving names given to such well-funded campaigns"”"civil rights initiatives" to undermine affirmative action and "racial privacy acts" to do in the amassing of basic knowledge regarding the impact of race"”have contributed mightily to attempts to recapture the moral high ground by those contending that a society in which white family wealth is about ten times that of black family wealth is nonetheless a colorblind one.
Nor are such instances confined to the United States. With the blood scarcely dry from white Australian riots against Arab beachgoers, that country's neoliberal leader John Howard reacted to press headlines screaming "Race Hate" and "Race War" by loudly proclaiming that he heads a colorblind society. When the French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the ruling party there and leading candidate to replace Jacques Chirac as president, recently suffered criticism on race issues, he quickly planned a trip to Martinique to emphasize how little race allegedly matters in the French colonial world. Sarkozy stood out as especially harsh in his response to the rebellions of Islamic youth in France against police violence. He failed to join the president and prime minister in belatedly distancing themselves from a recently passed law requiring that French textbooks "recognize in particular the positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in North Africa." But an escape to colorblindness still seemed possible.
Yet, Sarkozy was so thoroughly not welcomed by Martinique's great politician, poet, and theorist of liberation, AimÃ© CÃ©saire, and others that the publicity stunt had to be canceled. Nonetheless, within France the pernicious role of long-established "colorblindness" operates so strongly that Sarkozy can remain a top presidential contender. The legislative left did not originally raise any serious protest against passage of the pro-colonialist textbook legislation, and the nation adheres to the same basic no-counting-by-race policies that racial privacy acts seek to establish in the United States. Ironically, Sarkozy himself has recently called for limited "discrimination positive," (affirmative action), as a carrot operating in tandem with deportations and immigration restriction to quell rebellions in France. But to put any "positive" measures into practice remains a problem. As The Economist recently put it, the French minister for equality remains practically alone at the top of the government in advocating finding a way even to "measure the presence of the children of immigration" in political structures, the bureaucracy, and the labor force.
Against Race But Not for Class: Raceless Liberalism & Social Theory
What is distressingly new is the extent to which indictments of antiracism, and even attacks on the use of race as a concept, come now from liberalism and from the left. Electorally, of course, one hallmark of efforts by the Democratic Leadership Council to move the Democratic Party still further to the right has been an attempt to distance the party from concrete appeals to, and identification with, people of color. Thus the constituencies most aware of both race and class inequities are marginalized in the name of appeals for "universal" programs. Meanwhile actually existing universal social programs, such as "welfare-as-we-know-it," have been subjected to withering (and anything but colorblind) bipartisan attacks. The left was capable a decade ago of dissecting such a shell game, most trenchantly in Stephen Steinberg's 1994 New Politics article on the "liberal retreat from race," and in what will presumably be Christopher Hitchens's last serious book, his 1999 dismantling of Clintonism, No One Left to Lie To.
At a time when no real political alternatives are offered by Democratic candidates who confine their tepid appeals for racial justice to the King holiday and to talks in black churches, the intellecutual left also seems to be abandoning race. Thus the brilliance of Paul Gilroy is turned to writing Against Race, and Antonia Darder joins Rodolfo D. Torres in producing the triumphal After Race. Orlando Patterson holds forth under the title "Race Over," while LoÃ¯c Wacquant and the late activist/sociologist Pierre Bourdieu brand analysis of race as an axis of inequality in Brazil as a pernicious export from a United States social science establishment that is as "cunning" as it is "imperialist."
These works are much more, and in some ways much less, than a return to Debs's "colorless" ideas. They lack the same focus on, and confidence in, socialist transformation and are often in dialogue less with class struggle than with cultural studies ideas about the importance of "hybridity" and the pitfalls of "essentialism." In the best known cases they do not specifically try to recenter class by removing a fixation on race. When they do make such an attempt at class analysis, as in the work of Adolph Reed Jr., they cannot yet deliver results. On the whole they reflect the ways that increases in immigration, intermarriage, and cross-racial adoptions have destabilized discussions of race-as-usual. Ironically the very success, largely under United Nations and nongovernmental organization auspices, of organizing around race globally has also laid bare the stark differences in national patterns of racialized inequality and the blurred borders between racial, religious, language, and national oppressions.
