Bland, Sanders & The Limits of The Economic Argument

“After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world….”

-Du Bois

As things stand, Bernie Sanders clearly offers the left its best embodiment of a truly radical change in American politics. Sanders is not shy in saying that government can be used for good, and that the good is the interest of all, including the working class and poor. This language itself is something of a monumental shift: to move beyond our fetish of the disappearing middle-class and positively claim the label of democratic socialist would have been unheard of even four years ago in national politics. Well, unheard of on national media.

So why should we care about the Netroots Nation town hall meeting in which he and governor Martin O’Malley were interrupted by Black Lives Matter activists demanding to be heard and that the candidates say Sandra Bland’s name? Two strikingly opposed answers currently come to the fore: we should care because Sanders’ uneven response simply underlines white people’s blindness to systematic racism. On the other hand, we should not care because Sanders is already fighting that battle. Black Lives Matter just doesn’t understand this fact.

First, a basic point needs to be made, or remade. Race is, scientifically speaking, a fabrication. We Americans are habituated into using the term ‘race’, from checking off boxes to designate our ‘race’ to thinking of our country as divided into racial majorities and minorities, not to mention majority minorities. But these phenotypical distinctions, which focus predominately on skin and hair, don’t add up to distinct genotypical groups. Were we to genetically test people of various “races,” a white person is as likely to come out genetically similar to or even more similar to a black person as she is to another white person. Or an Asian person. Or whatever ‘race’ you prefer. There just is no such thing as distinct racial groups, save for we humans. But race does exist nonetheless as a mental structure defining our very concepts of reality, and it has been used historically by social and governmental institutions to organize our physical world in very clear, very painful, and very unjust ways. Even our federally funded and directed highway systems were often intentionally designed to keep black people segregated. So while race does not exist as a scientific fact, it certainly dominates how we think and live (and drive) in the world.

Acknowledging this, the economic argument steps forth. What is the economic argument? It’s actually fairly straightforward, and best put by Seth Ackerman in the following: “But what were slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, and urban apartheid if not extreme forms of economic inequality? Was the urban apartheid of Haussmann’s Paris not the “symptom” of nineteenth century economic inequality? What was the point of England’s colonization of Ireland if not to impose a lucrative “economic inequality” on its victims? And what exactly do you think all those African slaves were doing in the American South?” The argument is certainly seductive in its simplicity. Economic exploitation is the disease, and racism is but one of its symptoms. After all, there is no doubt that slavery was first and foremost an economic system, and there is also little doubt that much of the history of racial theory, going all the way back to the likes of Kant (sometimes referred to as “the father of race“), but even before him to our unfortunate moral guide, John Locke (or even Aristotle, if you like), has been a post hoc industry fervently trying to justify turning human beings into economic objects. Does this not, in and of itself, show both that ‘race’ is a construction and that the real underlying issue of that construction is essentially economic?

Indeed, as proponents of the economic argument point out, polling shows that even people of color themselves often put economic issues far ahead of issues of race. So at the end of the day, the Black Lives Matter intervention is confused: when we’re talking about race, we’re really talking about economy, and Sanders is our best answer to the mind bogglingly persistent and extensive structural racism that continues to define America. Even black people know this, say the polls.

So why does this fail to convince many people of color? We can begin to answer this by looking at a statistic given by Ryan Cooper, one of the protagonists of the economic argument: “A 2009 statistical comparison between two cohorts of men on this measure, one born from 1945-49, and another born from 1975-79, provides a window into how such rates changed, since the latter cohort came of age just as the incarceration rate was reaching its peak. Over that time, the overall imprisonment risk for men with some college, either white or black, didn’t change much, increasing from 0.4 to 1.2 percent, and from 5.3 to 6.6 percent, respectively. That is a large disparity to be sure, but the numbers are nothing compared to the staggering rates among black high school dropouts, which increased from 14.7 to 68 percent. (White dropouts went from 3.8 to 28 percent.)”

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What is interesting about this argument is what it elides, how it slips from an important point to a totalizing conclusion. Few would be shocked to find that rising in class means lowering one’s fear of juridical entanglement. All the same, in both cases, black people clearly are incarcerated more than white people, whatever their class. This is where we should stop and take note: if our issue were merely economic, then the numbers should be roughly equal at both levels. The numbers are not and have never been roughly equal at any level. For many people, the economic argument falls apart right here, not because increasing equality is a bad goal, but because it does not explain the systematic disparity that leads to inequality in the first place.  Cooper argues that “Abolishing poverty — such a policy would cost only about a quarter of what the nation spends on the military — would strike a heavy blow against white supremacy.” But why should we believe this? As many people of color know, increasing opportunity does not mean increasing access. For instance, it has long been shown that black people don’t even need to be physically present to be discriminated against. In study after study, simply having a black-sounding name makes one less likely to get a job. Even trying to buy a used car leads to an increased cost of around $700. If you are black. Similarly, black people have been prevented from accumulating capital since their forced presence in this country by our federal and state governments, so raising the minimum wage or making college free, while easing important material burdens, would not necessarily do away with our massive disparities in economic wealth.  Black households have roughly half of what white households do, and black people face twice the unemployment rate of whites: even if we improve access at the bottom, it’s unclear why anyone ought to believe that relative disparity will disappear precisely because it’s unclear why the racist mentalities that maintain that disparity will change.

