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No, the Racial Justice Protests Are Not at Odds With Class Politics

Ross Douthat wants to tempt socialists with his argument that this wave of racial justice protest is hopelessly in thrall to the logic of woke capitalism. Don’t take the bait.

Thousands of union longshoremen and Black Lives Matter activists participated in a Juneteenth rally and march at the Port of Oakland on June 19, 2020 in Oakland, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty

Two broad schools of thought on Bernie Sanders’s impact on US politics seem to be forming. According to the first school, Bernie lost the immediate electoral battle, but his army of followers may still win the war. By bringing the Left out of the margins and mobilizing millions of young people behind his call for “political revolution,” Bernie could ultimately have a far bigger impact than many other politicians who actually became president.

Witness the smashing success, for example, of Jamaal Bowman, Jabari Brisport, and other Bernie-inspired candidates against establishment opponents in last week’s Democratic primary elections. The political revolution continues to march forward, even though its venerable leader has been forced to hand off the battle flag.

Ross Douthat gives us the clearest expression so far of the second school of thought in his most recent New York Times column. According to Douthat, the dramatic wave of protest against police violence and racial injustice represents clear evidence that Bernie didn’t just lose the presidential nomination — he lost the battle for the future of the Left.

According to Douthat, the fact that so many companies rushed to don the mantle of Black Lives Matter shows that Bernie’s old-school brand of class politics lost out to a Left that, wittingly or not, is a “handmaiden of oligarchy, a diversifier of late capitalism’s corporate boards” instead of its gravedigger. The human resources department could never hang a “Feel the Bern” banner over its office door, but it has no trouble talking about diversity, microaggressions, or implicit bias.

Douthat’s argument is worth taking seriously, and he puts his finger on some real and concerning developments. His criticism of corporate anti-racism as a novel form of managerial discipline, for example, wouldn’t be out of place in the pages of this very publication. Nor would his cynicism toward companies like Amazon, which claim to “stand in solidarity with our Black employees” while firing black warehouse workers who dare to engage in union organizing.

Socialists may be tempted to accept Douthat’s contention that this wave of racial justice protests is hopelessly in thrall to the logic of woke capitalism. But we should not take the bait.

Ideologically attuned conservatives like Douthat are surely aware of the seemingly endless conflict between, for lack of better terms, “class-oriented” and “intersectional” conceptions of radical politics. They want to drive a wedge into the new US left and perhaps even win over a segment of the class-oriented left by mimicking some of its vocabulary and concerns. To inoculate against this, socialists need to develop a materialist understanding of racism and oppression, and to combine this with a clear-eyed assessment of the prospects for class politics today. The last thing we should do is make the Right’s job easier by accepting their counterposing of class politics and racial justice at face value.

Two Bernies?

Like other entries in this genre, Douthat constructs a tale of two Bernies: the supposedly more authentic and effective Bernie of 2016, and the reinvented woke Bernie of 2020.

In Douthat’s telling, the young, well-educated, but economically stymied voters that formed the core of Bernie’s base “tugged Sanders toward the cultural left,” opening the way for Joe Biden to win over working-class whites in the Midwest. The problem with this tidy narrative is that there’s simply no evidence to back it up.

As Dustin Guastella points out, many of those voters went over to Pete Buttigieg (who’s not exactly a working-class populist), not Biden. This narrative also overlooks the dramatically different dynamics of the 2020 Democratic primary campaign. At its height, the campaign featured more than twenty candidates instead of 2016’s two. And for most voters, issues like Bernie’s signature policy demand, Medicare for All, took a back seat to the overriding preoccupation with getting Donald Trump out of the White House. 2016 Bernie would not have gained a hearing without his call for a political revolution against the billionaire class. But we should not discount the fact that four years ago, he was the only available alternative to the uniquely reviled Hillary Clinton.

There are certainly many things that the 2020 Sanders campaign could have done differently to overcome establishment opposition and win the nomination. But the critical reflections of campaign organizers say nothing about Bernie’s supposed capitulation to cultural liberalism. The narrative Douthat advances in this regard has more to do with his own ideological prejudices than an honest assessment of the campaign’s shortcomings.

Douthat also flattens the concerns and demands of the protesters currently in the streets around the country into the most liberal and nonthreatening version possible. He counterposes demands for “Medicare for All and taxing plutocrats” to demands for “racial justice and defunding the police,” but the protesters themselves are, by and large, not doing this.

For one thing, many of the demonstrators have gone straight from campaigning for Sanders to protesting against police violence and racial injustice. In New York and elsewhere, calls for defunding the police have been paired with demands to reinvest that money in health, housing, employment, and education.

The basic thrust of the movement is to weaken the violent and repressive parts of the state and strengthen those that address human needs. This isn’t incompatible with Bernie’s political project — it’s in keeping with it.

Douthat acknowledges this when he admits that the demand for police reform “doesn’t fit this caricature” of cultural versus class politics. So he engages in a sleight of hand by shifting his attention to “much of the action around” the protests, namely the various attempts by corporations and elite cultural institutions to co-opt the moment for their own ends.

