Bhaskar Sunkara, 6 March 2021
Much of today’s advocacy around racial justice places the onus on individual actors and the private sector. We need collective action instead
Americans are talking more and more about racism and inequality, and that should be a good thing. It’s not just policing and incarceration – black Americans suffer disproportionately from every aspect of our unjust social system. They’re more likely than white Americans to deal with poverty, housing insecurity, joblessness, go without health insurance, or face regular bouts of hunger.
After years of embracing the “post-racial” rhetoric of figures like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, mainstream Democrats are coming around to acknowledging how much the 1960s civil rights revolution left unfinished. And yet, years into a “great awokening” that has drawn attention to these issues, it’s worth asking whether anything is changing.
Indeed, we should ask: are liberal anti-racists advancing the cause of equality? Could they even be setting it back?
Unlike mid-century movements for justice, much of today’s advocacy around racial justice places the onus on individual actors and the private-sector to address problems that are really best fixed through collective action and social legislation.
Biases and interpersonal hostility, of course, still negatively impact the lives of people of color. A Harvard Business Review survey found that “since 1990, white applicants received, on average, 36% more callbacks than black applicants and 24% more callbacks than Latino applicants with identical résumés.” That’s a strong case that even if we equalize opportunities for advancement, there will be a need for affirmative action policies, however inadequate they might be.
However, even affirmative action wasn’t brought about through the proliferation of White Fragility reading groups and self-contemplation about one’s own privilege. Rather, it was a demand that emerged from a labor-backed political coalition. As the scholar Touré F Reed reminds us, the phrase “affirmative action” first appeared in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 – the single-most important piece of labor legislation passed in the United States. The extension of affirmative action to issues of racial discrimination was initially part of a social democratic coalition that saw a government role in bringing about greater equality.
That’s a far cry from today’s emphasis on private sector activity not mandated by the state – through anti-racist trainings at workplaces and the like – to foster diversity and inclusion. For starters, “diversity” and “inclusion” aren’t synonymous with “equality” and “justice” and trainings themselves don’t appear to be effective, even on their own terms. But even if they did work, the best we could expect from them is a more sensitive working environment for minorities lucky enough to be employed or for those customers who patronize them. If you don’t have a job, or don’t have any money, you’re out of luck.
Why is there so much emphasis on these trainings, then? Part of the story is the budding industry emerging around them – expert guidance through “honest and raw discussions of white supremacy and implicit bias and an analysis of racial hegemony” doesn’t come cheap, and is a job creation program of its own. But there are other reasons why even seemingly apolitical brands like Gushers and Fruit by the Foot, who make delicious varieties of candy, are jumping on the liberal anti-racism bandwagon.
First, it might satisfy younger staffers who want to feel like they’re working for companies that are stalwarts of anti-racism. Second, some consumers might like such anti-racist gesturing. Third, showing a commitment to diversity and arranging for a diversity consultant to come in is cheaper than dealing with an anti-discrimination lawsuit, having to deal with a Twitter-led consumer boycott for a misstep, or paying black and brown workers more.
Better to have Kendall Jenner in a BLM-themed Pepsi ad than paying more in taxes to help working-class people
Yet even if corporations aren’t driving the race-conscious awakening, they’re willing to adapt to the new environment because the political demands flowing from activists are increasingly compatible with corporate profit-making and governance. Corporations are also more than happy to monetize the new social justice interest. Just think of Hollywood – which once blacklisted socialist actors and directors in the cold war – rushing to make films with watered-down accounts of Black Panther leaders like Fred Hampton (who was a Marxist) or the Chicago Seven (all of whom were radical anti-capitalists at the time).
Similarly, companies like Apple, where workers in the secretive Chinese complex that manufactures iPhones attracted global concern after a spate of suicides, just brought out a special edition $429 Black Unity Apple Watch that was marketed for Black History Month. Apple says: “The Black Unity Sport Band is inspired by the pan-African flag and made from soft, high-performance fluoroelastomer with a pin-and-tuck closure laser-etched with ‘Truth. Power. Solidarity.’” Where is the power or solidarity for the workers toiling in factories in China, one might wonder? Or for child workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo who toil and die in mines extracting raw materials like cobalt that are used in iPhones. One doesn’t hear anything about that kind of material injustice affecting the working class from the global south when corporations make their self-congratulatory PR statements around inclusion.
They would rather focus on symbolism and racial-justice-themed commodities and products than contend with more expansive state oversight of private employment decisions, like an affirmative action program. Better to have Kendall Jenner appearing in a schmaltzy BLM-themed Pepsi ad than paying more in taxes to help working-class people in the form of an expanded welfare state and cash transfers.
It must come as a relief to the most class-conscious of executives that popular ire and media scrutiny has often fallen upon individual people rather than the system and corporations responsible for unprecedented inequality. It’s convenient for the enemy to be a white worker committing a microaggression on the job while earning $12 an hour and voting for Donald Trump than a chief executive spouting platitudes about diversity while earning $12 a second and donating to Republican Super Pacs.
Nowhere is the new anti-racism embraced with more zeal than at elite universities. Smith College, where a liberal arts education will cost you around $78,000 a year, has become the most famous example lately. In the summer holidays of 2018, a black student at the school was eating lunch in a building that was meant to be closed when she was questioned by a campus security officer about what she was doing there. She saw this as an act of racial animus and went to social media with her concerns. The incident came to the attention of Smith’s president, Kathleen McCartney, who offered an immediate apology and reportedly suspended a janitor without even speaking to the workers involved.
