COLOR, ETHNICITY, RACE, CLASS: SOLIDARITY FOREVER CONUNDRUMS
From almost exactly half a dozen years ago, an argument from New Labor Forum that incisively and persuasively explores the intersecting terrain of what all too many people describe, without offering a credible definition of just what they are indicating, as ‘race‘ and the more visible and tangible and palpable elements of what social scientists, especially Marxists, present as class, a deconstruction in the form of a warning that the same venue examined from the opposite perspective–that ‘class politics’ had to incorporate ‘race’ somehow or other–more or less at the same moment in time, in November, 2010; the undeniable impact of which discourse shows up repeatedly every day, such as in a just-released review and analysis from the New York Review of Books that delineates the multiple ways that darker skin and ‘lighter’ wallets are both aspects of blatant and systematic plots to disfranchise voters and thereby maintain a certain cast to electoral politics, and such as, in very different fashion, an intellectual history blog demonstrates how the work of Frederick Douglass, both before and after emancipation, revolved around matters of economic liberty and educational opportunity almost as much as they centered on the ultimate ‘class-and-color’ question of slavery; all of which defines a dialectical process of consciousness and knowledge in which the ‘favored’ side, the watched POV, the highlighted viewpoint is that of Ta-Nehisi Coates and his like, while critics receive at best short shrift in corporate media outlets, this indisputable fact in turn the rationale for looking at a pair of articulate–and, arguably, for scrappy scribes and stalwart citizens alike mandatory–assessments that reject ‘racialized’ thinking altogether, in the first place from World Socialist Website a consideration of Coates’ bestselling Between the World & Me, in the second place from the Southeast Review of Media, Culture, & Politics, a more generalized critique of the distortion, falsity, and disutility of seeing things through a ‘racial’ lens–the aggregate of which points to how critical such matters are in practically speaking every arena pf current events and social scientific analysis thereof, as a new profferal from the Monthly Review Zine makes crystal clear in its discussion of capital, refugees, and history:
(His analytical schema is bascially that White men crush Black bodies because of racism. He started his intellectual journey confident that he would find a Black methodology to counterpose to theseimpositions of White Privilege). In the end, Coates discovers not a unified and coherent ‘black’ tradition, ‘but instead factions, and factions within factions… I was left with a brawl of ancestors, a herd of dissenters.’ This points him toward the need to ‘break with all Dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere,’ a break that ‘would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness. And there was so much terrible out there, even among us.’
Not surprisingly, this quasi-misanthropic, quasi-existentialist view does not lead him out of the quagmire of petty-bourgeois racial politics. At times, Coates hints that being ‘black’ is not a racial question, that ‘perhaps being named ‘black’ was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah.’ But this too takes him nowhere. After noting that his ‘great error’ had been accepting ‘the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft,’ Coates immediately reverts to his ethno-nationalist outlook: ‘And still and all I knew that we were something, that we were a tribe—on one hand, invented, and on the other, no less real.’ Once Coates has hit upon his peculiar brand of ‘tribalism,’ he sticks with it.
(He thus ignores the legacy of earlier critics, from Du Bois to Baldwin, via Richard Wright, for example). He deals in ahistorical and often inaccurate abstractions in part because he is the product andvictim, in that sense, of the social process referred to above, the intellectual decline and increasing social indifference and insularity of a layer of the African-American petty-bourgeoisie. However, at a certain point, a figure such as Coates, who claims to be a keen observer of social life, has to accept a certain responsibility for what he writes about and what he does not write about.
Let’s consider the words and phrases that—astonishingly—do not appear once in Between the World and Me: ‘capitalism’ (or ‘capitalist’), ‘working class,’ ‘unemployment,’ ‘oppression,’ ‘repression,’ ‘demonstration,’ ‘trade unions,’ ‘factory,’ ‘economy,’ ‘socialism,’ ‘inequality,’ ‘polarization,’ ‘elite’ [in the sense of ruling elite], ‘ruling,’ ‘bourgeois,’ ‘masses,’ ‘left-wing,’ ‘right-wing,’ ‘imperialism,’ ‘colonialism,’ ‘globalization,’ ‘transnational,’ ‘multinational,’ ‘oligarchy,’ ‘plutocracy,’ ‘aristocracy,’ ‘cutback,’ ‘welfare reform,’ ‘affirmative action.'”—World Socialist Website
“In essence, because precisely one human race exists, ‘racism’ only addresses a socially developed concept about a false idea, that different races with different biological qualities in fact are a part of the human condition, a popular and yet completely incorrect conceptualization of human social relations that inevitably colors and distorts what happens among diverse social actors, probably in a completely toxic, and ultimately in a totally self-destructive, fashion.
This statement, inherently and indelibly, will likely effect strong feelings. Does a Spindoctor have the temerity to suggest that color is less important—than class or nation or other trait—as a key piece in understanding the social past? The answer, as the following initiation of this short monograph proves, would resound as an emphatic ‘No way!’
