Tag: politics

Dr. Martin Luther King during Sanitation Strike Copyright Richard L. Copley

Rethinking the Problem of Alliance: Organized Labor and Black Political Life

The enduring problem of the relationship between leading political currents within organized labor, and those prevailing among African-Americans and black advocacy organizations, has once again become a central concern of the left.

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White-Working Class in Action

White Working-Class Voters and the Future of Progressive Politics

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, there have been hundreds of reflections written on the behavior, attitudes, needs, and prospects of the “white working class,” a segment of the population that will prove vital to any progressive coalition that stands for both social and economic justice. But what do we mean by "white working class"?

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How Census Data Mislead Us about Ethno-Racial Change in the United States: A Response to Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz

I am pleased to open a conversation with G. Cristina Mora and Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz about census data and what they indicate about ethno-racial change

in this issue of New Labor Forum. To forestall misunderstandings, I think it advisable at the outset to make clear the framework within which I am operating. I take it from the way that Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz formulate their critique that their starting point is critical race theory, with its normatively inflected concerns about the deep and persisting structures of American racism and the pathways to eventual racial justice. That is fine. But I am operating from a different standpoint, that of sociological realism, which has the goal of identifying and understanding important ongoing social processes and discerning their implications. This, it should be obvious, does not mean that I am unconcerned about racial justice, just as critical race theorists generally are not unconcerned about empirical patterns and their consequences.

It does not help the conversation that Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz tend throughout to downplay the significance of the concerns behind my analysis, which they characterize as narrowing “debates to the issue of ‘methodological accuracy’.” I find this an unfortunate attempt to reduce my argument to mainly technical issues (granted, these are part of the story); they miss that I, too, am talking ultimately about social power, even if I do not place it in the foreground in the piece I wrote for The American Prospect (it is more clear in other writings, some currently under review [1]).

As if in further challenge to my arguments, Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz caution that “demo- graphic projections must be handled with care.” But I could not agree more; that is in fact why I wrote The American Prospect article. Has any demographic projection received more widespread credence than the one that America is heading inevitably toward a majority-minority society, in which whites will finally be reduced to numerical minority status? According to the Census Bureau, this outcome is destined to occur before the middle of this century [2]. At the end of the last century, this transition was already heralded by then-President Bill Clinton, who declared in a widely quoted 1998 speech that in fifty years America would not have a “majority race.” Since 2000, Americans have grown more confident about this outcome, supported by regular communications from the Census Bureau that seem to support it. For instance, whites are now a minority of U.S. babies, according to one Census Bureau report (the claim in my view is false, or at least deeply misleading, because the majority of U.S. babies have a white parent) [3]. The confidence that a majority-minority society is on the near horizon has produced websites advising whites how to handle this new situation, given white supremacist groups an appeal for recruiting, and perhaps spurred over-confidence among some multi-culturally disposed intellectuals.

To clarify my problems with this vision of the American future, I have to correct some impressions conveyed by Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz. They appear to think that I am arguing that Hispanics who report their race as white on the census should be regarded as white, and so should individuals from mixed racial backgrounds (more specifically, those whose families include white and minority parentage). Neither supposition is correct. And, in the case of Latinos who check the “white” race box on the census, I agree with Mora and Rodríguez- Muñiz that the reasons for this choice are variable, and it can be a sign of resistance rather than of membership.

Yet one of the big stories of the early twenty-first century has to be the growing group of Americans, disproportionate among children and young adults because of the recent rises in the frequency of mixed unions, who come from mixed majority-minority families. Due to the limitations in census data, which are particularly severe for Latinos, this group can be most unambiguously identified among infants because one can in most cases examine the ethno-racial backgrounds of the parents (or, in the case of single-parent families, compare what the parent says about the child with what she, in the usual case, says about herself). Analyzing census data from 2013 with PhD candidates Brenden Beck and Duygu Basaran Sahin, I estimate that this group amounts to 10 to 11 percent of infants; about half are part Anglo and part Latino, a group central to the exchange with Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz [4]. These are larger numbers than one would obtain by looking only at the reports parents provide for infants. This is true for two reasons: parents sometimes report only a single race for mixed-race children, and, more important, the ethno-racial questions on the census do not permit reports that individuals are partly Latino and partly something else. (A proposed change for the 2020 census—merging the race and Hispanic-origin questions—might ameliorate this problem.)

I contend that the group of mixed-[race]origins is of great significance for discerning ways that ethno-racial boundaries may be blurring and for contemplating the American future, at least that of the next several decades. Its members straddle these salient boundaries and possess close family ties on multiple sides of them. Their experiences can reflect a potent new form of conviviality, which brings together family members from across ethno-racial divides, at least for important symbolic occasions such as weddings and funerals. Yet these experiences may also be deeply colored by power differentials, in which the less powerful experience forms of distancing such as micro-aggressions. This seems particularly apparent in the cases of individuals who are partly black.

I acknowledge that we do not yet know a great deal about the mixed-origins group. But what evidence we have is highly suggestive: to start with, an examination (in census data) of the income and residential characteristics of the families of mixed infants indicates that, on the whole, they resemble much more all-white families than they do the all-minority families that share the same minority origin. Families that have a white mother and a black father, which make up the great majority of white-black unions, are the exception to these generalizations [5].

If we examine the adult characteristics of individuals from mixed majority-minority family backgrounds—and, admittedly, the evidence is sparser here—we find a picture consistent with integration into the white mainstream for most, with those of partly black ancestry again the prominent exception. Social identities appear to be more fluid and contingent than are the identities of individuals with unmixed backgrounds. For individuals who are partly white but not black, this fluidity often “tilts white,” in the sense that they incline more to the white side of their ancestry than to the minority side—for instance, in their sense of acceptance by others [6]. The social worlds of individuals with white and non-black minority parentage also tilt white. For example, individuals whose parentage is partly white mostly marry all-white partners. In the case of individuals who are white and either American-Indian or Asian, about 70 percent do. Even in the case of adults who are partly white and partly black, a majority takes white partners [7].

This picture of the group from mixed majority-minority backgrounds leads to the hypothesis, empirically verifiable in the future, that a white majority is likely to persist longer than the widely believed census projections indicate. Indeed, I believe that we should understand the majority-minority society the Census Bureau projects for the future also as a hypothesis, rather than a predictable certainty.

What is the rationale for my hypothesis? It does not, as Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz seem to believe, rely on analytic reclassifications (i.e., forcing individuals of mixed background into the white category). Rather, the instability of the social identities of these individuals implies that they will appear in the census more often as white and non-Hispanic than we would expect based on current data. We have direct evidence on this point: in a meticulous analysis that takes advantage of a unique Census Bureau data set linking individual records from 2000 and 2010, sociologists Carolyn Liebler, Sonya Porter, and their colleagues show that individuals of mixed background frequently appear as mixed (or white Hispanic) on one census and unmixed—most often as white and non-Hispanic—on another [8]. Granted, we do not understand precisely the mechanisms of this instability, which could reflect shifting individual identities or the varying perceptions of other family members (those who complete the census form), but it occurs on a sizable scale. Moreover, for Mexican-Americans, who are the majority of the Hispanic population, we have in addition the finding of labor economists Brian Duncan and Stephen Trejo that, in the third generation, the identification with Mexican origins falls off sharply in accordance with the number of Mexican-born grandparents, a relationship that reflects the occurrence of inter-marriage in the second generation [9].

