Race, Identity and the Political Economy of Hate

Several theories have been put forward to explain the schisms roiling American politics. The least contentious, meaning the one not obviously intended to produce a political result, is that a battle is underway within the oligarch class. Given the role of security and surveillance state officials, the precise alliances driving the split— if the term is accurate, aren’t clear. An alternate explanation is that a defense of the existing order is underway. The latter has been put forward in terms approximating a ‘redneck rebellion.’

Class analysis— the search for economic explanations of political outcomes, is antithetical to the American conception of the social order. The redneck rebellion thesis— that hateful hillbillies too stupid to land jobs in the ‘knowledge economy’ are inflicting their own deficiencies on the hardworking and deserving classes through racist violence, has led the mainstream news (and left analysis) for three years now. Not spoken publicly is that blaming down absolves the powers-that-be for five decades of malgovernance.

Most people don’t have the time or resources to make their own determinations regarding official claims. This creates ‘information asymmetry’ where the facts needed for critical analysis are often controlled by people with political agendas. And in less conspiratorial terms, newsrooms have been gutted by oligarchs for economic gain. When tied to psychological triggers, facts that are superficially plausible can be made into truths no matter how contrary to actual evidence they may be.

The redneck rebellion thesis is particularly insidious in this way. It’s barely contentious today to point out that both mainstream political parties have been ‘captured’ by economic interests. And until 2016, it was broadly conceded that neoliberalism had created an economic divide between the few who benefited from it and the many whose lives had been diminished. The people on the losing end didn’t become loathsome racists and fascists until the political establishment needed to defend its realm.

The theories of fascist ascendance have so far depended on neoliberal tropes and dubious statistics. Neoliberalism was / is in part a post-WWII project to deflect attention away from the American influence on German fascism. The marginally employed programmers and insurance adjusters who marched in Charlottesville are American archetypes; they only become a political threat when oligarchs destroy the economy and then try to cover for it through misdirection. Evidence has it that oligarchs and business interests elected Trump, Bolsonaro, etc.

According to the SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center), the data source for establishment handwringing over ascendant fascism, white nationalism surged between 2015 and 2018 (table below), even as the number of KKK chapters fell from 190 to 51. Additionally, black nationalist organizations— considered equivalent to white nationalists by the SPLC, now outnumber white nationalists by 2:1, having grown four times faster since 2000. There may exist explanations for these otherwise improbable numbers, but you won’t find them in mainstream reporting.

Table: headlines stating that white nationalist groups saw a huge upsurge from 2015 to 2018 appear accurate except inasmuch as related groups such as the KKK and racist skinheads saw large drops in numbers. If white nationalism, rather than just the SPLC’s category ‘white nationalist,’ experienced an upsurge, it would be expected to be reflected across related categories. This a called a ‘smell test’ in statistics— the look for corroborating evidence across related categories to assure that a result isn’t an outlier. Once the smell test was applied (the table is a smell test), the SPLC’s numbers don’t appear to support their conclusions. Source: SPLC.To move this piece forward, a brief detour is needed. Stock is an existing set of conditions; existing racial tensions expressed through political economy and social interaction, in the case of race. Flow is the rate of change in these conditions. The redneck rebellion thesis is a flow argument: America was already great, e.g. existing racial tensions were great, but then these rednecks showed up and made them worse. The logical paradox should be apparent.

When grouped by the concept of racist hate groups, the actual number of groups fell slightly between 2015 and 2018 (table above). And it is approximately unchanged since 2000. This, if you believe the SPLC’s numbers. And a lot of people do. They are the basis for several years of headlines from mainstream news organizations claiming a large white nationalist resurgence. Given the current political tone and background economic conditions, the thesis certainly seems plausible. But the SPLC’s research only supports it when it is implausibly parsed.

The odd alliance behind the redneck rebellion theory includes national security and surveillance state officials, establishment political operatives and a self-styled anti-racist left. This is likely where stock and flow part ways. The national security and surveillance state officials and establishment political operatives are restorationists— they support the pre-2016 status quo. This implies that they accepted the racial tensions that led to the rise of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. The anti-racist left emerged from these tensions.

(Apparently necessary proviso for what follows: Donald Trump is a self-serving jackass with no redeeming qualities).

Since then, an improbable separation of motives from acts has led to the claim that Democrats use racist dog whistles while Republicans are ‘real’ racists. With apologies, to whom would dog whistles appeal if not to real racists? There are reasonable answers to the question, but none that support this distinction. When Joe Biden led political opposition to school busing, what were the underlying issues? The way public schools are funded in the U.S., through local property taxes, leaves rich communities with well-funded schools and poor communities with poorly funded schools. School busing was an effort to reconcile class differences where class and race were directly linked.

What does ‘separate but equal’ mean when class determines the quality of public education? The sleight-of-hand at work, that race can be resolved without resolving class, is behind the distinction between ‘real’ racism and the appeal of dog whistles. However, where does the actionable difference lie when some children receive high-quality ‘public’ educations because their parents are rich and others low-quality educations because their parents are poor? Is this really a distinction that liberals and the radical left want to endorse?

Apparently, the answer is yes. The redneck (‘white working-class’) rebellion storyline is absolutely a case of class tensions being racialized. Who did Joe Biden’s dog whistles appeal to if not real racists? If most weren’t real racists, but wanted instead to maintain high quality schools for their children at the expense of poor children, then what is real racism? Is it incidental that the 1994 Crime Bill targeted street crime rather than financial crimes, white-collar frauds and employers who were violating labor laws? Race was a subset of the class interests targeted by the bill.

