Black History Month got me thinking about some of the African-American thinkers who have taught me the most about class/race intersections:
1) W.E.B. DuBois, author of The Souls of Black Folk (1903), was many decades ahead of his time in connecting the subjective experience of racism with its institutional dimensions. He had a global view of racism in the form of colonialism, starting in the 1500s, motivated by greed for cheap labor and national resources. In his study of Philadelphia’s black community, he carefully documented four class levels, breaking stereotypes of African Americans as all and only poor that still persist today.
2) bell hooks taught me in Where We Stand that if you try to wage identity-based struggles, such as feminism or Black Power, without confronting class, not only will your idealistic goals be distorted beyond recognition, but you will leave out those who need liberating most urgently.
3) Cathy Cohen, author of The Boundaries of Blackness, deplored “the politics of respectability,” and described the class rift that kept African American leaders from dealing with AIDS when it first hit the black community.
4) Michael Eric Dyson called out the terrible “blaming the victim” habits of professional-middle-class people of all races. After Bill Cosby blamed low-income Black parents for the racial gap in education and income, he wrote a book whose funny title said it all: Is Bill Cosby Right, or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?
5. Adolph Reed, Jr. points out in Class Notes that the way Americans avoid talk of class is not an accident, but can be a cover for self-interested power grabs – and classless race-only focus can hide nefarious ends too. For example, some corrupt developers and politicians in New Orleans, his hometown, used black-pride rhetorical sleight-of-hand to do land-grabs after Hurricane Katrina.
6. Bill Fletcher, Jr., editor of Black Commentator (a web periodical that’s always worth reading) and author of Solidarity Divided, puts out such a clear strategy for building a multiracial multi-issue labor movement that if you close your eyes while he’s talking, you can almost see it happening.
And of course, where would we all be today if it weren’t for the great Black feminist pioneers of intersectionality, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith and Patricia Hill Collins?
I know I am just one of many, many people who have gained so much understanding of the workings of class and race in the US from these path-breaking radical writers.