This identity instability is likely to produce more non-Hispanic whites in future censuses than one would expect because Census Bureau projections start with current census data. Individuals of mixed family background are over-represented among children, whose ethno- racial backgrounds are reported by parents, who in turn are highly likely to indicate mixed backgrounds for them. But the Census Bureau classifies these children then as non-white, and this exaggerates the growth of the minority portion of the population and ramifies through the projections (since non-whites beget non-whites). In criticizing these census practices, I never envisioned, despite what Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz suggest, that these children should be reclassified as whites. Rather, I have urged the Census Bureau to abandon binary thinking, which is not appropriate for this important and growing group. Preferable, in my view, would be to treat its members as neither white nor minority; they deserve a new category. In the event, speaking strongly against viewing them as simply minority is the degree of integration with whites that they typically evince, as described above.

Let me come now briefly to the question of power, on which Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz focus. I argue that the patterns of identity and social affiliation evidenced by individuals with mixed backgrounds are one indication that the white-dominated mainstream is expanding, taking in some individuals of minority origins. (Although space limitations prevent me from exploring historical analogies, it is worthwhile to point out that this has happened before, most notably, in the post–World War II period, when what was originally a white Christian, that is, Protestant, mainstream absorbed large numbers of Jewish and Catholic ethnics.) This expansion is not only limited to those of mixed background, but also includes many socially mobile minorities, especially from immigration backgrounds, who are entering white-dominated spaces—such as workplaces and neighborhoods—and integrating there. This is not a frictionless process—it certainly was not historically—but it is expanding and altering the mainstream, making it visibly more diverse, at least in some regions of the United States.10 Perhaps these new members of the mainstream continue to suffer some disadvantages vis-à-vis established whites, but that was true also of the white ethnics in the beginning.

This expansion is likely to have political consequences, effectively extending the political power of the white majority, if the electoral behavior of new members of the mainstream comes to resemble that of whites—determined less by minority origins than by such factors as income, education, and residential location. Based on history, this seems a plausible hypothesis [11].

In closing, I urge Mora and Rodríguez- Muñiz to rethink their argument in light of some of their own concerns. They are, for instance, concerned with the ability to use census data to measure ethno-racial disparities; so am I. Under current census practices, minority categories are increasingly heterogeneous—in the case of Latinos, census data prevent the identification and separate classification of individuals who are partly Hispanic and partly non-Hispanic white (except when they are children living with parents), and consequently, the Hispanic category includes a rising share of individuals who are integrated with whites and, in many cases, not very different from them. This heterogeneity gets in the way of measurements of disparity, which would be sharper if the portion of a group most exposed to systemic disadvantage could be identified.[12]

Their concern for social justice leads me to a different, quite political point. One of the forces that has driven our electoral politics far rightward is the anxiety many whites feel about demographic change and the prospect of losing power as they become a numerical minority in parts of the country and in the United States as a whole. Indeed, white supremacy is feeding on these anxieties, which have in turn been nourished by the Census Bureau’s projections of a majority-minority future. But the projections, I argue, are based on absurd classification decisions, such as treating children with one white and one non-white parent as non-white, as if the one-drop rule of nineteenth- century racism was still operational. It is time for census data—and other data, for that matter—to reflect more accurately the social mixing across the white-minority boundaries that is taking place on the ground in many parts of the United States. Whether greater accuracy in this respect will allay the concerns of whites, I cannot say. I have no doubt, however, that the current distortions in demographic data contribute to the toxic miasma in our political discourse enveloping questions of diversity.


Notes

  1. Richard Alba, “The Likely Persistence of White Majority,” The American Prospect,  January 2016. Cf. Richard Alba, Brenden Beck, and Duygu Basaran Sahin, “The American Mainstream Expands—Again,” under review; Richard Alba and Jan-Willem Duyvendak, “What about the Mainstream? Assimilation in Super-Diverse Times,” under review; Richard Alba, “The US Is Becoming More Racially Diverse. But Democrats May Not Benefit.” The Monkey Cage, The Washington Post, January 6, 2017.
  1. Sandra Colby and Jennifer Ortman, “Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2060” (current population report, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, 2015).
  2. D’Vera Cohn, “It’s Official: Minority Babies Are the Majority among the Nation’s Infants, but Only Just” (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2016); cf. National Vital Statistics Report, “Births: Preliminary Data for 2015” (Atlanta, GA: National Center for Health Statistics, 2016).
  3. Alba, “The Likely Persistence of White Majority.”
  4. Alba, Beck, and Sahin, “The American Mainstream Expands—Again.”
  5. Jennifer Lee and Frank Bean, The Diversity Paradox: Immigration and the Color Line in Twenty-First Century America (New York: Russell Sage, 2010); Pew Research Center, Multiracial in America: Proud, Diverse and Growing in Numbers (Washington, DC, 2015); Edward Telles and Vilma Ortiz, Generations of Exclusion: Mexican Americans, Assimilation, and Race (New York: Russell Sage, 2008).
  6. Michael Miyawaki, “Expanding Boundaries of Whiteness? A Look at the Marital Patterns of Part-White Multiracial Groups,” Sociological Forum 30, no. 4 (2015): 995-1016; Telles and Ortiz, Generations of Exclusion.
  7. Carolyn Liebler, Sonja Rastogi, Leticia Fernandez, James Noon, and Sharon Ennis, “America’s Churning Races: Racial and Ethnic Response Changes between Census 2000 and the 2010 Census” (Center for Administrative Records Research and Applications, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, 2014).
  8. Brian Duncan and Stephen Trejo, “Intermarriage and the Intergenerational Transmission of Ethnic Identity and Human Capital for Mexican Americans,” Journal of Labor Economics 29, no. 2 (2011): 195-227.
  9. Alba, Beck, and Sahin, “The American Mainstream Expands—Again.”

11. Alba, “The US Is Becoming More Racially Diverse.”

12. Richard Alba, Tomás Jiménez, and Helen Marrow, “Mexican Americans as a Paradigm for Contemporary Intergroup Heterogeneity,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 37 (2014): 446-66.

