Friday, October 21, 2011

Great Expectations, Frustrated: or The White Face of "Class Diversity"

Dear Readers:

Posts will be fewer and farther between for another month or so as I venture into the job market incognegro. That's right: your friendly blackademic is applying primarily for jobs that are not marked "colored only." This is not an entirely conscious choice; this year, there are few positions in African-American Literature or History before 1865. And, though I have a chapter that deals with Cherokee audiences of Shakespeare, I am not a specialist in Native American history and culture.

However, there are Shakespeare, Early American Literature, and 18th Century British Literature positions galore. I have always wanted for the consideration of those forces that shape the distribution of property and pleasure (race, gender, and sexuality among them) to be central to academic study rather than peripheral and subordinate. We shall see if my applications--which speak to those areas but do not announce where I sit in them--are appealing.

Have we come a long way, baby? Would my being hired without announcing my blackness be a sign of postracial utopia? Or does the success of critical race approaches in the academy have unintended negative consequences? Often, minority scholars celebrate not having to study their own identity group as progress. But the more meaningful victory, I think, will be when such study is neither disallowed nor deemed mere partisan advocacy, a dead-end avenue that never opens onto the "big issues."

This thought brings me to the language of class, in its Marxist and populist incarnations--both of which have been reactivated by Occupy Wall Street and its galvanizing slogan, We are the 99%. Two caveats before I begin: first, I am tremendously supportive of the OWS protest. Their courage to be there and to stay give me hope that a new social contract might be negotiated. What I say below is an attempt to help provide a different way of looking at the old "identity politics is tearing our movement apart" conundrum. My second caveat relates to that: this is an early draft, a work in progress that I will continue to edit and revise.

As Occupy Wall Street and its progeny have spread and persisted, certain questions have opened up about racism within the movement. Predictably, those who mount these critiques attract accusations of inventing frivolous and extraneous complaints that can only serve to divide. Those who think that part of "the movement" includes addressing racial and gender inequality and military occupation are forced to answer: "What's the bigger deal, a racist insult here or there or the ruination of the world economy?" However, that question tips the scales to necessitate its foregone conclusion.

What if we asked instead: "What is life like for the 99%?" To pursue that question means that such matters as the War on Drugs, sexual harassment, police brutality and military occupation, substandard schooling, environmental racism, street violence and domestic violence all become aspects of life in the 99% that create and exacerbate economic deprivation. One would also have to realize that not all of those experiences of the precariousness of life can be resolved via an economic confrontation with Wall Street. Instead of thinking we already know the 99%--our profiles and the single cause of our deprivation--it would be best to remain curious about who we are and how we got here.

Any attempt to reduce the matter to an economic one--and to insist that those who present something more complex are splintering the movement--is an attempt to place the concerns of an abstract white, male citizen above the concrete needs of all the diverse constituents who make up the 99%. It is to assume that one, representative story (or frame) can be used to explain a multitude of circumstances.

And when that story comes from what is sometimes termed "the labor aristocracy," it's hard to build a true grassroots movement. What one gets, instead, is a comparative elite, demanding loyalty and strict adherence from various subordinates who benefit little, if at all, from a narrow view of what constitutes economics or equality. Demanding loyalty to a movement that has no concern for the forces wrecking your life differs not one bit from the demand for patriotism that comes from higher up the economic ladder. Both ask you to substitute a feeling of camaraderie for an actual piece of the benefits in which your only share is a symbolic one. 

Unfortunately, we have long had a tendency to grant that only white people represent a class position. Even as great a thinker as David Roediger had to acknowledge that his view of the "making of the American working class" was premised entirely on the actions and self-conceptions of nineteenth-century Euro-Americans (Afterword to Wages of Whiteness, Revised Ed.) In our national shorthand, nonwhite unfortunates are most often called upon to represent issues of unalloyed racial discrimination. Just think of your favorite all-white shows--especially from the 1990s, cough, 90210, cough--and the way that the guest appearance of a black character almost always signals a special episode on racism.

