Class-ifying the Hurricane

The argument, like the one below, that claim you can explain the events -- and incidentally build broad coalitions across actual racial lines -- by talking about "class" instead of "race" in regard to New Orleans is classic left-liberal evasion. The fact is that we live in a country where race, like class, is a social (NOT biological) reality that has become inseparably intertwined with class -- from the very beginnings of the country.

Class conflict as race conflict begins with the replacement of various forms of pre-class society by capitalism, which took the form of the struggle between two very different peoples and cultures -- the Indians being defeated by the European settlers and their descendants.

This was magnified with the arrival of the Black slaves, and their development into the laboring class at the bottom rung of the class hierarchy. It is important that Blacks were brought to the United States not simply as a different kind of people but as a specific laboring and exploited class. Labor in the Black skin as Marx called them. The post-reconstruction institution of Jim Crow in the South, and to lesser degrees across the entire country Reinforced the intersection and combination of race and class as social realities.

The civil rights movement, perhaps even more than the civil war, dealt a huge blow to the racist substructure of the society, and it has not fully recovered to this day. But under conditions of economic difficulties and decline and with the weakening of the unions and low level of struggle by Blacks and other oppressed peoples, the racist structures have been adapting to the changed conditions and regaining some strength and momentum.

These class conflicts, along with the much slower development of the class struggle between sellers of labor power and employers (which could only really come to the fore after the destruction of slavery), were the material underpinnings and social reality that enabled the rulers to invent the white race -- which was founded here, not carried over from Europe, where the concept had been almost nonexistent until they came here. (When did people come to regard Spaniards, Italians, and Norwegians as all equally "white"?)

The intertwining has gone down to the present, and part of unifying the working class is a full recognition and advances toward a political resolution of these social class-racial realities. This can only be accomplished with the initiative and leadership of those in the lower rungs of this stratification.

We live in a society where class and race intertwine so deeply that "nigger" is historically a CLASS term, while "poor" has now become a euphemism for Black (unless other adjectives are supplied like "poor whites"). And then there was the evil -- and basically Black -- underclass against whom the war against crime was waged and the destruction of the welfare system was carried out.

There was never a country in which the counterposition of class to race was so utterly, completely useless and misleading.

My "favorite" reactionary use of the "class, not race" gambit were proposals for "color blind" "class" affirmative action for poor working people only -- meaning that the working class families that fought their way into the middle classes through the civil rights movement and affirmative action would be fair game. At the same time, it denies all Blacks, including the poor and other working people, the right to be protected against institutionalized discrimination as Blacks. Instead they would have to compete for protection with deserving whites.

Reed makes the point about the middle class layers of Blacks managing to escape with their lives -- but of course they were victims of the class/racial treatment of the population as a whole. He also points out that the Black Democratic machines have acted much the same as the whites in dealing with poverty and basic social issues, including race-class, for that is their job in the capitalist structure and in their Democratic Party. But does Reed seriously think that politicians elected on a "class" basis from the current trade union leadership would cut a better figure than the Black politicians did.

And, anyway, it is the NAACP that is talking about organizing the shelter. It is the Black Commentator that attempts to make a deeper analysis of the events that confronts their inescapably combined race-class character. It is Black workers who attempted to lead groups out of the city, or participated in group collecting of necessities in the "looting" of the stores that may never reopen.

That is where the fight is beginning. That's why I think that so far, the debate over the need to forge a independent anti-establishment Black political movement is tending to rise to the fore much more rapidly than discussion of a labor party, although hopefully we wills see more of that too. It is also true that the Black community clearly has a sharper understanding of the race-class character of what is taking place than "middle-class" working Americans.

It is also very important to stress -- Reed's point on the Black Democratic mayors is useful here -- that the political crisis represented is a bipartisan one, not just a Bush crisis. The crisis we are beginning to experience has been a course followed by the ruling class and both its parties since 1973.

Dodging the centrality of the race/national issues in the name of supposedly color-blind class consciousness is a complete waste of time and effort. The road to unity is confronting this, not ducking it. Which is the key and indispensable kernel of truth in Malcolm X's statement when he announced his break from the Nation of Ialam and formation of a new organization that before there can be working class unity, there must be some Black community. That is as true or more true than ever today.

Fred Feldman

The Nation comment | posted September 15, 2005 (October 3, 2005 issue) Class-ifying the Hurricane Adolph Reed Jr.


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