Class and Race as Proxies

“Perhaps what binds them all together, though, is class. Rural or small town, urban or suburban, the extreme Right is populated by downwardly mobile, lower-middle-class white men. All of the men I interviewed—all—fitted this class profile. When I compared with other ethnographies and other surveys, they all had the same profile as well.

“In the United States, class is often a proxy for race. When politicians speak of the “urban poor,” we know it’s a code for black people. When they talk about “welfare queens,” we know the race of that woman driving the late-model Cadillac. In polite society, racism remains hidden behind a screen spelled CLASS.

“On the extreme Right, by contrast, race is a proxy for class. Among the white supremacists, when they speak of race consciousness, defending white people, protesting for equal rights for white people, they actually don’t mean all white people. They don’t mean Wall Street bankers and lawyers, though they are pretty much entirely white and male. They don’t mean white male doctors, or lawyers, or architects, or even engineers. They don’t mean the legions of young white hipster guys, or computer geeks flocking to the Silicon Valley, or the legions of white preppies in their boat shoes and seersucker jackets “interning” at white-shoe law firms in major cities. Not at all. They mean middle-and working-class white people. Race consciousness is actually class consciousness without actually having to “see” class. “Race blindness” leads working-class people to turn right; if they did see class, they’d turn left and make common cause with different races in the same economic class.”

America’s angriest white men: Up close with racism, rage and Southern supremacy
by Michael Kimmel
from Salon
November 17, 2013

15 thoughts on “Class and Race as Proxies

  1. This is perceptive for Salon, but it also misses the point. The labor movements historically could not transcend US racial ideologies even when people were willing to take up a common cause. Why?

    • Racial ideologies are compelling and hence powerful. They tell a story, although a simple story, but one that nonetheless has explanatory power.

      It makes sense of a world that otherwise doesn’t make sense according to the principles and values we claim to base our society upon. If we let go of that story, the dark reality of what our society actually is would be too overwhelming to face. The injustice of our society is so immense that is incomprehensible.

      That is the simplest answer to your question.

      There is no way transcend one story without another story. So, why has no more compelling and powerful story yet taken its place?

      The racial narrative hasn’t always existed and won’t continue to exist forever. Every dominant narrative at some point loses its dominance. But I’m not sure the rising of a new narrative can ever be predicted or controlled. A new narrative can only replace the dominant narrative when that dominant narrative fails and no longer serves the purposes of the social order.

      Considering that, what would make the racial story no longer effective? And why has it been effective for so long, even when the scientific evidence undermined its simplistic categories?

      As a society, we go on believing in racial ideologies because we need them to be real. The ending of that narrative would be the ending of our society as we know it. Our society very well may not be able to deal with such a catastrophe to the collective sense of reality. If racial ideologies aren’t real, everything about our society would be in doubt.

      We will cling to racial ideologies for as long as we can. Some event or set of events will at some point destroy that racial worldview. Even a small crack in the facade could cause it to crumble in a single generation, just as it was created in a single generation.

      One day, there were indentured servants from many different places with many different features. The next day a court order declared a man with dark skin as a permanent indentured servant, i.e., a slave. The racial narrative of power quickly fell into place, and likely no one saw it coming. One narrative replaced another, and it soon was treated as if it were always that way.

      The racial ideologies were useful to those in power. When will they no longer be useful or else no longer relevant to those in power? What causes such changes?

      • If you are defining racial ideologies as biological race, I agree that this narrative is only about 200 years old, but if you define racial ideologies are internal othering, then that is near universal.

        • The one builds on the other. There is an inherent othering that exists in human psychology. But that isn’t the same thing as racial ideology which is a cultural artifact, a social construct. The internal othering can be applied to any perceived difference and the particular difference is irrelevant to the impulse itself.

      • “The racial narrative hasn’t always existed and won’t continue to exist forever. Every dominant narrative at some point loses its dominance. But I’m not sure the rising of a new narrative can ever be predicted or controlled. A new narrative can only replace the dominant narrative when that dominant narrative fails and no longer serves the purposes of the social order.”

        Actually, I am going to go into this more because this textual view of history common among liberals who are not aware how influenced they are by post-modernism is pernicious and has implications that I think are anthropologically ungrounded.

        For example, you are generally interested in the continuity of ideas, but this is one area where favoring a radical discontinuity is probably more conductive to a liberal whiggish view of history in which progress renders such “narratives” as irrelevant because they are cracking.

