Time for a Discussion on Race and Class by Paddy Quick

The most recent issue of the Review of Radical Political Economics (RRPE Vol. 45, No. 2.  Spring 2013) included an article by Richard McIntyre and Michael Hillard (hereafter RH) entitled “Capitalist Class Agency and the New Deal Order:  Against the Notion of a Limited Capital-Labor Accord.”  While the article’s focus is on the existence or nonexistence of a “capital-labor accord” in the post-World War II United States, my criticisms relate to the authors’ treatment of race. Both authors have well-deserved reputations as radical political economists, but on this topic, I find myself in serious disagreement.

I begin my criticism with an examination of the authors’ description of the political alliance that they hope will be able to challenge capital (within the US.).  The components of this, they write, would be “second generation immigrants, the half the African American population that remains impoverished, and downwardly mobile native-born workers.” This is a very strange list.

  • By “second generation immigrants” MH may be referring to the children of undocumented workers, some of whom are in fact US  (or “native-born”) citizens.  But it is fairly obvious that it is the Latino-Americans who have been the focus of anti-immigrant sentiment, whether or not they are undocumented, and while second generation immigrants of European ethnicity are relatively unscathed.

  • Or consider the half of the African-American population that remains “impoverished.”  In 2009, 26% of African-American households had incomes below the official poverty level  ($22,000 for a family of four), compared with 12% of whites.  The median income of African-American households was $33,000 compared with $52,000 for whites.  Does this mean that the 50% of African-Americans who are in households with incomes over $33,000 are not expected to be part of the movement, since they are no longer “impoverished”?

  • Finally, it is useful to ask to whom MH are referring to by the term “downwardly mobile native-born workers.” While real wages and the standard of living have fallen over the past 40 years for the lower 80% of the population, does the term imply that they have fallen more for the “native born” than for the foreign-born?  Or is “native-born” a reference to white workers, for whom the small decrease in the (still large) income differential between white and African-American (and Latino) households might be interpreted as “downward mobility”? And, if so, are we supposed to conclude that this will motivate white workers to direct their anger at the capitalist class?

MH argue that the fight against discrimination by African-Americans (and others) constitutes the assertion of “individual rights” as distinct from “class” rights, and follow this with the assertion that the power of the state has increasingly been put “behind individuals with ‘protected status’ under the Equal Rights Act rather than workers per se.” MH then reach the conclusion that “by emphasizing the individual rights of non-whites, and by ignoring class, liberalisms’ rights consciousness seemed to have little to offer to increasing numbers of white workers.”  There are several flaws in this argument:

  • The limited but significant gains made against racism by African-Americans and other minorities were achieved against the power of the state.  Historically, the United States has been built on, and its government has worked to maintain the racial structures of society, in land, employment, housing, and the so-called criminal justice system.  The US history of genocide and slavery cannot be ignored, but let us concentrate on the post WWII period. The state was forced, after a long and hard-fought battle waged primarily by African-Americans, but with some support from class-conscious white workers, to dismantle a large part of the structural system of racism. Thus it was forced to develop “race-neutral” terminology and to address the less obvious but nonetheless powerful mechanisms used to maintain discriminatory practices.

  • The ability of an individual to claim her or her “rights” under the Equal Rights Act requires proof that these rights had been violated on the basis of race, gender, religion, age and disability i.e. on the basis of membership in a group.  Thus their claims were not the assertion of their rights as individuals, but their rights as members of a socially-constituted group of whom that individual was a member.

  • Some legal cases are in fact fought as “class-action” suits (i.e. suits that joined together members of the group claiming discrimination as a group defined by race or gender rather than class.) But even claims that were pursued by individuals had implications for others of comparable status. It might also be noted here that requiring the use of “objective” criteria for employment and promotion protected all workers from decisions based on nepotism, favoritism, let alone their perceived views on unionization.

  • MH systematically ignore the distinction between the civil rights and feminist movements, although they characterize both of them as “individual rights” movements. Where then, if anywhere, do women who are “no longer impoverished” but are perhaps “downwardly mobile native-born workers” figure in their picture of a future movement?  There is good reason (and data) to support the argument that the reduction in gender discrimination over the past 40 years has been greater than the reduction in racial discrimination.  How exactly has this affected “white workers” as a whole, or male white workers as a sub group of these, is an interesting question but one which RH do not address.  Their analysis of (and hostility to) the supposed “individual rights movement” is focused on race, rather than gender.  (There is a lot more that needs to be said on the question of gender, but this essay addresses RH’s approach to race.)