However, what we can make of that social import of coloration is still open to definition and interpretation. Before we continue to expound on such a task of delineation and elucidation, the sections just below offer readers a briefing about the rooted appearance and fuller manifestation of conflicted coloration during the current period of time.
A first point to make clear is that color did not always mean darkness, or diminution, nor did it ineluctably lead to an impunity to butcher and discriminate against those whose surface hues were dun or brown or charcoal. As a respected expert on Elizabethan culture quoted an even more venerated authority about Othello, ‘(she) situates the play ‘at a crossroads in the history of ethnological ideas when emergent racial discourses clashed with the still-dominant classical and medieval paradigms.’ Those who follow along will see that point more fully in the coming preface. For now, we can aver that a primary legacy of slavery in the period of capitalism’s infancy was to overthrow most chances that dark skin under a bourgeois rubric could mean power or wealth or high station.
(From slavery till the Obama administration, vast inequality, and vicious inequity have characterized the fate of Black and other ‘people of color’). These gross disparities in well-being are absolutely irrefutable. More or less a hundred million years of lost experience and consciousness is such a massive loss as almost to be incalculable. That Social Determinants of Health include color is no more arguable than that poverty kills. The annual toll of the negative impact of having great-great grandparents who toiled as slaves is, to say the least, a staggering waste, even as socioeconomic components almost always lurk behind these on-the-surface-very-visible issues of color.
Another insidious outcome, which often enough occurs in an even more vicious interpretive nexus, concerns Black families. Daniel Patrick Moynihan a half century ago authored a report for the Department of Labor. It couched its conclusions in an overarching concern for, and even solidarity with, the hopes and needs of ‘Negro’ people. Nevertheless, in terms of its managing its statistical data and in relation to its conclusions, the report without doubt placed the primary burden on Black ‘culture’ and ‘behavior’ as explanations for the inequalities and pathologies that were more and more prevalent in American cities ‘among the colored masses.’
(Against indigenous people and in the overall political economy, similar dynamics of discrimination are ubiquitous. Meanwhile), (i)n no other arena is the ultimate sinister inheritance of the present historical eventuality worse than in the almost innumerable cases of the rising, and now fully risen, American leviathan’s now planet-spanning neocolonial, neoimperialist enterprises—almost always cast asliberation and aid, as if death and destruction and profiteering and plunder were the result of loving and friendly impulses.
Furthermore, because of the inevitable realities of the historical synthesis of these ventures, whether one examines the Philippines or Honduras, Nigeria or Bangladesh, ‘colored people’ still bear the ugly brunt of the ugly American and his beautiful machinery and other machinations of capital’s sway.
(For all of this easily identifiable presence of ‘identity’ in inequality, focusing on it practically guarantees the elevation of one ‘divide-and-conquer’ scheme or another). In the event, then, as will appear in the next, and the next-after-the-next, components of this effort at reportage, the very idea of race is an utterly discredited and socially reactionary theory. Thus, its close cousin racism cannot under any circumstances exist except as an at once malicious and stupid belief. And most importantly, the hue-and-cry to eliminate this item-that-has-zero-real-
What can replace this discreditable, and often discredited, contextualization are rubrics that use historical, political-economic, artistic and narrative, social-scientific, and scientific foundations to scrutinize the ways that people relate, for both good and ill. Plenty of such case-studies and feature productions do abound among the scholarship and reporting and outpouring of texts and performances around the globe. That precious few of them seek to synthesize these various methodologies lays the basis for the Spindoctor’s oh-so-humble endeavor at just such an amalgamation.”—Southeast Review of Media, Culture, & Politics
“The fact that a large number of refugees, especially from countries which have been subjected of late to the ravages of imperialist aggression and wars, are desperately trying to enter Europe is seen almost exclusively in humanitarian terms. While this perception no doubt has validity, there is another aspect of the issue which has escaped attention altogether, namely that it is the first time in modern history that the issue of migration is being sought to be taken out of the exclusive control of metropolitan capital. Until now migration streams have been dictated entirely by the requirements of metropolitan capital; now, for the first time, people are violating the dictates of metropolitan capital, and attempting to give effect to their own preferences in the matter of where they wish to settle. Wretched and miserable, and without being conscious of the implications of their own actions, these hapless refugees are in effect voting with their feet against the hegemony of metropolitan capital, which invariably proceeds on the assumption that people would meekly submit to its dictates, including in the matter of where to live.
The idea that metropolitan capital had until now determined who should remain where in the world and under what material conditions of life, may appear far-fetched at first sight. But it is true. In modern times one can distinguish three great waves of migration, each dictated by the demands of capital. The first of these was the transportation of millions of people as slaves from Africa to the Americas, to work in the mines and plantations for producing commodities that were exported to meet the requirements of metropolitan capitalism. Since the facts about the slave trade are reasonably well-known I shall not discuss this particular wave of migration any further.
