College students study race and class in sociology courses or in Black Studies programs, although it should be part of the core curriculum for all incoming college freshmen who need to understand the history of this multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. The issue of race identity vs. class identity in the US is as old as the institution of slavery followed by an apartheid society from the end of the Civil War to the Supreme Court decision of 1896 in Plessy v. Fergusson, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and down to the early 21st century with lingering cultural and institutional racism manifesting itself in everything from the criminal justice system to public schools and public health.
The sociological and political issue of race transcending class and vice versa is controversial depending on one’s ideological perspective. White liberals and black nationalists subordinate class to race, while varieties of socialists for the most part, although hardly unanimous, argue that class transcends race and it must be so in order to address the broader problems of social justice. The dominant culture and institutional structure that includes government at all levels and everything from the educational system and churches to media have always subordinated class to race. It is hardly surprising to this day that this is what the majority reflect in public opinion polls as well, considering that America is much less class conscious than other developed nations despite the lack of social justice.
http://hotair.com/headlines/archives/2016/01/30/racial-attitudes-differ-more-on-ideology-than-class/; also see Barbara Fields, “Ideology and Race in American History” in Region, Race, and Reconstruction, ed. by J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson (1982).
The Congressional Black Caucus and the Politics of Conformity
In February 2016, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) decided to endorse Hillary Clinton on the basis of her record of support for blacks arousing the curiosity of many who immediately looked into the financial backing of the CBC to determine who exactly was paying for the endorsement. Beyond the obvious Washington corporate lobbyists linked to the CBC, there are several salient questions that need some analysis, including class consciousness vs. race consciousness in America, and why is it that there is a blurring of the two.
Is the political economy best served currently by both black and white elites and the white dominant culture and institutional structure perpetuating racial divisions over class divisions? Is identity in America based on skin color, ethnicity, religion and gender rather than class? Does race consciousness mean the same thing in the early 21st century when a black president has been elected twice as it did in the mid-19th century when black abolitionist Frederick Douglass lived in a society where race and class were the same under the institution of slavery? Is the CBC following a long-standing tradition of black churches that conform within the white establishment?
Historically, black clergy have kept the congregation focused on spiritual matters within the black community isolated from the white mainstream; some have gone along with the white establishment both conservative and liberal so they can keep their turf; others as during the 1950s and 1960s became politicized and demanded reforms within the system or declared Black Nationalism as the solution. Does the fact that CBC exist indicate societal racism that needs a political power broker? If so, what does this reveal about race vs. class identity and why the former transcends the latter in America when it is not the case in other multi-racial societies?
The racial identity vs. class identity issue emerged in the forefront of the presidential election of 2016 when two white people in the Democrat Party – Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders - were competing for the voting bloc of African-Americans who supported overwhelmingly Barak Obama in his bid to the White House. Despite the fact that the Republican Party had a black presidential candidate (Ben Carson), in February 2016 the Congressional Black Caucus chose to support the former Sec/State Hillary Clinton, arguing she represents the interests of black people, presumably all of them and not just the 35,000 black millionaires in a population of about 39 million blacks or 13% of the total in the US.
It is important to note that big capital was as solidly behind the decision of the Black Caucus as it has been behind the Clinton campaign. There is something seriously wrong and highly hypocritical when the Black Caucus claims to represent all black people, but its funding sources come from the largest US-based multinational corporations influencing its decision to endorse Clinton rather than Sanders. http://www.democracynow.org/2016/2/12/who_endorsed_hillary_clinton_the_congressional
“Members of the CBC PAC board include Daron Watts, a lobbyist for Purdue Pharma, the maker of the highly addictive opioid OxyContin; Mike Mckay and Chaka Burgess, both lobbyists for Navient, the student loan giant that was spun off of Sallie Mae; former Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Md., a lobbyist who represents a range of clients, including work last year on behalf of Lorillard Tobacco, the maker of Newport cigarettes; and William A. Kirk, who lobbies for a cigar industry trade group on a range of tobacco regulations.”
