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Vol 7 No 2 Summer 2023

The Class Politics of Race

Kenan Malik’s Not So Black and White: A History of Race From White Supremacy to Identity Politics is a detailed yet broad examination of how race was invented as a logic to organize people’s experience of themselves as well as to channel political activity. The book is organized around four themes: 1) a retelling of the story of race, demonstrating how it emerged as an elite discourse to justify restricting equality and liberty to the few; 2) an exploration of how mass resistance, particularly against slavery, colonialism, and Jim Crow, expanded the ideas of liberty and equality in order to make them truly universal; 3) an examination of the relationship between racial inequality and class inequality, with special attention to how a narrow focus on racial inequality obscures how class exploitation works to produce and reproduce racial inequality; and 4) how identity politics is a form of class politics that operates with equal perniciousness on the Right and the Left. Not So Black and White is not only a searing indictment of how “our preoccupation with race frequently hides the realities of injustice,” it is also a call for a different kind of politics — one that is class-based and worker-focused — to free us from the prison of identity.1 Although the book is not explicitly framed as a critique of epistemology, it is a provocation to think even more critically about analytical categories and the politics of historiography. Not So Black and White invites us to evaluate how race has become not only the primary way to organize political life but also the preferred epistemological category for explaining the march of history. As such, it demonstrates that debates over historiography and epistemology are not simply of academic interest. They are informed by class politics and are weapons in political struggle.

Malik’s book could not be more relevant for the debates around race in the United States. Take, for example, the controversy around critical race theory (CRT) and, in particular, the confrontation between the so-called 1619 Project and 1776 Commission. Nowhere are the class politics that drive historiography more apparent than in current debates over what Florida governor Ron DeSantis derisively termed “woke history” and what the minds behind the 1619 Project call “the full history of America without it being whitewashed.”2 Taken at face value, these two projects appear to be ideologically opposed. If we view them as forms of ideology and thus “concrete elements through which the struggle between classes is fought out,” it becomes clear that they are different expressions of a shared class politics.3 Malik points out that identitarians on the Right and the Left share a common hostility to the working class and “radical forms of universalism.”4 The 1619 and 1776 projects exemplify this. They reject three forms of radical universalism: class struggle, the class analytic, and universal social programs targeted at redistributing the social surplus from the rich to the poor and working classes.

Having evolved from a New York Times Magazine piece into a 624-page tome that weaves together poems, photographs, and essays organized around a central mission — documenting “the central role that slavery and anti-Blackness played in the development of our society and its institutions” — the 1619 Project, its editors proudly proclaim, “breached the wall between academic history and popular understanding.”5 The text’s principal argument is that inequalities in most areas of American life, from traffic patterns to the delivery of health care, are an outcome of “historic and systemic racism.”6 Its analysis is clearly informed by the dominant tendency within the sociology of race and ethnicity, which argues that America is best understood as “a racialized social system” and that analysis must focus on uncovering the “mechanisms responsible for the reproduction of racial privilege in society.”7 The 1776 Commission, the brainchild of the Donald Trump administration, is an explicit rebuke of the 1619 Project. It decries the fact that an “oppressor-victim narrative” not only underwrites the latter’s historical account but does so in order to provide ideological cover for policies that would grant special privileges to racial minorities and thereby “create new hierarchies as unjust as the old hierarchies of the antebellum South.”8

The term “intellectual common denominator” was coined by sociologist C. Wright Mills to describe an idea of such iconic status that “men can state their strongest convictions in its terms.”9 The term “legacy of slavery” meets that criteria. The 1776 and 1619 projects both wield slavery as an ideological weapon, seemingly in service of opposing social aims. The 1619 Project argues that because slavery was the foundation upon which American society and its inequality was built, “reparations must include individual cash payments to descendants of the enslaved in order to close the wealth gap.”10 The 1776 Commission maintains that slavery was an unfortunate aberration in a nation founded on the rights and freedom of the individual. John C. Calhoun and the Confederacy rejected this in favor of the idea that rights and privileges “inhere not in every individual by ‘the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God’ but in groups or races according to historical evolution.”11 As such, the 1776 Commission draws a parallel between people who argue in favor of reparations and the defenders of slavery. Both seek to sacrifice equality and private property in the name of “group rights” and “explicit group privilege.”12

Despite their many differences at the level of conclusions, the detractors and defenders of “woke history” share, uncritically, the same principles of investigation and explanation — the same epistemology. They both demote the role of class interests in political contestation. Likewise, the class politics that inform both projects are remarkably similar. The 1776 and 1619 projects are united in their reverence for capitalist social property relations, despite their disagreement about how the state should respond to the inequalities they produce.

