by Alana Lentin
At the launch of David Roediger’s collection, Race, Class and Marxism it was invigorating to see so many people crowd into the un-air-conditioned space on a hot Friday evening to hear four brilliant thinkers talk about race. And so it was dispiriting that during Q&A a number of audience members suggested that an over-emphasis on ‘identitarianism’ is diluting the power of the left at a critical juncture in US politics. The picture they painted of a left fragmented by an over-wrought concern with positionality to the detriment of an emphasis on ‘materiality’ was gently and graciously debunked by David Roediger. His point – one he makes with convincing clarity throughout Race, Class and Marxism – is that there is no more ‘material’ subject than race; that there is no discussion of class in the United States without a deep understanding of how race and class are intimately and inextricably related.
Roediger builds his arguments on strong historical foundations that weave together the histories of slavery, immigrant worker exploitation, and both the high and low points of the workers’ movement in matters racial. Although much of the collected writings which make up the book are concerned with the particularities of the history of race, class and whiteness in the United States, Roediger’s approach is not parochial. In particular, following Lisa Lowe’s lead, in both her earlier work and in her brilliant 2015 book, The Intimacies of Four Continents,[i] David Roediger insists, in the chapter co-written with Elizabeth Esch on ‘Race and the Management of Labor in US History’, that the racialised aspects of labour management develop in the contexts, not only of slavery but of trade and empire. This is reminiscent of Zine Magubane’s insistence that the rewriting of racial-colonialism in US sociology as ‘race relations’, had the effect of compartmentalising the history of race in the United States and to obscure both its continuities and its global ramifications.[ii] Too often the extent to which ideas of race infuse global political and economic processes is lost due to a lack of understanding of or concern for race by the Left, particularly in Europe.
Race, Class and Marxism begins and ends with Roediger’s observations of the challenges faced by antiracists in the fight against the stranglehold of white supremacy. While some of his commentary is directed at his colleagues in history and cultural studies and back self-reflexively onto himself, it is in his engagement with the challenges set by the Movement for Black Lives and, to a lesser extent, the struggles for Indigenous sovereignties that the book is at its most politically useful. In the concluding chapter, Roediger asks why ‘solidarity’ has been a ‘surprisingly neglected keyword in cultural studies’. Here Roediger is alive both to the wilful elisions of reality often reached for in the assertion of solidarity while remaining committed to embracing its potential for movement building. He recalls Emma Halling’s critique[iii] of the ease with which white ‘allies’ of the Black Lives Matter movement claimed that they were ‘all Trayvon Martin’ and remains staunchly unconvinced that a focus on positionality in defining the terms of antiracist and feminist movements has ‘derailed’ the Left.
The lack of scholarly attention to antiracism as both discourse and practice has animated my concerns for a long time.[iv] As Alaistair Bonnett remarked, ‘Racism and ethnic discriminations are under continuous historical and sociological examination. But anti-racism is consigned to the status of a “cause”, fit only for platitudes of support or denouncement’.[v] In contrast, understanding the evolution of antiracist movements, their heterogeneity and conflicts, and their success as well as their failures seems to me to be critical, not only from an organizing perspective, but in order to place the interpretations of race and racism at our disposal in context. Theorisations of race are generally advanced from an antiracist perspective, so it seems to me to be crucial to interrogate what various actors actually mean when they say they oppose racism.
David Roediger’s contribution was, and remains, to further uncover the means through which the maintenance of white supremacy is advanced through the technologies of race management, though he admits that it was Black scholars from Du Bois to Cheryl Harris who led the way. In too many other cases, however, centering a critique of whiteness is seen as detrimental to ‘objective’ scholarship and, as one critic said of Roediger’s writing, as advancing ‘an “outlandish” antiracist politics’ unbefitting of the serious historian. For others still, the accusation is that to insist on the need to dismantle whiteness and coloniality in both politics and scholarship is to alienate those who might otherwise come along with you. Where Roediger is most incisive is in his insistence that there is no way to disentangle the ‘wages of whiteness’ from even the most principled left political project.
