Thursday, April 10, 2014

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2014, April 10: Is white racism class consciousness in disguise?

I remember years ago talking to an older leftie former union activist with the National Maritime Workers Union. This guy was physically about as far from the stereotype of a "pencil-necked liberal" that you could imagine. He looked like a bouncer at a biker bar.

He told a story from the 1940s about running the hiring hall for a ship. He had selected a black worker as part of the crew. As a cook, not obviously a radical affirmative-action move by today's standards. He said the white sailors he had selected came to him as a group and said, "We're not sailing with this n****r."

He told them, "Well, if you're going to sail on this boat, you're going to sail with him and treat him right. And if you don't want to do that, I'll pick another crew who will." They all sailed. They didn't give him or the cook any trouble over the cook's presence. He didn't look or sound like the kind of guy even another sailor would want to risk have trouble with if it could be avoided.

This was part of a longtime union left notion about class solidarity among labor and about how the bosses had used race as a major tool to divide workers against each other. The basic scheme was to hire all white workers. And if there was a strike to use black strikebreakers at lower wages. In many situations, especially in the South but not only there, the strikebreakers didn't feel a lot of solidarity with the strikers. And the strikers not only were rightly angry about the strikebreakers undermining their union but felt degraded by the fact that they were being replaced at work by workers they considered part of an inferior race.

The recent Cesar Chavez movie gave viewers some example of how big growers in California used ethnic and language divisions in much the same way to block unionization and keep their workers low-paid and abused.

Militant unions have known since the 19th century that fighting racism was a practical as well as moral task and that the success or failure of strikes and union organizing drives often depended on how effectively they could combat white racism. Not that unions were free of white racism. Joan Walsh in her book What's the Matter with White People?: Finding Our Way in the Next America (2012/2013) talks about ways in which affirmative action programs for both minorities and women forced the modification of union seniority rules that white-dominated professions like police and firefighters in many cities had come to see as essential worker protections.

From a labor point of view, white workers who allowed their unions or strikes to be sabotaged by racism against African-Americans or other minorities were working against their own interests in very concrete ways by indulging in white racist attitudes and practices.

Fred Harris, the one-time Democratic Senator from Oklahoma who ran for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1972 and 1976, was a leading member of the Kerner Commission, formally known as National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (aka, the Kerner Riot Commission). Their 1968 report on urban disorders, which included numerous riots in the 1960s, especially after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. concluded:

Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future.

White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been
accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.
Harris in his 1976 campaign for President appealed for a coalition of blacks and white workers, with words along this line (quoting from memory): "The members of the coalition don't have to like each other. They just have to work together for their common interests."

That message was essentially a retail politics version of the labor approach: Don't let the bosses divide us up!

But he was also proud of having insisted on the conclusion that white racism was the root of problem of urban violence - not a welcome conclusion to most Republicans then and to basically no Republicans at all today. Nor to the Dixiecrats of the Democratic Party, who were still numerous in 1968.

A superficially similar but substantively very different variation of this argument pops up periodically. In this case from Michael Kimmel in America's angriest white men: Up close with racism, rage and Southern supremacy 11/14/2013, excerpted from his book, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era (2013):

In the United States, class is often a proxy for race. When politicians speak of the “urban poor,” we know it's a code for black people. When they talk about "welfare queens," we know the race of that woman driving the late-model Cadillac. In polite society, racism remains hidden behind a screen spelled CLASS.

On the extreme Right, by contrast, race is a proxy for class. Among the white supremacists, when they speak of race consciousness, defending white people, protesting for equal rights for white people, they actually don't mean all white people. They don’t mean Wall Street bankers and lawyers, though they are pretty much entirely white and male. They don't mean white male doctors, or lawyers, or architects, or even engineers. They don’t mean the legions of young white hipster guys, or computer geeks flocking to the Silicon Valley, or the legions of white preppies in their boat shoes and seersucker jackets "interning" at white-shoe law firms in major cities. Not at all. They mean middle-and working-class white people. Race consciousness is actually class consciousness without actually having to 'see' class. “Race blindness” leads working-class people to turn right; if they did see class, they’d turn left and make common cause with different races in the same economic class.

