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A Call for Radical Humanism: the Left Needs to Return to Class Analyses of Power

How do white people live with themselves? This is the presumed ethical position emanating from liberal corners in the aftermath of the recent protests around the US. While a seemingly thought-provoking question nudging white folks to contemplate “their racism,” the problem with this question is the question itself. Indeed the minute we individualize what are structural problems of police violence and focus upon rooting out “wrong thought” as if a new global war on terror, we necessarily default to witch hunts of individuals through McCarthyesque callouts instead of understanding racism as a byproduct of structural inequalities.

It has been troubling for me to witness how the liberal soft left has almost entirely capitulated to combating racism as a a moral problem in recent years. If George W. Bush’s war against “terrorism” hadn’t already taught those throughout the political spectrum that you can’t bomb a country into “peace”, certainly George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests ought to have taught us all that racism is not an evil that inhabits the souls of individuals or that can be disappeared through consciousness-raising sessions led by upper-class white folks. Certainly, there are those who are willing and able to lead the prayer group in this new plateau of wokery such as the recent call to repent by Chick-fil-A CEO, Dan Cathy. Where prayer sessions, kneeling and public calls for atonement become the go-to instead of political dialogue and action, the left is deeply in trouble.

In tackling police violence and other social inequities rampant throughout the world today, we must address the underlying problems and not give overdue focus to the symptoms of the problems. For instance, we already know that class and not race is what determines who is affected most by institutional injustices, from the police murders of George Floyd to Tony Timpa to the the mass incarceration rates of the poor. Nathaniel Lewis demonstrates that after controlling for class, race is not “statistically significant” and that “class appears to be a larger factor than usually reported when studying racial disparities.” And from this query, other questions must necessarily emerge to include our involvement in having asked certain questions and not others and in having kowtowed to what Adolph Reed calls “race reductionism” at the heart of this issue. In short, why is the left seemingly unable to move towards a material analysis of how racism is one of many arms of oppression produced by capitalism?

Instead of approaching this topic of police violence we are told that “systemic racism is enabled when white people do not speak out” and “academia isn’t a safe haven for conversations about racism.” But both expressions are neoliberal sleights of hand for not addressing the structural issues and where attacking a “bad ideology” is believed to be had at the end of myriad callouts and rituals to shame specific individuals who need their thoughts corrected. As for academia not being a safe haven for discussing racism, academic discourse has vastly enabled the ways in which we don’t discuss the structural problems that have brought about racism and sexism. It is in capitalism’s interest that we are all standing about the public square screaming about statues we don’t like rather than clamor for real reform of our governments. Indeed, much of the theory emanating from American higher education of the last thirty years has obtusely avoided discussing class while instead addressing representation, not participation. Just as the left has abandoned discussing class in favor of focussing upon symbolism and representation, political action of recent years has centered on the most superficial changes from language to public imagery. The actual stuff of inequality which engages people’s ability to pay bills, to eat, and to pay rent, has been unsurprisingly absent from both academia and the recent calls to get white people to atone for their sins.

For instance, why is the liberal soft-left not demanding answers from politicians such as Joe Biden who signed onto the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 leading to the mass-incarceration of mostly black men, and putting them in prison for longer? Or why the criminal justice system in the US is locking up so many poor women? Why are American liberals getting behind a presidential candidate who tells African Americans that they aren’t “black” if they don’t vote for him while not seeing how such positive racism still amounts to racism as usual?

One example of how race reductionism is hurting black Americans is taken up by Adolph Reed who analyzes how Joe Biden is not only seriously out of touch with the issues that actually affect most African Americans, paradoxically Biden is billed as the candidate who serves the best interests of the “African American community” because he has not supported universal healthcare. Worse, the Affordable Care Act maintains that “the lower official premiums are in one’s area for that second-cheapest silver plan, the more low-income people actually have to pay for health care.” This is one of many ways that class-consciousness would address the very issues that result in poverty and police violence that affect a whole range of poor Americans to include black, Latino, and white Americans.

