Race, Class, and Systemic Reform

intersectionality2Can compassion-minded activists justifiably talk about human rights without also talking about civil rights? Can we justifiably talk about what it means to be human without talking at the same time, in the same sentence, about race, class, gender, and the other pigeonholes that the System uses to divide and conquer? Or can we first affirm universal principles, and then later, time or space permitting, oppose specific forms of oppression? Might we build a broad coalition based primarily, most fundamentally, on universal principles, while also, secondarily, affirming the rights of people whom the System classifies and oppresses based on certain arbitrary characteristics? In order to mobilize the white working class, do we need to emphasize economic issues more than social issues like race?  

Many post-election commentators are saying that class is more important than race. Robert Borosage for example has argued, “Clinton [talked] about removing barriers, with constituency-specific agendas, rather than focusing on a populist economic message that would lift all (emphasis added).” Borosage concluded, “Democrats better learn how to sing from Bernie Sanders’s gospel….”

Bernie’s post-election message is: “One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics,” which, according to wikipedia, “refers to political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify.”

In The Guardian, Heather Long says, “As I re-read King’s addresses, I can’t help but think that if he were alive today, he would be preaching and organizing first and foremost about income inequality…. The most pernicious problem in society today is the haves and have nots”

On NPR, Mark Lilla cited as a positive example a man who reported:

I belong to a bowling team with black and Latino coworkers. And when we get together and we talk about politics … we don’t talk about Black Lives Matters. We talk about what matters to our families. We talk about jobs, and we talk about the fate of the country. That is America, and you can reach those people.

In his “The End of Identity Liberalism” essay in the Times, Lilla objects to the proposition that “we should become aware of and ‘celebrate’ our differences.” He argues that “the fixation on diversity” has encouraged people narcissistically “to keep this focus on themselves” and that “younger journalists and editors [believe], that simply by focusing on identity they have done their jobs.”

Lilla criticized Clinton’s campaign for

calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded…. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals…. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it….

National politics in healthy periods is not about “difference,” it is about commonality…. We need a post-identity liberalism,… As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale.

But as Steven Shults posted on Facebook, “You can draw attention to the plight of the poor without pitting the issue against other issues. This is not a zero sum game. (It’s not a game at all.).” It’s not either/or.

As I see it, Clinton’s mistake was not her calling out to specific constituencies. Rather, it was not calling out to more of them — as examples of a larger problem. Society systematically labels, ranks, and discriminates against countless categories of people. It’s systemic. The problem is the System, which serves to divide and conquer.

If one has only a sound bite, it’s not feasible to present a long list of examples. But in a standard stump speech, it is.

Economic populists, however, want to heavily emphasize economic issues and reject that intersectional approach. Intersectionality” argues:

We should think of each element or trait of a person as inextricably linked with all of the other elements in order to fully understand one’s identity…. The classical conceptualizations of oppression within society—such as racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and belief-based bigotry—do not act independently of each other. Instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination…. Socially constructed categories of differentiation interact to create a social hierarchy…. There is no singular experience of an identity. Rather than understanding women’s health solely through the lens of gender, it is necessary to consider other social categories such as class, ability, nation or race, to have a fuller understanding of the range of women’s health concerns…. Seemingly discrete forms and expressions of oppression are shaped by one another….  [This] analysis is potentially applied to all categories (including statuses usually seen as dominant when seen as standalone statuses).

Or you could use Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” to make the point:

Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight

Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight

An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night…

Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake

Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked

Tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake…

Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind

Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind

An’ the unpawned painter behind beyond his rightful time…

Tolling for the tongues with no place to bring their thoughts

All down in taken-for-granted situations

Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute

Tolling for the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute

For the misdemeanor outlaw, chased an’ cheated by pursuit…

Tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail

For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale

An’ for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail…

Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed

For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse

An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe

It’s not easy to talk about intersectionality. Some may believe that I as a white man have no right to do so. But partly because what I have to say, I believe, echoes what I’ve learned from people of color such as Howard Thurman, Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr., James Baldwin, and Mahatma Ghandi, I feel compelled to speak.

To transform the System, we need to set aside labels and affirm our universal humanity, while also opposing specific forms of oppression. The various identities the System inculcates in us overlap and reinforce one another. In that way, the System is integrated, combined into a whole. We can better transform that System with communities that are integrated in the same way — that is, communities whose members acknowledge and accept their multiple identities. From that perspective, if one talks about class one generally needs to also talk about race, and vice versa. However, it is also justifiable at times to go deeper and talk only about our essential humanity. One can hope for the emergence of a broad vision that inspires a massive human rights movement that also affirms civil rights.

