Member Opinion: A Polite Disagreement on Racial Politics

By Paul Glaze

To the delight of capitalists everywhere, the newfound momentum of the left in the United States has, so far, been easily slandered as predominantly white and male. In light of these fair criticisms, many, most notably Jacobin Magazine, and recently Matt Hartman on this blog, have pointed towards a path that reads well, but misses the mark for political organizers – particularly in the inner cities and deep south. 

On a practical level, Hartman argues that “to succeed in the long term, we must address that problem at the root by prioritizing organizing projects that create material connections between the everyday lives of DSA members and the working class more broadly.” 

Put bluntly, Hartman wants black and brown people to see white faces working for their material benefit in black and brown neighborhoods. I don’t believe anyone could argue with the real value of sweat as a currency for trust, but the types of alliances and relationships, however vital, formed from these endeavors will never substitute for a bold and courageous political agenda that can be taken to the streets, and it is there that Hartman fails to deliver. 

Vivek Chibber, a co-editor of the new Jacobin spin-off “Catalyst,” a journal for theory-minded leftists, recently published an argument related to this topic, “Rescuing Class” (Catalyst, Spring 2017). It goes right to the gates of penetrating the intersection of class and race politics that young socialists so desperately need but stops short (emphasis added):

In a situation of generalized labor market competition, the easier means for increasing one’s security is not building formal organizations for collective action… but relying on the informal networks into which workers are born. These most commonly are networks of kin, caste, ethnicity, race, and so on. Since workers essentially inherit these connections ready-made, they become a natural source of support in normal times and especially in times of dearth. It is an irony of bourgeois society that, far from dissolving these extra-market ties, as Marx announced with such flourish in the Communist Manifesto, its pressures incline workers to cling to them with a desperate ferocity. It is important to note that these networks do not operate simply as material support societies. They also become a means of exerting control over the labor market, and through that, to reduce the level of competition for employment. It is not just that jobs are secured through one’s friends, family, or caste. It is that these connections are used to hoard job opportunities, sometimes by force, for members of one’s own network. But this only intensifies a class orientation in which one’s welfare is secured by non-class forms of association. Indeed, organized competition in the labor market through such ties has the effect of intensifying the divisions within the class. It runs directly against the principle of class organization.

This paragraph deftly explains the real challenge that the left has failed to answer: How will we, as a political movement, respond to the strength of centuries-old informal structures which reinforce racial superiority and are simultaneously inside and separate from an existing class structure? The answer must be bold, material, direct, articulated in policy, and not papered over with the now hollow and intrinsically privileged rhetoric of solidarity.

Luckily, the answer has already been found. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) must explicitly, and independently, endorse reparations for slavery and make it a central tenet of their platform and organizing. 

DSA has already endorsed reparations by proxy by approving the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) Platform. Those surprised about that may find DSA on the list of endorsing organizations here, though this information is not to be found on DSA’s website. A search of the site reveals only a response from activist and writer Bill Fletcher, Jr., to the Sanders campaign’s general cowardice on race issues, which references his now famous response to Ta-Nehisi Coates that reparations are “unrealistic.”

With all due respect to the Senator, who is the reason I joined DSA, Sanders as a viable presidential candidate could very recently have been described as “unrealistic.”

Does the Jacobin crowd, Hartman, Sanders, etc, really believe that black people in the U.S. don’t know how tough a political battle this would be? If so, it would be condescension on a remarkable level. The goal of the left right now needs to be to prove to the largest Democratic voting block in the country that we recognize and respect their specific justice claims and aren’t afraid to make that known.

The M4BL Reparations planks are fairly straightforward:

First, free and open access to public education, universities, and lifelong learning systems for black people. To believe in free higher education assumes that all humans deserve it, to say nothing of those owed a debt. Further, retroactive student debt forgiveness, which the majority of leftists already endorse in some form or another.

Second, a minimum livable income in the form of Universal Basic Income. It is noteworthy that a platform to redress injustices committed against a specific population cites universal programs as part of, though not all of, the solution. An academic and activist based in my home region of North Georgia, Irami Osei-Frimpong, would argue that a Federal Job Guarantee would be more up to the task.

Third, the platform calls for “corporate and government reparations focused on healing ongoing physical and mental trauma, and ensuring our access and control of food sources, housing and land.” The policy briefing on this plank is still forthcoming, but it references environmental racism and racialized capitalism such as the kind banks have been known to engage in and how there always seems to be a “black side of town” that is coincidentally full of food deserts.

Fourth,“mandated public school curriculums that critically examine the political, economic, and social impacts of colonialism and slavery, and funding to support, build, preserve, and restore cultural assets and sacred sites to ensure the recognition and honoring of our collective struggles and triumphs.” That is to say that the nation should frankly acknowledge the legacy and history of the people who were forced to build it.

Finally, legislation at the federal level that scientifically and earnestly examines the real impact of the institution of race-slavery on current and former generations and recommends mitigating efforts. Rep. Conyers’ bill, H.R. 40, introduced annually and always denied, is specifically cited.

These proposals are entirely consistent with Chibber’s class analysis and with Hartman’s call to “create material connections between DSA members and the working class more broadly.” Black people in the U.S. have a particular justice claim, and no movement from the left will win broad black support without the recognition of this claim. A rising black middle class will undoubtedly have greater class consciousness than it does now, if only as it recognizes its relatively increased market power. If that ascendance is, in part, the result of a bold left agenda that is centered on a direct policy push that was thought impossible until recently, as single-payer was a mere five years ago, then the onus will be on the Democratic Party to have discussions which it has hitherto been unwilling to initiate. Even if the result is nothing more than leverage for Rep. Conyers’ bill to study the issue, then the left will have concretely advanced the material interests of African-American voters further than it has for a generation.

In the Deep South, and in my home state of Georgia, there is no Democratic party without black voters, many of whom don’t see the party work for their votes. In the LA Times, Cornell Belcher, who worked on Obama’s campaigns and recently conducted a survey of African American voter attitudes for the Congressional Black Caucus, had this to say: “A majority of African Americans nationally thinks the party takes them for granted. And a majority thinks the party doesn’t even try to win their votes.”

This is an historic opportunity for the left to connect with the true base of the Democratic Party, but “all poverty matters” as a rallying cry will relegate the current moment to a brief reverie wherein we praise ourselves for being openly socialist, but fail to take the logical steps to grow the movement. We cannot say that every human being, even Rex Tillerson, is entitled to a living wage, to affordable housing, to healthcare and education as a right and then fall over when someone asks us to get specific. As humans, black people in the U.S. deserve those things. Also, as aggrieved and abused hostages of white and U.S. antagonism, they deserve those things. There are ethical debates to be had, certainly, about transferring wealth from white people directly, but without question it is past time for some majority white entity to argue passionately in the public eye that the government has committed a crime against humanity and must settle with the descendants of those it wronged.

Now is the time for socialists in the U.S. to recognize that arguing for color-blind platforms, including class-centric ones that de-emphasize what is arguably the largest determinant factor of wealth in our nation, is political self-flagellation to an Oedipal degree. The old masters of socialist thought may ultimately be proven right that class is primary, but the U.S. reality requires us to put our money where our mouths are.

Paul Glaze is a Metro Atlanta DSA member and a member of the Executive Committee for Our Revolution’s Georgia affiliate.

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