...race is especially useless as a basis on which to craft a politics that can effectively pursue social justice.
Before the “yes, buts” begin, I am not claiming that systemic inequalities in the United States are not significantly racialized. The evidence of racial disparities is far too great for any sane or honest person to deny, and they largely emerge from a history of discrimination and racial injustice. Nor am I saying that we should overlook that fact in the interest of some idealized nonracial or post-racial politics.
Let me be blunter than I’ve ever been in print about what I am saying: As a political strategy, exposing racism is wrongheaded and at best an utter waste of time. It is the political equivalent of an appendix: a useless vestige of an earlier evolutionary moment that’s usually innocuous but can flare up and become harmful.
There are two reasons for this judgment.
One is that the language of race and racism is too imprecise to describe effectively even how patterns of injustice and inequality are racialized in a post-Jim Crow world. “Racism” can cover everything from individual prejudice and bigotry, unself-conscious perception of racial stereotypes, concerted group action to exclude or subordinate, or the results of ostensibly neutral market forces.
It can be a one-word description and explanation of patterns of unequal distribution of income and wealth, services and opportunities, police brutality, a stockbroker’s inability to get a cab, neighborhood dislocation and gentrification, poverty, unfair criticism of black or Latino athletes, or being denied admission to a boutique.
Because the category is so porous, it doesn’t really explain anything. Indeed, it is an alternative to explanation.
Exposing racism apparently makes those who do it feel good about themselves. Doing so is cathartic, though safely so, in the same way that proclaiming one’s patriotism is in other circles.Martin Luther King agreed with him: "In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike."
It is a summary, concluding judgment rather than a preliminary to a concrete argument. It doesn’t allow for politically significant distinctions; in fact, as a strategy, exposing racism requires subordinating the discrete features of a political situation to the overarching goal of asserting the persistence and power of racism as an abstraction.
This leads to the second reason for my harsh judgment. Many liberals gravitate to the language of racism not simply because it makes them feel righteous but also because it doesn’t carry any political warrant beyond exhorting people not to be racist. In fact, it often is exactly the opposite of a call to action. Such formulations as “racism is our national disease” or similar pieties imply that racism is a natural condition. Further, it implies that most whites inevitably and immutably oppose blacks and therefore can’t be expected to align with them around common political goals.
This view dovetails nicely with Democrats’ contention that the only way to win elections is to reject a social justice agenda that is stigmatized by association with blacks and appeal to an upper-income white constituency concerned exclusively with issues like abortion rights and the deficit.
Upper-status liberals are more likely to have relatively secure, rewarding jobs, access to health care, adequate housing, and prospects for providing for the kids’ education, and are much less likely to be in danger of seeing their nineteen-year-old go off to Iraq. They tend, therefore, to have a higher threshold of tolerance for political compromises in the name of electing this year’s sorry pro-corporate Democrat. Acknowledging racism—and, of course, being pro-choice—is one of the few ways many of them can distinguish themselves from their Republican co-workers and relatives.
As the appendix analogy suggests, insistence on understanding inequality in racial terms is a vestige of an earlier political style. The race line persists partly out of habit and partly because it connects with the material interests of those who would be race relations technicians. In this sense, race is not an alternative to class. The tendency to insist on the primacy of race itself stems from a class perspective.
For roughly a generation it seemed reasonable to expect that defining inequalities in racial terms would provoke some, albeit inadequate, remedial response from the federal government. But that’s no longer the case; nor has it been for quite some time. That approach presumed a federal government that was concerned at least not to appear racially unjust. Such a government no longer exists.
A key marker of the right’s victory in national politics is that the discussion of race now largely serves as a way to reinforce a message to whites that the public sector is there merely to help some combination of black, poor, and loser. Liberals have legitimized this perspective through their own racial bad faith. For many whites, the discussion of race also reinforces the idea that cutting public spending is justifiably aimed at weaning a lazy black underclass off the dole or—in the supposedly benign, liberal Democratic version—teaching them “personal responsibility.”