Review: Moving Beyond Black and White?

Against the Current, No. 78, January/February 1999

Tim Libretti

Beyond Black and White: Transforming African-American Politics by Manning Marable (New York: Verso, 1995). Paperback, $17.

MANNING MARABLE’S BEYOND Black and White constitutes an important intervention from a radical left perspective into contemporary debates about the meaning of “race” in U.S. political economy and society.

As the title suggests, Marable attempts to refocus analysis of the racial dynamics of the U.S. socio-economic system, away from the predominant narrow and isolated concentration on relations between Blacks and whites and towards a more complex understanding of the instrumentality of “race.”

His approach is historical materialist and motivated by changes in the basic structure of the U.S. economy, such as the flood of legal and undocumented workers from the Third World, which have rapidly redefined “race” with substantial political consequences for all sectors and classes of U.S. society.

Charting “the demise of black consciousness” as it moved into the post-civil rights era toward the bankrupt poles of liberal integrationist and Afrocentrism, and highlighting in this process such charged historical episodes as the rise and fall of the Rainbow Coalition, the Clarence Thomas hearings and the L.A. rebellion, Marable documents the decline of Black radical activism and urges the necessity of constructing “a new lexicon of activism, a language which transcends the narrow boundaries of singular ethnic identity and embraces a vision of democratic pluralism.” (221)

Rethinking “race” and the changing nature of racial oppression requires also, and especially, rethinking resistance to racism, given both changes in the economic landscape and the rise of conservative ideologies of race which persistently figure whites as the present “real victims” of inequality and treat racism as a problem of the historical past.

While Marable means to move us beyond the narrow dualism of Black and white racial politics in this project of rethinking resistance to racial oppression and class exploitation, he nonetheless centers his theoretical contribution to the project primarily around the rethinking of “blackness” or Black political consciousness:

@9QUOTEFIRST = “Blackness” must inevitably be redefined in material terms and ideologically, as millions of black and Hispanic people from the Caribbean, African and Latin America immigrate into the USA, assimilating within hundreds of urban centers and thousands of neighborhoods with other people of color. As languages, religions, cultural traditions and kinship networks among blacks in the USA become increasingly diverse and complex, our consciousness and our ideas of historical struggle against the leviathan of race also shift and move in new directions. This does not mean that “race” has declined in significance; it does mean that what we mean by “race” and how “race” is utilized as a means of dividing the oppressed are once again being transformed in many crucial respects. (9)

Marable charges this task of redefining “blackness” in particular to Black Studies programs. A major thrust of the work as a whole is geared toward resurrecting the radical grassroots political spirit of the Black intelligentsia, which he sees as in crisis and as having largely abandoned grassroots activism for bourgeois electoral politics.

In the spirit of Richard Wright’s 1937 landmark essay “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” in which Wright attempted to direct Black writers to a radical Marxist/ Black nationalist literary agenda, Marable similarly attempts to redirect the course of Black intellectual production in his chapter, tellingly titled “Blueprint for Black Studies,” urging that Black Studies see itself “as a type of `praxis,’ a unity of theory and practical action.” (112)

In developing theories to guide and inform practical action, Black Studies must, in Marable’s view, move beyond what he sees as the parochial politics of nationalism and “examine the parallels, conflicts, and discontinuities between African-Americans&#8212and by extension people of African descent across the globe &#8212and other people of color as well as European cultures and societies.” (114)

What’s the Problem?

This impulse to move beyond the restrictive and obstructive framing of race relations in terms of Black and white is particularly relevant in light of the developing context of a racial discourse in the United States that insistently identifies racial inequality as the particular problem of African Americans, ignoring altogether the plights of many sectors of the Asian American, Latino and especially Native American populations or else misleadingly characterizing these populations as, by contrast, having “realized the American dream.”

Viewing persistent inequality attributed to racial factors as exclusively an African-American situation, both neo-liberal and conservative racial discourses have tended to diagnose the racial oppression African Americans endure as the result of a cultural pathology rather than as a structural effect of the racial capitalist system.

For example, the analyses of both the liberal ethnic pluralist Nathan Glazer, in his recent We Are All Multiculturalists Now (1997), and the conservative ideologue Dinesh D’Souza in his 1995 book The End of Racism similarly and paradigmatically marginalize or rosily distort the experiences of other racial minorities&#8212a way of holding African Americans singularly responsible for their own failures to take advantage of the opportunities afforded within the U.S. political economy.

Moving beyond Black and white, Marable suggests, will provide a more comprehensive and accurate vision of the deployment of race within the totality of class relations and thus correct the distorted picture of “race” as a site of social contest solely between African Americans and whites.

Complexities of “Race”

In attempting to progress theoretically both in comprehending the structural features and operations of racial capitalism and in imagining a multiracial democratic resistance movement, Marable makes two important gestures definitive of what he means by “beyond black and white.”

One significance of this phrase for Marable is that we have to look at “race” in a more complex way that takes into account its changing content as an historically fluid and ever-changing construct and set of relations.