        As someone who has studied the idea of race and racism intimately, and who has seen racialized dynamics emerge in several cultures (US South, US North East, Canada, South Korea, Mexico), I can tell you that you see an emergent narrative that is cracking from its own weight, whereas I see a narrative that is consistent with cultural xenophobia and exclusion. The idea that race emerged in a generation is frankly just wrong: the idea of biological race has had roots for 1000 years in Western culture, and skin-coding for culture has evidence of existence in middle eastern and Asian cultures as well as European culture for at least 3000 years. Typically these proto-ideologies of race emerged slowly.

        The idea that modern racism began with Gobineau who really pushed the word and a misreading of first the bible and then Darwin does stand to reason, but most of the elements that led to that predated the existence in culture.

        For example,”blood quotas” go back to Spain’s forced conversion of many jews who were considered “New Christians” and were so feared as being Judaizing heretics, that marriage between “New Christians” and Spanish Catholics were discouraged through blood percentage laws.

        In Korea and China, even though there was no one for “race” (that would not emerge until Japanese contact with the Europeans), marriage to non-Han (ironically what both ethnicities call themselves in their narrative language even though they are distantly related peoples and languages) was forbidden and regulated through similar blood quota laws.

        So that elements of the narrative pre-exist. There are also elements that run counter to the narrative, such as that universal religious claims of Buddhism, Christianity, Zorostarianism (prior to the Islamic period), and Islam build on a narrative where differences are transcended by the large ideological project. Imperial narratives in ancient history share that element with modern liberalism too.

        My point on that is that these proto-elements come full blown in the Enlightenment and are given a faux-scientific gloss at the same moment as the ideas of universal rights of men. The redefinition of men along racial lines emerged almost concurrently with the idea of universal rights itself.

        The idea that this is merely about being “useful to those in power” is a kind of vulgar semi-Marxian analysis that misses the point. For expansive powers, such racialized notions are a limit as much as a boon: the elites ideas on race are as contrary.

        If you merely see this as about power, you will not be able to undo this. Frankly, this progressive narrative of race is something that I sometimes feel only a member of the dominant group can actually believe.

        But your narrative about race and slavery is not supportable by anthropology and makes things seem like it was a conspiracy by the powerful in the first place. I doubt it. I doubt you can fight it like that either, and that is why I find this sort of view that “All races united and fight” to have been both naive and contradictory even time it has emerged in the last 120 years.

        If I may kindly suggest you read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man closely with this anthropological history on mind and then ask yourself is it really going to be that simple.

        • As is usual, I’m not sure we are so much disagreeing as giving a different emphasis.

          “My point on that is that these proto-elements come full blown in the Enlightenment and are given a faux-scientific gloss at the same moment as the ideas of universal rights of men. The redefinition of men along racial lines emerged almost concurrently with the idea of universal rights itself.”

          I know of the proto-elements, but they weren’t racial ideology as we know it. Those proto-elements came together with new Enlightenment ideas to form racial ideology. but it isn’t so important if it happened in a single generation or in a few generations. The point is that, before that period of history, ethnic differences were seen as more particular and no broad concept of ‘race’ yet existed.

          It required a more globalizing form of colonialism before people began to think in these larger terms of population categories. Prior to that, it would have seemed bizarre to claim that all dark-skinned people, from all over Africa to Australia, were a single group of people according to common traits they all shared and that distinguished them from all other groups of people. Such a racial ideology would have been impossible at an earlier time in history.

          “The idea that this is merely about being “useful to those in power” is a kind of vulgar semi-Marxian analysis that misses the point. For expansive powers, such racialized notions are a limit as much as a boon: the elites ideas on race are as contrary.”

          That actually isn’t my main argument. It is useful to those in power, but partly because it is useful to society in general and many/most of the members of society. It is really about social order more than anything. It just that those in power tend to be more overtly concerned about social order than most other members of society. If they weren’t effective at maintaining social order, they wouldn’t be in power.

          All social orders have both benefits and limitations. That is their nature. The social order need serve no other purpose other than its continued existence. People accept social orders, even when oppressive, because humans don’t like change and unpredictability. This is why just-so stories are so important and powerful, for they make sense of the social order as it is. Because races exist and are fundamentally different, therefore racial inequalities are justified and inevitable — hence: colonialism, genocide of native people, slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, etc.

          “If I may kindly suggest you read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man closely with this anthropological history on mind and then ask yourself is it really going to be that simple.”