There’s no doubt that corporate expressions of support for Black Lives Matter are self-serving and, in many cases, pretty laughable. But it’s not as if movements that focus specifically on racial injustice are uniquely vulnerable to co-optation. Explicitly working-class movements are vulnerable, too, as the labor movement’s wholesale commitment to labor-management partnership, even in the face of decades of relentless employer attacks, demonstrates all too clearly. Not even a commitment to socialism is sufficient defense against co-optation, as Robert Michels showed in his classic work Political Parties more than a century ago — not to mention the often disappointing record of socialist, social-democratic, and labor parties in government since then.

The threat of corporate “blackwashing,” as Cedric Johnson has called it, is very real. But this is not sufficient grounds on which to reject the protest movement as hopelessly liberal or incompatible with working-class politics.

No Civil Rights Victories Without Labor

The real question is whether the new movement for racial justice has the power to win its demands on its own terms. This is where a comparison with the civil rights movement of the twentieth century is illuminating — and sobering.

The rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s was the major reason why African Americans and their allies were able to put civil rights on the agenda and eventually win their demands. This labor–civil rights alliance was, in certain respects, quite pragmatic. As historian Harvard Sitkoff observes in A New Deal for Blacks,

the CIO adopted progressive policies and practices primarily because industrial unionism could not otherwise succeed . . . The large numbers of black workers in the mass production industries made unionization imperative. Outside the unions they constituted a dangerous strikebreaking — perhaps fatal — union-busting force. Thus, wherever blacks appeared essential to the successful unionization of an industry, the CIO’s liberalism on civil rights stood out.

These pragmatic concerns were not the only reason why the CIO embraced the cause of civil rights. Many of its leaders and activists were sincerely committed to the cause of racial equality and working-class unity, and correctly saw the segregationist and anti-labor Southern Democrats as the main barrier to achieving their programmatic goals.

As Eric Schickler demonstrates in his excellent book Racial Realignment, the CIO played the key role in linking a social-democratic economic program with civil rights issues. In the process, it provided beleaguered black activists with a powerful new ally and reduced their debilitating political marginality. This alliance supplied the muscle behind campaigns for anti-lynching legislation, a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), abolition of the poll tax, and other long-standing demands that languished in the absence of broader political support.

CIO unions continued to play an indispensable role in powering the civil rights movement, even after the merger of the CIO with the AFL in 1955. The most important was the United Auto Workers (UAW), which provided crucial funding and membership support to the movement for years. It funded legal assaults on Jim Crow and bail money for civil rights demonstrators, and it played a key financial and logistical role in making the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom a watershed event.

As William Jones shows in his definitive history The March on Washington, this event was, in many important respects, a labor rally. It was the culmination of A. Philip Randolph’s long career as a working-class tribune, and the UAW and other unions sent thousands of their members to Washington on countless chartered buses and trains. While the unions’ record on racial equality was far from perfect, none of the major victories of the civil rights era were conceivable without labor support, particularly from the CIO unions.

A renewed alliance between labor and the movement for racial justice would be deeply beneficial to both. Even so, the reality is that the labor movement today is a pale shadow of its former self. In 1963, roughly 30 percent of US workers were unionized, almost all of them in the private sector. Today, the overall unionization rate is barely above 10 percent, and private-sector unions have been reduced to near oblivion.

The decline of the UAW is particularly striking. In the late 1970s, UAW membership topped 1.5 million. Today, membership is down to 390,000, and a majority of those members are not even auto workers. Whatever one’s assessment of Walter Reuther, he was a commanding figure who wielded power in the service of working people. Today, the UAW is mired in a vast web of corruption stemming from its leadership’s commitment to labor-management partnership. A once-mighty union is in utter disarray and may soon be taken into federal receivership.

We have nothing remotely resembling the CIO and its capacity to link class struggle with racial equality among millions of working-class people. Nor is a sequel to the CIO anywhere on the horizon. In these conditions, it’s no wonder that protesters don’t always speak the language of class solidarity. How are younger people in particular supposed to come to this kind of political consciousness if there are no major institutions organizing them into politics on the basis of class? More important, so long as American police are able to kill and abuse people with impunity, and so long as there are clear racial disparities in police violence — even after accounting for class — it is unrealistic to expect activists with no connection to a severely diminished labor movement to spontaneously link race and class the way socialists might want them to do.

Criticism of the demands and language coming out of the protests is, in some important respects, justified. But we must also be wary of slipping into the perspective Bertolt Brecht lampooned in his poem “The Solution”: would it not be easier to dissolve the people and elect another?

For socialists, the task is clear: participating wholeheartedly in the fight to defund the police while making the case for a politics of anti-racism rooted in solidarity and class struggle. The alternative is dropping out of engagement with the world as it is. Conservatives like Douthat have the luxury of abstaining from fights against injustice. We don’t.