Getting back on track — race and class
There’s a lot of talk about race and wealth inequality these days. Unfortunately, there is a false dichotomy creeping into these conversations — race-versus-class. Note that I write this as the US is about to fall off of an economic cliff, so all this will get a lot worse fast.
An old debate teacher I had back when I was a road guard at the Red Sea told me that before one ever enters a debate, he or she needs to read How to Lie with Statistics, by Darrell Huff. I’ll do a quick analysis of wealth inequality now, comparing white and black in the US, not because there aren’t other groupings, but to give one example of how deceptively exclusionary statistics can be.
[Quick explanation on “race”: Race here is an accepted category used in various “race-ethnicity” surveys, based on how people “identify,” whereas “race” as a biological category is rac-ist drivel. Race is an organizing principle and the basis of solidarity in various struggles precisely because this phony biological category has marked people. Race may not be a biological reality, but it is inescapably a political one.]
In the United States, one percent of the population holds around 40 percent of the wealth. The top ten percent holds 70 percent of the wealth. So, 40 percent for one out of a hundred, and another 30 percent for the next nine out of a hundred. It just gets worse from there. Rather than batter you with more numerical breakdowns, I’ll include this graphic:
Within the top one percent, there are stratifications within stratifications. The top 1/10 of one percent — around 160,000 families — holds 15 percent of wealth in the US. The top 1/100 percent — around 16,000 families — make between $7.5 million and $18.9 million a year, so that doesn’t even begin to count those who make $19 million or more.
Three guys — Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates — hold wealth equivalent to the bottom 50 percent of the US. That’s well above the average for the top 1/100 of a percent.
The US has 643 billionaires. Among them, African Americans total six: Jay-Z ($1 billion), Kanye West ($1.3 billion), Michael Jordan ($2.1 billion), Oprah Winfrey ($2.6 billion), David Steward ($3.5 billion), and Robert Smith ($5 billion).
Zuckerberg : $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
Some of these figures have changed, opening the gap further, since the pandemic. Forbes writes that since the pandemic hit, “the total net worth of the 643 U.S. billionaires climbed from $2.9 trillion to $3.5 trillion. During the same period, 45.5 million Americans filed for unemployment.”
Bearing this in mind, there are around 1.27 million US households in the top one percent. That leaves 127 million American households below the one percent.
Now among the one percent, 96.1 percent are white. So it is fair to say that the US ruling class is still predominantly white. But . . . it’s also fair to say that seven out of ten of those who are below the one percent are white; and four out of ten of those below the artificially low poverty line are also white.
So, while black poverty runs around 30 percent, and while white poverty runs at around 10 percent, when you factor in that whites are 72 percent of the population, there are 7.8 million poor black people in the US and 19 million poor whites. Among the extremely poor, below half the value of the poverty line — 20 million plus — 42 percent are white, and 27 percent are black.
When we note that white families hold 90 percent of the nation’s wealth, that does not mean that most white people are wealthy; it means that tiny fraction of white people own most of the wealth and they drive the numbers up making the rest of white folks look more well off than they are.
Now, no one is saying that white supremacy doesn’t exist. On the contrary, anyone who wants to delve into the archives of what I’ve been writing about for the last quarter of a century will find that white supremacy has been nearly an obsession. What I’m saying here is that race and class are not some antagonistic binary, and that neither can be sufficiently understood without factoring in the other.
What’s motivating today’s reflections is watching the ruling class co-opting the slogan “Black Lives Matter” from the movement by the same name in the wake of the mass uprising sparked by the cop murder of George Floyd. No doubt this will be followed by targeted grants to any number of NGOs who will try to colonize this message and sell it back to us as a lifestyle . . . a way of diverting attention away from class and economics and trying to stuff the whole issue into a “racial diversity” package.
(I am a strong supporter of the current rebellions against the police. That’s one of the main reasons I’m writing this. And my own “race analysis” is arguably to the left of the left in some regards, taken as it were from the Black Radical Tradition.)
Ten percent of US households hold 77 percent of the total wealth in the US. Ten percent of African American households have 75.3 percent of all US black wealth. Looks close, and it is important; but there is race in that class, and class in that race.
The average annual income of black one-percenters is $200,819, compared to the average one-percenter family overall earning $737,697 annually. Just like the general figures above, breaking down the one-percent, this number for black one-percenters is distorted by a tiny fraction of people like the six black billionaires listed above.
