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The story of Ann Atwater and Claiborne Paul (C. P.) Ellis is beautifully told in Osha Gray Davidson’s book The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South. Atwater, a domestic worker whose parents were sharecroppers, was a civil rights activist in Durham, North Carolina. Ellis, the son of a millhand, was a janitor at Duke University and a local Klan leader. In 1971, after battling each other for years, Atwater and Ellis ended up co-chairing a ten-day public forum—a “charrette,” as it was called—that brought together black and white community members to address problems in Durham’s public schools. It was a fraught process.
Ellis and Atwater couldn’t stand each other. To Atwater, Ellis was an ignorant racist cracker. To Ellis, Atwater was a mean, loudmouthed black woman who was forever blaming white people for her problems. Despite their mutual antipathy, they joined the forum steering committee to represent their racial communities and ensure that the other did not participate unopposed. Ellis and Atwater were nominated to co-chair the charrette on the grounds that its leaders should represent different points of view. Both reluctantly agreed.
When news of the co-chairing arrangement was announced, Ellis and Atwater were rebuked by their friends. Some members of the Klan called Ellis a race traitor and threatened to kill him. Atwater’s people berated her for agreeing to work with an avowed white supremacist.
During the planning stages, Ellis wouldn’t even speak to Atwater. Yet he wanted to make the process work; he thought that the right solutions to the school system’s problems could reduce the harm that integration was doing to white children. He also wanted to show his fellow Klansmen that he hadn’t sold out and was working behind the scenes to represent their interests. So he reached out to Atwater, proposing that they set aside their feelings and cooperate to make the charrette a success. Again, she agreed, warily.
A few months later, at the end of the second day of the charrette, exhausted after twelve hours of meetings, Ellis and Atwater collapsed in adjacent chairs and began to talk to each other more personally. Ellis told Atwater that his kids had been taunted in school because he was working with her. Atwater told Ellis that her kids had gotten the same treatment because she was working with him. They talked about how teachers always seemed to find fault with their kids rather than with kids from more affluent families. Ellis was amazed to learn that Atwater was human and that her problems were much like his own. Davidson’s account of this scene leaves no doubt that it was a transformative moment:
C.P. couldn’t believe what he was hearing. But even more amazing to him was what he was saying—and to whom. He was sharing his most intimate grievances, all of his doubts and failures, with the hated Ann Atwater. The militant he usually referred to with a sneer as “that fat nigger.” And yet, here they were, talking like old friends. As if she wasn’t black at all, or he wasn’t white, or as if all that didn’t matter. He looked at her and it was as if he was seeing her for the first time. He was stunned by what he saw. Mirrored in her face were the same deeply etched lines of work and worry that marked his own face. And suddenly he was crying. The tears came without warning, and once started, he was unable to stop them. Ann was dumbfounded, but she reacted instinctively by reaching out and taking his hand in her own. She tried to comfort him, stroking his hand and murmuring, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” as he sobbed. Then she, too, began to cry.
A little over a week later, Ellis addressed a ballroom crowd gathered to celebrate the end of the charrette and delivery of its report to the community. He had by then begun his break from the Klan. “Something has happened to me,” Ellis said, departing from his script and remarking on how the experience had affected him. “I think it’s for the best.”
Completing the transformation begun during the charrette was not easy for Ellis. For a time, he struggled with the new feelings and understandings that had upended his world. What he had come to see, through working with Atwater and the other black people who had credited his honesty and treated him with respect, despite his repugnant views, was that black people were not his problem.
Rocky and uncertain though the process was, by working together Ellis and Atwater discovered that race was a fiction that masked their common class interests. Their struggles to make decent lives for themselves and their children, they came to see, did not arise from the other side of a color line but from above them on a class ladder. Both were disdained by the political and economic elites of their respective racial communities. Both were subject to exploitation because of their lack of education and wealth. Both could make gains by uniting to fight the same power structure that held them down.