I’m not fully comfortable with that approach. It may be wrong. But for now that is the perspective affirmed by the latest draft of the Holistic Transformation statement of principlesI envision that additional publications will address specific forms of oppression.

Criticisms and suggested changes for that work-in-progress are welcome.

10 Responses to Race, Class, and Systemic Reform

  1. Ted Chabasinski:

    I am not directing this to you, really, Wade, but I can’t see why liberals or people who say they are leftists, make things so complicated. There are groups of people who experience particular oppression, and there are other people whose oppression is around class. But even that is too convoluted for me.

    There is no reason all the problems of different groups can’t be addressed at the same time as the class issues. At bottom, everyone, almost, is experiencing oppression from the same source…capitalism.

    Oh damn, it seems simple to me, but expressing it simply is hard.

  2. Dan Nissenbaum:

    I appreciate attempting to address the heart of the issue – this ‘divide’ that is clearly now playing out about ‘identity politics’. I know where I stand on this divide, and so I will limit my response now to a comment involving the latter section of the current draft which touches on my own sense of this with clarity about what I reflect as a limitation there.

    The current piece mentions that “Economic populists, however, want to heavily emphasize economic issues and reject that intersectional approach.” I do not think this is true. I think it is important to recognize that for the last generation (up until Occupy and Bernie Sanders), race and gender issues have received overwhelmingly more attention and discussion in the corporate media and within the non-profit industrial complex funding structures than system-wide economic criticisms (which are not so easily identified by the single word, ‘class’, as ‘race’ and ‘gender’ can be easily identified). This has had a tragic consequence that, unwittingly or not, entire institutions have developed whose focus includes system-wide race and gender issues, but few organizations whose focus includes system-wide oligarchy and capitalism issues,

    Given the dwarfing disparity between the attention received by race and gender issues and the attention received by oligarchy/capitalism issues – which is really unarguable if you consider, for example, the number of times that terms related to ‘racism’ or ‘sexism’ appear on television and in print when compared with the number of times terms related to ‘classism’ and ‘capitalism’ appear – what economic populists want is parity in the discussion. The word ‘intersectionalism’, like any other loaded term, can be used in a manipulative way, and when those in power within the non-profit industrial cultural classes claim that economic populists reject intersectionalism, it reveals a failure of understanding and that people expressing those criticisms are not challenging their own privilege in the sense that they perceive an attempt at parity in the discussion to be an attack on intersectionalism itself. This is a crisis on the left that must be addressed.

    None of my comments above address the fact that intersectionalism does not mean that race and gender issues are simply analogous to class issues. Part of the reason why privileged elites in the non-profit industrial complex often exhibit such a strong reaction to ‘economic populists’ is because economic populists seem to make the claim that ‘economic issues’ underlie race and gender issues. It is for this reason that the criticism I highlight in bold above is levied, that ‘economic populists want to emphasize economic issues and reject intersectionalism’. It is a dangerous game to play to attempt to embrace intersectionalism by oversimplifying ‘intersectionalism’ to mean ‘every issue is analogous to every other issue’. It is always true that racism and sexism occur within the underlying fabric of the economic system. But this basic fact is often rejected by those who do not question the disparity. Racial and gender equality and fairness are critical issues, but if the house itself is burning, they are not analogous issues. In fact, the house may be burning because racial and gender issues are not being addressed. But nonetheless they are not analogous issues.

    I suggest integrating these critical concepts into the piece. Else the arguments will be straw-man arguments.

      • Wade – I don’t think that question has a yes or a no answer. I do not think the issues are analogous; I think it is a mistake made by the dominant reactionary form of ‘identity politics’ to conflate these issues as though they are, simply, analogous, like a set of checkboxes.

        One major ramification of the fact that they are not analogous is that I do not think people are born ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’. If people had all of their needs met without stress or effort racism and sexism would not be an issue. I think those who insist that racism and sexism would always be an issue regardless of whether people have all of their needs met are reactionaries who imply that people are simply born to be racist or sexist regardless of circumstances, and I strongly disagree.

        On the other hand, some people do not go so far, but do say that ‘given the history of patriarchy and white supremacy, even if people have all of their needs met, there would still be racism and sexism’. I think this is an ignorant and reactionary point of view. I think people need to understand that it will be impossible to address racism and sexism if people do not have their basic needs met. Therefore seeing that the ills of capitalism are addressed is absolutely critical if racism and sexism are to be addressed. But there is, sadly, often little talk about addressing capitalism within anti-racist and feminist movements, even when the word ‘intersectionalism’ is bantied about, and this deeply troubles me.