A Response to Richard Alba’s “The Likely Persistence of a White Majority”

That politics undergirds censuses is a truism. At least since Benedict Anderson wrote Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism in 1983 [1]. scholars have accepted that censuses are both political and scientific enterprises. Census racial classifications are a case in point because they have historically become instituted through political efforts. For example, “Mulatto” became a census classification in 1850 after politicians, alarmed by racial miscegenation, demanded that the Census Bureau enumerate those of black/white parentage [2] More recent ethnoracial categories have arisen as a result of the political efforts championed by community stakeholders. To wit, the Hispanic/Latino classification emerged as Mexican, Puerto Rican, and other community leaders pressured the Census Bureau for official recognition during the 1970s [3] And if a Middle Eastern/North African category is added to the next census in 2020, as is predicted, it will be because activists, academics, and others have lobbied over two decades for its inclusion. In effect, rather than reflecting an existing reality, all census racial categories emerge, or are negotiated, in such a political fashion—none exists in nature.

Despite the political origins of our official racial and ethnic categories, lay and academic prognostications about the country’s demo- graphic future rarely take politics seriously.

Take, for example, sociologist Richard Alba’s provocative commentary published in The American Prospect, “The Likely Persistence of a White Majority.” [4] Alba argues that recent reports

about the looming “browning of America” and the development of a “white minority” are over- blown. His claim rests on two points, the first of which involves how the Census Bureau presents racial statistics to the public. Specifically, because it classifies Latinos and mixed-race (i.e., white/ racial minority) Americans as non-white by default on census reports, the Bureau, according to Alba, “produces the smallest possible estimate” of the size of the white population. Alba contends that at least some Latinos and some persons of mixed racial heritage would be more accurately classified as white. Doing so would increase the size of the white population and thus generate a less “biased” portrait of America’s racial future.

Alba’s second point concerns the Bureau’s racial forecasts, specifically its recent contention that America is moving toward a minority majority future. He argues that the Bureau’s (and other analysts’) prognosis ignores the extent to which Latinos, immigrants, and mixed-race persons are assimilating into the white-dominant mainstream. He points to increases in mixed-race marriage (white/non-white) and higher levels of individual social mobility among minorities to make his case. The “likely result” of assimilation, Alba contends, “will be to alter the circumstances under which individuals are seen as belonging to marginalized minorities.” As a result, the “longstanding processes of assimilation could produce a white-dominated mainstream at the national level.”

Neither of Alba’s points, however, deals squarely with politics. His claim about census reporting conventions ignores the implications that racial classifications have for racial justice. After all, various activists still fight for these categories to include whom they do for specific political reasons relating to the needs of their communities. Moreover, his argument about assimilation and the enlargement of the white mainstream overlooks the sociopolitical complexity of race, especially the role of privilege and hierarchy. This failure to grapple with politics hinders broader conversations about census race data because it narrows debates to the issue of “methodological accuracy,” a concept that itself is not devoid of politics [5]. As a result, conclusions about who racial minorities are and what census race data represent become decontextualized and incomplete.

In response to Alba, we bring politics to the fore, specifically as it relates to knowledge construction and the issue of racial incorporation. Our response focuses primarily on Latinos, as this population is a key category in Alba’s analysis and is the subject of our sociological expertise. We begin by considering the politics of census reporting conventions, highlighting the much-neglected issue of racial justice. We then move on to a discussion of census data and assimilation. We conclude by addressing racial forecasts, demonstrating how politics, rather than simply demographic inevitability or the dynamics of social mobility, will also ultimately determine the country’s future and the status of its ethnic and racial populations.

Census Statistics and Racial Justice Projects

Alba critiques the Census Bureau in the interest of producing more “accurate data.” He writes,

“Not only do its rigid and illogical classifications distort important new realities, the bureau is also not forthcoming about the errors and uncertainties involved.” This language of accuracy and validity—language the Census Bureau itself embraces—treats census classifications and reporting practices simply as technical and methodological matters. Accordingly, it narrowly assesses census data in relation to statistical procedures and presentation. But there are other ways to evaluate census statistics, such as looking at them “in terms of their practical utility for social projects.” [6]

What practical utility do census race statistics have today? The answers vary, as different stake-holders use these data for different ends. Government agencies use race statistics to assess the social landscape and inform policymaking. Corporations rely on race data to market their products to different demographic communities. Social scientists draw on the statistics in their analyses. Census categories and statistics even foster narratives of community and belonging, not to mention a sense of moral worth, for those seeking an identity or recognition.

In addition, activists and social movements, particularly in the wake of the civil rights era, have turned to racial statistics to expose social inequality. In a political context that values numerical forms of knowledge, statistical evidence of underrepresentation and inequality has been indispensable to racial justice campaigns. For example, although Mexican-American and Puerto Rican activists in the 1960s argued continuously that their communities suffered from poverty and low levels of education, it was not until they possessed official census figures showing disparities that their arguments gained traction in many government sectors [7]. Census race data have also been—and continue to be— vital for monitoring voting districts and curtailing the gerrymandering practices that often disenfranchise people of color. If there is any question about the importance of racial statistics for these efforts, we implore readers to follow what has happened in Texas and North Carolina—states where the revamping of districts effectively diluted the political clout of racial minorities.

Racial statistics, as the preceding examples illustrate, are employed to make visible the systems of domination and punishment that affect communities of color at material and cultural levels [8] Indeed, black and Latino classifications help to provide evidence of how these communities suffer from limited access to quality education, grapple with mass incarceration and racial profiling, and remain underrepresented in major centers of power, from the academy to elected office. In many ways, our census race data show that the cultural scripts and institutional barriers that treat minorities as morally and professionally inferior to whites are still very much operative.

Given this racialized system, census statistics and issues of classification cannot from our perspective be assessed narrowly in terms of statistical procedure. Questions of accuracy and validity are important, but exclusively focusing on these issues ignores larger matters. We argue that proposals for making changes to census categories or reporting practices must address the political utility of race statistics for racial justice. In other words, questions and analysis of racial classification must also grapple with the issue of how changes in reporting, classifying, and collecting race data will affect racial justice projects.

Evaluating census statistics with these overt political criteria reveals the limitations of Alba’s suggestion that some Latinos and mixed-race individuals would be more accurately classified as white. We believe that adopting this practice could make it more difficult to uncover certain forms of ethnoracial inequality, given that the distinct patterns of these communities may be lost when subsumed within the broader white data. Indeed, this lack of identifying information was precisely the problem prior to the adoption of the “Hispanic” category. Only when Hispanic data were disaggregated from the white category did it become possible to statistically track the discrimination and disparities facing the Latino population. In other words, classifying Latinos as white imperiled rather than aided their fight for racial justice. Undergirding Alba’s suggestion, we believe, is an unserviceable conception of whiteness. This conception ignores the institutionalized complexity of race, including patterns of hierarchy, privilege, and domination. Thus, we now turn to the issue of precisely how to conceptualize race and whiteness within census analyses.

