Numerous correspondents sent me the latest lengthy Atlantic essay by the brilliant and eloquent but bourgeois Black Identitarian Ta-Nehesi Coates and asked for my reflections. I reluctantly agreed to read and comment on Coates’ long treatise.
“The Mind Seizes”
There is plenty to concur with and even applaud in Coates’ prolonged reflection, which bears the provocative title “The First White President.” The author is, I think, quite correct to note that that Donald Trump is a vicious white supremacist dedicated to denigrating and even erasing the legacy of the nation’s first technically Black president Barack Obama.
Also accurate, by my judgement is Coates’ view that tens of millions of, yes, deplorably racist whites voted for the ridiculously unqualified and dangerous Trump out of a nasty sense of white racial identity and redemption.
Coates is right to blast the still all-too widespread notion that Trump was elected by an aggrieved white proletariat. He admirably presents sound data showing that Trump’s electoral base was a cross-class coalition of Caucasians united largely by whiteness and racial animosity.
Coates correctly observes that Trump prevailed with “identity politics” – white identity politics. The phrase “identity politics” is a term commonly hurled at liberals, Democrats, and “the left” by the right. But the Republican right is knee-deep in identity politics of the right and white kind.
What decent person cannot agree with Coates’ matchless evocation of the sickening racial double standard that lay beneath the staid Harvard Law graduate Barack Obama’s succession by the blustering buffoon Donald Trump. Look at this splendid paragraph from Coates:
“Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a ‘piece of ass.’ The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (‘When you’re a star, they let you do it’), fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House. But that is the point of white supremacy—to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible.”
Yes. Also instructive is Coates’ reflection that American politicians and pundits have been agonizing over an opiate crisis that has been reducing white working-class life spans while paying little attention to the fact Black life spans remain far below those of whites. Coates is also spot-on when he notes that U.S. media since the election of Trump has been rife with kindhearted discussions of the neglected and oppressed white working-class but has little to say about the millions of poor Black people who have been left behind in the neoliberal era:
“It’s worth asking why the country has not been treated to a raft of sympathetic portraits of this ‘forgotten’ young black electorate, forsaken by a Washington bought off by Davos elites and special interests. The unemployment rate for young blacks (20.6 percent) in July 2016 was double that of young whites (9.9 percent). And since the late 1970s, William Julius Wilson and other social scientists following in his wake have noted the disproportionate effect that the decline in manufacturing jobs has had on African American communities. If anyone should be angered by the devastation wreaked by the financial sector and a government that declined to prosecute the perpetrators, it is African Americans—the housing crisis was one of the primary drivers in the past 20 years of the wealth gap between black families and the rest of the country. But the cultural condescension toward and economic anxiety of black people is not news. Toiling blacks are in their proper state; toiling whites raise the specter of white slavery… a narrative of long-neglected working-class black voters, injured by globalization and the financial crisis, forsaken by out-of-touch politicians, and rightfully suspicious of a return of Clintonism, does not serve to cleanse the conscience of white people for having elected Donald Trump. Only the idea of a long-suffering white working class can do that.”
That, I think, is very well, even brilliantly said.
“The White Tribe United”?
After this, however, things become more problematic. What are we supposed to make of Coates’ statement near the end of his essay that the election and presidency of Trump is “as if the white tribe united in demonstration to say, ‘If a black man can be president, then any white man – no matter how fallen – can be president”?
Coates doesn’t mean all white Americans, though he certainly could have made more of an effort to make that clear. Midway through his essay, he writes that “though much has been written about the distance between elites and ‘Real America,’ the existence of a class-transcending, mutually dependent tribe of [U.S.] white people is evident.” I agree, though here I would use the phrase “cross-class,” not “class-transcending,” for class divisions live on within (and beyond) white America, deepened in fact by the ancient ruling class game of racial divide-and-rule.
But how big is this supposedly “class-transcending tribe”? There were 156 million non-Hispanic whites eligible to vote in the last United States presidential election. The racist (and sexist, militarist, eco-cidalist, nativist, plutocrat, and fake-populist) Donald Trump got 63 million votes in that election. Pretend that every one of Trump’s voters was a non-Hispanic Caucasian. We know that’s not the case, of course: according to CNN exit polls, Trump got 28% of the Latino vote, 27% of the Asian American vote, and 8% of the Black vote along with 57% of the white vote. But even if we imagine that every single one of Trump’s voters was a non-Hispanic white, it would mean that Trump was backed by just 40 percent of the white electorate. We’re hardly talking about the whole “white tribe united.”
