Oppression and moralism
BLM protests must be supported, but they are often misdirected. Black liberation must be linked to the class struggle, argues Jim Creegan
On May 30, a New York branch of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) abruptly cancelled a planned presentation entitled ‘Covid-19 and the dangers of disparity ideology’ by the black activist and scholar, Adolph Reed Jr. The cancellation took place as a result of the objections of a DSA grouping called the ‘Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus’, and other members of the New York branch executive, to what they described as Reed’s “class reductionism”.
They insisted that any future appearance by Reed - a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania and leading critic of identity politics from what he considers a Marxist standpoint - take place in the form of a debate between himself and representatives of an ‘intersectional’ perspective. Reed rejected the suggestion. This minor contretemps was nevertheless significant, in that it once again raised - in the heightened context of the Black Lives Matter movement - the tension between the formalistically counterposed categories of ‘race’ and ‘class’ that has long simmered on the American left.
One would be hard pressed to find any American socialist who does not share the revulsion at the casually perpetrated police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and of countless other black and brown victims of police brutality and white vigilante terror, past and present. Any Marxist worthy of the name must stand in solidarity with the spontaneous mass movement against these crimes, which is changing the country’s political map and echoing around the world. Yet the movement’s demands and outcome will be conditioned by the conceptual lenses through which the crimes it condemns are refracted and understood. The movement is helped, not hindered, by a critical appraisal of the thinking of some of those most influential in setting its tone.
While not closely identified with the thought of any particular individuals, there are two authors who have received wide publicity, and whose thinking is more or less representative of the ‘woke’ or identitarian outlook that has been propounded for decades in the academy, flourished in NGOs, and is now widespread amongst BLM protestors. The first is Ta-Nehisi Coates, until 2018 a writer and editor at Atlantic magazine. His most influential political/historical essay, ‘The case for reparations’, was originally published in 2012.1
The second author is Nikole Hannah-Jones, a black staff writer for The New York Times, and a recipient of multiple journalism awards. She wrote the lead essay in an August 2019 special number of The New York Times Magazine entitled ‘The 1619 project’, which marked the 400th anniversary of the first appearance of enslaved Africans on American shores.2 This year her essay received US journalism’s highest accolade, the Pulitzer Prize, and several urban school systems are considering adopting it as part of their curriculum. We examine some aspects of the thinking of these two authors in what follows. A future article will take a critical look at a leading opponent of identity politics, the aforementioned Adolph Reed Jr.
Both Coates and Hannah-Jones present a recitation of the horrors perpetrated upon North American black people, from the time of slavery, through the era of Jim Crow segregation and lynch law in the south, down to the confinement to urban ghettos of more recent decades. Coates is at his strongest in showing how intentional racial discrimination marred even one of the most ambitious reform efforts in US history: Franklin Roosevelt’s new deal. He reminds readers how, for fear of offending southern segregationist politicians within the Democratic Party, Roosevelt refused to back a bill to ban lynching then before Congress, and how the workforce categories in which the majority of blacks were then employed - agriculture and domestic service - were excluded from two of the period’s major reforms: the Wagner Act, establishing the right of labour to organise, and the Social Security Act, creating government retirement pensions.
Coates also demonstrates how the federal government and real-estate speculators were complicit in creating the segregated urban housing patterns that persist to the present. He relates how the Federal Housing Authority - also created during the new deal to expand home ownership - would only extend mortgage insurance to those neighbourhoods it deemed stable: ie, white. It demarcated areas considered unstable - and thus not qualified for insurance - on city maps, in a practice known as redlining. Redlining spread, in turn, to the entire mortgage industry, which refused to make home loans in black residential areas, even when the applicants were financially secure. And until 1968 the government even required prospective homeowners in ‘respectable’ neighbourhoods to include in their purchase agreements ‘restrictive covenants’, barring future home sales to blacks. Thus blacks were both prevented from acquiring homes, and denied the option of joining the ‘white flight’ of the 1950s and 60s from the urban core to the suburbs.
The intentional discrimination of the federal government was compounded by the tactics of unscrupulous estate speculators, who induced white families to sell their houses in neighbourhoods into which blacks were moving at rock-bottom prices, in order to resell them to blacks for inflated amounts. Coates thus demonstrates that racial segregation was not maintained only by Jim Crow laws in the south, but - just as deliberately, if less obviously - by government policies and ruthless profiteers in the country as a whole.
The history of racial oppression these writers revisit is only too real. The problem lies with their interpretive framework. We can assume that Nikole Hannah-Jones is employing a metaphor when she writes that “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country …”3 Her treatment of American history, however, casts doubt on this assumption. Along with Ta-Nehisi Coates, she seems to regard the country’s racial past as simply a catalogue of injustices perpetrated by an undifferentiated entity called “white America” (her phrase) upon its inhabitants of African descent. She carries this logic to far more extravagant lengths than Coates.
