Up until the crisis of 2008, racial inequality in the United States was showing signs of improvement. Poverty and unemployment among blacks had fallen sharply in the 1990s, and the wages of black and white workers had begun to converge. These improvements were stopped short by the recession of the early 2000s, but thereafter a boom in subprime lending led to a significant reduction in the wealth gap between black and white households. The popping of the housing bubble threw all these measures into reverse. While most Americans suffered, black Americans were particularly badly affected. In the eight years since the crisis, racial disparities in wealth, poverty, and unemployment returned to or exceeded their pre-1990s levels. It should thus come as no surprise that riots have also made a comeback in recent years.
The triggers were a series of police killings of young black men: Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray. Such events have not become more frequent. Rather, an already existing reign of police terror was the American state’s only means of managing a rapidly deteriorating set of conditions in poor black neighborhoods. Ferguson was a revolt not only against the police, but also against a society which has nothing but police to offer.1
When black proletarians riot, white Americans tend to cast around for an eloquent spokesperson who can either assuage their fear or indulge their guilt. The old Civil Rights leaders were too out of touch in this case, so journalists combed the twitter feeds of protesters for substitutes. Those willing to play the role of spokespersons have been fêted by the media, with cover stories in Ebony, Time and the New York Times Magazine. Some were even featured in Fortune’s 2016 “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” list. They have received regular invitations to the White House, and Democratic presidential candidates have coveted their endorsement. Yet journalists have also shown a prurient interest in the periodic clashes, both personal and political, among the newly celebrated activists.
All this media attention, however, both positive and negative, owes its existence not to the activists themselves, but to the fact that thousands took to the streets and attacked police and property in Ferguson and Baltimore. Though some activists began organizing prior to Ferguson—in response to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Renisha McBride—their actions had met with the same lip-service that typically greets protests against police brutality in this country. Officer Wilson’s murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, following quickly on Eric Garner’s live-action death at the hands of the NYPD,was a watershed, sparking a week-long uprising in a suburban town far from the bi-coastal activist hubs. Baltimore, with protests closer in form to the “inner city riots” of the 1960s, consolidated this newfound vigor, demonstrating the willingness of poor blacks to rise up against a local black elite. The question partisans of this movement must ask is to what extent the new activists can help or hinder the black proletarian insurgency that threw them into the spotlight.
Racism and capitalism
One reason to pose this question is that the activists in the media spotlight often don’t seem to come from the same demographic as the victims of police violence and incarceration they claim to represent. Several apparently grew up in predominantly white middle-class suburbs, and most are either students or university graduates. This, of course, doesn’t mean they aren’t subject to the humiliations at the hand of law enforcement that all black people suffer, or that they aren’t worse off in many respects than white people from comparable backgrounds. But it does mean that there are some marked differences between them and the average resident of South Ferguson or West Baltimore. For instance, over the past decades the chances of incarceration have fallen for blacks with a college education, while they have rapidly risen for the poor, both black and white.2
Black people make up a massively disproportionate share of America’s prisoners: they are 13% of the population and 37.6% of those in prison. Yet since almost all prisoners come from poor backgrounds, the disproportionate representation of poverty in prisons is even greater than that of race.3 There is no contradiction here, nor should this come as a surprise to anyone paying attention, for blackness and poverty have always been overlapping categories in America, and they remain so despite the emergence of a black middle class in recent decades. Today, over a quarter of those in the bottom quintile of the income distribution are black, and almost half of all black households are located in that bottom quintile. It would be just as absurd to think that specifically black struggles are a distraction from the more pressing issue of poverty as to think that alleviating poverty would be of little concern to “the black community.”
Such absurdities were recently, however, on full display in the heavily mediatized tensions between some Black Lives Matter activists and the Sanders campaign, conventionally interpreted as a conflict between “race-first” and “class-first” leftisms. The activists are right to be suspicious of Sanders. After all, he identifies with a tradition of the white left—Debs’s Socialist Party—that really was blind to racism. He’s also operating within a political party whose last two presidents have presided over generalized immiseration and incarceration of black people. But in promoting “black issues” as a Democratic talking-point, distinct from or even opposed to concerns about rising inequality, many activists are supporting a liberal version of anti-racism that is incapable of addressing the root causes of either racial or class inequality, but is readily compatible with the kind of neoliberal politics epitomized by Hillary Clinton.