The implication is that “blackness” cannot be studied in isolation from other racial categories but rather must be theorized as part of and connected to the larger capitalist imperialist system that deploys “race” as a principle of exploitation.

For example, Marable contends that in making sense of the shifting relations and growing hostilities between Black and Jewish communities we have to look beyond the simplistic conclusion, leaped to by many whites, that anti-semitism is acquiring a mass base of support among African Americans. Such an analysis ultimately, he argues, is just another way of blaming or at least smearing and dismissing the victims of oppression instead of attempting to unearth and understand the sources of such hostility.

Rather, Marable asserts, the evolution of the relationship between Jews and African Americans is best understood as motivated by a series of developments such as the growing conservatism in Jewish political behavior, which has specifically opposed Black interests on issues such as affirmative action; the gradual shift in U.S. Black leadership’s and activists’ political sympathies from Israel to Palestine; Jewish hostility toward the Rainbow Coalition; and the flight of many Jews from the inner city and its problems to the suburbs.

While the example perhaps illustrates the need for class analysis to illuminate relations between ethnic groups, this discussion is one of the perhaps more controversial and certainly less satisfying moments of the book. Marable needs to address much more fully the anti-semitism of figures like Farrakhan, which he indicts at one point in the book, and which he proposes to explain if not apologize for.

Marable here seems to walk a dangerous and disturbing line in appearing to draw a distinction, as the arch-conservative D’Souza does in The End of Racism, between rational and irrational racism.

Further drawing attention to the dangers of a narrow racial perspective, Marable points to the possibility of African Americans being convinced to oppose the civil rights and employment opportunities of Mexican Americans, Central Americans and other Latino peoples, perhaps seeing them as potential competitors in the labor market rather than as allies in the struggle against corporate capital and the conservative political establishment.

Such narrow racial identity politics obstruct a coherent consciousness of the function of “race” in class society, or even of the class divisions and variant class interests within any given racial identity group. Too often, as Marable stresses throughout the book, “race” is materially divorced from contexts of class and class consciousness.

A broader development of a racial consciousness rooted in an awareness of the operations of racial discrimination within the class structure would allow us to “rethink and restructure the central categories of collective struggle by which we conceive and understand our own political reality.” (199)

Instead, the politics of race becomes a zero-sum game “rooted implicitly in a competitive model of group empowerment,” such that various minority groups see themselves as vying for limited pieces of the same pie which can only be had at the expense of another. They “interpret their interests narrowly in divergent ways, looking out primarily for themselves rather than addressing the structural inequalities within the social fabric of the society as a whole.” (87)

This has been especially true, Marable observes, in the context of affirmative action struggles.

Class Polarization

Second, moving beyond Black and white also signifies the need to recognize that racial and economic inequality are not just matters of whites oppressing Blacks but also of growing class and political polarizations within the Black community itself.

According to Marable, unlike the past when Jim Crow laws affected Black people across class division and bound them of necessity in racial solidarity, now the experience of racism is highly uneven and strongly conditioned by class position. Those who have “made it” often have little contact with the Black freedom struggle.

Partly responsible for these political fractures is what Marable terms the political ideology of “liberal integrationist,” the very politics that originated and fueled early desegregation struggles, whose main emphasis was the achievement of equal and full access to civil society, economic exchange and political institutions.

With tragic irony, Marable charges, Blacks have now become hostage to their own putative liberation ideology. Having demanded integration into the existing structures and cultures of U.S. society but not having sought a radical transformation of the basic structures of culture and society, they then fell victim to or adopted “the materialism and greed inherent in the existing American political economy and secular society,” which led to de-emphasizing values of solidarity, community, and collective struggle in favor of the value system of liberal individualism.

Thus, the problem that Marable emphasizes in underlining the need to move beyond Black and white is not just the competition and divisiveness between minority groups but also the breakdown of a collective political identity within the Black community. He cites Anthony Parker, who writes:

@9QUOTEFIRST = Inoculated with secular values emphasizing the individual instead of the community, young blacks rarely recognize each other as brothers and sisters, or as comrades in the struggle. We’re now competitors, relating to each other out of fear and mistrust. (19)

Representation or Tokenism?

The dominance of liberal integrationism, based in the dubious politics of “symbolic representation,” has eroded the memory of earlier traditions and tactics of Black militancy and struggle. The concept of “symbolic representation” rests on the assumption that if Black individuals achieve positions of power and authority within the political, corporate or cultural system, then Blacks as a whole will benefit and have their interests promoted.

This strategy has failed miserably, Marable argues, because now “one cannot really speak about a `common racial experience’ which parallels the universal opposition blacks felt when confronted by legal racial segregation.” (128) Despite its failures, it nonetheless continues to guide the behavior of African-American political leaders, whom Marable sees as tied by their liberal integrationist politics to the Democratic Party and who have minimized grassroots tactics which in earlier moments had been central to the Black freedom movement&#8212the sit-ins, strikes, boycotts and other methods of demonstration.

