By Guest Contributor: Sudip Bhattacharya
At a post-election event in Boston, Senator Bernie Sanders uttered the following: “It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”
Since the victory of Trump over Clinton, comments like those have echoed across the political spectrum, including from several Democrats (or those claiming to be). Those who hail from the political left fear that the Democratic party has lost its way with the “working class” — which is a problematic frame that I’ll explain later — or that Democrats are more invested in diversity than in dismantling class oppression. These are both valid points. However, those of us who are underrepresented and politically insecure — especially those of us who are people of color — have reason to worry: this framing portrays us and our issues as mere distractions from the “real” concerns of American people. Evidently, the soul of the Democrat Party is a site of struggle. I hope to push back against the forces that would marginalize racial justice on the Left, and which would leave POC like ourselves stranded and more powerless than before.
There are valid critiques of “identity politics,” including some raised by other folks of color. We might, for example, confuse a person’s background for their politics. When we elect Bobby Jindal or Nikki Haley, some of us can make the mistake of believing that they’ll stand up for us, or that their wins should be celebrated. Similar sentiments might also apply to Margaret Thatcher or other so-called “change” candidates, even when these figures are revealed to only serve the interests of the wealthy elite. However, the argument turns bitter and dangerous when the person advocating against “identity” politics invokes a sort of “neoliberal” agenda to divide and rule the people while neglecting working class politics.
The critiques of “identity politics” are problematic in three ways. First, it marginalizes the experiences of African Americans and other groups of color who are part of the working class. Second, it distorts the image of who is the typical reactionary voter. Most importantly, it consistently negates the power of race and racism in the U.S., both past and present.
Critiques of “identity politics” marginalize and ignore the plight of black and brown working class communities
The standard portrayal of working class issues is often – if unintentionally — to the detriment of black and brown people. When Sanders or his supporters claim that diversity isn’t the only issue to consider, and that the working class has been alienated by the Democrats, they imply that all working-class issues are the same regardless of race; or, more importantly, that the woes of the white working class should be prioritized – such is the message in writings like “The Original Underclass.”
Economic oppression cannot be deracinated. African Americans and other groups of color have borne the brunt of economic decay and deindustrialization, as social scientists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton discuss in their famous work American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. They state:
“Through a combination of corporate disinvestments in older plants and equipment, a decentralization of blue-collar employment from city to suburban areas, the relocation of manufacturing processes to nonmetropolitan areas, the transfer of production jobs to the sunbelt or overseas, and the setting of high real interest rates to produce an overvalued dollar and relatively expensive U.S. products, inner-city manufacturing industries can effectively be driven out of the urban economy.”
Today, the gap between black and white Americans continues to grow. As reported by CNN, a study by the Corporation for Economic Development and the Institute for Policy Studies found that “if current trends persist, it would take 228 years for black families and 84 years for Latino families to accumulate the same amount of wealth as whites.”
Racism’s effects cuts across class for many African Americans. “According to the Fed study, about 60 percent of black children whose parents had income that fell into the top 50 percent of the distribution saw their own income fall into the bottom half during adulthood. This type of downward slide was common for only 36 percent of white children,” states an article in The Atlantic. The writer later adds that “geographic segregation” contributes to the “determin[ation of] not only what neighborhoods people live in, but often what types of schools children attend, which could play a role in hindering their educational and professional attainment later on.”
Even among groups associated with wealth and status, such as Asian Americans, the divide between rich and poor festers. In a recent report by The Washington Post, economists from the Center for American Progress discovered that “Asian Americans are such an economically diverse group that wealth inequality is actually worse among Asian Americans than among white Americans.” In addition, “Census figures already show that income inequality is higher among Asian Americans.”
“Indian American households, for example, earn nearly twice the national average, while Bangladeshi and Cambodian Americans have lower-than-average household incomes. Asian Americans earn more than whites on average, but they also have higher rates of poverty.”
(Of course, we cannot conclude that Asian Americans face the same obstacles as African Americans and Latinos. I’ve written extensively on the topic of Asian American privilege.)
So-called “colorblind” discussions of class politics erase the specific intersections of race and class that most intimately reflect the lived experiences of black and brown working class Americans.
Critiques of “identity politics” distort the image of the “typical” reactionary
The narrative fed to us about the election is as follows: after years of deindustrialization and their jobs being outsourced overseas, the white working class rose up, and threw their support behind candidates like Trump because they were desperate for a solution. Although this may hold some truth, it is an incomplete picture.
In fact, Trump’s electoral win depended “on the support of the middle-class, the better-educated and the well-off” among white Americans. “The average Trump voter is not poorly educated or unemployed, nor does he live in a rural area,” an article by The New Republic explains. “Back in May, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver punctured the myth of the ‘working class’ being Trump’s voter base: In exit polls of 23 states from the primaries, all showed a higher median income for Trump supporters than the national average, usually around $70,000. Exit polls last week, while not definitive, reveal that both college-educated white men and college educated white women voted for Trump by much higher than expected margins.” None of this should be surprising given how similar movements in the past have also been fueled by whites not necessarily motivated by material concerns. I recently referenced in one of my articles a book — Change They Can’t Believe In by political scientists Matt Barreto and Christopher Parker — which showed that those who participated in the Tea Party movement, were often more economically privileged and held more authoritarian beliefs.
