Twitter and Facebook are a mess today. It’s May 31, 2020, and about 30 major cities in the United States of America are protesting or rioting or under curfew or some combination of the above, and it’s not clear when or how things will change. I’ve been thinking about writing something like this on Facebook, but I don’t really want to add to the noise. While I’m trying to decide whether this is noise or wisdom, here’s the post.
This is what’s breaking my heart. I love to see so many of you speaking up for racial justice. It’s important! But the more I think about it the more I’m afraid that it’s half missing the point. I want you to see that anti-racism is not that helpful unless it’s coming from a place of understanding that America has a class of disposable people. Please see this. Anti-classism has to come with anti-racism.
I know that this is a crazy-sounding thing to say. I know that I’m running a real risk of being pinned as racist and a real risk of speaking to deaf ears. But please, at least try to hear me on this.
Cornel West, in a prophetic speech on CNN the other night, talked about this problem. And I’m afraid America missed it, because if we were listening to him at all it was just to get high on our own BLM righteousness. Dr. West told us that “Too often our black politicians, professional class, middle class become too accommodated to the capitalist economy, too accommodated to a militarized nation-state, too accommodated to the market-driven culture of celebrities, status, power, fame…” He told us about what’s happening with “the precious poor and working-class black people, brown, red, yellow, whatever color”, their rage. He spoke of “our Irish brothers”. Start to end he poured scorn on our classist system that deifies the market and disempowers the people.
Racism in America has a history. Plantation owners invented it so that their middle managers would live in fear of black slaves and black slaves would live disempowered. From the beginning racism has been ABOUT CLASS. Racism is a technique for maintaining a stratified class system.
Upper-middle class folks are just blind to this. Lower and lower-middle class folks are not blind to it, but they’re often blinded by their rage about it.
America has a class of disposable people. We’ve got a lot of disposable black people. We’ve got disposable Latino people. We’ve got disposable white people. We’ve got disposable Marshallese people. I could go on. Our brothers and sisters are disposable, according to the logic of America.
Bad cops know who is disposable. They know they can kill Trayvon Martin. They know they can kill Daniel Shaver. They know who they can kill. They know they can’t kill Jeff Bezos. They know they can’t kill the son of a successful white lawyer. They know they can’t kill Barack Obama. Race intersects with this, but it’s not about race. It’s about the class of disposable people.
There is a lot of good work out there about class, but I don’t see y’all sharing it or even talking about it. The media narratives I’m seeing in the midst of these protests sure look like they’re trying to turn this whole thing into being about race, just like the plantation owners turned their labor problems into race problems. I don’t think America has much of a chance unless we wake up to the reality of the injuries of class. It’s no surprise to me that anti-democratic politics are gaining ground in our country, because democracy doesn’t work in a classist society, and people are slowly, semi-coherently starting to realize that that is what we live in.
I hope we wake up sooner. I hope we get clear on this. In that hope I’m going to end by sharing two things that I think are immensely helpful on understanding class and race, one short and one longer. (I’m sorry this is all I’ve got, but I don’t know what else to do. If you know, please let me know.)
One, shorter: Michael O Church’s Theory of 3 Class Ladders in America.
Two, longer: Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Karen and Barbara Fields. There’s also a shorter, very good interview with the authors here.