14 July 2020

Whiteness: not what it used to be

Richard Seymour

“The discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing — a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed. The ancient world would have laughed at such a distinction.”
— W E B Du Bois, The Souls of White Folks

‘Race Doesn’t Matter’ was the hope, the beautiful hope, that Obama’s supporters invested in him. This chant, taken up at his victory rally in South Carolina, could not have been more wrong. They had the wrong man, the wrong party, the wrong system. 

The Obama era was a comprehensive failure if anyone expected racial justice. Black wealth and incomes were decimated. Black men, women and children were murdered by cops and vigilantes. The rate of deportations reached a record high, with the administration ramping up ICE raids. The securitarian and warmaking apparatuses were built up, and civil liberties attacked. Within a few years, no one was saying ‘Race Doesn’t Matter’. They were saying, because it had to be said, ‘Black Lives Matter’. And soon they were saying it under a white nationalist presidency.

Mark the sequel. Black Lives Matter activists began posing serious questions about the Democrats, state power, carceralism, violent borders, militarism and racial capitalism. Some of them put pressure on Bernie Sanders to radicalise his policies, helping create a big swing behind him among young black voters. With few exceptions, the liberal press, the MSNBC talking heads, the progressive websites, the mainstream publishers, and not a few pseudo-radical pundits and academics, were uninterested in this stuff. What they were interested in was discussions of ‘whiteness’, ‘white fragility’, ‘white privilege’, ‘white entitlement’, ‘white rage’, ‘white grievance’, and ‘white melancholia’. The language proved versatile. It could explain Trump (or explain Trump away). It could disparage Sanders supporters (who had theprivilege to be ideologically pure). It could edify white consumers with lessons in racial manners, teaching them how to check their privilege, stay in their lane, do their own emotional labour and so on: castigating, coaching and consoling their guilty asses in one product. All in all, it seemed an ideal complement to the ‘Lean In Like A Boss Slay Kween’ version of black empowerment circulating in the culture industry with its own images of generic ‘blackness’.

The culture industry loves culture wars. It arms all sides and profits from all sides. Preferably, the war should be futile and fractal, to keep it burning for longer. What begin as reifications of ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ should ideally devolve into more refined market demographics: culture war at its highest stage is a war of all against all. What begins as a critical concept, or even snark, should devolve into ritualised, educated unthinking, leaving everyone frustrated and no one able to understand anyone else. All solidarities should be momentary and coalesce around a commodity (cf your opinions about Black Panther). Such is the version of ‘whiteness’ that retails for an affordable price. It’s an open question whether that commodity can be kept in circulation after these multiracial uprisings, since the demand for it is strongly linked to the experience of defeat and powerlessness.

It is usually forgotten that the idiom of ‘whiteness’ began its current life as a weapon of class struggle. I doubt that David Roediger would want credit for popularising the term. However, written mentions of it perceptibly start to soar after 1991, following publication of his book The Wages of Whiteness. In popularising ‘whiteness’ as a critical subject, he helped mainstream an idea that started to take shape in the theoretical conjuncture of the Sixties. While the wages of the title refers to Du Bois’s analysis of the “social and psychological wage” that compensates white workers for their exploitation, the scope of the inquiry owes itself to the peculiar blend of radical labour organising, dissident Communism, Popular Front Communism, anti-segregation activism, antifascism, Maoism, and Black Marxism that fused in the biographies and intellectual lives of revolutionaries like Alexander Saxton, Noel Ignatiev and Theodore Allen. In the background of the book, as Roediger writes in his essay, ‘Accounting for the Wages of Whiteness’, is their attempt to theorise the ‘white blindspot’, an effect of what Allen called ‘white skin privilege’. This opaque and troubling warp in the rhythms of class struggle must have a role in the self-defeating susceptibility of many white workers to reactionaries like George Wallace or Ronald Reagan. Roediger agreed. Faced with a decade of Reaganite carnage, he wrote this Thompsonian history-from below to explain how white workers had played an active role in making their own ‘whiteness’, as part of their class formation.

And why should white workers not have a role in producing their whiteness? If the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class, they must also have a role in their own domination. There’s a misapprehension among some marxists thatWages of Whiteness is of a psychoanalytic bent, and is thus impure. In fact, it doesn’t refer once to the unconscious, and has only a few glancing references to the psychosexual dynamics of race-formation. The psychology of the book is mainly Duboisian not Freudian. The semiotic explorations of racial keywords are Williamsian cultural materialism. Roediger’s emphasis is always on social, not psychological, relations. His categories are race, capital and class, not sexuality and the unconscious. Hisbasic politico-methodological commitment is that race and class both unfold from “the logic of capital”.  Whereas psychoanalysis at its most boring and procrustean would mythicise whiteness, Roediger historicises it. This is rather important, whether or not one agrees with him (and his analysis was quite brutally criticised by Ted Allen, then an eminence grise among whiteness scholars). There is today a tendency to speak of whiteness in general terms, invoking a primordial whiteness, an “entire whiteness” as Ta-Nehisi Coates described the force behind Trump’s success. In whiteness studies you usually find localised, contingent, class-bound, gendered, nationally specific versions of being white. You find a variety of contending white ‘racial projects’, as Omi & Winant described them.