In the so-called scholarly literature, racial inequality is typically explained as the result of two forms of racism: present-day racial discrimination, and racial discrimination in the past. Examples of present day discrimination include employers who ignore job applications from people with “black-sounding names,” and cops who stop and search black people without cause, while letting others walk by. Academics debate whether these forms of discrimination are due to conscious racist beliefs on the part of cops and employers or unconscious racial bias due to distorted stereotypes, or based on so-called “statistical discrimination,” rooted in reported correlations between average levels of education, wealth, and criminality. For victims of discrimination, it doesn’t really matter what the reasons are, but there is no question that these forms of discrimination exist and contribute to racial inequality.
However, although racial discrimination undoubtedly exists today, its contribution to overall racial inequality is dwarfed by that of baked-in material inequalities established over many generations, the result of much more stringent forms of racism in the past. While present-day racism increases the risk of incarceration and makes it harder for some people to find and retain better jobs, slavery denied wealth and education to almost all black people for more than two hundred years, and Jim Crow denied them civil rights for almost another century. In the post-war period, redlining by federal and local officials further denied black people access to private housing wealth throughout the U.S. As a result, a massively disproportionate share of the black population are born into neighborhoods of concentrated poverty where the risk of ending up poor, unemployed, and incarcerated would be extremely high even if police and employers were blind to race—which of course they are not.
Most scholars and many activists would concede that historical racism is the main cause of present day racial inequality. However, in discussion of this fact the mechanism linking cause and effect is rarely specified. Concepts like “institutional racism” and “white supremacy” tend, at best, to obscure this mechanism by confusing cause and effect. At worst they imply that the only thing that could connect past racism to present racial inequality is either an illicit perpetuation of Jim Crow institutions, or a hidden conspiracy of white people. In fact, the main thing that connects past racism to present racial inequality is simply the normal functioning of capitalism.
Generally speaking, markets allocate resources not to those who need or deserve them, but to those who have them already. As a result, those who are born to poor parents tend themselves to be poor. They can expect to have a worse education at every level, be less healthy, have less advantageous social connections, and be less able to draw on their parents’ money to access universities, unpaid internships, and housing wealth. These factors are exacerbated by the concentration of poverty in the neighborhoods where most black people live. Since under capitalism poverty is a heritable condition, even if racial discrimination were completely eradicated, racial inequality would persist. The common notion that in the absence of active discrimination existing inequalities (due to past racism) would be wiped out in the long run is simply false. For the last forty years, inequality in America has been rising and inter-class mobility has been falling. Under these conditions it is plausible to assume the opposite: that initial inequalities will be exacerbated over time.
Of course, to say that racial inequality would continue or worsen even if there were no present-day racism is not to deny the existence of that racism. Even if biological theories of racial inferiority are rarer than in the past, racial discrimination is still ubiquitous. But the causal relationship between racial inequality and racism may today be reversed: whereas in the past it was racism—embodied in state policy and informal codes—that drove racial inequality, it may now be that racial inequality is itself one of the primary causes of racism. That is, racism today may in large part be a post hocjustification for observed racial inequalities, and one that has the potential to reinforce them.
Americans have long been enthralled by the myth of class mobility, what Du Bois called “the American assumption of equal economic opportunity for all, which persisted in the face of facts.”4 Given the widespread belief that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, Americans are particularly prone to pathologize groups who are disproportionately poor: since free markets are supposed to reward hard work, those who fail to accumulate wealth have no one but themselves to blame. In the past, Americans have reached for biological explanations for this failure, but now it is more common to appeal to a cultural aversion to work and saving, or a lack of family values. These explanations can become grounds for additional discrimination in so far as employers and cops not only treat people who come from poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods differently, but also in so far as the myth of class mobility leads those same employers and cops to expect to find irremediable characteristics among individuals in these groups.