By Hannah-Jones’s lights, blacks are the only ones to have fought consistently for democracy throughout American history - all assertions of democratic belief by white people were little more than hypocrisy. She implies, with no supporting argumentation, that what was in fact no more than one element in the independence struggle of the 13 colonies - the fear of Virginia slaveholders that their human property might be less than fully secure under continued British rule - was among the principal causes of the rebellion. This claim is in keeping with her larger narrative, which depicts the importation of slaves in 1619, rather than the Declaration of Independence in 1776, as the country’s true founding act.
Hannah-Jones does even more violence to history when she declares: “For the most part, black Americans fought back [against racism - JC] alone.”4 The struggles led for years before the civil war by white abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison? The armed conflict between white settlers in “bleeding Kansas” during the 1850s to decide whether the territory would enter the Union as a free or a slave state? John Brown’s 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, conducted in hopes of sparking a slave rebellion? Hannah-Jones employs an admirably effective method of dealing with episodes of white resistance to slavery that mar her notion of a solitary black freedom struggle: she ignores them completely.
What was undoubtedly the genuine revolutionary moment in US history - the civil war - is scarcely mentioned. Abraham Lincoln is referred to only in order to point out that he was never a racial egalitarian, and at one time entertained the notion of resettling black people in Africa as a solution to the ‘race question’. His evolution toward an abolitionist stance, as the war progressed, is ignored - as are the tens of thousands of soldiers who fought and died in the Union armies; by no means all of them thought they were fighting for freedom, but many did. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 is deemed noteworthy only for the fact that it applied exclusively to slaves in Confederate, as opposed to border, states, thus figuring as one more instance of white hypocrisy rather than the first step toward the total outlawing of slavery that was to follow. Lincoln’s decision to place 180,000 black men under arms on the northern side is seen merely as the pragmatic military move to reinforce the dwindling Union armies that indeed it was; but the radical implications of such an act in the political context of the time go completely unappreciated.
Both Coates and Hannah-Jones acknowledge that the 12-year Reconstruction period that followed the civil war was a uniquely democratic and creative chapter in the history of black America. During that time, newly enfranchised former slaves - their rights protected by occupying federal troops - elected numerous black local and state officials, and sent 16 of their number to the US Congress. Schools were established for the integrated education of both black and poor white children; laws were passed prohibiting discrimination in public transportation, accommodation and housing.
Yet, according to Hannah-Jones, the white Republicans who participated in these efforts, both in the south and at the national level, did so largely because they were “led by black activists … and pushed left by the blatant recalcitrance of white southerners …”5 Unlike WEB Du Bois in his pioneering Black reconstruction, from which Hannah-Jones quotes in another context, she says nothing of the fierce battle waged in Congress to deepen Reconstruction and introduce radical land reform in the south - waged by Thaddeus Stevens in the House of Representatives and his ally in the Senate, Charles Sumner. (Sumner was beaten nearly to death on the Senate floor in the run-up to the civil war by a walking-stick-wielding southern senator after delivering an impassioned anti-slavery speech.)
While Hannah-Jones concedes that, for a fleeting historical moment, a Republican congressional majority embraced the idea of equal rights for all, she can discern in the defeat of Reconstruction, and the withdrawal of federal troops from the south in 1877, nothing other than additional evidence of the congenital racism of white Americans, which always got the better of their magnanimous impulses. That the heightened class conflicts brought on outside the south by the depression of 1873 made northern Republicans increasingly uncomfortable with the egalitarian implications of Reconstruction does not figure in her telling.
It is this writer’s contention that the ahistorical, morally absolutist, black-and-white perspective of Coates and Hannah-Jones is inadequate to understand the racial oppression, past and present, that they so forcefully condemn.
For them, as for many protestors informed by a similar outlook, the wrongs inflicted on black people can be reduced to a single word: racism. They define racism as the denial of one racial group’s humanity by another. They may occasionally allude to the fact that racism had historical roots in economic exploitation, but the weight of their discourse falls upon attitudes, not structures. For them, all racism is equally reprehensible, without regard to context, and all historical actors who harboured racist attitudes must be judged primarily on this basis.
No-one can deny that Voltaire was an anti-Semite and George Washington owned slaves. But is it conceivable that we might, on balance, conclude that the historical role of these figures was salutary, because anti-Semitism and slavery were not the defining issues of their society and time, and that on these latter questions they stood on the side of progress? To arrive at such a conclusion requires an assessment of the driving forces of any given historical period, for which simple moral indignation is no substitute.
A New York Times op-ed columnist, Charles M Blow, thinks along the same lines as Coates and Hannah-Jones. He argues that it is insufficient to topple only those monuments to secessionist leaders - like the commander of the Confederate armies, Robert E Lee, and Confederate president Jefferson Davis - erected after the civil war to celebrate the defeat of Reconstruction and rehabilitate the reputation of the successionist rebellion. These statues, which celebrate the leaders of a war fought to defend slavery, are a deliberate racist affront, and should be dismantled. But Blow agrees with the protestors who have also hauled down statues of Washington:
On the issue of American slavery I am an absolutist: enslavers were amoral monsters. The very idea that one group of people believed that they had the right to own another human being is abhorrent and depraved …
When I hear people excuse … enslavement and torture as an artefact of the times, I’m forced to consider that if slavery were the prevailing normalcy of this time, my own enslavement would also be a shrug of the shoulders.