A Historical Overview of Race and Class
Although the promise of capitalism is that it is color-blind and a system that provides equal opportunities for all to attain upward social mobility, the empirical reality not just in the US but across the globe has been anything but the promise. The market system has always taken advantage of race, gender, and ethnicity to divide the working class and middle class and to benefit by paying lower wages to those groups in society that are discriminated. Just as there have been lower wages for women, similarly the white-black wage ratio has also been lower working to the benefit of the employer using race to realize higher profits, thus contributing to the strengthening of US capitalism. Racial stereotypes that the media and the dominant culture perpetuate – blacks are prone to crime, collecting welfare, and draining the social welfare system – help to maintain racial divisions that keep a large percentage of the minority community in a permanent state of social subservience. (Nicola Ginsburgh, “Race and class in the US” Issue: 134 (27th March 2012) http://isj.org.uk/race-and-class-in-the-us/)
Capital accumulation would not be possible in the absence of the active role of the state. This is where politicians enter into the picture of promoting co-optation so that capitalists encounter the least possible resistance to their goals. Following a long-standing tradition of yielding to white bourgeois co-optation, which has been an effective mechanism of sociopolitical control of the minority population, the Black Caucus invoked race above class to endorse Hillary Clinton. That she is running on a platform to maintain the neoliberal status quo that has kept blacks in the lowest income category of any social group in America in the last half century, including under Obama was not mentioned because the same big capital contributors to Clinton are also contributors to the CBC bought and paid for.
Without mentioning big money contributors behind the endorsement, the Black Caucus argued that Hilary and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, were involved in the Civil Right Movement of the 1960s and Hillary best represents the “Obama legacy” whereas her opponent has been critical of America’s first black president for caving to Wall Street and the establishment. Two-thirds of Americans believe that the class divide is a more serious issue than immigration or race relations, given that the elusive American Dream has become just a dream for the vast majority, causing polarization in society in across all social realms including race relations.
Historically the American Dream – upward social mobility from the working class to the middle class - was never as easily attainable for blacks as it was for whites. Before the Civil War, the American Dream was more or less the domain of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite, but it was hardly much different from the end of the Civil War to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. While there was a gradual opening for upward social mobility to blacks, it was hardly comparable to the rate of whites. More significant, the vast majority of the black population continued to make up a disproportionate part of America’s poor, lacking decent health and education. Although the Civil Right Act officially put an end to the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Fergusson (1896) of “separate but equal”, it hardly ended the practice throughout the country of an apartheid society.
In an article entitled “Race transcends class in this country: A response to Seekings and Nattrass”, South African university professor Xolela Mangcu argues that in his apartheid society race transcends class because people see color first and foremost even after he would have to announce his social status. Moreover, regardless of class differences, black people feel a sense of solidarity because of their common struggle against apartheid society. http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2015-04-06-race-transcends-class-in-this-country-a-response-to-seekings-and-nattrass/#.VsBhP-Y_DIW
As shocking as many people may find it, there are some similarities between South Africa and the US, though clearly the US is the military leader of the world and still a powerful economy despite the global challenge that China has presented in a remarkably short period of time. Because of the institution of slavery that relegated black people in the southern states to the status of property that whites owned, and because of Jim Crow laws at the state and local level enforcing segregation and apartheid conditions, a hierarchy evolved based not just on class but also race. Almost like a caste system, blacks were at the bottom of the hierarchy, followed non-Western European immigrant workers from of any ethnicity regardless of color, and then white workers. Not surprisingly, the slowly evolving black middle class also fell into the same race-based hierarchy, considering that many cities have historic black middle class neighborhoods, just as they do of other ethnic groups.
The endeavors of civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 1960s, including Martin Luther King to have race eliminated as criteria and to have blacks accepted on the same meritocracy-based criteria as whites was actually conceived by Europeans during the Age of Reason in the 18th century when the US was born as a republic. While the Founding Fathers incorporated the value system of the Enlightenment in the Constitution and laws, they excluded minorities and women. The white European bourgeois philosophy and values of the 18th century are deeply ingrained in American society that places the individual above the collective, thus protecting the individual property owner and slave owner.
In a recent article entitled “Martin Luther King Jr. Transcended Color and Class and So Can You,” liberal Huffington Post reflects the ideal of 18th century Enlightenment liberal thinking against any communitarian values. “In reality, no one can set another free. True equality arises from within. When you become it and live it, your demonstration of strength of character creates your ticket to freedom. Each one of us contains all the power we require to set ourselves free. Ultimately, it's an inside job.” The suggestion that Martin Luther King transcended class and race is as absurd as the one that freedom comes from within. Of course, he was the first to admit as much.
This 18th century liberal ideal assumes that the individual has choice in the matter of transcending race and class, when in fact the institutional structure determines racism and classism. No one decided to become a slave while all along thinking in her/his mind he/she is free. Slaves did not have the ability to free themselves from the institution simply by imagining they were free. This is only something that religion promoted to provide slaves with a spiritual outlet for their predicament in daily material life and something that white masters promoted along with black preachers, although for different reasons, resulting in maintaining the status quo.