Eventually, Ellis and Atwater became not only temporary allies but long-time friends. After the charrette, Ellis publicly renounced the Klan and went on to become a union organizer. He worked for the International Union of Operating Engineers for eighteen years before his retirement in 1994. Ellis was 78 when he died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2005. Atwater, who said at Ellis’s funeral that God had brought them together for a purpose, remained a community activist until her death at 80 in 2016.
* * *
Forty-six years after the events that are at its core, the story of C. P. Ellis and Ann Atwater still holds valuable lessons about the place of identity politics in a capitalist society. In some ways, their story begins with identities: his as a white man and hers as a black woman. If not for these ascribed identities—identities deriving from social categories that existed long before they were born—Ellis and Atwater might never have been antagonists.
The racial identities bequeathed to Ellis and Atwater led them to believe that they were fundamentally different kinds of people. These were not equally valued identities, of course. The ideology of white supremacy allowed Ellis to imagine that his value as a human being was greater than Atwater’s, simply because he was white and she was black. It was this investment in a feeling of white superiority that made his identity as a white man worth defending. The Klan was unusual only in that it made this valuation, unspoken in polite company, explicit.
What Ellis had accepted, as W. E. B. Du Bois famously called it, was the psychological wage of whiteness. This wage was paid in the currency of positive feeling, resting on a false belief in white superiority. Dating to the late 1600s, colonial elites in North America offered indentured workers of European descent modest privileges and a chance to identify as “white”—as being of the same superior racial stock as members of the ruling class—as a way to divide them from workers of African descent, thereby to quell the threat of working-class solidarity. The psychological wage of whiteness also made exploitation more bearable and less likely to erupt into rebellion. In exchange for this ideological balm, white workers accepted lower wages, less political power, and loss of part of their humanity.
For Ellis and many others, membership in the Klan raised the psychological wage of identifying as white, offering, as always, a form of compensation for economic marginality. More than this, Klan ideology misidentified the source of that marginality, blaming blacks, Jews, and communists. The charrette process taught Ellis that he’d been misled, that he’d gotten many things wrong. He came to see that he’d implicitly accepted a bargain that would forever leave him—and other working-class people, black and white—exploitable and exploited by political and economic elites. He came to see, as working with Atwater brought about a change of heart and mind, that racism had cost him a piece of his soul.
The Ellis/Atwater story is extraordinary in that it involves a dramatic transformation of rare degree. This is part of what makes it so compelling; it inspires hope, as the subtitle of Davidson’s book implies, that even vehement racists are redeemable. But there is another reason to find the story compelling: it demonstrates the principle that the best way to overcome prejudice and racism is to get people working together, as equals, on a common problem.
The story can also be read as a cautionary tale about identity politics, though it’s not a simple one. While racial identities divided Atwater and Ellis, those identities also drew them together. If not for civil rights struggles on the part of people identified as “black” and acting in solidarity on the basis of this identity, Atwater would not have had a constituency. Even Ellis, whose racial identity tied him to a historically dominant group, was involved largely because he saw himself as leading a put-upon faction of that group. If not for these differences, and a willingness on the part of the charrette organizers to acknowledge them, Ellis and Atwater would not have discovered their shared class interests. Concerns for diversity and inclusion can thus produce results that are, as the saying goes, more than the sum of their parts.
Yet there is indeed a cautionary lesson here, one that echoes analyses that cite the election of Donald Trump as evidence of the failure of identity politics. What those politics have amounted to, critics say, is an obsession with identity that obscures the larger reality of class oppression. According to this critique, many progressives have been more concerned in recent decades with expressing their racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identities, and with having those expressions honored, than with working together, across lines of difference, to challenge the capitalist system that depends on exploitation and division for its existence. Identity politics has thus led us, as Walter Benn Michaels argues, to love diversity and ignore inequality. Which is precisely what Ellis and Atwater did not do.
