The following theses are an attempt to understand how the U.S. racial order has changed in recent decades, how it is working at the moment, and what forces may exist in U.S. society today that could destroy capitalism and white supremacy.
The impact of the civil rights and Black Power movements domestically, and the defeat of traditional European colonialism internationally, have shaken the national racial order more profoundly than any event since the Civil War, and the global racial order more profoundly than any event since the Haitian Revolution.
The dismantling of legal segregation after 1954 allowed a small but ideologically significant layer of blacks to enter the non-segregated bourgeoisie and upper middle class, to live, work and learn in the same places as so-called whites. Shortly thereafter, the rise of neoliberalism and deindustrialization destroyed the livelihoods of many working class blacks, and doomed millions to impoverishment and prison. The recent economic crisis has cemented this trend by decimating the black housing base, and cutting the public sector jobs on which many black households rely. Thus the “black community” today is more profoundly split by class differentiation than at any time in its history. Some blacks have “made it” into bourgeois and upper middle class institutions, where they encounter the prejudices of individual whites, but the majority remain structurally barred from even entering these arenas by the police, prison, housing, education and welfare systems.
A stable black working class remains despite the process of “lumpenization,” its members largely employed in the public sector, but it has so far been immobilized by decaying union structures and the aloofness of the black elite. Meanwhile, a volatile sense of disillusionment simmers from below, only temporarily appeased by the Obama presidency. Many lumpen and working class blacks are aware that black “leaders” and the rest of U.S. society have abandoned them, and now live with a mix of nihilism and explosive rage. The state represses and manages these sentiments along gendered lines, targeting mainly (though not exclusively) men with police and mass incarceration, and mainly women with the punitive welfare system. Proletarian blacks nonetheless express their energies in periodic urban rebellions, and daily resentment toward the police force, which with the decline of white mob violence is the most visible representative of their oppression.
Immigration reforms starting in 1965 opened the way for new waves of legal immigrants, many of whom were bureaucratically selected for their technical skills and educational achievement. The vast majority of these groups have not “become white” like the Irish, Poles or Italians that preceded them: that is, they have not gained unquestioned access to the housing, education and employment benefits monopolized by white Americans, and come to be considered members of a white “race.” Instead, they inhabit a middle ground in which they have partial access to such benefits, and are not considered white, yet remain racially distinct from blacks. Racial “middle layers” with similar class mobility and racial statuses have existed in throughout U.S. history (with Chicanos following the Mexican-American War, for example, or Chinese during the gold rush). However, the racial categories associated with these groups rarely became nationally predominant, and were sometimes absorbed into the white/black binary in the course of legal and social conflicts (as in the case of the Irish in the late 1800s). Today the situation is different.
The contemporary racial order includes a “middle layer” more predominant and longer lasting than any such layer in U.S. history. This arrangement has been made possible ideologically through the ruling class adoption of “multiculturalism” and “colorblind” public policy and discourse. Multiculturalism allows groups across the U.S. to retain a non-white status for a long period of time—perhaps indefinitely—without becoming either “white” or “black.” With this status, groups may climb the class ladder in a manner unimaginable under de jure segregation, distinguishing themselves from most blacks, fraternizing with the white middle class, and even entering the ranks of the bourgeoisie in limited numbers, while retaining a distinct “cultural” identity. The class mobility of groups in this “middle layer” depends partly on their passive acceptance of the subjugation of proletarian blacks. At the same time, they remain distinct from whites and vulnerable to white supremacist backlash, as in the case of East Asians in the rustbelt during the 1980s, or Arab Americans nationally after 9/11.