(Additionally, soon enough), two streams of migration developed in the nineteenth century at the behest of metropolitan capital. One was from the tropical regions of the world to the other tropical regions, while the other was from the temperate regions of the world to the other temperate regions, in particular from Europe to the temperate regions of white settlement such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The migrants from the tropical regions were not allowed to enter freely into the temperate regions (indeed they still are not). They were transported as coolies or indentured labourers from their habitats in tropical and sub-tropical countries like India and China to where metropolitan capital wanted them, to work in the mines and plantations in other tropical lands. Their destinations included the West Indies, Fiji, Ceylon, Latin America and California (where Chinese workers were employed in gold extraction).
(These two ‘rivers of human flesh’ had markedly different results). The reason for this difference, the fact that temperate region migration was a high income one while tropical migration was a low income one, has often been attributed to the higher labour productivity of the European migrants compared to the Indian and Chinese migrants. But this is erroneous. The incomes of workers under capitalism are scarcely ever determined by the level of labour productivity per se; on the contrary what matters is the relative size of the reserve army of labour: even with rapid increases in labour productivity, real wages of workers may stagnate at a subsistence level if the reserve army is large enough. …The real reason for the income difference of the two migration streams lay elsewhere, in the fact that in the temperate regions into which they were migrating, the European migrants could simply displace the local inhabitants (like the Amerindians) and take over their land for cultivation. This not only gave such migrants high incomes, but also kept up the wages in the home countries from which they were moving out, by increasing what economists call the ‘reservation wage.’ Nobody naturally would work for a pittance in Europe if he or she can migrate to the temperate regions of settlement abroad and earn a much higher income on the land taken over from the Amerindians; it is this prospect which kept up the real wage in Europe as well.
The tropics-to-tropics migration in contrast was low-wage migration since the migrants came from populations which had been impoverished by ‘drain’ and ‘deindustrialisation’ and had no prospects of setting themselves up as farmers on land snatched from the original inhabitants in their new habitats.”—MRZine
“Of course, the vast majority of the unemployed are white. But it’s the disparity in rates, not in absolute numbers, that tends to get foregrounded, since that disparity functions not only as a measure of suffering but also, in William A. Garity’s concise summary, as ‘an index of discrimination in our society.‘ And it’s the ongoing fact of discrimination that motivates our ongoing interest in identity politics. As long as inequality is apportioned by identity, we will be concerned with identity.This is obviously both inevitable and appropriate. But it is also—and almost as obviously—irrelevant to a left politics, or even to the goal of reducing unemployment, as we can see just by imagining what it would be like if we finally did manage to get rid of discrimination. Suppose, for example, that unemployment for whites and for Asian-Americans were to rise to 10 percent while for blacks and Hispanics it fell to 10 percent. Or suppose that unemployment for everyone went to 15 percent. In both cases, we would have eliminated the racial disparity in unemployment rates, but in neither case would we have eliminated any unemployment. And we don’t even need hypotheticals to make the point. About three quarters of the job losers in the current recession have been men, which means that the numbers of men and women in the workforce are now roughly equal. So, from the standpoint of gender equity, the recession has actually been a good thing. It’s as if, unable to create more jobs for women, we’d hit upon the strategy of eliminating lots of the jobs for men—another victory for feminism and for anti-discrimination since, from the standpoint of anti-discrimination, the question of how many people are unemployed is completely irrelevant. What matters is only that, however many there are, their unemployment is properly proportioned.
This is, in part, a logical point: there’s no contradiction between inequality of class and equality of race and gender. It is also, however, a political point. The influential Think Progress blogger, Matt Yglesias, has recently written that, although ‘straight white intellectuals’ might tend to think of the increasing economic inequality of the last thirty years ‘as a period of relentless defeat for left-wing politics,’ we ought to remember that the same period has also seen ‘enormous advances in the practical opportunities available to women, a major decline in the level of racism paired with a major increase in the level of actual racial and ethnic diversity,’ and ‘wildly more public and legal acceptance of gays and lesbians. …(all of which ultimately comes back to, Yglesias asserts), ‘the same core belief in human equality.’
But it doesn’t. In fact, the belief in human equality that has cheered on anti-racism and anti-sexism has not only been compatible with—it’s been supported by—a belief in human inequality that has been happy to accept the fact that 10 percent of the U.S. population now earns just under 50 percent of total U.S. income. This is what it means for the most eminent of the living Chicago economists (Gary Becker, whose first book was The Economics of Discrimination) to praise globalization and ‘the increasing market orientation of different economies’ by noting that, although they may “’aise rather than lower income inequality,’ they also make that inequality ‘more dependent on differences in human and other capital, and less directly on skin color, gender, religion, caste, and other roots of discrimination.’
Why? Because discrimination is costly to the employer: you have to pay not just for the labor but also for the laborer’s skin color or gender which, in a truly competitive market, you can’t afford to do. Hence employers who discriminate—like employers forced by unions to pay expensive benefits and higher wages—are doomed. Indeed, from this standpoint, the problem with discriminatory hiring practices is the same as the problem with unions: they both make labor costs higher, and a company less competitive. Thus the commitment to competitive markets intensifies economic inequality, but diminishes the inequality produced by racial and gender discrimination.”—New Labor Forum