“Watch out there, Jack, there’s people living under here.”
—Ralph Ellison, “The World and the Jug”
I first encountered the race/class debate as a live issue in the early 1970s, in the New Communist Movement debates that emerged out of Black Power and Students for a Democratic Society radicalism and the broader anti–Vietnam War movement. Those debates were influenced by a group of activists and writers who had been exploring a race-conscious—and at least suggestively anti-capitalist—radicalism, particularly in the magazines Liberator and Freedomways, and were modeled on understandings of anti-colonial national liberation struggles in what was then known as the Third World.
New Communism’s mechanistic Marxism posited racism and class exploitation as distinct domains of inequality, dubbed “dual oppression.” Taking account of gender stratification added a third pillar, hence the trifecta of “triple oppression.” These constructs traveled beyond the increasingly sectarian ranks of the New Communists and spread broadly through left and movement circles.
However useful those notions might have seemed at the time, they didn’t contribute much to our understanding of how racialist or gender ideologies and practices actually and concretely connect with capitalist class exploitation. Asserting, for example, that a Black single mother downsized out of her steelworker job and facing eviction or foreclosure suffers from “triple oppression” doesn’t say anything about the sources of her circumstances—or how she might understand them, much less what she might do to improve them. The analysis instead was crafted in relation to an abstract debate, whose terms were remote from lived human experience. Instead of illuminating social relations as people actually lived them, they offered mere labels intended to fit the social world into procrustean taxonomies, derived from arbitrary ideological commitments.
During those years I lived and worked almost exclusively in Black middle- and lower-middle- class neighborhoods in overwhelmingly Black southwestern Atlanta, where I worked in three different capacities as a functionary in the administration of the city’s first Black mayor, Maynard H. Jackson Jr. Anyone who paid attention to daily life—especially while living in the middle of, and in small ways participating in, the dynamics of racial transition in local politics—couldn’t fail to notice the inadequacy of categories like dual or triple oppression. Experiencing the ways that Black Atlantans—both as individuals and as social strata—shaped their lives within capitalist class forces brought home vividly to me the folly of applying the generic race/class dichotomy to a fluid reality. It was impossible to miss the uneven distribution of expanding employment opportunities in the 1970s—or of the economic contraction associated with the energy crisis, deindustrialization, stagflation, and Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker’s interest rate shock on an already economically stratified Black population. The steep differential between resources available for maintaining stability in tough times—to those, for example, with access to union or civil service protections (or to personal, class-based social networks and connections) and to those without such access—was also unmistakable.
Among the several youngish families who moved onto my own block within a year or two of one another—replacing the last white families—were a junior high school coach and an insurance company office worker, and a Vietnam veteran autoworker and a bank teller. As the local auto industry slowly spiraled downward, my neighbor’s UAW-negotiated layoff protections ran out, and the family succumbed to financial precarity. Other households included a career military retiree and his spouse (who bought a Winnebago almost minutes before the energy crisis, which therefore never left their driveway), and an events photographer and social worker. My son’s favorite Little League coach, who lived around the corner, was a municipal water inspector. Several of his friends’ parents were also public employees; others worked in the evolving public-private social welfare economy, and some in private industry.
These families weren’t a representative sample of Black Atlantans at the time, of course. Atlanta has been simultaneously a showcase for Black affluence and as poor and distressed as many other big cities. Then, as now, more than a quarter of Black Atlantans struggled to survive below or near the poverty line. But very many others, perhaps even a plurality, were like those I mention—people trying to take advantage of the expanded opportunity structures that had become available in our generation and to fashion their lives accordingly. Such people were most immediately concerned with holding decent jobs, securing affordable housing—and the material security that enabled a respectable quality of life. For all of us, the embrace of racial solidarity was second nature. But only academics, freelance radicals, the emerging stratum of race-relations engineers, and some business owners traded in the shibboleths of Black nationalism and racial self-determination—the businessmen often in service to an explicitly reactionary politics: a red-, Black-, and green-tinted version of the anti-government, anti-welfare, self-reliance ideology of all small businessmen.
The punch line here is that focusing at the level of daily life—the conditions under which people actually reproduce their material existence and define and pursue their aspirations—upends the British Jamaican sociologist Stuart Hall’s apothegm, of which the adherents of “racial capitalism” and other both/and race-reductionist dodges today are so fond: that “race is the modality in which class is lived.” Race is certainly a modality within which people experience life under American capitalism. However, class—as the expression of location within the political economy—is the framework in which race attains meaning. I’ll have more to say about this in succeeding columns.