It is very difficult (though not impossible) for our national consciousness to understand nonwhite people as representative of any class position. Their class position is, for all intents and purposes, their racial identity. (And one could say the same of the variety of white positions we can imagine: gay, straight, Catholic, evangelical, Tea Party, OWS). Shows like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air are exceptions to the rule--funny precisely because they show the blackness we know (street blackness) confronting an upper-class blackness that isn't supposed to exist, outside of certain celebrities.

For the most part, black people (to be specific) appear in popular discourse to represent blackness--in its frightening and tantalizing outlaw forms of violent crime and sexual license. Black people do not typically represent political movements or sentiments that do not proceed from racism as their starting point: that is to say, if a black person is talking about something other than racism, they are understood at that moment to be occupying a not-black position.

This brings us to OWS, which has had an overwhelmingly white face and has also sustained some criticism (in Philadelphia, specifically) for reluctance to address the concrete ways that race affects the distribution of social goods (economic and otherwise). So, how does it come to be that, in a society in which unemployment, poverty, and health outcomes are so disproportionately affected by race, that nonwhites are not primary representatives of class struggle? Let's start by saying that, for the most part, the poorest nonwhites are so demonized, criminalized, and isolated that they are unlikely to be present in interracial activist settings: the kinds where many of the participants have college degrees and took courses offered by the likes of yours, truly. This is not to disparage but to locate: these movements are often college-educated in grievances, formulations, tactics, and aims--even when the participants are not, themselves, currently high-earners.

Whites in these kinds of settings often have radical political theories, but they are not comfortable seeking out and working alongside people who lack their education and manners. The black people who are present in these movements (say, a Cornel West) often appear as middle-class as the white participants, if we judge them by their clothing, employment and shared academic language. A well-paid professor like West might even appear as simply a representative of "elites"--if one thinks that class position completely eradicates racial caste.†

But this simplified view where "green" cancels out "black," ignores that the class backgrounds and destinations of white and nonwhite activists differ greatly. For, while everyone has to be trained to exhibit middle-class comportment (i.e., "professionalism"), whites who hail from the middle-class learn it to maintain their standing, where their "well-spoken" nonwhite counterparts have to learn it  to earn the opportunity even to enter the gates. Many of the nonwhites in ostensibly uniform spaces like the classroom at a private university are not as far from precarious economic life as their well-articulated English would suggest. Those who think they acquired professionalism naturally forget that the middle-class comportment many people acquire does not necessarily correspond to actual class background but, rather, to a class aspiration.

With this first misunderstanding in place, a particularly dogged white proponent of class politics might go on to say that nonwhite people who attain middle-class professions are standing in the way of “real progress,” that is, standing in the way of self-identified “not-rich” white people advancing socially. I have witnessed these confrontations in solidly middle-class milieus--that is, places where the word milieu might be used and understood.††  After a nonwhite, native-born citizen speaks about the impediments of race, including the difficulty of entering and being comfortable in middle-class spaces, a white (or white-thinking) conversationalist will inevitably announce his lower-class background and lament that what is really lacking is "class diversity." However, "class diversity," as it is usually meant, is a misnomer proceeding from a misapprehension, fueled by self-absorption. The white(-thinking) conversationalist leaves little doubt as to what class diversity would really look like: himself.

For black people, especially, cannot represent class inequality in the contemporary US ("Hollywood's Class Warfare") . The white proponent of class politics is, without a doubt, attempting to substitute himself for the racial activist who is said to have stolen the stage (see Marlon Ross, "Pleasuring Politics"). This would not be a problem if it were acknowledged as such: Hey, the programs targeting victims of racial discrimination that you're talking about would never have helped me, and I want to make sure the next kid like me makes it

Instead of this honest acknowledgment of a legitimate self-interest, we get the idea that you affirmative action beneficiaries didn't need the help you got. Look how middle-class you are (now)! There is no younger version of you. You are the last unicorn...or the last negro we need to let through the door. Targeting racism is over: now let's get back to helping me. In this self-serving gesture toward post-racial society, one important line of questioning is suppressed: How, without affirmative action, did the lower-class white kid become the university professor? In other words, in what ways does the possession of a normative white male body (or an acceptable surrogate) make it more possible to play the protagonist in a narrative of upward class mobility?

