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Sunday, September 10, 2017


My remarks today are a corollary to, not an argument for or against, the essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates to which I posted a link.  There has been a vigorous debate about whether the progressive wing of the Democratic Party should focus its attention on what is called identity politics or should advance policies targeting the needs and interests of the working class.  I find this debate unhelpful, and Coates’ essay helped me to become clearer about the reasons.

My theme is a simple one:  The great preponderance of Black and Hispanic Americans are working class.  Their race or ethnicity is not a substitute for their class position.  It does not somehow make their class position politically irrelevant.  There are long standing reasons, reaching back to the period shortly after the Civil War, why here in America white and black workers have so rarely formed a united front against capital, reasons about which I have several times written on this blog.  But the simple objective facts remain.  Let me take a moment to offer a few numbers, by way of setting the stage.  These data come from 2015 and 2016, but very little has changed in the intervening time.

Median household income in the United States is somewhat more than $56,000 a year.  For those who are utterly innumerate, this means that half of all households earn less than $56,000 each year, half earn more.  [Average or mean household income is about $17,000 higher, basically because when Bill Gates walks into a neighborhood bar, the average net worth of people in the bar goes up to several billion each – beware of numbers.]   The median income of White households is almost $63,000.  But that of Hispanic households is about $45,000, and that of Black households is about $37,000.  [That of Asian households is better than $77,000, by the way.]

It doesn’t take much brains to figure out that most Black and Hispanic households are working class.  The median weekly wages or full-time Black and Hispanic workers are $678 and $624 respectively, which means that fully half of all fulltime Black and Hispanic workers are earning roughly fifteen dollars an hour or less, and most of course are earning a good deal less.  A national minimum wage of fifteen dollars an hour would dramatically improve the economic fortunes of large portions of the Black and Hispanic population.  The median wages for fulltime White workers are significantly higher -- $862 – which means that the fifteen dollar an hour minimum wage would benefit a much smaller share of the white working class [although perhaps numerically more people.]

My point is that Black workers are workers.  Hispanic workers are workers.  A progressive political program targeting working class voters will necessarily target large segments of the Black and Hispanic communities. 

I have many times observed that educational credentials are, in this country, the royal road to the middle and upper middle class.  It is worth reminding ourselves therefore of the wide racial and ethnic disparity in the proportions of the population holding a four year college degree.  When I was a teenager going off to college, only 5% of American adults 25 years old or older had a four year degree.  So few young people went to college that high schools in New York graduated students twice a year, in January and June.  The G. I. Bill, the explosion of public higher education, and the Cold War [which led the Federal Government to pour money into universities “for the struggle against godless communism”] produced a sharp upsurge in college attendance, so that today, roughly a third of adults 25 and older hold college degrees.  But two-thirds of adult Americans do not have four year degrees, which means that a large majority of Americans have no hope at all of becoming doctors, lawyers, professors, corporate management trainees, college professors, high school teachers, elementary school teachers [!] or, for that matter, F. B. I. agents.

These are the figures for all Americans.  As we might expect, the figures vary considerably by race and ethnicity.  Here are the data:  32.5% of all adults have four year degrees.  For Whites, the figure is 36.2%, for Backs 22.5%, for Hispanics 15.5%.  This means that fewer than one in four Black men and women and one in six Hispanic men and women can even aspire to be elementary school teachers or corporate management trainees.  Thus, a political platform calling for free college education will benefit young Black and Hispanic men and women even more than young White men and women.

A political platform targeting the needs of working class men and women, and demanding an end to racial and ethnic impediments to decent work, is a winner.  That is what we on the left should be agitating for.


s. wallerstein said...

The Ta-Nehisi Coates article which you linked to is very eloquent, moving and well-written and I thank you for linking to it.

However, if I were an uneducated working class white, coming from a community where rightwing ideas are hegemonic, the article would scare me off. I realize that Coates is not an organizer for leftwing movements (nor am I), but you yourself pointed out a few weeks that calling people "racists" or "white-supremacists" is not a good way to win them over.

Coates does not seem to leave any way out for racist whites, any path for them to join together with blacks in working class struggles. For two different groups to come together generally involves some "give and take" on both sides, and the possibility of "give and take" from both sides is completely absent from Coates's article.

Unknown said...

Coates has made many of us aware in a way we weren’t before of the embedded consequences of heritage of racism in our society. One example is the wide disparity in wealth between African Americans and others, a disparity that is many times greater than the disparity in income between them. Most of it stems from housing--home ownership being the major part of the wealth of most Americans. Blacks were systematically excluded from the possibility of home ownership not only by the housing and real estate industries, but by the Federal government itself with the administration of FHA and VA home loans. I think Coates has done a service in bringing points like these forward--he isn’t the first but he is certainly the most eloquent.