For years, the Republican Party has relied on white Americans of all backgrounds, including the well-off. According to a Pew Study, “Trump won white voters by a margin almost identical to that of Mitt Romney, who lost the popular vote to Barack Obama in 2012” and “Trump won whites with a college degree 49% to 45%” which mirrors “John McCain’s margin in 2008 (51%-47%).” And although some were shocked that white women failed to support Hillary Clinton’s campaign, this isn’t new either. Political scientist, Christina Bejarano, cited similar data in The Latino Gender Gap in U.S. Politics, that white women in 2012 still voted for Romney over Obama (56%-42%), which is only a few points lower than the number of white men who did so.
The conventional image of a reactionary must be rearticulated and expanded. This includes aiming a spotlight at whites who are white-collar, and suburban. The type of white American who actively exploit the labor of black and brown people, who live in homogenous neighborhoods, who benefit from politicians at their diners, who fail to see why #AllLivesMatter as utter b.s — these are the same white Americans who voted for Reagan and his war on black and brown bodies, and who, to this day, perceive the world beyond their homes as rife with threats that need to be “controlled.”
Critiques of “identity politics” are problematic when they ignore the power of race and racism in the U.S., both past and present.
The U.S. was manufactured by white men with property. However, although class is a major part of the hierarchy that formed post-independence, it doesn’t displace the crucial role race has played in American history.
After all, the U.S. originated as a slavocracy, in which Native American land was stolen, and black people were forced to provide for the white elite. Eventually, earning “whiteness” became the currency to being accepted by the establishment.
For instance, when Irish and Italian immigrants first arrived to the U.S., they were disregarded as rabble, and denied access to jobs and were forced to live in slums. However, as more black Americans emigrated from the south and into the north, and as demographics begun to change, the ruling white elite smelled an opportunity to shore up their power. “We define racial formation as the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed,” writes sociologists, Michael Omi and Howard Winant. Ethnic groups that were once excluded from being “white” were proving themselves to the establishment, and indoctrinating themselves into the anti-black ideology of the society. “A precondition of admittance into the white race is demonstration of whiteness through participation in the degradation of Blacks,” sociologist Ben Brucato explains, “Irish American police were active in containing and repressing Black neighbourhoods as part of the ‘on-the street supplement to the legal disfranchisement of Black persons; their intent was to show white citizens that the Irish deserved racial standing.’” As Walter Benn Michaels, a literary theorist quoted in Whiteness of a Different Color, explains: “White supremacy made possible the Americanization of the immigrant.” And I would add, for clarity: an abiding belief in an ideology of anti-blackness allows one to “earn” whiteness and to become a full American.
Brucato summarizes this, by quoting another theorist in his piece titled “Fabricating the Color Line in a White Democracy”:
“Race is the key to unraveling the secret of American exceptionalism, but it is also much more. A focus on exceptionalism only gets us so far. Race has been the central ingredient, not merely in undermining solidarity when broad struggles have emptied, not merely in dividing workers, but also in providing an alternative white male nonclass worldview and structure of identity that have exerted their force during both stable and confrontational times. It has provided the everyday framework in which labor has been utilized, controlled, and exploited by those who have employed it. And race has been behind many of the supposed principles of American government (most notably states’ rights) that are regarded as sacred by some people today.”
Even the era of the New Deal left people of color behind.
Because of the prevalent anti-black ideology of the early- to mid-20th century, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his band of progressive supporters “compromised” with segregationist Southern Democrats to enact public programs of The New Deal. Ira Katznelson summarizes this in his book, When Affirmative Action Was White, saying that “with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, all the New Deal legislation concerned with work included occupational provisions that converged with, and sustained, intense southern preferences, thus making possible their acquiescence to statutes and rules that advanced the cause of labor; that is, primarily white labor.”
President Roosevelt’s greatest crime – the internment of Japanese Americans – has often been interpreted as an economic concession to the white middle- and working-class. Historian Erika Lee explains in The Making of Asian America: A History that Executive Order 9066 “allowed for the government to round up and expel entire communities without compensation and without due process or proof of wrongdoing.” In the aftermath of Executive Order 9066, the West Coast’s white community seized the land and property left behind by the more than 100,000 Japanese Americans forcibly removed with only the belongings each could carry.
Political discussions that center class devoid of race miss the truth: American capitalism turns a profit from black and brown pain.
* * *
This year’s election of Donald Trump to the White House must be a lesson for the Left, especially for POC and social justice advocates. We must learn the importance of considering economic oppression, but we must also remember to do so with nuance. There are no race-neutral class issues.
Instead, we must forge a new framework – one wherein class is considered alongside issues of race, gender and sexuality. We must understand how capitalism creates a society that is needlessly competitive and consumerist. We must push back against so-called ‘color blind’ progressivism, which would overlook and undermine discussions of race and racism to pander to the white working class.
POC can no longer afford to be on the outside looking in. We can no longer take for granted that politicians will speak for us – too often they do not. Instead, we must recommit to speaking for ourselves.
Sudip Bhattacharya is a PhD student in Political Science at Rutgers University. He’s also a journalist and writer whose work has been published in CNN, Lancaster Newspaper, The Daily Gazette, The Jersey Journal, The Washington City Paper, The Aerogram, and AsAm news. He mostly focuses on issues of social justice, race, and identity through his work, and is a fervent optimist, but not the annoying kind.
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