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Ferguson and the Liberal Left

When Race is Equated With Class

by AARON VASINTJAN

A lot has been said about the recent events in Ferguson. It’s all-too-clear we’re dealing with a significant event in America’s history, and perhaps a trigger that could kick-start a new anti-racism movement. Instead of focusing on the facts of the shootings, which have been debated at length elsewhere, I want to quickly criticize one claim that I’ve heard many times before, and have seen popping up once again: that it’s not racism we should be worried about, it’s really all about class.

On August 17th, 2014 Time Magazine published a piece by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that did just that, using the Ferguson protests as a jumping board. The article is titled, “The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race”, and in it, Abdul-Jabbar, a renowned author on black history and former NBA star, deftly jumps from drawing attention to the Ferguson protests toward a word that rarely graces the pages of mainstream media: class warfare. So far, so good.

But I knew something was up when I read the following sentences:

This fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor.

After dismissing race as secondary to poverty, Abdul-Jabbar proposes some things we can do beyond racialized finger-pointing:

I’m not saying the protests in Ferguson aren’t justified—they are. In fact, we need more protests across the country. Where’s our Kent State? What will it take to mobilize 4 million students in peaceful protest? Because that’s what it will take to evoke actual change. The middle class has to join the poor and whites have to join African-Americans in mass demonstrations, in ousting corrupt politicians, in boycotting exploitative businesses, in passing legislation that promotes economic equality and opportunity, and in punishing those who gamble with our financial future.

And then you have the clincher:

If we don’t have a specific agenda—a list of exactly what we want to change and how—we will be gathering over and over again beside the dead bodies of our murdered children, parents, and neighbors.

There you have it, what started out as a polite shift away from race toward class quickly became a set of demands. This tendency is a problem that ensnares many liberal progressive thinkers. Let’s call it “What we really need to do is…” It goes like this:

-Race is a problem.

-The problem with race is actually a problem of class.

-Let’s focus on the big problems like class, instead of focusing on race.

-This will help create a bigger movement.

-Let’s agree to a certain set of demands for this movement, some of which I’ve already thought about.

Now many of Abdul-Jabbar’s points are valid. Of course Ferguson isn’t just about race. Of course the US is seeing sky-rocketing inequality. Of course the middle class is suffering. And it’s true, what we need now more than ever is a form of class warfare.

But do you see what’s happening here? Abdul-Jabbar neatly and quickly is able to manipulate the discussion away from what people are angry about, what people are organizing around, and turn it into a vision for where he thinks social movements should go. The author is, in effect, trying to bottle a spontaneous uprising into a program.

It reminds me of Peter Gelderloos’ Counterpunch article, “In defense of leaderless revolutions.” Here he responds to Cihan Tugal’s claim that we need movements with leaders and programs. The article as a whole is worth reading, but one paragraph stands out to me:

Tugal is dead wrong when he writes about “the fallacy that the people can take power without an agenda, an alternative platform, an ideology, and leaders.” That someone can still talk about taking power as a liberatory proposition without getting laughed off stage, in the face of so many historical examples that show what taking power actually means, shows how deep our collective amnesia runs.

It is no surprise, however, that some people keep sounding the call for unifying behind leaders and a platform in order to take power.

So when Abdul-Jabbar talks about “class war” and “a specific agenda”, he’s doing what so many well-intentioned progressivists have done before him: propose a platform, a set of demands, a political party, and, in-so-doing, try to maneuver the political strife back into their own territory, try to control the conversation. In Gelderloos’ terms, they are practicing to be authoritarians. This is a bit of a hyperbole, but the point is, trying to control a movement, tell it what to do, will only serve to stifle it.

Here’s an example. In 1963, blacks all over the US decided that enough was enough, and they would march on Washington and demand equality. As Malcolm X noted, “This was a national bitterness; militant, unorganized, and leaderless. Predominantly, it was young Negroes, defiant of whatever might be the consequences, sick and tired of the black man’s neck under the white man’s heel.” When the White House got word of this, they panicked. Quickly, they brought civil rights leaders to Washington, and told them to stop the march. Since these leaders didn’t start it, they said they couldn’t do anything. So white politicians opted for the next best thing: endorsing the march, sponsoring it, and electing black civil rights leaders to take it over. What started as an angry demand for justice and equal rights by blacks ended with whites and blacks marching together, carrying the same empty signs, singing “we shall overcome”. Again, in Malcolm X’s words,  “It had become an outing, a picnic …  [a]nd the black masses in America were—and still are—having a nightmare.”

When movements get appropriated and made palatable for the white middle class, demands get diluted. This happens very easily by, for example, black intellectuals defining the conversation, saying race is really about class.

What I find most troubling about Abdul-Jabbar’s call for a coherent program is that he does so through a clever bait-and-switch: “I’m really concerned about racism, but I also think we’re doing it all wrong. Let’s focus on the big problems, like class.”

Another concern: Abdul-Jabbar insinuates that, while Ferguson and Jackson State were race issues, Kent State had broader appeal and therefore was more powerful in raising the nation’s ire. What Abdul-Jabbar wants is “mass demonstrations” that are so huge they force the government’s hand. This kind of “massifying” is typical of liberal leftists, who think that a broad-based movement is the only key to true change. Not only is this kind of thinking historically wrong and disrespectful of minorities who have successfully struggled for recognition of their rights, it also serves to, like what happened with the march on Washington, shut out any dissenting voices in social movements. Dissent and difference within movements and a diversity of movements are critical for movement-building and developing strategies.

The broad appeal of events like Kent State do not at all mean that systemic racism is less important than systemic inequality. To be clear: anti-racism and class warfare are related, but not the same. Both battles need to be fought, both require different strategies, and these strategies ought to be determined by those most affected.

What’s more, the author’s list of demands shows exactly the kind of revolution he’s thinking of: he wants to tackle corruption, exploitative and high-risk capitalism, and promote economic equality. While these are all valid, and necessary changes, choosing to focus “on the big problems” like corruption and inequality while ignoring racism means shutting out a whole movement, rather than growing it. It means half-assed demands, rather than demands that have the potential to change everything.

It’s not a surprise, then, that the author’s revolution is one directed at crony capitalism, nothing more. His list of demands stops short at tackling corruption and fixing welfare. But welfare itself has always been a tool for exclusion, and corruption is not a bug, but a feature inherent to state capitalism. As a result, Abdul-Jabbar’s crafty plot to overthrow the 1% will do nothing beyond grafting another authoritarian head onto the capitalist body politic.

The thing is, I’ve heard this way of thinking all-too-often. Like Gelderloos, I’m amazed at how many times I hear liberal calls for “mass movements”, “a clear set of demands”, and “let’s focus on the big problems”, “it’s not race, it’s class” and people don’t heckle them immediately. This is a strong tendency in the largely privileged liberal left, and it will be impossible for movements to move beyond a racist, hierarchical, class system if such an ideology persists.

We have yet to see how Ferguson unravels, and if people’s honest fury will help to address the nation’s systemic race issues. But whatever happens, wherever the movement goes, let it be a movement where not one person speaks over others and decides the course of action. We need leaderless, anti-authoritarian, anti-racist, anti-capitalist movements, now more than ever. This doesn’t mean equating race and class; it means encouraging diverse tactics, proliferating strategies, and allowing myriad movements

Aaron Vasintjan is a writer and researcher living in Montreal and Barcelona. His focus is on social movements, gentrification, and food politics. He is currently researching the issue of food banks in the context of welfare crises. You can see his portfolio here.