Peter Frase is ordinarily a writer of great clarity, which makes his latest piece for Jacobin even harder to understand. It’s a meandering, directionless complaint that seems to me to be addressing a strawman left. For all its digressions and myriad targets, it can be boiled down to saying, “Class is real and important but it’s not the same as gender and race and those are important to.” To which I would say… well, yeah!
Is there a stereotype of socialists who say “it’s not about race” or similar nonsense? Sure. Such people are stupid and should be told so. Race and gender are separate from class, women and people of color face types of discrimination and oppression that are separate from class oppressions, and it’s our responsibility to address those issues head-on. But it’s quite strange to me to see the suggestion that this is somehow a major problem in the current world of left-wing publishing. Left-wing thought has become utterly dominated by intersectionality. (Or, really, a vague and loose concept that has taken the name of the more rigorous and specific theory of intersectionality.) Marxist and socialist journals publish tons and tons of work on race and gender, far more than they do on class as an overarching phenomenon. Left-wing publishing, for good and bad, is defined in large measure by a particular social and cultural group. And that group has little use for issues of class that aren’t ancillary to issues of race and gender. Just check the publishing records of the popular left. Find how many of them concern, say, the destitute white underclass of the Appalachian mountains. You won’t find many!
There are many reasons for why discussions of race and gender move the needle with the young left in a way that class analysis doesn’t. Obviously, a genuine desire to address racial and gender injustice is a very large part. But less helpfully, there’s a powerful lack of familiarity with poor white people among many young leftists. Many or most of them grew up in economic security or affluence and went to elite colleges. In such environments, they had little or no opportunity to experience white poverty as a lived phenomenon. In contrast, their experiences of black and Hispanic people stem largely from media portrayals of such people as poor, criminal, and generally dysfunctional. White poverty plays outside of the narrative that they have developed from this limited perspective. Another major reason is implicit racism. They talk endlessly about their high regard for “POC.” But their tendency to see poverty and hopelessness as inherently associated with people of color ultimately reveals a condescension, a quiet belief that black and Hispanic people can’t help but be poor. Though they direct apathy at best towards the white poor and concern for poor people of color, ultimately they belittle both, in that their lack of concern for white poverty implies that they think white people deserve it while black and Hispanic people can’t be expected to do better. It’s the soft bigotry of low expectations for people of color and high expectations for white people. The truth is that in both cases, there are systemic inequalities that contribute to the immisseration of both groups, though surely they are different for each.
The ultimate point, for me, is that while race and gender injustice are inherently separate from class injustice, the best solutions to race and gender injustice are class solutions. For decades, we’ve tried to fight racism by being nice about race, by not saying bad words. It’s utterly failed. Instead, we should advance structural, economic solutions to structural, economic problems. Like reparations!
Frase has failed to prove that the specific writers he criticizes don’t see race and gender as separate and important parts of oppression. And though it’s necessarily harder to adjudicate, given that we’re talking about broad trends, I think it’s very hard to argue that the vulgar Marxism he’s critiquing is anything like the norm. Indeed, I think it’s the opposite. Whether this near-exclusive focus on race and gender helps solve race and gender injustice, and whether this is all for the long-term good, is a matter of debate. But I just don’t recognize the world Frase is describing.
Look, try this experiment: if you’re the kind of digitally-connected young lefty who has a Twitter account and is connected to all the other people from that social milieu, try tweeting “I think the problem of white poverty is under-discussed in left-wing circles.” Try it! You will be swiftly and vociferously punished. And though you can deeply believe in the cause of racial and gender equality, and though you can say so over and over again, you will be castigated. The social dictates the political, and in the social world of today’s left, white lefties seem to see no percentage in speaking out against white poverty. (Indeed: I find leftists of color far, far more likely to talk about poverty as a society-wide phenomena than young white leftists, currently.) So I’m not sure I understand Frase’s perspective.