Marable even sees liberal integrationism as informing the heinous rationalizations and intellectual contortions of such prominent figures as Maya Angelou and Orlando Patterson as well as other members of the Black intellectual elite in their support of Clarence Thomas’ appointment to the Supreme Court.

Despite the fact that Thomas’ record indicated a clear abandonment of Black freedom politics and a repeated distancing of himself from the Black community, these intellectuals, Marable documents, still convinced themselves that it would benefit African America overall to have a Black justice on the Court regardless of political persuasion.

For such reasons, Marable stresses throughout these essays the need to bring class back into the politics of race, that “we must not be pressured by false debate to choose between race or class in the development and framing of public policies to address discrimination.” (89)

In interesting narratives of electoral political history, Marable presents the ways in which both the Republican and Democratic parties have sought to foster a Black middle class to secure political dominance. The Nixon administration, Marable contends, endorsed affirmative action hoping to cultivate a limited Black middle class that might vote Republican.

As the Republican Party had already won the majority of the white vote, securing just a small percentage of the Black vote would ensure victory, the belief went. The Democrats, as Marable charts most lucidly in the Clinton administration, focused their efforts on the Black middle class&#8212hoping (and succeeding) to secure Black support overall, while in reality only appealing once more to middle-class liberal values and interests.

A Flawed Critique

Along with dismissing the electorally-oriented and bankrupt politics of liberal integrationism, the book also, in what I find its most disappointing element, discounts wholesale as regressive the politics of nationalism.

Marable sees liberal integrationism and nationalism as, in fact, complementary political visions in that each identifies “race” as the pivotal and, in his characterization, exclusive political category, as “the most critical organizing variable within society.”

He points to those intellectuals who mobilized the rhetoric of Black nationalism or “quasi-black-nationalist” rhetoric in supporting Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court appointment and skewers, somewhat reductively, the politics of Black nationalism as highly conservative, middle-class, and merely an ideology of Black capitalism.

He argues, “The dogmatic idea that `race’ alone explains virtually everything that occurs within society has a special appeal to some African-American suburban elites who have little personal connection with the vast human crisis of ghetto unemployment, black-on-black crime, a rampant drug trade, gang violence, and deteriorating schools.

“Moreover, for black entrepreneurs, traditional race categories could be employed as a tool to promote petty capital accumulation, by urging black consumers to `buy black.’” (189-90)

Additionally, Marable astutely criticizes Afrocentric ideologies for being involuted and separatist to the point of not seeking allies to transform the political economy of capitalism across boundaries of race, class and gender.

Yet while I agree with Marable’s critiques of these various expressions of nationalism, his treatment of nationalism obscures and itself really erases the rich, useful and still-relevant tradition of radical Black nationalist politics. A critical part of that tradition was not middle-class but staunchly anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist, and was not isolated from but centered in and really spearheaded the broad base of Third World Movements in the United States in the 1960s.

It is ironic that Marable bemoans the detachment of Black youth of the post-civil rights era from the Black Power politics of the Black Panthers and other groups of the `60s, because these organizations had nationalist dimensions to their political platforms.

Also ironic is that against Black nationalism and particularism, he forwards what he calls a transformationist vision which he aligns with a host of thinkers on the left and some who more specifically identified themselves with the Communist Party. Their vision, he says, was anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist.

Yet many of the names he mentions, such as C.L.R. James, Amilcar Cabral, and even the contemporary Robin D.G. Kelley in his work Race Rebels, theorized nationalism and self-determination as central politics of the anti-imperialist and decolonization struggles.

They saw the politics of national liberation as a necessary phase in moving toward internationalism, much as did thinkers like Richard Wright in “Blueprint for Negro Writing” and Franz Fanon in his chapter “On National Culture” in The Wretched of the Earth.

Moreover, while he has fruitfully identified internationalism or multiracial working-class solidarity as opposed to narrow identity groups as the desirable political agency and objective, Marable does not adequately discuss the tensions and difficulties in creating a multiracial working-class solidarity, although when discussing the L.A. rebellion he notes the tensions between Korean Americans and African Americans.

Marable’s internationalist and multiracial solution is ideal, but how will we get there? Where, for example, do Native Americans fit into the racial dynamics of U.S. society and into the subject of resistance he imagines?

Is the struggle of Native Americans for land consistent with Marable’s revolutionary international politics? Is their political and cultural vision feasible within the multiracial democracy he imagines? Such problems seem to need working out before we by fiat declare internationalism an imperative rather than an objective.

For thinkers like Fanon and Wright, nationalism functioned as a stage in which a group acquired the cultural integrity and alternative cultural vision that would make political communication possible so that nationalism could be transcended.

Despite Marable’s dismissal of nationalism, such a moment still seems necessary&#8212even in the vision he offers of making the very necessary step in moving beyond Black and white, and re-injecting a Third World working-class political perspective into the dialogue of “race.”

Nonetheless, Marable’s work points in the right direction and meaningfully redirects racial politics in the U.S. toward the crucial recognition of class struggle.

ATC 78, January-February 1999