“Meanwhile, since the election,” Greg Sargent recently noted at The Washington Post:
“polls have showed broad majority [and I would add multi-racial-P.S.] condemnation of Trump’s mass deportations; his rescinding of protections for the ‘dreamers’; his Mexican wall; his pardoning of Joe Arpaio; his thinly-veiled Muslim ban; and his lending of succor to white supremacists responsible for racist violence and murder in Charlottesville. If anything, popular revulsion at the core elements of Trumpism has only grown. The pushback from civil society and from the chorus of voices (that Coates didn’t acknowledge) has intensified.”
For what it’s worth, some anecdotal reflections. I live in the predominantly white, formerly Obama-mad university town of Iowa City. Trump couldn’t speak here without facing mass protests. The protesters would be predominantly white, like the group that marched north of the city’s downtown to shut-down the eastbound lanes of Interstate 80 while chanting “not my president” and calling Trump a racist (and other things) three days after the 2016 election.
There was significant, largely white turnout in Iowa City for protests of the racist police killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner in 2014. There was a big, mostly white turnout in the city’s downtown Ped Mall to protest the racist murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in early 2012.
Black Lives Matter speaker Patrice Cullors filled up the city’s downtown Englert Theater with hundreds of mostly white and loudly appreciative students and community members last fall.
In the much ballyhooed first-in-the-nation Iowa presidential Caucuses two Februaries ago, white Iowa City strongly backed Bernie Sanders, who denounced Trump as, among other things, a racist. In the November election, the town went mainly with Hillary Clinton, who denounced Trump as, among other things, a racist.
A white guy wearing a Make America Great cap would be viewed with disdain as he walked the white city’s downtown.
Similar stories could be told from numerous other highly Democratic and liberal, even left-leaning campus and other towns across the white America.
Obviously white America has some rather big internal fractures and different “tribes” when it comes to the spectacularly unpopular Trump.
Coates’ “Left” Caricature: Seven Problems
Coates’s biggest problem is that his essay is plagued by a preposterous misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what he calls “the modern [U.S.] left.” This “left,” he argues, has bought into the notion that Trump owes his election and hence presidency not to white racism but rather to the neoliberal Democrats’ betrayal of the “white working class” – a betrayal that pushed white workers into the arms of the pseudopopulist Trump. This “left,” Coates think, is so obsessed with “class struggle” that it shows no “recognition that there is something systemic and particular in the relationship between black people and their country that might require specific policy solutions.” Coates’ “leftists” are supposedly so blind and indifferent to the depth and specificity of racial oppression in the United States that they can only explain Trump’s victory as a result of the victimization of the white working class, not white racism.
By Coates’ reckoning, “the left” simply can’t “accept that racism remains, as it has been since 1776, at the heart of this country’s political life. The idea of acceptance frustrates the left. The left would much rather have a discussion about class struggles, which might entice the white working masses, instead of about the racist struggles that those same masses have historically been the agents and beneficiaries of.”
To understand Trump’s victory, Coates writes, class-obsessed “Leftists would have to cope with the failure, yet again, of class unity in the face of racism…Instead, the response has largely been an argument aimed at emotion – the summoning of the white working class, emblem of America’s hardscrabble roots, inheritor of its pioneer spirit, as a shield against the horrific and empirical evidence of trenchant bigotry.” The “left,” Coates alleges, has gotten caught up in the following narrative, crafted in his own words:
“support for Trump’s ‘Muslim ban,’ his scapegoating of immigrants, his defenses of police brutality are somehow the natural outgrowth of the cultural and economic gap between Lena Dunham’s America and Jeff Foxworthy’s. The collective verdict holds that the Democratic Party lost its way when it abandoned everyday economic issues like job creation for the softer fare of social justice. The indictment continues: To their neoliberal economics, Democrats and liberals have married a condescending elitist affect that sneers at blue-collar culture and mocks the white man as history’s greatest monster and prime-time television’s biggest doofus. In this rendition, Donald Trump is not the product of white supremacy so much as the product of a backlash against contempt for white working-class people.”
