The dead end of racial identity politics

Racial identity politics within the United States have historically assumed one of two forms: integrationism and black nationalism. The integrationist view was most eloquently espoused by Frederick Douglass. It sought to eliminate racial barriers to upward social mobility by reforming the dominant social, political, and economic institutions within capitalism to be inclusive of black business and professional elites, as opposed to just their white counterparts. The black nationalist perspective, whose best-known exponent was Marcus Garvey, was much more skeptical concerning America’s ability to accommodate racial diversity within the ruling class. Its proponents argued that blacks should build their own independent political and economic enclaves within American cities, with many in the movement calling for blacks to return to Africa.1 Both integrationist and nationalist ideologies were predicated on notions of elite spokesmanship that made black workers into the wards of “their” capitalist class. This principle is encapsulated in the politics of “symbolic representation” (“black faces in high places”), in its various iterations, according to which parity between social groups can be determined by measuring the degree of elite representation within the halls of power.2 Alternatively, it has been referred to as an “elite-brokerage” style of politics. Within this framework, the diverse and often conflicting interests of blacks, which are primarily dependent upon their class positioning, are subsumed under the heading of homogeneous racial interests, with black capitalists, predictably enough, speaking on behalf of an empirically non-existent black community.3 In short, in spite of their superficial differences, both integrationist and racial separatist (i.e., nationalist) perspectives share many assumptions that are apologetic to the existing capitalist social order. It shall be the aim of the present essay to prove the inadequacy of identity politics for liberating blacks within the United States from racialized oppression and to provide, in broad outline, a roadmap for their emancipation and that of all oppressed peoples.

The idea of the right of nations to self-determination entered public discourse in earnest when then-US president Woodrow Wilson issued his Fourteen Points towards the end of the first world war. Long before that, though, the “national question” had been a subject of fervent discussion, not only among the most ardent defenders of capitalism, but also the international socialist movement. Rooted partly in the experience of the American and French revolutions, but also the major social upheavals that took place between the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, this theory holds that a nation, or group of people sharing a cultural identity, has the right to detach itself from an alien political body and decide for itself the manner in which it is to be governed. Naturally, this postulate appealed to the weak among the capitalists. Subordinated economically with respect to the dominant factions and effectively excluded from political power, they saw in it the opportunity to advance their position within capitalism by capturing the state apparatus. However, it also found a great deal of support among socialists, who feared that their mass movements would collapse from under them and workers would flock to the capitalist parties if they did not prostrate themselves before the delusions of the masses. Only a few within the Socialist International took a principled stance against the shameless opportunism of its leadership concerning the question of nationalities. The left wing of the socialist movement, whose foremost representative was Rosa Luxemburg, rejected the right of nations to self-determination as a bourgeois myth and reasserted the validity of the core Marxian concept of class struggle.

Nations, according to Luxemburg, are abstractions whose existence cannot be asserted through factual means. They do not exist as internally homogeneous political entities because of the contradictory interests and antagonistic relations between the social classes that comprise them. Hence, as Luxemburg explains, “there is literally not one social area, from the coarsest material relationships to the subtle moral ones, in which the possessing class and the class-conscious proletariat hold the same attitude, and in which they appear as a consolidated ‘national’ entity.”4 But nationalism is not simply an artificial thought-system propagated by the ruling class to keep the exploited masses subjugated under their rule. Rather, like all other ideologies and political theories, it is rooted in socioeconomic realities and historical processes. To be more specific, nationalism was the ideological implement through which the ascendant European bourgeoisie rallied the poor peasantry and the proletariat in its struggle to overthrow (and replace!) the feudal nobility. It was likewise with race, a category with no scientific basis whatsoever, since the current extent of our species’ biological diversity is far too superficial to merit differentiation into distinct racial categories, but which served nevertheless as an ad hoc justification for the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism, both of which were vital to capitalist primitive accumulation.5 Therefore, the function of race in the American context is rather comparable to nationalism in eighteenth century Europe. As Adolph Reed explains, these ideologies, “help to stabilize a social order by legitimizing its hierarchies of wealth, power, and privilege, including its social division of labor, as the natural order of things.”6

