U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Coates, Haider, and the Tangle of Race & Class

Last week, Ta-Nehisi Coates published his latest essay, “The First White President.” As with all Coates’ work, this latest essay combines a historical perspective with merciless insight and powerful prose, illuminating in his characteristically soul-crushing manner the immensity of American racial injustice. According to some, Coates is so skilled at pressing the full weight of this legacy – what Coates calls the “bloody heirloom” – down upon his readers that by the time he’s done, he has sniffed out any glimmer of hope for a politics dedicated to battling back against what he fairly calls the nation’s “original sin.”

In particular, Coates comes under criticism from those on the left who see hope in an anti-racist social movement rooted in anti-capitalist politics. In response to “The First White President,” Asad Haider has written the latest articulation of this critique, clearly outlining where Coates diverges from more materialist-minded leftists when it comes to the central question of whence white supremacy came, and what to do about it.

At the center of this debate is the white working class. Coates begins by identifying the painfully popular and empirically unsound talking point of mainstream liberals – the phenomenon of the lower-income white Trump voter can only partially be explained by racism. Sure, America is still “haunted” by racial divisions, but racism proper is something which appears in these liberal takes as only as an allergen further irritating the real problem – the increasing economic and social isolation of white, blue-collar America. As Coates details, this claim fails to make sense of Trump’s relative popularity amongst whites of all economic backgrounds, allowing the pundit class of liberals to excuse their own complicity in white washed politics while simultaneously accusing more race-conscious liberals and leftists of a cardinal sin they’ll recognize as such; elitism. As Coates writes, “the white working class functions rhetorically not as a real community of people so much as a tool to quiet the demands of those who want a more inclusive America.”

Yet one might ask why, as Stokely Carmichael and James Baldwin once did, marginalized Americans would want to be included in this America when it is, according to Coates’ own assessment, a spiritually bankrupt place to be? Why, in other words, stop at “inclusion” and not push towards transformation? This is the question at the heart of Haider’s essay. Highlighting Coates’ criticism of Bernie Sanders – who, he points out, Coates inaccurately treats as representative of the socialist left – Haider wonders why Coates pursues this point “when anti-capitalist politics, despite their recent growth, still remain politically marginal, their meekest expressions repressed by the bureaucracy of the Democratic Party? Why this target, when members of every mass socialist organization appear at anti-fascist demonstrations to put their bodies on the line against racism?”

Haider’s critique is strongest when it focuses on this question, for Coates enthusiasm for blunting cross-racial class politics is puzzling. If Coates had pro-capitalist politics, that would be one thing; but in the course of his writings, he clearly acknowledges how racism and capitalism had a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship. Moreover, should the recommendation he has expended the most energy on advocating, reparations for slavery, actually come to pass, such a policy would push back against centuries of capitalist practice and theoretical dogma. Considering these commitments, Haider is right to criticize Coates for holding up Bernie Sanders as somehow the sole representative of the socialist left – while many of us are inclined to support the most progressive politician known on a national level, it’s not like the guy believes in workers seizing the means of production. As Haider writes, “Every comment Sanders makes about “identity politics” is presented [by Coates] as if it shows the blind spot of any critique of capitalism, as if it illustrates the impotence of class struggle in overcoming white supremacy.” Coates further blurs his analysis by slipping between criticisms of liberals and leftists as if they represented the same cohort – once again, we are reminded of the necessity of reworking our political vocabulary to place liberals squarely in the center, not on “the left.”

However, I suspect that Coates does have reasons for ordering his priorities in this way. As ever, the class v. race debate haunts this back-and-forth, and as much as Coates knows, as he succinctly puts it, that “the history of slavery is also about the growth of international capitalism,” he chooses to keep the emphasis on race. Partly this is because well, that’s cleary his raison d’etre, or at least for writing – but his work also highlights his concern about how easily acknowledging class can morph into a turning-away-from race. If this dynamic didn’t exist in the broader liberal and leftist world, I don’t believe Coates would feel as compelled to push back against anti-capitalist politics by ever returning to the undeniably racial nature of American inequality.

Even Haider’s excellent essay, which is a far cry from the obvious idiocy and/or denialism of Mark Lilla or Nicholas Kristoff, provides subtle examples of this dynamic. Haider aims to remind Coates that cross-racial class solidarity is possible, and has happened. Yes, he writes, “the survivals of slavery granted certain privileges to white workers while continuing to impose racialized violence on black workers; but this does not change the fact that black and white workers also shared a common antagonism to their bosses, which, in many crucial moments, they clearly recognized.” Yes, these moments happened – but notice how the question of how often they happened is waved off as “many crucial moments.” But from a historical perspective, these moments were not numerous enough – clearly, while we have many hopeful examples of white workers recognizing their shared interests with black workers, the more common and powerful dynamic has been one of racial divisions triumphing over class solidarity.

This, I think, is what Coates wants us to face squarely. Yes, elites absolutely manipulated the offer of white supremacy as a way to divide workers – but this does not negate the fact that all too often, white workers took that deal. And this is despite the fact that, as Haider points out, it ends up being a pretty shitty deal! So unless we want to return to an analysis of false consciousness – which I do not actually think should be totally off the table, but is usually treated as such – there is no getting around this, and the undeniably smaller number of examples of cross-racial solidarity are not enough to overwhelm the larger historical pattern. If we really want to build a solidarity for the future that doesn’t suffer the same fate, leftists of all persuasions have to fully grapple with, acknowledge, and understand this complicity. Coates, I believe, helps us do that. True, he would do better to be more precise in his analysis of liberals and the left and true, some of his hostility towards anti-capitalist politics does more damage to his long-term goals than I think he realizes. Nonetheless, he is responding to something real, and in that his choices in terms of emphasis and priorities are understandable, even if they do not provide much of a roadmap as to where to go from here.