There are seven overlapping, interrelated, and fatal problems with Ta-Nahesi Coates’ critique and, as we shall see, caricature of “the left.” To begin with, Coates’ definition of the “modern left” is absurd. It includes people who aren’t remotely left at all, like the vanguard arch-neoliberal Bill Clinton, “national [neo]liberal politicians” like Obama and Hillary (“proud to have been a Goldwater Girl”) Clinton, and leading neoliberal Democratic pundits and essayists like Nicholas Kristof and George Packer. The radical-leftmost extreme of Coates’ American “left” is the supposed socialist Bernie Sanders, a vaguely social-democrat-ish New Deal Democrat who backs Israel and the F-35 fighter jet boondoggle and who lustily backed Bill Clinton’s criminal bombing of Serbia.
Second, Coates’ badly mangles the actual left critique of the neoliberal Democratic Party. He describes this critique as the charge that “the Democratic Party lost its way when it abandoned everyday economic issues like job creation for the softer fare of social justice.” That’s way off-base. The actual left analysis holds that the always capitalist Democratic Party “lost its way,” so to speak (turned further to the right), when it more completely abandoned economic and social justice (centrally including racial justice and equality), labor rights, the poor, minorities, and environmental sanity in pursuit of an ever-closer alliance with corporate America, Wall Street, and the elite professional class. To claim that leftists complain that the dismal-dollar-drenched Dems moved from “job creation” (one of capitalism’s standard boasts) to “social justice” is absurd.
Third, “Democrats and liberals” really did “marr[y] a condescending elitist affect that sneers at blue-collar culture” to “their neoliberal economics” in ways that are highly relevant to the Democrats’ electoral collapse and the ever-more white-nationalist, Amerikaner-like Republicans’ success. The marriage has cost the Democrats the sympathies and votes of working- and lower-class people of all races and ethnicities, including working-class whites. This has quite obviously redounded to the benefit of the Republican Party even if it is a myth that Trump rode into office on a great wave of white working class economic resentment and anxiety.
Fourth, numerous actually Left analysts and writers, including myself, Dr. Anthony DiMaggio, and Eric Draitser, have preceded Coates in showing that Trump’s very white electoral base of support was disproportionately affluent and not particularly working-class. We have also preceded him in arguing (with far more empirical substance than Coates provides in his latest essay) that Trump’s white nationalist base was driven largely by racist white identity. We join him in acknowledging that Hillary Clinton (of whom we are harsh critics from the portside) was (in Coates’ words) “correct when she asserted that a large group of Americans was endorsing a candidate because of bigotry.” We have preceded and join him in rejecting Sanders’ cold dismissal of the notion that “the people who voted for Trump are racists and sexists and homophobes and just deplorable folks.” Sorry, Bernie: all too many of Trump’s voters are all that and more.
If the bourgeois centrist Coates doesn’t want to acknowledge the work of Marxists writing for online outlets like CounterPunch and Truthdig (both absurdly smeared by the Washington Post earlier this year as tools of the Russian conspiracy to “subvert American democracy”), he could consult a neat little report containing an excellent statistical breakdown and published by the more palatably liberal Nation last May. The Nation article was titled “Economic Anxiety Didn’t Make People Vote for Trump, Racism Did.”
Much of Coates “left” is quite conscious of – and has been actively reporting – precisely the racial voting analysis and data he (quite unoriginally and belatedly) presents in order to discredit the supposedly class-obsessed “left.”
Fifth, Coates is either flat-out lying or woefully ignorant when he argues that “the left” is disinterested in the big and significant problems of racial identity and racial justice. Bernie Sanders’ sometimes overly dismissive comments on race (“reparations are divisive”) and “identity politics” (see below) aside, real and actual U.S. leftists of various stripe all are about Black Lives Matter, opposition to racist mass incarceration, racist policing, Confederate Flags, school segregation, and more. Did Coates’ miss all the white socialists and anarchists who counter-protested against the white-supremacist Confederate statue defenders in Charlottesville last month, some of them putting their bodies on the line and facing violence in defense of Black civil rights and equality? Did Coates not hear the Black left preacher, scholar, and activist Cornel West note that largely white Antifa activists helped save his and other clergy-persons’ lives in Charlottesville, where armed Redneck Revolt militants stood guard on the perimeter to protect the racial justice marchers from fascist violence?