Slavery, Race, and the Politics of Epistemology

Not So Black and White is a delightfully jargon-free and accessible text. Malik does not get bogged down in debates about theoretical and methodological frameworks. He is not explicit about the analytic perspective that informs his inquiry or the theoretical position that underlies his work. It is clear, however, that his analysis is grounded in political economy. This is not a minor point. The book is framed as a “history of Western thought.”13 Histories of ideas are tricky. They can easily slide from treating ideas as independent instances of social action to viewing the ideas, in and of themselves, as sufficient explanations of social action, thereby making cultural values and ideals “unproblematic explanations not only of social processes but also of themselves.”14Malik avoids these pitfalls because the book interweaves two narratives, the history of race and the history of working-class resistance to racism and colonialism. As such, this book is not just about the history of the idea of race; it is also a book about how ideas are forms of class discourse and are mobilized around class interests.

In Chapter 6, where he discusses the Haitian Revolution, Malik draws our attention to the fact that liberty and equality were ideological expressions of the French commercial bourgeoisie’s quest to overturn the social property relations of the ancien régime. As C. L. R. James explained, the fortunes created by the slave trade “gave the bourgeoisie that pride which needed liberty and contributed to human emancipation.” The revolutionary bourgeoisie “dignif[ied] its seizure of power with the Declaration of Independence or the Rights of Man.”15 The ideals of liberty and equality, born in the struggle between the feudal monarchy and the rising bourgeoisie, only became universal as a result of yet another series of class struggles: enslaver against enslaved and, when the latter emerged victorious, between the freedmen, Toussaint Louverture, and the emerging black landowning class that Louverture represented. Louverture and the new rulers of Haiti, Malik points out, “were of the same ‘race’ as those over whom they ruled. Many had been slaves.” The fact that they had a common racial identity did not deter the new black propertied classes from pursuing their class interests by subjecting the propertyless to a new regime of forced labor that was almost as oppressive as the one they had just overthrown. “That, too, is a thread that runs through the modern world.”16

The last sentence is key. Implicit in the book is an argument about how we should understand the role of class in history. Crucially, Malik draws our attention to not only the class politics that divide the racists from the anti-racists, but also those that divide the anti-racists from one another. In Chapter 8, “From Class Solidarity to Black Lives Matter,” he discusses the long-term political consequences of the “Scottsboro case,” which made Communist activity more legitimate, and the Communist Party more popular, among working-class African Americans in the South. At the same time, the case solidified the split between Communists and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and culminated in the victory of the “anti-Communist civil rights liberals” over “civil rights unionism.”17 The gains won by the anti-Communist civil rights liberals in the political realm represented an ideological victory that, I would argue, had epistemological implications. As Hugh Murray noted in “Aspects of the Scottsboro Campaign,” anti-communism has deeply distorted how American history is remembered and narrated, particularly when it comes to understanding race and class.

Much is written and published today on the history of the Negro in America, but all too often the authors display a narrow liberal bias…. What must yet be written, difficult though it may be in a nation whose creed is anti-Communism, is a full account of the role of radical movements and individuals in the anti-racist struggle.18

With Murray’s observations, we can add one more item to Malik’s list of ideas held dear by both the identitarian right and left: a rejection of political economy as a theoretical framework for understanding inequality. This in turn can help us better understand the class politics that simultaneously drive analysis and are expressed in the 1776 and 1619 projects.

Malik points out that, by 1955, forty-four states had anti-communist laws, the most draconian of which could be found in Tennessee, which “made the espousal of revolutionary Marxism punishable by death.”19 The sword of Damocles hung over the heads of not only activists but academics as well. As red-baiting and anti-Communist repression worked to “cleave the political from the economic and to view both in terms of identity” in the political realm, it also set the stage for an epistemic break.20 As political economy was excised from the two disciplines that needed it most — sociology and history — its understanding of class as a relationship defined by exploitation was eclipsed by the notion that class was an “identity” to be analyzed alongside other (more salient) ones. As sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva put it, “Races, as most social scientists acknowledge, are not biologically but socially determined categories of identity and group association. In this regard, they are analogous to class and gender.”21 When political economy was forcibly removed from the academy, ascriptive identities became the central analytical categories, race became reified, and racism was made metaphysical and transhistorical.22

