Tag: racism

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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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).

How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence

Article originally published at nonsite.org.

Some readers will know that I’ve contended that, despite its proponents’ assertions, antiracism is not a different sort of egalitarian alternative to a class politics but is a class politics itself: the politics of a strain of the professional-managerial class whose worldview and material interests are rooted within a political economy of race and ascriptive identity-group relations. Moreover, although it often comes with a garnish of disparaging but empty references to neoliberalism as a generic sign of bad things, antiracist politics is in fact the left wing of neoliberalism in that its sole metric of social justice is opposition to disparity in the distribution of goods and bads in the society, an ideal that naturalizes the outcomes of capitalist market forces so long as they are equitable along racial (and other identitarian) lines. As I and my colleague Walter Benn Michaels have insisted repeatedly over the last decade, the burden of that ideal of social justice is that the society would be fair if 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources so long as the dominant 1% were 13% black, 17% Latino, 50% female, 4% or whatever LGBTQ, etc. That is the neoliberal gospel of economic justice, articulated more than a half-century ago by Chicago neoclassical economist Gary Becker, as nondiscriminatory markets that reward individual “human capital” without regard to race or other invidious distinctions.

We intend to make a longer and more elaborate statement of this argument and its implications, which antiracist ideologues have consistently either ignored or attempted to dismiss through mischaracterization of the argument or ad hominem attack.1 For now, however, I want simply to draw attention to how insistence on reducing discussion of killings of civilians by police to a matter of racism clouds understanding of and possibilities for effective response to the deep sources of the phenomenon.

Available data (see https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings/?tid=a_inl) indicate, to the surprise of no one who isn’t in willful denial, that in this country black people make up a percentage of those killed by police that is nearly double their share of the general American population. Latinos are killed by police, apparently, at a rate roughly equivalent to their incidence in the general population. Whites are killed by police at a rate between just under three-fourths (through the first half of 2016) and just under four-fifths (2015) of their share of the general population. That picture is a bit ambiguous because seven percent of those killed in 2015 and fourteen percent of those killed through June of 2016 were classified racially as either other or unknown. Nevertheless, the evidence of gross racial disparity is clear: among victims of homicide by police blacks are represented at twice their rate of the population; whites are killed at somewhat less than theirs. This disparity is the founding rationale for the branding exercise2 called #Black Lives Matter and endless contentions that imminent danger of death at the hands of arbitrary white authority has been a fundamental, definitive condition of blacks’ status in the United States since slavery or, for those who, like the Nation’s Kai Wright, prefer their derivative patter laced with the seeming heft of obscure dates, since 1793. In Wright’s assessment “From passage of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act forward, public-safety officers have been empowered to harass black bodies [sic] in the defense of private capital and the pursuit of public revenue.”3

This line of argument and complaint, as well as the demand for ritual declarations that “black lives matter,” rest on insistence that “racism”—structural, systemic, institutional, post-racial or however modified—must be understood as the cause and name of the injustice manifest in that disparity, which is thus by implication the singular or paramount injustice of the pattern of police killings.

But, when we step away from focus on racial disproportions, the glaring fact is that whites are roughly half or nearly half of all those killed annually by police. And the demand that we focus on the racial disparity is simultaneously a demand that we disattend from other possibly causal disparities. Zaid Jilani found, for example, that ninety-five percent of police killings occurred in neighborhoods with median family income of less than $100,00 and that the median family income in neighborhoods where police killed was $52,907.4 And, according to the Washington Post data, the states with the highest rates of police homicide per million of population are among the whitest in the country: New Mexico averages 6.71 police killings per million; Alaska 5.3 per million; South Dakota 4.69; Arizona and Wyoming 4.2, and Colorado 3.36. It could be possible that the high rates of police killings in those states are concentrated among their very small black populations—New Mexico 2.5%; Alaska 3.9%; South Dakota 1.9%; Arizona 4.6%, Wyoming 1.7%, and Colorado 4.5%. However, with the exception of Colorado—where blacks were 17% of the 29 people killed by police—that does not seem to be the case. Granted, in several of those states the total numbers of people killed by police were very small, in the low single digits. Still, no black people were among those killed by police in South Dakota, Wyoming, or Alaska. In New Mexico, there were no blacks among the 20 people killed by police in 2015, and in Arizona blacks made up just over 2% of the 42 victims of police killing.