While this feedback effect between racial inequality and racial discrimination is undoubtedly real, the impact of the resulting discrimination is most likely small when compared to the sheer weight of inherited disadvantage. Thus, while anti-discrimination and affirmative action policies may have some effect on overall disparities, and come with other benefits such as reducing the additional psychic stigma associated with race, the underlying disadvantage cannot be substantially reversed merely through policies aimed at removing or reversing discrimination. The existing wealth disparities, in a context where intergenerational wealth transfers dominate all other drivers of inequality, are simply too great. Inherited black disadvantage could only be overcome by challenging the basic workings of capitalist markets, which systematically allocate wealth to the wealthy.
In the 1960s and ’70s, many black radicals recognized capitalism’s role in reproducing black immiseration. Their anti-racism thus went hand in hand with a critique of capitalism. In some cases they sought to temper the power of markets through a program of massive redistribution—the “Marshall Plan for the ghetto” that seemed briefly on the table in the 1960s. In other cases they hoped to overthrow capitalism with a socialist or communist revolution (which they often imagined themselves leading). Yet today, when capitalism plays an even greater role in reproducing racial inequality, the most visible activists in Black Lives Matter rarely adopt an anti-capitalist stance. Even social-democratic redistribution, of the universalist kind proposed by Sanders, is sometimes criticized as a distraction from the crucial task of “changing hearts and minds” about racial bias. Why is this?
First, one of the main drivers of racism today—the myth of class mobility and the pathologization of the poor that results from it—makes it hard to see that capitalism reproduces racial inequality all by itself. Many activists may be influenced by the standard American assumption that the normal functioning of markets is to reward the industrious. Since they are anti-racist, they assume that qualities like industriousness are not disproportionately possessed by one race rather than another. They thus conclude that if it were not for racial discrimination, racial inequality would disappear. Since this thinking involves an implicit assumption that the intergenerational reproduction of class status is a peculiar condition of racialized minorities, we might call it “the myth of white mobility.”
There is some historical justification for this myth. Contemporary anti-racist thinking emerged in the 1960s and ’70s, at the tail end of a period when white mobility really was quite high. New Deal-era redistribution, the hegemony of U.S. manufacturing, and the successive Korean and Vietnam war booms all conspired to allow a large percentage of white Americans to accumulate the housing wealth that blacks were denied due to redlining. Average black incomes also began to rise towards the end of this period, but the social elevator was shut down in the 1970s, just after blacks had successfully fought to get on board. The current populist insurgencies within both parties are indicators that the dream of American uplift is now largely dead.5 Yet in retrospect, as Thomas Piketty has shown, it is the post-war mobility of white Americans that appears exceptional: the historical norm within capitalism has been for class status to be inherited.
A second reason for the limited ambitions of anti-racist activists may be more strategic: focusing on racial discrimination allows for an alliance between poor, middle class, and wealthy blacks, whereas focusing on the main cause of black poverty—lack of income mobility—threatens to divide them. To put it crudely: while wealthy people may want less income mobility, because they are afraid that they or their children will fall down, poorer people want more, because the only way is up. Middle-class activists are rarely willing to face up to such contradictions, and to gloss over them is the sine qua non of liberal anti-racism.
This is evident even in as astute an observer of the interlocking dynamics of race and class as Ta-Nehisi Coates. When he laments, for example, the inability of wealthy blacks to preserve their class status across generations, he ignores the fact that it is precisely the broader tendency towards preservation of wealth that ensures most black people stay poor in the long run.6 Coates recognizes that the principle driver of black disadvantage today is the inheritance of past racism, yet in focusing on the historical origins of racial inequality—something that can’t be changed—he passes over something which can: the market mediations that reproduce it. By restricting his critique to those forms of inherited poverty that can be traced to past racism, and by advocating inheritance of wealth for the black elite, Coates tacitly accepts the broader market forces that condemn the children of the poor to a miserable fate.
Class, Race, and Representation
In the fight for black freedom in America, it has often been necessary to forge strategic alliances across class lines, and leaders of that movement have always disproportionately come from the black elite. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. Contrary to a myth sometimes propagated on the campus-based left, one doesn’t need to share the fate of a group in order to understand their plight and act in solidarity with them. There are also many aspects of black life that are shared across class divides, most notably the experience of racism.