The way in which anti-communism continues to inform epistemology can be seen most clearly in sociological theories such as “structural racism” and “color-blind racism,” which have become (to borrow a phrase from C. Wright Mills) “the major common denominator of serious reflection and popular metaphysics in [American] society.”23 In these theories, racism and the pursuit of white supremacy are the key drivers of historical change; slavery and colonialism are defined as “racial” regimes rather than as social property relations; and “racial formation” eclipses class formation as the primary object of theoretical inquiry.24 Paradoxically, an idea whose genesis was made possible by historians like Barbara Fields who are committed to class analysis — the notion that race is a “social construction” — has been seized upon by “race reductionist” sociologists to argue against class analysis.

Bonilla-Silva, whose work popularized ideas like structural racism and color-blind racism, maintains that although race is socially constructed, it “takes on a life of its own.”25 It is on this basis that he rejects “class and class struggle as the central explanatory variables of social life” in favor of seeing “social relations between the races” as primary.26 Michael Omi and Howard Winant have likewise argued that it is precisely because “it is now widely accepted in most scholarly fields that race is a social construction” that they “advance what may seem an audacious claim … that in the United States, race is a master category.” Similar to Bonilla-Silva, they reject class analysis because it treats race as “epiphenomenal to class and class relations.”27

Race reductionist sociologists often credit Barbara J. Fields’s “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America” for having shown that race is a social construction.28 Fields has pushed back on this claim, noting that “the ‘social construction’ of race [is the article’s] starting point, not its conclusion.”29The opening of her analysis was, of course, the social property relations and class struggles of seventeenth-century Virginia. The ability of race reductionists to ignore this and to use race’s socially constructed nature to argue for its analytic priority over class is not due simply to sloppy scholarship. Rather, it reflects the way in which anti-communism separated race from class in both the political and epistemological realms.

1619, 1776, and the Politics of Historiography

For the devotees of race reductionism in sociology, the fact that race is a social construction has served to support the idea that racism has driven historical development and change since the sixteenth century or, as Marxist historian Judith Stein wryly observed, the mistaken idea that “men make history according to their racial likes and dislikes.”30 When Omi and Winant argue that “the concept of racial projects can be applied across historical time to identify patterns in the longue durée of racial formation, both nationally and the entire modern world,” they mimic the nineteenth-century race scholars Malik discusses in Chapter 2, “The Invention of Race.”31 These nationalist historians, he reminds us, developed “racial theories of history.” Like the identitarians of today, their mission was to engage in “a retelling of the past, and also of the present.”32

Historiography, particularly when it comes to slavery, is the public arena where the epistemic implications of identity politics’ rise are most keenly felt. We are living through a moment when people are trying to draw connections between what C. Wright Mills called “biography and history,” or “the patterns of their own lives and the course of world history.”33 Because slavery is so obviously and intimately connected to American racism and because black people suffer disproportionately from every social ill — from poverty to homelessness to drug addiction — debates over historiography are no longer just of academic interest. They have contemporary political implications. As the 1619 Project explained, in making the year 1619 “our country’s origin point, the birth of our defining contradictions,” it sought to shed a new and different light on “the unique problems of the nation today — its stark economic inequality, its violence, its world-leading incarceration rates, its shocking segregation, its political divisions, its stingy social safety net.”34 The 1776 Commission, on the other hand, draws a direct line between the Confederacy and identity politics. Because it tried to substitute a theory of group rights for individual rights, the Confederacy and its attendant slavery, it argues, are the “direct ancestors of some of the destructive theories that divide our people and tear at the fabric of our country.”35

Taken at face value, the projects appear to be locked in a battle over facts. The 1776 Report states, “The facts of our founding are not partisan. They are a matter of history. Controversies about the meaning of the founding can begin to be resolved by looking at the facts of our nation’s founding.”36 The 1619 Project makes the same argument, albeit in reverse.

