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How “Class Not Race” Becomes Normalized

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I agree with nearly every point of this Cathy Kunkel piece in Jacobin about the decline of the Democratic Party in West Virginia. Kunkel is a West Virginia energy activist and has great knowledge about what is going on there. She details the disturbing collapse of the Democratic in West Virginia. She traces the close history between the Democrats and the coal miners, in particular the United Mine Workers of America (although she oddly doesn’t discuss the union by name). She rightfully notes the complete lack of a Democratic Party job plan for dislocated coal miners. She correctly discusses the lack of an economic diversification plan for the state, although to be fair, no one has one because there really isn’t any good alternatives. She notes that the Party has been too close to the coal industry at the state level. And she states that Bernie Sanders was a lot more popular among West Virginia Democrats than Hillary Clinton, winning every county in the state. I certainly do not disagree with her that Democrats running as economic populists in West Virginia might do a lot to rejuvenate the party at the state level. Certainly what the party is doing now isn’t working, even if it might mean that Joe Manchin and Jim Justice can still win there and even though I don’t think there’s much evidence that running away from the coal industry is going to suddenly attract the West Virginia masses to liberalism. Certainly, the fact that Sanders was more popular than Clinton in West Virginia does not then mean he would win the state in the general election. That’s not real tight reasoning. Whatever.

But this article has a huge yawning chasm and that is race. Kunkel literally does not mention race once in this article except a passing reference in the middle of one paragraph. That is amazing too me and it is indicative of an all-too common problem at Jacobin. You simply cannot understand the decline of the Democratic Party in West Virginia without placing race right smack dab in the center of your analysis. West Virginia is a state where open racism is largely accepted. In 2012, a convicted felon won 41 percent of Democratic primary vote. That was not because Barack Obama is too close to the coal companies. It was because of a combination of Obama being seen as pro-environmentalist and Obama being black. This was well-established at the time and nothing in the succeeding 5 years has led to any meaningful revision of these conclusions. He lost to Hillary Clinton by 41 percent in 2008. Why? Because he is black.

And yet Jacobin is fine publishing articles that completely erase race from the equation. Moreover, it isn’t just race–it’s homophobia, it’s misogyny, it’s Islamophobia, it’s environmentalism. West Virginia voters rejected Hillary Clinton and are turning hard right for a number of reasons. Some are those that Kunkel correctly enunciates. But some are racial, religious, anti-environmental. We simply cannot understand the decline of the Democratic Party in West Virginia without looking at racial divisions, Christian supremacism, anti-abortion politics, as well as the indifference of Democratic Party elites to the white working class in that state. All of these factors are important.

To be clear, people, as we too often see in the comments of this blog, that are Race Not Class are just as useless as Class Not Race people. Issues are complex and multi-faceted, including the election of Donald Trump. We need to understand clusters of issues, not try to isolate the reasons for Democratic Party failures to blame a bad candidate, to deny the impact of neoliberalism upon working-class communities because liberals don’t want to take responsibility for the collapse of working-class security and the return of virulent racism, or to ignore the religious, racial, and gender bias of voters because you don’t like Democratic Party centrists. Each of these approaches is more damaging than enlightening. Unfortunately, there’s an entire magazine dedicated to the last that has come to define socialism in 2017. That’s a big problem because if socialism is going to downplay non-economic factors to our problems, it isn’t going to go far in solving them.

But hey, there is a place in Jacobin for discussions of race. It’s accusing liberals of racism in this instant classic entry of the timeless “cringe-worthy review of art in a leftist magazine” genre, in this case of Get Out. Read at your peril with such classic parts as:

Still, this is a feature length film, not an agitational pamphlet. Like all artistic mediums, it is quite difficult to get nuance to adhere to 35mm stock, not least because movie-going audiences tend to want whatever it is they’re watching to entertain before all else. Attempting to use film in the service of complex political arguments has produced more than a few horribly boring failures.

As socialists, we shouldn’t be surprised that Get Out doesn’t articulate a political perspective aimed at mobilizing a mass, class-based, anti-racist struggle against capitalism. The best that we can hope for from mass popular culture is that it will on occasion provoke conversations that we can participate in with the goal of pointing people toward practical activity of some kind.

Oh, OK.

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