It has, however, always been a mistake to view the black population as a homogenous entity or “community,” capable of singular representation. It is possible to tell the history of “racial representation” in America as one of continual misrepresentation, a story in which often self-elected—or white-delegated—“leaders,” mostly emanating from the black elite, repeatedly betray their predominantly working-class followers. Among early figures, one could cite Booker T. Washington’s active support for segregation, W.E.B. Du Bois’s elitist pathologizing of black criminality, and Marcus Garvey’s attempted alliance with the Ku Klux Klan. But such an account would overlook the real gains of the movements these people led, and the brutal constraints they often faced. It would also seem merely to invert the “great man” theory of history so often told of these figures. If people like Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr. were able to overcome some of their own elitist prejudices and align themselves with an increasingly mobilized black proletariat, this was due not to any particular genius on their part, but to the fact that had they failed to adapt, they would have lost their status as leaders.
This, of course, is not the case today. It’s all very well for some in the Congressional Black Caucus to apologize for their support for Clinton’s 1994 crime bill—or in Kweisi Mfume’s case, to pretend that they didn’t support it—but it is a distortion to present their support as a mistake or aberration. The majority of CBC members have voted in favor of every major federal crime bill that contributed to mass incarceration, including the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that introduced the 100-to-1 crack/cocaine sentencing disparity. If they had been accountable to the predominantly black victims of these policies, they would have been thrown out of office. The fact that they weren’t is partly a symptom of the decline of grassroots black activism, but it also reflects a profound transformation in the political and class composition of the black population, a result of the limited successes of the civil rights movement.
Cedric Johnson’s crucial study of black leadership, Revolutionaries to Race Leaders, shows that entry into federal, state, and local legislatures in the 1970s—largely an effect of civil rights victories—coincided with a shift in strategic outlook across the spectrum of black politics.7 On the “black power” left, those leaders who were not eliminated by FBI repression increasingly abandoned anti-capitalism in return for a promise of local political autonomy that satisfied their nationalist ambitions. Meanwhile, the civil rights center shifted towards anti-racist liberalism, gradually exchanging demands for social-democratic redistribution in favor of the black poor for affirmative action programs that focused on middle-class professionals, ensuring “black faces in high places.” Johnson understands this rallying of black political leaders around a politics of “elite brokerage” and “race management” as an effect of several factors: the pre-existing limits of ethnic politics (in both its nationalist and liberal varieties); the rightward turn of American politics in general; the incorporation of radicals into the institutions of the American state, initially via Great Society programs, and later via Democratic political machines. But the neoliberal drift of black politics also corresponded to shifts in the population that these leaders claimed to represent.
Possibly the most durable impact of civil rights legislation was the opportunity to move out of the ghetto that laws against residential discrimination gave to those blacks who could afford it. The black elite had previously been forced to live alongside the poor, and in this and other respects was forced to share their fate. Now they could leave, and they did so in great numbers. In 1970, roughly two thirds of the black middle class lived in predominantly poor inner city neighborhoods. Today the same share lives in predominantly white suburbs. They constitute a professional and managerial class: senior civil servants, doctors, and lawyers; a few managers and entrepreneurs. While relatively small, this new suburban black elite quickly became a vocal political constituency, often entering legislatures on the back of voting-rights victories. It also increasingly distinguished itself—culturally, politically, and economically—from the black poor.
Two important and somewhat contrary facts must be kept in mind when discussing this new black elite. Firstly, they constitute an elite only relative to the extreme and concentrated poverty of the black inner city. They tend to do significantly worse than their white neighbors, especially with respect to wealth, and like all black people they experience racism. Secondly, and despite this, they are in a relative sense more of an elite than the white equivalent, since black wealth in America is far more concentrated than white, and the income gap between top and bottom far greater.8 Thus while it is true, as Coates emphasizes, that downward movements along the income spectrum are more common among black than white elites, it is also true that they have more to lose. It is the growing tension between racial unity and class divergence that besets black political representation today.
