America’s “Good” Black Syndrome: Race, Class, and Somebody-ness

“The United States,” the left historian Lawrence Shoup reminds us, “is a particular type of class society, a racialized one, where some groups are stigmatized as inferior because of their race, a belief spreading to all segments of society. One this oppressive idea becomes widespread, the resulting divisions within the working class can be used by the rulers to divide and conquer, preventing unity among the workers…In this system, class realities are largely downplayed or completely avoided in public discourses, and racial and gender issues are highlighted. The capitalist class always wants to highlight differences and divisions within the underlying population” (Lawrence Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics, 1976-2014, Monthly Review Press, 2015, p.26).

The “Good” and Bourgeois Black Syndrome

But just as race cuts across class, fostering divisions that prevent the working class majority from uniting against the capitalist 1 Percent, the more invisible division of class cuts across race to both temper and deepen the savagery of racial stigma and abuse. How is it that technically Black public personalities like Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, and Barack Obama can win enthusiastic endorsement from millions of white Americans who couldn’t care less about the vast mass of Black Americans who live in abject poverty and under the heel of the deep institutional racism that permeates the nation’s educational, labor market, health-care, real estate, finance, and (of special recent attention) criminal justice systems? Part of the explanation for this seeming paradox is that Winfrey, Obama, and other white-pleasing Black elites have milked the timeworn role of the “good Negro.” They refuse to confront racism to any significant and substantive degree. They embody and advance the notion that Black Americans are disproportionately poor, jobless, unhealthy, incarcerated, and criminally marked largely because of poor and working class Blacks’ own “bad choices” and culture.

The Winfreys and Obamas are presented as examples of how Blacks can succeed in the “post-racial” U.S. by “dropping the angry [race] attitude” (throwing Jeremiah Wright under the bus) and casting down their buckets to move up in the American “opportunity” system. Their success is taken as proof that racism no longer poses serious obstacles to Black advancement and equality in a “color blind” nation that no longer requires protests against white privilege. And they are happy to explicitly reinforce the message. They blame “Cousin Pookie” (Obama’s darkly humorous term of derision for poor and allegedly lazy Black women on welfare) for her own poverty and diabetes and to refrain from noting that their own success might smack of tokenism and racial divide and rule. They know why Booker T. Washington got invited to the Theodore Roosevelt White House and W.E.B. Du Bois did not.

Another part of the explanation is that Obama, Winfrey, Booker, Powell and their ilk carry the emoluments of class privilege attained through success in professional and political (Obama and Powell) or commercial (Winfrey) endeavors. Under the hidden codes of class, that exempts them from the same degree of harsh treatment imposed on lower- and working-class Blacks, who carry the double and mutually reinforcing burdens of race and class with special weight.

Obama’s Anger Reserved for a Fellow Harvard Man

Obama internalized the rules and sensed the opportunities early on. That’s why his onetime close personal minister – the indignantly anti-racist and anti-imperialist Wright – had to be erased from his past (along with Black poet and former Communist Frank Davis, who mentored the young Obama to some degree in Honolulu, and is not in fact an invention of the paranoid right).

What murderous white police or security guard action against a Black American has alone provoked the nation’s first technically Black president to exhibit visible public anger over racist police abuse? The murder of Trayvon Martin? Of Mike Brown? Of Eric Garner? Of Freddie Gray? Of John Deng, gunned down by a white sheriff’s deputy in the Obama-mad campus town of Iowa City on July 1st, 2009 (eliciting little white liberal interest)? Of Milton Hall, openly executed by six police officers in a shopping center parking lot in Saginaw, Michigan on July 1st, 2012? Of any of the many hundreds of mostly lower and working class Black Americans who are murdered by police officers, security guards, and vigilantes each year in the “color-blind” and “post-racial” U.S.?

