How to Get Beyond the Identity Trap to Bring About Big Social Change
There’s been a lot of talk about Joe Biden’s promulgation of a “blue-collar blueprint” for America. The commitment is a natural for Amtrak Joe, who placed a bust of Bobby Kennedy, one of the last national Democrats to show strong appeal with working-class white voters as well as with black and Hispanic Americans, in the Oval Office.
But if Biden is serious about advancing a blue-collar agenda, he needs to do more than push a series of concrete ideas to improve the material conditions of working-class Americans—important as those programs are for people. He must also distance himself from the race essentialism on the far left that elevates racial disparities over economic inequality and pushes divisive ideas that alienate many working-class voters of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.
That’s the big takeaway message of a significant new book, No Politics But Class Politics, by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Adolph Reed and University of Illinois literary critic Walter Benn Michaels. Michaels and Reed argue that, “Racism is real and anti-racism is both admirable and necessary, but extant racism isn’t what principally produces our inequality and anti-racism won’t eliminate it."
Reed, who is black, and Michaels, who is white, are leftists who are far more radical than Biden and most Democrats (or me.) But the series of essays and interviews compiled in their book has an important overall message: the fashionable views of highly-educated whites on how to address racial inequality are backfiring, particularly for poor black people.
A core commitment to civil rights and nondiscrimination is, and should be, an essential part of what it means to be a liberal. But Michaels and Reed are troubled that a worldview which sees race as the defining feature of American inequality has “become the absolute moral center of the professional managerial classes.” The authors also reject divisive policies that flow from the race essentialism of upper-middle class white liberals, such as a perpetual system of racial preferences and a full-throated endorsement of race-specific cash reparations for slavery. In adopting this racial program, Michaels and Reed say, highly-educated white liberals display four problems:
(1) They misdiagnose the nature of racism, which is not just an end in itself but a means to advance economic interests;
(2) They cynically divert attention from bedrock issues of class inequality that are more expensive to address and require greater financial sacrifice from highly-educated whites;
(3) They unwittingly feed right-wing efforts to divide and conquer multiracial working-class coalitions that are necessary for social change; and
(4) They advance a “trickle down” approach to inequality that ultimately hurts working-class black Americans.
Misdiagnosing Racism as an Ends Rather than a Means
To start, Michaels and Reed point out that many highly-educated white liberals—often to the left of mainstream black voters on race—fundamentally misdiagnose the larger forces behind racism. They see racism as a psychological malady whose purpose is to degrade, missing the fact that racism has long been a strategic tool used by wealthy interests to promote economic gain.
Slavery is often portrayed in contemporary movies and literature as if it were fundamentally racialized sadism—a system whose sole purpose “was to brutalize black people,” Reed says, rather than a system designed to reap enormous economic profits. The way some people talk about slavery and Jim Crow today, he notes, “[O]ne would think that the point of those regimes was to produce white supremacy and not cotton and other commodities.” This gets things backwards, Reed argues: “The Southern political economy didn’t become grounded on slavery because it was racist; it became racist because it was grounded on slavery.”
The failure to recognize the larger economic motivations of racism has important implications for contemporary liberal efforts to fight inequality. At Harvard University, Michaels observes, he met a student who had trouble rallying classmates to support custodians and food workers fighting for better wages. As this student told Michaels, “[T]he only way I can get them at all interested in this thing is by saying, ‘Most of these people are black.’ Harvard students can’t see underpaid workers as a problem unless they can see the problem as racism.”
And the fixation on race alone obscures how we can best attack racial and economic inequalities through our public policies. For example, while educated liberals may see the fact that black students are less likely to go to college as a failure to reach out to recruit black students per se, in fact, the data suggest the problem is a failure to recruit economically struggling students of all races and ethnicities. Michaels notes that after controlling for economic status, “African American students are more likely to attend four-year colleges than white students are.”
Diverting Attention from Class Serves the Interest of Highly-Educated Whites
Why do educated white liberals focus so heavily on race rather than economic inequality? Michaels and Reed say self-interest is a driving factor. A racial focus cabins the problem of inequality and makes it more manageable and less expensive to address. Focusing on race rather than class, Michaels argues, tells the wealthy “what they want to hear—that the only poverty they need to worry about is the poverty that’s an effect of racism.” It renders white poverty “invisible.”
Take the issue of reparations for slavery and segregation. When payments are limited to black people, Michaels says, the issue of inequality becomes one of “tort reform.” Reparations, contends Reed, are a demand for “private goods that you missed out on” rather than a broader public vision. In this sense, Michaels and Reed’s thinking is similar to that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who said that black people are indeed due compensation for slavery and Jim Crow, but repair should be part of a larger program—what King called a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged—which recognized that poor whites should also be included as “a simple matter of justice.” King’s inclusive vision was consistent with Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph’s 1966 Freedom Budget for All Americans, which sought to support struggling Americans of every race and ethnicity.
Worse than diverting attention from larger economic issues, the focus of upper-middle class white liberals on racial distribution can actually help “legitimate” economic inequality. Diversifying the gender and racial makeup of America’s billionaire club, for example, can make a system rife with economic inequality seem fairer. The focus on racism alone, Michaels and Reed write, “functions more as a misdirection that justifies inequality than a strategy for eliminating it.”