The rise of the new black middle class over the last four decades, and its disproportionate impact on black politics, is inseparable from the shifts analyzed by Johnson. Support by black elected officials for punitive carceral policy, for example, is not only an effect of the incorporation and decline of grassroots black activism; it also reflects an increasing divergence of material interests. Although he downplays it in his recent memoir, this was something Coates was acutely aware of when he first wrote about the murder of his friend Prince Jones by a black police officer. At the time, Coates described the officer’s employer, Prince George’s County, Maryland, as “black America’s power base, the largest concentration of the black middle class in the country.” According to Coates:
“Usually, police brutality is framed as a racial issue: Rodney King suffering at the hands of a racist white Los Angeles Police Department or more recently, an unarmed Timothy Thomas, gunned down by a white Cincinnati cop. But in more and more communities, the police doing the brutalizing are African Americans, supervised by African-American police chiefs, and answerable to African-American mayors and city councils.”9
In trying to explain why so few people in P.G. County showed up to a Sharpton-led march in the wake of the Jones shooting, Coates pointed out that “affluent black residents are just as likely as white ones to think the victims of police brutality have it coming.”10
We might add that their political representatives are apt to combine neoliberal politics—Cory Booker of Newark is the outstanding example—with what Johnson calls “race management.” To see how the politics of “race management” play out at the local level we need only compare Ferguson with Baltimore. In Baltimore, where an existing black political elite dominated most aspects of local government, the uprising was quelled in a matter of days, leaving nothing but an eerie silence in its wake (interrupted only by moral panics about rising crime rates). In Ferguson, where there was only a minimal infrastructure of black political representation, the initial week-long uprising was repeated several times, each time politicizing new swaths of black youth, turning the small and hitherto obscure town into a national center for the new activism. Because of Ferguson’s distance from the black political establishment, younger activists there were able to directly challenge the old guard, many of them veterans of the civil rights movement, and prevent them from claiming leadership. Jesse Jackson was booed in Ferguson when he took the opportunity to ask for donations to his church, and Al Sharpton was condemned for using his speech at Michael Brown’s funeral to excoriate black youth and their “sagging pants.”
But what was being displaced was not merely a generation. Unlike the Civil Rights old guard, who were often brought up with expectations of “race leadership,” for the children of the new black middle class activism has become a professional option. Traditional civil service jobs and voluntary work have been replaced by career opportunities in a non-profit sector. Before he became the face of the new activism, DeRay McKesson, for example, had been an ambassador for Teach for America (TFA), an organization that recruits elite college graduates to spend two years teaching in poor inner-city schools, often as part of a strategy to promote charter schools and bust teachers’ unions. In general, “community organizing” nonprofits are often funded by large foundations such as Ford, Rockefeller, and Open Society. An integral aspect of the privatization of the American welfare state, they can also function as “astroturf” for Democratic politicians and lobbying groups like TFA. Thus, as activists from around the country flooded into Ferguson, so too did non-profit dollars to recruit them.
White Allies and Black Cops
“White people,” DeRay McKesson recently joked to a New York Timesjournalist, “like hearing about black people in pain.” McKesson, who is currently running for mayor of Baltimore, was explaining one of his campaign slogans—“Baltimore is a city in recovery”—in which he linked the city’s fate to his own story as a child of drug addicts. Given his background in the charter school movement, and the Wall Street money behind his campaign, the “recovery” that DeRay envisages is likely to have something in common with the one neoliberal mayor Nagin offered New Orleans after Katrina: closure or privatization of most public schools and public housing. As his critics point out, DeRay is not really a movement leader; he represents no-one but himself; and—as the Times emphasizes—there is no way he’s going to become mayor of Baltimore. But his joke rings true, and it evokes some of the perils of the new activism.
In 2015 the new activists presented a formidable challenge to the existing black political elite in this country. They have perhaps been given another opening by that elite’s recent kowtowing to Hillary Clinton, in whose victories we witness a perverse alliance of “black power” and the power of capital. The activists who have come together under the heading “Black Lives Matter” form a diverse eco-system, and many are highly critical of self- or media-designated leaders. For instance, Black Youth Project 100 and Project South represent an anti-capitalist wing of the movement that has rejected McKesson’s neoliberal politics. But, with few exceptions, the activists that have received media attention have restricted themselves to a liberal anti-racism that remains popular among students and Democratic politicians, but has seemingly little to offer to an increasingly immiserated black working class.