No, Obama only became briefly and visibly upset over police misconduct in the summer of 2009. That’s when he complicated his own press conference on corporatist health care “reform” by venting (three weeks after the slaughter of Deng) over a white Cambridge, Massachusetts police officer’s treatment of a bourgeois Black Harvard academic arrested after becoming irate when the officer responded to a call from a neighbor who saw the academic and his Black driver breaking into the academic’s home. The absent-minded professor who had forgotten his house key was none other than Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, who makes “P”BS documentaries that blame poor Blacks for their own position at the bottom of the nation’s steep combined socioeconomic and racial pyramids.

In subsequent years, Obama has lectured lower and working class Blacks on their duty to “respect the rule of law” in the wake of racist police killings and of the official exonerations of the killers.

“Finally Somebody’s Saying Something”

All of which brings us to the white racist New York City police officer James Frascatore, who has just recently lost his badge and gun. Three years ago, according to one complaint, Frascatore pulled over a Black man in Queens for a broken taillight. Frascatore opened up the driver’s car door and punched him three times in the mouth, unprovoked.

Two years ago, Frascatore beat another Black Queens man, Warren Diggs, in his driveway during a minor drug arrest. By a recent, belated New York Times’ account:

“Officer Frascatore and two other police officers followed Mr. Diggs as he rode his bike home from a bodega at night, and then stopped him in his driveway and asked for identification…When he began walking into his home to get it, an officer grabbed him from behind while Officer Frascatore punched him in his right temple…He collapsed, and then Officer Frascatore threw himself down on his legs and continued to pummel him. ‘I’m getting hit all on my side and my back, said Mr. Diggs, 39, a handyman. “I’m screaming for my wife to come outside then I just start screaming, Help!’ …Another officer sprayed Mace into his face. The officer who grabbed him hooked a forearm around his neck and began to choke him, he said. ‘I’m saying: “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”’ Mr. Diggs recalled. …Mr. Diggs was charged with marijuana possession and resisting arrest, he said. His wife was charged with tampering with evidence when she took his bicycle inside the house. He said their daughter, then 12, and son, then 9, wept hysterically. Charges were eventually dismissed.”

In four years, Frascatore has in four years been the subject of five excessive force and racial profiling complaints – more complaints than 90 percent of NYPD officers get over their entire careers.

So why is Frascatore currently under suspension? For “manhandling a biracial celebrity” (the Times) – the Black former tennis star James Blake – during a mistaken arrest outside a fashionable hotel in midtown Manhattan last week. Smooth and soft-spoken, the affluent, Harvard-educated Blake was thrown to the ground with Frascatore’s knee lodged in his back. The incident was captured on surveillance video. Blake has called for the NYPD to make a “significant financial commitment” to officer retraining around issues of racial sensitivity.

Frascatore’s earlier victim Warren Diggs told the New York Post that he wasn’t surprised by the Blake incident. “This guy needed to go a long time ago . . . He likes putting his hands on people,” Diggs said. “Hopefully, [Blake is] in a better position to do something about it so that he won’t be able to get away with it anymore” (emphasis added).

“I don’t know what that dude’s problem is but I’m glad it finally came to somebody who someone would listen to,” Diggs told the Times, “Finally, somebody’s saying something, and somebody’s listening” (emphasis added).

But let’s be clear. Diggs sued Frascatore and the NYPD in 2013, to no avail. He lodged a complaint with the NYPD Civilian Complaint Review Board the same year. He has said something. So have four other victims of Frascatore’s racist abuse, including one Black person (Stefon Luckey) who noted that Frascatore called him a “fucking nigger” while beating him.

Frascatore especially likes to put his hands on Black people. He got in trouble in the James  Blake case only because Blake is more of a “somebody” than an official nobody handyman like Diggs. Blake got listened to because he has a “better” elite class position and credentials, something Diggs lacks in the racialized class society that is the United States. Like Obama and Gates, Blake is a Harvard man, something that goes a long way in the corporate media.

The Black Lives Matter movement that emerged in the wake of the Mike Brown killing must be about both race and class at one and the same time, recognizing that the lack of “somebody”-ness that racism imposes on Black people is magnified with special viciousness by the intimately related malady of classism that is generalized across society. In this as in other ways, race and class are joined at the dialectical hip on numerous levels in the racialized class society that is the U.S. today.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).