          Yes, you may kindly suggest anything at all. I have been meaning to read that book. So, I do appreciate you reminding me of it. I’ll put it at the top of my reading list. And while reading it, I’ll keep your thoughts in mind.

          I do understand your wariness toward the liberal understanding of racial ideologies. I share your wariness, despite my being prone to liberal ways of thinking. I do want to better understand race and so I do want to avoid falling into simplistic conceptions of what race means in our society. As always, I’m in the process of disentangling the threads.

        • I was listening to the audio version of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I fell asleep to it playing, but I heard much of the beginning. I’ll keep listening to it until I get through the whole thing and then at some point I’ll get around to reading it.

          I don’t have much to say of it at the moment. I appreciated how it began. The concept of the Invisible Man is explained well. I might sometime write about it.

      • Although I think you are correct in your implication that only an ideological commitment to something larger than individuals or even anti-racism could undo it. (One of the confusions of 20th century liberalism is a focus on what it is against without a focus on what it is for).

        • You are correct. Liberalism has lacked a broader vision to challenge the status quo.

          Too often liberals don’t want to challenge the status quo, just tinker with the problems and push small reforms that keep the system in place as is. Even many oppressed people worry about challenging the status quo, for the unknown is most often scarier than the known. It takes a lot to motivate people to seek out new visions and to genuinely commit themselves to them.

          As I see it, large-scale change never happens by choice. People are forced to change and so they respond. At those times, humans demonstrate great capacity for dealing with change. But humans don’t generally go out of their way to seek change.

          • Liberalism is the answer but also the source, I think,we have to accept its key ideas may be saved, but as a total ideological package, it is not redeemable

          • That makes sense to me.

            The total ideological package is mixed up with the total social order. There is no way to challenge the problems of the social order without challenging the ideology that justifies the social order and attempts to explain away the inconvenient details.

            The rhetoric doesn’t fit the reality. So, what would happen if we, as a society, ever took liberal rhetoric seriously? I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t mind trying it out.

          • We would have to be more honest about the truth of liberalism deliberate lack of universalism in the first place. It would make us profoundly uncomfortable because it would show our contradictions.

  2. If I may make a few reading suggestions on this topic:

    Rattansi’s Racism a Short Introduction is actually really good at saying that racism is modern, but all the elements of racism existed in uncombined forms for most of human history. Racism as we know it may not be natural, but the otherizing and scapegoating tendencies do emerge in all human cultures. Etc. It is less than 200 pages and very fair minded and also realistic about claims of “post-racial” societies, etc.

    There are also a lot of good theoretical and anthropological works on racism, othering, and the complicated relationship to liberalism if you are interested.

    • Please make as many suggestions as you please. One of the reasons I appreciate our discussions is that you make useful suggestions.

      I will also put Rattansi’s Racism at the top of my reading list. I think I’ve noticed that book before, but I didn’t know anything about it. There are so many books out there that it is nice when someone offers suggestions about particularly insightful writings.

      I’d love to hear what other recommendations you have in mind. I’d be particularly interested in the anthropological angle. So, yes, feel free to assume I’m interested.

    • I started reading Rattansi’s Racism. I’ve so far read the intro and the first chapter. I like what I’ve seen so far. It fits with the other books I’ve been reading. The author’s basic message is that the issue is complex, and I agree.

      There are some books that comes to mind, in terms of it being complex. There is Racism without Racists by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. And there is Racial Paranoia by John L. Jackson.

      Rattansi is correct to bring in the the issues of ethnicity, religion, xenophobia, etc. I’ve always been fascinated by how certain ethnic groups became black.

      He points out that the Irish used to be considered ‘black’ by many English and Americans. That goes to show you how complex race is, since it isn’t even necessarily about skin color or even geographical location. The English and Irish are both pale-skinned and both live in the British Isles, but they could still see themselves as separate races. He also discusses Judaism and anti-semitism which offers a good lense to understand racism in Europe.

      I didn’t see any reference to the Scots-Irish. They’ve always interested me. In the early South, they were often considered more dangerous to the prevailing racial order than even blacks. But I’m sure in the South the Scots-Irish and Irish tended to become blended together, along with the Scots. They all settled the same regions, mostly in the Upper South and the rural parts of the Lower South.

      I don’t know when I’ll get around to finishing Rattansi’s book. I’m already in the middle of way too many books on race and racism. My curiosity about reading exceeds the limitations of the time I have to read.

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