Assimilation and the Meaning of Whiteness

In government and marketing reports, whiteness is just another variable, a racial category among many: a self-selected identity with certain correlated attributes (e.g., education level, income). Whiteness, in other words, is a statistical artifact that distinguishes a certain population from others.

However, as conceived in racial justice projects, and for race scholars more generally, whiteness is about privilege and hierarchy [9]. Being white in America is not simply about identities or individual attributes that can be gained or lost, but rather about a privilege that has been reified within most institutions in America—from schools to workplaces to jury rooms to police forces. Moreover, it is about a hierarchy that attaches narratives about moral worth and legitimacy to images of whiteness. As such, those deemed “white” can lose income, status, or other individual attributes but not necessarily become divested of the privilege that whiteness affords, benefits that the pre-eminent sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois described as the “wages of whiteness.”

 These two competing conceptions of whiteness have different implications for how we theorize the present and potential future position of Latinos and mixed-raced individuals. Viewing whiteness as linked to power and privilege complicates claims about assimilation into the white mainstream. We do not deny that people of color can become more upwardly mobile and gain access to spaces that have historically excluded them. Alba emphasizes this in his essay, noting that many Asians and other minorities now constitute a larger part of the upper class. Nor do we wish to trivialize growing rates of inter-marriage among some Latinos and mixed-raced persons. However, we are critical of those analyses that are quick to link mobility and marriage patterns to blanket statements inferring white boundary blurring.

Our criticism of these assimilation conclusions is based on the fact that America’s racial scripts and hierarchies are still heavily institutionalized in ways that validate whiteness [10]. The recent incorporation of white nationalist (sometimes euphemistically called “alt-right”) groups within the present White House administration is but one clear example. Moreover, these racial scripts persist despite the fact that people of color have experienced improvements in social mobility. As such, even those folks of color who attain high professional status are often devalued because they are not white. Professors and other professionals of color, for example, are often presumed less competent than their white counterparts [11] President Obama, the first black president in U.S. history, and the first family were subjected to overtly racist tropes splashed across the covers of high-profile publications. And while we agree that a certain strata of minorities may become (or has already become) what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “honorary whites,” [12] we insist that the broader racial scripts and systems of domination remain by and large intact.

With respect to Latinos in particular, the suggestion that on the whole they are becoming white underestimates the ongoing racial stigmatization and exclusion faced by many in this community. Such arguments do not account for present-day anti-Latino and anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. Should we assume that mass deportations, which, too, often lead to the separation of Latino families, or inflammatory electoral campaigns will have no effect on how Latinos identify and understand their place in U.S. society for years to come? And what of the widespread presumptions of illegality that Latino citizens must contend with?

Moreover, scholars who see the growing number of Latinos selecting “white” on the census as straightforward evidence of Latinos becoming white rarely contextualize such data within political history or current social dynamics. To be sure, some Latinos understand themselves as racially white. This identification may be interpreted as aspirational—a kind of racial passing—but it does not necessarily provide blanket evidence for the inevitable social inclusion of Latinos in the white-dominant mainstream. In fact, Professor Julie Dowling of the University of Illinois shows that Mexican Americans identify as “white” on the census not because they are accepted as white or even because they see themselves as white. Rather, by reframing the borders of whiteness to include them, Mexican Americans resist racial “othering,” in an effort to be accepted as fully American [13]

Political sociologist Mara Loveman uncovers a similar dynamic in her research on early twentieth-century census enumeration in the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico [14] These examples suggest that white self-identification—the very evidence some scholars have used to make claims about the whitening or assimilation of Latinos—may in fact register conditions of ethnoracial exclusion. In other words, choosing whiteness is also related to the perils of living as a minority for many.

Our discussions about assimilation and racial identification, then, must entail more than inter-marriage and social mobility patterns, however important these might be. They should also recognize that in the U.S. ethnoracial order, entrenched privileges and opportunities are afforded to some and not to others. Only once this is understood can scholars begin to interpret the relationship between social mobility and racial identification, for example. These realities of power and inclusion must also be accounted for when forecasting trends, as Alba does. Such analyses, however, also need to attend to the ways that forecasts themselves shape the political context in which assimilation or integration unfolds.

Racial Forecasts in National Politics

It is one thing to classify and report on current trends, another to make projections and forecasts about the nation’s future. We hesitate to join the chorus of commentators who proclaim one demographic future or another, as Alba and others do. Our reluctance stems from the fact that demographic projection typically ignores political context. Politics are, quite literally, not factored into the predictive statistical models. But this is not our only source of hesitation. Demographic prognosticators also tend to ignore or be less concerned with the political impact of their projections.

Indeed, forecasts have real consequences for national politics, both on the left and right. On the liberal left, the “browning of America” prognosis has quickly fueled a race to secure the Latino and Asian vote, because these communities are believed to be the impetus behind the nation’s demographic changes. Therefore, the Democratic Party has steadily built a ground game in states such as Nevada, Virginia, Arizona, and Florida with a focus on securing Latino and Asian support. These moves seem promising, but far too often, such efforts seek to simply capitalize on these populations rather than invest in or support them. Rarely, if ever, do electoral campaigns genuinely take on issues of racial domination and privilege, instead holding communities of color captive to the slow, almost glacial, progress of electoral politics.

On the right, arguments about the browning of America can fuel paranoia, backlash, and hate campaigns [15] The forecasts become twisted into narratives that minorities, especially immi- grants, are “taking over” and thus diminishing the values and morals upon which the nation was founded [16]. Alba himself makes the point that “the anxieties about the end of white majority status have fueled a conservative backlash against the growing diversity of the country.” This script has historically helped to shore up Republican Party support: President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric that Mexican immigration brings in “criminals” and “bad hombres” is a case in point. Such nativist resentment is fueled in part by a sense that the country is no longer majority Anglo.

Given this context surrounding demographic projections, our analyses must begin to factor in the real political consequences for how we understand race and for how Americans understand their position within the nation. Racial forecasts are not neutral; they are politically charged, particularly as they travel beyond scientific contexts. When we forget this, focusing instead on which forecast is more unbiased or more accurate, we reinforce the tendency to take projections as an inevitable truth rather than a contingent prediction. Moreover, in concerning ourselves with matters of accuracy, we may inadvertently contribute to the nativist backlash and fuel the very political trends that reinforce racial inequality. Of course, we do not contend that racial forecasts are the only, or most important, influence on national racial politics. However, we do believe that ignoring the political context and consequences of such forecasts leaves us blind to one of the factors that may be shaping the political conditions of incorporation for non-white populations.

For these reasons, demographic projections must be handled with care. No future scenario, including the white minority thesis, should be viewed as inevitable. Taking a stance against one forecast by offering another, as Alba does, simply perpetuates the faulty logic of assuming that there is a “true,” scientifically valid mode of interpretation. In addition, such an approach ignores the very ways that census forecasts play a role in reifying America’s pernicious racial scripts.