That’s certainly what I found among them. Most are in their mid-thirties to early forties, educated at least through high school and often beyond. (The average age of the guys I talked with was thirty-six.) They are the sons of skilled workers in industries like textiles and tobacco, the sons of the owners of small farms, shops, and grocery stores. Buffeted by global political and economic forces, the sons have inherited little of their fathers' legacies. The family farms have been lost to foreclosure, the small shops squeezed out by Walmarts and malls. These young men face a spiral of downward mobility and economic uncertainty. They complain that they are squeezed between the omnivorous jaws of global capital concentration and a federal bureaucracy that is at best indifferent to their plight and at worst complicit in their demise.

And they're right. It is the lower middle class — that strata of independent farmers, small shopkeepers, craft and highly skilled workers, and small-scale entrepreneurs—that has been hit hardest by globalization. [my emphasis]
But is it true that "race is a proxy for class" for the rightwing Southern white men about whom he is writing?

I don't buy it.

First of all, the claim has an obvious problem. Some of these white Southern good ole boys and gals he was talking to may not have been all that swift. But not many of them are so clueless as to look at a black store clerk at WalMart and assume she's a Wall Street investment banker, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist or a Kansas oil billionaire and trust fund baby (like the infamous Koch brothers).

We also see in the antics of the Tea Party a pretty much total lack of concern about the power and privilege of rich white guys. Yes, some of them may repeat Bircher theories about the Federal Reserves or chain e-mail whackery about Jewish bankers. And there was a time when there were white segregationist politicians who could be classed as "liberal" on non-race issues. Theodore Bilbo was a loyal New Dealer when he first came to the US Senate. George Wallace was noted for his advocacy of free public school textbooks in Alabama.

But those times are long gone. The Republican Party has become a segregationist party. And if you come along with them for the segregationist ride, you're going along for the coddle-the-plutocrats ride, as well.

And, yes, some of the more blatant and militant forms of white racism are associated with hard times, and there are lots of whites having hard times in the South. But the Charles Kochs of the world are enduring hard times. And they're driving the segregationist train.

And it's just plain naive for Kimmel to write, "'Race blindness' leads working-class people to turn right; if they did see class, they'd turn left and make common cause with different races in the same economic class." That sentence itself is a bit garbled. His previous sentence is one bolded above: "Race consciousness is actually class consciousness without actually having to 'see' class."

Uh, no. There are lots of Southern whites who just plain hate black people. Who think they are superior to African-Americans because they're white. And they like that feeling of superiority. It's a tribal identification that doesn't go away from some light bulb coming on where people suddenly realize, "Gee, there are a lot of people out there richer than me and a lot of them are insufferable snobs." It's not as if they don't see that already and on a daily basis. But white racism lets them identify as the same tribe as most of the obnoxious rich guys they know or have encountered.

And Kimmel's point as quoted above is really very different from union leaders trying to get workers not support anti-union legislation and anti-union politicians because they are associated with the perceived "white" political tribe. Or to not make themselves vulnerable to being played by racial manipulation in strikes or organizing drives.

Kimmel's analysis tells us that white racism in itself isn't real. For the white Southern working-class guys he's talking about, he thinks it's all just a big misunderstanding on their part. The clear implication is that white racism will just fade away without anyone having to confront white racism as such: "if they did see class, they'd turn left and make common cause with different races in the same economic class."

Sorry, it's not nearly that easy.

And this is only about one step away from denying that white racism exists at all. In fact, he almost says that explicitly: "Race consciousness is actually class consciousness without actually having to 'see' class." Kimmel's implication is that the real white racism are those interns who are "interning" (why does he use quote marks?) at law firms who make impolite comments about people on welfare. Real white racism in this model is bad manners. But overt white supremacy isn't racism at all. It's actually "class consciousness."

Nope, I don't buy it at all.

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