From Sanders and on to his more radical portside, the actual U.S. left and progressive program has long been and remains directed at addressing both (a) the specific discrimination and oppression faced by Black and other non-white Americans and (b) the economic/class inequality that oppresses the broad multi-racial working-class majority while it falls especially hard (thanks to racism, deeply understood) on the non-white poor. The longstanding legitimately Left progressive agenda addresses both race and class at one and the time. It does not accept Coates’ false dichotomy between class and race.
Coates’ smearing of “the left” is quite provocative and nauseating. It’s a low moment in his career. “As people of color, anti-racists, anti-fascists, and prison abolitionists within socialist organizations are dedicating time and resources to the battle against white supremacy,” the Marxist writer Asad Haider notes, “Coates decides to stand with [the liberal political scientist Mark] Lilla on the sidelines and criticize them tout court (emphasis added). Socialist politics,” Haider adds, only appears in Coates’s essay as an alternative to racial politics, one which begins and ends in whiteness? – this as Coates “ignor[es] the historical existence and present resurgence of socialist anti-racism.”
(Here, at the risk of sounding self-promotional, let me mention that the second and third books I – a Marxist since age 19 – ever published dealt very specifically with racism and racial oppression. They did so in ways that allowed abundant space for race as a problem in and of itself but never required me to drop my socialist critique of class disparity and class rule: Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era  and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History ).
Sixth, as Ryan Cooper all-too elementarily observes at The Week, Coates’ call for “leftists …to cope with the failure, yet again, of class unity in the face of racism” in the wake of Trump’s election neglects the basic fact that “the leftist strategy was not tried in 2016. The Democratic Party,” Cooper notes, “ran the more conservative primary candidate, tried to win more upper-class votes (and succeeded to some degree), and lost.”
Seventh, Coates is unduly obsessed with electoral politics and candidates. If you really want to see white and other leftists fighting racism and whiteness and combining those fights with struggles against capitalism, nativism, sexism, imperialism, and, last but not least, eco-cide, then you need to pay less attention to presidential contenders seeking vote from a majority (71%) white electorate and more attention to social movements on the ground.
One Dimensional History
It is unsurprising that Coates, who fancies himself something of an American historian, carries his anti-Leftist and centrist-liberal-bourgeois identitarian biases into his understanding of the national past. His essay makes numerous references to 19th century episodes in which leading white politicos and intellectuals appealed to cross-class white unity. Coates suggests that the appeals won out because whiteness/white-“tribalism” surpassed class then as now. Totally missing from Coates’ historical sensibilities here as in his previous writings are the many and remarkable moments when Black and white North American workers joined together in common struggle against wealth white exploiters, compelling the white ruling class to respond with strategies of racial divide-and-rule. There’s a considerable left historiography on all that, going back to Bacon’s Rebellion in 17thcentury Virginia up through and beyond the rise of anti-racist and (not just coincidentally) Left-led Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) during the 1930s and 1940s. “Since the 17th century,” Haider notes. “the resistance to racial oppression and capitalist exploitation have gone hand in hand.” None of that history and historiography fits Coates’ stark, zero-sum, all-or-nothing race versus/-over class dichotomy.
Questionable Cuck Talk
Beneath the eloquent elegance of his prose, Coates has a peculiar habit of bizarre over-reach. Listen to this odd formulation on Trump’s former top right-wing white-nationalist political adviser Steve Bannon:
“Trump’s rise was shepherded by Steve Bannon, a man who mocks his white male critics as ‘cucks.’ The word, derived from cuckold, is specifically meant to debase by fear and fantasy—the target is so weak that he would submit to the humiliation of having his white wife lie with black men. That the slur cuck casts white men as victims aligns with the dicta of whiteness, which seek to alchemize one’s profligate sins into virtue. So it was with Virginia slaveholders claiming that Britain sought to make slaves of them.”
Hold on. Bannon is a terrible racist, but how did those 91 words get past the Atlantic’s copy editors? There’s nothing about race in any known definition of the word cuckold. Maybe there ought to be but there isn’t.