Perhaps more significant for the current moment is that Roediger’s first synoptic history of American racism, How Race Survived US History, was published just as Obama was starting his first term. Of course, the book fully expected that the ‘post-racial’ moment would prove illusory. Race, a catastrophe that has still not stopped happening, survived revolution, civil war and civil rights. It would survive Obama.Why would it survive? The analysis curves around the problematic of whiteness and its investments, from the Bacon Rebellion in 1676 to the American Revolution, the Civil War and jubilee, mass immigration, and Civil Rights and its aftermaths. The history of American capitalism, in this telling, is the history of white-supremacy. Class and race, in such a society, are instantiated in the same set of social relations. The arsenals of race, such as the magistrates’ court and the police department, are also the arsenals of capital.

What sorts of politics should flow from this analysis of whiteness? Roediger is committed to the idea that race is part of the “logic of capital”, and not merely part of historical capitalism. If you accept this premise, then it follows that to be a consistent anti-racist, one must be anti-capitalist and revolutionary. Indeed, Roediger appears to go further here. One of his criticisms, shared by a lot of socialists, has been directed at David Harvey for saying that he didn’t see the struggles in Ferguson as “dealing very much in anticapitalism”. Roediger finds that this imposes an “iron distinction” between anti-racism and anti-capitalism. He insists that the demands of Ferguson, to abolish the exploitative municipal courts and control the police, are anti-capitalist. No doubt he would say the same about the demand to “defund the police”, which at its most radical means “abolish the police”. 

One can dispute this analysis, and I do, while seeing its coherence. For example, I think the hypothesis that race is part of the “logic of capital” is, not wrong, but not yet proven. I think that Harvey was not so much imposing an “iron distinction” between anti-racism and anti-capitalism as, less controversially, a distinction. I think that class demands are not necessarily anti-capitalist demands. Nothing entitles us to claim every strike, occupation, protest, or challenge to an instituted expression of class power as a priori anti-capitalist. However, the point is to take the premise as a speculative wager, rather than a certainty. We don’t know everything about the “logic of capital”, so any position we take on it is a bit of a gamble. And asserting the ‘anti-capitalist’ propensity of Black Lives Matter is, in a way, an attempt to realise that potential in practice, rather than dismissing it, and to impart the political clarification that it needs.

However, beyond this, I think Roediger’s historical sweep on the history of American racism contains a striking occlusion. The first half of the book foregrounds empire in the making of white-supremacy. By the time we’re in the nineteenth century, imperialism is receding into the background. Following a brief account of the Spanish-American War, there is almost no discussion of imperialist race-making in Haiti, Mexico and Nicaragua, the two world wars, and the Korean War, while Vietnam is condensed into under two pages. What is discussed isn’t theoretically integrated. The book also has a lot of detail about law, policy, representation and state violence. Yet, curiously, the overarching question of state formation is absent. This is clear from the start. The English colonisation of North America, and the seventeenth century turn to race, could not have happened without the bourgeois revolution that put capitalists in power. Not discussed. Locke was the chief philosophical legislator of the state emerging from this bourgeois revolution. His racial fantasies are described, but his role as an organic intellectual of bourgeois revolution is not. As for the American racial state, major mutations post-Civil War, massive shifts in its hegemonic strategies and in the scalar operation of its power, are dealt with rather glancingly. It’s easy to criticise a book for what it doesn’t do, and doesn’t claim to do. A concise, four hundred year history can’t cover everything. Still, I think this opacity regarding the racial state could be significant. After all, would the state not be a (perhaps the) key link between capital and race? What could be more relevant to today’s struggles than the state? I suspect that Roediger’s training as a labour historian, and his aversion to ‘trickle-down’ theories of racism, has led to an over-correcting emphasis on racism-from-below qua ‘whiteness’.

I think this matters because, there is some evidence that ‘whiteness’ has significantly diminished as a currency, but this diminution coincided with a rearmament of the racial state. The state has moved in a more racially conservative direction in recent decades, but that isn’t where popular trends have been going. So, we face a situation where Democratic leaders, governors, senators, columnists and others who have been part of the conservative drift, are being forced by a popular, multiracial movement to acknowledge ‘systemic racism’ without being too specific about what that means. They have been happy, as Hillary Clinton was in 2016, to reference keywords like intersectionality, and denounce ‘deplorables’, while evading substantive change. As we have seen, they are also happy to dabble in the language of ‘whiteness’ in denouncing politicians far to their left, and their online supporters. For the hard-centre, exposing and criticising ‘whiteness’, subtracted from history and class, is becoming just another deflection, as well as a disciplinary mechanism. There is a political premium, now more than ever, on foregrounding the racial state, and thwarting its self-defence in the guise of wokeness.


Image “Racism is the Elephant in the Room at Deploraball” byBackbone Campaign is licensed underCC BY 2.0