Re-visiting Race and Class in “The Age of Obama”


Remarks delivered at the Thomas Foley Institute, Washington State University,, Pullman, Washington, April 18, 2009

Recently appointed Attorney General Eric Holder, whose parents hail from the Barbados, aroused instant ire when he remarked last February 18 that the U.S. remains a “nation of cowards” for not talking enough about things racial.  But is this why he thinks the polity remains “voluntarily socially segregated”?  And what does he mean by “voluntarily” — do the majority of citizens choose segregation as a way of life?  As a result of the Civil Rights struggles in the sixties, Holder thinks that the U.S. is “more prosperous, more positively race-conscious and yet is voluntarily socially segregated.”  This ABC News item is then followed by polls showing that more whites reported having more friends who are black, and vice versa.  And reminiscent of a famous movie, a 2005 poll also showed that 48 percent of whites and 63 percent of blacks said someone had brought a friend of the other race home for dinner.  However, still, three-quarters of African Americans say they’ve personally experienced racial discrimination.

Holder praises President Obama’s speech about race and looks forward to “healing” the racial division.  The medical organic metaphor is revealing, as though the “body politic” were invaded by some virus or germ that needed to be purged, thus restoring the purity and health of the body.  We can guess what this means in terms of what is considered the immigrant problem, with the USA Patriot Act and Bush’s Homeland Security State still in place.

More revealing is Holder’s planned visit to Guantanamo to inspect the facility for torturing “unlawful combatants,” which incidentally was partly built by cheap Filipino labor (Filipino contract labor also built US military barracks in Iraq).   Guantanamo remains a symbol of what the U.S. stands for regarding many “third world” countries or peoples who are considered enemies of democracy, the free market, and Samuel Huntington/Arthur Schlesinger’s “Western Civilization.”

In spite of all the “post-racial” babble by pundits and academics, it is difficult to disavow the fact that, as African American political scientist Prof. Melissa Harris-Lacewell has noted, President Obama is more white than John McCain in many respects, which partly explains his gaining of the votes of whites who would otherwise not vote for an African American candidate like Jesse Jackson.  Whatever these qualities or signifiers are, they all point not to race — the phenotypical, physical, or somatic indices that constitute the classifying categories of past racist theories — but to class.

The meaning or reference of the conceptual term “class” has been so obfuscated and muddled as a result of the Cold War and its association with Marxism, communism, and the “axis of evil” that it will take herculean efforts to clarify the term.  It has been so demonized that perhaps it is impossible to rescue it for discussion.

This is just my way of introducing the crux of the debate or controversy in this field: the issue of whether to jettison the term/concept “class” in favor of race, racial formation, racial discourse, or some version of intersectionality — the mantra of race, gender, class — which is quite fashionable still, despite the end of the Cold War, the massive protest against the unilateral, barbaric Bush “global war on terror,” and the collapse of free-market fundamentalism and global economic crisis today.

Intervention from the Sixties

Several years ago, 1992 to be exact, I wrote a book entitled Racial Formations/Critical Transformations.   Among other books, I was influenced by Howard Winant and Michael Omi’s 1986 book Racial Formation in the United States, which impressed me then because it seemed to complement or supplement something missing in the first book which inspired me to venture forth from the traditionally conservative field of literary studies (modern British and American literature) into social theory and criticism.  I am referring to Robert Blauner’s 1972 book Racial Oppression in America.  This I read in the years after the end of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, when my energies were chiefly focused on fighting a fascist neocolonial dictatorship supported by successive US administrations.  Those were years that also expanded and deepened my acquaintance with the Marxist classics — apart from the works of Marx and Engels, those of Georg Lukacs, Mao Zedong, Antonio Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg, the Frankfurt Critical Theories, Walter Benjamin, Louis Althusser, Fredric Jameson, and so on, together with cognate thinkers like Jean Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, C.L.R. James, Amilcar Cabral, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paulo Freire, and many others.

In sum, my critical framework — I like to think — can be described as historical materialist in that, first, life and individual experience can be understood only in the material-historical process and as a totality; second, social reality — more precisely, social relations of production — shapes, if not ultimately accounts for, social consciousness; and third, human agency/creativity in its variegated collective forms can be deepened, sharpened, and mobilized to transform social life for the better.  The axiom I like to cite often is from Marx and Engels: the full development of one person depends on the free and equal development of all.

Due to various historical and ideological circumstances (too long to recite here), Omi and Winant’s book rejected “class” and “class analysis” as reductive, economistic, and too simple to explain racism in the United States.  In an essay posted in 2003 in the electronic journal, Cultural Logic, “Marxism and the Race/Class Problematic: A Re-Articulation”), I criticized their own reductive and simplifying method of dismissing Marxism, identified with economism and mechanical/vulgar materialism.  To sum up drastically my conclusion: Omi and Winant located class in the sphere of market-exchange, not production relations.  Second, it is subsumed into status and life-chances, following Max Weber’s sociological formula.  Third, it is finally placed in the economic domain chiefly determined by political and ideological forces, I quote myself: “Race, or racial dynamics, is ultimately elevated as the principal explanatory instrument for comprehending social actors. . . . Racial politics displaces the political economy of class struggle and class functions as the metanarrative of postmodernity.”  The end result is philosophical idealism, the opposite of historical materialism.  Class struggle and social structures operating in historically specific dimensions are all thrown into the dustbin of Cold War history.  That includes the possible solutions to racism, hence the permanence of racism, race, racial formations, racial state, and so on.

