Points for Discussion on Race in the United States from Noel Ignatiev

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After a recent discussion and debate with the NYC local, we asked Noel Ignatiev (formerly of Sojourner Truth Organization and the journal Race Traitor) to clarify some of his theses on the status of race in the US on the eve of the Ferguson grand jury decision. We hope Noel’s position can serve as a prompt for a reinvigorated and principled discussion, grounded in US history and our understanding of Marx.

While the present moment is unique, we hope to understand the activities of the class today as part of an unfolding of the broader history of struggles against white supremacy and capitalism. If you are interested in responding to this piece at length please get in touch with us.

Noel’s piece is also one in a series of posts dealing with the wave of protest sweeping the United States following the police murder of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Other posts in this series include: 5 Way To Build a Movement after Ferguson, Burn Down the Prison: Race, Property, and the Ferguson Rebellion, Turn Up Htown: Reflections on Nov 25 Day of Action, and The Old Mole Breaks Concrete: The Ongoing Rupture in New York City, .


 

Noel Ignatiev: Capital is race-blind; the capitalist mode of production (cmp) tends to reduce all human beings to abstract, undifferentiated, homogenous labor power. However, the pure cmp exists nowhere; all existing societies, including those in which the cmp prevails, contain elements left over from the past as well as elements that are the product of the political intervention of various groups.

Racial oppression is not universal to capital. Four places developed historically on the basis of racial oppression: the U.S., South Africa, Ireland, and Palestine.

By racial oppression I do not mean the ethnic or religious bias that exists widely, or inequalities among census groups (defined by color or any other feature), but a system of oppression that incorporates by definition portions of a subordinate class in the subjection of other members of that class, thereby constituting them as a race. The hallmark of racial oppression, as Ted Allen taught, is the reduction of every member of the subject group to a status beneath that of any member of the dominant group: Huck Finn’s Pap could push W.E.B. DuBois off the sidewalk. In addition to what it meant for the masses, it confined black entrepreneurs and professionals to a segregated market.

The system of racial oppression did not arise out of a bourgeois plot but out of specific historic circumstances; once it developed it became part of the U.S. social formation. Only value production is essential to capital; racial oppression is contingent, although under some circumstances it may become so vital to bourgeois hegemony that its fall would decisively weaken the entire system. (That was the underlying assumption of STO, which argued the centrality of the fight against white supremacy on strategic grounds.)

The attachment of the capitalist class and of individual capitalists to racial oppression is subject to modification based on various considerations, most of all, what is necessary to maintain political stability. Beginning in the 1950s (and perhaps earlier), decisive sectors of capital came to the conclusion that racial oppression as defined above was costing more than it was worth. They were pushed to this view in part by the cold war, in part by changes in production (the mechanization of agriculture) and in part by the struggle of black Americans and their allies. And so they moved to introduce change.

The Supreme Court decision calling for desegregation of public schools (followed by other decisions desegregating public facilities) was not mere talk. Nor were the Civil Rights and Voting Right Acts, the striking down of provisions that excluded black people from juries, the Labor Department’s forcing the construction unions to open their doors to black workers, regulations outlawing “steering” by real-estate agents, affirmative-action policies in education, the Justice Department’s order that police keep records by race of those they stop, the multimillion-dollar fines against oil company executives caught on tape practicing explicit race discrimination. Eric Holder’s visit to Missouri, aimed at dragging Ferguson into the twenty-first century, is not mere talk. By the way, Holder is a prime example of what I mean: a vigorous defender of corporate interests, including the right to assassinate U.S. citizens without due process, he is an opponent of classic race discrimination.

Of course, none of these measures represent the sort of intervention that revolutionaries would make. They do not address, except marginally, the effects of the past. They are all subject to reversal, depending on estimates by the governing coalition of what is politically desirable at the moment. Most important, none of them threatens the capital relation; at most they constitute political, not human emancipation. (See Marx On the Jewish Question.) But they are not trivial, nor are they mere demagogy.

The most class-conscious, farsighted sectors of the ruling class have adopted the policy of neoliberalism, which aims at removing all barriers, including race, to the free flow of capital. It does not follow that they prevail in every situation (any more than FDR’s policy of benevolent neutrality toward labor unions prevented Chicago police from massacring Republic Steel strikers in 1937). As Engels pointed out, “[T]he final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus there are innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant — the historical event. This may again itself be viewed as the product of a power which works as a whole unconsciously and without volition” (Letter to Bloch, 21 September 1890).

In Ferguson, the smart thing – and clearly what the Obama Administration wants – would be for the grand jury to return some kind of an indictment that makes the protestors feel that justice has been served, without hurling the defenders of the police into the arms of the fascists. Holder is up against the opposition of police unions local and national, an entrenched town bureaucracy, white bigotry, inertia, etc. The midterm elections may well have emboldened those forces to resist the pressure from Washington. It is impossible to predict the outcome. In this situation, revolutionaries must prepare themselves to oppose concessions just as they do repression, understanding that both serve the class enemy.

(Note: I wrote the above before the Ferguson and Staten Island grand juries refused to indict. Since that time various actions and statements from the Obama administration and leading political figures plus New York Times coverage and editorials tend to support my argument about what leading circles want. How long it will take them to get it – indeed whether they get it at all – cannot be predicted with certainty. By way of historic parallel, it was years between President Eisenhower’s first hesitant expressions of disapproval of hardcore southern segregationists and the changes of the Civil Rights era.)

For further context behind Noel’s position, please refer to his introduction to 12 Million Black Voices Heard, and “My Debt and Obligation to Ted Allen”.

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