Part of the “middle layer” suffers from a degree of class immobility similar to that of proletarian blacks, and thus acquires a “darker” racial status than other non-black groups. Groups are “darkened,” so to speak, by structural factors that consistently hold them in the lowest layers of the proletariat (the reservation system among Native Americans, or intransigent underdevelopment in the home countries of Cambodians, Salvadorans, and many other immigrant groups). “Dark” racial groups participate in domestic, agricultural, and dirty, dangerous or non-unionized industrial labor. Sometimes these groups must enter the workforce along starkly gendered lines, with men assigned to low-wage production and transport work (for example, construction or other day labor) and women assigned to low-wage reproductive work (nannying or housekeeping) after traveling to the U.S. alone. Members of “dark” racial groups struggle alongside lumpen and working class blacks in poor urban neighborhoods, the prison system, warehouses, sales floors, construction sites, small factories, and the street force that first appeared in the 1992 L.A. riots. The main structural factor maintaining a “dark” layer in the current period is the division between documented and undocumented. Since 2006, the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. have waged a nationwide general strike, only to be intimidated by ICE raids and racist state legislation, and frustrated by tepid federal reforms. They continue to struggle clandestinely, take action with prudence, and seek out allies.
Whites remain a privileged stratum in the U.S. by definition, though the “wages” of whiteness have shrunk in absolute terms for 30 years, and have grown more porous with the adoption of colorblind public policy. The bourgeoisie remains overwhelmingly white, and the white proletariat continues to waver in its allegiance between white supremacy and class struggle. Whites retain access to the housing, education and employment benefits from which most blacks and “dark” racial groups are excluded; yet the defeat of de jure segregation has limited the extent of these benefits, and allowed some “middle layer” racial groups, and a few blacks, to gain access to them as well. At the same time, deindustrialization and neoliberalism have steadily eroded the living standards of lumpen and working class whites in most parts of the country, driving many into poverty or extreme debt. Proletarian whites have responded with bewilderment and outrage to these developments, giving rise to contradictory political trends. On one side, they have engaged in fascist militia-ism and the Tea Party movement; on the other, they have predominated in the ranks of the Occupy movement and trade union battles, which the unions must now embrace for their very survival even as they work to limit their potentials. In opposing the regressive gender regime of the far right, white women, queers and trans people undermine support for potentially fascist politics among the white proletariat.
The racial order today is characterized by instability, perhaps more so than in any other period in U.S. history. The white proletariat is growing increasingly polarized between a commitment to old-style white supremacy, which would likely require a fascist movement to re-impose, and class struggle in association with some or all of the non-white proletariat. “Middle layer” racial groups with a high degree of class mobility tend to ally themselves with the liberal wing of capital, but a “dark” portion struggles in political isolation against extreme oppression. The majority of lumpen and working-class blacks struggle under similar conditions, despite the occasional concerned gesture from the black bourgeoisie, which so far has sufficed to contain mass rebellion. The bourgeoisie is divided over how to reproduce class rule, and what form of white supremacy is appropriate to this task. Persistent divisions in the U.S. ruling class and Republican Party on questions of, for example, immigration reform, reflect ongoing conflict among the capitalists about what should happen. Even though “multiculturalism” appears to be the dominant ruling class policy nationally and internationally, the success of fascist movements in Europe and Russia could contribute to the retrenchment of a more rigid racial order in the U.S, perhaps cast in cultural terms. It is a time of great uncertainty, and our actions will make a difference in the outcome.
This account of the racial order suggests several possibilities. First, it suggests that the terms and strategies of previous eras will prove unsuited to this period. The category “people of color” will fail to cohere a revolutionary bloc, as it encapsulates too broad a range of racial groups, with widely varying experiences of racialization, lived material conditions, and relations with proletarian blacks. Nor will a politics which views racial privilege as an attribute or object possessed by individuals pose a serious challenge to the system. These politics not only obscure the institutional arrangements through which racialization occurs, but also provide a basis for bourgeois blacks and “middle layer” racial groups to assert their individual “right” to climb the class ladder, at least as much as they provide a means for proletarian blacks and “dark” racial groups to challenge their subjugation.
Black bourgeois nationalism will likely be hampered in this period by the unwillingness of black women, queers and trans people to submit to rigid gender regimes, and their openness to forming autonomous organizations with women, queers and trans people of other “middle layer” racial groups; both are the results of the gay liberation and feminist struggles of the 1970s–1980s. Furthermore, black nationalist politics that don’t explicitly aim to overthrow the black bourgeoisie will tend to be marginal and reactionary in practice, ensuring the deference of the black proletariat to the black bourgeoisie, rather than, as in previous periods, creating openings through which the black proletariat might transcend its segregated bourgeoisie as the latter struggles for integration.