An Imaginary “Sweeping Dismissal”
Coates claims that Sanders made a “sweeping dismissal of the concerns of those who don’t share kinship with white men” when the Vermont Senator said the following after Trump won last November: “I come from the white working class and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to the people where I come from.”
Personally, and politically, I think Sanders should have left out the word “white” and just said “working class.” Still, the “sweeping dismissal” that Coates claims to see in the Senator’s remark is a mirage. It’s projected on to Sanders’ comment by Coates.
By pushing working people’s issues to the side of its corporate-funded neoliberal agenda, Sanders was saying, the Democratic Party has demobilized white working-class voters and lost touch with them. The dismal neoliberal Democrats’ failure to adequately represent working-class people obviously benefits the racist Republicans. It helped the ugly white-supremacist Trump prevail.
That’s not a racist, white-tribalist thing to note. It’s just an elementary observation.
“An Empty Statement”?
“To say that the rise of Donald Trump is about more than race,” Coates asserts, “is to make an empty statement, one that is small comfort to the people – black, Muslim, immigrant – who live under racism’s boot” (emphasis added).
The first part of that statement is sheer nonsense. Of course we should not expect Black and brown victims of racism should to be soothed or cheered by the knowledge that a racist president is also a sexist, a plutocratic fake-populist, a nativist, a reckless militarist, and an enemy of livable ecology. But surely those (including people suffering directly under racial oppression) who oppose racists in high office should and generally do also oppose sexism, nativism, and the rest. And surely, decent anti-racist people would want to understand all the factors that contributed to the terrible ascendancy of a horrific racist president like Donald Trump, including factors besides race and racism alone, no? Right? Hello?
Color and Character
Coates takes Sanders to task for saying the following when he was asked last year about a young woman trying to become the second Latina U.S. senator in American history: “It is not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me! No, that’s no good enough…One of the struggles that you’re going to see seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics.”
Coates interprets Sanders’ comment to mean that racial, gender, and ethnic experience and identity should be jettisoned in the name of white-tribalist and color-blind class struggle. But that is absurd given Sanders’ longstanding denunciation of racism and sexism. I would not have phrased Sanders’ comment the way he did. I have been a critique of Sanders’ failures on race (as well as on empire). Still, the Senator was stating an obvious truth that Dr. Martin Luther King would certainly second: the simple fact of one’s ethnic, racial, gender, or sexual identity alone does not qualify one for holding a position of policy-making power. “I have a dream,” King famously intoned in the summer of 1963, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” That beautiful sentiment must cut all ways, not just one.
Barack Obama, for whom Coates gave great if complicated support (Coates rightly faulted the first Black president for staying horribly mute and deceptively “post-racial” on the specifically racial oppression of Black Americans) is a perfect example of why that is so. Lacking the genuinely progressive character required to remotely oppose the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire, Obama advanced the deadly corporate-neoliberal, surveillance-state, and imperial agendas with a special absence of serious progressive resistance (including left and liberal white resistance) thanks in no small part to the simple fact of his technical half-Blackness. The color of Obama’s skin blinded many on Coates’ broad “left” to the neoliberal/capitalist, imperialist, police-statist, and ideologically white-supremacist content of his character. A Hillary Clinton presidency might well have performed some of the same trick with gender substituted for race.
Meanwhile the real conflict for many of us on the actual Left isn’t between identity politics and class politics. It’s between bourgeois, zero-sum, divide-and-rule identity politics and a left politics that understands racially (and gender- and ethnic- and so on) specific experience, oppression, and identity as critical in building movements of popular solidarity in the struggles against the combined, interrelated, and overlapping evils of class rule, racial oppression, imperialism, patriarchy, police-statism, and – last but not least – ecocide. (Please see my May 24th 2017 Counterpunch essay “Beyond Neoliberal Identity Politics”)
Over-Praising and Under-Criticizing Democrats
Some of the more revealing parts of Coates’s essay come when he unduly downplays the failures and over-credits the successes of top neoliberal Democrats. “In 2016,” Coates writes, “Hillary Clinton acknowledged the existence of systemic racism more explicitly than any of her modern Democratic predecessors.”’ Besides giving the objectively racist Hillary more credit than she deserves, that statement is false. Read the transcripts of John Edwards facing off against Mrs. Clinton and Barack Obama in the presidential primary debate that took place in Charleston. South Carolina, in January of 2008.