Haider, however, does. In the most incisive moment in his essay, he isolates the knot at the center of this tangle: the left’s continuing desire to afford primacy to either class or race. Race, he writes,

is a material social relation, as material as that of class. It is absurd to try to determine in the abstract which of these relations is primary. It is instead necessary to study a very specific concrete history—the history of plantation slavery and the development of capitalism in the United States—to explain both kinds of social relation. Capitalism is a fundamental target of any emancipatory struggle not because of some kind of priority of the ‘economic’ over the ‘cultural’ (whatever these would mean as essential categories), but rather because in actual history, racism has been an integral component of capitalism.

What Haider points us toward here is how vital it is that we depart from a mode of thinking that views race and class as separate tracks that, while yes they sometimes intersect, are nonetheless independent in essence. The very phrase “intersectionality” invokes such a structure, after all — and indeed, the problem is reflected in the very language we use to discuss these dynamics. As of now, “racial capitalism” seems the best name for the process we’re trying to describe, but even this uses an attributive adjective, and not a single noun, to capture the historical development of American inequality. If we’re ever going to get past the mistaken, and divisive question of race v. class, we need to bury this Search for Order and Original Cause and recognize, instead, that such questions are neither answerable nor useful. Only when we’ve all sincerely signed on to that project will partisans of either side trust each other enough to refrain from artificially elevating one dynamic over the other.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I think you do a great job at reading the logic behind Coates’s insistence on race. His work remains necessary, even with its limitations. I do ask myself though how to read Coates politically, what is his actual vision, beyond the apocalyptic imaginary one often finds in his writings. Perhaps his aim is to tarry with the negative continually–but I doubt this. It would be interesting to put this work in dialogue with Afro-pessimism (and I am pretty sure he has been read in this way by folks in Black studies) , which tends to view blackness as a transhistorical, ontological phenomenon that is at its very roots founded on a dynamic of exploitation that cannot be erased because the existence of whiteness depends on this dynamic.

    • Wow Kahlil, this has to set a record for the quickest response I’ve ever received to a post, thanks! 🙂

      And yeah, I think Coates does fit within Afro-pessimissm pretty well. On his treatment of blackness being trans-historical, this earlier essay, if I remember correctly, develops that point more fully: https://www.viewpointmag.com/2017/05/17/the-birthmark-of-damnation-ta-nehisi-coates-and-the-black-body/

    • It’s a bit odd to me to hear these questions about Coates’ politics, because to me he is so clear about his politics. He wants reparations, and he wants it to be the centerpiece of the progressive platform. He wants policies specifically crafted to address racism to be the top priority of Democrats. And he wants to remind us of how enormous the problem of racism is — a problem so immense that it defies all equivocal solutions or half-measures.

      • Thanks for the push back, you are definitely right that reparations is Coates’s central proposal and that his politics is deeply antiracist. Perhaps my statement was not exactly sincere and bordered on glibness, my apologies to the readers and Robin. I am quite conscious of this side of Coates’s work and I do identify with it, at the same time that I think that it is necessary to understand the limitations of the rhetoric of reparations; as if genocide could be repaired and corrected in utilitarian fashion through correctives such as Georgetown University’s. This is not to downplay the significance of such moves, but I do think that folks like Cedric Johnson raise a valid point when they question Coates in this regard, calling attention to the class dynamics in the historical formation of blackness and US society in general (see his Jacobin article from last year; not unlike Adolph Reed Jr, Johnson sometimes can a bit too unforgiving for my liking, but his ideas definitely do not lack historical rigor). Again, I do believe that it is not that easy to pinpoint Coates in terms of political ideology. Is he just another “liberal,” as the counterpunch article and others suggest? My question maybe should have been more specific: how does economy figure in Coates’s progressive politics? He appears to have issues with socialist ideas, yet he did end up saying he would vote for Sanders during the Democratic primaries.

  2. Thank you. This is one thing that irritates me every time Jacobin runs a piece about “look at working class whites in solidarity with blacks.” The piece, the piece’s author, and the mag’s editors all ignore the many times this was NOT the case. They also ignore that, for the most part, trans-racial class solidarity was either in smaller unions or pretty much outside organized labor, and that “mainstream” AFL-CIO type unions had definite racism problems.

    Jacobin is so wedded to his view that I’ve been attacked when I’ve pointed out the likes of this in comments.

    • Very interesting. Don’t get me wrong. I think Coates is a very good, sometimes simply great, writer as far as style. He’s often good to very good as far as content.

      But, as someone who long ago exited the duopoly on national politics, I suspect Coates is still inside it. Man needs to talk to someone like Ajamu Baraka.

  3. Society is not monocausal (race vs class). Only social discourse can be. It is disheartening that so much serious debate has turned on the prospective ‘real existence’ of this either/or proposition — when it so obviously an artifact of our own thinking. Critical thought will only begin at a second order of removal from the social discourse that continues to naively (re)constitute race and class as relations of difference even while it presumes to penetrate them.

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