Racism at the City Level: Chicago
American history is rich with examples of black leaders conforming to the white establishment and endorsing the political enemies of workers and especially black workers en masse. Some such cases have been very egregious that backfired on the black community. For example, the black leadership in Chicago chose to support Rahm Emanuel, another Obama protégé committed to neoliberal policies and conducting policy to strengthen the richest citizens of the city. The black elites and black community leaders for the most part rejected Jesus Garcia, the candidate running on a populist progressive platform with a broad appeal to the middle class and workers. Despite the fact that Emmanuel had a record of covering up for institutional racism in the police department and refusing to make any changes at the leadership level, black leaders asked their followers to vote for Emanuel because they assumed a Latino mayor would be less friendly toward the minority community than a mayor linked to Obama. http://chicago.suntimes.com/politics/7/71/507983/humility-black-partnerships-forge-win-rahm-emanuel
This was two years after Emanuel had ordered that 53 public schools and 61 buildings primarily in minority neighborhoods be shut down so the city could save $1 billion. This was carried out as part of a neoliberal agenda where Emmanuel was privatizing public services and using funds saved by shutting down schools so the city could then transfer funds for a variety of corporate welfare projects to local businesses. Moreover, he proposed building a public school near an environmental toxic site to save money. Nevertheless, blacks voted for him instead of his Hispanic opponent, despite his record of supporting a racist police force, and pursuing a racist policy toward public education. Although these neoliberal policies impacted largely the black community, they are at the core class and not race issues despite the hit the black community took because it was the easy target to the white establishment.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/17/rahm-emanuel-school-toxic_n_3941302.html; http://www.chicagonow.com/kelly-truth-squad/2015/02/the-next-50-chicago-public-schools-rahm-emanuel-will-close/; http://inequality.org/privatization-chicago/
Black Nationalism and the Liberal Integrationist Model
Both at the local level as Chicago politics suggests as well as the national level the issue of race benefits capital but it only continues unabated because politicians black and white perpetuate the interests of capital over class and race, the latter which they use to subordinate the class struggle clearly evident in subtle and blatant forms. Unfortunately, Black Nationalism in the 20th century has actually helped to inculcate into the minds to black people that race consciousness transcends class consciousness. This is certainly since the era of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association in the 1920s and down to the late 20th century with various black leaders advocating nationalism, albeit often for opportunistic self-serving reasons as in the case of some black Muslims. (William L. Van Deburg, Modern Black Nationalism: From Marcus Garvey to Louis Farrakhan (1996).
Despite the reality that in all people’s everyday material lives class transcends race, Black Nationalist leaders have tried to sell illusions not very different than those the church has been selling to the faithful who need spiritual comfort against the incredible odds in the real world. By the same token, the liberal integrationist model which has presented itself as the antithesis of Black Nationalism has also contributed to distracting from class consciousness in the black community. The liberal integrationist models rooted in local and national Democrat Party politics and coming out of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s were in essence detrimental to the upward socioeconomic mobility of blacks, always as judged by results clearly evident half a century later.
In fact, those liberal integrationist experiments of the 1960s and 1970s (segregated housing that entailed ghetto living, permanent welfare, substandard health and education, etc.) were in essence intended to provide the minimal social safety net while at the same time absorbing a tiny percentage of the black elites into the institutional mainstream. Meanwhile, nothing changed for the vast majority of the population that remains at the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder judged by income and personal wealth statistics. It is these black elites that the Congressional Black Caucus represents today as it has historically, rather than the unarmed black teenager shot by cops every other week in cold blood in one of America’s cities. Gary Peller, Critical Race Consciousness: The Puzzle of Representation. (2012).
The underlying problem is social justice. Both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King recognized toward the end of their lives when they too finally went beyond the issue of race and on to the much larger issue of class and the structure of the political economy and dominant culture. The alienation of blacks in contemporary society is not so different than it is for Hispanics and other non-European immigrants, or poor whites. The lumpenproletariat, of which a large segment blacks have been related by the political economy, are in the same boat as their brethren of other races and ethnicities. They are all operating under a system geared toward capital accumulation and bent on using race, gender, ethnicity and religion, especially targeting Muslims since 9/11, to divide the masses. This is hardly a new strategy, considering we see it on the part of the Europeans in the 19th and 20th century and their behavior toward colonial people as Franz Fanon among others has argued trying to understand the root causes of class and race alienation.
Alienation, Race, Gender and Class
Like sexism and xenophobia, racism breeds alienation not only because of the exclusion from the mainstream but because the people on the receiving end internalize the identity assigned to them by the hegemonic culture rooted in discrimination. As George Lulacs, History and Class Consciousness (1972) pointed out in the 1920s, the issue of alienation is catalytic in capitalist society, an issue on which Existentialist thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre dueled in their writings especially as alienation was dominant in bourgeois life. Not only do we see very clear evidence of alienation among the petit bourgeoisie in America across all ethnic and religious groups despite their protestations to the contrary that capitalism effaces such alienation, the problem is becoming even more pronounced in a techno-society that continues to alienate human beings from each other as individuals and social classes striving to assert their identity and pulled in different directions by forces intended to distract them from the problem of social justice.