Let me review this argument here from another angle, a critique indebted to Gregory Meyerson’s unpublished work on this subject.

Deconstructing Racial Formations?

Omi and Winant’s concept of “racial formation” and its cognate, “the racial state,” intends to connect the individualism of identity politics and the presumed reification of Marxist functionalist structures of class.  By mixing problems of identity politics with a distorted structural analysis, the diagnosis results into liberal pluralism and its own racial functionalism.  Omi and Winant dismiss the objective primacy of class division in society, the structural inequality of wealth and power in society, as economic determinism — a negative label.  Objective class analysis does not rule out political agency, nor social and historical construction, which Omi and Winant privilege as their special focus.  They argue that class interests are “never objective, never simply given.”  In short, objective social structures (class antagonisms, the complex ideological and political contradictions in society) are deconstructed and falsely equated with the obvious, the given, the transparent facts, thus Marxist class analysis is confounded with empiricism and positivism.  In this empiricist reading, “race” and “racism” become epiphenomenal, so that racial categories and racial discourses are rendered secondary or less important than fundamental class conflicts, functions, etc.  The charge is entirely false and misleading.

When one says class is an objective process/fact, a dynamic interaction of multiple groups and sectors, one doesn’t deny its historical constructedness.  Race is an ideological concept, whereas class is objective “in the sense of carrying explanatory weight.”  Both race and class are historical; as historical processes they are objective and capable of being gradually understood by a structural totalizing explanatory method.  However, for Omi and Winant, history, including class antagonisms, can only be grasped in the epistemological and political languages of contingency.  This is why Omi and Winant claim that Marxism, or historical materialism, reduces racism simply as a functional instrument of class exploitation and therefore do not recognize how racial categories are framed, how they change over time and vary comparatively, their centrality to key discourses in science, religion, politics, culture, etc.

Race, racial formation, and racial discourse, with their associated concepts, can explain nothing because “race” is not an explanatory concept but an ideology.  What happens is that most academics posit questionable, baseless dualisms: structure/class/objectivity versus subjectivity/history/contingency, the open and complex versus the closed and totalizing system.  So we confront the following dichotomies: class-structured societies with no class struggle, sites of structureless struggles whose nature depends on what people decide in articulating or interpellating the popular, common sense, etc. (Laclau and Mouffe).  The antinomian concepts of structure and struggle vitiate the concept of “the racial state.”

For Omi and Winant, the “racial state” functions to produce and reproduce white supremacy, a racial dictatorship (now blown apart by Obama’s election).  This racial functionalism tied to a racial state becomes contested terrain, an unstable equilibrium in which the racial state (Reagan’s administration then) is opposed by racially based groups and progressive forces who might be able to seize the state apparatus and re-articulate it in a leftward direction.  But this will not happen.  Why?  Because, for Omi and Winant, the racial state can absorb, coopt, marginalize or suppress anti-racist resistance.  They assert that it is almost impossible to break “the supposedly consensual aspect of U.S. politics: the logic and justice of the free enterprise system, anti-communism, the morality and truthfulness of government . . . a hegemonic domain from which challenges are effectively excluded and within which basic political unity is preserved.”   But Omi and Winant refuse to label this “racial state” a capitalist state.  Omi and Winant rhetorically emphasize contingency and hegemony, while they dilly-dally and say it’s possible the next elections might end racism, on the other hand the hegemonic domain will persist and strengthen.  In short, racism is merely verbal, whether or not we say “nigger” or “kike.”

In his next book, Racial Conditions (1994), Winant suspects that all arguments pro or con regarding identity politics are muddled and counterproductive.  He therefore shifts from racial discourse to structures, macro analysis and micro analysis.  He wants to connect race and articulate it with class, but he thinks institutions are like discursive meanings, so institutions and other macro processes become sites of contestation.  In articulating class with race, his definition of class is a pluralist one.  In short, he avoids talking of a ruling class, for that would be too structural or Marxist.  He may mention a “racial dictatorship,” but that is not the same as a ruling class with control if not ownership of the means of production and all the political institutions required to maintain a system of class domination and privilege.

The concept of race then is a reification.  To explain the concept of racialization,  you need class analysis.  Class analysis explains processes of racialization (to quote Meyerson): “class analysis explains processes of racialization whereas the theory of race’s relative autonomy merely notices racialization (while claiming falsely that Marxism must be blind to it).”  Marxism recognizes and understands racialization of class identities.  Class is not like an economic base which exists prior to race, like a ground floor to which one adds a second floor, following the now erroneous reading of the “base/superstructure” metaphor.

