This piece first appeared in Truthout.
The US intellectual class has failed to understand the racism at the core of Trump's political project. The discussion is focused on two questions: Are Trump voters decent, salt-of-the-earth workers protesting their economic insecurity, or hate-filled Archie Bunkers? Are his transition appointments hateful bigots or mainstream conservatives?
What both questions obscure is that white supremacy is a social and political system, not simply a matter of individual attitudes. It is sustained not by barroom bigots but by millions of daily acts of complicity on the part of ordinary people — in New York City and San Francisco as much as in Alabama, and among wealthy elites as much as the rural poor. As Frantz Fanon wrote: "A given society is racist, or it is not." Questioning whether one region or class is more racist than another is the product of people "incapable of straight thinking."
January 2016 Trump Rally, Muscatine, IA. via Flickr.
On the left and within progressive movements there were two immediate responses to Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential elections. First, shock, frequently accompanied by despair. How could an openly racist, misogynist authoritarian — personally unstable to boot — be elected president? Second, anger with the Democrats for the sort of campaign that they waged. At that point, however, a division emerged around a third point: what, we asked, was the source of Trump’s victory? And, even more important, what are the strategic implications?
This post first appeared in Counterpunch.
Early in the evening during which Donald Trump’s election as president unfolded, I talked to a union activist friend in Wisconsin about something unrelated. In signing off, he said he expected to stay up late seeing if the Democrats regained a Senate seat in the state, Hillary Clinton’s victory being assured. A few hours later, it became clear that Donald Trump had instead carried Wisconsin by a razor-thin margin. Who, MSNBCers wondered, were these hidden Trump voters that delivered in Wisconsin one of the three Rust Belt victories paving Trump’s road to the White House.
This post is excerpted from Cedric Johnson's "Between Revolution and the Racial Ghetto: Harold Cruse and Harry Haywood Debate Class Struggle and the 'Negro Question', 1962-8", which will appear in the next issue of Historical Materialism.
The full article examines the series of exchanges between Cruse and Haywood that followed the 1962 appearance of Cruse's "Revolutionary Nationalism and the Afro-American" in Studies on the Left. The first section, reprinted here, offers an intellectual biography of Cruse in the years preceding The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Johnson goes on to describe Harry Haywood's intellectual formation and his development of the "Black Belt thesis" within the Communist Party before analyzing the debate between the two that commenced with a series of essays Haywood published in Soulbook.
"Revisiting this forgotten exchange between Cruse and Haywood is important on its own terms, for what it says about the character of black political thinking during the sixties," Johnson writes. "Each offered an influential revolutionary-left answer to the problematic of American racial relations, and although much of the vocabulary and conceptual framework they employed — that is, ‘the Negro question’ and the ‘black colony’ — seem antiquated now, their preoccupations and disagreements are relevant to contemporary thinking about black public life, within academe and society more generally."
As direct-action campaigns against Jim Crow grew increasingly frequent and defiant in Wichita, Birmingham, and Greensboro, Harold Cruse enjoyed the cosmopolitan lifestyle of a New York intellectual. By day, he worked at Macy’s department store, and at various odd jobs. And at night, he scribbled and entertained his diverse circle of friends, which included the impressionist painter Norman Lewis and Abram Hill, author of the famed play Striver’s Row. He adored café culture, spending hours conversing, playing chess, and reading in coffee shops like Pandora’s Box, one of his favourite haunts. After the death of the Japanese painter and printmaker Yasuo Kuniyoushi, Cruse inherited his top-floor apartment at 14th Street and Seventh Avenue, making him one of the few blacks living in the Village at that time. At the start of the sixties, Cruse was a man with a growing reputation as an essayist, but the path to his newfound intellectual influence had been a long and twisting one to say the least.
This essay was first published in The Year Left Vol. 3: Reshaping the US Left: Popular Struggles in the 1980s, edited by Mike Davis and Michael Sprinker, and published by Verso in 1988. It was later reprinted in Roediger's Towards the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, and Working Class History.
The reality, the depth, and the persistence of the delusion of white supremacy in this country causes any real concept of education to be as remote, and as much to be feared, as change or freedom itself. What Black men here have always known is now beginning to be clear to the world. Whatever it is that white Americans want, it is not freedom — neither for themselves nor for others.
‘It’s you who'll have the blues,’ Langston Hughes said, ‘not me. Just wait and see.'
James Baldwin (1980)
Despite the fact that the nineteenth century saw an upsurge in the power of the laboring classes and a fight toward economic equality and political democracy, this movement . . . lagged far behind the accumulation of wealth, because in popular opinion labor was fundamentally degrading and the just burden of inferior peoples . . . It was bad enough to have the consequences of [racist] thought fall upon colored people the world over; but in the end it was even worse when one considers what this attitude did to the European worker. His aim and ideal was distorted. . . . He began to want not comfort for all men but power over other men. . . . He did not love humanity and he hated 'niggers'.
W.E.B. DuBois (1946)
“Labor in white skin cannot emancipate itself where the black skin is branded.” That line from an 1866 letter to François Lafargue, and repeated in Capital, is perhaps the most quoted of Karl Marx’s observations about the United States. But the work of our labor historians, past or present, has done little to illuminate why Marx's aphorism not only has the ring of truth but that of a ringing truth, though one Marx did not pursue much in later years.