Against such a culture of alienation even more prevalent today than when George Lucacs was writing a century ago, it is hardly surprising that racial, ethnic, religious, and other “communal” identities transcend class identify, especially for the lumpenproletariat. After all, who wants to identify with the working class? Whereas the American middle class was the essence of the American Dream a half century ago, that class is now considerably weakened, debt-ridden and hardly carries the same prestige it did during the early Cold War. Is it any wonder that working class people with high school diplomas support a billionaire right-wing populist presidential candidate Donald Trump who represents their fears and aspirations, their prejudices and anxieties, even when he invokes xenophobia, sexism and racism?
What a better way to co-opt a segment of the disgruntled masses and keep them divided than to have such right wing populists who point to working people of a different race, ethnicity and religion? This is exactly what ultra right-wing politicians did in the interwar era of Fascism and Nazism rooted in discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender and religion. Public opinion makers – think tanks and media, politicians and community leaders - mold mass psychology to accept alienation as normal, to reject class consciousness and to identify with communal groups of similar background instead of seeing the absence of social justice in its universal framework impacting the working class and middle class regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or gender.
There are many sociological and historical studies analyzing the issue of race transcending class in America that goes hand in hand with gender transcending class, and ethnicity, and religion. These are all traits of a capitalist society where the political and social elites co-opt a small percentage of the leadership of the minority groups, keep these groups separate and use them to forge political and social consensus that serves a political economy aimed at preserving the privileges of the wealthy that includes a small percentage of blacks and other minorities, as well as women. Not surprisingly, Hillary Clinton, a millionaire who represents Wall Street, used her gender as an issue to co-opt women voters just as the Black Caucus used the issue of race to co-opt black voters for Clinton.
Divisive tactics based on race, religion and ethnicity were commonly used by European colonialists to co-opt the native population and to keep it divided, whether in Africa, India and the rest of Asia, especially in the 19th and early 20th century. In short, the tactics of European imperialists remain alive and well in 21st century US.
Throughout history, the social and political elites in the US have endeavored to suppress any attempt at raising class consciousness, while exacerbating race, gender, ethnic and religious consciousness.
It is hardly surprising that class consciousness is subordinate to race, gender, ethnicity, and religious consciousness in a society where the entire institutional structure from educational system to community social clubs have no references to class because it is an anathema to even mention the class structure although it is staring at people in the face when they go from the ghetto to the gated community. It is a testament to the success of the elites in co-opting the disgruntled masses in the late 1960s and early 1970s by fragmenting their causes, breaking down their solidarity by focusing on specific groups that included feminists, blacks, Hispanics, gay rights activists and environmentalists, and all separate and never in solidarity with each other. (Angela Davis Women, Race and Class, 1983; also see Paula S.
Rothenberg, Race Class and Gender in the US, 2004)
Civil Rights, Cold War and Cryptic Jim Crow
As the white establishment as the co-opted black elites always sing the praises of the civil rights movement, which did go a very long way in addressing some of the most egregious segregation problems and it did result in modest upward mobility. While the civil rights movement had some limited success, would any one argue that it eliminated institutional racism in America? If not, to what degree is this the fault of the white establishment and the black political elites that enjoy influence over black ministers and community leaders?
The Obama legacy on which Hillary Clinton is running for president in 2016 is much closer to the Clinton one in so far as it continued the neo-liberal tradition that strengthened the richest Americans than it did the bottom 90%; among those bottom 90% blacks doing very poorly under Obama with youth unemployment at 50% and income disparity that suggests very clearly institutional racism as a mechanism that strengthens capital. Given the material lives of the vast majority of black people, the Black Caucus is about as relevant to black peoples’ lives as Gloria Steinem and her generation of upper middle class feminists to the lives of working class women of all ethnic backgrounds.
In many multi-racial societies, class transcends race but not in the US where the elites of all ethnic groups and races have joined historically to suppress the concept of class as radical, socialist or Marxist. By contrast, race isolated as an issue is acceptable because it speaks to the possibilities of co-optation of a segment of minorities into the white institutional structure. In this respect, the US is not very different from South Africa, but very different from the Muslim North African and Middle East countries where class most definitely transcends race.
