Newsletter #35: In This House, We Believe, with Jared Clemons

by Ben Feldman

Take a stroll down the nicest blocks of any of this country’s most progressive cities, and you’ll run across dozens of signs proclaiming that “Black Lives Matter,” “Immigrants Are Welcome Here,” and “Love is Love” — odes to diversity displayed in front of multi-million-dollar homes in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods whose character (and investment value) are maintained by exclusionary zoning, celebrations of inclusivity dotting the lawns of America’s most exclusive properties.

Rather than polemicize against the hypocrisy of the white, professional-managerial-class (PMC) liberals whose rhetorical commitment to anti-racism is belied by their participation, maintenance, and reproduction in and of the existing racist order, political scientist Jared Clemons draws on his readings of Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Phillip Randolph to develop a theoretical framework for understanding the “principle-policy gap”: the divide between anti-racist sentiments and anti-racist actions under neoliberal capitalism.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

Over the last decade, white PMCs have been more likely to express anti-racist views than their working-class counterparts. At the same time, what Clemons terms the “privatization of racial responsibility” has created a stumbling block toward solidaristic anti-racist action, because white PMCs are less likely to share material interests with a working-class Black population. For this reason, moving from anti-racist sentiment to anti-racist action is likely to require some material sacrifice. As King and Randolph understood, there are limits to “white sympathy” as a foundation for anti-racism. If genuinely anti-racist actions come at a cost to what Clemons refers to as “familial capital,” then anti-racism will tend to remain symbolic rather than substantive. Privilege will be recognized, but this recognition rarely leads to concrete action.

Clemons argues that, more than sympathy, anti-racist behavior requires a “materialist foundation,” writing that “those committed to emancipatory politics should be focused on changing the structures that shape human behavior, which can, in turn, lead people to update their attitudes.” Thus, until some substantial challenge is made to the neoliberal order, white anti-racist politics will tend towards the individualistic and symbolic, rather than the social and substantive.

So what is to be done? Firstly, our analysis must begin from material conditions, and from the understanding that racism is not some free-floating fact, existing independent of material conditions and the social relations which they produce. As Clemons notes during his discussion with Dan, the decline of the union movement helped pave the way for the mass defection of the white working class to the Republican Party. This does not mean that a revitalized labor movement is a panacea, but it seems to be a necessary precondition for the development of a substantive anti-racist politics.

In both his article and in this interview, Clemons makes reference to the “Freedom Budget,” the document put together by (among others) Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and King in the fall of 1965, which was intended to push the Black Freedom Movement beyond the civil and legal rights already secured. In that document’s introduction, Randolph decried the tragedy of an economy in which “groups only one generation removed from poverty themselves … step on the fingers of those struggling up the ladder.”

Rather than ask for a change of conscience, Randolph et. al argued for a set of concrete goals intended to reinforce the idea that “all Americans are the victims of our failure as a nation to distribute democratically the fruits of our abundance.” The path toward multiracial working-class solidarity laid out in the Freedom Budget remains relevant to the building of antiracist social democracy today.

Further Reading

Read Jared Clemons’s article, “From ‘Freedom Now!’ to ‘Black Lives Matter’: Retrieving King and Randolph to Theorize Contemporary White Antiracism,” here. On the idea of the PMC, see Barbara and John Ehrenreich’s classic essay in Radical America, and sometime-Dig guest Gabriel Winant’s more recent piece in n+1. On the Freedom Budget and how it fits into the long history of Black radical struggle for racial and economic justice, see David Stein in Jacobin.

From The Dig archives, check out Dan’s conversation with Jared Loggins and Wendi Muse on racism and anti-racism under neoliberalism. And on “race and class in the liberal suburbs,” listen to The Dig’s interviews with Matthew Lassiter and Lily Geismer.