Thursday, March 1, 2012

Race is class

I often get into the topic of race and class throughout American history. I've built it into both my community college talks as well as part of contemporary political rhetoric around trying to build a united class majority. But there is an entire small, educated cultural sector that basically uses a repeated a-historical ungrounded language. Their general language includes terminology like: "POC" (people of color,) and "white folks" and "community" (as in the gay community, Latino community, etc..)

All of this stuff took over as a well financed and very acceptable way to discuss politics for the people who are supposed to get degrees, and come out and be the top 20%ers in the economy and came alongside the demobilization and defeat of the democratic left by the mid 1970s. I don't think it's a coincidence that it took off at the same time as the left was being decimated externally and from within, and the cultural seeds were sewn partly in the nature of the cultural movements of the 1970s. It is simply much less threatening to power to push this stuff than it is to just simply talk about power, about serious political programs built around uniting the majority around a set of issues that will actually unite them. Obviously race allows for division. The very CONCEPT of a race is a division. It is not a historical coincidence that the racial division from it's VERY INCEPTION and REPEATED REINVENTIONS was used to divide ALONG ECONOMIC CLASS LINES. Race doesn't merely intersect with class. Race IS class. It's very political and historical function is to divide people into manageable groups of self identifying human beings in order to ensure that people will work in a relationship where the vast majority of slots of the economy are squarely in the working class of the economy because only about 15-20% (at any given point in time) of the class roles in the economy can be conceptual, managerial, higher paying, etc..

That is the function of race. Race is NOT a cultural manifestation, a Manichean vision of good and evil, it is not subtle or abstract. And to the extent that it is, can just as easily attributed to a variety of other properties and causes. Much of this ideological race narrative serves, however unintentionally, the same exact function of the process that invented white people in the U.S. (from the late 1790s to the late 1820s) in the first place, and the same reason that the 1970s Louis Farrakhan was on the same page with Richard Nixon's affirmative action quotas: To produce class division by creating a more diverse elite. And although their reasons for this were different (Farrakhan was openly authoritarian and sat atop a powerful hierarchy built around a racialist ideology) the outcomes are the same, with a locally managed elite of black leaders, the culture shapers, movers, and thinkers, who promote and protect the sanctity of black culture, who want to help shape it, define it, and ultimately keep it alive by promoting it, on top of a hulking majority of a black working class.

However race and culture plays out on the ground, especially today, cannot be broken down neatly into the absurd taxonomy produced by the cultural studies framework because it removes the reality and substitutes a theoretical framework that seems to require a college degree to understand. This is probably because the professional classes by now are so far removed from working class priorities. It is far more unifying and much more effective anti-racist work to pimp things that unite large swaths of the population INSTEAD of pimping "diversity" and cultural division with layers upon layers of cultural examination. The most obvious way to do this is to build, once again, around class, since 80% of the population, white, black, brown or whatever, is solidly in this category. But in order to unite it, it clearly has been a failing strategy to focus on the internal "community", let alone having academic contests over which groups are the most oppressed because what exactly does having a clearly inverted hierarchy promote in terms of changing the relations of power in society? Nothing. The rise of this style of politics occurs pretty much with the rise of the new right in the late 70s. It does NOT help solve the very thing that it claims to be against which is racism because it promotes division along racial or other arbitrary and superstitious cultural lines. Whenever I pimp my class first stuff especially in the poorer and working class college rooms, let alone in predominantly black campuses like the Liberty City Meek Center, I always take the time to test this out, and I explicitly lay out the class versus race stuff and without exception, the room prefers more income rather than special bones thrown out to the room as white liberal guilt, slavery apologetics, etc.. And yeah, I lose a few here and there, the racialists on all sides, people who want and NEED race to be real, they can't roll with me on this.  (since it's their religion, to lose it is to lose perhaps the core of their being) But my angle is pretty unifying (unless you are rich and powerful or a power worshiping authoritarian type) And at this point, there is a fairly diverse managerial sector as well as a fairly diverse elite. This is the liberal objective. To them, equality is all about ensuring that some segments of various x,y,z communities are represented at various slots on the class ladder. So they don't simply remove elite power or high managerial power, they simply attempt to make sure that these slots in the economy are occupied by the respective community members instead of pulling the whole group up by nerfing the power at the top. So basically my entire program points out that the black working class population is economically getting hit hard, but the explicit Jim Crow style of program no longer is really in use (a night and day improvement) but they get hit because they are working class, and this is somehow not as important and much more easily done from a political standpoint because elites are able to drive down wages and incomes through policy. And by focusing on how it affects each cultural "community" it does nothing more than promotes respective cultural leaders to the top of each pyramid, who then do nothing except identify how the economic policies are doing bad things to their "communities".  They could end it with a unifying grand slam working class majority coalition.  But they cannot institutionally go in this direction because they have a cultural stake in being a leader of their respective oppressed cultural group, and derive a degree of relative power from being in that position.

There is a solid body of historical evidence for the various origins of races and classes.  Adolph Reed points out that "Even in the Jim Crow era, under racial segregation, not all Black people were affected by racial segregation in exactly the same way. Some of the differences were purely random, some of them having to do with geography. There was a difference between plantation areas and the border states, between urban and rural segregation, between different counties and different cities. And there were also class differences."  He further notes that working class whites at certain points in the late 19th century were purportedly in a different race than upper class whites.  Italians were non-white until they were recategorized in the 1930s.  (Italians were lynched by the KKK, and anti-Italian immigration hysteria promoted things like this:


And so on and so fourth.  Ultimately, the usefulness of any racial or ethnic category is only politically sufficient to the extent that it maintains the relations of power in society that benefit the people that own and operate it for their own perceived interests.  So long as races are maintained, then they are taking up neurological real estate in the popular consciousness that could otherwise be taken up by a class self awareness.  I heard Reed the other day on Doug Henwood's radio program noting that some Black History month speakers who give commanding speeches of uplift are commanding hefty speakers fees (10 grand at least) and are generally pimping the ideology of the professional and elite classes.  They deliver a message that encourages greater black participation within the capitalist hierarchy.  A theme i've already addressed.  But if the cultural studies line is really that helpful to its constituencies, who is signing the checks?