Ninety percent of everyone is losing ground right now . . . fast. Is there a disparate impact in a society organized around white supremacy? You bet. Can black economic distress be reduced to race? Not unless you ignore those 19 million poor whites. Can you talk about these racial disparities, or the targeting of black and brown communities by the criminal justice system, without including “race”? Not unless you can ignore the “race” statistics on police abuse and incarceration.
What constitutes class? Studied as a relation in good Marxian form, most of us are working class. That’s not determined by a number, but by whether or not your household depends on someone working for a wage . . . or aspiring to work for a wage because they have no job. Everyone in this category, hold up your hands. Roughing this out, that’s about nine out of ten. Of the remaining ten percent, we have that one percent owning stuff, and another nine percent who work for salaries for the one percent.
What is the character of a wage job, apart from working for an hourly wage? Here’s the critical thing: it means your boss owns your ass while you’re at work, because he or she can fire your ass at will. It means you have to put up with whatever abuse and humiliation they heap on you, and you have to swallow it down like a delicious bucket of shit. So there is a structural antagonism built into the boss-worker relation. You always want more, and the boss always wants to give you less.
So, here we have a situation that defines nine out of ten of us. That is why some people — myself included — say that class is not the only category of abuse analysis, but it’s the broadest, therefore the category where the most political mileage can be potentially wielded in the event that those who face this form of abuse were to get together to make the same demands. This is the appeal the social democratic insurgency in the Democratic Party is making with programs like Medicare for All, free college, debt relief, a federal jobs guarantee, and a raised minimum wage. Each and all of these programs would substantially strengthen the whole working class in their structural antagonism with the bosses, or ruling class. We work for wages and drink those delicious buckets of shit, because we have duties and obligations to our loved ones and our own survival, and you can’t survive in modern society without money. They have it, you don’t, so stir a little sugar into that shit and slurp away. Our dependence on them for everything is what constitutes their power over us. Debt forgiveness, automatic access to medical care, higher minimum wages, free college, and jobs guarantees outside of the private market (and subject todemocratic control), all reduce our dependency on the ruling class, and that reduces their power.
White establishment Democrats are opposed to all of these measures except a modest increase in minimum wage with plenty of loopholes. Black establishment Democrats . . . well, the same thing. (I wrote a piece earlier this year about the complex relationship between the ruling class and the black one-percent.)
Given that black people are heavily over-represented among the working class, the working poor, and the unemployed, these programs would have a disproportionately good effect on African America. But the black bourgeoisie has been as enthusiastic as the white bourgeoisie in painting these programs as the brainchild of “and old white man.” (In fact, these demands have been around for a very long time, but the Sanders candidacy brought them onto the public stage against the ferocious resistance of the bourgeoisie — black and white.)
Structural antagonisms exist that are not class relations — patriarchy and white supremacy stand out here — but neither of these exists in the real world independent of class.
Working class, hold up your hands . . . okay, around 90 percent.
All women, hold up your hands . . . okay, around 52 percent. (90% of whom are working class)
All those who are not white hold up your hands . . . okay, around 39 percent. (95% of whom are working class)
Gender minorities, hold up your hands . . . okay, around 4.5 percent. (90 percent of whom are working class)
Do women of different races and classes suffer abuse by men? Absolutely. Can there be cross-class alliances of women on issues like spousal abuse, sexual harrassment, and rape? Yep. Can there be cross-class alliances of African Americans or Hispano-Latinas or indigneous people with regard to police abuse? Hell yeah! Can there be cross-class alliances of gender minorities in response to instances of heterosexist discrimination and abuse? Of course. Will ruling class or ruling class-aligned women, gender minorities, and-or persons “of color,” be keen to highlight class antagonisms or economic inequality?
I hear a screech of brakes and the shattering of glass.
Does the ruling class have a vested interest in isolating these grievances apart from class? Yes. Is the ruling class willing to admit token minorities into their own club? Yes, because it simultaneously co-opts the individuals and provides great optics, allowing them to use the means of cultural production — which the ruling class owns — to redefine the grievances as personal character defects: racism, sexism, gender-phobias, etc. This allows them to return to the default position of a few rich minorities serving as a symbolic balm and veil while the rest of us suffer along in pretty much the same ways . . . now, with this secular crisis unfolding, the rest of us are about to see just how much this ruling class gives a damn. Not.