Second, this account suggests that a variety of social and cultural conflicts will unfold as different sectors of the population navigate, and develop their own understandings of, the shifting racial order. These will likely entail battles over the meaning of “authentic” blackness, itself an expression of the conflict between lumpen and working class blacks, and upper middle class and bourgeois blacks. They may involve the emergence of new subjectivities capable of unifying blacks and “dark” racial groups, while remaining porous to working-class and lumpen whites: for example, geographic or “hood” identities, already grasped at by the thousands of multiracial youth who address each other as “my nigga,” and the small “nations” of street organizations. In the course of these conflicts, proletarian blacks and “dark” racial groups will probably be forced to challenge the legal idioms with which much of the colorblind racial order is maintained, such as “illegal” and “criminal”.
If global capitalism continues to experience extended stagnation and crisis, the white proletariat will continue to polarize between far right and the left. This could entail conflict within white communities over their relations to non-white groups of different types, and whether parts of the white population are “becoming black.” The same conditions could generate conflicts within “middle layer” racial groups over their relations to blacks, and the content of their own identities (for example, a resurgent focus on afrolatinidad or indio status in Latino communities). The outcome of these conflicts will indicate what kinds of alliances are possible in the current period between different layers of the proletariat.
It is possible to cohere a revolutionary bloc, which draws together the revolutionary social forces in U.S. society, given the present balance of forces. Objectively, this bloc must: (a) incorporate lumpen and working-class blacks while breaking decisively with the black bourgeoisie, thus expressing the revolutionary energies of the former independently of the latter; (b) unify black and “dark” racial groups, thus challenging the anti-black basis of the racial order, while fostering insurgency in more neighborhoods and sectors of the U.S. economy than those inhabited by proletarian blacks alone; (c) on the basis of this alliance, radicalize other “middle layer” racial groups whose class mobility would otherwise cause them to vacillate politically, such as most East Asians in the U.S; and (d) draw a plurality of proletarian whites to the side of revolution, thus decisively splitting the allegiances of the white population and abolishing the “white race” in the process. A bloc of this type will be able to defeat both fascism, and the “multicultural” racial order which may be taking shape even now: a regime that unites the liberal wing of capital, the white proletariat and most “middle layer” racial groups against “dark” racial groups and proletarian blacks, and in which state repression is carried out and legitimated in legal, “cultural” and colorblind terms.
The decisive factor in the creation of this bloc is likely to be the appearance of some form of “black-brown” alliance, which draws together proletarian blacks and “dark” racial groups, and is articulated across a range of different contexts. Blacks and “dark” racial groups live alongside each other in poor neighborhoods in many regions, and lay claim between them to a broad swath of production and transport in the U.S. economy. A “black-brown” alliance thus has the potential to bind together the U.S. lumpenproletariat and industrial working class, and maintain the cohesion of a revolutionary bloc.
Many developments could help forge this alliance: a spate of riots that draw blacks, “dark” racial groups, and lumpen whites into the streets; a new wave of immigrant mobilization; a “black-brown” feminist movement that reaches beyond the academy, publishing houses and nonprofits to poor and working class neighborhoods; a surge of wildcat actions in small or non-union shops; or a series of public sector strikes coordinated with poor communities. Class struggle by proletarian whites could help spur this alliance by demonstrating the feasibility and potentials of resistance, as well as the limitations of such movement without the participation of blacks and “dark” racial groups. In many parts of the country, a “black-brown” alliance could take the form of solidarity between the “criminalized” and the “illegal”. Both proletarian blacks and undocumented immigrants possess explosive revolutionary potentials, while both have faced serious defeats in recent decades that oblige them to seek allies among the rest of the proletariat. Unity between black and “dark” racial groups, in this and other forms, may lie at the core of the insurrections to come.
—by BA JIN
Featured photo courtesy of DENNIS FLORES