I just read Zine Magubane’s review of Kenan Malik’s Not So Black and White: A History of Race from White Supremacy at Catalyst. Malik argues that both the 1619 Project and Donald Trump’s “1776 Commission” fail to recognize the importance of social class.
Here is a taste:
Kenan Malik’s Not So Black and White: A History of Race From White Supremacy to Identity Politics is a detailed yet broad examination of how race was invented as a logic to organize people’s experience of themselves as well as to channel political activity. The book is organized around four themes: 1) a retelling of the story of race, demonstrating how it emerged as an elite discourse to justify restricting equality and liberty to the few; 2) an exploration of how mass resistance, particularly against slavery, colonialism, and Jim Crow, expanded the ideas of liberty and equality in order to make them truly universal; 3) an examination of the relationship between racial inequality and class inequality, with special attention to how a narrow focus on racial inequality obscures how class exploitation works to produce and reproduce racial inequality; and 4) how identity politics is a form of class politics that operates with equal perniciousness on the Right and the Left. Not So Black and White is not only a searing indictment of how “our preoccupation with race frequently hides the realities of injustice,” it is also a call for a different kind of politics — one that is class-based and worker-focused — to free us from the prison of identity.1 Although the book is not explicitly framed as a critique of epistemology, it is a provocation to think even more critically about analytical categories and the politics of historiography. Not So Black and White invites us to evaluate how race has become not only the primary way to organize political life but also the preferred epistemological category for explaining the march of history. As such, it demonstrates that debates over historiography and epistemology are not simply of academic interest. They are informed by class politics and are weapons in political struggle.
Malik’s book could not be more relevant for the debates around race in the United States. Take, for example, the controversy around critical race theory (CRT) and, in particular, the confrontation between the so-called 1619 Project and 1776 Commission. Nowhere are the class politics that drive historiography more apparent than in current debates over what Florida governor Ron DeSantis derisively termed “woke history” and what the minds behind the 1619 Project call “the full history of America without it being whitewashed.”2 Taken at face value, these two projects appear to be ideologically opposed. If we view them as forms of ideology and thus “concrete elements through which the struggle between classes is fought out,” it becomes clear that they are different expressions of a shared class politics.3 Malik points out that identitarians on the Right and the Left share a common hostility to the working class and “radical forms of universalism.”4 The 1619 and 1776 projects exemplify this. They reject three forms of radical universalism: class struggle, the class analytic, and universal social programs targeted at redistributing the social surplus from the rich to the poor and working classes.
Having evolved from a New York Times Magazine piece into a 624-page tome that weaves together poems, photographs, and essays organized around a central mission — documenting “the central role that slavery and anti-Blackness played in the development of our society and its institutions” — the 1619 Project, its editors proudly proclaim, “breached the wall between academic history and popular understanding.”5 The text’s principal argument is that inequalities in most areas of American life, from traffic patterns to the delivery of health care, are an outcome of “historic and systemic racism.”6 Its analysis is clearly informed by the dominant tendency within the sociology of race and ethnicity, which argues that America is best understood as “a racialized social system” and that analysis must focus on uncovering the “mechanisms responsible for the reproduction of racial privilege in society.”7 The 1776 Commission, the brainchild of the Donald Trump administration, is an explicit rebuke of the 1619 Project. It decries the fact that an “oppressor-victim narrative” not only underwrites the latter’s historical account but does so in order to provide ideological cover for policies that would grant special privileges to racial minorities and thereby “create new hierarchies as unjust as the old hierarchies of the antebellum South.”8
The term “intellectual common denominator” was coined by sociologist C. Wright Mills to describe an idea of such iconic status that “men can state their strongest convictions in its terms.”9 The term “legacy of slavery” meets that criteria. The 1776 and 1619 projects both wield slavery as an ideological weapon, seemingly in service of opposing social aims. The 1619 Project argues that because slavery was the foundation upon which American society and its inequality was built, “reparations must include individual cash payments to descendants of the enslaved in order to close the wealth gap.”10 The 1776 Commission maintains that slavery was an unfortunate aberration in a nation founded on the rights and freedom of the individual. John C. Calhoun and the Confederacy rejected this in favor of the idea that rights and privileges “inhere not in every individual by ‘the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God’ but in groups or races according to historical evolution.”11 As such, the 1776 Commission draws a parallel between people who argue in favor of reparations and the defenders of slavery. Both seek to sacrifice equality and private property in the name of “group rights” and “explicit group privilege.”12
Despite their many differences at the level of conclusions, the detractors and defenders of “woke history” share, uncritically, the same principles of investigation and explanation — the same epistemology. They both demote the role of class interests in political contestation. Likewise, the class politics that inform both projects are remarkably similar. The 1776 and 1619 projects are united in their reverence for capitalist social property relations, despite their disagreement about how the state should respond to the inequalities they produce.
Read the rest here. There is a lot more to chew on in this review.