Critique of Liberal Anti-Racism: A Way Forward or Regression on Race?

2009 December 7

The following essay by Walter Benn Michaels appeared in the London Review of Books.

Here are some excerpts:

“My point is not that anti-racism and anti-sexism are not good things. It is rather that they currently have nothing to do with left-wing politics, and that, insofar as they function as a substitute for it, can be a bad thing. American universities are exemplary here: they are less racist and sexist than they were 40 years ago and at the same time more elitist. The one serves as an alibi for the other: when you ask them for more equality, what they give you is more diversity. The neoliberal heart leaps up at the sound of glass ceilings shattering and at the sight of doctors, lawyers and professors of colour taking their place in the upper middle class. Whence the many corporations which pursue diversity almost as enthusiastically as they pursue profits, and proclaim over and over again not only that the two are compatible but that they have a causal connection – that diversity is good for business. But a diversified elite is not made any the less elite by its diversity and, as a response to the demand for equality, far from being left-wing politics, it is right-wing politics.”

and

“Thus the primacy of anti-discrimination not only performs the economic function of making markets more efficient, it also performs the therapeutic function of making those of us who have benefited from those markets sleep better at night. And, perhaps more important, it has, ‘for a long time’, as Wendy Bottero says in her contribution to the recent Runnymede Trust collection Who Cares about the White Working Class?, also performed the intellectual function of focusing social analysis on what she calls ‘questions of racial or sexual identity’ and on ‘cultural differences’ instead of on ‘the way in which capitalist economies create large numbers of low-wage, low-skill jobs with poor job security’. The message of Who Cares about the White Working Class?, however, is that class has re-emerged: ‘What we learn here’, according to the collection’s editor, Kjartan Páll Sveinsson, is that ‘life chances for today’s children are overwhelmingly linked to parental income, occupations and educational qualifications – in other words, class.’”

Read the essay over at the London Review of Books.

  • Joel/Bring the Ruckus

    These two quotes exemplify why I don’t like Benn Michaels’s work. The first quote is on point, but the second one, where he gets to the question of praxis, becomes a simplistic “class matters” politics which, when one scratches beneath the surface, usually is a cry that the white working class isn’t getting a fair shake from the left.

    Of course class matters. Of course the white working class needs to be part of any radical movement. The question is how. Is it by downplaying race and gender since there are now doctors and lawyers of color, too? Or is it by directly confronting racial and gender privileges, in the process showing how they obstruct the struggle to create a united working class (a “class-for-itself” as Marx puts it)? Benn Michaels always seems to reject the latter choice, but it seems to be the only principled and practical option to me.

  • http://spiritualdesert.blogspot.com/ Mamos

    Yeah, I think Benn Michael’s piece is more regression than a way forward. It comes off as class reductionistic.

    For example, he says:
    “The increased inequalities of neoliberalism were not caused by racism and sexism and won’t be cured by – they aren’t even addressed by – anti-racism or anti-sexism.”

    What about how neoliberalism has lead to the systematic deindustrialization of majority Black midwest cities? This has to do with corporate “white flight” away from insurgent Black workers. Also, neoliberalism couldn’t function without exploiting cheap labor in countries whose workers are kept down through the colonialism and imperialism, something which most definitely has to do with racism!

    I think Ben Michael’s is defining “racism” as racial discrimination, not as a system of white supremacy -a system that takes power, status, and resources away from people of color and give them to white people. He might be right that neoliberalism requires good corporate manners and less overt discrimination for the ruling class to govern efficiently, but this doesn’t mean that neoliberalism is undermining white supremacy by any means!

    Joel, I agree with you that the white working class is an important and has radical potential, and I agree that the only way the white working can move forward and seek its own liberation is by confronting white supremacy and patriarchy head on, not by ignoring these in the name of some abstract “Black and White Unite and Fight” class unity. On this point, folks around Gathering Forces draw a lot from Sojourner Truth Org. and Noel Ignatiev’s grounbreaking essay “Black Worker-White Worker”: http://www.sojournertruth.net/bwww.html. Ignatiev says we should organize around militant anti-racist demands among workers of color and win white workers over to these demands by showing in practice that it’s in their own interest to fight for them. My understanding is Bring the Ruckus also draws heavily from STO on this point, right?

