Saturday, May 26, 2018

Neoliberal Identitarianism - Race Discouse Displaces Political Economy


nonsite |  Black political debate and action through the early 1960s focused on concrete issues—employment, housing, wages, unionization, discrimination in specific venues and domains— rather than an abstract “racism.” It was only in the late 1960s and 1970s, after the legislative victories that defeated southern apartheid and restored black Americans’ full citizenship rights, that “racism” was advanced as the default explanation for inequalities that appear as racial disparities. That view emerged from Black Power politics and its commitment to a race-first communitarian ideology that posited the standpoint of an idealized “black community” as the standard for political judgment, which Bayard Rustin predicted at the time would ensue only in creation of a “new black establishment.” It was ratified as a commonsense piety of racial liberalism by the Report of the Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—popularly known as the Kerner Commission, after its chair, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner—which asserted that “white racism” was the ultimate source of the manifold inequalities the Report catalogued as well as the pattern of civil disturbances the commission had been empaneled to investigate.

Reduction of black politics to a timeless struggle against abstractions like racism and white supremacy or for others like freedom and liberation obscures the extent to which black Americans’ political activity has evolved and been shaped within broader American political currents. That view, which oscillates between heroic and tragic, overlooks the fact that the mundane context out of which racism became a default explanation, or alternative to explanation, for inequality, was a national debate over how to guide anti-poverty policy and the struggle for fair employment practices in the early 1960s. Left-of-center public attention to poverty and persistent unemployment at the beginning of the 1960s divided into two camps. One, represented most visibly by figures like Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz, Senators Joseph Clark (D-PA) and Hubert H. Humphrey (D-MN), United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, and black labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, argued that both phenomena stemmed from structural inadequacies in the postwar economy, largely the consequence of technological reorganization, especially in manufacturing. From that perspective, effectively addressing those conditions would require direct and large scale federal intervention in labor markets, including substantial investment in public works employment and skills-based, targeted job-training.

The other camp saw poverty and persistent unemployment as residual problems resulting from deficiencies of values, attitudes, and human capital (a notion then only recently popularized) in individuals and groups that hindered them from participating fully in a dynamic labor market rather than from inadequacies in overall economic performance. In that view, addressing poverty and persistent unemployment did not require major intervention in labor markets. A large tax cut intended to stimulate aggregate demand would eliminate unacceptably high rates of unemployment, and anti-poverty policy would center on fixing the deficiencies within residual populations. Job training would focus on teaching “job readiness”—attitudes and values—more than specific skills. Liberals connected to the Ford Foundation and the Kennedy and Johnson administrations saw chronic poverty as bound up with inadequate senses of individual and group efficacy rather than economic performance. That interpretation supported a policy response directed to enhancing the sense of efficacy among impoverished individuals and communities, partly through mobilization for civic action. The War on Poverty’s Community Action program gave that approach a militant or populist patina through its commitment to “grassroots” mobilization of poor people on their own behalf. In addition, Community Action Agencies and Model Cities projects facilitated insurgent black and Latino political mobilization in cities around the country, which reinforced a general sense of their radicalism. At the same time, however, those programs reinforced liberals’ tendencies to separate race from class and inequality from political economy and to substitute participation or representation for redistribution.

Both camps assumed that black economic inequality stemmed significantly from current and past discrimination. A consequential difference between them, though, was that those who emphasized the need for robust employment policies contended that much black unemployment resulted from structural economic factors that were beyond the reach of anti- discrimination efforts. To that extent, improving black Americans’ circumstances would require broader social-democratic intervention in the political economy, including significantly expanded social wage policy. As Randolph observed at the 1963 March on Washington, “Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practices Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers, black and white? We want integrated public schools, but that means we also want federal aid to education—all forms of education.” The other camp, in line with then Assistant Secretary of Labor Moynihan’s Negro Family jeremiad, construed black unemployment and poverty as deriving from an ambiguous confluence of current discrimination and cultural pathologies produced by historical racism. For a variety of reasons having to do with both large politics and small, the latter vision won.