Slave-owners should not be honoured in public places.6
It never occurs to Blow that some who may honour Washington do not excuse his slaveholding, but conclude that his role in freeing the colonies from British rule outweighs his demerits in the scales of history.
The same would apply, a fortiori, to Ulysses S Grant, whose statue demonstrators also brought down in San Francisco. They had apparently learned of his ownership of a single slave (which he inherited, and divested himself of at some personal expense); this, to their minds, was more significant in his biography than his having led the Union armies to victory, making possible the abolition of slavery.
Also likely to be condemned at the bar of unvarying moral judgment - to which everyone from Christopher Columbus and Thomas Jefferson (whose statues also fell) to Donald Trump are summoned - are others who played a key role in anti-slavery struggles without being thoroughgoing champions of racial equality. First amongst these is Abraham Lincoln. Young demonstrators recently clamoured for the removal of the Freedman’s Monument in the nation’s capital. It depicts Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation in hand, bidding a slave bent on one knee before him to rise up. Older demonstrators pointed out in defence of the statue that the freed slave was kneeling not in submission, but in the act of standing up straight for the first time.
Yet the statue does depict Lincoln as the great white benefactor, bestowing freedom as a gift to the formerly enslaved. The most famous black abolitionist of the time, Frederick Douglass, criticised the monument for this reason in a recently discovered letter he wrote to a newspaper:
The negro here, though rising, is still on his knees and nude. What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.7
Douglass’s reservations did not, however, prevent him from delivering his famous 1876 ‘Oration in memory of Abraham Lincoln’ at the statue’s dedicating ceremony. He said:
… Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man. He was pre-eminently the white man’s president, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.
… we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln. It mattered little to us what language he might employ … It mattered little to us … whether he was swift or slow in his movements; it was enough for us that Abraham Lincoln was at the head of a great movement, and was in living and earnest sympathy with that movement, which, in the nature of things, must go on until slavery should be utterly and forever abolished in the United States.
A standpoint from which a monument could be objectionable in certain respects but worthy of celebration nonetheless, and from which a president could be seen as the leader of a great emancipatory cause despite his flaws - such measured appraisals are beyond the ken of those who think in terms of unmitigated good and evil.
It is only to be expected that those who apply absolute moral standards to the past should think in similar terms when it comes to the future. Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that the key to overcoming America’s racist past, and opening the way to a non-racist future, lies in reparations. While reparations are commonly understood to mean a cash payment to certifiable slave descendants, Coates is much less specific about the form they should take. But, however they are rendered, reparations are seen by Coates as a symbol of the payment of a moral debt the nation owes to black people for centuries of oppression. He dismisses the argument that not all white people, or even the majority, were complicit in this historic wrong. The country was defined since its birth as a white republic. It is therefore this republic that is morally indebted to its black population.
Coates also argues against those in the past who sought to address the race problem with economic and social programmes that would benefit all poor and working people. Coates supports such efforts, but counters that the crimes he is addressing were not committed against the poor and the working class, but against black people. The moral recompense is therefore owed to blacks in particular.
The problem with this thinking is that history is not a morality play, acted out by two collective players, black and white; nor is politics a court of law for settling ethical scores. Neither the black nor white populations are homogeneous groups. There was a time in the not-too-distant past - in the south, but not only there - when blacks were shut out of the larger society regardless of their economic standing or individual achievement. But that social reality has changed - somewhat if not completely. A significant layer of blacks - to which Coates and Hannah-Jones belong - has entered the technical-professional-managerial class. Nevertheless, a much bigger slice of the black population, because of the country’s sordid racial history, is left to bear the brunt of the deepening inequalities of the neoliberal era - poverty and unemployment; and the repressive methods - prison and police repression - used to contain a marginalised demographic.
Yet black people are not the only ones being marginalised. Behind the widespread participation of young white people in BLM protests stands the dimmed future prospects of the millennials and generation Z, who have come of age in the decades of austerity. The white population is no more homogeneous than the black. The above glance at American history shows that many have been consciously and actively racist, and a significant minority have been allies of black struggles. The majority, however, has been - and remains - somewhere in between. Protestors may now express themselves in the language of identity politics dominant in the classroom and the chat room, but the majority of whites will never accept responsibility for the situation of blacks. Any politics based on the demand for an act of collective contrition on their part is bound to fail.
Black oppression cannot be reduced to class exploitation, but the possibilities for black liberation must be linked to those of class struggle. Moral indignation, however justified, cannot by itself point the way to a new society, any more than it can serve to interpret history.
Jim Creegan can be reached at:
New York Times Magazine August 18 2018.↩︎
The New York Times June 23 2020.↩︎
Quoted in T Mann, ‘How a Lincoln-Douglass debate led to historic discovery’ The Wall Street Journal July 4 2020.↩︎