    However, I think the problems with the Benn Michaels essay go even further than that. He correctly identifies that when we ask institutions like universities for more equality they give us more diversity. That’s a nice line and I might use it in campus organizing. But he makes it seem like middle class liberal muticulturalism hurts primarily the white working class. He says multiculturalism is a prop to hold up capitalism/ classism. This is true, but what he neglects to point out is that multiculturalism is also a prop to hold up white supremacy because American capitalism would have a hard time functioning without white supremacy.

    Universities and corporations didn’t start hiring people of color mangers because the abstract historical forces of “neoliberalism” compelled them to do so. They started hiring people of color because they feared people of color revolts in the streets and in their workplaces and they needed to co-opt these movements into the bureaucracy by cultivating a new progressive ruling class of misleaders from among the movement’s ranks. After Black Power the white man can’t govern by his own cultural justifications alone. To put down people of color insurgencies like the Oscar Grant uprising they need a Rainbow Coalition of progressive bureaucrats, politicians, and nonprofiteers who have claim “roots” in the 60s antiracist movements, who have street cred, and who can talk a good nationalist line while they turn around and defend the cops, the corporations, the school administrators, etc. from everyday people of color. This multiracial management scheme has been the vanguard of white supremacy for decades, even if the whiteys in many parts of the country are perpetually deciding whether or not to just dispense with it and go old school on folks (you got straight up crackers in the suburbs fighting with Rainbow Coalition leaders in places like Detroit).

    When people of color revolt and demand equality the Rainbow Coalition gives us diversity. Not only does this hurt the white working class, it hurts the entire working class and all oppressed people.

    In terms of the Henry Louis Gates situation, it reminds me of an organizing situation that some of my friends were involved in at Brown University a long time ago. Two Black students were profiled by the cops and beaten when they refused to show student ids. The cops were on the hunt for youth of color from the local high school who were being accused of vandalism on campus and they mistook these university students for the highschoolers. In response there was a broad-based upsurge of protest from students of color on campus as well as queer students who were also facing police misconduct. This energy dissipated however because of class contradictions among these students. The more bourgie students of color wanted to chant things like “This is what a Brown student looks like”, basically saying “you dumb racist cops you gotta recognize we’re not savages like THOSE people of color over there.” They demanded anti-racist training for the cops focused on getting them to recognize this difference. Not only does this approach reinforce the oppression the university supports in the city (through gentrification, police militarization, etc.), but it also made it difficult for students of color to confront the very real racism and police brutality they were facing on the campus itself even if they were middle class. This is because their calls for police sensitivity didn’t fundamentally challenge the administration and gave the administration an opportunity to recuperate their protests back into the bureaucracy. The president of the school, Dr. Ruth Simmons, a Black woman, actually came to the march and joined in! She was protesting against her OWN private police force, a police force she ARMED over and against the long term organizing and objections of students of color, who she armed after they had repeatedly brutalized Black students, who she armed after paying Chief Bratton who presided over the murder of Amadou Diallo by the NYPD to advise her on campus security (of course he suggested she arm the cops….) Because she kept forging these kinds of popular fronts with bourgie progressive students of color, it was very difficult to challenge the various forms of white supremacy her administration would impose because bourgie students of color acted like movement cops defending her from more militant students of color.

    So yes, class does matter. But class is not separate from white supremacy, patriarchy, and heterosexism…. in fact, all of these reflect class realities under capitalism. Benn Michaels misses that.