But while retreats from race are at least understandable in part in view of the difficult and changing political tasks that we face, they are in their most sweeping forms no more an answer when they come from the left than when they come from the right and center. The context in which they emerge, the stature of voices contributing to them, and the ways that they fit into various tempting electoral shortcuts informing left strategies, nonetheless demand that they be taken seriously. To do so requires us to look at the varieties of left critiques of race thinking, with the goal being not so much to show their incompatibility with each other than to identify various changes and threats to which they inadequately respond. The most celebrated advocates of "race is over" and "against race" positions"”Gilroy, Patterson, and Bourdieu and Wacquant"”do not directly raise the issues of race and class central to this article, but their influence and arguments must be at least briefly discussed if we are to situate and critique the more explicitly class conscious writings of Darder, Torres and Reed.
Gilroy's Against Race begins with an extraordinarily dense and challenging discussion of the connections between the very idea of "race" and what Gilroy terms "raciology," the nexus of murderous practice, policy, and science born out of seeing race. Race, Gilroy holds, is a "relatively recent and absolutely modern invention" and its scientific credentialing cannot be considered apart from its bloody implication in "evil, brutality and terror." In a new world ostensibly beyond white supremacist science, and one in which black bodies are marketed as desirable and even superhuman rather than only as degraded, Gilroy sees both new dangers and the possibility for a "novel and ambitious abolitionist project," this time doing away with race itself. "Renouncing ˜race'" becomes not only the key to "bring[ing] political culture back to life" but also the only proper "ethical" response for confronting the wrongs done under the banners of raciology. Acknowledging that for "many racialized populations, ˜race' and the hard-won, oppositional identities it supports are not to be lightly or prematurely given up," Gilroy proposes a long campaign designed to show that "action against racial hierarchies can proceed more effectively when it has been purged of any lingering respect for the idea of ˜race.'" In the book's early stages, a critique of racist science and a recognition of the need to add up the costs of ignoring gender and class divisions by some black nationalist movements seem to have Gilroy rejecting race but endorsing a more mature antiracism.
But by the book's end, despite asides suggesting that he will not too harshly judge those who hesitate to abandon the politics of antiracist solidarity in favor of a "heterocultural, postanthropological, and cosmopolitan yet-to-come," Gilroy has undercut much of the grounds of antiracism. Declaring the very "mood" of projects attacking white supremacy to be hopelessly passÃ© as we leave Du Bois's "century of the color line behind," he also strongly dissents from any firm connection of racism to power or to white supremacy. Against Race poses the choice in approaches as one between an outmoded concern for "Africa's antiquity" and an appropriate commitment to "our planet's future." Gilroy writes, "To be against racism, against white supremacism, was once to be bonded to the future. This no longer seems to be the case." The monumental but incomplete and fragile achievements of black internationalism, so searchingly explored in their contradictions in Gerald Horne's recent Race War, are reduced to scattered instances of precocious appreciation for the "planetary." The utopian dimensions that Robin D. G. Kelley shows to be essential to struggles against white supremacy and capitalism become for Gilroy moments to be captured by reading history against the grain, and through a lens that can reduce Frantz Fanon to "that prototypical black-European" noteworthy in large measure for his "indiscreetly anti-Marxist spirit."
Like Gilroy, the sometimes-on-the-left Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson explicitly pronounces Du Bois's remarks on the color line to be well past their sell-by date. "Race Over," was the headline for Patterson's projections in The New Republic in 2000. The article begins from the premise that Du Bois may have been "half-right" regarding the color line in the twentieth century, but Patterson insists that any attempt to continue to apply Du Bois's formulation would be "altogether wrong." For Patterson the problems with twenty-first-century race thinking are less political and ethical than they are simply demographic, a view scarcely different from the endless accounts in the mainstream press predicting that the United States will become a white-minority nation in the not-too-distant future. By 2050, the United States "will have problems aplenty [but] no racial problem whatsoever," Patterson tells his readers. By then, "the social virus of race will have gone the way of smallpox." This retreat from race will allegedly fall into regional patterns, the details of which call the predictions of racelessness somewhat into question. On the West Coast, "cultural and somatic mixing" will produce a population mainly "Eurasian but with a growing Latin element." In the Northeast and Midwest, deindustrialized zones of misery will contain the white, African American, and Latino poor, bound together by "social resentment" and a "lumpen-proletarian hip-hop culture," and isolated from the gated communities of the prosperous. In the Southeast, the "Old Confederacy" race divisions will continue"”"race over" does not in fact apply there"”but somehow this will make no difference in the national picture.
At almost every turn the raceless predictions coexist for Patterson with appeals to old-style raciology. "Murderous racial gang fights" remain a fact of 2050 life, and new technologies to change race are deployed. But an even more glaring contradiction obtrudes when Patterson adds other set of prognostications in a New York Times article, now distancing himself from the view of demographers that whites will become a minority in the United States in the twenty-first century. Arguing that "nearly half of the Hispanic population is white in every social sense," Patterson forecasts that "the non-Hispanic white population will...possibly even grow as a portion of the population." Patterson may be right that children of marriages between a non-Hispanic white and a Hispanic will identify as (and be identified as) "white," but the jarring contrast between the two articles suggests just how slapdash the race-is-over position remains. Race disappears and whiteness reigns.
