By R.L. Stephens
Jul 25, 2016
I am Black. I capitalize Black and leave white lowercased. Sure, it’s the accepted spelling, but really I do it because it feels good. My family lived in Missouri, but my mother crossed state lines to birth me in Kansas. Missouri was a slave state. Kansas was free, and she wanted her children born into freedom.
I love being Black, period. I’ve been called a nigger, both online and to my face. Oakland police beat my uncle so badly that he spent decades in a wheelchair. He died in that chair and my family rarely talked about who put him there. I’ve got family in prison and the projects. I spent half my childhood in the hood, a crack house at the end of my block; the other half in the white suburbs where the only time I saw the cops on my block was when a guy got stung by a bee.
Again, I love being Black, the joys and the wounds, I embrace it all. My cultural affinity for Black identity informs my politics, of course, but it doesn’t define them. Nor do I possess a wounded attachment to the marginalization I experience as a result of racism, as We Are The Left would have me do.
WATL claim, “To overturn this hierarchy, it is essential that marginalized people speak to their own concerns, define the agenda, lead movements, and continually complicate the white, male picture of the world with their own perspectives.” They center marginalized identity, which is to traffic in essentialism, as if — to quote Kanye — “all you Blacks want all the same things.”
We must judge a tree by its fruit, but what exactly is the practical effect of this chatter about the primacy of personal identity? Just yesterday, I was distributing anti-Trump leaflets. A woman aggressively shoved the paper back in my hand, saying, “I’m with Trump.” She was Black. She was an immigrant. She spoke in a thick accent as she ranted at me about the evils of homosexuality and abortion. She concluded her diatribe by saying “the liberals take Black people for granted,” and so she would be voting for Trump because “he really gets it.”
Did this marginalized immigrant Black woman’s perspective “complicate the white, male picture of the world” as WATL assume? Their procedural emphasis on speech and voice, without an attendant scrutiny of political substance, makes for the tokenization of marginalized people and not our emancipation. That may work for corporate diversity initiatives, and that’s no compliment.
At one point, the WATL writers imply that it’s whiteness and not capitalism that is the enemy and they flat out mock anyone who would say otherwise. Each year, nearly thirty million low-wage workers suffer billions of dollars of wage theft. It’s true that ethnic and gender minorities as well as women are over-represented among low-wage workers, but it’s also a fact that not all the thieving bosses are white. Wage theft by a Black boss rather than a white one in no way mitigates the loss.
We Are The Left members present themselves as being “the people the Left explicitly stands in solidarity with.” That doesn’t mean much to me. A Latino and an Asian American crafted the Bush torture memos, which were then carried forward by the nation’s first Black president. The diversity at hand makes the waterboarding no less painful for those detained in Guantanamo’s dungeons.
The weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin made a touching “It Gets Better” video featuring its gay employees, but their presence makes Lockheed’s bombs no less deadly. Solidarity is about what you do, not who you are.
Though WATL write that racism and the like are “varieties of capitalist oppression,” the rest of their analysis belies this understanding. Their intersectional worldview in effect treats class as merely another link in a colinear line of oppression, rather than the base from and through which all other forms of oppression flow.
My objection to the reductive fetishism of personal identity does not, however, mean I don’t care about race and gender and other hierarchies. So my critiques of so-called identity politics in no way “directly attack marginalized people” as We Are The Left accuse of any critic.
As a labor organizer, I see our fight against the bosses as being fundamental to transforming the cultural hierarchies that subjugate working people. Cultural hierarchies are part and parcel to the social reproduction of capitalism and can therefore only be overcome through class struggle.
Let’s go back to the issue of wage theft, where billions are stolen from low-income people. For poor women, it’s very difficult to leave an abusive partner when the boss is stealing their wages. Again, the solution isn’t abstract intersectional affinity with an identity group, it’s material class struggle. Just as faith without deeds is dead, so too is solidarity without struggle.
Secretaries in my union did an organizing drive a couple decades back. They fought the bosses, and they won real gains in wages, benefits, and respect on the job. In the wake of the victory, around fifteen of the women divorced their husbands. It was the class struggle against the boss which gave them the financial resources, organizing skill, and community support necessary to free themselves from their abusers. That anecdote is my politics in a nutshell. Material struggle changes people, shifts their ideologies, creates opportunity to embrace new cultural practices and institutions.
It’s hard work, but material struggle brings progress. Struggle is just that, struggle; it’s imperfect people striving to make a more perfect world. We will not all get along all the time. But there is no collective struggle for the perpetually offended, who purge and self-isolate their way to irrelevance. That is not to excuse abuse or bigotry, but to know that in wrestling to bring people together in common struggle we create the possibility for shared values, for personal transformation.
That’s difficult work, but changing the world is hard. That fight isn’t on Twitter. It’s not at some panel. It’s not in any of the insular spaces over which WATL obsess. Struggle manifests in the daily routines of ordinary life, the push and pull between workers and bosses, tenants and landowners, and all the other relations that materially facilitate the status quo.
That’s why class struggle is so central, because marginalization doesn’t occur in the abstract. It happens when I can’t get a job, when I get denied for loans, when property managers with available units lie and tell me there are none for rent. To be free of racism, I’m going to have fundamentally transform class society. Period. WATL’s obsession with identity distracts from that mission.
R. L. Stephens is a labor organizer in Chicago and the founding editor of Orchestrated Pulse.