In the United States today, one of the fiercest debates on the Left concerns the relationship between race and class. On one side, it seems, are those who deny the independent relevance of racial inequality to the case against capitalism. People on this side are interpreted to be arguing that racial oppression is, in fact, just class oppression in disguise. On the other side are those who argue that class inequality cannot explain the specific injustices of racial oppression, and that racial inequality is thus a distinct problem that requires a distinct political strategy.
For an egalitarian today, deciding which side to take in these “race vs. class” wars is one of the hardest and most fraught tasks they will face. It must often seem to them that they are not being asked simply to answer an important strategic question, but also to declare whom and what they care about, and thus whom and what they disregard.
Our aim in this essay is to address egalitarians in this predicament. We think it is no surprise that so many are confused, since we think that the race vs. class debate has often been a confused one thus far. This is for at least two reasons.
First, participants frequently fail to clarify some basic descriptive and explanatory tasks. The race-class debate encompasses at least three issues that are usually left unstated. People on the Left disagree, but mostly implicitly, about which life outcomes egalitarians should care most about; what shape the race-specific distributions of these outcomes take in the general population; and what causal pathways generate these distributions.
The first objective of this essay is to defend specific ways of thinking about these three questions. We argue that the race-class debate should center on one principal domain: the distribution of material resources. This is because these resources determine the ability of people to pursue whatever ends they value and to resist the designs of others over them.
Such a foundation sets the race-class debate on surer empirical footing. If resources are what matter, we must ask: How are material resources distributed in modern, race-divided societies? And what generates these distributions? Some leftists speak as if the distributions of these outcomes are substantially nonoverlapping (e.g., that all or most black people are worse off than all or most whites), and that race explains these outcomes in an unmediated way. But, as we illustrate in the first part of this essay, income data from the contemporary United States show a substantial overlap between race-specific distributions. We propose a simple framework to help egalitarians be more precise about the ways in which race and class intersect to affect outcomes.
Second, the debate is also a debate about strategy. What kinds of coalitions should egalitarians build? And what kinds of remedies should these coalitions demand? Some people defend race-based coalitions and race-targeted remedies like reparations. In the second part of this essay, we address those egalitarians who dedicate themselves to the specific goal of reducing racial inequality (e.g., the gap in earnings between the median black and the median white person). We argue that even these egalitarians will find that race-based politics has fatal limits. In societies in which racially oppressed groups are a minority of the population, race-based coalitions are fatally constrained by demography. Thus, even if all one cares about is racial inequality, race-based politics are a dead end. Class-based politics are the only viable route to racial liberation.
To defend this conclusion, we argue that conventional race-based and class-based goals can be conceptualized as different ways of redressing inequality in modern societies. We show that these two agendas will have radically different bases of support. Partisans of “race-based” politics appeal to electoral coalitions built on the support of the black population. They will find it impossible to build viable electoral or working-class coalitions because, in the United States, they have nothing to offer to a majority of the potential members of either group. “Class-based” politics, by contrast, can be anchored in either the disruptive power of a multiracial working class or in electoral coalitions of the poor.1 Class-based politics are thus a much more promising vehicle for egalitarian change in the advanced capitalist world.
In the final part of the essay, we argue that, even in countries where the parameters of racial demography furnish more hospitable foundations for race-based politics, the case for class-based over race-based strategies is still overwhelming. When the income distributions of racial groups are substantially overlapping (as in the United States), poor members of racially oppressed groups will gain more from class-based interventions (like income-based redistribution) than from race-based ones, while richer members of the racially oppressed will gain more from race-based interventions than class-based ones. This gives race-based politics a decidedly inegalitarian veneer. To choose race-based politics or coalitions over class-based ones is to elevate the interests of the rich over the interests of the poor.