Prior to Trump, Obama oversaw mass deportations and the continued militarization of the police. Prior to Trump, when the 2007–8 meltdown happened, President Obama made Wall Street whole, sent not a single rentier capitalist to jail, and left the rest of us to scratch and claw our way out. President Obama bombed the shit out of black people (and children, and US citizens) abroad. The Obamas now live in an $8.1 million home in an exclusive neighborhood in DC, with Jeff Bezos, Jared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump as neighbors.
Aside from the current attempt by ruling class America to catfish Black Lives Matter as a corporate slogan — and removing any class analysis in the process — I was compelled to write this in response to a lefty kerfuffle about a piece written recently by Professor Adolph Reed and Merlin Chowkwanyun for the New England Journal of Medicine, entitled “Racial Health Disparities and Covid-19 — Caution and Context.” In response to this article, Democratic Socialists of America, of which I am a nominal member, de-listed an online lecture, effectively cancelling it, by Professor Emeritus Reed — a longstanding black socialist scholar. The reason he was de-listed was an accusation of “class reductionism.” I came within a hair of stopping my dues to DSA about this, because it’s not the first time I’ve seen DSA’s work being hijacked by this kind of inquisitional, arrogant, sectarian clique . . . and because DSA is still a predominantly white, predominantly academic, predominantly top-ten percent organization.
The accusation was that Reed and Chowkwanyun “denied” that Covid-19 was disproportionately affecting racial minorities. I’ve linked the article above as proof that no such thing was ever said or implied. And I’ll say before I begin breaking this down that my objection to the de-listing was not about agreeing or disagreeing with Reed — I agree and disagree with him on various topics — but about a putative mass socialist organization that shuts down debates instead of having them.
What Reed and Chowkwanyun said was that data should include more categories than race . . . not the exclusion of race, but inclusion of other categories, including and especially socioeconomic status. One of the dangers they identify — which seems to have gone over the heads of his opponents in Philly and NYC DSA — is that by exclusively looking at race in these statistics, we actually strengthen the ideologies of white racists in the same way that racializing poverty (making it a black thing) led white racists to support the destruction of the social safety net (specifically Aid to Dependent Children, or AFDC) under Bill Clinton, called insipidly “welfare reform.” The majority of those who were affected by “welfare reform” were white women. Right now, reports that show disproportionate impact on minorities have led may white racists to ignore and even deny that the pandemic is a crisis at all.
Is this “class reductionism”? Not unless you twist yourself into a pretzel.
Reed’s own career began with the Black Panther Party, so his first real passion was a racial justice struggle. The reason Reed now digs down further into class is that in his own studies — as he has pointed out repeatedly — it was his research into white supremacy that led him to class analysis. He found class down in the subsoil of race. His opposition to race-only narratives was based on the fact that these race-only narratives were so easily adopted by the ruling class as a way of diverting attention from economics — the truest source of actual power. I’ll close here with an excerpt from Reed’s earlier article for The New Republic, “The Myth of Class Reductionism.”
Politics often makes strange bedfellows, but this is no mere marriage of convenience. Centrist Democrats and left-identitarians are bound in shared embrace of a particularist, elite-driven politics. This top-down political vision — long focused on capturing the presidency at the expense of long-term, movement-driven, majoritarian strategies at all levels of government — threatens to preempt hopes of restoring the public-good model of governance that was at the heart of postwar prosperity and foundational to the civil rights movement.
Class reductionism is the supposed view that inequalities apparently attributable to race, gender, or other categories of group identification are either secondary in importance or reducible to generic economic inequality. It thus follows, according to those who hurl the charge, that specifically anti-racist, feminist, or LGBTQ concerns, for example, should be dissolved within demands for economic redistribution.
I know of no one who embraces that position. Like other broad-brush charges that self-styled liberal pragmatists levy against “wish-list economics” and the assault on private health insurance, the class reductionist canard is a bid to shut down debate. Once you summon it, you may safely dismiss your opponents as wild-eyed fomenters of discord without addressing the substance of their disagreements with you on policy proposals.
Although there are no doubt random, dogmatic class reductionists out there, the simple fact is that no serious tendency on the left contends that racial or gender injustices or those affecting LGBTQ people, immigrants, or other groups as such do not exist, are inconsequential, or otherwise should be downplayed or ignored. Nor do any reputable voices on the left seriously argue that racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia are not attitudes and ideologies that persist and cause harm.
I doubt you’ll see Adolph Reed on Oprah any time soon.