  • We can agree, I think, that the state consistently acts in the interests of the capitalist class. Its limited recognition of the need to address the demands of the civil rights and feminist movement, in order to maintain the stability of the system as a whole, clearly did not change its drive to maximize profits.  It is hardly surprising therefore, that its concessions to the demands for racial and gender equality, like its concessions to the demands of the working class as a whole, were structured, where possible, to prevent working class unity.  (The history of trade unionism offers many such examples.)

  • The virulence with which many white workers (both men and women, and both “North” and “South”) defended their white-skin privilege in employment and the “racial integrity” of their neighborhoods did indeed provided the most reactionary sectors of the capitalist class with a populist cover for their anti-working class activities.  But it is a distortion of history to blame this on those who fought for racial equality. MH write that: “Employers successfully manipulated this discourse [on discrimination] to include tolerance, read as acceptance, across class lines, a move aimed squarely at discrediting the popular left critique of capital left still widely used by the labor movement.”

  • The term “across class lines” is significant here. Of course, both gender and race cross class lines.  Movements against racism and the oppression of women do indeed bring together people of both working and capitalist classes, and this fact does not, and should not, constitute a “criticism” of them. It is, of course, important to struggle within these movements for the class-interests of workers.  It is similarly important to struggle within working class movements, such as those of trade unions, for racial and gender equality. There is thus room for criticism of all our political activity for failing to integrate an analysis of all forms of oppression.

  • RH may, perhaps, be influenced by the ways in which affirmative action programs have been portrayed by the mainstream media. Thus there is extensive coverage of the proportion of African-Americans and women in the ranks of the CEOs and the student bodies of elite universities. The ongoing struggle for racial and gender integration within the construction trades, for example, is less well known, as are the other struggles against discrimination not just in employment but in housing, education, health care provision et alia.

  • The authors commit the common error of conflating the movements of African-Americans and other minorities (not to mention women) against discrimination with the movement by some of the capitalist class for a reduction in discrimination, for their own profit-oriented reasons.  They are thus described as together constituting a single movement of “liberals” with a “liberal rights’ consciousness” which “seemed to have little to offer to increasing numbers of white workers.” Thus MH allude to the “self-destruction of liberalism in the 1970s” and characterize McGovern’s campaign as one of distancing himself from the AFL-CIO in favor of a “new coalition based on youth, anti-war protestors and people of color” (emphasis added.) Here the authors simply fail to recognize the historic achievement of African-Americans in splitting the racist southern Democratic parties from their “liberal” Democratic partners in the north, and thereby forcing a major realignment of forces within the two major political parties in the US.  Thus it was the Republicans in the south who garnered the majority of the votes of white workers in the once-solidly Democratic south, while the Democrats (including McGovern) began to seek the votes of southern African-Americans. This achievement of “people of color” in sorting out at least partially the forces of reaction and progress should be seen as a victory that has contributed significantly to the (still far-off) goal of a united working class movement. The failure of McGovern can hardly be blamed on what RH assert is his promotion of the interests of African-Americans over those of the working class.

  • Finally, MH argue that “ liberalisms’ rights consciousness seemed to have little to offer to increasing numbers of white workers.”  Do they mean by this that white workers must reject the struggle for racial and gender rights because of the involvement of non-working class “liberals”?  Or are they arguing that white workers are incapable of participating in a movement to end discrimination?  One encouraging development in recent years is the beginnings of support of mainstream (white?) unions for the rights of immigrant workers, and the recognition that discrimination against (both documented and undocumented) Latinos is harmful to the working class as a whole.


I do not think that RH would disagree with the proposition that the struggle against the still-rampant discrimination against African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and others must be an essential component of any working class movement.  But by describing  the struggles against this as a movement for what they term “individual rights” they imply that it is inherently in opposition to the movement for the rights of the working class.

I would argue, instead, that racism, and other forms of cross-class divisions, such as those of nationality, ethnicity, caste, and religion, play a major role in the “stability” of the capitalist mode of production.  Thus the fight against systems of privilege based on these is a necessary component of the struggle against capitalism.  In the United States, this requires of white workers an understanding of the pervasive racism in our society..

I recognize that the focus of RH’s article was on issues other than race (and this response does not attempt to address the question of gender) so I hope the readers of this blog will not ignore their arguments on the characterization of class relations in the post-World War II United States.  But I look forward to a discussion within URPE of the topic of race and class.

Paddy Quick – St. Francis College, Brooklyn – pquick@sfc.edu