The Role of Race and Racism in the Devolution of the Left

“When the official subject is presidential politics, taxes, welfare, crime, rights, or values … the real subject is RACE.” So read the cover story for the May 1991 issue of The Atlantic. The authors, Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary D. Edsall were prescient in observing the subtle and insidious ways in which race and racism—through code words, euphemisms, and circumlocutions—have penetrated political discourse during the half-century since the passage of landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. In retrospect, the 1964 election, in which Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in a landslide, was the last hurrah of the Democratic Party. Republicans won 5 of the 6 elections between 1968 and 1988, and 7 of the 10 elections between 1968 and 2004, thus establishing firm control over the institutions of national power, including the Supreme Court. This can only be described as a counter-revolution in which many of the hard-won gains of the civil rights movement were eviscerated or wiped out altogether. From there, the conservative ideological crusade went on deploy the tropes of race and racism in a sweeping attack on liberalism and the liberal policy agenda.

After the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, there was a relentless effort to drive every last nail into the coffin of the civil rights movement. Furthermore, conservative intellectuals and strategists seized upon the mounting popular opposition to the Great Society and the racial liberalism of the Democratic Party. With the help of nascent neocons, conservatives underwent an ideological facelift: they now portrayed themselves as the champions of the rights and interests of white workers. This rhetoric gained momentum with an ideological crusade against affirmative action during the 1980s, followed by an attack on “welfare”—that is, Aid for Dependent Children (AFDC). However, these were only dress rehearsals for a larger assault on the welfare state itself. Emboldened by their success, the partisans of counter-revolution, with the backing of right-wing foundations and think tanks, launched a campaign against the New Left and “the Left academy.” Thanks to their control of the White House for 28 years, Republicans were able to pack the Supreme Court with judges weaned by the Federalist Society, which today has chapters in over 200 law schools across the nation. The result was the effective gutting of affirmative action, the most important policy initiative of the post-civil rights era. Affirmative action drove a wedge in the wall of occupational segregation that has existed since slavery, and produced, for the first time, a sizable black middle class with a foothold outside the ghetto economy. Without affirmative action, we are beginning to witness the erosion of these gains, and a widening of the gap between blacks and everybody else.

Only in hindsight is it clear that Bill Clinton, the New Democrat, represented a transitional period in a reactionary spiral that morphed into neoliberalism. Let me make two related points about race and neoliberalism. First, race and racism were used, with political cunning, to epitomize all that is wrong with the welfare state, to whip up antagonism toward the “big government” that gave us the New Deal and the Great Society, and to impart new legitimacy to “states rights,” which, let us remember, was the ideological linchpin behind the Civil War. Second, the policies enacted under the emergent neoliberal regime have all had particularly devastating effects on African Americans. Indeed, Glenn Beck has ridiculed universal healthcare, universal college, and green jobs as “stealth reparations.”

The Right has been ingenious in playing the race card over the last half-century, and if the Left is going to prevail, it will have to trump that race card with one of its own. Progressives and their allies in labor can begin by confronting their own complicity in a racial division of labor that privileged white men above all others. To paraphrase Justice Brennan, we need to engage race in order to transcend it. Only then will it be possible to restore “poverty” and “inequality” to political discourse. To build coalitions across racial and class lines. And to advance a political agenda that can effectively challenge class power and neoliberal rule.

This is a synopsis of a larger paper that was published in the current issue of LOGOS, an online journal.