Let us reiterate the centrality of politics in demographic analyses. Racial classifications and race census data are political constructs that nonetheless help to code past and present forms of inequality and discrimination. They can provide vital measures of the exclusionary power structure, data that can bolster racial justice projects. However, when analyses and discussions about race data fail to acknowledge the central role of politics, arguments about accuracy, bias, and measurement will fall dangerously short. It is only when scholars begin to take politics seriously that our analyses of census data will more comprehensively reflect how race is lived in America.


Notes

  1. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso Press, 1983).

2. Melissa Nobles, Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2004).

3. G. Cristina Mora, Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

4.Richard Alba, “The Likely Persistence of White Majority,” American Prospect, January 19, 2016.

5. Theodore Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

6. Bruce Curtis, The Politics of Population: State Formation, Statistics and the Census of Canada, 1840-1975 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 34.

7. Mora, Making Hispanics.
8. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial

Formation in the United States (New York:

Routledge, 2015).
9. Ian Haney Lopez, White by Law: The Legal

Construction of Race (New York: New York

University Press, 2006).
10. Natalia Molina, How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).

11. Gabriela Gutierrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Nieman, Carmen Gonzalez, and Angela Harris, Presumed Incompetent: the Intersection of Race and Class for Women in Academia (Salt Lake City: Utah State University Press, 2012).

12. Eduardo Bonilla Silva, “From Bi-racial to Tri-racial: Towards a New System of Racial Stratification in the USA,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 27, no. 6 (2004): 931-50.

13. Julie Dowling, Mexican Americans and the Question of Race (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013), 7.

14. Mara Loveman, “The U.S. Census and the Contested Rules of Racial Classification in Early Twentieth-Century Puerto Rico.” Caribbean Studies 35, no. 2 (2007): 79-114.

15. Melissa Abrajano and Zoltan Hajnal, White Backlash: Immigration, Race, and American Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015); Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz, “Temporal Politics of the Future: National Latino Civil Rights Advocacy, Demographic Statistics, and the ‘Browning’ of America,” in Department of Sociology (Providence: Brown University, 2015).

16. Samuel Huntington, Who Are We: The Challenges to America’s National Identity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005).

Gutting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

You know things have gotten bad for the banking industry when even the bankers themselves are beating up on their own. After the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced back in early September that it was fining Wells Fargo nearly $200 million—the largest fine ever levied by the Bureau—for the “widespread illegal practice” of opening dummy accounts, filling them with depositors’ funds without their knowledge or authorization, and then cashing in on the accounts by assessing consumers’ fees and other charges, you could almost hear the bankers of the world collectively throwing up their hands. “Not that Senator Elizabeth Warren needed more ammunition to protect the CFPB,” grumbled Jaret Seiberg of the Cowen Group, a leading financial services company, “but she has it now.” Camden Fine, president of the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA), put it even more bluntly. “Wells’ greed has made it much more difficult for ICBA to get much needed regulatory relief,” Fine groused.

An invention of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the CFPB was created to rein in the bottom-feeders of the financial community. But the revelation that the largest bank in the world by market capitalization had just been caught with its hand in the cookie jar was not what really bothered Fine and Seiberg. Rather, it was the extraordinarily poor timing of the news that rankled them most of all. On the very same day the CFPB issued its consent order against Wells Fargo, the House Financial Services Committee announced that it would begin hearings on a new piece of legislation, the Financial Choice Act, introduced by Republican Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas. Hensarling, one of Wall Street’s most contentedly kept men on Capitol Hill (to the tune of $1.2 million in campaign contributions during the 2016 election cycle alone), drafted the Financial Choice Act in effect to gut or destroy the regulatory provisions put in place by Dodd-Frank, and especially Elizabeth Warren’s brainchild, the CFPB (no wonder, then, that Warren has called the bill “Congressman Hensarling’s wet-kiss to the Wall Street banks”). So when Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf found himself hauled before the public to confess sheepishly that “we make mistakes,” just as Hensarling was beginning the campaign to bring the Financial Choice Act to a floor vote, the ICBA’s Fine grimly rued the inopportune coincidence: “Much-needed CFPB reform is basically DOA,” he acknowledged by way of a postmortem. A little more than a month later, Stumpf himself was DOA—victim of an unceremonious early retirement package that included a “claw back” of nearly $41 million in previously awarded stock bonuses.

If that turns out to be the fate of the Financial Choice Act as well—which, among other things, would replace the CFPB’s existing “consumer watchdog” executive structure with a bipartisan commission subject to the unpredictable currents of congressional appropriations, while repealing its ability to ban financial products deemed to be abusive—it will not have been the first attempt to curtail the Bureau’s regulatory effectiveness. Nor is it likely to be the last. Ever since the 2010 passage of Dodd-Frank, the CFPB has been a perennial target for the banks and financing companies that fall under its umbrella. And with the ready assistance of hired guns like Hensarling, a proliferating array of industries that manufacture increasingly novel (and frequently quite predatory) financial products, which often remain just outside of that umbrella, have been fighting toothand-nail to keep the CFPB out of its turf.

Take, for instance, the world of for-profit educational companies. A state-subsidized boondoggle of alarming proportions, the degree-mill industry has raked in as much as $32 billion annually in taxpayer dollars in recent years, even as the Department of Education reports that 72 percent of for-profit colleges produce graduates who earn less on average than the typical high school dropout in the overall population. For that dubious honor, another study concluded, the typical University of Phoenix or DeVry graduate leaves school “ripped off, unemployed, and deep in debt,” and six times more likely to default on her student loan than a graduate of a non-profit or public college.

This kind of track record of consumer abuse is exactly what the CFPB was created to address, so it was a salutary development when the Bureau secured a $530 million judgment against Corinthian Colleges, one of the industry’s worst offenders, in the fall of 2015, while forcing Corinthian out of business in the process. A similar outcome resulted when the CFPB went after the ITT Technical Institute, which announced it was closing its doors in September 2016. But when the CFPB attempted to push its regulatory authority still further into the workings of the for-profit education industry, the industry pushed back. Noting that forprofit institutions become eligible to participate in massively lucrative federal financial aid programs by being accredited by a recognized agency, the Bureau issued a civil investigative demand— effectively a comprehensive subpoena preliminary to a full investigation—to the century-old Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), requesting information on how the process had worked for low-performers like Corinthian.

The ACICS responded by refusing to turn over the requested information, while appealing the CFPB’s demand on the legal grounds that the Bureau was “delving into accreditation oversight, not consumer financing, and is overstepping its bounds into an area that is exclusively under the control of the Department of Education.” Meanwhile, the for-profit educational industry’s political allies swung into action as well. Two powerful Congressional Republicans—Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, chair of the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions; and Minnesota’s John Kline, chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce—sent a scathing letter to CFPB Director Richard Cordray, attacking the Bureau’s “unprecedented overreach” and insisting that it “immediately rescind” the information request.

