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Uniting the Working Class Across Racial Lines


Daria Roithmayr (@droithmayr) holds the George T. and Harriet E. Pfleger Chair in Law at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.

The Democratic Party is once again dividing into a left versus center configuration, just in time for the November Election. The catalyst for this renewed debate appears to be Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s massive primary upset in New York’s fourteenth district. Ocasio is a democratic-socialist who has focused on her district’s predominantly Latino and black working class, campaigning on a platform of Medicare for all, a federal job guarantee, and the dismantling of ICE. More than almost any other candidate this season, she has developed an affirmative vision of economic, social and racial dignity for all working-class Americans.

The daughter of Puerto Rican parents, she has argued that the interests of people of color should be represented in the district. Remarkably, some of her strongest support came from predominantly-white Astoria. To those who accused her of playing identity politics, she responded:

“I can’t name a single issue with roots in race that doesn’t have economic implications, and I cannot think of a single economic issue that doesn’t have racial implications. The idea that we have to separate them out and choose one is a con.”

This post serves as a follow-up to an earlier post in which I issued a call to unify the old and new working classes. In this post, I want to accomplish two things. First, I want to further uncover the relationship between race and class. In particular, I want to explore the argument that race segments the working class into less-free workers of color and more-free white labor. Second, I want to strengthen the call to unite the old and new working classes across the race-class divide.

To understand the call to unite the working class, we must better understand the relationship between race and class—or more accurately, the relationship between race and capital. The left’s current understanding of this link leaves much to be desired. Critical race theory describes the connection between race and class as mutually constitutive ideological and social formations that together construct modern inequality. The old and new Left alike have articulated various versions of the standard line: that racism is a tool of the elite used instrumentally to divide the working class.

But the link runs deeper than these stories suggest. Racism is the material foundation of capitalism. More specifically, modern capitalism as a mode of production would never have gotten off the ground, materially speaking, if not for trans-Atlantic slavery, the genocide of American Indians and racialized colonialism/imperialism all over the globe. To be profitable, capitalism at its inception depended centrally on a segmented market in black and immigrant labor. Cedric Robinson’s work has long made the case that agrarian and industrial economies relied centrally on the construction of the dehumanized black and then immigrant worker as unfree or less-free.  In the same vein, recent histories by Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert and Ed Baptist demonstrate that hyper-profitable returns from the cotton monopoly financed large-scale industrialization, incentivized important economic innovation, and modernized the US economy. White slave owners could force slaves to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free labor.

Racial hierarchy plays the same foundational role in the modern economy. Here, dividing the labor market is not merely for the purpose of blunting class consciousness. Instead, it is necessary to stabilize the pyramid of wealth that capital creates. To be profitable, the new economy must continue to unite capital and white supremacy. To get new start-ups off the ground, employers must offer only part-time work in the service industry, with few or no benefits, low wages, no job security, no pathway towards advancement and no child care. Not surprisingly, the workers who fill the orders algorithms place, who drive the trucks to deliver the online-ordered goods, who clean the offices and the hotels of Silicon Beach, are disproportionately immigrant women and men of color, economically vulnerable and often undocumented. The new working class (which really was there all along, but is now growing in number) consists of less-free labor allocated to immigrants and people of color. Gone now are the powerful unions that once helped to reduce the segmentation of the labor market by race in the industrial economy.

To be sure, members of the more-free segment of the labor market are also suffering. Economic restructuring has hit the predominantly white-male members of the old working class hard. The mid-century industrial working class was made up of predominantly white male workers, making $50k in manufacturing jobs, once well-protected by unions. These white workers, like the rest of the old working class, have lost their class position. Those who can make the switch are forced to turn to the service economy for sub-minimum wage jobs, unprotected by unions and unable to access low-cost health care. These developments are all set against the backdrop of a shift to majority-minority population demographics in 2042.

Forthcoming work by Hosang and Lowndes documents that in this transition—from  old to new, from majority to minority, from industrial to information, from domestic to global—members  of the white working class experience a deep sense of loss for their formerly protected status and now see themselves as fallen. In this “racial transposition,” some whites have embraced their impending minority status, re-imagining themselves as the new vanguard of the civil rights movement, beleaguered from above by elites who protect profits but not jobs, and beset from below by people of color, whom they see as cutting the queue for benefits and for political attention via affirmative action, the Dream Act, refugee programs, and more.