But how much does this matter? Coates is absurdly over-focused on the statements of top candidates and other political elites. The solutions to contemporary capitalism-racism-imperialism-sexism-ecocide and other related evils won’t come from the top down. They’ll have to emerge from the common people, everyday workers and citizens, struggling and organizing from the bottom up.
Obama’s Mythical “National Health Care” Delivery
Almost as an aside, Coates applauds Obama for “deliverance of the ancient liberal goal of national health care” (emphasis added). But, of course, what Obama really passed was expanded neoliberal health insurance, with corporate profits and over-high premiums fully intact, millions still uninsured, health care and insurance still over-commodified, and tens of millions dependent on their employers (something full of authoritarian implication) for coverage. This was a far cry from the real “national health care” – single-payer Medicare for All – that serious progressives and many liberals have long advocated. Back in the Fair Deal and Great Society day, for what it’s worth, “the ancient liberal goal of national health care” was actually single-payer.
Obamacare was derived from the right-wing Heritage Foundation and test run under Republican governor Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. It was passed with single-payer advocates kicked to the curb, curiously enough given longstanding majority U.S. support for the Canadian model.
Is Class-Blindness Really Required?
Coates admonishes George Packer for writing that Obama left the U.S. “more divided and angrier than most Americans can remember.’ Coates calls this “a statement that is likely true only because most Americans identify as white” (emphasis added). So, Coates failed to note that the nation’s savage New Gilded Age class inequalities reached new levels of extreme disparity during the years of the openly Wall Street-captive Obama White House, itself chock full of Goldman Sachs operatives – a presidency that came to end with its fake-progressive standard bearer pushing for the explicitly global-corporatist Trans-Pacific Partnership and (as the terrible white-“tribal”-ist Bernie Sanders correctly noted in 2016) the top tenth of upper U.S. 1 Percent owning nearly as much wealth as the bottom U.S. 90 percent?
Does proper attention to racial oppression and identity mean that we must close our eyes to class divisions rooted in a richly bipartisan state-capitalist system (that makes three of my books hyperlinked in the last 86 words) that brings disastrous consequences particularly but not exclusively to people of color (who lost already-scarce net worth relative to whites during the Obama years)?
Open for “The Russia Attack”
And then there’s this – brace yourself, comrades – near the end of Coates’ seemingly endless essay:
“In a recent New Yorker article, a former Russian military officer pointed out that interference in an election could succeed only where ‘necessary conditions’ and an ‘existing background’ were present. In America, that ‘existing background’ was a persistent racism, and the ‘necessary condition’ was a black president. The two related factors hobbled America’s ability to safeguard its electoral system. As late as July 2016, a majority of Republican voters doubted that Barack Obama had been born in the United States, which is to say they did not view him as a legitimate president. Republican politicians acted accordingly, infamously denying his final Supreme Court nominee a hearing and then, fatefully, refusing to work with the administration to defend the country against the Russian attack.”
Okay, so there you have it: the Neoliberal Democrat Ta-Nehisi Coates has bought into the John Podesta-Hillary Clinton-Rachel Maddow-Washington Post-Council on Foreign Relations “deep state” Blame Russia narrative, crafted by top Democrats from day one and before to give the corporate right-wing wing of their party a convenient neo-McCarthyite way to avoid blame for the epic electoral failures that result from neoliberal, donor-serving, and vote-suppressing demobilization of the working and lower classes. The bear ate their homework.
Coates leaves out a critical pre-existing condition for the (yes) deeply racist Trump’s triumph: the dismal dollar-drenched nature of the Democratic Party in the age of Coates’s erstwhile hero Barack Obama. Following in that great “leftist” Bill Clinton’s right-wing neoliberal footstep, Obama’s presidency has epitomized the left-liberal political scientist Sheldon Wolin’s early 2008 description of “the Democrats’ politics” as “the inauthentic opposition.” Wolin prophesied that “should Democrats somehow be elected,” they would do nothing “to alter significantly the direction of society” and to “substantially revers[e] the drift rightwards. … The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts points to the crucial fact that for the poor, minorities, the working class and anti-corporatists there is no opposition party working on their behalf.” The corporatist Democrats would work to “marginalize any possible threat to the corporate allies of the Republicans.”