Had I time, I could talk in detail about the multitude of popular cultural narratives that teach us to see whites (men, especially) as folks who come from nothing and make themselves by sheer dint of their will and courage. Notice how often, when faced with a challenge, working-class white underdogs face a well-established person of color--a towering figure who poses an impossible challenge to the white hero. I mean, you'd think Mexican drug lords and black boxers were impeding the white working class more than Big Banks. Think...

Italian-American Hero: Rocky Balboa outpaces Apollo Creed
Rocky, Training Day, Annapolis, Million-Dollar Baby, Breaking Bad, Hung. Think Mark Wahlberg's life (Twunch), ... and whatever movie he is in this year... Think of the way that black and Latino figures serve as Goliath in so many tales of the rise of a white David. Think of the preposterous chain of events (also known as Providential Miracles) by which the smaller, weaker,  wilier, and (strangely) more sympathetic white guy defeats his inhumane and often insane black or Latino enemies. (I love you, Breaking Bad, but you've gone to this well twice now.) The white male outlaw is just claiming his piece of the American pie by any means necessary. If the economy repaid his efforts appropriately, he wouldn't have to take over the illegal economy governed by the ruthlessness and strength of the black and Latino underclass. But, if he must...
The strangest thing is that his (or, less often, her) victory is at once guaranteed--because the white guy is the star of the show--and shocking, because the black or Latino titan is depicted as impossible to kill. Is it fair to conclude that white skin is, in these stories, proof of God's Providence? What else helped David kill Goliath but God guiding the stones from the sling? In the usually godless world of contemporary TV and film narratives, what guarantees Rocky, Walter White, Hilary Swank's boxer, or Ethan Hawke's police trainee will triumph in realms where they are physically outmatched and in which they lack experience and street smarts? It seems that an absolute fusion of religious election and white racial caste has been effected. In place of Deus ex Machina... Deus ex Tergum? (i.e., God in the skin)
In these narratives in which only white people can represent the economic underdog, certain things must be suppressed. For example, it must be forgotten that "Whiteness" functions "as Property"--as illuminated in Cheryl Harris’s indispensable legal article of the same name. The most revealing of her points is that one piece of property white people own is “the expectation of future advantage.” That means that our legal system recognizes as property not only what one already has, but what one expects to amass in the future. Harris argues that as white people gained property by land seizure, enslavement, segregation and employment discrimination, they also amassed the additional property of an expectation of future advantage. And, as we know from employment law, one can sue for future earnings lost.

As Harris tells it, nonwhites did not, en masse, dream the American Dream (apologies to Herman Cain). And though not all whites experienced it, most seem to have dreamed of it. And holding on to that dream has meant holding on to the idea of upward mobility via white American manhood, rather than aligning with nonwhite people catching hell. And this is why populist anger at the death of the American Dream--whether coming from the Left or the Right--seems to me to be indisputably white political anger emerging from these same frustrated expectations. Many nonwhite citizens have had no such expectations – even those of us who sound quite solidly middle-class when we speak.

People also seem to have forgotten that nonwhite citizens always enjoy less of the country’s fortunes in boom times than do white citizens. Consequently, policies that target racial disparities do address class inequality. They are not sufficient – because factors such as gender, sexuality, religion, and citizenship can also affect employability, salary, and inheritance. Nevertheless, they address a part of the way that the class structure is maintained—that is, the myriad ways that pathways to sharing in wealth are blocked for many people.

The only explanation for the continual cries of “returning to class” is an attempt to return to an idealized notion of a homogeneous bloc—uniformly oppressed and politically righteous—that has, of itself, the power to eradicate all inequalities at once. I’ve said before, and I’ll memorialize it now: the only people whose problems will be solved completely by the overthrow of capitalism’s particular mode of labor exploitation are those whose sole experience of vulnerability and exploitation is on payday. That's a staggeringly small number of us, not even those white people who think we should focus on economics alone cross social barriers and avoid state or intimate violence with ease. 

