Will electing Obama matter? If it were Clinton rather than Obama, will electing her have mattered for women? Of course the default answer is yes.
For scholars like Walter Benn Michaels? No.
In 1947—seven years before the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, sixteen years before the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique—the top fifth of American wage-earners made 43 per cent of the money earned in the us. Today that same quintile gets 50.5 per cent. In 1947, the bottom fifth of wage-earners got 5 per cent of total income; today it gets 3.4 per cent. After half a century of anti-racism and feminism, the us today is a less equal society than was the racist, sexist society of Jim Crow. Furthermore, virtually all the growth in inequality has taken place since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965—which means not only that the successes of the struggle against discrimination have failed to alleviate inequality, but that they have been compatible with a radical expansion of it. Indeed, they have helped to enable the increasing gulf between rich and poor.
For Michaels, not only will the election of Obama will not decrease inequality, it will actually increase it. Obama for Michaels represents the perfect tool for neoliberalism. His very election can serve as proof that America is an open meritocracy–Obama born to a single mother, and raised on food stamps, was able to ascend to the highest position in the land through hard work. He represents the embodied culmination of almost 400 years of struggle. But while all of this is true, recall that it was Obama who argued that black fathers have to get their act together, taking the neoliberal disciplinary line. It was Obama who at one time–it isn’t on the website anymore–lauded the virtues of the free market economy. To the extent that Obama’s election represents the culmination of the civil rights movement, it also represents the reality that the civil rights movement did little to nothing to deal with the real problem facing Americans–inequality.
Michaels isn’t alone here. Adolph Reed has made somewhat similar claims, as have Richard Rorty, Sean Wilentz, and others, basically taking the side of class in the longstanding race vs. class argument.
Prometheus6 and a number of black scholars disagree strongly. Although Prometheus6 casually dismisses Michaels argument, and Michaels himself arguing that his article is based on a lie, and then later arguing that Michael’s lit-crit approach ignores reality, I think that Michaels is onto something.
The Gini Coefficient is a standard measure of inequality. The higher the number the higher the level of inequality. We all know that there are stark black-white wealth differences. But what I present above is the level of intra-racial inequality. Note the level of intra-racial inequality is actually greater among African Americans than it is among whites. This is the secret that few scholars outside of leftists like Reed address. If we were to go through a whole host of ills that we attribute solely to racial differences–differences in birth weight, in infant mortality rates, in school quality, in closeness to environmental waste dumps–we’d definitely see racial differences, putting to rest Michaels’ conception of racism purely as racial discrimination. But if we were to solely look at black populations, we’d see very stark differences here as well. Differences that blacks consistently blame on black lower class inferiority rather than on structural inequality.
Yes, blacks are no longer lynched. But it took OJ Simpson thirteen years to get sent to prison…and not for the crime that he was at least involved in. What we think of as a conspiracy to imprison black men is really a conspiracy to imprison black working class and poor men. And where is Obama here? He hasn’t even been elected, and already we see black attempts to juxtapose Obama against 50 Cent, as if electing Obama gives us another vision of black manhood that will separate from political actionsomehow raise our status both in the eyes of “the black community” and among Americans in general. I believe the neoliberal turn in black politics to be a greater threat to our existence than any other, in as much as our attempt to organize politically is shaped by our ability to form an intra-racial consensus. And arguing that race is still a fundamental factor without acknowledging the way that class structures our lives inevitably reproduces this turn.
Now with all that said, how could Michaels have dodged Prometheus6’s critique? Simple really. For Michaels, class is the real thing, while race and gender are both social fictions. He couldn’t be more wrongheaded (empirically and politically) here if he tried. Race and gender are modes in which class is lived. Support for welfare drops like a rock not because support for the poor diminishes, but rather because support for the black poor diminishes. In fact, “poor” and “black” become synonymous. Welfare mother becomes synonymous with “black welfare mother.” Poverty is racialized. Whites (and blacks I think) don’t support welfare because they associate the policy with populations that actually deserve to be poor. Whites support punitive crime measures because they associate crime with young black men, an incorrigible population that deserves punishment. This step isn’t a big one to take…but for some reason Michaels and most of the other left anti-race scholars aren’t willing to take it. But doing so will not only provide some clarity, but a real opportunity for political mobilization and consciousness raising.