Nomenclatural Democracy?: Race (False)-Consciousness

You want controversy? I’ll give you CONTROVERSY: The individual or group stands tall, is fully confident (liberated from feel-good shortcuts for remedying internalized perceptions of injured self-esteem, themselves based on historical-cultural realities of repression, discrimination, even prior servitude), and hence proudly affirms a condition of freedom, identity, and human worth, if and only if said individual or group removes all public-relations, symbolic, and etymological crutches standing in the way to an emancipated mindset free to combat, with others, systemic conditions responsible for all invidious distinctions in the first place. From a radical standpoint, race is a false social category, precisely because it undermines the actual practice of class, as in the formation of consciousness and the creation and energizing of protest. Race is divisive, as in its practical usage by ruling groups to divide the ranks of working people and set one group against another (the obvious strategy in the South for maintaining segregation for the century following the Civil War—the political formula of southern Populism in response being: You are kept apart, that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. This application of race is only a special case of the tried-and-true method used when- and wherever upper groups feel under pressure from below, the classic promotion of the ethnocentric dodge to prevent the rise of radicalism through the unity of all similarly victimized and dispossessed by the common social system and political economy.

American capitalism owes its longevity and seeming vitality to the we-they dichotomization of people and social forces, racism the fundamental example, with radicalism, in contradistinction to patriotism, a related and closely-following second: in sum, the ideological molding of a stable polity, compliant workforce, and acquiescent populace in general. Where am I leading? To the assertion that the term “Negro” is, far from being a pejorative designation, a relic/reminder of slavery times, instead represents the marching cadence, soul-inspiring declaration, of a whole people in their struggle for human dignity and equality—i.e., collective selfhood as preparation for achieving the universality of humanity. That precisely is what Martin Luther King, Jr., stood for, and precisely what Paul Robeson stood for—listen to the words of one and the songs of the other: Negro, Negro, Negro, not black, Black, Afro-American, African-American, all convenient signifiers by a post Robeson-King generation of posturing “radicals” who have not, like these men, earned their stripes in the social struggle, and worse, have callously sought to erase the historical record of that struggle by a nimble change of terms.

When Dr. King mounted his Poor People’s Campaign toward the end of his life, he was certainly on track in the emphasis of class over race, a natural evolution of his position implicitly critical of capitalism early on, in which his commitment to nonviolence culminated in his opposition to the Vietnam War. But go back to the March on Washington itself, class over race at its most eloquent expression. I was present; I still respond with tears as I quote his words. Listen, a quarter of a million people, placards relating Jobs to Freedom, solemn, heating beating down: “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children….The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers as evidenced by their presence here today have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.” Yes, the germinating ground for class solidarity, so woefully lacking and perhaps designedly discouraged in present-day America. And Dr. King continued: “No, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” These will not be separate streams but a unitary flow, propelling forward his dream, one sacred to all who value human rights: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Verily, a democratic character ascribable to all, of every race, color, creed, democracy incarnate, not the proto-fascistic piffle defining the current political culture and climate.

I cannot hope to convince anyone that our day-sailors of racial emancipation, Negro and white alike, have wrought great damage to the cause of freedom through focusing on race as in fact a diversion from the analysis, criticism, and ultimate displacement of capitalism qua capitalism, a social order which perpetuates racial identity for its own exploitative purposes. The compelling case in point is the Obama Phenomenon, a perfect example of the self-pacification of the Negro community, where silence of a potentially radical constituency has been gained through appeal to racial identity, so that matters of extreme importance, from wealth-concentration and gross inequalities resulting therefrom, to an active agenda of war, intervention, and regime change, are taken off the table, obscured, removed from sight—race therefore a plaything, object of manipulation, for the strengthening the status quo. And what can be done on race can also be done on class, labor rights destroyed and redefined (aka, social patriotism) as a similar process of, to use a Nazi phrase popularized by Goebbels’s propaganda machine, “divert the gaze of the masses,” in classic obfuscatory ways, ironically, currently the technique of liberalism to advance a corporatist agenda, rather than the straight-out racism and defamation of class propounded by conservatives and reactionaries. Neither liberals nor conservatives want structural clarity, leading to class realignment, democratization, an end to hegemonic goals in foreign policy.

In Sunday’s debate, Clinton’s cloying attachment to Obama had the twofold purpose of keeping the black community (I do not object to “black,” not capitalized, as being interchangeable with “Negro,” provided of course, capitalized, consistent usage would refer to European-American, Caucasian-American, or simply White-American, all equivalents of African-American) her loyal support and identifying with his total policy framework as her own. Obama becomes code for favoritism to Wall Street, confrontation with China and Russia, domestic national-security policy of massive surveillance, etc., ad nauseam, with blacks going down-the-line abjectly in support of these developments and now transferring allegiance to Clinton. Talk of false consciousness! I submit that because race-identity has been magnified, not least at the hands of self-promoting black leaders and echoed by white liberals, both using “African-American” as an incantation to demonstrate their putative radicalism (while remaining excessively short on substance), one finds radicalism set back if not permanently then until somehow blacks and whites transcend their respective racial identities for an authentic class alignment which addresses the problems of capitalism.

It is no coincidence that King and Robeson, joined, e.g., by A. Philip Randolph, used the term “Negro,” not because they were behind the times–needing a Stokely Carmichael to expose the so-called accommodationist-generation as a means of catching up and embracing a progressive future of Black Power, Black-is-beautiful, and today, Black Lives Matter–but because Dr. King and the others acted with every fiber of their being in dedication to the proposition that ALL human beings were equal, whether under God or deduced from universal moral principles. Not Black Power, but Class Power (and working class at that); not Black-is-beautiful, but all human beings, of whatever color, are beautiful; not Black Lives Matter, but, as Robeson sang out, “white or black or tan, he’s my kind of a guy.” And if suddenly, gender sensitivities are injected in criticism of the latter, I can only say, gender consciousness, like racial consciousness, is a form of fools-gold, to distract from the beauties of class consciousness, where both genders (and gradations thereof) will live in harmony and be equal. Equality must not be made subject to subdivision; so long as even a shadow of a doubt exists on that score, ruling groups will have won and be laughing all the way to the bank.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at