Alexander and Kline explained their opposition to the CFPB’s move by arguing that “determining the role of accreditors for federal purposes is a congressional responsibility, not yours.” But their unacknowledged connections to the worst offenders in the for-profit college industry surely mattered. Eight of the leading for-profit education corporations, including Corinthian and ITT Tech, have been the subject of state- or federal-level investigations in recent years; Lamar Alexander has received substantial campaign contributions from all eight of them. During the last complete campaign cycle, in 2014, John Kline was among the top three congressional recipients of campaign dollars from five of the eight colleges (or from their ownership groups, if privately held). From three of them, Kline received more campaign contributions than any other individual member of Congress.

The political pressure had its intended effect. In April 2016, a conservative federal judge appointed by George W. Bush denied the CFPB’s civil investigative demand, throwing a significant obstacle in the way of the Bureau’s attempts to extend its watchdog duties into the accreditation process.

The for-profit education racket is not the only place where predatory financial companies and their lackeys on the Hill have been working to impede the Bureau’s more expansive ambitions. In recent months, the CFPB has also been trying to shine a light into the shadowy world of structured settlement purchasing—and with remarkably similar results.

Structured settlement purchasing is one of those ubiquitous industries you have probably never heard of. Recognizable for their familiar “get cash now!” television and radio ads, structured settlement purchasers are companies that give consumers immediate lump sum cash payments at discounted rates, in exchange for future streams of payments usually associated with a settlement in a lawsuit. For instance, Freddie Gray—the Baltimore man whose death while in police custody led to weeks of unrest and trials for six Baltimore police officers— had been the beneficiary of a lead-poisoning settlement when he was a child; by the time he was twenty-three, the Washington Post reported, Gray had sold a Maryland-based financial company called Access Funding $146,000 in future payments, in exchange for just $18,300 in lump sum payouts. And Freddie Gray is far from alone—according to the National Structured Settlements Trade Association, between $8 and $10 billion worth of settlement payments are purchased by companies like Access Funding every year, often at deeply discounted prices that leave desperate consumers like Gray with just pennies on the dollar for what their original settlements would have been worth. After the Post story broke, most of Maryland’s judiciary and the state’s attorney general joined Congressman Elijah Cummings in demanding a deeper investigation into “how private companies make profits buying and selling settlements that are meant to ensure victims have reliable incomes, and how we can best protect vulnerable individuals from predatory and abusive practices.”

The largest player in the structured settlement market, by far, is J. G. Wentworth, a Pennsylvania company that does business across the country under a few different brand names. In September 2015, the CFPB issued a civil investigative demand to J. G. Wentworth, which the company refused to comply with on the dubious grounds that, because the company does not lend money to consumers (i.e., provide them with credit) but rather purchases outright their future payment streams, structured settlement payouts are “not a consumer financial product” and, therefore, outside of the CFPB’s purview. The CFPB rejected J. G. Wentworth’s petition to set aside the information request, but the company still refused to comply, throwing the decision to the courts once again and hoping for a favorable ruling like the one that spared the ACICS.

At this writing, the outcome of the CFPB’s efforts to extend its regulatory oversight into the market for structured settlement purchasing also remains up in the air. And that is exactly why so much of the financial community was so frustrated with the poor timing of the Wells Fargo fiasco. By cutting the CFPB off at the knees, the Financial Choice Act is the banking lobby’s most significant effort yet to roll back the regulatory reforms that emerged from the financial crisis of 2008—a crisis that began, remember, because of the lawless and predatory behavior of an industry selling a particularly ubiquitous consumer product. No wonder, then, that JLL Partners, the private equity firm that has owned a majority stake in J. G. Wentworth since 2006, has given more money to Jeb Hensarling than any other member of Congress in each of the last two election cycles.

Assuming Wells Fargo and their ilk can avoid tripping over their own feet, Hensarling, Alexander, Kline, and the rest of their cronies on the Hill know exactly what they need to do to keep the money flowing.

The Black-Labor-Left Alliance in the Neoliberal Age

The report, A Future for Workers: A Contribution from Black Labor, brings together the perspectives and voices of significant black American trade union leadership to contribute to the important conversation concerning ways forward for labor and allied movements in these perilous times. The collective authors of the document, which was released in July 2015, bring a wealth of experience and standing in the trade union movement to ask: “What is it that workers need and want? How can this then become not the ‘special interests’ of an isolated labor movement, but a robust agenda that can rally the bottom 99 percent to collective action?” Their responses seek with mixed success to advance our strategic thinking with regard to building the broad movement necessary to “rally the bottom 99 percent.”

Those questions have occupied the labor-left for decades, at least since the systematic business attack on unions and social wage policies became visible in the 1980s. These issues drove the insurgent mood that grew out of the anti-concessions and NAFTA fights in the 1980s and early 1990s and the organizational expressions that emerged from the cauldron of those fights. The latter included the effort to build a politically independent Labor Party centered in the union movement, the more electoral, less specifically class-based approach of the New Party and then Working Families Party, the sometimes quasi-syndicalist styles of activist organizing and politics associated with the “new unionism,” and most of all the sea change in the AFL-CIO represented in the New Voices alliance embodied by John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, and Linda Chavez-Thompson—who were swept into the Federation’s leadership in 1995. Of course, many, if not most of the authors of A Future for Workers were involved in some or all of those currents, and the analyses and strategic thinking they present reflect that experience.

The document has three components–an assessment of the political situation that confronts us; an extensive list of policy and program recommendations in the areas of Jobs and Economic Development, the Environment, Criminal Justice, Distribution of Wealth, Education, Tolerance and Equity, and the Labor Movement; and a more general argument about the approach necessary to build a movement capable of winning those objectives. A Future for Workers underscores the massive increases in inequality that have occurred since the 1970s and that have intensified since the 2007/08 financial crash. The policy recommendations are, for the most part, initiatives that would make life demonstrably better for working people and the society as a whole and that could be readily adopted with only a change in government priorities and the prevailing terms of political debate. Most of those proposals are in the vein of general policy directions rather than nuts and bolts initiatives, and they are in line with the broad current of progressive policy proposals that have been circulating for some time now. Among labor activists, they would not be controversial.

The specific reform proposals are less significant than their source, however. Especially in light of the controversy sparked in the past year by Black Lives Matter activists concerning the relation between black and working-class political agendas, a statement from black American labor leaders articulating a perspective that connects racial injustice and broader economic inequalities suggests a programmatic and interpretive framework that could help bridge tensions and divisions that only benefit corporate power and the political right. A Future for Workers points to challenges we face in generating and sustaining the broad solidarities necessary to turn the political tide in a direction that makes the interests and basic concerns of working people the top priority. It likens black workers to the “canary in the mine” because they commonly are hit earliest and especially hard by economic crises and assaults; yet what happens to them as the most vulnerable workers will before long affect those somewhat less vulnerable, and so on until all workers and our living and working conditions are under full-scale attack.