What is clear in those states, however, is that the great disproportion of those killed by police have been Latinos, Native Americans, and poor whites. So someone should tell Kai Wright et al to find another iconic date to pontificate about; that 1793 yarn has nothing to do with anything except feeding the narrative of endless collective racial suffering and triumphalist individual overcoming—“resilience”—popular among the black professional-managerial strata and their white friends (or are they just allies?) these days. What the pattern in those states with high rates of police killings suggests is what might have been the focal point of critical discussion of police violence all along, that it is the product of an approach to policing that emerges from an imperative to contain and suppress the pockets of economically marginal and sub-employed working class populations produced by revanchist capitalism. There is no need here to go into the evolution of this dangerous regime of policing—from bogus “broken windows” and “zero tolerance” theories of the sort that academics always seem to have at the ready to rationalize intensified application of bourgeois class power, to anti-terrorism hysteria and finally assertion of a common sense understanding that any cop has unassailable authority to override constitutional protections and to turn an expired inspection sticker or a refusal to respond to an arbitrary order or warrantless search into a capital offense. And the shrill insistence that we begin and end with the claim that blacks are victimized worst of all and give ritual obeisance to the liturgy of empty slogans is—for all the militant posturing by McKesson, Garza, Tometi, Cullors et al.—in substance a demand that we not pay attention to the deeper roots of the pattern of police violence in enforcement of the neoliberal regime of sharply regressive upward redistribution and its social entailments. It is also a demand that, in insisting that for all intents and purposes police violence must be seen as mainly, if not exclusively, a black thing, we cut ourselves off from the only basis for forging a political alliance that could effectively challenge it. All that could be possible as political intervention, therefore, is tinkering around with administration of neoliberal stress policing in the interest of pursuing racial parity in victimization and providing consultancies for experts in how much black lives matter.5

Another revealing datum regarding the imagery of an unbroken history of racist denigration of black “bodies” stretching back at least to 1619 as explanation of the current racial disparity in police killings is that, as Mike Males has shown, police killings of black men under 25 years of age declined 79% between 1968 and 2011, and 61% for men over 25 during that same period.6 Nor is that quite surprising. The victories won by the civil rights movement were real, as were the entailments of the Voting Rights Act. Things were generally worse with respect to everyday police terror in inner-city black neighborhoods than they are now. One of the few of the Black Panthers’ slogans that wasn’t simply empty hyperbole was their characterization of the role of police as an “occupying army” in black communities. (When I first saw The Battle of Algiers in the late 1960s, I felt an instant shock of recognition, a sense that I’d lived some of the film.) Racial transition in local government and deepening incorporation of minority political interests into local governing coalitions had a moderating effect on police brutality in black communities.7

My point is not in any way to make light of the gravity of the injustice or to diminish outrage about police violence. (I realize, however, that some will impute that intention to me; for them and all who would take the charge seriously, see note 1 below.) However, noting a decline—or substantial change in either direction for that matter—in the rate of police killings does underscore the inadequacy of reified, transhistorical abstractions like “racism” or “white supremacy” for making sense of the nature and sources of police abuse of black Americans. Racism and white supremacy don’t really explain how anything happens. They’re at best shorthand characterizations of more complex, or at least discrete, actions taken by people in social contexts; at worst, and, alas, more often in our political moment, they’re invoked as alternatives to explanation. In that sense they function, like the Nation of Islam’s Yacub story, as a devil theory: racism and white supremacy are represented as capable of making things happen in the world independently, i.e. magically. This is the fantasy expressed in formulations like racism is America’s “national disease” or “Original Sin”—which, incidentally, are elements of the liberal race relations ideology that took shape in postwar American political discourse precisely as articulations of a notion of racial equality that was separated from political economy and anchored in psychology and individualist notions of prejudice and intolerance.8

Nevertheless, putting to the side for a moment those ways in which causal invocations of racism and white supremacy are wrongheaded and inadequate and accepting for the sake of argument that the reified forces can do things in the world, if their manifest power can vary so significantly with social, political, and historical context, wouldn’t the objective of combating the injustice be better served by giving priority to examining the shifting and evolving contexts under which racism and white supremacy are more or less powerful or that condition the forms in which they appear rather than to demonstrating that those forces that purportedly cause inequality must be called racism or white supremacy in particular? One problem with the latter objective is that it is ultimately unrealizable. There is no definitive standard of what qualifies as racism; like terrorism or any other such abstraction, it is in the eye of the beholder. In fact, an illustration of the great cultural victory of the postwar civil rights struffle is that “racism” is negatively sanctioned in American society. No one with any hope of claim to political respectability—not even Maine governor Paul LePage, who leaves one struggling to imagine what he assumes would thus qualify as racist, (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/27/us/profane-phone-message-has-gov-paul-lepage-of-maine-in-hot-water-again.html?_r=0)—embraces it. In addition, advocates of antiracist politics argue that debate over the name that should be attached to the injustice is important because acknowledging the existence of racism/white supremacy as a causal agent is a necessary first step to overcoming its power. But that claim rests on shaky political ground. It is at bottom a call for expiation and moral rehabilitation as political action. In that sense Black Lives Matter is like its rhetorical grandparent, Black Power; it is a slogan that has condensed significant affective resonance but is without programmatic or strategic content. Also like Black Power, in response to criticisms of its lack of concrete content, BLM activists generated a 10 Point Plan—http://www.puckermob.com/lifestyle/black-lives-matter-just-delivered-their-10-point-manifesto-and-this-is-what-they-want, in part clearly to address criticisms that they had no affirmative agenda beyond demands that the slogan be validated and the names of selected victims of police killing be invoked. This was followed more recently by an expanded document featuring roughly sixty items called “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice”—https://policy.m4bl.org.