Wacquant and Bourdieu's "On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason," published in Theory, Culture and Society in 1999, best shows how appreciation for the ways in which racial oppression differs across national boundaries can fuel an argument for jettisoning, or at least quarantining, the use of race in social theory and political strategy. The article foregrounds with surprising stridency Karl Marx's argument that the ruling ideas of an age are produced by those who dominate. However, the authors put Marx's insight into the service of an attack on the discussions of racial inequality that have recently led to adoption of forms of affirmative action in Brazil. They argue that new attention to race in that country is a result of elite ideas shipped south from the United States. Wacquant and Bourdieu pinpoint the "cultural imperialism" of U.S. scholars as the source of attempts to flatten varied regimes of race and class oppression, flattening they see as producing a misreading both of history and of current political possibilities. Focusing on the case of Brazil, Bourdieu and Wacquant contend that U.S.-inspired, U.S.-funded, and U.S.-produced research works to impose a "rigid black/white social division," offering the rest of the world a "poisonous" export. Such imperialism insinuates itself, in Bourdieu and Wacquant's view, despite the fact that its arguments are "contrary to the image Brazilians have of their own nation." It does so by trading on a perverse and unspecified combination of antiracist rhetoric and neoliberal financing for scholarship.
However, a number of acute responses, especially from the Brazilianists Michael Hanchard and John French, have criticized Bourdieu and Wacquant's contention that race is somehow a peculiarly U.S. concept, one that would have to be exported because it could not be home-grown in Brazil. The critical responses show that in neither the United States nor Brazil is race regularly deployed, as Bourdieu and Wacquant charge, for purposes of accusation rather than analysis, and that what they call the "neutralization of historical context" is a charge that might be turned back on their own reductive understanding of Brazil. Most importantly, the critics show that the scholars accused of spreading "imperialist reason" and rigid caricatures of the Brazilian social system actually continue a long line of argument within Brazil which recognizes that the historical context of displacement of indigenous people, empires, slave-trading, and slavery produced very different, but not incomparable, racial systems in Brazil and in the United States. When Hanchard draws on the work of cultural theorists Robert Stam and Ella Shohat to show that the analysis produced by Wacquant and Bourdieu is not without its own universalistic views of race (and presumed colorblindness), founded in French imperialism, the argument that we need a fuller and more complex discussion of race and empire rather than an end to debate is squarely put on the table.
Does Moving Away from Race Move Us Toward Class?
The very first words in Darder and Torres's After Race attempt to improve on Du Bois's "dictum" regarding the color line: "We echo his statement but with a radical twist. The problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of ˜race'"”an ideology that has served well to obscure and disguise class interests behind the smokescreens of multiculturalism, diversity, difference, and more recently, whiteness." After Race centrally holds that race is a biological myth at long last invalidated by science, but now dangerously recreated because scholars persist in using the term. Such scholars thereby decisively aid the rise of culturally-based neoracisms and even the recrudescence of biological racism. On this view, the "idea of race" itself, not capitalism, is somehow the "lynchpin of racism."
Like the early sections of Gilroy's Against Race, the work of Darder and Torres holds out the hope that retreating from the invocation of race will actually empower a more effective struggle against racialized hierarchies. Indeed they approve of Barbara Fields's uncharitable contention that "liberal, leftist, or progressive" writers dwell on the "homier and more tractable notion" of race to avoid being "unsettled" by talking about racism. However, as in Gilroy's case, the emphasis on racism is not sustained, and neither race nor racism function as what he calls "categories of analysis""”that is, they cannot be the reasons for people acting as they do, but must themselves be explained.
Insofar as Fields, Darder, Torres, and others contend that inattention to class distorts inquiry into all inequalities in the United States, they are exactly right. However, the strategy of banking on the retreat from race to solve that problem is a highly dubious one. It leads to an extremely embattled tone and to ignoring the most exciting work building on materialist insights. From Cheryl Harris's brilliant studies of whiteness as property, to Eduardo Bonilla-Silva's research on racial systems, to somewhat older South African scholarship on racial capitalism, to Lisa Lowe's important observations on race, universality, and labor at the start of Immigrant Acts, much work seeks to revive the class question by bringing racism and class together more systematically. But you would not know it from After Race.
