Politics In The Face Of Ineradicable Racism

Max Sawicky has a good review of Ta-Neisi Coates recent essay, “The First White President.” Sawicky’s post is worth the whole read, but this part echoes something I’ve been writing about for a while (boldface mine):

My claim is that Coates’ analysis is both unsupported and destructive of progressive politics. His erudition and literary talent are not in question. I don’t fault his intentions. Some think he is facing hard truths and call his view realistic. That is the question, isn’t it? How real is it? What’s in question is not TNC’s experience of racial oppression, of the psychology underlying it, or his ability to bring it to life in a text. I’m talking about a political analysis.

If I felt under constant, homicidal threat as a person of Jewish descent, or if I had personally witnessed the deaths of relatives in the Holocaust, I don’t doubt that I would tend to dwell on my Jewishness, such as it is, and ponder the endurance of anti-Semitism through the ages. On this level, I can hardly fault TNC for centering race and white supremacy in his account.

Coates’ text still deserves rigorous criticism. It makes explicit reference to political events and persons. It embodies a political stance. Whether you call him a politician or public intellectual, TNC is interested in politics, and his politics are interested in you…

The problem here is that as matter of electoral dynamics, Trump’s victory was not necessarily the result of an uprising by the white working class (WWC). Coates himself makes clear that Trump won more white votes than Hillary Clinton in all types of economic and demographic groups. Trump’s white coalition transcended class.

Coates does not show any movement of WWC voters from Democratic to Republican due to Trump. That could be called a kind of uprising, if it had happened. There is some evidence for it, if we define WWC as those with no college. In this sense TNC sells his analysis a bit short. Even so, WWC voters were trending Republican before Trump ever put his face into presidential politics.

An alternative hypothesis is that the Democrats suffered from a multiracial working-class uprising, one in which white voters bolted for Trump, while non-white 2012 voters stayed home. That leads to a different narrative, one that proposes a Democratic Party failure in the realm of class politics.

Please, let’s not recoil as if I’m blaming black folks for Trump. The responsibility lies with the Democratic Party for not keeping voters of all colors on board. But if the race factor is more about Democrats than Republicans, that goes against the grain of TNC’s focus on Trump’s explicit, vicious, unforgivable racism. The white supremacy rap doesn’t fly nearly as smoothly when applied to Hillary Clinton, whatever her faults.

If there wasn’t a WWC uprising, maybe it was more generally a white riot. Again, to cite the 2016 election as a sign of something new, we need to compare it to prior elections.

When it comes to turnout, the salient fact in 2016 was a modest increase in white turnout, and a significant decline in non-white turnout. This doesn’t debunk Coates, since his thesis would be supported by evidence of a great shift from D to R among white voters, but it takes us a step closer to some illumination which Coates provides himself, when he says “Trump’s share of the white vote was similar to Mitt Romney’s in 2012.” Actually, Trump did somewhat worse with white voters than Mitt Romney did in 2012, particularly with women. But we don’t need to quibble.

That’s the background, here’s the key point:

TNC claims that social-democratic proposals cannot overcome the depth of racism in the white working class. He goes so far as to describe their advocacy as “escapism.” If you take exception, he will remind you that “working class whites had been agents of racist terrorism since at least the draft riots of 1863.” This can be an intimidating assertion to a white reader, but it is also rubbish. It visits the sins of some on an entire racial-economic class, for all time. It’s like Trump and his ‘Mexican rapists.’

Such a standpoint lends cold comfort to the predominantly minority workers striking McDonalds, “Fighting for Fifteen,” and battling Walmart for union representation, or to minority youth financially blocked from a post-secondary education. Neither is there much hope for the Black Lives Matter movement, if it is doomed to eternal rejection by an irredeemable white majority.

The postulate of ineradicable racism is vulnerable to two criticisms:

1) It is not necessary to convert the WWC wholesale to progressive politics to win elections. Remember the tiny margins of defeat in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio. Only a few to whom class politics can appeal are needed. Even some who voted in response to Trump’s racial cues may be redeemable. Democratic politicians have been winning elections with the benefit of some racist votes for a long time.

2) Social-democratic proposals can motivate greater turn-out among people of color, who are overwhelmingly working class.

Either could have reversed the November outcome.

It is undeniable that ‘universal programs’ are not a sure-fire political winner. If they were, by now we would have full-spectrum social-democracy. More important, they do not go as far as desirable in addressing race-specific (and gender-specific) disparities. When a rising tide lifts all boats, it does not necessarily narrow the gaps between them. So more than class politics is needed for social justice. This is the truth of Coates’ disapproval of “raceless anti-racism” on the left. At the same time, there should be no doubt that social-democratic programs disproportionately benefit minorities and women. Not for nothing did Martin Luther King Jr. come to this view. Recognizing the needs of the white working class, those indeed held in common with minorities, doesn’t neglect the black working class. It magnifies its political salience. Some of the major injuries of black workers are also the injuries of all.

One observation that gives me a perverse hope–and it’s related to Sawicky’s observation that “Democratic politicians have been winning elections with the benefit of some racist votes for a long time”–is that roughly one-third of white racists voted Democratic. While racism might not be enough to prevent many whites from voting for Trump, it’s not enough to seal the deal completely. In other words, they are voting Democratic in spite of and in opposition to their racism. If we can figure out how to get just a few more prejudiced voters to vote Democratic, we can win, not only in presidential elections, but down ballot too (and there’s a lot of damage being done there too).

Perhaps racism is ineradicable, but, if that is the case, then we need to figure out how to bring racists to our side without betraying our principles. If this is distasteful, remember that we already do this.

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