Obscurantist Pragmatism in the Age of Obama

By denying the existence of ruling classes, Winant perceives no structural barriers to democratizing society.  He celebrates Clinton’s victory and Clinton’s populist platform as marking the drift towards a “democratic solidarity granting equal access to all the institutions of society, recognizing difference and carrying out the commitment made so long ago to rid this nation of the last vestiges of racial dictatorship.”  It is silly and utterly misleading to talk of “racial dictatorship” in lieu of “class dictatorship.”  In the capitalist USA, racism has played and will continue to play a central role, with its forms varying and changing depending on anti-racist resistance.  “Herrenvolk democracy” is an ideology, not a reality.  For Winant, racial dictatorship (the macro racial project) will last considerably longer than the shifting and contingent micro racial projects — his dialectic of structure and subject mimicking the Marxist dialectic that Winant already repudiated in Racial Formations.

But there is a profound, irredeemable incoherence in Winant’s dialectic of necessary racial dictatorship and contingent racial projects, between the invariant and the constantly shifting.  Here Winant becomes part of the post-Marxist crowd that strives to supplement their theory with essentialist psychoanalysis, a contradictory or inconsistent practice of this group.  The language of racial context and change is formulated with an essentialist psychoanalysis which characterizes the long duration of the racial project.  Winant utilizes a psychohistorical framework derived from Joel Kovel‘s stages of white racism in order to explain the permanence of race.

Racism, finally, is explained as originating from “the white male normalizing gaze which ranks, scales, hierarchizes bodies — this scaling of bodies is in turn derived from Kristeva’s concept of the abject, where the very formation of the self requires a kind of reaction-formation or ritual of purification that becomes the precondition for all hierarchies, all scales.”  By a resort to psychoanalysis to explain the particularities of racism, Winant and his associates have abandoned the theory of ideology, as historical materialists use it, to demonstrate how the capitalist ruling class maintains hegemony/dominance in a class-divided polity.  In rejecting the concept of ideology as elitist, Winant and other post-Marxists accept the main premises of a liberal pluralism and its corollary methodological individualism, the cornerstone of capitalist ideology.

This is clearly confirmed in the latest manifestation of Omi and Winant’s thinking, its bankruptcy and mystifying role: their adoption of pragmatism, albeit radical, as their master-narrative, paradigm, philosophy, world-view, methodology, etc.  Perhaps aware of the serious inadequacies of their previous thinking, they repeat “color-blind racial ideology,” structure, politicization of the social, structural racism, and intersectionality.  This gestural acknowledgement of the macro level, however, does not offset their obsessive emphasis on “racialized experience” and identity, whether multiple, performative, etc.  They bring in Dewey’s “situated creativity,” “racialized self,” Du Bois’s “double consciousness.”  They bring in intersectionality and relativism of methods and fields.  While insisting on structural racism, they never explain what its function or purpose is, as though it was a given, self-evident ingredient of the politics of identity.

The politicization of the social has now become more enigmatic with the complicating factors of gender and sexuality, war and peace, as well as citizenship, a whole slew of factors making the tie-up between personal experience and institutions much more difficult to tease out or disentangle.  But the means of clarifying the tie-up and explaining the racial dynamics, “racial project,” continues to mystify race into “racialized structure” in the long term, and its product, racial subjects.  This final formulation is telling: “The linkages between racial signification and racialized social structure are ongoing and intrinsic as well as unstable and conflictual.”   The recurrent motif of “self-reflective action” and “self-activity” — the hypothetical “self” here is color-blind, even as it acts colorlessly — signals the strong nominalist pragmatism (quite at odds with C.S. Peirce’s critical realism, but in harmony with Rorty and other chauvinist neopragmatists) which now legitimates their updated discourse, post 9/11 and at the point of global finance’s collapse.  Even so, “structural racism” can only be reduced, not finally terminated.  Everything also becomes mixed up in a relativistic brew of politicizing the social: structural racism, neoliberalism, masculinism, nativism, white racial nationalism, etc.  Eventually and ultimately, everything boils down to “taste,” which is especially true for “racial studies.”

“Color-blindness,” structural racism, etc. cannot be understood and remedied without paying attention to the reality in which we live: global capitalism’s endemic crisis, imperialist military interventions by the U.S. State, sharply intense inequality of nation-states and peoples, classes within national polities, regional conflicts, etc.  Only a historical materialist critical framework, attentive to the social relations of production and the political class conflicts taking place within it, the political and social contradictions of each society at every historical period and conjuncture, and the international or global framework of political economy that subtends this ongoing crisis of capitalism — I think this is the only tried and tested way in which we can make sense of racism, racial inequality, and other problems connected to race and ethnicity in the contemporary world.

E. San Juan, Jr., emeritus professor of English, Comparative Literature, and Ethnic Studies, is currently a fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University.  He was recently a Fulbright professor of American Studies at Leuven University, Belgium, and visiting professor of Comparative Literature at the University of the Philippines.  His most recent books are From Globalization to National Liberation (University of the Philippines Press), In the Wake of Terror: Race, Nation, Class and Ethnicity in the Postmodern World (Lexington Books), Toward Filipino Self-Determination (SUNY Press), and Critique and Social Transformation (The Edwin Mellen Press).