Indeed at critical junctures, the book is so eager to be against race that it departs dramatically from historical materialism and thus cannot be effective for understanding class. Darder and Torres praise the liberal sociologist William Julius Wilson, for example, for supposedly demonstrating that "the significance of class has increased and is now far more salient than ˜race' in determining the life chances of African Americans." This either/or, class-not-race, position leads After Race to ignore the devastating counterarguments that Melvin Oliver, Thomas Shapiro, and others have made to Wilson's work and to subordinate to an endnote their own appreciation of the fact that Wilson's work is about as distant from Marxism as is possible. That endnote promises a different approach, focusing "with specificity [on] the dialectic between the means of production and the process of racialization," but so far Darder and Torres have not produced anything like such an analysis. Indeed After Race emphasizes theological matters, not slavery, settler colonialism, and the primitive accumulation of capital, in accounting for the origins of racialized groups. Such a view is very much consonant with the book's emphasis on plural "racisms""”including the tendency to "inferiorize" whites"”and its marginalization of any systematic discussion of white supremacy.
This same inattention to white supremacy makes it almost impossible for After Race to contribute to pressing discussions of how to build Latino-black working-class unity. The book's puzzling title"”clearly race was no more "real" in 1670 than in 2004"”makes sense in terms of the book's structure, one that culminates in chapters on Asian American and Latino experiences and emphasizes that the "browning of America" will shake old certainties regarding racism. The danger here lies in making the possibility of abandoning race contingent on the fact that the Latino population has exceeded that of African Americans. This would leave us passing out of a period of a relatively unproductive period of political mobilization based on race, during which blacks predominated, and into a promising raceless one in which Latinos do. But there is then no sustained analysis of African Americans, of African American studies, or of the tradition of black Marxism, as would seem to be necessary to calibrate such an argument. Moreover, that African Americans can practice "racism" is a consistent refrain of the study, which persistently lays all manner of mischief at the door of the civil rights and the Black Power movements. The former movement, we learn, emphasized a "liberal, rights-centered political agenda [that] undermined the development of a coherent working class movement in the United States." Here the reflexive move away from seeing racism as having critical explanatory weight lets white supremacist trade unionism off the hook and leads to the missing of the centrality of jobs, union organizing, welfare rights, poor people's campaigns, and point-of-production organizing"”of class"”to the civil rights and Black Power movements. Missing class, it becomes possible to charge that Black Power narrowly "seiz[ed] the moment in the name of antiracism and ˜black autonomy,'" and that it somehow shut off debate over the consequences of using "the language of ˜race' to do battle with racism." At its worst this line of argument allows Darder and Torres to loosely link a Black Power movement animated by anticolonialism and anticapitalism to the Nation of Islam's extravagant pronouncements on "white devils."
While Darder and Torres allow that "racism" is still a problem worth addressing, the recent writings of the radical political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. are done even with that. Sounding more like the "colorless" Debs than any major left commentator on race and class in recent memory, he argues, "Exposing racism [is] the political equivalent of an appendix: a useless vestige of an earlier evolutionary moment that's usually innocuous but can flare up and become harmful." Reed's two late-2005 articles, "Class-ifying the Hurricane" and "The Real Divide," are the signature pieces of the left retreat from race. They appear in relatively popular left/liberal venues, The Nation and The Progressive respectively, and represent attempts by a prominent activist in the movement to build a labor party in the United States to speak broadly and frankly. Moreover, Reed's scholarship had offered significant opposition to liberalism's retreat from race during the Clinton era, especially in his collection Without Justice for All.
"Class-ifying the Hurricane" appeared while the horrific impact of Katrina in Reed's former hometown of New Orleans was fresh in readers' minds, just after many had noted the racist reporting that contrasted black "looters" with white survivors shown doing precisely the same foraging. It noted "manifest racial disparities in vulnerability, treatment, and outcome" of the experience of natural disaster. And then it turned on a dime to excoriate the "abstract, moralizing patter about how and whether race matters." Even so, in this first of his two paired essays Reed's retreat from race could be read as simply a strategic one. "For roughly a generation it seemed responsible to expect that defining inequalities in racial terms would provide some remedial response from the federal government," he wrote. "But for some time race's force in national politics has been as a vehicle for reassuring whites that that ˜public' equals some combination of ˜black,' ˜poor,' and ˜loser.'" Katrina lay bare both race and class injustices, but in part because of the growing strength of racism, an effective response to it would have to be strictly "class-ified," according to Reed.