In a pluralistic society that claims to be Enlightenment-inspired merit-based but in reality steeped in racism and xenophobia diversity is essential to prove that the system works and must be sustained as is. During the early Cold War when the US was engaged in a global struggle for ideological and political influence with the Communist countries, domestically it practiced apartheid while preaching the virtues of democracy to the rest of the world. The Civil Rights movement emerged from the Cold War political climate and became necessary to silence critics about the limits of American democracy. John Kennedy recognized as much but so did Lyndon Johnson. In the early 21st century America has come full circle with the anti-Islam campaign under the name “war on terror” elaborately institutionalized to replace the Cold War. (Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. 2011)
Although the internal dynamics of a society drive domestic policy, in the case of the US foreign policy under Pax Americana bent on global policing if not hegemony invites attitudes of inevitable superiority as history suggests in the long standing Protestant tradition of providence and Manifest Destiny. Just as racial discrimination was part of the conquest at the expense of Native Americans, Latin Americans from the Polk to the McKinley administration, there was a parallel race discrimination against blacks that is continuing despite Affirmative Action as one way to address it.
Diversity and Affirmative Action emerged from the Civil Rights movement that was in no small measure intended to improve America’s image abroad, but also to come to terms with the substantial demographic changes as minorities were becoming a larger percentage of society. Although loosely applied in many cases, Affirmative Action has helped to bring more blacks in college and that has been a catalyst to upward social mobility in a merit-based society. That some whites view Affirmative Action in higher education as preferential treatment for blacks or reverse discrimination as they argue in courts, including the Supreme Court, fails to take into account the centuries of excluding blacks from higher education on the basis of skin color without any regard to meritocracy.
Education is itself a commodity for purchase by the wealthiest, considering that the children of the wealthy have access to the best schools, and the very wealthy are contributors to universities where their children attend classes. In other words, as a microcosmic reflection of the larger society, higher education is based primarily on class and secondarily on race, considering that the rich black students graduating from expensive private or affluent suburban schools can hardly be placed in the same category as the inner city public high school graduate where preparation for college is a luxury instead of a priority. (Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. 2006)
In the workplace Affirmative Action been used as a meritocracy mechanism for professional jobs that benefit the black college-educated middle class now dwindling at an even greater rate than the white middle class under neoliberal policies of corporate welfare since the Reagan era at all levels of government. Other than skin color, which they use for their own personal gain, what exactly do black corporate executives have in common with an unemployed young man in Detroit? Similarly, white CEOs have more in common with their black counterparts than with unemployed white youths in rural Louisiana. Solidarity exists among the black and white capitalist but not necessarily among the black and white unemployed youth of working class background.
In the era of a two-term black president, in the era of self-proclaimed pluralism, America is just as steeped in repression rooted in racism directed at working class blacks as it was before the Civil Rights movement. This becomes very clear when one looks at the American justice system and prisons filled with minorities. Moreover, the courts are institutionally biased against minorities. For example, George Zimmerman, the “neighborhood watch” volunteer shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February of 2012, but the court acquitted him. In most cases police killing unarmed black youth, prosecution and imprisonment of the police officer and police reform to end racism is rare. (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. 2015;
One could ask what the white and black political and social elites are doing about this new form of racism and absence of social justice at a time that they have the audacity to preach human rights and civil rights to the rest of the world. If Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were to return today they would be shocked that America remains so utterly oblivious to improving social justice for all people, especially minorities. These civil right leaders of the 1960s would probably not be shocked that the Congressional Black Caucus is on the payroll of multinational corporations that contribute by the millions to buy influence. Because the minority political leaders as well as most community and church leaders feel that racial equality comes within the capitalist system, their goal is greater integration within the system not the struggle against it. A clear recognition that the capitalist system is the source of inequality and social injustice as much in the black community as in all others will be the beginning of social action. Major Owens, The Peacock Elite, A Case Study of the Congressional Black Caucus, 2011)
Neither Black Nationalism nor liberal bourgeois schemes intended to assuage the entire minority community by absorbing a small percentage into the institutional mainstream while providing a weak social safety net for the rest have succeeded in eliminating poverty and ending institutional racism. Grassroots organizing and class solidarity is the only hope blacks, Hispanics and all working people. Following political and community leaders on the payroll of corporations, or merely dependent on business funding for their activities will only perpetuate the status quo. It is not unrealistic to expect institutions under the existing political economy to continue enjoying various ways of co-opting the leadership of the black community and quelling any demands for social justice. As America’s demographics are rapidly changing and the current minorities (13% black 17% Hispanic) will become the majority in 25 years or so, systemic change will come collectively by a cross section of people coming together to address the structural causes of injustice that rest with the social order under the current political economy.