        The problem that I have with identity politics today – and the concept of intersectionalism – is that these concepts are extensively used as rhetorical tools in much of the so-called ‘left’ to avoid addressing economic issues entirely by setting up false equivalencies between racism, sexism, and economic classism. Racism and sexism have received overwhelmingly more attention in the mainstream media, business and politics and in the circle of ‘leftist’ pundits for the past 1-2 generations, perhaps up until Occupy and the Bernie Sanders movement. It is time that economic issues are addressed as seriously, so that a candidate like Hillary Clinton will use the words related to ‘capitalism’ or ‘oligarchy’ as frequently as she uses words related to ‘sexism’ and ‘racism’.

        It is time that the word ‘intersectionalism’ is not used an Orwellian sense to mean exactly its opposite – attacking people who are working hard to see that ‘capitalism’ is addressed with the same seriousness as racism and sexism, not as analogous issues, but as different aspects of what needs to be addressed.


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  4. Steven Shults:

    While it is important to acknowledge our universal common humanity, “setting aside labels” is harmful to those who are part of marginalized groups. To ignore the “labels” is to ignore the marginalization of the groups those words describe. This is only helpful to members of the dominant culture, and allows discussions to ignore the adverse effects experienced by those who are not part of the dominant culture, at the hands of the dominant culture. It is a suggestion akin to the suggestion of being “color blind” or saying “I don’t see color.” That approach invalidates and ignores the very real negative experiences of people of color. It serves only to allow the white “color blind” person to ignore problems that are not experienced by white people. This is why you don’t hear people of color calling for a “color blind” approach. This is also why you only hear straight, white people questioning intersectionality and calling for approaches without “labels.” “The System” didn’t create the labels. “The System” put straight, white, Christian people above all other groups, thereby making labels necessary to describe the way “The System” oppresses different groups in different ways.

    You can’t build a sturdy structure with raw clay. You need individual bricks, made from clay, to build a sturdy structure.

    • I do not believe that to “set aside” labels is to ignore race, class, or anything else. Nor does it amount to being color blind. If a vase of flowers sits between us, we can set it aside in order to make eye contact and still be very much aware that it is on the table.

      Dr. Blake said, “King stated that the ultimate goal of nonviolence was to understand that the destiny of all, white, Black, whatever, is tied together, that is, to reclaim our walk together as one people.”

      Dr. King said, “And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man..”

      Dr. Thurman wrote, “Once an attack is made on the enemy and the individual has emerged, the underprivileged man must himself be status free…. There is a spirit at work in life and in the hearts of men that is committed to overcoming the world. It is universal, knowing no age, no race, no culture, and no condition of men. For the privileged and underprivileged alike, if the individual puts at the disposal of the Spirit the needful dedication and discipline, he can live effectively in the chaos of the present the high destiny of a son of God.”

      I believe that by “status free” Thurman meant to transcend, or set aside, labels.

      I had a conversation with an African-American at church today. We seemed to be on a similar wavelength. To place too great an emphasis on the label, to only or primarily see the other through that lens, interferes with person-to-person encounter.

      • Steven:

        If the vase of flowers on the table contains pollens that one person is allergic to, but the other is not, then to set it aside without acknowledging that what is in the vase is detrimental to one person but not the other, then the conversation cannot be an equal one. One person in the conversation will have their participation hindered by the sneezing, itcy eyes, and irritating effect that pollen allergies have on consciousness, while the non-allergic person is free to express themselves unhindered.

        King’s quote refers to a time when racism and classism have been transcended. We are not there yet. Not by a very long shot.

        The way I read that Thurman quote, it is also about the state of being once the goals have been achieved, and the spirit that flows through us all, a spirit which is of that place where we want to be, but are not yet.

        Yes we must acknowledge the place in us that is the same in all of us. But we can’t work *only* from that place, because in our culture, that place is equated only with the dominant culture. Our dominant culture lies and tells us that only straight, white, Christian men are of that common, central spirit. Those not part of the dominant culture are made to feel separate from and undeserving of that whole, that spirit. To set aside acknowledgement of this can further marginalize those who are told by “the system” that they are not worthy of taking part in the discussion in the first place.

        It is easy for us straight white men to want to set aside labels during discussions of how to improve things for everyone, because we don’t have to walk through the world as members of a marginalized group. It’s easy for us to want to focus on the big picture, because we are the big picture. We have to acknowledge that some are locked out of the big picture in order to allow them to participate in changing the big picture to allow them a place in it. Setting aside that acknowledgement creates a conversation in which the members of the dominant culture continue to talk down to sub-cultures and to assert (even unconsciously) to sub-cultures that only the dominant culture has the solution. (For an extreme example, see the reports about how white activists at Standing Rock have been telling members of the tribes how they should or shouldn’t behave.)

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