The venerable white professor called it. A nominal Democrat was elected president along with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress in 2008. What followed under Obama (as under his Democratic presidential predecessors Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton) was the standard “elite” neoliberal manipulation of campaign populism and identity politics in service to the reigning big money bankrollers and their global empire. The Wall Street takeover of Washington and the related imperial agenda of the “Pentagon System” were advanced more effectively by the nation’s first half-white president than they could have been by any white Republican. New Gilded Age class and race inequality soared to new levels of abject obscenity under Obama’s “progressive” presidency, when nearly all of nation’s income gains went to the top 5 percent.
There was a left-led rebellion against the bipartisan plutocracy in the late summer and fall of 2011. It was called the Occupy Wall Street Movement. From Obama and his Department of Homeland Security down to mostly Democratic-run cities across the country, Democrats acted to do their capitalist masters’ bidding by crushing that populist uprising from coast to coast. The underlying “drift rightwards” sharpened, fed by a widespread and easily Republican-exploited sense of abandonment and betrayal, as the Democrats depressed and demobilized their own purported popular base. One result was the surreal ascendancy of the Twitter-addicted malignant narcissist and vile racist Donald Trump along with the Republican takeover of the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate, and the Supreme Court along with most of the nation’s state governorships and legislatures.
There was, yes, the Bernie Sanders rebellion within the Democratic Party last year. But the Inauthentic Opposition Party kept things fixed so he couldn’t defeat the Goldman-Clinton machine, which then handed the nuclear codes and the federal bench to the racist orange-haired beast.
Sanders, for all his ham-fisted failures on race, would likely have defeated Trump. He would be using the presidency to advocate policies that would have great value for people of color.
Marx-Blind: More Race Without Class
In his latest essay, as in his bestselling book Between the World and Me, the amateur historian Coates stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that – recent elections and voting data aside – American white working-class people, too, have long paid a steep price for America’s deep and noxious white supremacism. In Coates’s rendering, the American white working-class has been the “beneficiary” of racism but never to any significant degree its victim. He’s wrong about that. For, as Haider notes:
“Treason to the white race, in fact, is in the interest of the vast majority of people classified as white. This should not be taken to mean that the privileges granted to white people by white supremacy are not real—they are all too real, and many white people enthusiastically participate in white supremacy to preserve these privileges. However, for the white people who are not owners of capital, white privilege is a poisoned bait.”
Why hasn’t the U.S. working class majority risen to challenge and destroy the socio-pathological profits system and the pitiless capitalist masters who have treated the laboring masses, the common good, and the ecosphere with murderous contempt? Part of the answer lay in the way that North American capitalism has encouraged the white majority of workers to, in the distinguished radical and white historian David Roediger’s words, “define and accept their class position by fashioning identities as ‘not slaves’ and ‘not black,’” By the great Black Marxist W.E.B. DuBois’ account in 1935, anti-black racism grants lower and working-class whites a perverse kind of “public and psychological wage” – a false and dysfunctional measure of status used to “compensate” for alienating and exploitative class relationships. As the democratic socialist and labor as well as Civil Rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. observed in 1968, racialized U.S. capitalism gave its Caucasian proletarian prey the deceptive “satisfaction of…thinking you are somebody big because you are white.” A long continental racial division and shame rooted originally in the profit calculations, class needs, and Machiavellian machinations of colonial and early national slave-owners – and their mercantile, industrial and political allies – continues to this day to obstruct working class unity to overthrow the absurdly unequal and authoritarian regime of capital, which now poses an ever more imminently catastrophic threat to livable ecology. (It does so along with the related psychological “wages of maleness” and “wages of Empire”: the sense that one is a big shot because one is male and because one lives in the world’s military and mass-cultural/mass-consumerist superpower).
