Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Reactionary Nature of Identity Politics in the War Against Racism

Richard Mellor

Afscme Local 444, retired



The leadership of the Democratic Socialists of America’s New York City chapter (DSA) succumbed to the identity politics crowd last May by cancelling Adolph Reed’s invite to speak to the NYC chapter. Reed has been accused of not wanting to talk about race. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a professor of African-American studies at Princeton University says that,“Adolph Reed and his ilk believe that if we talk about race too much we will alienate too many, and that will keep us from building a movement,”

I have not read Adolph Reed’s work extensively but I can’t imagine that his position is that race or racism shouldn’t be talked about, the question is how we talk about it and what we can do about it. Anyway, it’s not about alienating white workers, it’s about dealing with social issues that unites us on a class basis that will advance our material well-being. The US ruling class will never advocate or even support such a strategy; racism has been too useful to them.


On the other hand, Adolph Reed argues that “An obsession with disparities of race has colonized the thinking of left and liberal types….”There’s this insistence that race and racism are fundamental determinants of all Black people’s existence.”  NYT 8-14-20


Adolph Reed and Taure Reed from what I can gather, are correct in pointing out that class is subordinated to race in the US. I also believe that identity politics undermines the struggle of workers to combat the offensive of capitalism and the inequality, racial disparities and misery that the free market inflicts on people.

Adolph Reeds’ son Taure Reed makes the same points in his book, “Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism”. He writes in his introduction to the book, “Liberals’ tendency to divorce race from class has had dire consequences for African American and other low- skilled workers. Specifically, race reductionism has obscured the political-economic roots of racial disparities, resulting in policy prescriptions that could only have limited value to poor and working-class blacks.”


In the forefront of this identity politics offensive is the white liberal or progressive academics among others.


The argument people like Robin Di Angelo and others of her ilk make that white workers are not open to discussing racism and want to avoid it completely need not be the problem it is made out to be unless the object is to shame and guilt trip people. The problem is that, as in all pressing issues in society, working class voices are not taken seriously and that we do not get to discuss such issues among ourselves from our class point of view and with the goal not of offering atonement to the white liberal middle classes and a get out of jail card to the white racist ruling class, but of strengthening our economic and social position within society as a whole.


Certainly the first place to start would be the genocidal war against the original inhabitants of this continent.


Why did chattel slavery arise in colonial America when it was against the laws and religious codes of the colonial power? Why did color become the issue it did and the concept of a white race arise-----a race that is superior to others?  It is not enough to say that racism is integral to or embedded in US society, the important question is why is it so and how can we eliminate it.

In a recent discussion on Facebook where I raised that Malcolm X argued that it was not possible to have capitalism without racism, a brother responded that there was racism, certainly nationalism and Anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. This is true, but that confirms my view that it is a social construct with a purpose, it is not innate. The revolution in 1917 was made possible to a great degree through policies that aimed to unite ethnic and religious minorities and the rise of an autocratic bureaucracy was made possible in similar fashion through the relative weakness of the Russian working class and stirring up racist, nationalist and ant-Semitic hatred


There is no conquering or colonial power that can rule without dividing the conquered in some way, this includes the working class in general. In Ireland where the population was the same color, religion played this role.


We are taught history by the victors as the saying goes and what we are taught is white capitalist history. History from the viewpoint of the white capitalist class. However, the present narrative of how racism and the violent history of the US colonial settler state should be approached, in schools or in general, is determined by the middle and upper middle classes with a blessing from the billionaires and other big bourgeois; the unelected minority in society that direct social policy.


In the absence at this time of a powerful workers’ movement, the destructive influence of this petit bourgeois ideology is overwhelming. The US edition of the Guardian had an article earlier this week by an Englishman that asked why white people in England can’t accept that “we” owe a huge debt for enjoying the benefits of slavery and he sees hope in that white kids pulled down the statue of the 17th century slave trader Edward Colston. Knowing the Guardian’s political orientation particularly here in the US, I dared to read it. The author, Thomas Harding writes:


In my view, white people in Britain have a special responsibility when it comes to this legacy. After all, the vast majority of those who transported the captured Africans to the Caribbean were white. Similarly, the vast majority of those who “bought” these enslaved people and made them work on the appalling sugar, cotton and coffee plantations were white.


Harding adds with regard to the guilt and responsibilities:


“This includes my own family, who made money importing tobacco from American and Cuban plantations that were worked on by enslaved people. As to the general population who gained from the enormous wealth that poured into Britain on the back of slavery, again the vast majority were white.”


By this measure, everyone living here in the US, all of us, have benefited from the global plunder that US Imperialism foists on the rest of the world. The wars, invasions, (4 million dead Vietnamese and the destruction of Iraq)  bombings, violent regime change throughout Latin America, are all about stealing wealth and we have all benefited in some way from it.

This “white man” is a member of one of Britain’s long-established bourgeois families that go back to the early period of British capitalism it seems. His family founded the famous J Lyons and co. once the largest catering company in the world, I remember Lyons very well.  He is a relative of Lord Lawson of Blaby who is a former Conservative Party politician who served in Margaret Thatcher’s government.


I was not born in the UK but I am proud of my English working-class background, and yes, I’m white and so is Thomas Harding apparently, but he has nothing in common with me and millions of English people except similarities in skin tone. No more than an African American worker does with Barack Obama who lives in a $15 million home in the Hamptons with white bourgeois and whose policies caused untold suffering to people of color throughout the world when he was president----the position demands it and he wanted to be there. Obama too has had to deal with racism and in a racist society it’s worse the higher up you go. He hasn’t had to deal with it anywhere near the level the black worker has.