    (I’ve taken up questions mostly of race in my comments. Perhaps others can elaborate on how this plays out in terms of patriarchy and heterosexism. I can think of multiple examples from our experiences here in Seattle that get at these questions but I gotta go to sleep now so I can get up for work…)

  • Joel/Bring the Ruckus

    Great post, Mamos; I like your analysis. And yes, you are right: Ruckus’s politics are very much influenced by STO, CLR James, Du Bois, Ignatiev, etc., as well as folks like Andrea Smith. You can see what we are up to at http://www.bringtheruckus.org .

  • BlueInferno

    Is white supremacy a movement that influences “movers” in social structures or are the structures themselves inherently racist? If so how and what are some alternatives to these systems?

  • BlueInferno

    Educational statistics repeatedly confirm that Democratic (or “blue states”) are among the very worst offenders with respect to racial isolation and funding inequity. The Civil Rights Project at UCLA (formerly at Harvard University) and the Federal Education Budget Project of the New America Foundation conduct research and compile data related to education policy. Reports prepared by these two institutions reveal that “liberal” blue states have worse records than Dixie with respect to educational equality.

    http://dissentingjustice.blogspot.com/2009/01/separate-and-unequal-public-schools.html

  • BlueInferno

    This made me go “hmmm”

    Illinois and New York: Terrible Records, Despite Obama and Clinton
    Examining funding and racial composition data together reveals that public schools in Illinois and New York rank among the most racially isolated and unevenly financed in the entire nation. These states also rank among the bluest states in the nation.

    Illinois has one of the best records of electing blacks (and Democrats generally) to public office, and it is the home of the nation’s first black president and the Great Emancipator. Illinois sits in the cradle of change. Yet, the state’s record of “diversity” has not lead to the systematic implementation of egalitarian education policy. New York, a bastion for liberal Democrats and the home state of Hillary Clinton, has a terrible record of performance on these issues as well.

    http://dissentingjustice.blogspot.com/2009/01/separate-and-unequal-public-schools.html

  • mlove

    Some quick thoughts…

    Mamos, I wanted to pivot off of a key point you made:

    “He correctly identifies that when we ask institutions like universities for more equality they give us more diversity. That’s a nice line and I might use it in campus organizing. But he makes it seem like middle class liberal multiculturalism hurts primarily the white working class. He says multiculturalism is a prop to hold up capitalism/ classism. This is true, but what he neglects to point out is that multiculturalism is also a prop to hold up white supremacy because American capitalism would have a hard time functioning without white supremacy.”

    This “neglect” to tell the whole truth is something that needs to be zeroed in on. Even more so because the reception of this article around parts of the Left, including both social democratic and radical circles, was often very positive. What I found important about this essay is the response to it, maybe a sign of something new on the horizon. Specifically, to what extent is that response a sign of serious regression on the question of white supremacy?

    This hinges on what seems to be the core of his argument. In the course of correctly attacking liberal “anti-racism”, he is actually making a much more fundamental claim:

    “My point is not that anti-racism and anti-sexism are not good things. It is rather that they currently have nothing to do with left-wing politics, and that, insofar as they function as a substitute for it, can be a bad thing.”

    His critique of the class nature of liberal “anti-racism” is actually boring and obvious. It’s been done. The question has always been how do we move forward from that critique. Benn Michaels points the way towards the return of “black, white, unite and fight” conceptions.

    What’s worse is that he presents this in terms taken from the Right. The way he talks about these issues tends to echo the sentiment that “anti-racism” and “multi-culturalism” are a conspiracy against working class whites. That’s something I think we need to pay attention to. If we take into account the prevalence of Right-Left thinking today (think Counterpunch) and the defining role of Zionism on much social democratic and radical Left, then maybe there is a larger paradigm shift in the intellectual foundations of white supremacy that sections of the Left are part of.

    Maybe the late 19th century and early 20th century new racism, a time of reactionary theorists of Western cultural decline and rejuvenation, is worth thinking about in terms of historical analogies. I’m not arguing that some of the social democratic and radical Left celebration of approaches like Benn Michaels is of the Right, but that it is the result of the spirit in the air.

    What can be added to the critique here started by Mamos?

