economic reductionism, again


I’ve written some version of this at least a half dozen times, but with the wearying, much-more-destructive-than-people-are-letting-on Democrat primary going on, it seems I have to write it again.

The term “economic reductionism” is sometimes used to critique a way of looking at racism and how to fight it. This philosophy, that critique goes, holds that racism is really just an epiphenomenon of class divides. Black people are poorer than white people on average (or, in a more traditional Marxist sense, more likely to support themselves through wage exploitation than through rents), and this is the source of the broad set of inequalities and injustice we refer to as racism. Racism is just a species of classism. “It’s not about race,” in this view. Those who attack economic reductionism disagree.

I have good news for those who lob the charge: it seems that almost no one actually feels this way. The economic reductionist is a kind of political Heffalump, only seen out of the corner of your eye, often talked about but never talked to. The notion that the world of socialism is crawling with economic reductionists is undercut by the utter inability of people making the accusation to actually find quotes that say anything resembling the economic reductionist position. With Bernie Sanders, in particular, the accusation is lobbed by the neoliberal media, out to ensure a Hillary Clinton presidency at any cost, with only innuendo, wildly unsympathetic reading, and out-and-out fabrication. I was born a socialist and have spent my entire life surrounded by socialists. I know every flavor of left-of-center folk: Democrats and social democrats and democratic socialists and anarchists and Trots and Bolsheviks and Maoists and honest-to-god Stalinists and tankies. I do not know a single economic reductionist. I do not know a single person who believes that “it’s not about race,” that racism can simply be explained in class terms. Not one person I know in my life fits that stereotype at all.

I don’t doubt that, somewhere, such people exist. But so do people who believe the earth is flat.

What socialists tend to say — or at least, what I say — is not that racism is only classism or just a consequence of classism or whatever. I don’t think that and have never said, suggested, implied, hinted, or signaled that. Rather, I think that the means with which racism is most often and most powerfully enacted in real life, the material dimension of racism, is typically economic in nature, and that the best way to reduce real-world inequality and injustice is likely through economic means. These are not at all the only ways in which racism manifests itself, nor are economic solutions the only solutions. Criminal justice reform, for example, is a massively important aspect of reducing racial inequality. But closing the black-white income gap and the black-white wealth gap, as well as more fundamental transformations of the contemporary class hierarchy, are indispensable aspects of the larger project of combating racism. In our current system, money brings with it power, and the ultimate purpose of our efforts against racism are not to meet some vague standard of “racial harmony” but rather the empowerment of people of color so that they can ensure their own best interests for themselves.

The emotional and affective dimensions of racism are of course very important, and we all have a responsibility to treat members of all races with dignity, respect, and equality. But politics are about policy, about the material dimensions of society, and there is no way in which policy can ensure that everyone act with personal and social fairness towards people of color. Indeed: my argument has long been that the anti-racist project has suffered because following the initial successes of the Civil Rights movement, our conception of fighting racism switched from enacting laws and enforcing material equality, such as with the Voting Rights act or the Fair Housing Act, to a vague idea that we should all hold hands across racial lines. In other words, racism switched from being popularly conceived of as a problem of the material world to being a problem of mind, and the fight against racism stopped being waged in material terms and instead became about people feeling and thinking the right things. My read of history is that this change, which not coincidentally came along with the Reaganite-Clintonite conservative turn in American politics, has completely stalled the insufficient-but-real gains made during the preceding decades, and that we have in fact seen a very real backsliding

In the place of material efforts to address material problems, anti-racism has instead become focused on symbolic displays by white progressives, who spend endless amounts of time acknowledging their white privilege but no time at all actually working to tear that privilege down. Opposition to racism has come to be seen as a matter of public performance, a kind of symbolic display that people put on to demonstrate to the world that they are on the right side of this issue. So you have the rise of very woke Sarah Lawrence sophomores crying in their cultural studies seminars about how bad they feel about their white supremacy, or white liberals engaging in competitive hashtagging on Twitter, who not only do nothing materially to reduce racial inequality but seem to have no idea about what such a material action would entail.  Meanwhile, the government of Flint poisoned the city’s water. You can’t fight that with privilege checking. They exist in entirely separate spheres of life.

It’s a category error to think that someone’s emotional or intellectual attitude towards his or her white privilege actually makes anything happen. If you check your white privilege, great, but understand that in a very literal sense you are doing nothing. What I and many others argue is that focus must return to structural means to address racial inequality. At its best, the obsession with mindset might compel people to engage in the type of anti-racist actions we should be encouraging. At its worst, it actively distracts from those actions and convinces white people that their only responsibility lays in how they feel and talk and not in what they actually do.

Now, you can reject any part of this or all of this. You can find it wrong. You can find it offensive. You can offer your alternative version of racism and how to fight it. Go for it. But you can’t pretend that I’m saying, or that socialists writ large are saying, “It’s not about race.” You can’t accuse people of economic reductionists when they aren’t economic reductionists. Just like the claim that I believe Bell Curve-style arguments about race and IQ, when I vehemently disagree with them and always have, or the claim that I reject #BlackLivesMatter, when I find it a vital and necessary movement, the notion that I’m an economic reductionist is expressed not as a mistake, but as an act of deliberate dishonesty, just as it is when it’s used as a cudgel to beat socialists writ large. I don’t think neoliberals really believe socialists are economic reductionists; I think they just find it argumentatively convenient to pretend that we do.

We are currently experiencing a political moment in which some of the most central and important questions of our future are being confronted. Whether the Clintonite version of austerity politics can solve our problems, or is one of the primary causes of our problems, is not an idle question for the broad left-of-center moving forward. It would be criminally irresponsible to lose this opportunity to define who really believes in tearing down the old hierarchy and who wants to settle for pity charity capitalism. That includes questions about the best analytical frame with which to understand racism and the best tools with which to fight it. And yet every day, the conversation about the fundamental differences in worldview and policy represented risk being sidelined by an opportunistic claim that a Jewish socialist from Brooklyn who has spent a lifetime in activism, including the Civil Rights movement, who has a strong record as a legislator in supporting the cause of fighting racial inequality, is secretly motivated by white supremacy. That’s not a mistake that hurts me; those kind of vague aspersions and dishonest attacks through guilt by association have very little effect on people like me, who enjoy the protection of the privilege we are all ostensibly committed to ending. Instead, it’s a mistake that hurts people of color themselves, as it risks preventing the type of progresses that we desperately need in this country, a country still riven by vast, entrenched, and cruel racial inequality.