In linking race and class inequalities, A Future for Workers follows in a tradition of black trade union activism that reaches back to A. Philip Randolph and the black-labor-left alliance that was a crucially important force in American politics through the first three decades after World War II. In its understanding of what those links are and what we can do about them, however, it also reflects the degree to which neoliberal notions of equality and social justice have in crucial and unhelpful ways compromised the terms of working-class resistance to injustice. For example, embrace of the presumptions of contemporary anti-racist politics leads the document’s authorsto contend that increasing diversity in the union movement is pivotal for reversing labor’s decline, even though both membership and leadership have become more diverse precisely in the period of steepest decline. Moreover, it is unclear even what a “genuine national dialogue on race and racism” could be, much less how it could proceed and what impact it could have on congealing a broadly based working-class movement.

Randolph and his Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters led the original March on Washington Movement that pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 to issue Executive Order 8802 barring discriminatory employment practices among defense contractors and federal agencies. The 1944 volume, What the Negro Wants, a collection of analyses by prominent leftist, centrist, and conservative black public figures edited by historian Rayford Logan, indicated a consensus among black racial advocates across the ideological spectrum that a strong industrial union movement and expansion of social wage policies were essential for black Americans’ continuing success in pursuit of racial justice and equality.[i] That alliance was crucial in winning the major victories of the civil rights movement–from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was pivotal, through Randolph’s Negro American Labor Council (NALC), in mobilization for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom, and in the struggle for state and federal Fair Employment Practices legislation. The alliance was also instrumental in the struggle for social wage policies such as Medicare and the War on Poverty.

In 1966 Randolph and the AFL-CIO’s new A. Philip Randolph Institute published A “Freedom Budget” for All Americans, anchored by the objectives of reducing unemployment to less than 3 percent by 1968 and poverty to no more than 1 or 2 percent by 1975.[ii] The Freedom Budgetcalled for: increase of the federal minimum wage to a level that would lift the working poor out of poverty, provision of guaranteed income above the poverty level for those unable to work, guaranteed access to affordable, good-quality housing for all, access to proper medical care for all, as well as educational opportunity for all “up to the limits of their abilities and ambitions, at costs within their means,” expansion of funding for the public sector to repair and improve physical infrastructure, maintainenance of adequate environmental standards, and expansion of public transportation.[iii]

Randolph had pointed out at the March on Washington that the “Civil Rights Revolution is not confined to the Negro; nor is it confined to civil rights, for our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not, and we know that we have no future in a society in which six million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty…Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practices Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers, black and white? We want integrated public schools, but that means we also want federal aid to education–all forms of education.”[iv] In publicly introducing the Freedom Budget he stressed that, although blacks would benefit disproportionately from its proposed interventions, the Budget should not be seen as a civil rights initiative. He noted that “while most Negroes live in poverty and desperation, it is not true that most of the poor are Negroes. We must not forget that 75 percent of the poor are white. No less than Negroes are they denied adequate income, decent housing, quality education, sufficient health care and security.”[v]

Arguably, that mid-1960s moment was the apogee of the social-democratic black-labor-left alliance as the social movement that Randolph and others had struggled for so long to build and sustain. The Freedom Budget can be seen, although only in retrospect, as a last-ditch effort to assert a politics based on commitment to full employment against an emerging Democratic liberalism that began moving away from that commitment in the Kennedy administration, when policymakers began to disconnect both poverty and racial inequality from the larger dynamics of American capitalist political economy. The Freedom Budget initiative did not gain traction, and by the middle of the 1970s the germs of what would later become neoliberalism had begun to take shape. Our current political situation–including the dominant perspectives on the relation of race and class in American life and politics—has evolved from that shift, which solidified as a new regime based on the absolute priority of business- and investor-class interests under the Reagan and Clinton presidencies.

One difference is that today it is no longer true that the poor are 75 percent white. The waves of immigration initially made possible by the Act of 1965 have changed the racial make-up of the American population, with the result that in addition to the over 18 million white and the over 11 million black poor, around 5 million Latinos and 2 million Asians and Pacific Islanders are living in poverty.  Which makes it even more urgent that we recognize the need to galvanize a broad political alliance capable of shifting the center of gravity in American politics to give priority to the interests, needs, and concerns of working people and their families—who are the substantial majority of the American population–of all races, genders, sexual orientations, ages, and every immigration status. Randolph and the black labor-left of his time proceeded from a political understanding that racial inequality is most consequentially rooted in the workings of capitalist political economy. The Freedom Budget advanced that view, for example, through an argument concerning the disparate impacts of increases in unemployment, which, it notes, tend to be concentrated among the most vulnerable populations.

These would be the older workers; the young people seeking to enter the labor force for the first time; the semi-skilled and relatively unskilled; the nonwhites rather than the whites, and the women rather than the men, insofar as discrimination against nonwhites and women remained, or because discrimination during the past century and longer has prevented nonwhites and women on the average from having the degree of training and education which others have. But to say that this would be the reason why they became unemployed would be like saying that, if half of the people in a lifeboat died from exposure because they were not as strong as the others in the boat, the cause was the condition of their health, not the shipwreck. Likewise if there were too few lifeboats, and the strong kept the weak out….

To state all this in a different way, the fact that Negroes tend to be the first fired and the last hired when jobs are insufficient should not prevent us from recognizing that this phenomenon, so central to the racial problem, would not exist if there were jobs for all. This, of course, does not deny the need for anti-discrimination efforts; excessive unemployment is no excuse for discrimination in the imposition of the evil.[vi]

A very different perspective on pursuit of racial justice has arisen since the 1990s. As with any ideology, one element of neoliberalism’s triumph, its broad internalization as unreflected-upon common sense, has been its success in reinterpreting the past in ways that read its worldview back and forth across historical eras as the deepest truth of social life. That is one mechansim through which the infamous TINA–There Is No Alternative –dictum is implanted and reproduced. In light of that dynamic, it is significant that the dominant interpretive tendency in both scholarship and commentary concerning black American politicsstresses celebration of black “agency” and reduces black political history to either inspirational stories of individual triumph over obstacles,accounts of “resistance” to an essentially unchanging, transhistorical racism or white supremacy or pursuit of fundamentally quietistic goals such as “autonomy,” “community,” and “family.” This perspective severs black politics from its historical and social contexts and to that extent fits comfortably with and reinforces–in line with Margaret Thatcher’s quip that “There is no such thing [as society]! There are individual men and women andthere are families”[vii]–the neoliberal denial of historical specificity, the significance of political institutions, and, most of all, class dynamics.