Nonetheless, I have same problem with Coates that s.wallerstein has--there’s no way out for whites. No matter what is done, the fact will remain that US society was built upon racist slavery--from the Capitol Building to the White House and all the rest. We can never escape that fact. For Coates, it seems that that is it--there’s nothing whites can do to overcome the past. I can’t accept that. John Rawls said in another context, “We must always start from where we are now.” There certainly is much that we can and should be doing to address the inequities inherited from past, even if we can’t completely overcome them.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

David Palmeter, spot on. I was actually going to add several paragraphs on household wealth. I write about this at some length in my book, AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN EX-WHITE MAN. I believe the way out is not thinking, or acknowledging, or apologizing. The way out is through collective action, side by side, through comradeship, through joint struggle. There are many examples of that in America's history.

Jerry Fresia said...

Why is there the obligatory reference to US racism of the past with nary a mention of what to me is the most hideous racism of the present, US foreign policy; ie, the daily bombing/droning of brown people in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Libya not to mention the active subversion of brown people's states such as Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and others?

Jared P said...

Hi Bob,

Then I have to ask: why do you take TNC's article to be so important, then? He has repeatedly taken the side against collective socialist action and solidarity, consistently demanding that white people undergo "spiritual" renewal, contemplation, etc., treating their racism as insurmountable (even essential!) for any immediate class based politics that crosses racial lines. The dude is a defeatist of the highest level, it seems to me.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jared P, I am very troubled by your comment. I had not realized that, to be honest. I read the piece as a very powerful cri de coeur. I shall have to reconsider.

David said...

Professor Wolff,

I don't know what the educational requirements are in your state for people aspiring to become elementary school teachers, but in my state a Master's degree is required. That requirement is a reflection of the complexity and demands of the job.

Enam el Brux said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jordan said...

I don't think it's fair to say that Coates' cri de coeur is "defeatist" or that it "leaves no possibility for action," and I think Prof. Wolff is right to sense in Coates someone who is on his side in the main.

Coates' (plausible) claim is that economic restructuring, even economic revolution, however well-meant and disproportionately helpful it would be for blacks, still leaves something important undone in our dealing with the legacy of American racism. It matters that Coates broke through by calling for reparations -- the point was to say that there needed to be legislation whose PURPOSE was to admit that the US had done something so deeply morally bankrupt to blacks that it needed to make amends, to declare publicly that all along WE had been in the wrong, and by that declaration to begin a real (and yes, "spiritual") process of repairing our relationships to one another. That we are immensely far from actually doing anything of the sort is certainly true, and naturally raises good questions about how to get from here to there, but I think it's unfair to say of Coates' position that it "leaves no possibility for action." We should do what we can to move ourselves in that direction.

I think Coates lays this stuff out more clearly here:

Jared P said...

I am definitely open to having my view of TNC changed. I admit to not always getting what the guy's saying--his writing is stylish and beautiful to a major degree, but I think that sometimes that obscures his actual political orientation.

Bob, you might ultimately disagree with my diagnosis. If so, I'd love to hear why. I'm genuinely open to having my mind changed.

Jordan, I think the reparations are actually a good illustration of what I and others have in mind. The way you characterize his position is accurate as I remember it, and it is revealing: for him, reparations in particular were necessary (over and above the actual, material correction they would present for black folks) *because* they would play some kind of special role in "spiritual" renewal or repair. It isn't enough *that* we make black folks' lot in America better (through democratic socialism), which is what people like Bob and myself think we should do. Something more is needed, apparently. For TNC, that involves some kind of "reckoning" with our irredeemably racist past. But this demand for a "reckoning" is what leaves white working class out because they are the ones to bear the scarlet letter of racism, and it is in no way clear how they can somehow atone for this. This is, at least in the way TNC has characterized it, because a) racism is their birthright, and b) what "atonement" amounts to is incredibly vague.

The point isn't that TNC leaves NO possibility for action, but that the actions he leaves open are not ones that build class-based political solidarity. They are predicated on doing to the white working class precisely what leaves them out of the coalition or at second-class status. (There are echoes of Nietzsche's account of Christianity in all of this, where identity-politicking liberals play the role of the ascetic priests, and the rest of us play the role of the herd. But anyway.)

You can see why it will leave WWC out. You say it yourself: reparations are supposed to atone for what "WE" have done; but any WWC person will immediately say, "What do you mean 'we'? I never enslaved anyone; I never redlined anyone; I never sicced dogs on black demonstrators in the sixties." On top of that, they can point to the *very real* ways in which they are getting left out in the cold by the new order--which is a combination of capitalism and bourgeois liberal multiculturalism, which both impoverishes them and turns them into the scapegoat and laughingstock of America.

Enam el Brux said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jordan said...