Europeans currently concerned with the Continent’s rightward drift and who see hope in the yet-to-be-tested hopes of Corbynism for example would do well to read David Roediger. His book provides clues as to why race is so often the ‘white blindspot’ that early proponents of whiteness studies such as Theodore Allen proposed was key to interpreting the problems of the ‘New Left’. It is dangerously insufficient to disconnect Jeremy Corbyn’s personally professed antiracism from the fact that he has been willing to concede points on policing and migration to the right of his party in the interests of electability. Too often what I have called the ‘badge of antiracism’ has served as a shield to protect its wearer from criticisms of the ways in which an individual’s politics may contribute to obscuring systemic racism.[vi] When the ideal of ‘unity’ is placed above calls to deal with the ways in which race continues to frame understandings of just who a left project represents (the policed? the undocumemted?) then it becomes its own ‘white blindspot’. From a perspective that is willfully unaware of its own positionality in whiteness, it becomes incredible that one might wish to remain skeptical of the ability of the ‘White Left’ to help us all ‘get free’.
David Roediger’s use of ‘white left’ might contain the seed of hope for disrupting ‘The White Left’s’ dismissal of its critics as ‘anti-materialist’ purveyors of divisive ‘identity politics’ (as though a politics attentive to race, gender, ability and sexuality were not already engaged with injustices materially expressed). His second chapter, tracing the evolution of whiteness studies, talks about the emergence of a ‘white left self-awareness’. This awareness emerged out of a ‘too-often ignored continuing common work among Black and white radicals during the Black Power period.’ David Roediger is the first to admit that this work is often insufficiently aware of the ease with which self-awareness can turn to self-congratulation, obscuring the ways in which declarations of white race traitorship can earn kudos without always actually bringing about radical transformations in material conditions. He is also right to point out how the psychological wages of whiteness have and continue to be able to obscure the mutual benefits to Black and White workers under capitalism of dismantling white supremacy.
And it is in this constant admission of insufficiency where we might see the solidarity Roediger reaches for becoming possible. Solidarity, Roediger says, should be uneasy. His words remind me of those of another white antiracist scholar, Les Back, who has said that we need a “troublesome and uncomfortable” reflexivity, an “on-going questioning that strives to step out of whiteness’s brilliant shadow.”[vii] This is, however, easier said than done. These are, after all, the times in which a scholar lauded on the White Left, Wolfgang Streeck, publishes what can only be termed ‘fake news’ about the impact of refugees on German social relations, claiming erroneously and irresponsibly that welfare entitlements received by refugees and asylum seekers ‘‘are often much higher, making them feel abandoned by their government in favor of strangers.’ This is offered as support for Streeck’s ahistorical argument that, disproportionate attention by neoliberal elites and middle classes in the 1980s and 1990s to the concerns of marginalised minority groups is responsible for right-wing populism today.[viii]
The struggles we face are thus as much internal to the Left as they are external to it. Solidarity, Roediger reminds us after Chandra Talpade Mohanty, is not a being but a doing. So what are we all doing to draw out the ‘relationality in solidarity’ that Roediger, citing Scott Morgensen, says we need if we are to envision what José Muñoz asked us to strive for, ‘a politics not yet known’?[ix] Relationality is expressly not about equivalence. Seeing it makes our conversations more uneasy, not less. So, I am encouraged by David Roediger’s final invitation: let us seek solidarity ‘by owning its difficulties.’
[i] Lisa Lowe. 2015. The Intimacies of Four Continents. Duke University Press.
[ii] Zine Magubane. 2016. ‘American Sociology’s Racial Ontology: Remembering Slavery, Deconstructing Modernity, and Charting the Future of Global Historical Sociology’, Cultural Sociology Vol 10, Issue 3.
[iv] Alana Lentin. 2004. Racism and Antiracism in Europe. London: Pluto Press.
[v] Alaistair Bonnett. 2000. Anti-Racism. London and New York: Routledge, p. 2.
[vi] Alana Lentin. 2011. ‘What Happens to Antiracism when we are post-race?’, Feminist Legal Studies 19 (2):159-168.
[vii] Les Back. 2016. Academic Diary: On why higher education still matters. MIT Press: p. 143. See also, Rosalind Gill. 2017. ‘What Would Les Back Do? If Generosity Could Save Us’, International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, First Online: 17 July 2017.
[viii] Wolgang Streeck. 2017. ‘Trump and the Trumpists’, Inference Review Vol. 3 Issue 1. http://inference-review.com/article/trump-and-the-trumpists. Accessed 20 July 2017. My response to Streeck’s article will be published in the next issue of Inference Review.
[ix] Scott L. Morgensen, “A Politics Not Yet Known: Imagining Relationality within Solidarity,” American Quarterly, 67 (June 2014), 309 and 310–15, cited in Roediger p. 159.
Alana Lentin is Associate Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis at Western Sydney University. Her website is www.alanalentin.netIf you like this article, please subscribe or donate.