Race and Class: What Counts in the Census?

Against the Current, No. 86, May/June 2000

Malik Miah

I RECENTLY RECEIVED two surveys in the mail. The first came from the U.S. Census Bureau, asking me a number of personal questions-some relevant, others intrusive.

For the first time, however, the census offered me more options than the “normal” white, Black, Hispanic and other categories for race. I could now identify myself by checking as many ethnic groups as I liked.  Progress?  Maybe.

The big decision for me, as for many other Black Americans of mixed ancestry (my father is from Bangladesh; my mother is African-American), was how to respect both my heritages while at the same time being politically conscious of the true reality of American racism.

The greater the total number of Blacks counted in the census, the greater the social and political leverage (at least in theory); so civil rights leaders tell us. (In truth our political power is based on what we do in struggle-our own unity first as Malcolm X explained, and in united action with other oppressed and exploited working people as occurred against slavery and Jim Crow segregation.)

Since I received the long questionnaire, I was able to indicate in one location that I’m an “African American” and in response to a similar question mark both my heritages.  If I had the short form, I would have marked “Black” as many other mixed heritage Americans are doing.

What did surprise me about the long form (supposedly written to get more details about the citizenry) was that it didn’t request any information about the “new economy” (i.e. the internet and pc world).  The digital divide that exists along race and class lines is self-evident to all who have studied the “new economy”-as I’ve discussed in this space previously (ATC 84)-yet nothing was asked.

A Different Survey

Then I received a new survey from the NAACP a few weeks later that showed what else the Census Bureau failed to ask. The “NAACP’s First National Survey on Race, Gender And Equality in America” was a pleasant surprise.

Unlike the government’s questionnaire, the NAACP’s survey wanted to know my views on affirmative action, race relations in the United States, and whether I expect “more racial and ethnic integration in the next twenty-five years, or do you expect more separation?”

Immediately I thought: Why didn’t the U.S. Census Bureau include these types of questions?  Isn’t it important to know about race relations in a country that still uses racial profiling in all walks of life to keep African Americans as second-class citizens?

In the introductory cover letter to the survey from Julian Bond, Chair of the NAACP’s Board of Directors, I got my answer: “Thanks to misinformation and demagoguery, the average American now believes that minorities are the majority-seventy-one percent of the national population!

“This exaggeration,” Bond adds, “this blame-shifting and role-reversal-where the victims become the perpetrator and minorities become majorities-this perversion of reality, is led by a curious mix of whites, a few Blacks, and the policy-proponents who do their bidding.  They profess strong support for equal rights, while opposing every tool designed to achieve this goal.”

The contradiction of whites claiming support for equal rights (as Bond notes) while backing reactionary positions reflects the general rightward shift in American politics since the early 1980s.  The fact that most white Americans support equal rights (which was not the case as late as the 1960s) shows how much the country has changed since the defeat of Jim Crow legal segregation in the 1960s.

But the backlash today is just as real too. The decline of the organized civil rights movement, the further integration of the official labor movement into big business and government, and the ideological gains of the extreme right, make it easier for the courts and other executive bodies to implement laws and policies that erode the previous gains.

This trend will continue so long as there is not active mass movement to resist and recapture the moral high ground.

Reclaiming History

The new generation of Black and white youth unfortunately tend to be very ignorant of the civil rights period and what came after it in the 1970s and `80s.  Studying and learning from history is one way to avoid errors and to learn how to move forward in the new reality.

One valuable book to help in that process was published last year. We Are Not What We Seem-Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century (New York University Press, 1999), by Rod Bush, surveys the struggle of African-Americans as the title states over the 20th century.

Bush, an activist from the late 1960s through the `80s, is now an assistant professor of Sociology and Anthropology at St. Johns University in New York City.

The strength of Bush’s book is not the summary of major events of Black Americans over the 100-year period he covers, but the discussion of various theories and beliefs held about the Black struggle in this period and his critique of them.

Whether you agree with Bush or not, this is a serious piece of polemical work especially for all of us who lived the period, as I did, in which Bush himself was active.  (A weakness in this style of writing about politics and history for most readers, however, is not being as well read as Bush. He does provide a long bibliography.)

Since I don’t have space here to take up points of agreement or disagreement, let me spur your interest with a few quotes of what Bush attempts to do in his book:

“In opposition to liberal universalism, and the top-down coalition that is its political counterpart, I will argue that a true universalism can be constructed only from the bottom up. Liberal universalism is only a formula for a return to the status quo ante, circa 1965, the very status quo against which the Black Power revolt of the 1960s was directed.” (10)

“This work will not only be a defense of the Black Power movement, it will place the movement in the context of the African American nation-critique of Black Power.  I will argue not that social democracy overemphasizes class, but that its mechanical separation of class from race oversimplifies the concept of social class, which is a historically evolved relational category.” (18)

“This study is based on the threefold assumption that class analysis is a key to the understanding of social transformation in the capitalist world-economy; that social groups are formed by a variety of stratifying processes that cannot be reduced to class formations; and that all of these are processes integral to the allocation of resources and power in the capitalist world-economy (itself a process).” (23)

Finally, in the chapter “The Future of Black Liberation,” Bush takes up an ongoing theoretical debate within the Black Left (also the traditional left) regarding the African American national question: Are Blacks an oppressed nation?

Bush argues correctly in my view: “The African American national question is not a national question of the old type in nineteenth-century Europe.

“The African American national question has traditionally been posed as a question of a nation within a nation.  But the 1930s formulation tended toward dogmatism by freeing the Black Belt South as the homeland of the Black nation in the United States.  But the relocation and concentration of Black people throughout the urban centers of the Untied States deepened rather than weakened the national aspect of their struggle.  It did not solve the African American national question as many Marxists claimed.

“Despite the relocation of the African American people,” he further explains, “their relationship to the United States has remained fundamentally similar, although the new petty bourgeoisie has followed the trend toward integration, as has been the case of the new petty bourgeoisie worldwide.

“But the integration of the African American petty bourgeoisie is still weak. They are still suspect because they maintain an allegiance to their sisters and brothers from the lower stratum.  And this lower stratum is hardly integrated.” (238)

“Equal Rights” vs. Realities

The attacks on affirmative action programs, the police violence in New York City and every urban area populated by Blacks, the “Driving While Black” racial profiling, the prison population made up largely of people of color-these are all signs of national oppression and racial discrimination.

The end of legal segregation, the rise of a Black middle class and the accepted view among white that “equal rights for all” is OK, doesn’t change the fact that the United States remains a very racist and segregated society.

Why the government refuses to gather all pertinent statistics is not complicated.  The absence of facts means that city, state and federal governments, the courts, police and other institutions can continue to deny (with a straight face) that racial profiling and racism are as prevalent as they are.

Malik Miah is an advisory editor and regular columnist for Against the Current.

ATC 86, May-June 2000