For decades now, I’ve been arguing that when it comes to politics, liberals and leftists need to stop talking about race and focus instead on class. It’s not that racism doesn’t exist and cause genuine suffering, I would argue, but race divides the majority from the minority, while class could, and should, unite them. The way to help poor black and Latino people is to help poor people, period. (Wealthy black and Latino people can help themselves.) I still believe this, but I’ve also come to believe it’s hopeless.
Initially I understood the primary roadblock to be identity itself. People of color insisted on identifying themselves first and foremost as people of color, and they looked to leaders who served as reflections of their ideal selves. On those rare occasions when transracial and transethnic movements succeeded in America, they did so through the paradigms of race and ethnicity rather than by transcending them. Many responses are possible to Werner Sombart’s famous 1906 question, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” The most obvious, however, is that the patch-quilt racial and ethnic composition of the US working class has made it easy for capitalists to divide and rule.
But another reason — one whose power and resilience I admit to have underestimated — is the problem of institutional white racism. Events of the past year or so — together with some of the research I did on inequality for my recent Nation eBook, Inequality and One City: Bill de Blasio and the New York Experiment, Year One — have convinced me that people of color, especially black males, live in a different country from the one in which whites live, whether rich or poor.
Race Matters (but Not To Conservatives)
I’m with Alterman here (I read the article yesterday.) I’ve been pretty slow to admit that racism is the single biggest poison in American life.
I knew it on a theoretical level. I knew universal health care, the lack of which has killed people I loved, wasn’t possible because racists thought they’d be subsidizing lazy blacks. I knew most incredibly popular (in theoretical polls) social programs that would benefit everyone weren’t possible because racists feared subsidizing lazy blacks. I knew the drug war was a crime against humanity, harming black people (although, until I read “The New Jim Crow,” I didn’t realize how targeted that crime, borderline genocide, was.)
I knew these things, and I preferred to think of class, not race. Why? Deluded self-interest and subconscious racism, mostly. I imagined that efforts to address racism wouldn’t benefit me, a poor white guy (as if we’d ever have efforts to address racism — and as if they wouldn’t benefit all poor people!)
Mostly, though, I think it’s because I did not and do not want to face the expressions of black people. My apartment building is majority black, and black people do not like us. For very, very good reasons. We’ve shit on them historically and we shit on them now. Even a neighbor you know a little bit, where each of you has helped out the other in minor ways from time to time, gives you something of the stink-eye, and well they should.
What’s been done and what’s being done to black people in this country will not go away, unless we decide to murder them all (it worked with the indigenous inhabitants.) You can’t get past that stink-eye. It’s fully deserved. I pretended “hey, we’re all poor, why hate me” for a long time. That’s a joke. We’re all treated like equal dogshit by the landlord, but we are not treated the same by cops or potential employers.
So, I guess, I’m not with Alterman — he’s coming from a different perspective. (All credit that he writes what he writes, I’m not knocking the guy, besides his goofy defense of Israeli racism.) I’m coming from a different place. I hate the ceaseless unmentionable anger between poor white people and poor black people. I hate looking at faces and seeing things others think but won’t say. I hate getting into stupid laundry-room fights over who moved whom’s clothes where, when the fight is really about white privilege. I want this shit to be over and done — it’s not going to be, not in my lifetime or ten generations more. People in the Balkans are still mad over stuff that happened in 1293, and they have a right to be.
I still do think there is a chicken-egg problem with racism. If suddenly, all African Americans became upper middle class and lost the stigma of racism, our society would still find a way to racialize whatever group was on the bottom of the economic ladder. This is a really big problem because it means that racism and economic inequality feedback on themselves. Ultimately, the only solution is to enforce some level of equality. Right now, I don’t see that the need for economic incentives require more than a 2-to-1 ration from top to bottom — but I would gladly take a 100-to-1 ration — which would be a vast improvement on what we have. Of course, in modern America, such an idea is so outside the Overton Window that it is in another house.
Does Alterman defend Israeli racism? I know his battles with Max Blumenthal. But I’ve come to see that as a generational thing. I really do think that Jews of Blumenthal’s generation don’t see the need for Israel in the way that those of Alterman’s generation do. I sympathize with Blumenthal in that I don’t really see the need either. I’ve spent the last year really questioning my support of Zionism. Just the same, I totally understand where Alterman is coming from, and I’m not at all certain that he is wrong. This is why I am still undecided about Zionism. But my doubts at this point have more to do with the practical aspects of it: if the conservative, racist government of Israel is going to be the result of Zionism, then maybe the project is not worth continuing. Regardless, I think that Alterman has a visceral connection to Israel, such that in his arguments with Blumenthal, his emotions trump his analysis. I do not think that Alterman is a very good apologist for Zionism. (Not that Alterman hasn’t written some great nuanced stuff about the Israel-Palestine conflict.) But we all have our blind spots, and Alterman is brilliant and an intellectual treasure.