The standard retort—we should focus on both race and class inequality—is on one level obviously true. Racial and class harms are often distinct. When black professor Henry Louis Gates was falsely arrested for “breaking into” his own home, the Cambridge, Massachusetts police committed a racial injustice that had nothing to do with class. We need a Civil Rights Act to address racial discrimination in the workplace and protections for people trying to organize a union to address class discrimination. But as Reed argues, the “line that we must fight both economic inequality and racial inequality” is too often used as a ruse to avoid ever addressing class. Harvard University, for example, has given a lot of attention to racial diversity in its majority-minority student body—but Harvard still has 15 times as many rich students as low-income students.
Feeding Right-Wing Divide and Conquer Strategies
For centuries, the right-wing has used race to divide and disempower working-class Americans. Michaels and Reed submit that white liberal support for policies such as racial preferences has played right into the hands of conservatives.
Reed points out that elites have always wanted to divide Americans by race because they fully understood that “black people are very likely to be prominent among those committed to pursuing greater equality” but basic demographic math means they can’t do it alone—they need allies. Jim Crow was invented, Reed says, in response to “the possibility of a political alliance of poor whites and blacks that would have the power to alter the rules of the game.”
Most social programs—Obamacare, Social Security, food stamps—function along class lines. But parts of the highly-educated left have increasingly pushed race-specific programs, such as a Biden administration plan (struck down by the courts) to provide Covid relief to minority-owned restaurants first, and a Minneapolis teacher contract that would lay off white teachers with more seniority before teachers of color with less. Similarly, a Democratic House proposal would provide $25,000 in down payment assistance for first generation homebuyers but exclude low-income white people.
These types of proposals, however well-intentioned, feed a sense among working-class white people—identified by Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild—that others are “cutting in line” ahead of them. Economically struggling whites are further alienated, Michaels and Reed write, when highly-educated white liberals “express indifference toward or disdain for poor and working-class whites.”
White liberal contempt for lower-income whites, often justified in the name of championing black people, is wrong on two levels. For starters, it’s deeply unwise and unfair to write off white working-class voters as a group as right-wing or intrinsically bigoted. As the pollster Guy Molyneux has found, about 15 percent of white working-class voters are reliably liberal, about half are reliably conservative, and about 35 percent are up for grabs. It’s electorally foolish to leave such a large pool of voters untapped.
Second, giving up on the Bobby Kennedy coalition hurts black people. As Michaels and Reed observe, generations of black people have known that “a serious strategy for winning the kinds of reforms that would actually improve black and brown working people’s conditions” requires an alliance with working-class whites.
Advancing a Trickle Down Approach
Finally, Michaels and Reed point out that the current focus of highly-educated white liberals on racial distribution at the top echelons of society advances a “racial trickle-down approach” that suggests “the fact that some people of color are rich and powerful” should be “regarded as a victory for all the people of color who aren’t.” The African American woman who cleans offices at the University of Illinois may feel some pride about the fact that the chancellor of the university is black. But she would probably rather see her own wages rise than accept a psychological boost from the fact that there is a black chancellor who “makes much more than fifteen times what she does.”
Michaels and Reed sometimes take their class analysis too far. Reed is an avowed Marxist, while Michaels is too quick to advance unrealistic ideas seeking equality of economic outcomes that have led to economic ruin when tried. He dismisses the idea that social mobility should be the goal of a free society. He says he’s not interested in “helping people out of the working class” so much as he is in ending the existence of “class itself.” Rather than making Harvard more economically diverse or open to people with fewer means, he wants to abolish Harvard altogether.
Still, it’s possible to reject some of the extreme views Michaels and Reed advance while also appreciating their critique of contemporary white liberalism’s obsession with one side of the race and class equation.
By the same token, it is possible for Biden to strongly support civil rights for black people while also rejecting the extreme views of white liberals on race—views which Biden’s own base of black supporters likely do not share. Robert Kennedy did just that when he championed racial equality and also ran on “law and order” in his 1968 campaign. And Biden has already done it when he issued several strong executive orders advancing civil rights and also told Americans that we should, “[F]und the police. Fund them. Fund them.”
But Biden could and must do more. One important test will come sometime in the next four months—probably June—when the U.S. Supreme Court rules on whether Harvard and the University of North Carolina can continue to use racial preferences in college admissions, preferences that tend to benefit the most advantaged students of color.
Most observers expect the Supreme Court to curtail or strike down these preferences, and Biden will surely be tempted to denounce the decisions as racist or racially insensitive, perhaps drawing parallels to the Supreme Court’s worst decisions on race like the “separate but equal” Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896.
That approach would be unwise in a county where 74 percent of all Americans—including 59 percent of black people—think race should not be a factor in college admissions. What Biden can and should say is that working-class people of all races deserve a leg up in admissions. A disproportionate share of the beneficiaries of an economic-based boost will necessarily be black and Hispanic, which is a good thing in light of our nation’s history of discrimination. But working-class white and Asian students will also benefit, as they should, given the challenges they face.
Apply that principle more broadly, and you have the beginnings of a powerful blue-collar agenda for America.
Richard D. Kahlenberg is the author or editor of 18 books, including the forthcoming Excluded: How Snob Zoning, NiMBYism and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See. He is a non-resident scholar at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.