The Alcove

How Black Lives Matter Changed Liberal Politics

Today’s civil rights activists chastise the left for ignoring race in favor of a class-based politics. Their protest is being heard—and is changing liberalism.

By Kevin Mattson

Over at n+1, one of today’s most important small magazines, Aziz Rana’s story on “Race and the American Creed” aims to take down numerous liberal shibboleths about race, social justice, and politics. (Nathan Pippenger wrote about it in Democracy a few weeks ago.) He argues that those subscribing to the idea of “creedal reform” have pretended that American politics can be a redemptive arena where “racial equality” is secured by focusing on “a set of ideals present since the founding of the republic.” Now, Rana contends, “in the face of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray—and the conditions in Ferguson and Baltimore,” this creedal reform has lost its clarion call.

There’s a lot to this long article, but I want to focus on one sentence and a parenthetical quip. Rana writes that black radical activists from the past “did not fall into the old labor presumption that race could be reduced to a problem of class (revisited in the debates around the Bernie Sanders campaign).”

When I read this, I realized—as I often do every four years—that at their best, presidential campaigns can solicit some deeper debates about politics, ideas, and history. They don’t have to be just about horserace reporting—the perpetual glance at polls—or about blind partisanship and sign waving. They can, just as much, be about big ideas and a focused reevaluation of our historical moment.

The presidential campaign we are now subject to offers historical perspective by the simple fact that it’s been going on a long while. I ask you to revisit an event that might have been forgotten since it occurred in ancient times of yore—the late summer of 2015. Bernie Sanders was campaigning and already getting some huge (pronounced “yooge”) crowds. But at one, in the liberal town of Seattle, his stump speech was interrupted—campaign language calls it “birddogging” —by perhaps one of today’s most important grassroots activist organizations, Black Lives Matter (BLM). The conflict confused numerous progressives, be they supporters or opponents of Sanders’s candidacy. How could Sanders, a man of the left who had participated in the civil rights movement, be chastised for paying insignificant attention to the demands of BLM?

I can’t speak for the activists (although a defender of BLM told The Atlantic that the action “kick-started needed conversations”). But what I think is going on is that BLM—and the events the organization has responded to, like police brutality in black urban areas and the disproportionate amount of black men in prison—has helped progressive intellectuals to rethink an intellectual legacy that stems from the 1990s (now we get real ancient) and has even deeper roots (super-duper ancient).

One of the most important political-intellectual nexus of progressive ideas during the 1990s was a critique of “identity politics” and a call for a majoritarian emphasis on class over racial, gender, and ethnic divides. The idea could be traced back to the populist movement of the 1880s and ’90s, when the one-time People’s Party leader Tom Watson (who would soon turn out to be a rabid racist) told crowds of black and white farmers, “You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings.” That racial prejudice was simply a smokescreen for economic and class exploitation was an idea that informed the Popular Front of the 1930s and the early associations between progressive labor unions like the UAW and the modern civil rights movement.

But something happened with the fracturing of America during the late 1960s and the rise of what Richard Rorty, among others, labeled the academic left. “Identity politics”—to crudely simplify, the emphasis on ascribed traits that structure a person’s experience in social and political life—displaced the inclusionary and socio-economic focus of the older left. And at the same time, conservative intellectuals and activists saw affirmative action as a wedge issue that could draw interest from the white working class of America. In the face of all this came the pushback by politicians and writers who considered themselves progressives and who offered a loud voice during the 1990s and into the aughts.

The power of this idea can be read in how it traversed the left-side of American political and intellectual life. Let us start in the center with Bill Clinton’s “Sister Souljah moment.” While speaking at a Jesse Jackson “Rainbow Coalition” meeting, Clinton—who, throughout his political career, has been in tension with Jackson—condemned the black rap artist, Sister Souljah, for making nasty remarks about how black gang members should kill white people, remarks whose backdrop was the Los Angeles riots of 1992. Clinton criticized this rap artist by comparing her remarks to those of the rabid racist David Duke. And of course, Bill Clinton, in 1992 at least, was hoping that he could win back the white working class to the Democrats by taking centrist positions proffered by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and criticizing the black radical left.

Ironically, a chief critic of the DLC, the more stringent liberal intellectual, historian, and activist Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had already written the ur-text of this progressive call to stop over-emphasizing the racial divide. The Disuniting of America (1991) was, in fact, an exemplar of what Rana calls the mistaken faith of “creedal” politics. Pushing back against multiculturalism in higher education circles, Schlesinger cited the “the American creed” and argued, “The genius of America lies in its capacity to forge a single nation from peoples of remarkably diverse racial, religious, and ethnic origins.” The book focused mostly on debates about higher education, but Schlesinger also pointed out how the American creed—not a separatist or black nationalist politics—helped provoke “great movements to end slavery, to raise the status of women, to abolish torture…” and the list went on. Unity, not a talk about difference, secured a liberal and progressive vision.

The argument continued to travel further to the left of Arthur Schlesinger, into the idea realm of the democratic socialist left, my own circles at the time. You could hear it in Todd Gitlin’s The Twilight of Common Dreams, some of the arguments made by Thomas Frank (eventually developed fully in his 2004 classic, What’s the Matter with Kansas), and certainly into the thinking of the editor of this very publication—witness Michael Tomasky’s important Left For Dead: The Life, Death, and Possible Resurrection of Progressive Politics in America. I cannot do full service to the complex arguments found within these books. But let it be said that they helped sound a chorus of progressive voices that emphasized class over the divisiveness of identity politics. And let me say this too: I read and agreed with these books when they came out. The argument for a majoritarian politics appealed.

Now things look different, as Rana (and others) have made clear. It’s hard not to feel in solidarity with BLM when they chastise the left for not paying sufficient attention to race in America (and since the Seattle event, Bernie Sanders has taken some change in direction due to the organization’s push). Race is a determining factor in both American history and our contemporary society. That seems almost absurd to have to state. But it now behooves progressives and liberals to take the lessons of the Obama era—and the near-idiotic mythology of a “postracial” society—that are grounded in the experiences of young black men in urban areas (including Flint, Michigan) and the prison system and make them speak to liberal politics and policies. That is, we can no longer think that class is an easy trump card or that we can float all boats by emphasizing it over race. We don’t have to go back to the “black radicals” that Rana draws on for hope (including Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton). But nor should we have faith that by focusing on a majoritarian, class-based politics that we will help correct the injustices that African Americans have and continue to face. The historical moment—and the presidential discussion that dominates so much of it—demands that.

Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952.

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