Continuing the discussion on Race and Class by Paddy Quick

I appreciate the response by Richard McIntyre and Michel Hillard (MH) to my critique of their article.  They are quite right in stating that I do not address the main argument of their paper – I began my response by saying exactly that. However I would argue that it is impossible to understand the relations between capital and labor in the United States without recognizing the significance of race, and integrating it into an understanding of US history.  This history consists of an account of social relations which consist not only of class relations (between labor and capital,) but also race relations and gender relations, none of which can be understood in isolation from the others. MH disagree. Thus they argue that “both racial and gender discrimination are historically and socially constituted in different ways, but this did not seem relevant to our critique of an accord between capital and labor.”  I argue that they are indeed relevant. (As before, I set aside my concerns about gender relations. They seem unimportant to MH, whose discussion of  “individual rights” is carried out entirely in terms of race and its significance for the “white working class” rather than the male workers, or white male workers.)

The first paragraph of their response indicates a serious disagreement on the nature of the capitalist state (and one which casts doubt on their approach to history.) Thus they dispute my statement that “[t]he limited but significant gains made against racism by African-Americans and other minorities were achieved against the power of the state” (my emphasis). Their “refutation” of this is as follows: “While we mostly agree, before 1963-65 at least, it was of course the military that moved against discrimination earliest and most thoroughly.” This truly extraordinary statement denies the entire history of struggle by African-Americans within the military for justice.  These struggles were particularly acute during war-time, from the struggles of the “smoked Yankees” in the Spanish-American wars of 1898 through to those of African-Americans who served in World War I, to the massive movement led by A. Philip Randolph during and after  World War II. It is hard to believe that MH can argue that the military, a branch of the state, somehow “chose” to combat racial discrimination without “pressure” from below. They seem to be citing this history as evidence that the movement to combat racial discrimination has not constituted a struggle against the state, but was instead carried out by the state. Perhaps this is intended to support an argument that the movement for “individual rights” was and is a means by which the capitalist state has worked actively to undermine the class-based struggle of (white) workers?

But let me turn to their main argument:  “To the extent that liberals moved away from working class issues — which they did from the 1970s onward — while championing anti-discrimination they did contribute to the loss of the white working class from progressive politics.”  Their argument seems to be (a) that discrimination is not a working class issue and (b) that the rejection of progressive politics by white workers was due to the shift in the priorities of “liberals”.  Who these “liberals” were is shown in their subsequent argument that “as the Democrats abandoned class and embraced rights consciousness something important was lost.”   But the Democratic Party in the pre-1970s was not only hostile to socialists of any form, but a “home” to the white, unabashedly racist, thoroughly reactionary, and anti-working class Democrats of the south under the leadership of (white) landlords and capitalists. The severance of this “alliance” as a result of the civil rights movement, constituted, if anything, a step towards the adoption of a progressive perspective by the Democratic Paty.  Instead, MH describe the period following that as one in which Democrats abandoned class and embraced rights consciousness.”

MH and Nelson Lichtenstein, whom they quote extensively) characterize this civil rights movement (and the movement for gender equality?) as one for the rights of “individuals”. But although these groups were indeed “cross-class,” they were undoubtedly “group” movements. MH now say that their concern is with the “nature of remedies for discrimination and some of the political consequences of these remedies” (their emphasis). Now unions are clearly an appropriate organizational form for addressing workplace issues, although their record of confronting workplace discrimination is very poor.  But the racism that permeates our society is not confined to the workplace.  It is apparent in all of the institutions of our society.  Let me list just some of these:

  • The “new Jim Crow” system of laws and law enforcement that results in the mass incarceration of African Americans and Latinos
  • The educational system which, financed by local property-tax financing and the barely challenged system of housing market segregation, combine to result in significantly worse schools for minorities.
  • The banking system which pushed minorities into higher-interest mortgages
  • The gerrymandering of electoral districts to reduce the possibility of election of minority candidates

How exactly are these to be dealt with?   None of them can be effectively addressed by trade unions in workplace labor-management negotiations.  All of them could and should be addressed in the political program of a working class movement.  Such a program would address (in all countries, not just the US) the concentration of hardship on a section of people defined by race, nationality, ethnicity or religion   It would reject the attempt by the ruling class to co-opt dominant groups within the working class by offering them partial, albeit very limited, exemption from the miseries inherent in the capitalist system, while necessitating the harshest forms of repression for those who fall outside the dominant group and suffer the most.

But let me turn to MH’s concern that the problem with the “individual rights movement” lies in the “remedies for discrimination.” They quote, with approval, four of Lichtenstein’s concerns.  I take each of them in turn, followed by comments:

  • Legal rights are hard to enforce in the absences of unions.

Unions have a hard time enforcing even workplace contracts, but of course they have no ability to address any non-workplace discrimination.

  • Rights measure are overly reliant on experts, making ”participatory, democratic problem-solving by the individuals directly involved virtually impossible.”

Organization of communities of color to confront discrimination require at least as much participation as unions to be effective.  Unions may or may not be democratically structured but both community organizations and unions do indeed make use of “experts” such as lawyers, as do workers (whether unionized or not) whose rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act (such as the right to minimum wage) are violated.

  • The individual rights movement provides no means for dealing with collective structural crises, such as those caused by deindustrialization and globalization.

The response to deindustrialization and globalization must not only address the racial impact of these (as seen for example in Detroit), but include a concerted anti-imperialist movement. A trade union-led movement that focuses only on their impact on US workers is ripe for co-optation in imperialist ventures. The movements against US imperialism and in support of the movement against South African apartheid, for example, were not initiated by unions, and it was only with great difficulty that they were drawn into it.

  • The individual rights movement has not produced conditions that generate strong unions or temper managerial authority.

In fact, unions that take seriously the struggle against discrimination are thereby strengthened in their ability to confront employers, as we see in union support for the rights of undocumented workers. MH acknowledge this but fail to recognize how this has been achieved through the organizations of minority communities, rather than from within the white-dominated trade unions. In addition, the laws against discrimination have somewhat limited managers’ authority to hire and promote without regard for qualifications, and thereby give preference to the promotion of anti-union employees and relatives of management.

Finally, I must address HM’s concluding paragraph in which they appear to attribute to “individual rights consciousness” a role in “wage stagnation, rising inequality, declining opportunity and the weakness of collective organization.”  To put it bluntly, they appear to allocate a portion of the responsibility of the decline of labor to the rise of the civil rights movement.  I argue the opposite.  I argue that the movement for racial and gender quality is essential for our socialist movement and its successes have strengthened rather than weakened the ability of the working class to confront capital.

Thus I reiterate my challenge to them to address what they now call their “gesture” towards what a “new pro-workers coalition would look like.” I would like to see their response to my criticism of their original characterization of this coalition as one which excludes the half of the African American population that they say is no longer impoverished, but welcomes the “downwardly mobile native-born workers.”   I fear that such  movement would be led by the downwardly mobile white workers who attribute their difficulties, at least in part, to the supposed “upward mobility” of half of all African-Americans.

Paddy Quick
St. Francis College, Brooklyn