"The Real Divide" repeated, expanded, and made more bitter the arguments in The Nation article. Reed did continue to mention, in a labored construction, that he was "not claiming that systemic inequalities in the United States are not significantly racialized." Indeed "any sane or honest person" would have to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of "racial disparities [that] largely emerge from a history of discrimination and racial injustice." Nonetheless, Reed followed up these generalizations by categorically declaring that "as a political strategy exposing racism is wrongheaded and at best an utter waste of time." The focus on racism is for Reed a dodge designed to make "upper status liberals" feel morally superior as they vote for the deeply compromised Democratic Party and ignore the "real divide" of class. In one of the few bits of the article offering ostensible, if incredibly narrow and misguided, class analysis, exposing racism is said to serve "the material interests of those who would be race relations technicians." As in "Classi-fying the Hurricane" the arguments are partly that racism, being "too imprecise" and too abstract, lacks power as an analytical tool. However, the point Reed develops more is that among whites the very "discussion of race" reinforces "the idea that cutting public spending is justifiably aimed at weaning a lazy black underclass off the dole." The "racism charge," on this view, is easily defeated by Republican appeals to "scurrilous racial stereotypes" and therefore should be jettisoned.
Gilroy's Against Race at least acknowledges that a call for giving up on race-based traditions of struggle asks a lot of social movements rooted in communities of color. In law, for example, exposing racism is often the sole strategy available to protect, after a fashion, the rights of many of the poorest workers in the United States. Reed's view that elite liberalism is the source of movements to expose and combat racism"”a view much facilitated by his outspoken dismissal of the reparations movement"”forestalls consideration of the dynamics of concrete struggles around race and class, leaving the call for a retreat from race itself as something of an abstraction.
Fortunately there is no reason to decide whether to organize and to analyze around either racism or class oppression, one to the exclusion of the other. The case of New Orleans, which moved Reed to present us with such a choice, offers good examples of why we should reject it. Compare, for example, Reed's thumbs up/thumbs down approach to race and class with the left activist and writer Mike Davis's accounts of post-Katrina New Orleans. Davis raised a series of questions three months into the rebuilding process in New Orleans and perfectly captured the continuing color line and more:
Why is there so much high-level talk about abandoning the Ninth Ward as uninhabitable when no one is proposing to turn equally inundated Lakeview back into a swamp? Is it because Lakeview is a wealthy white community? And/or is it because the 30,000 reliably Democratic Black votes in the Ninth Ward hold the balance of power in Louisiana politics?
To what extent, Davis wondered, did "ethnic cleansing" and rebuilding coincide? Davis's accounts have also been especially acute on the ways in which elites, including the black political elite in New Orleans, have played on, and indeed created, black-Latino tensions during the rebuilding process. How are we to conceptualize these tensions, and to struggle to overcome them, without discussing both race and class, as well as white supremacy?
In recent antiwar demonstrations the most fascinating sign has read: "No Iraqi has ever left me to die on a roof." Its words recall haunting post-Katrina images and also bring to mind the celebrated antiwar dictum attributed to Muhammad Ali: "No Vietnamese ever called me ˜nigger.'" The latter line was perhaps the quintessential late twentieth-century example of Du Bois's insight, ignored by U.S.-centered readings of his words in The Souls of Black Folk, regarding how the color line in the United States existed in systems of racialized global inequality. We should allow that the twenty-first-century "No Iraqi" sign's variant of the earlier slogan is considerably more complex and expansive. Poor whites, and indeed the large numbers of Vietnamese resettled in the gulf region and abandoned in Katrina's considerable wake, could conceivably march under the "No Iraqi" sign. In that sense the sign, and the reality of New Orleans, speak powerfully to the most profound insight in Reed's recent work, namely that poor, mostly black, New Orleanians suffer from a plight that is "a more extreme version of the precarious position of millions of Americans today, as more and more lose health care, bankruptcy protection, secure employment, affordable housing, civil liberties, and access to education." To combat such misery will require race and class analysis, as well as antiracist and anticapitalist organization.
As Reed's articles appeared, the New York Times ran an article titled "For Blacks, A Dream in Decline." It revealed that after a 1980s peak in which one black worker in four was a union member, the figure today approaches one is seven. In the last year, African American workers accounted for a whopping 55 percent of the drop in union membership by 304,000 nationally, although they represent just one unionized worker in six. The Times article quoted William Julius Wilson himself as urgently calling on the unions to address the issue. "They haven't done so yet," he lamented. Union leaders, according to the article, "resist viewing what is happening in racial terms." One prominent labor leader quoted on the decline of black membership sounded for all of the world like Eugene V. Debs: "We see it as a class issue rather than a race issue." It is both, and the retreat from race and class will get us closer to addressing neither.