While Jesse Jackson has written about class bias and the excessive use of force by the police in reference, the need to focus upon historical material readings of current events is still not hitting home for many. Sam Mitrani notes that the police were created to “protect the new form of wage-labor capitalism that emerged in the mid to late nineteenth century from the threat posed by that system’s offspring, the working class.” Even as we know how police violence functions and who is in its crosshairs, many angry protestors are demanding us to repeat the incantation, “Black lives matter” with literally no class analysis in sight.

A large part of the reason why class analysis has taken a backseat to focussing upon racism is the dire lack of understanding that systemic racism is born from systemic economic oppression, as are socially embedded norms of misogyny, for instance. But it is easier for Americans to address their troubling history with racism because we haven’t had to develop the language to address capitalism because we have a better language: en masse pop-psychology. This is best seen through Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book, White Fragility, which has recently resurfaced in media reports as many white Americans are using this book to signal their understanding of racism and their participation in it. Yet DiAngelo is part of the liberal racist management class and representative of the kind of sophistry of this movement that holds individuals accountable to their racism based on their skin color. Hers is a rehashing of Rousseau’s “noble savage”, racism but with a positive spin, which was the hallmark of 18th-century Enlightenment. Where Rousseau believed that the “savage” was free from sin and morality, DiAngelo similarly espouses a similarly bizarre and racist concept of black Americans in the drive to cleanse the souls of white Americans.

DiAngelo is a white woman who has made a killing telling largely middle and upper-middle class white Americans that racism is everywhere. They are told, much like Haley Joel Osment’s character in The Sixth Sense, to “see racism everywhere.” Simply contest DiAngelo’s hypothesis or question if race reductionism might be a huge side-circus issue to keep us from addressing the largely issues of poverty, student loan debt, and the US involvement in the mass surveillance of Muslims both inside and outside its borders, and you run the risk yourself of being called a racist. Just ask UK Labour MP, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Kier Stammer’s shadow education secretary who was fired from her position on Thursday for tweeting in support of British actor, Maxine Peake, who pointed out that US police officers had learned the technique of neck kneeling from Israeli secret services.

Indeed, what is passing as “racist” today has even come down to who can get the largest mob to act in the name of acts that at times are not even racist. Take for instance the recent Twitter event orchestrated by Karlos Dillard who followed a woman home and filmed her in attempting to replicate the Central Park incident last month when Chris Cooper filmed Amy Cooper’s attempt to weaponise racism against him. The problem here is that there was absolutely no evidence of racism. Still Dillard was able to create a social media mob scene to effectively exploit a woman he was stalking as he later posted the video on Twitter which doxxed this woman on Twitter to include filming her license plate and home address. Since then, several people have pointed out that this was staged encounter which is apparently one in a series of Dillard’s harassment of women in making “false Karen statements” to local media and on social media. As Meghan Murphy points out, Dillard uses these harassment videos of women as part of a marketing ploy to draw people towards his website where he sells “Karen” t-shirts. Dillard recycles his exploitation videos of women by conflating their reactions with the police murders of black Americans. Like many others on social media who have employed the “Karen” memes in recent weeks, Dillard has successfully turned the blame of racism onto white women as he equates their having “flipped [him] off” as racist. Despite the pushback by some on social media, class issues are at the heart of who has the power to stalk and harass white women calling this “racist” and those who are at the other end of a police killing.

This dilation of what racism means has been taken to the streets in Toronto where posters are hung in public spaces of a nondescript white woman named “Becky” who “may be armed with financial privilege, white feminism, false victimhood…and a smartphone.” And while many might wish to be alert to what is nothing other than a public relations ploy to weaponize now white women as the problem where Twitter posts and Instagram views might lead to our somehow solving racism, all of this is a huge distraction from the class-based issues that create racism. If only blaming police violence and poverty on white women would solve everything we could all move along after a quick Hail Mary citing white feminists as the problem.