The absence of 1619 from mainstream history was intentional. People had made the choice not to teach us the significance of the year. And it followed that many other facts of history had been ignored or suppressed as well…. The histories we learn in school or, more casually, through popular culture, monuments, and political speeches rarely teach us the facts but only certain facts.”37

Both projects signal a concern with historiography. In its assertion that facts must be “properly understood,” the 1776 Commission does so obliquely.38 It clearly relies on an empiricist theory of knowledge whereby facts are neutral and explanations can be derived by simply ordering and cataloging them, without the intervention of a theoretical apparatus. The 1619 Project is explicitly framed as “a considered historiographic intervention.”39 The theory that drives how it orders facts (which are never seen as neutral) is that “slavery and racism lie at the root of ‘nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional.’”40 In the face of sharp criticism of the 1619 Project — much of it from scholars on the Left — the American Historical Review defended this interpretive framework as being “laudable, if unexceptional.”41 The fact that this race reductionist view of American history is indeed unexceptional, particularly among historians who define themselves as liberal, if not radical, is the logical outcome of an academy whose analytical frameworks have been circumscribed by anti-communism in precisely the manner that Hugh Murray described. One of the lesser remarked upon aspects of the victory of anti-communism and the defeat of the Left is the way in which the retreat from political economy has made it so difficult for American intellectuals to deal with racism analytically because of their dogged belief that the virulence of American racism means America is “analytically exceptional.” Historians and sociologists on both the Left and the Right have bought into the view that “elsewhere, classes may have struggled over power and privilege, over oppression and exploitation, over competing senses of justice and right; but in the United States, these were secondary to the great, overarching theme of race.”42 When Karl Marx contrasted the sober-minded shopkeeper who was “well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is” with the credulity of historians who “take every epoch at its word and believe that everything it says and imagines about itself is true,” he could easily have been describing the American academy in the twenty-first century.43

One of the most compelling insights of Not So Black and White is that identitarians of left and right are linked by “the same hostility to universalism.”44 They both reject Enlightenment ideals, as Malik points out. And they reject class as a universal analytic category, as I have pointed out. Careful reading of the 1776 and 1619 projects reveals yet another universal that they both reject — universal social programs. Despite their intense disagreement about historical dates, eras, and the meanings assigned to them, there is one historical era about which the two projects agree: the Progressive Era and New Deal. The 1776 Commission derides the Progressive Era for having promoted the idea of group rights at the same time they built a massive bureaucracy — a “shadow government” — through which the state abrogated the right to redistribute wealth.45 The 1619 Project approvingly cites Ira Katznelson, who likened the New Deal to “affirmative action for white people” and described the federal government of the time as “a commanding instrument of white privilege.”46 The 1776 Commission rejects the New Deal and big government because it sees them as a precursor to socialism and the “flawed philosophy” of “allowing the state to seize private property and redistribute wealth as the governing elite sees fit.”47 The 1619 Project rejects the New Deal because it is a tool of white supremacy. The two critiques of the New Deal are expressed differently and adopt opposing stances on the state and big government. Nevertheless, both resort to hagiographic accounts of America’s “most cherished values” as a means of promoting a very similar class politics — one that ardently defends wealth and private property.

Both projects profess their fervent desire to see Americans “form a more perfect Union” and live up to the “magnificent ideals upon which we were founded.”48 For the 1776 Commission, this means getting the government out of the economy and letting the free market have its way. For the 1619 Project, it means getting the government to intervene in the free market — to make sure that African Americans get their “just rewards.” Both, however, see private property as sacrosanct. The 1619 Project wants students to see that African Americans were America’s “most ardent freedom fighters” and that they “form a legacy of which every American should be proud.”49 To do so requires recognizing that “wealth begets wealth, and white Americans have had centuries of government assistance to accumulate wealth, while the government has for the vast history of this country worked against Black Americans’ efforts to do the same.”50 The 1776 Commission wants students to “appreciate and cherish” the United States, which means showing respect for “civil rights and private property.”51 Capitalism, it seems, is the universal ideal about which both sides agree.

We are living in a time when struggles are intensifying over the requisite state policies to ensure renewed capitalist prosperity and stability, on the one hand, and over the distribution of the social surplus to mitigate and manage inequality, on the other. How inequality is understood, in terms of the universality of the class dynamic or the particularity of the racial dynamic, critically impacts how people define the terms and terrain of struggle. It is one dimension of the fight to restore the “radical universalist tradition” that will help us “escape the identitarian trap.”52 As Not So Black and White demonstrates, we can begin to free ourselves from the analytical strictures of our obsession with race (Malik likens the phenomenon to Stockholm syndrome) by reclaiming some of the turf we ceded when left-leaning scholars repudiated universalism and the interests of working people in the name of racial justice.

About the Author

Zine Magubane is professor of sociology at Boston College. Her new book, Another Sociology Is Possible: Slavery, Colonialism, and the (Re)Making of the Classical Canon, is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.

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