Take, for example, the Black Lives Matter Network, founded by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Khan-Cullors. Garza’s oft-quoted claim to have invented the slogan “black lives matter” in August 2013 is almost certainly false, for the hashtag can be found on Twitter over a year earlier.11 Despite the conflicts that such proprietary claims have sometimes generated, the network has succeeded in expanding, and has managed to successfully rebuff the predatory advances of the Democratic machine. However, their often vague press releases manage to combine the touchy-feely language of campus-based identity politics with the arid prose of non-profit grant applications. They seek to “change the conversation” and “build and nurture a beloved community,” but to do this by “creat[ing] the infrastructure for this movement project—moving the hashtag from social media to the streets.”12
Specific goals are rarely identified, but given Garza’s professed skepticism of official party politics, her summary of the movement’s successes reveals a surprising degree of faith in these institutions:
If it wasn’t for this movement, we wouldn’t have presidential candidates talking about whether black lives matter. We wouldn’t talk about presidential candidates having platforms on racial justice and criminal justice. We wouldn’t have 40 new laws passed in 26 states in a period of one year around criminal justice. We wouldn’t even have bipartisan criminal justice reform happening at the federal government. We wouldn’t have the Congressional Black Caucus taking on, as a priority, criminal justice reform.13
Garza doesn’t give us any details about these reforms, but the other main group to receive media attention—Campaign Zero, founded by (among others) Johnetta Elzie, DeRay McKesson, and Brittany Packnett—are less shy about specifying their “victories.” The reforms that have passed are typically technical or procedural: body cams, racial bias awareness trainings, limitations on acquisitions of surplus military hardware, and independent (non-criminal) investigations into police shootings. Such policies are unlikely to have any effect on the extent of police brutality or incarceration. The more ambitious proposals, backed by the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP,include revising police guidelines to restrict use of force and racial profiling. These may turn out to be more effective (though they depend on the willingness of police, prosecutors, and judges to implement them), but an online policy platform backed by a twitter celebrity is unlikely to convince politicians to pass such laws over the staunch opposition of police unions, at least without more riots.
Campaign Zero’s remaining policy proposals come down to the three C’s: “community oversight,” “community representation,” and “community policing.” That is: more black elected officials, more black police, and more black police informants. It’s not hard to see why the black political elite would support such measures. But the new activists should know better. Baltimore, where DeRay is from and where the riots were the fiercest, has long been a testing ground for such policies. Thus the true meaning of these reforms are to be found, not in DeRay’s vision of the future of Baltimore, but rather in its present misery: a “new Jim Crow” with black faces in white places.14 However, the black working class doesn’t need the example of Baltimore to demonstrate that more black cops would mean more of the same. James Baldwin, reflecting on his time growing up in Harlem in the 1930s, demonstrates that it was already common knowledge back then:
“The poor, of whatever color, do not trust the law and certainly have no reason to, and God knows we didn’t. “If you must call a cop,” we said in those days, “for God’s sake, make sure it’s a white one.” We did not feel that the cops were protecting us, for we knew too much about the reasons for the kinds of crimes committed in the ghetto; but we feared black cops even more than white cops, because the black cop had to work so much harder—on your head—to prove to himself and his colleagues that he was not like all the other niggers.”15
It would be premature to argue that black and white workers should simply “unite and fight.” There are few prospects of a revival of the workers’ movement in America, either within or without the sclerotic unions. Meanwhile, the war that is currently being waged in black neighborhoods, and the rise of an openly racist populism within the Republican party, show that black people don’t have the luxury of waiting for white workers to rebuild such a movement. They are forced to fight today with whatever allies they can find to curb a murderous police force and shut down the prison gulags. Black elites, economic and political, may seem like allies in this fight, but only up to a point: the point at which their own interests in social order, political patronage, and the preservation of wealth come into conflict with demands from the street. At that point the new activists will have some difficult choices to make.