In particular, a revisionist understanding of the heroic period of postwar black political struggle airbrushes out its class character and reinvents both the civil rights insurgency and the Jim Crow social order without their political-economic foundations. The reinvention projects instead a purely moralistic conflict between racism and its victims, a narrative of generic black suffering and occasionally overcoming, sprinkled with encomia to the accomplishments and magnetism of larger than life, great black individuals.[viii] That could not be more fundamentally at odds with the vision articulated by Randolph and the black labor-left. Yet it is perfectly compatible with neoliberalism’s market-based moral order of a world made up of good people and bad people and in which the social collectivity is replaced by voluntarism and self-reliance led by exemplary individuals.

In the same vein, during the last decade or so an antiracist politics that stresses exposing and challenging apparent racial disparities has risen to the fore in public discourse as mediated through the corporate mass information industry, including the blogosphere. This politics, as exemplified most recently in the current associated with the Black Lives Matter slogan, rests on a racial expressivism that is at least evocative of the race-first Black Power nationalism that emerged from the defeat of the black labor-left alliance in the late 1960s. And, like Black Power, it is more performative than strategic. It also insists, perhaps even more emphatically than Black Power radicalism, that all apparent injustices experienced by black Americans must be understood to stem most fundamentally from reified notions of racism or white supremacy–ideas stripped from historical context and treated as forces capable of acting to produce outcomes in the world.

But the black political insurgency of the 1950s and 1960s did not battle an abstraction like racism. It certainly congealed around a commitment to improving black Americans’ circumstances.  However, the objectives that mobilized and sustained that insurgent politics as a movement were concrete and historically specific: from challenging segregation of public transit in Montgomery and in public accommodations generally in Greensboro and elsewhere, to the ongoing fight for legislative and judicial prohibition of codified racial discrimination in employment, education, housing (including state enforcement of nominally private discrimination, as in restrictive real estate covenants that depended on legal sanction of housing discrimination and the federal government’s subsidy of the real estate industry’s racialized system of valuation and mortgage brokers’ racialized system of financing) and other areas, as well as for federal civil rights and voting rights legislation.  As Randolph and others made clear, the movement’s objectives were not reducible only to specifically racial issues because most black Americans are working class, and therefore anything that advances the interests of the working class is pertinent for them.

As Randolph observed, a focus on disparities without simultaneous attention to the larger structures of inequality and dispossession is self-defeating. That criticism should have more force now than it had then because overall inequality has intensified exponentially, and challenging disparities does not address that intensifying inequality.[ix] Instead, contemporary anti-racist politics proceeds from a notion of justice based on the premise that social and economic costs and benefits should be distributed on a principle of racial parity, which is consistent with the liberal anti-racist ideal of genuine equality of opportunity. That view sidesteps the class-based political vision articulated by the black labor-left, and in some cases actively rejects it as a racially inauthentic, “white” or “brocialist” expression of white supremacist privilege, and thus a discourse of oppression. As I have pointed out elsewhere, according to that anti-racist perspective, the society could be just if one percent of the population controlled 90 percent of the resources so long as 12 percent of the one percent were black, half were female, and so on. That is the quintessence of what we might call the left-neoliberal ideal of social justice–sharp and intensifying inequality combined with (more or less sincere and enthusiastic) commitment to diversity. [x]

Randolph, his and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s associate Bayard Rustin and others also understood that attacking the larger dynamics of capitalist inequality requires a broadly- based social and political movement anchored to a social-democratic agenda. That sort of movement can be built only on the basis of solidarities grounded and cultivated on perception of shared social position, experience, and objectives, and that perception can take hold only in the context of common struggle for shared goals. However, a politics that elevates challenging disparities over fighting for broad social wage policy and redistribution along social-democratic lines is incompatible with the project of building those solidarities. And that incompatibility stems ultimately from the fact that anti-disparitarian anti-racism is not an alternative to a class politics; it is a class politics. It is just not a working-class politics.[xi]

In reasserting the project of that historic black labor-left politics, A Future for Workers can encourage us to consider carefully the nature of the system and regime we are up against, how the structures of intensifying inequality are reproduced, and in particular, how it makes sense to think about the relation between racial and class inequalities and how race and class dynamics–including how we think about race and class dynamics– can affect our sense of the political options available to us and the directions we should pursue.

 

Notes

[i] Rayford Logan, ed., What the Negro Wants (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944).

[ii] For a  very good discussion of the Freedom Budget, its genesis and the politics around it, and the defeat of the campaign for it, see Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates, A Freedom Budget For All Americans (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013).

[iii] A. Philip Randolph Institute, A “Freedom Budget” For All Americans: Budgeting Our Resources 1965-1975 to Achieve “Freedom From Want,” (New York: A. Philip Randolph Institute, 1966), 2-3.

[iv] “Address of A. Philip Randolph at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in For Jobs and Freedom: Selected Speeches and Writings of A. Philip Randolph (Amherst & Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), 261-262.

[v]For Jobs and Freedom, 286-287.

[vi]Freedom Budget, 29-30.

[vii]Margaret Thatcher interview, Woman’s Own, September 23, 1987, p. 18, at http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689  .

[viii] I do not intend to suggest that the dynamic generating this cultural hegemony is orchestrated, though it sometimes is advanced through self-conscious propaganda, as in films like the pro-charter school documentary, Waiting for Superman and its fictional counterpart Won’t Back Down. Perhaps more meaningfully, though, the ideology travels through more naïve repetition of common sense narratives. I have discussed the role of widely disseminated black-themed popular culture in illustrating and propagating neoiberal common sense dressed up as racial pride and authenticity in several essays in recent years. See Adolph Reed, Jr.: “Three Tremes,” nonsite.org, July 4, 2011; “Django Unchained, or, The Help: How ‘Cultural Politics’ Is Worse Than No Politics at All, and Why,” nonsite.org, February 25, 2013; “The Real Problem with Selma: It Doesn’t Help Us Understand the Civil Rights Movement, the Regime It Challenged, or even the Significance of the Voting Rights Act,” nonsite.org, January 26, 2015 and “The Strange Career of the Voting Rights Act: Selma in Fact and Fiction,” New Labor Forum 24 (Spring 2015): 32-41 and “The James Brown Theory of Black Liberation,” Jacobin # 18 (Summer 2015).

[ix] The late historian, Michael B. Katz provides a useful and accessible account of the evolution of urban and metropolitan racial and economic inequality since World War II that decomposes the historical and political-economic processes driving it in Why Don’t American Cities Burn? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

[x] Adolph Reed, Jr., “Marx, Race, and Neoliberalism,” New Labor Forum 22 (Winter 2013): 53-54. Also see Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007).

[xi]See, e.g.,  editorials on “Reparations and Other Right-Wing Fantasies,” at nonsite.org, February 11, 2016.

 

Author Biography

Adolph Reed Jr. Reed is aprofessor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is completing a book on the decline and transformation of the U.S. Left since World War II, and recently co-authored, with Mark Dudzic, “The Crisis of Labour and the Left in the United States” in the Socialist Register.

 

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