The “satisfaction of thinking you are somebody because you are white” has always been a terrible lie. It has helped cloak white workers’ subordinate and expendable status, which never disappeared despite the very real if limited advantages white skin privilege has granted them relative to working- and low-class people of color. It has injured those workers’ material status by undermining their capacity to enhance their economic and political power by joining in solidarity with nonwhite workers. It has too often joined them in ultimately self-harming alliance with rich fellow whites who couldn’t care less about working class people of any color. It has focused white workers’ ire on the wrong enemies – those with the least power (non-white workers and the poor) instead of the moneyed elite, which wields its wealth and power to cripple and destroy lives and the common good. And it has (along with numerous other the related reactionary messages in the reigning American ideology) encouraged white workers to blame themselves as well as even less privileged people of color for their own difficult circumstances under the remorseless reign of capital. “Privileged” people are supposed to be doing well, after all. If they’re not, it must be their own fault. This is a hidden factor behind the recently reported rising death rate of working-class white males, driven largely by alcoholism, drug abuse, and gun suicide
Coates cites David Roediger repeatedly without showing any understanding that the historian in question is a Marxist who understands racism and whiteness both (imagine) as problems in their own rights and as key parts of how predominantly white capitalist class maintains power atop the overall working-class population. Perhaps Coates would like to read Roediger’s latest book Class, Race, and Marxism (Verso, 2017). According to his left publisher Verso:
“Roediger’s influential work on working people who have come to identify as white has so illuminated questions of identity that its grounding in Marxism has sometimes been missed. This new volume implicitly and explicitly reminds us that his ideas, and the best studies of whiteness generally, come from within the Marxist tradition. In his historical studies of the intersections of race, settler colonialism, and slavery, in his major chapter (with Elizabeth Esch) on race and the management of labor, in his detailing of the origins of critical studies of whiteness within Marxism, and in his reflections on the history of solidarity, Roediger argues that racial divisions not only tell us about the history of capitalism but also shed light on the logic of capital” (emphasis added).
We don’t have to learn about it just from white guys. Did nobody at Coates’s alma mater Howard University make him read DuBois or the forgotten Black Marxist sociologist Oliver Cox? What about CLR James?
Part of a Ruling Class Hit Job
Why does Coates take such strange and creepy aim at socialists, who have little power in the U.S. but tend to play very positive and sometimes heroic roles in the continuing struggle for Black equality and racial justice? As the left labor historian Chad Pearson recently wrote me:
“I don’t think the role of Coates is to inform us about race and racism; instead, I think his chief goal is to question the relevance of class and class analysis. Is it even true that ‘leftists’ fixate on class struggle over other matters’? The leftists I know are active in Black Lives Matter, BDS, the Confederate statue removal movement, etc…What Coates is doing here, I think, reflects the role that liberal academics and writers have been doing since at least the 1980s: suggesting that those interested in class routinely dismiss other divisions in society. This is not true, as scholarship from Du Bois to the present reminds us. But we can thank folks like Nell Irvin Painter, Joan Scott, some whiteness studies, and now Coates for making these cases. Every few months we get a Coates-like essay telling us, ‘hey, sure we have class, but don’t forget other divisions.’ Do we really need the reminding?”
Reading Coates’ essay I found myself wondering how a writer as obviously brilliant and eloquent as its author would commit so much nonsense to paper with the knowledge that his reflections would be widely read by people fully capable of calling him out. Perhaps part of it is in fact the horizon-narrowing and power-serving hold that specifically bourgeois Identity Politics has on the minds of the intelligentsia, including even some of its sharpest thinkers in the neoliberal era. Or perhaps Coates is not so much a super-smart fool as a super-smart cynic who knows which side his bread is amply buttered on. You don’t get to hold a privileged perch at the neoliberal-capitalist Atlantic and get “Genius Grants” from the corporate-globalist MacArthur Foundation by being a Marxist who takes seriously the problem of class rule and its dialectically inseparable relationship with racial oppression. Going down that seriously radical path costs you money and prestige. It comes with a price. Serving the bourgeoisie and becoming part of the Russo-phobic ruling-class Neoliberal Democrats’ recent coordinated hit job on progressives (see this and this for other examples) in their right-wing party’s ranks is a much better-paying gig. Brilliant.
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Paul Street is an independent radical-democratic policy researcher, journalist, historian, author and speaker based in Iowa City, Iowa, and Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of seven books to date: Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: a Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010); (with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011); and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). Paul writes regularly for Truthdig, Telesur English, Counterpunch, Black Agenda Report, and Z Magazine.
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