Socialism and the Argument against Race Reductionism

It might be said that out of the dissemination of historical studies there has been born into the world a new form of nonsense, a new realm of specious generalizations and vague plausibilities . . . characterized by the bold handling of concepts that do not represent anything capable of genuine concrete visualization—the whole issuing out of a process of too much argumentation upon abridged history.1

—Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History

How socialism and race connect, or do not, has been a topic of recurrent controversy since both notions began to take their familiar forms in the nineteenth century. In recent years, though, the question of their relation has taken the form of a morality play extolling a potted one-size-fits-all charge that working-class whites are more deeply committed to their racial privilege than to interracial class solidarity. This charge, employed to explain Donald Trump’s election, is projected onto the past as indicating a deeper, trans-historical, or primordial power of racism or white supremacy, or in some quarters, “anti-blackness.” This perspective abjures historical specificity in favor of a metanarrative that assigns a motive force to abstractions like racism and white supremacy. Along these lines, the failure of interracial populism in the late nineteenth century, white race riots in the wake of World War I, hate strikes in the 1940s, open housing riots in the 1950s and 1960s, anti-bussing riots in the 1970s, and the persistence of racial disparities of all sorts serve as convenient reference points substantiating the narrative’s essential truth. Ahistorical, race-reductionist2 claims about the past then become the basis—in place of causal argument or evidence—for affirming those same claims as they were originally asserted regarding circumstances in the present. Law professor Michelle Alexander’s contention that mass incarceration should be understood as an updated version of the regime of explicit racial hierarchy that prevailed in the South for most of the twentieth century is a representative illustration of this form of argument. Hinging on shallow constructions of past and present in ways that undermine understanding either mass incarceration or Jim Crow, Alexander’s argumentation also confounds strategies for addressing current injustice. Indeed, Alexander can sustain her Jim Crow analogy only by dismissing the large numbers of whites who have been victimized in the war on drugs as “collateral damage,” a callous throwaway line, yet another bad historical analogy that does not address the problem that fact poses for her simplistic account.3

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