The neoliberal urge to call out racism assigning it to individuals is not new and from where I am sitting, much of the outrage has been largely manufactured. This is not to say that individuals are not racists. As someone who has written extensively about this subject first-hand after an attack, I know quite well how racism and xenophobia function. But I would be derelict to describe reality were I to make out that racism is limited to the era of colonialism, the slave trade, or even Cesare Lombroso’s measurements of cranial size of certain ethnicities to include southern Italians formed part of his theory of the “median occipital fossa” being linked to a criminality etiology. Indeed, we would be making a huge mistake to believe that callouts of racism actually engage in anti-racism any more than they potentially engage in a new form of racist act.

Indeed, what we witnessed with the Coopers—Amy and Chris—last month, two antagonists who paradoxically share the same last name, is that callouts serve to highlight shitty individuals where little to nothing is actually done to change the fact of racism. Where one calls Amy Cooper a racist, another notes that the real “Karen” in this situation is Chris Cooper who took it upon himself to enforce park rules. The problem we now face as a society is not whether Amy is or is not a racist, but the fact that this judgment call is being left up to everyone from mobs on Twitter and her former-employer such that as it stands the right to eat and have a home depends on passing a moral purity test, even if what Amy Cooper did is morally reprehensible.

For the liberal class pushing for such callouts none of these judgments of the “Who Is Racist” blacklist impact our society positively. To be certain, the “knowledge” that yet another racist has been labelled does absolutely nothing to improve the fact of racism, nor of how we might be misreading racism. And herein lies the problem: that liberal solutions to racism are in fact reproducing racist tenets by highlighting that because of one’s whiteness, one is either already a racist or in denial of one’s racism (which begs the question of the former). This kind of liberal game of “fighting racism” reaches back to a language that many will recognize from pop psychology of the 1980s and 1990s where if only we can understand our own participation in the dynamic then all will be solved.

DiAngelo’s White Fragility serves as the postmodern Bible to liberals who seek to right a historical wrong, even if well-intended. A central tenet to DiAngelo’s book is that white people are socialized into a “deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race.” Another tenet of her book is that “all white people are invested in and collude with racism” (emphasis mine). Together, these two ideas present what I call a philosophical Möbius strip where there is no way out of the puzzle—you are either guilty of racism because you accept this tenet and you are even more guilty of racism if you do not. But then much of Christianity is based on a similar entrapment. DiAngelo’s hodgepodge syncretism of pop-psychology, Christianity and liberalism leads the reader to believe that confession is not only good for the soul, but it will solve all our problems through the fantastic public confession, where words magically make everything better. Yet, we have well over 150 years of documented psychoanalysis to show that no such confessions or re-invention of language will do anything other than kick this issue into the long grass.

Moreso, DiAngelo proves that addressing racism only centers the white subject all over again. DiAngelo takes the focus off of black lives redirecting a narrative of racism that isn’t a structural result of material and political inequality. Instead, DiAngelo rather successfully makes racism all about white people. Or, as DiAngelo says, it’s about white people speaking too much or too little and it’s about white people being unable to feel discomfort or their feeling discomfort because they are racists. It’s almost a phenomenon that DiAngelo’s book is sold at all given that it is incoherent from its definition of “racism” which depends on the subject having structural power (which would of course, exclude poor or disabled white people) to its feel-good core which depends upon a Christian-esque confession for the “guilty” white reader to pass to the next level (one can only presume).

So let’s look to the facts about what would amount to systemic racism. According to the Pew Research Center the black imprisonment rate in the U.S. fell by a third since 2006, bringing a significant change in the decarceration of African Americans. While not perfect, this is a significant and important change to note when discussing systemic racism. As for economic equality, we are seeing that African American households are not even at the 60 percent income mark as white American households according to The Economist and black unemployment is double that of white unemployment. But then what these studies do not discuss are the median incomes that are far above those of white Americans: Asian households whose real median income falls between $83,376 to $87,194. Still many progressive white Americans believe that addressing these facts necessitates apocalyptic terms where ideas like “white racism” and “white supremacy” is going to result in racism being “solved” as opposed to addressing issues that have direct and realizable responses, such as the widespread poverty in the US.