Graph: The problem with the ‘rise of white nationalism’ storyline (table at top) is that the dramatic decline in KKK groups, broadly considered to be white nationalists, moves strongly in the other direction. If the thesis were true, one would expect group counts to move higher together. Alternatively, if KKK groups quit the KKK to join white nationalists, a category change, it would imply no necessary increase in total white nationalists. When the category ‘white nationalism’ is broadened to include groups like the KKK, it is essentially unchanged from 2000 to 2018. Source: SPLC.

Since 2016, race activists have faced the political paradox of affirming the restorationist’s ‘America was already great’ thesis by 1) claiming great difference between then and now that isn’t supported by the evidence and 2) promoting the circular theory that racists are self-generated. To the latter point: if racism causes racists, then what causes racism? Necessarily, racists cause racism. This isn’t an empty logical point. It illustrates the closed (metaphysical) nature of the concept of race being used. One more time now, if dog whistles don’t appeal to ‘real’ racists, to whom do they appeal?

In addition to being politically reactionary, this race essentialism paints race activists into a corner with respect to black nationalism. History and the relation of power to race through class both support the idea that black and white nationalism aren’t equivalent, either through wholly asymmetric histories of racialized violence or through the respective distributions of class power. However, if they aren’t equivalent, in what way are they conceptually united? The SPLC’s answer is ‘hate,’ but if the idea isn’t determinant, in what way is it even coherent?

This poses several problems for the idea (and practice) of race activism. In the first, within the frame put forward, black nationalism is far more important to the storyline of rising racial hatred than white nationalism because of both the number of groups, 264 versus 148, and their rate of growth. Second, if race hatred unites white with black nationalism, then opposing one but not the other is racist by definition. Third, the storyline of a redneck rebellion is greatly complicated by the preponderance of ‘racists’ who don’t fit the cultural caricature of ‘rednecks.’

Fourth, given the class composition of black America, a class unity appears across cultural groups where none existed before. Broad indicators such as income and wealth place the preponderance of blacks among the working class and poor. Forty years of neoliberal dispossession unites the white and black working classes and poor in dispossession. By the SPLC’s numbers, the growth in racialized hatred (as defined in the table at top), comes from the increase in black nationalism.

Graph: Neo-Nazis are another case of questionable parsing. While any number greater than zero is a problem, the decline in racist skinheads and the profound decline in KKK groups detracts from broader implications around the increase in neo-Nazis. As evidence of incipient fascism, the number of neo-Nazi groups was much higher at the end of the Clinton administration (2000) than it is today. Source: SPLC.

To be clear, I wouldn’t equate black with white nationalism. But this means that I don’t accept de-contextualized explanations of white nationalism either. (If context is unimportant and / or irrelevant, then black and white nationalism are logical equivalents). Since they emerge from a liberal frame, the SPLC definitions imply logical equivalence. That the SPLC isn’t claiming the rise of black nationalism is an emergency suggests that they don’t believe their own frame.

The issue is missing entirely from the ‘ascendance of fascism’ storyline. The most likely explanation is that class struggle is being racialized, as it has been for centuries. Historically, the motive was to keep working class and poor people divided so they don’t unite against the ruling and professional classes. In the present, the professional class has been the central proponent of the ‘ascendant’ fascism claim against working class whites.

Both the SPLC data and the BJS (Bureau of Justice Statistics) hate crime statistics support broader storylines of ‘rising hate’ through category additions and changes. What this means is that increases in ‘hate’ and ‘hate crimes’ come from changing the way the data is counted, not necessarily from increases in either of these. For example, if I am counting ‘flowers’ by adding the number of tulips and daffodils together, if I then add daisies, it doesn’t imply that the number tulips and daffodils has risen.

The SPLC’s evidence comes from adding categories, not from substantial increases within existing categories. As mentioned above, the increase in white nationalist groups is more than offset by a fall in KKK groups. This isn’t just a matter of arithmetic. If white nationalism were really on the rise, one would expect to see an increase in KKK chapters, not their wholesale decimation (as is the case). Evidence of a political agenda comes from this selective reporting.

(To be fair, the addition of new categories could indicate that new hate groups are forming that didn’t previously exist. This would indeed imply that ‘hate’ is increasing. Had other data not been so dubiously presented, I would be inclined to be more generous. Readers are invited to conduct their own analyses using the links provided in this piece.)

This problem comes to bear with BJS statistics on hate crimes. With the BJS data, a falling number of hate crimes was presented as a rise by shifting them from being ‘unreported’ to ‘reported.’ The BJS disclosed this, sort of, here. With unreported hate crimes falling from 2014 to 2017 because more were reported, reported hate crimes would have risen dramatically had the total been unchanged. Instead, it rose by just a bit, implying a decline in hate crimes. This method isn’t perfect, but it is a good proxy for the overall direction.

For all the dramatic headlines and heated rhetoric about ascendant fascism, the supporting data is weak. This is meant to challenge the ‘flow’ argument of dramatic difference, not the ‘stock’ argument that all was not well prior to 2016. Where I parted ways with liberals and the left after 2016 was over blaming down, over foregoing class and historical analysis to join government officials and establishment politicians in blaming dispossessed working people for current political and economic travails. The blame for Donald Trump lies with the powerful, not the powerless. This is left analysis 101. Ask not for whom the dog whistle trolls, it trolls for thee.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.