In more positive terms, the lesson is that what Ellis did is what working-class whites must do more generally: develop a consciousness of class that reveals their common interests with working-class people of color. As with Ellis, this consciousness, this way of understanding how capitalist society works, would begin, at the very least, to put the notion of race into question. In the long run, class consciousness might well dissolve it. Getting to that point, the point where the wages of whiteness are understood as cheap payoff for accepting subordination, won’t happen solely through encounters with texts. It will require encounters with flesh-and-blood Others, under conditions like those of the Durham charrette.
To say that more attention should be paid to class is not to say that racism and sexism should be relegated to the background. It is not to say that demands for fair and equal treatment by women and people of color should be tabled until capitalism is abolished. That was the dysfunctional approach of an older Left, one dominated by white males, and it is part of what produced the divisive identity politics of the 1970s and ’80s. We should not make this mistake again.
The kind of coming together needed to discover common class interests will happen only if women and people of color are afforded no less dignity and respect than white males. But this won’t happen by piously calling out people for microaggressions and politically incorrect speech. What it will require, again, is the kind of hard collaboration through which Ellis and Atwater came to feel each other’s humanity. It is this feeling of respect for the other that undermines racism. Knowing that the cared-for other can be hurt by what we say—and that what we say can strengthen or undermine a relationship that is essential to accomplishing an important task—is the knowledge that drives out racism and sexism. This process takes time and entails painful mistakes.
Trump’s victory has led to much liberal hand-wringing about how the Democratic party can “win back” working-class whites. This is a dead-end concern. Even if campaign rhetoric attracted the votes of more working-class whites, it still would be drawing those votes to a pro-corporate party—a party whose capitalist paymasters create the very problems that greater class consciousness would bring to the fore. It would be a mistake, too, because seducing working-class voters with populist rhetoric is far different from teaching people to think critically about the capitalist system and the undemocratic concentrations of power that are the root of their problems. And it is far different from nurturing the extra-electoral social movements through which changes in consciousness occur.
Some left-of-liberal commentary has questioned the prospects for altering the hearts and minds of working-class whites drawn to Trump’s right-wing populism. Anthony DiMaggio describes Trump supporters as representing a “perverse fusion of economic discontent and hateful, right-wing bigotry and nationalism,” arguing that they are less open to progressive ideas than many on the left think. No doubt DiMaggio is right about a large portion of Trump supporters. Likewise he would have been right, fifty years ago, had he offered this characterization of C. P. Ellis.
In the face of this grim obduracy, the challenge is somehow to recreate the process that changed Ellis and Atwater. Showing how the richest .1% rigs politics and the economy in its favor is not enough. Urging people to be more empathic, to consider the suffering of others, is not enough. Exposing racism and sexism as based on lies and misconceptions is not enough. Bringing people together to share their stories and get to know each other is important but not enough. Much of this work has been done and is being done. And it is not enough.
What changed Ellis and Atwater was the opening-up to each other’s humanity that they experienced, face to face, in working together as equals to solve a common problem. This is the kind of experience that must be recreated. Without class consciousness, working-class whites are not the future of progressive politics in America. But when tears of solidarity break the levees of oppression, anything is possible.
Content and specifics matter, too. Any bringing-together that occurs, if it is going to build class consciousness and unite working-class whites and working-class people of color, will have to address common problems that are rooted in class domination. Fortunately, perhaps, this is true with regard to most problems—from crumbling public schools to stagnating wages to unaffordable health care to unaccountable police—faced by all working-class Americans.
So perhaps we need a national round of charrettes. The North Carolina AFL-CIO initiated the Durham charrette; unions, churches, and social movement groups might play similar facilitating roles today. In any case, two things seem clear. One is the need to focus on trying to solve real problems in a way that builds class solidarity. The second is that without a focus on real, shared problems that need solving, identity politics will likely run the process aground.
To have a chance of success, charrettes (or whatever they might be called) would need to be both local and diverse. Locality, a deep regard for a place called home, is what makes people care enough to participate; diversity is what helps conquer the biases that lock inequality in place. What else we might discover, as Atwater and Ellis did, is that the problems we face can’t be solved by diversifying the personnel who control the machineries of oppression but only by dismantling those machineries entirely.