The student allegedly wasn’t satisfied, and posted photographs, names and email addresses of Mark Patenaude, a long-time Smith College janitor who wasn’t even working at the time, and Jackie Blair, a cafeteria worker who wasn’t actually the one who called security, on Facebook, accusing them of “racist and cowardly acts”.
Blair, an older worker who has lupus, said her condition flared up as a result of the stress, and had to go to hospital. She got death threats, had her car vandalized, and had threatening notes placed in her mailbox saying things like “You don’t deserve to live” and “RACIST”.
Patenaude told the New York Times’s Michael Powell: “We used to joke: don’t let a rich student report you, because if you do, you’re gone.”
There’s nothing special here: a boss throws a worker under the bus to satisfy the angry customers (in this case wealthy students and donors) that keep her employed. The only unusual part is that instead of demanding due process for the workers and an investigation, grassroots sentiment at a progressive institution called for even more sweeping actions. Student groups staged walkouts, while a pressured administration shifted more and more attention to beleaguered employees, calling upon Blair to go into meditation with the student, what McCartney called “restorative justice”.
Months later, a 35-page report was issued on the incident, which cleared all workers of wrongdoing, yet those affected were issued no public apology from McCartney or anyone else at Smith. In fact, an even greater scrutiny was placed on their thoughts and behavior. As McCartney put it: “It is impossible to rule out the potential role of implicit racial bias.” As such, cafeteria workers and other staff were subjected to intrusive and humiliating educational sessions led by outside consultants, where they were forced to speak about their childhoods, their racial backgrounds, and their political and social beliefs. It’s a high price to pay to serve rich kids food.
There was far less outcry months later, when Smith University furloughed Blair and hundreds of other workers during the pandemic.
The 2018 incident has gotten a lot of extra attention since the February 2021 resignation of Jodi Shaw, a former employee. Shaw detailed the ways in which the racial bias trainings at Smith, along with the workplace culture, meant that white employees could not bring grievances to the college about the nature of those trainings without being accused of “white supremacy”. But her own rhetoric and route to redress is a profoundly private one. Shaw, a white woman, is likely to sue the school for being a “racially hostile workplace”, and she’s been soliciting funds through GoFundMe. Shaw, whatever the merits of her case, is seeking justice via newfound internet celebrity, claims of racial discrimination, and the courts, rather than through collective action.
Now, an aggrieved individual might have no other viable option in this environment. But her case offers a neat parallel to what the university administration and some students are doing: trying to usher about anti-racism through psychological training rather than material redistribution.
But there is another way outside of the existing culture war – the union option. Smith workers aren’t completely without protections, because they are largely unionized: housekeeping workers are organized in SEIU Local 211 and other support staff are members of SEIU Local 263. Both unions, however, only have about 100 members, and assets roughly equaling what the average student pays for a year of tuition. They’re simply not in a position to do battle with the administration or a hostile campus to assert their rights as workers. The recent furlough of 230 employees will only weaken their bargaining power.
That’s a shame, because unlike diversity trainings and “white accountability” Zoom sessions, unions have been shown to increase pay and job security for working people and decrease disparities between women and men and between people of color and white workers. They foster an environment where those of all backgrounds can find their common interests and realize through struggle that they are more powerful united. The wage scales cemented in collective bargaining agreements erode the racialized stratifications often created when individual employees bargain with their bosses.
A year of privatized solutions and bitter polemics in the media have yielded nothing
What’s more, the shared struggle for improved conditions can foster new forms of solidarity. A 2020 paper, not surprisingly, finds that white workers are less likely to hold racist views if they’re in a union, and that white union members also tend to have greater support for not only universal social goods, but for policies like affirmative action.
Mainstream unions weren’t always bastions of racial justice. In 1919, the socialist A Philip Randolph could call the American Federation of Labor “the most wicked machine for the propagation of race prejudice in the country”. But through years of political struggle, they transformed themselves into powerful vehicles for the advancement of black and brown workers and a linchpin of a New Deal coalition that took the power of organized labor at the firm level and began to guarantee important economic rights at the federal level.
It’s not just that today’s emphasis on privilege, and the rush to condemn working people as racists, are distractions from the politics that can actually help change the United States. It’s that they run the risk of alienating potential allies and creating a subculture out of activism.
Where does this leave the rest of us, those likely on the outside of even an expanded labor movement? A working-class politics isn’t a way to ignore struggles against oppression, but it creates space for social movements to grow and an environment where anti-racist demands naturally shift from cultural representation to material redistribution. We might not all be able to join unions, but we will all be able to take part in those fights and support candidates who will improve the lives of black and brown workers through state action.
Campuses, even at elite colleges like Smith, can take part in such a transformation too. In 2016, hundreds of Smith students marched – not to call for the disciplining of cafeteria workers but in solidarity with them. They showed the campus administration that they were going to morph whatever privilege and power they had to help others fight back.
A year of privatized solutions and bitter polemics in the media have yielded nothing. Neither anti-woke commentators like Bari Weiss or the Robin DiAngelos of the world have a plan to change the conditions that produce racism and inequality. But the combination of union representation in the workplace and universal, social goods guaranteed by the state gives us a way to actually do that.
Don’t let either side of the culture war – from the liberal anti-racists who would have us all confess our thought crimes in front of our bosses, or the conservative anti-anti-racists who would just have us shut up about discrimination – obscure how another path exists: one that is tried and tested.