Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A strong argument for dishonesty in race matters

There is also strong argument for dishonesty in race matters. It is an argument that one see not infrequently in labor history -- I myself recall first seeing it in the work of U. of Texas Law Prof. William Forbath. This argument says that our present-day conceptualization of racial issues are to some extent themselves the product of a certain innate, historical dishonesty.

In the late 19th century, America’s rapid industrialization created ‘class conflicts’ very much like it did in Europe. But in America, there was a great fear, particularly with the political establishment, of the emergence of class-based politics in American society. This fear was manifested in two ways. First, people – and particularly politicians – simply did not talk class or raise class-based political arguments, and so the actual dynamics of emerging class distinctions did not enter American political consciousness. At the same time, the argument goes, industrial interests started exploiting white working class animus against and economic fear of blacks, as a means of deflecting workers’ attentions away from development of a distinct political self-identity. (An alternative argument is that since the white working-class populated could not conceptualize itself as a class, it tended to perceive blacks rather than management practices as the principal threat to its security and well-being.)

So, the argument goes, much of our history of race politics is really a history of supressed class politics. If this is the case, then a significant aspect of race discourse is innately dishonest, and paradoxically, this means that in order to really understand the complexity of the problem, we too have to speak of it dishonestly (or, I would prefer the Habermasian characterization of ‘strategically’). Because that’s the only way that we can the conversation to the class-based dymanics that comprise an important aspect of this problem.

Please note that I am not arguing that race is nothing but (economic) class by a different name. I do believe that there are some critical aspects of race relations and race politics that cannot be captured by economic, class-based analyses. But I also suspect that at the end of the day, we cannot adequately understand or address this issue without addressing its parallel status as a surrogate for class-based politics.