The institutionalization of the racialized division of labor in the United States, which was quite profound historically and has assumed the form of slavery, racial segregation, and “post-racial” structural racism successively, makes the American context unique in a few significant ways. For instance, whereas in other countries, racially and ethnically delineated labor pools have historically been incorporated into capitalism as a particularly vulnerable segment of the working class that can be subjected to intensified forms of exploitation (i.e., surplus-value extraction), black workers in the United States are disproportionately impacted by the structural unemployment that capitalism naturally produces. Their status as a surplus or excess population — “excess” only in the sense that they cannot be profitably employed by capital — can be attributed in large part to their historical exclusion from the formal economy, and particularly those sectors experiencing the highest growth, which some have identified as the source of their relative underdevelopment.7 Instead, the majority of black workers live in a chronic state of unemployment or under-employment and have been affected more than any other subsection of the US working class by the tendency towards the casualization of employment that has flourished under neoliberalism. It is precisely this dismal state of affairs which racism seeks to rationalize. Hence, racialist thought plays a dual function in modern-day capitalism: 1) it helps channel groups of people into certain occupations and allows for the maintenance of a reserve army of labor that can be deployed during periods of heightened capital-expansion; and 2) it sows divisions within the ranks of the workers and ideologically binds them to “their” exploiting class.8

Since racism is grounded on the economic substructure of society, it logically follows that its abolition will not be brought about by the exploiting class or political movements led by it. The self-anointed leaders of the so-called “black community,” who purport to be mediators between this idealized collectivity and the majority-white political establishment, are deeply embedded in capitalist production relations and therefore complicit in the reproduction of racism. These “black brahmins,” as Manning Marable famously referred to the professional-managerial stratum (a layer of society that includes clergy, politicians, and middle-class professionals), are little more than professional poverty pimps, opportunistically riding the wave of black proletarian discontent to achieve political prominence and riches for themselves.9 The most recent manifestation of this phenomenon is an activist network in the United States that calls itself “Black Lives Matter,” which has become synonymous with the movement against racialized police violence, a clear-cut example of capitalists and their lackeys co-opting the authentic resistance of black workers. This organization, whose ties to the Democratic Party-NGO complex are fairly well-established at this point, attempts to harness the explosive spontaneity of the proletarian element within these social movements, which often takes the form of riots and looting, into forms of engagement with the capitalist system that do not interfere in any way with profitmaking.10 It is unsurprising, therefore, that their manifesto reads like the DNC platform, but with demands for reparations and investment into black-owned businesses — effectively income redistribution for black capitalists — thrown in for good measure. Black Lives Matter are modern-day Garveyites, only they have traded in the overt homophobia and misogyny of the latter for hollow social justice rhetoric that throws a veneer of radicalism over their essentially capitalist politics.

For reasons that we have already explored here, the capitalist class and its allied strata, all of whom are materially invested in the preservation of the existing social order, are incapable of putting forward a suitable response to anti-black racism in the United States, much less to the generalized barbarism of this society. Therefore, a solution to the profound social, economic, and moral crisis that capitalism presents at this juncture rests with the large segment of humanity dependent on the sale of its labor-power. In the American context, the creation of a multi- gendered, national, racial, etc., working-class front uniting all those who, while not equally disempowered, share a fundamental relationship to the economy, will be instrumental to abolishing capitalism and its attendant hierarchies. To this end, all forms of identity politics, which espouse collaboration between exploited and exploiting classes, and thereby compromise the success of workers’ struggle for emancipation, must be firmly opposed. It is not, however, enough to oppose identity politics; socialists must actively address non-class forms of oppression, detailing their foundations in capitalism and explaining how a socialist society will do away with them.