Yeah, this is tough stuff. I don't have a settled view here, though I'm certainly more inclined to Coates' view than a lot of other readers of this blog.

First, it's important to reiterate that Coates is in complete agreement with you, me, Bob, and the rest of the readers of this blog that we should have democratic socialism, and that doing so would make the lives of American blacks much better. I wouldn't be surprised if he even gave you the claim that the overthrow of capitalism was a necessary condition for America to deal with its racism properly. The point is simply that it's not sufficient. The disagreement then might be less about end goals than it is about priority of political tasks, which is of course not to say that that disagreement could not be pretty substantive.

As for the white working class: you're quite right, I think, that many of them (especially the ones proud of their "whiteness") would feel left out of this particular process. We would have to be willing to let a lot of them go, but also and primarily we'd have to devote our efforts to convincing as many of them as we could that the referent of the "WE" there really is Americans as a whole, and not just them. And we'd actually have to mean that, which might be the really tough part. You're right in the sociological sense that the WWC bear the "scarlet letter" of racism, and the left has (I think unfortunately) been pretty consistent in employing moral condemnation as the principal way of dealing with poor white folk. Coates' position, as I understand it, is actually aimed far more at educated elites like us than it is at the WWC. Those of us who think that as long as everything works out well in the end economically, we can just forget about that whole slavery thing, that redlining thing, Jim Crow, etc. The "we" is Americans, educated and not, well-off and not, just as the "we" in post-Nazi Germany was all of Germany, and not just the ones who had directly committed atrocities. Every white person in America, whether they realize it or not, has benefited from constant, systematic oppression of black people, insofar as our whole economic and social system is based on it. It's important that the WWC knows that that means us (i.e., highly educated elites) too; in fact, that it might even *especially* mean us, since we've obviously benefited more than they have.

Getting there would be a long-term goal, and you may well be right that in order to direct our focus on that we'd have to do some things in the short term that would get in the way of the kind of coalition-building necessary for our economic goals. I wish I knew what to say about that. I want to say that there ought to be a way of dealing morally with our racist past that would not also just distract us from concrete economic problems (distraction from the real issue being, after all, the goal of Nietzsche's ascetic priest). I don't know how that would go, but I'll be thinking about it more now.

s. wallerstein said...

" Every white person in America, whether they realize it or not, has benefited from constant, systematic oppression of black people, insofar as our whole economic and social system is based on it. It's important that the WWC knows that that means us (i.e., highly educated elites) too; in fact, that it might even *especially* mean us, since we've obviously benefited more."

This is true, but some of us (I include myself here) have benefitted so much more from the exploitation of blacks, of the third world and of the white working class that a member of the white working class whose family has been poor for generations and has been exploited by capitalism may well ask why there are no reparations for him or her. Some Latin Americans might also demand reparations given how they have been exploited by American imperialism.

I guess I'm a member of the educated elite referred to above, although I'm far from wealthy. Maybe a tax on patrimonies over 1 million dollars or 2 million dollars (I have no idea where to draw the line these days) might go towards reparations, but it seems weird to ask the white working class to pay reparations towards blacks out of their tax dollars. That money should towards public healthcare, towards free public higher education, towards public mass transport, etc.

Jordan said...

S. Wallerstein,

I'm all for reparations for those exploited by capitalism, but there I'd be inclined to say that it would be just for those reparations to take the form of the socialist programs you describe (public healthcare, education, transportation, etc.), paid for primarily by policies like higher taxes on patrimonies. Because the offense in that case is purely economic, rather than racial, the response can be too.

The oppression of black people has, of course, its economic dimension, but it has another, more existential dimension as well. (It's this about which Coates wrote so well in Between the World and Me, following up on James Baldwin's example.) We can address all of the economic problems that plague black people because of their oppression while leaving largely unchanged the marginalized place they occupy in the American social imaginary. Perhaps one might argue that a change in that existential dimension of oppression would follow naturally upon a precipitous drop in social inequality, but I think that's a little naively optimistic.

I don't know what to say about Latin Americans, who have indeed been exploited and in a way that is not unconnected with their race. I'm inclined to say that oppression of blacks is more central to the identity of America than that of Latinx people, and so should take precedence. But I'm not sure.

Unknown said...

Jordan, Could you elaborate on what you mean by "leaving largely unchanged the marginalized place they occupy in the American social imaginary"?

I'm interpreting it to mean the prominence of blacks in places where they had been excluded, but I suspect I'm wrong because the position of blacks in our society in my lifetime has hardly remained unchanged--from a president to Supreme Court justices, to cabinet officials, to the heads of Time, Citibank and Merck among others. These instances do not, of course, address the problem of the poor and disadvantaged in the black community, i.e., the largest part. But in this sense the "social imagery" certainly has changed.