    It seems to me that Benn Michael’s is responding to a this moment where we have seen the crumbling of the foundations of the Rainbow Coalition in the U.S. and the emergence of a new system not yet clearly named, though many have written about it. I think we can see a parallel development in the labor movement and the functioning of trade unions under neo-liberalism. Both have been decaying since the 1980s that, taking the larger view, have its source in the defeats of the 1970s with the end of mass political activity and the incorporation of some of its demands within the state and the Democratic Party. Take away the independent movement and we had a situation where patronage politics oversaw a sustained capitalist and racist attack on the gains of the working classes gained during the “Golden Age” of 1950-1974.

    When Jesse Jackson said he wanted to cut Obama’s nuts off, it summed up a transition between two different black middle class leaderships, two different historical periods and two different urban economies. The Obamas and the Corey Bookers of the world are products ivy league education and the power of big real estate developers, the NGO industrial complex, and attacks on public sector workers (which we could include charter schools in this). The old middle class entered power on the backs of mass movement that negotiated its position under the terms of achieving the entrance of black people into the New Deal, at least theoretically. But this was also the moment when this New Deal was coming under sustained attack by neo-liberalism

    Benn Michaels doesn’t take this history into account, as Mamos said. The system of white supremacy and the specific role people of color middle classes play in it hasn’t disappeared. It’s only changed. We could do a similar analysis of conditions in Europe where the conflicts that are undermining this arrangement (though different) are a lot more sharp and explosive than in the U.S. right now. But the deeply held and dangerous assumptions that are behind Benn Michaels thinking will have real political and strategic implications when new mass movements break out among people of color.

    By equating identity politics with radical traditions against white supremacy Benn Michaels is covering up the fact that identity politics was erected over the body of those radical traditions and the end of mass movements that developed them. He’s right that the emergence of identity politics is based on politics in the age of neo-liberalism, especially the dumping of political economy and an anti-capitalist analysis. But apparently he wants to ignore the real material and social divisions in the working classes and even the threats against people of color middle classes. The way forward is to understand how middle class capitalist politics hasn’t led to the removal of white supremacy, but definitely a change in regime and terms of how it is managed and, in many aspects, a deepening of its effects.

    ——

    BlueInferno:

    I thought the citations you provided about education are a good example of some of these issues.

    Disinvestment in public education and the creation of a two-tiered system is well-advanced in places like Illinois and New York. And this process is presided over by New Democrats, now represented by Obama. It’s no accident that Obama chose Arne Duncan as his education secretary, a man probably second only to Joel Klein in NYC as an advocate of charter schools.

  • BlueInferno

    We are all children of the sun and the earth. I’m trying to get closer to reality and not intellectualize myself away from whats false its a waste of time.

  • BlueInferno

    Being apart of this discussion is amazing though Im just very frustrated with the racial discourse and I always have been ever since I was very young . some things never change

    To quote Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” lyrics “You don’t have to live next to me
    Just give me my equality” and neither the democrats or the republicans are an adequate beacon of progressive change at this point.

    Racial discourse aside who will be and where will the upgrade in our collective value system come from?

    People with intelligence and people who care. Period.

  • Nate

    Great points here, a lot I want to think more about. For now, about the shift that y’all see as possible occurring/on the horizon, I wonder if there’s maybe a fraternal twin to this class reductionist politics, which is an ostensibly radical anti-racism. I’m thinking of many, many conversations I’ve seen and occasionally been part of in left circles (mostly anarchist ones) about how we need to deal with our internal issues and so on… I’m for that, though the ‘we’ is a bit off putting (since it’s based on surface assumptions about people’s appearances), it’s just that it’s largely an introspective matter for people already in the room – starts from a fair criticism of the demographic make up of some left circles then says “it must be because of something we’re already doing in this room here” rather than looking at the ways in which people ended up in the room – among other things, it seems to me to not engage with mass work about class issues. I think reasonable frustrations with that limited form of anti-racism can feed into bad forms of a return to class politics. (Sorry if this isn’t very clear, I’m very worn out just now.)
    cheers,
    Nate