It is true, for example, that within the United States blacks are murdered by police at a rate that is more than twice their percentage within the general population, while whites and Latinos are killed at a rate that is roughly proportional to their share of the population. However, it is important to note that more than half of all those killed by police are white. Moreover, in states with very small black populations, the percentage of blacks killed by police is many times smaller than the national average, which suggests that although anti-black racism is an important factor in police killings, it is clearly not the principal one. In fact, empirically speaking, the most reliable predictor of whether a person is likely to be murdered by police is not their race, but their class. More than 95% of all police killings are concentrated within neighborhoods where the median annual household income is just under $100,000, while the median annual household income in most neighborhoods where police killings occur in general is just over $52,000.11 Police killings are not, then, a mechanism for establishing and reproducing white supremacy, but rather white supremacy is a system for maintaining the domination of capitalists over workers, regardless of the race of either one. Or as Adolph Reed succinctly explains, “the pattern in those states with high rates of police killings suggests […] that it is the product of an approach to policing that emerges from an imperative to contain and suppress the pockets of economically marginal and sub-employed working-class populations produced by revanchist capitalism.”12

Recent developments in the class struggle within the United States are cause for careful optimism, since they reveal a willingness on the part of some workers to organize themselves in order to press their demands collectively against the bosses, independently of institutional (Democratic Party) and institutionalized (labor unions) organizations that actively discourage such behavior and openly stifle these attempts. The recent wave of illegal and non-union (i.e., wildcat) strikes by workers in the logistical and service industries, many of which have been multiracial due to the displacement of a large segment of the general working population into low-waged and low-skill labor over the last few decades, is a sign that something is potentially brewing beneath the surface.13 With each successive struggle, workers in the United States learn for themselves that they have more in common with one another than not. Sadly, this emergent wave of militancy has been confined to a handful of industries and it has not yet spread to the whole class. Although still in its infancy, these experiences have greater transformative potential than all the consciousness-raising and leftist proselytizing in the world. The material imperatives of the class struggle impose themselves on the consciousness of social actors as an objective barrier impeding any further progress. Thus, for example, if white and male workers believe that they are inherently superior to black workers or to women, then they will make no attempt to organize with them, and their resistance will be crushed by the bosses all the same. For it is the class struggle itself that challenges people’s deepest beliefs about the world and each other, and which draws the lines of battle within the workplace between workers and capitalists. In other words, the very process of putting together a solidaristic movement — that is, a social movement that unites all those who are exploited under capitalism — also works to actively undermine the various ideologies employed by the system to fortify and stabilize itself.


1 John Henryk Clarke. Marcus Garvey and the Vision of Africa. (Black Classic Press. Baltimore, MD: 2011). Pg. 207.
2 Manning Marable. Beyond Black and White: Transforming African-American Politics. (Verso. New York, NY: 2009). Pg. 188.
3 Adolph Reed. “Why Is There No Black Political Movement?” Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene. (The New Press. New York, NY: 2000). Pgs. 4-5.
4 Rosa Luxemburg, “The National Question and Autonomy.” The National Question: Selected Writings (Monthly Review Press. New York, NY: 1976). Pgs. 135-136.
5 Karl Marx. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. (Penguin Books. New York, NY: 1976). Pg. 915.
6 Adolph Reed. “Marx, Race, Neoliberalism.” New Labor Forum. (№ 22: 2013). Pg. 49.
7 Manning Marable. How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America. (South End Press. Boston, MA: 1983). Pgs. 48-49.
8 Marx, op. cit., pgs. 781-782.
9 Marable, op. cit., pgs. 170-171.
10 Janell Ross. “DeRay McKesson is Running for Mayor: What Does That Mean for Black Lives Matter?” Washington Post. (February 4, 2016).
11 While it is not a great indicator of class positioning, understood by Marxists as a person’s relationship to the economy, we can make useful generalizations from data that looks at income.
12 Adolph Reed, “How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence.” Nonsite. (September 16, 2016).
13 See, for example, the walkout by 4,000 dockworkers in Newark, New Jersey, which the International Longshoremen’s Association did not approve of, the latter issuing a call later that very day for its members to return to work. Or the truck drivers’ protest in Hialeah, Florida, which blocked traffic on Okeechobee Road, one of the main arteries through which goods and people move in and out of the city, until they were forced to disperse violently by police.