Some, perhaps many, of the items propounded in the initial 10 Point Plan are fine as a statement of reforms that could make things better in the area of criminal justice policy and practice. Many, if not most, of those assembled under the rubric “Vision for Black Lives” are empty sloganeering and politically wrongheaded and/or unattainable and counterproductive. However, the problem is not a shortage of potentially effective reforms that could be implemented. The problem is much more a political and strategic one. And the focus on racial disparity both obscures the nature and extent of the political and strategic challenges we face and in two ways undercuts our ability to mount a potentially effective challenge: 1) As my colleague, Marie Gottschalk, has demonstrated in her most important book, Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics(Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 2016),9 the carceral apparatus in its many manifestations, including stress policing as well as the many discrete nodes that constitute the regime of mass incarceration, has emerged from and is reproduced by quite diverse, bipartisan, and evolving complexes of interests, some of which form only in response to the arrangements generated and institutionalized by other interests. Constituencies for different elements of the carceral state do not necessarily overlap, and their interests in maintaining it, or their favored components of it, can be material, ideological, political, or alternating or simultaneous combinations of the three. Challenging that immensely fortified and self-reproducing institutional and industrial structure will require a deep political strategy, one that must eventually rise to a challenge of the foundational premises of the regime of market-driven public policy and increasing direction of the state’s functions at every level toward supporting accelerating regressive transfer and managing its social consequences through policing. 2) It should be clear by now that the focus on racial disparity accepts the premise of neoliberal social justice that the problem of inequality is not its magnitude or intensity in general but whether or not it is distributed in a racially equitable way. To the extent that that is the animating principle of a left politics, it is a politics that lies entirely within neoliberalism’s logic.

 

 

1. I’m not much given to autobiographical writing, least of all as a mechanism for establishing interpretive authority, even though I recognize that that pre-Enlightenment ploy has become coin of the realm for the “public intellectual” and blogosphere bloviator stratum. I’ve noted over decades that element’s cheap way to evade engaging with my arguments: resort to accusations, usually laced with personal innuendo, that I underestimate the depths of racism or deny its existence; particularly ironic is that often enough that dismissive accusation comes from earnest white antiracists. An especially brazen and preposterous instance was when the late Manning Marable—“Race, Class and the Katrina Crisis,” Working USA 9 (June 2006)—and white antiracist historian David Roediger—“The Retreat from Class,” Monthly Review 58 (July/August 2006)—insinuated that I did not understand the power of white racism in New Orleans—a city they visited as disaster tourists with a simplistic potted narrative and where I largely grew up in the Jim Crow era and the most intense period of the postwar civil rights insurgency, and where most of my family lives and had lived before, during and after Katrina. I’m still not going to natter on about my racial bona fides; I’ll leave that domain to the likes of Mychal Denzel Smith and Ta-Nehisi Coates, for whom every sideways glance from a random white person while waiting on line for a latté becomes an occasion for navel-gazing lament and another paycheck. (A historian friend has indicated his resolve, when white colleagues enthuse to him about Coates’s wisdom and truth-telling, to ask which white college dropouts they consult to get their deep truths about white people.) I just wanted to anticipate the reaction and make clear that I recognize it for the cheesy move that it is.
3. Kai Wright, “Why Alton Sterling and Philando Castile Are Dead,” The Nation, July 7, 2016.
4. Zaid Jilani, “95% of Police Killings in 2015 Occurred in Neighborhoods with Incomes Under $100,000.” AlterNet.org available at http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/95-police-killings-2015-occurred-neighborhoods-incomes-under-100000?sc=fb.
5. See, e.g., Dave Huber, “Black Lives Matter’s Deray McKesson Now a U. Chicago Institute of Politics Fellow,” The College Fix, August 20, 2016 available athttp://www.thecollegefix.com/post/28558/ and Brook Kelly-Green and Luna Yasui, “Why Black Lives Matter to Philanthropy,” Ford Foundation Equals Change blog, July 19, 2016 available athttps://www.fordfoundation.org/ideas/equals-change-blog/posts/why-black-lives-matter-to-philanthropy/.
6. Mike Males, “Who Are Police Killing?” Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, August 2014, available at http://www.cjcj.org/news/8113.
7. I discuss the impact of the emergence of black urban governance in the 1970s in this regard in Adolph Reed, Jr., Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 97ff.
8. See Risa Goluboff, The Lost Promise of Civil Rights (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2010); Leah N. Gordon, From Power to Prejudice: The Rise of Racial Individualism in Midcentury America (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015), and John P. Jackson, Jr., Social Scientists for Social Justice (New York: NYU Press, 2005).
9. Also see her 2015 Jacobin interview, “It’s Not Just the Drug War,” at https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/03/mass-incarceration-war-on-drugs/.

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