But isn't it possible to use other representative figures who are able to stand for shared vulnerabilities--vulnerabilities that those with expectations of protection and advantage will not voice, for fear of losing even the promise of those fulfilled expectations? Or, better yet, would it not be possible to leave open the questions of who are the 99% and how we came to be here until we have a clearer idea of how to coordinate their multifarious answers?

The complexity of the modes of distributing property, protection, and pleasure are precisely why I hope that the OWS movements never reduce their goals to simple economics, or the passage of a simple law. These reductions are a great way to get dismissed: either a) for asking something "impossible" (translation: unpalatable), or b) by giving you a piece of one thing you said you'd settle for and then telling you to go home.

I hope that the Occupy movements stay put and stand firm with their multiple demands ranging from Palestinian liberation to sexual equality in the US. This would be quite a feat: for, in refusing to say one thing, OWS, et al, could manage both silence and coordinated harmony at once. And in that refusal to say one thing lies the possibility of getting more than a minor concession meant to appease and hold in abeyance. I hope they stand firm in silent cacophony, allowing the powers-that-be to keep heaping concessions on the pile until the 99 says "Enough, we are satisfied."

† I once had a very bright and committed white Marxist undergraduate argue that Bill Cosby's only affiliation was to his class. He claimed that since Cosby criticized hip-hop music in harsh generalizations, he lacked any sense of solidarity with working-class and poor black people. While I share his objection to the patronizing aspects of Cosby's uplift politics, I thought it rather strange to ignore that Cosby has encountered racial barriers even in his economic position and has maintained a sense of responsibility to "the race" throughout. The student, I found, was not aware of the specifics of Cosby's battles with NBC, which sought to block him from promoting the declaration of a federal holiday for Dr. King and criticizing apartheid... or his off-the-radar tour of community centers in black neighborhoods this decade. He just took it as a given that--since class trumps all--Cosby has stronger ties to whites of the class he attained than blacks from the class he came from. While I fear there may be some black folks coming up now who will be so mistaken as to think their economic achievements insulate them from racial forces in the society, I am certain almost no one of Cosby's generation that fought for integration (and I'm including Condoleezza Rice in this) has ever made that mistake.

†† The two examples that stick out in my mind occurred at a prestigious private university in upstate New York and at a bar in NYC, with three gentlemen who have  postgraduate educations. The first involved a white professor who somehow missed the class component of a black presenter's talk on the ways that undergraduate and graduate education estranged him from the economically depressed neighborhood where he grew up. The second involved a white-thinking South Asian who actually claimed  that global capitalism does more damage than, say, rape culture. He never addressed the staggering statistics about rape and domestic violence, but argued that access to food and shelter--and cleaner air and drinking water--would improve everyone's lives. So, the definition of solidarity operating here seems to be: help me remove the few stumbling blocks in my path that we share, and I will say we have all benefited so that I never have to address the problems only you face. And this, dear readers, is the problem with an abstract and coercive notion of "we."


  1. I agree with your conclusion, hoping OWS can maintain its broad amorphous agenda -- which has allowed for some marginally productive work here in Philly with the curfew (aided by our friend KW!). But I fear that arguments about labor inevitably marginalize issues of race and other forms of difference. It's been the case so many times throughout our history I see it happening again, because, as you say, in the unnecessary "race vs. class" frame, class usually wins. It's not the worst thing in the world -- no change is the worst -- but we should all hope to do better.

    Can I also just say: "incognegro" = brilliant.

  2. Thank you for your comment, AJC. I have been watching Occupy Philadelphia with some interest. It seems that the work there is ahead of some other places, at least, as far as I can tell.

    Two notes:

    1) If we submit to the idea that race is an "other form of difference," I think we lose the game right there. Then "class" gets to be about economics while "race" is about hurt feelings and offensive comments. Nope, won't do it.

    2) Incognegro must be credited, first, to my friend WWIII -- who coined the phrase sometime in the late 90s. I have seen it recently as the title of a novel and a nonfiction book. I told him he should sue.