In recent decades, the debate about race within the American left has been torn between two seemingly conflicting imperatives: veracity and electability. One can be “principled” and tell the truth about American white supremacy and the need to address structural racism in our policies and institutions—and be guaranteed the also-ran slot. Or one can downplay race as an issue—by remaining silent, vaguely deferring it, or making putatively “universalist” public policy promises—and then hope, once elected, to smuggle in a progressive, albeit disguised, racial agenda.
The accusations and counter-accusations are familiar. If promising to address racial inequality is not part of a political campaign, why would white voters even expect social change? Won’t what was deferred on the campaign trail merely continue to be deferred by the Oval Office? And what’s more, given the distinctively racial problems faced by African Americans and Latinos, how are “universal” programs of redistribution (those traditionally favored by the white left) going to address them anyway? The Affordable Care Act will admittedly benefit a high number of black and brown Americans, given that they constitute the majority of the poor and the uninsured in this country. But other racial problems, such as residential and educational segregation, a biased criminal justice system, vastly disproportional rates of incarceration, and the huge wealth gap, will unavoidably require measures targeted towards the specific needs and conditions of particular racial groups.
Defenders of “electability” will counter: what good is it to be “principled” on these issues if by highlighting race in a political campaign you ensure that you lose, thereby guaranteeing that your principles will never be realized? Politics, one is often reminded, is the art of the possible, not the fantasy of utopia. My contrarian opinion: as we enter the New Gilded Age, as our planet hurtles towards catastrophe, and as the Koch brothers prepare to unleash their billions, it is the mistaken belief that we can effectively challenge plutocracy without addressing both racial and class inequalities together that is the real fantasy.
As a concept, “the left” has always been ambiguous, not merely because of familiar distinctions between Marxists and left-liberals/social democrats, but because of the ways that race has shaped political analyses of this country. Historically, the black left in the United States has always had a much keener sense of the centrality of race to the creation and development of the nation than its white counterpart. Because of their daily experience of racial subordination, members of the black left have been better able to understand how white supremacy has shaped how even we, the left, understand capitalism and liberal democracy, both of which are concepts we imported from a European socio-political lexicon that does not prioritize race as a central concern. The United States is not just a capitalist society afflicted by the misfortune of a racially divided working class, nor is it just a flawed liberal democracy where racism is the tragic anomaly to otherwise universalist American values. On the contrary, race has been integral to shaping the identities, interests, and ideals of every American citizen. Whites have enjoyed full citizenship while nonwhites have been relegated to second-class status.
American exceptionalism, then—the mystery of why this most modern of Western nations has had no mass social democratic party and no strong united national labor movement—must be explained not merely through white workers’ hopes of Horatio Alger–style bootstrapping or the dream of striking it rich out West, but by white racial privilege. Amerindian expropriation and African slavery have provided land and disseminated the benefits of coerced labor throughout the U.S. economy. Segregated employment markets, racialized New Deal transfer payments, and discriminatory mortgage loans ensured ongoing illicit white advantage decades into the postbellum period. And after the Second World War, a racially implemented GI Bill and segregated white suburbanization sealed the deal. So the bottom line has been racial: white workers’ demands for a more equitable share for themselves rarely extended across the color line.
It is this deal, this racial contract that privileges whites at the expense of people of color, that is now at least potentially in jeopardy after decades of U.S. manufacturing decline, outsourcing, and the end of the golden age of postwar industrial global hegemony. Today it is the Gilded Age that rules, from which even most white Americans are excluded. As trade unions are busted, pensions dry up, wages fall, social mobility diminishes, and the kids move back home, we need to confront the truth about how we got here: we are the richest yet most unequal nation in the Western world. As poverty and worsening economic conditions begin to affect whites too, they may finally rethink the benefits of the deal they made so long ago.
So our plan should be to combine the struggle for racial justice with (not subsume it under) the fight for social democracy and class equality, making clear how their fates are bound up with one another. We should be highlighting rather than burying measures that seek to address race through securing corrective justice. But the obstacles in our path must not be underestimated. Most whites today are convinced that they are the real victims of racial discrimination, so a national educational campaign to dispel these and other delusions is crucial. Moreover, perceived white group interests include not merely economic benefit but their sense of social superiority. A transracial alliance of the economically disadvantaged will not only need to overcome traditional racism, defeat Republican anti-statist propaganda, and make the case for greater economic benefits for all from a more egalitarian capitalism. Such an alliance will also have to challenge the majoritarian white perspective—a legacy of centuries of holding (and benefiting from) the position of the supposedly superior race—that the very prospect of racial equality is a threat. The impending demographic shift to a nonwhite majority may help by broadening the electoral base of those who benefit from a more racially just social order. But it may also hurt the quest for racial equality, increasing white susceptibility to racial paranoia and the sense of losing one’s accustomed place in a frightening and unrecognizable new United States that is no longer “a white man’s country.”
Yet today, we have a possible opening: the economic crisis that deepened the chasm between the one percent and the rest also offers an opportunity to build a transracial coalition of the disadvantaged, a new movement that understands the link between American capitalism and American racism. It just might be possible to tell (for the first time) not just the truth, but the whole truth, about the history of race in the United States, and to actually be elected on that basis.
Charles W. Mills is John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy at Northwestern University. His latest book, forthcoming from Oxford University Press, is Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism.
This article is part of Dissent’s special issue of “Arguments on the Left.” To read more arguments in the issue, click here.