Such is the slippage in the economic argument: it thinks that a rising tide is equally good for all boats. Even if everyone is doing better, many black people are very aware of the fact that they will comparatively lose.fbs_hpktbkuiwqv9zxnx9g It is easy to make the economic argument once you forget, to borrow from Fanon, the mental and racial schemata sustaining those economic systems that maintain inequality.  So while black people do prioritize economic issues, it’s also the case that they see issues of race as far more problematic and prevalent than white people do. While white people can find comfort in the idea that race is no longer much of a problem, or even that the real issue is economic (as if there were no intersectionality, but merely an economic base with problematic cultural superstructures), black people, having grown up on the wrong side of the color line, have had to constantly watch white people not see what is plainly going on.  Frantz Fanon encapsulates the issue best  when he states in the unfortunately still necessary Black Skin, White Masks that “…it is apparent to me that the effective disalienation of the black man entails an immediate recognition of social and economic realities. If there is an inferiority complex, it is the outcome of a double process: —primarily, economic; —subsequently, the internalization—or, better, the epi-dermalization—of this inferiority.”  What does the economic argument do but say that the double process is really just singular, that we only really need to confront the first process and watch the second whither away, as if mental structures so easily change when faced with losing power. If that were so, Fanon would have undertaken an economic analysis.  But as he says, “The analysis that I am undertaking is psychological.” Psychological because economic change is not to be confused with psychological change, “For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.”

I am, of course, simply reitering points here that are so old that it’s embarrassing, from Truth to DuBois to Baldwin to Fanon to Davis to Hooks, and on and on and on. The psychic damage is so powerful that even those who start in poverty and do well literally age faster than those who start off with advantages.  Of course, given that white people think black people are relatively impervious to pain, it’s unclear who would notice such a thing. Or, as Karen E. Fields and  Barbara J. Fields argue in their powerful book Racecraft, “It refers instead to mental terrain and to pervasive belief.  Like physical terrain, racecraft exists objectively; it has topographical features that Americans navigate. . . .  Unlike physical terrain, racecraft originates not in nature but in human action and imagination; it can exist in no other way.” It is these very real imaginary factors that help account for what actions we do and don’t take, for what and who we value, and for the fact that changing a physical landscape does not necessarily change how it is seen, or trampled upon.  Indeed, as Charles W. Mills points out, “the lack of appropriate concepts can hinder learning, interfere with memory, block inferences, obstruct explanation, and perpetuate problems.  I am suggesting, then, that as a central concept the notion of a Racial Contract might be more revealing of the real character of the world we are living in. . . .than the raceless notions currently dominant in political theory.”  The white imagination, living so comfortably as it can behind its veil of ignorance, all too easily locates a color-blind analysis, and we ought not be surprised: like the Kantian “I,” it organizes the seeing for us, but cannot itself be seen, thus allowing us to pretend it isn’t there. Black consciousness, long divided out of this unity of apperception, is violently forced to see what it can’t be, a violence that is doubled over yet again by the silence that black voices are disciplined into on a daily basis.

So the economic left can slip and slide down a clean, deracinated argument for economic justice, and as it does so, it neglects not only its own point in terms of accumulated wealth, but the long-understood fact that not all capital is directly economic: social capital is as important to getting in the door in the first place as economic capital, and having the latter may often be less important than having the former. No less, it ignores what critics of color have also long known: psychological structures do not just vanish when white institutions provide more just economic opportunities. To repeat, Sanders’ platform is the the most profoundly revolutionary one out there for all Americans, including Americans of color, and it deserves to win.  But it does not follow that it is also the best means for attacking systematic racism. Even if we raise the minimum wage, and even if we provide paid family leave, and even if we increase taxes on the wealthy, why should we believe that a “black” name will be more likely to get a callback on a résumé? Why should we believe that things will turn out better for the next Sandra Bland who is pulled over? Why should we believe that the overwhelming amount of unconscious prejudice against black people, even by black people themselves, will simply be resolved? Is this not the essence of magical thinking, the sort of racecraft that allows white people to say “I don’t even see color”? LIke Žižek’s unknown knowns, perhaps the real problem is that they don’t, for it remains in their best interest not to.

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