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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: Is divorcing gender and race from class hindering productive discussion on all three? Possibly.

Many American liberals, in their zeal to champion an inclusive understanding of the various oppressions that ail American society and an inclusive program to combat them, seem to have come to a profoundly mistaken and deeply harmful understanding of intersectionalism. In the process, they actually essentialize race, ethnicity and gender and discourage progressive economic policy.

Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins popularized the idea of intersectionality with her writing on black feminism in the early 1990s. This was meant to add an additional layer of understanding to Marxist feminism, not to be bastardized beyond recognition and used to decry anything even resembling actual leftism or a materialist, Marxist understanding of oppression.

When Collins wrote about Black political economy, it was still political economy. Class was still prior and the oppression of Black women, while it takes on some additional dimensions, was still ultimately a part of the larger class struggle.

Modern commentators have somehow taken intersectionalism as an alternative to Marxism-derived theoretical and political approaches. Even talking about class is seen almost as an affront to women, Black people and trans people.

“Classism,” to the identitarian, is undoubtedly the least pressing of the laundry list of –isms that must be fought. This is a backwards understanding of the theory.

This seemingly Moynihan Report-inspired—a report that previously named “The Negro Family: the case for national action”—idea that the poverty of Blacks, among other marginalized groups, is culturally-entrenched and therefore not worth addressing with common sense.

Social democratic economic policy may just be a cop-out formulated at the highest levels of the Democratic Party to capture Black support without actually supporting the kind of left-wing economic program that they largely support.

In what should come as a surprise to no one, this extreme misunderstanding works very much in the favor of the very rich. The Democratic Party only has to be on the right side of a cultural battle to win the Black vote and the majority of women’s votes—that is, to be less racist and sexist than the Republican Party.

If we treated gender and racial inequality as the products of the economic abuses that actually produce them, the Democrats would have to actually advocate and achieve normal center-left economic policy that the rest of the first world enjoys—universal healthcare, paid paternity leave and sick leave for example. Furthermore, the GOP could no longer rely on so much reactionary racist and sexist support.

As it is currently composed, the Democratic Party is a hodgepodge of identity groups engineered to gain 51 percent of the vote with the most corporate-friendly policy possible.

In a recent Gallup poll, only a tiny percentage of Blacks and Hispanics listed “race relations”—which Adolph Reed Jr., a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, calls “a counterproductive, essentializing euphemism for hierarchy”—as their main concern, with similarly few naming “the criminal justice system” as the most important. “The economy” and “jobs/unemployment” top the list.

So, why the disconnect? Reed points to a “free-floating racial commentariat” empowered by social media. “But the politics enacted in those venues is by large an ersatz politics, and the controversies that sustain them are by and large ephemeral, vacant bullshit­—the ‘feud’ between Iggy Azalea and Azealia Banks, whether black people were dissed because Selma wasn’t nominated for [and] didn’t win enough Oscars, and so on,” Reed said.

They have made careers out of saying what the ruling class wants to hear: that it’s anything but a need for redistribution. “Indeed for nearly 130 years, black elites in the [U.S.] have been offering up improved ‘race relations’ rather than interracial workers alliances against capital as the primary solution to American inequality,” said professor Kenneth Warren of the University of Chicago.

What is most disturbing to me is how many of the most committed liberal activists seem to have bought into this. It is one thing to hear a centrist like President Barack Obama tell young Black men to pull their pants up when he should be fighting to give them free public universities to attend. 

It is worse yet that “the now commonplace claim at the heart of the recent Black Lives Matter protests against Sanders is that white liberals have long reduced racism to class inequality in order to deflect attention from racial disparities,” according to Touré Reed, an associate history professor at Illinois State University.

“This is not just wrong, but the formulation—which ultimately treats race as unchanging and permanent rather than a product of specific historical and political economic relations—undermines both the cause of racial equality in general and pursuit of equitable treatment in the criminal justice system in particular,” Touré Reed said.

Again, the same is done with gender, and in either case, it is an incredibly cynical, perhaps even sexist and racist line from self-proclaimed liberals. It is not the result of the material deprivation and oppression waged against these groups that creates inequality, they say, but something about Black people, Hispanics and women themselves. I disagree.

Follow Martin Forstrom on Twitter.

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