Here’s an interesting fact about the Department of Justice’s report into the killing of Michael Brown by a member of the Ferguson Police Department: not only does the report underscore that 25% of the City’s population lives below the federal poverty level, but the entire justice system in Ferguson is skewed working against the accused due to their poverty from the first instance: “Court staff and staff from other municipal courts have informed us that defendants in poverty are more likely not to receive such a letter from court because they frequently change residence.” The report also notes, “In particular, Ferguson’s practice of automatically treating a missed payment as a failure to appear—thus triggering an arrest warrant and possible incarceration—is directly at odds with well-established law that prohibits ‘punishing a person for his poverty.’ Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660, 671 (1983).” There is a danger that by not referencing the enormous poverty that is at the cross-section of most acts of police violence, that we are entering into a dangerous tautology whereby race always and uniquely matters.

Not surprisingly, DiAngelo’s book doesn’t really care about black lives as anything more than pawns in her angling to increase her business which is as an anti-racist corporate trainer. Black Americans end up becoming these caricatures and white people are, antithetically, deeply complex subjects. There is no deeper understanding of racism after reading DiAngelo’s book any more than one gains an understanding of what a terrorist is after reading the Patriot Act in full (I have). DiAngelo’s “success” in waging a fake war against racism is simply to have given Americans an immensely racialized charge of what “white people” or “black people” are, say or think. If we follow DiAngelo’s training to its full end, we would thusly be living in an incredibly racist (and sexist) world where one can finish such a “training” only to become hyper-racialized subjects.

So, the answer to my original question is a rephrasing of my original question: how can those of us on the left live with ourselves creating more divisions in fighting racism by manipulating what are fundamentally class issues of poverty and class empowerment? The minute we think that “white people” are like this and “black people” like that we have lost the plot. And it is no surprise that Black Lives Matter has similarly pitched a corporate message to Americans and to funders such as George Soros, Rob McKay, and other Democracy Alliance donors have given millions to groups associated with the movement (now over $133 million). These people have successfully enacted a cult whereby cheap one-off confessions and checks written out to BLM is the penitence one pays for the crimes of the father. Black Lives Matter has become a capitalist free-for-all with other companies known for unethical labor practices like Reebok which has recently virtue signaled whilst calling out CrossFit for not having sympathized deeply enough with BLM. This in addition to the organization’s founders having cashed in to the tune of $100 million from the Ford Foundation in 2017 along with most all of BLM’s co-founders having developed very close ties to various corporations, foundations, academic institutions and government-sponsored agencies. In 2016, Opal Tometi even spoke at the Aspen Institute which has strong ties to the military. So much for defunding the police if you are down with supporting the military.

What social theaters like DiAngelo’s book and Black Lives Matter prove is that race relations in the US have now become part of a managerial class of elites who can just as easily control the media message as well as any other corporate-sponsored speaker. Just spin a message, package it within a Christian orthodoxy, give talks at think tanks closely aligned with the Department of Defense, and the world is yours. Who cares about addressing the causes of racism or even mentioning the increasing poverty in the US when the politics of race reductionism has created a new job specialty, loads of new funding sources, and the inspiration for five-minute spots on CNN about this new and improved “war on racism.” Yet there is no way to win a “war” which is poised upon ideological purity whereby only the self can battle bigotry. In the end, the racism being fought by both DiAngelo and BLM is precisely a narcissistic and neoliberal form of whitewashing structural inequalities through the name-and-blame game whereby the more woke points scored, the least racist the subject is. Hence this is the best game in town for corporations and politicians looking to win over hearts and minds where the white subject controls all. Just look at how many percentage points black salaries have moved in the past month.

As protestors topple statues of Civil War generals and abolitionists alike, this might be a good moment for us to pause and think that perhaps the first problem in naming racism might begin with reflecting upon our embrace of “race” as a signifying real. Moreover, we need to deeply ponder if race might just be the side-show which is keeping us from addressing what are primarily class issues. As troubling as our country’s legacy is having been built on slavery, the decimation of the country’s indigenous population, and unbridled capitalism, the one common factor of the repression of humans in these situations was not decided by their “race” but was most definitely decided between those who held the money, the guns, and the power and those who didn’t.

 

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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