Harding went to Westminster School, a school that is reserved for the British ruling class and from there to Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. You could spend 20 years walking the streets of English towns and come across no one who has attended Westminster school; that is not because it has a poor reputation, it costs somewhere in the region of $60,000 a year to go there and it is a school reserved for those from mainly upper-class backgrounds and others who are expected to make British capitalism a world leader in their field. He was born in to extreme wealth and influence in a country that once colonized close to a quarter of the world’s peoples; that’s where his wealth came from, there and the factories and coalmines of Britain.


Now I don’t hold the sons responsible for the sins of the fathers, and he is Jewish apparently and members of his extended family came from Germany and I am sure some of them probably perished. He probably experienced Anti-Semitism in the UK and at Westminster school no doubt. Any worker must condemn this and unconditionally fight against discrimination and oppression of all types. Bourgeois women must be defended against sexual oppression as a black CEO must be against racism. We condemn them on a class basis, not their color or sex, this is the issue.


Harding is a big liberal but he’s tricky like all of them. Sure, he mentions the history of his family making money from tobacco plantations in the Caribbean that’s no big deal for him, he’s not giving the money back. There were whites that also worked in the Caribbean plantations, often Irish as that was England’s first colony. Whites and blacks would run away together so plantation owners introduced legislation to curb that practice, the white runaway was responsible for the black. It’s obvious what the purpose of that law was.


Harding continues: The same is true of the shipowners and sailors, bankers and insurance officers, traders, dockworkers, shopkeepers and countless others involved in selling the commodities back in Britain.”


He makes whiteness the center of it all. In his list above , he includes dockworkers alongside capitalists (bankers’ commodities traders etc.) or agents of the capitalist class. The conditions of dockworkers and sailors in the rise of British capitalism were horrific and crews were often people from many parts of the world. The dockworker and the banker both being white are equally guilty. Just like the US workers of all colors and ethnic backgrounds are as responsible for the mass murder of 4 million Vietnamese as Henry Kissinger. That’s where this nonsense leads.


One can’t say because they played the same role because anyone other than a liar would say otherwise. But they become equally guilty when whiteness or color is the driving factor and the motive force behind oppression and colonization. British capitalism entered Africa in order to satiate its hatred of black skin. In Ireland it was a hatred of Catholicism.


Identity politics and this way of writing is conscious; it allows the middle classes who, riddled with guilt as they can be having attained their privileged social status through colonial plunder and exploitation of the working classes from the black slaves in the cotton fields of the US South to the factories of Manchester where it was processed by English workers and their children, to atone for their sins and blame the lowly “ignorant” white worker for their racism. They can continue to advance their class position in the capitalist pecking order unhindered.*

Most of all, it offers the orchestrators of the violence, the racism, the misogyny and many crimes against humanity a get out of jail free card. Their class and the free market system, they support and govern get off Scott free. This is the goal of identity politics.

While Malcolm X was clear that racism is an integral aspect of capitalism he did not specifically put socialism forward as the alternative. But his statement makes it clear that to end racism we have to end capitalism and only working-class unity can accomplish that. His comments definitely put socialism on the table. His thinking changed rapidly in his short life and he was clearly moving in that direction as was Martin Luther King. Both of them were taken from us before they had more time to develop these views further.

Angela Davis made it clear also, saying that,  “….. it’s a mistake to assume that we can combat racism by leaving capitalism in place.” That’s exactly what identity politics does, leaves capitalism in place replacing it with “whiteness” making skin tone front and center. It’s a method that makes fighting racism harder and the likelihood of eliminating it impossible.

As for Harding, he does not speak for English or any other workers. His existence has been and is as different from millions of English people and millions of workers throughout the world. Workers do not need class enemies like him and his rotten family, nor millionaires and Hollywood actors like Anne Hathaway to lecture us about racism.

What white workers in particular must play a significant role in, is helping to build the independent working-class movement in our communities and the workplaces that are more integrated than ever.  We can contribute to a situation where we can have these discussions honestly with all the horrors and violence that history contains but also those times when we have come together to increase our material conditions in the face of capitalist aggression and the divide and rule poison of racism. Under these conditions, the horrors of three hundred years of isolation, marginalization, slavery and Jim Crow can be discussed in a constructive way that shows a way forward. It was not the bond laborer that created the White Race.

I think that Lerone Bennett Jr’s comments in chapter three of his book, The Shaping of Black America are more accurate in describing, not only human nature, but the history and rise of  racism and slavery in Colonial America than all the middle class liberal writers like Robin DiAngelo and another one I’m only recently learning of, Anastasia Higginbothom, who are probably making lots of money writing nonsense.

Bennett wrote:

“Curiously unconcerned about their color, these people worked together and relaxed together.  They had essentially the same interests, the same aspirations and the same grievances. They conspired together, and waged a common struggle against their common enemy-------the big planter apparatus and a social system that legalized terror against black and white bondsmen………….the available evidence, slight though it is, suggests that there were widening bonds of solidarity between the first generation of blacks and whites.  And the same evidence indicates that it proved very difficult indeed to teach white people to worship their skin.”  (My added emphasis)


We can fault the white working class of the time for accepting the “poison bait” of white race identity and white supremacy but that’s another time.

Understanding the real material conditions that have made our history is what will lead to our emancipation, not the condescending racism of the liberal identity politics crowd.


*Eric Foner’s book British Labor and the American Civil War and the Confederacy’s efforts to get the British Parliament to drop the cotton blockade is an interesting read on this subject.


Other useful reading relating to this subject.

The Invention of the White Race Vols 1 and 2.

The Many Headed Hydra

The Shaping of Black America

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