Class-Race Reductionism

Ida B. Wells wrote about the intersections of economic anxiety and racial oppression in the 1890s.

There’s an ever waging war, in academia, activist circles, and lest we forget the most important, on Twitter, on whether or not it is class or race that is most significant. And “most significant” usually collapses a couple of concerns (at least): what got Trump elected? And what should be the basis of social justice activism and rhetoric?

To say that such discussions are reductionist is both incredibly obvious and, for some reason, something that one apparently can’t reiterate enough, if one is to take the rhetoric on the internet seriously. Of course, there are people writing in skilled ways on this matter: for example, David Roediger’s new collection of essays takes up the problems of race and class. So does Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s excellent book on Black Lives Matter. But once again the media is abuzz over the latest study that apparently proves that economics weren’t the reason for Trump’s election, “identity” was. As if the two aren’t related.

So I thought I might try to tease exactly what it is that the class-race reductionism obscures, and I want to do so by proposing a model that is reductionist in its own way, but that attempts to parse out the politics of race and class into four quadrants. On one axis, of course, is race and class. On the other axis is the diagnosis and the cure. I am going to argue that it’s the conflation of the poles on this axis that contribute most to the ways in which people talk past one another in matters of race and class.

race class
diagnosis inherent or cultural racial bias is the primary cause of racism and racial inequality economic inequality exacerbates and fuels racial hatred
cure whites need to be educated about racism and/or blacks need a greater share of power whites may be attracted to economic solidarity which can then fuel racial comity and/or blacks and whites need each other to form a broad working class capable of taking on the bourgeoisie

(Hey, look at me making squares, it’s almost like I’ve become a social scientist!)

Before going any further, it’s worth pointing out that none of these squares are mutually exclusive from one another. You can pick any two of them—in a row, a column, or diagonally—and see how these ideas might complement one another, so long as you dismiss any notions about which is prime.

* * *

The famous journalist Ida B. Wells, one of the co-founders of the NAACP, is reported to have had an epiphany about the problem of lynchings in the earliest years of the Jim Crow South after a lynching claimed the lives of the black owner of a grocery store, and his two co-workers.

Up until this point, the popular narrative about lynchings had been that they were a response to black men preying sexually on white women, and even some blacks in the South believed this was the case. However egregious the violence of lynchings was, the underlying crimes that caused them were true, they assumed. Wells took the case of the grocery store lynching to launch a broader investigation into the reality of lynchings in the South. She showed that the grocery store owners’ only crime was that they had launched a successful business that threatened to reduce the profits of the white grocery store in town.

As far as I know, Wells was making no claims for blacks and whites to unite as a broad working class in her journalism. Nor was she making any attempt to define a kind of black socialism. But she was showing how one of the reasons for the racial violence in the South was economic in nature. This is to say, we can at least locate Ida Wells in the upper right corner of the matrix above. This is also not to say that we cannot find her in other places too.

* * *

Fred Hampton was a prominent member of the Black Panther Party in Chicago, and on the national level too. In an oft-quoted speech that he gave in 1969, the same year that he was assassinated by the FBI, Hampton made a case for socialism and not “black capitalism.” “When I talk about the masses, I’m talking about the white masses, [and] I’m talking about the black masses,” Hampton preached, suggesting that there could exist a solidarity among the two groups. He continued: “We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity.” It is not evident from this speech if Hampton believed that a class analysis was necessary for a diagnosis of the problem of race. It is clear that Hampton was making no excuse for racist acts, particularly those of the “pigs.” But it is also certainly clear that he saw socialism, and a white-black solidarity among workers, as the means to overcome the problem of power.

Hampton then can be placed in a different spot from Ida B. Wells. There is more than one way, it turns out, to think about the intersections of race and class. It would be reductionist to say that Hampton did not see the importance of class because he was an anti-racist, just as it would be reductionist to say that Wells’ story refutes the problem of economic anxiety just because she was seeking an end to a specific kind of racial injustice, that is lynching.

* * *

At this point, we should acknowledge a parallel reductionism to that sketched out above: the conflation between disenfranchised and/or demobilized voters on one hand, and antagonistic voters on the other. Simply put, we can acknowledge that racist voters vote for Trump, while still acknowledging that other voters—NOT those same voters!—can be enfranchised and mobilized under various rubrics of solidarity that include both racial and class solidarities. Such a move avoids the tendency of certain narratives to posit that if Trump voters are racist, the only way to get voters on the left is to promote anti-racism.

Furthermore, this reductionism relies on an understanding of the electorate as static. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor once noted, we tend to see the condition of racist as immutable even after we decide race isn’t. Relatedly, Judith Stein noted that the means by which individuals might move from racist to non-racist can be intricately tied to matters of class consciousness. “Egalitarian racial sentiment is often the consequence, not the cause, of unionization,” she pointed out, suggesting, as I’ve said before, that the best political move a left-liberal coalition can make might be to stop trying to find the voters that it already approves of, but rather to start creating the kinds of voters that it would like to see exist.