Saturday, July 25, 2015

I will take the bait

Hillary Clinton is an astute campaigner. In a Facebook Q&A the other day, she was asked about the Black Lives Matter protestors who interrupted Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. The moderator asked her the same question those protestors had posed to her rivals: How would she “begin to dismantle structural racism in the United States"?

Her answer was deft:

Black lives matter. Everyone in this country should stand firmly behind that. We need to acknowledge some hard truths about race and justice in this country, and one of those hard truths is that that racial inequality is not merely a symptom of economic inequality. Black people across America still experience racism every day.

Like any good politician, Clinton knows what her audience wants to hear. She also knows how to put her opponent on the back foot. Because how could Bernie Sanders respond to that? What's he going to say -- racial inequality is merely a symptom of economic inequality? He's not going to say that. Nobody would.

Well, get ready for a hot take, ladies and gentlemen, because that’s exactly what I’ll say here. Angry responses can be addressed to the comments box at the bottom.

Here’s my question to the angry commenters. If racial inequality isn’t merely a symptom of economic inequality, what is it a symptom of?

I already feel like I can hear the answer: it's a symptom of hundreds of years of slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, and urban apartheid.

Yes. But what were slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, and urban apartheid if not extreme forms of economic inequality?

What was the point of England’s colonization of Ireland if not to impose a lucrative “economic inequality” on its victims? Was the urban apartheid of Haussmann’s Paris not the “symptom” of nineteenth century economic inequality? 

And what exactly do you think all those African slaves were doing in the American South?

To quote Barbara Fields:

Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations—as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco. One historian has gone so far as to call slavery ‘the ultimate segregator’. He does not ask why Europeans seeking the ‘ultimate’ method of segregating Africans would go to the trouble and expense of transporting them across the ocean for that purpose, when they could have achieved the same end so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa.

No one dreams of analyzing the struggle of the English against the Irish as a problem in race relations, even though the rationale that the English developed for suppressing the ‘barbarous’ Irish later served nearly word for word as a rationale for suppressing Africans and indigenous American Indians. Nor does anyone dream of analyzing serfdom in Russia as primarily a problem of race relations, even though the Russian nobility invented fictions of their innate, natural superiority over the serfs as preposterous as any devised by American racists.

It’s true, of course, that racial inequality is due to hundreds of years of slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, and urban apartheid – to white supremacy. But to say so is merely to recount how one particular form of economic inequality came about. Just as the story of English imperialism is merely a history of how Ireland, even fifty years after winning independence, still found itself the poorest country in all of capitalist Europe.


What Hillary Clinton is really hinting at when she says that racism can’t be reduced to “economic inequality” is racial animosity. I can’t think of what else she could mean. The new generation of radicals on Twitter like to talk about “structural” racism or “institutional” racism – but behind the verbal bravado, what they, too, are really referring to is racial animosity.

So let’s talk about interpersonal animosity, because it’s certainly not irrelevant here. That Texas trooper in the Sandra Bland video I still can’t bring myself to watch – I would be shocked to learn that he’s not a violent racist. Forget “structural” racism for a minute. Let’s talk about plain old-fashioned racism. Let’s stipulate the obvious: the archetypal “hick Texas bigot cop” really doesn’t like black people.

But can that explain why Sandra Bland ended up dead? I doubt it, because there’s a lot of people the archetypal hick Texas bigot cop doesn’t like. He hates the nose-pierced vegans in Austin. He hates the liberal Jewish foundation executives in New York. He  hates the Harvard WASPs who write about structural racism. He hates Nancy Pelosi.

But none of those groups is likely to turn up dead in his jail cell – not as likely as a black man or a black woman.

If freedom means anything, it means the freedom to go about your life without having to worry about all the people who hate you. Because let’s be honest: lots of people hate each other. Yankees fans hate Red Sox fans. Brocialists hate identitarians. Nancy Pelosi probably hates that Texas cop just as much he hates her. So do the nose-pierced vegan and the Harvard WASP.

But the Texas bigot doesn’t have to worry about ending up dead because some people hate him. Blacks in this country don't enjoy the same luxury. If that’s not due to “economic inequality,” what is it due to? What could possibly account for that difference?

Is it just a coincidence that the rate of incarceration for blacks is six times the rate for whites – and that the rate for whites who didn’t graduate high school is, likewise, six times the rate for whites who did? Is that not due to economic inequality? Is it a coincidence that the white incarceration rate is almost four times greater in poor Idaho than in rich Connecticut? Or that so far just this year, cops in Oklahoma (population: 3.9 million) have killed 29 people, 18 of whom were white – more than the entire English police force (population: 53 million) has killed in the last decade?


The connections between economic stratification and ascriptive hierarchy, between social structure and subjective affect – these issues are not new and, believe it or not, Twitter, they weren’t even born in the antebellum American South.

Here’s Karl Marx in 1870, advising an activist friend in America about the Irish question:

England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.

As a social theorist, Marx unfortunately lacked the subtlety of, say, a Hillary Clinton. His simplistic solution was for the Irish to free themselves from their English landlords in Ireland -- and unite with the English workers in England. 


  1. On a purely semantic level, economic inequality doesn't cause racism — capitalism created and sustains it, and it's to the detriment of leftists that too many of them can't seem to name capitalism as the problem. It obfuscates this issue.

    But you're right to target the reduction of racism to personal animosity. I always follow this to the logical conclusion: If "systemic" racism is really just the sum of many small acts of interpersonal animosity, what is the solution? Obviously it's something like diversity education, cultural production, or vigorous legal restrictions on that animosity. But it's equally obvious that these solutions are ultimately inadequate to the problem of systemic racism as it plays out in this country. We've tried them; they don't work. Or they're just laughable.

    Finally, I think this discourse suffers a little from the understanding of what "the end of capitalism" would look like or mean; it's certain that a vigorous welfare state of the kind supported by Bernie Sanders that nonetheless stops short of actual classless and antiauthoritarian society would still have a problem with white supremacist hegemony. But if we're talking instead about a classless society created by popular social movements that extend across racial lines and prioritize dismantling white supremacy as one of the tools created to keep working people apart (which is at this point a necessary precondition for taking power) — that's harder to imagine, but a very different scenario.

    1. "capitalism created and sustains [racism]" at least in its current form, that is; obviously racism existed before capitalism, but primarily on this personal animosity level.

  2. "Just as the story of English imperialism is merely a history of how Ireland, even fifty years after winning independence, still found itself the poorest country in all of capitalist Europe."

    Yep. One big parts of the reason for this is that after Ireland's independence from England, it was still dependent on the its economy and inextricably linked to the British eg. Ireland's currency was pegged to Sterling for several decades after independence despite widly different levels of development between the two.

  3. Seth, I realize this is an academic debate at some level but I can't help but notice that you're not comparing the right units here. The right unit of comparison here is not what other kinds of people the cop (who pulled in Sandra Bland) hates. The right unit of comparison is poor white people (or any other demographic that counts as poor). Do poor whites face the same kinds of problems as poor blacks do? If they don't (and it seems to me they don't -- at least they don't face persecution from the police), then racial inequality can't just be the same as economic inequality. Can it?