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.
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"?
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 . 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  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  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.”  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 . 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.” 
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 . 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  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 . 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.”
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 . 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  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,”  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 
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  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  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 . 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.
- 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:
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).
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.
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.
[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.
[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.
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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