Sunday, September 19, 2010

race reductionists versus class reductionists

The title of this post is my notion of a joke, like calling Tim Wise a "race maximalist". Race versus class is a false divide. People who minimize the role of class in race relations call their opponents "class reductionists", but those of us who insist on the historical and contemporary role of class in institutional racism agree that on the individual level, sometimes a racist incident is just a racist incident.

Darryl, in the comments at Proof that Racists Often Put White Supremacy Over Money – Green is not the only color that matters…, said it better than I could: with most labels “reductionist” is just an imposition and a projection. We are both talking abut the same thing: power relationships. I am not suggesting that class is more important than race in an absolute sense, I am saying that in terms of addressing the actual, material, grievances of people (i.e. access to food, shelter, clothing, education, health care etc) the only thing that matters to the have-nots is that they have not and before you expect them to abandon their dependence on essentialist paradigms, you had better damn well be able to deliver them access to food, shelter, clothing, education, health care etc because money talks and no one ever fed themselves with “good will toward men.”
If you think in terms of institutional injustice, institutional racism is always part of institutional capitalism. If you want to argue about that, go right ahead, but please remember you're arguing with Malcolm X, not me: "You can't have capitalism without racism."

Sure, in theory, you can have the reverse, racism without capitalism. But in practice, there is no country with racism that does not have a recent history of capitalism.

If you point to lands with caste systems, caste is not race. As noted in The Caste System and the Stages of Life in Hinduism, "There is an expectation in India that higher caste people will have lighter skin -- although there are plenty of exceptions (especially in the South of India)." And from Caste vs colorism:
Caste isn't the same as color. Caste isn't the same as class. They can overlap, but they don't always. It's headache-inducing complicated. ... Dad is at the tippy top of India's caste system but he's dark enough that my American-born son (who doesn't get to see my folks all that often) once saw an older African American gentleman at the supermarket and asked what grandpa was doing back in the states. But in nearly 70 years, my father has never once had employment, residence, raises, or club memberships withheld because of how he looks.
Some basic facts:

1. Racism was born from the slave trade. The oldest skin-prejudice statements were made by Arabs and Jews who bought and sold dark-skinned Africans, but their prejudice was more tribal than racial. (The difference between tribe and race: you can join a tribe, but you can't join a race.) Solomon saw the Queen of Sheba was beautiful. Arab empires included African-Arabs like Al-Jahiz and Antarrah ibn Shaddad.

2. Up to the 17th century, no one limited slavery to any race. That changed in the Age of Enlightenment, when people realized it was wrong to sell people, so they had to sell people who were officially not people. That's when the biological concept of race was born.

3. The rich began to consciously divide the poor by race after Bacon's Rebellion in 1675. The British and Spanish created the first racist empires, and the US continued their racist work, not for racial reasons, but for capitalist ones. In North America, that resulted in tribes like the Cherokee adopting the racial divisions of their conquerors and defining their people by government records rather than culture.

4. Class has always trumped race. Black slaveowners in the US had far more privileges than poor whites. In the USA, race affects class—blacks in any class face more obstacles than whites of the same class—but the fundamental measure of privilege under capitalism is wealth.

In The politics of identity, Sharon Smith writes:
The entire element of social class is missing from the theory of identity politics. The same analysis that assumes Barack Obama shares a fundamental interest with all African Americans in ending racism also places all straight white men in the enemy camp, whatever their social class. Yet, the class divide has rarely been more obvious than in the United States today, where income and class inequality is higher than at any time since 1929, immediately before the onset of the Great Depression.10 It is plain to see that the rich obtain their enormous wealth at the expense of those who work for them to produce their profits, a process known as exploitation in Marxist parlance.

Class inequality is not a side issue, but rather the main byproduct of exploitation, the driving force of the capitalist system. Class inequality is currently worsening by the minute, as the economy edges its way toward a deep recession. Yet the theory of identity politics barely acknowledges the importance of class inequality, which is usually reduced to a label known as “classism”—a problem of snobbery, or personal attitude. This, again, should be confronted when it occurs, but such confrontations do not change the system that relies upon class exploitation.
LaClau and Mouffe describe society as made up of a whole range of autonomous, free-floating antagonisms and oppressions, none more important than any other—each is a separate sphere of “struggle.” But this concept falls apart once it is removed from the world of abstraction and applied to the real world. Separate struggles do not neatly correspond to separate forms of oppression. Forms of oppressions overlap, so that many people are both Black and female, or both lesbian and Latino. If every struggle must be fought separately, this can only lead to greater and greater fragmentation and eventually to disintegration, even within groups organized around a single form of oppression. A Black lesbian, for example, faces an obvious dilemma: If all men are enemies of women, all whites are enemies of Blacks, and all straights are enemies of gays, then allies must be precious few. In the real world, choices have to be made.
For me, there's one overwhelming argument for socialists to keep their focus on class. Liberal and conservative capitalists are working to prove Malcolm X wrong and end racism. They're working to end sexism. They're working to end homophobia and transphobia. They're working to end bigotry. That work will be futile so long as they refuse to redistribute wealth, but they're doing their best within the confines of capitalism. Their effort is good enough for many people who think of themselves as middle class.

But they're not trying to end the class system. They leave that work for socialists.

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