The important point to take away is this: the old working class is divided from the new working class not just by race but also by class position. Less-free workers of color in the informal economy who make less than $15 an hour are separated by both race and class from the more-free white male worker who was once making $50k a year in a union-protected manufacturing job. The latter is not interested in making $15 an hour in a service economy job—that move would only confirm a fall from grace.

What affirmative vision could unite both old and new working class across these divisions? What democratic demands could a united working class make of capital? I think this part is easy, actually. Ocasio-Cortez has it right—it’s  Socialism 101. A political economy that responds democratically to the needs of the working class. Universal healthcare they can access. Free college tuition or retraining. Housing that they can afford. Economic security and opportunity for advancement. The end of state violence (for example, dismantling ICE) against vulnerable people. A country that affords them dignity.

These goals span the old and new working classes, and significantly, extend even to Trump voters. Survey research analyzing the five types of Trump voter suggests that for close to 40% of the Trump vote in 2016, economic issues were very high priority. Reforming health care, securing economic opportunity, shoring up Social Security, all ranked quite high among these voters’ priorities.

The stock story on the left argues that even when whites share economic interests with non-whites, race will block any attempt to unify the working class. This same standard story suggests that to unify the working class, race must be submerged in a universal campaign that rejects “identity politics.”

But as my last post alluded to, Fight for Fifteen, the stunningly successful wage campaign that has achieved a $15 minimum wage in nineteen states, says otherwise. Fight for Fifteen was able to organize across racial lines without scrubbing race out of the picture. Three aspects of the campaign have seemed important to their success in that regard. First, organizers worked hard to create coalition across racial lines. In fact, the first major F4F campaign at the Seattle-Tacoma airport got off the ground when white working class organizers joined together with Somali Muslim airport workers to demand that their subcontractor employer continue to allow Muslims to pray throughout their shifts. Religious leaders from many denominations manned the front lines in marches, providing moral clarity around the Somali workers’ demands. Faith organizations would prove to be a crucial player in the subsequent campaign for a fifteen-dollar wage.

Second, Fight for Fifteen organized around a distinctive and unambiguous goal: $15 an hour. An affirmative, measurable goal that benefited all workers proved key to persuading key white players to commit to the campaign. When racial tensions flared over who had the requisite experience to lead, the campaign could defuse those tensions by pointing out that both union and community group experience would prove useful in organizing for a wage increase.

Third, Fight for Fifteen scaled its campaign carefully, moving from local to city to state to nation in a series of steps. F4F organized first at the local level, focusing on the particularity of local communities. Those early campaigns put race and gender at the center of the campaign, for example, in organizing hotel workers near the airport at LAX (where they focused on immigrant women of color), and then moving to truck drivers at the Port Authority (involving more white male workers). By the time the campaign moved to the city and then the state, white workers were joining a victorious multi-racial campaign that could widen the lens to include not just race and gender but class as the center of analysis.

The continued success of the F4F campaign, even as Trump nurtures the country’s worst racist impulses, suggests that when workers in the new working class share a vision, they can transcend racial divisions. The more challenging question is whether the working class can be unified across racial lines when those lines conjoin with class lines, when white workers who are or were making $50k a year in manufacturing jobs are in a different segment of the economy than workers of color who struggle to make $15 an hour in the service economy.

Here, too, we can find reason for hope, namely in the fact that organized labor has (or perhaps had) learned to love labor. In a recent piece for Dissent, Michael Kazin chronicled the shift in organized labor from a distinctly anti-immigrant position to its currently pro-immigrant configuration. He traces the shift to three reasons. First, organized labor has recognized that immigrants are not going anywhere, and (second) that immigrants offer an opportunity to organize and to recruit potential voters. Finally, labor activists of this generation cut their teeth in the civil rights, feminist and anti-war movements.

What’s in it for the old working class? Health care, job security and dignity. An opportunity to organize. More generally, a new affirmative vision common to all—a vision in which the economy responds to the democratically expressed needs of the working class. In this vision, government provides access to health care, restores their savings, closes the wealth gap, manages the cost of health care, makes housing and education affordable, ends state violence (police brutality, incarceration, deportation, separation, exclusion) against them and guarantees security and stability for all. A united working class can make that happen.

Time is of the essence.