The ongoing debate on social media and in academia about whether race or class is politically more important ignores one important thing about race and class. For most ordinary people, they’re inseparable. Americans talk about class in terms of race, and race in terms of class. In upper-middle-class suburbia it’s done in whispers. When it reaches the public debate it’s carefully hidden in layer after layer of code that everybody understands, but nobody wants to admit they understand. “Good schools” means “mostly white schools.” People in Union County, New Jersey who speak in hushed tones about “over development” aren’t afraid the local real estate industry is going to move a lot of Scots Irish hillbillies from West Virginia into the dreaded “low incoming housing” complexes they’re always trying to keep from getting built, although those Scots Irish hillbillies would probably have even less money than most black people from Newark or Hispanics from Elizabeth. They’re worried that their towns might become less white. In other words, mainstream, Democratic Party liberals are absolutely right when they argue that class and race are “intersectional.” Ethnic and racial oppression, though originally based on economic oppression, take on a life of their own and, in turn, reinforce the same economic oppression that created them.
“Critical race theory,” which maintains that black people can be prejudiced, but not “racist” because “racism” means “prejudice reinforced by power” are also correct. Living with a name like “Rogouski” can be illuminating. I’ve had people, even “woke” liberals, tell Polish jokes to my face, and yet it’s pretty much meaningless. I have as much “white privilege” as a Mayflower descendant. I’m not going to get stopped and frisked by the NYPD or tailed through through Macy’s by the store detective just for browsing. While a Polish joke in the United Kingdom is backed by the power of Brexit, and thus might qualify as “racism,” a Polish joke in the USA is merely bigotry. On the other hand, if a black family moves into the wrong all white suburb in New Jersey, and their neighbors start whispering about “overcrowding in our good schools,” they would do well to give their teenage boys “the talk” about dealing with the local police.
In other words, I largely agree with the argument that black people can be prejudiced but not racist. On the other hand, there’s no real consensus on the American left about whether or not black people can be antisemitic, or even about whether or not Jews, except of course for Bernie Sanders, are really white. Back in the 1980s, when Jesse Jackson, the Bernie Sanders of his generation, tried to keep the Democratic Party from moving in the direction of Clintonite neoliberalism — and our lives would be so much better today if he had succeeded — he was regularly accused of being “antisemitic” by the liberal establishment. He wasn’t, yet regularly associated with extremist black nationalists, like Louis Farrakhan, who very much were. Indeed, I was astounded at how much positive coverage Farrakhan’s Million Man March got in the 1990s. He was the same antisemite he was in 1995 as he was in 1985. But he was no longer any threat to the ruling class. Between 1985 and 1995, the Democratic Party elite swept the problem under the rug, buying off Jesse Jackson and most of the radical, leftist black leadership that came out of the Civil Rights Movements. In 1985, Jesse Jackson just might have dragged the Democratic Party back to its New Deal ideals. By 1995, Clintonite neoliberalism had consolidated itself. Right wing, Wall Street Democrats were firmly in control. They would not see another serious challenge for 20 years. As long as black people voted for the Democrats and supported Israel, rich liberals, and even rich Jewish liberals, were willing to put up with Farrakhan’s antisemitic conspiracy theories, toxic misogyny, and far right-wing, reactionary politics.
On December 10, in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Jersey City, David Nathaniel Anderson and his girlfriend Francine Graham jumped out of a rented van, walked across the street, and opened fire in a local Kosher deli, killing two store employees, one customer, and a Jersey City Police detective. There’s little doubt that it was a targeted, antisemitic mass shooting, and reasonable suspicion that Anderson and Graham, who were members of a black nationalist organization even more extremist than Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, had also planned to target a local Yeshiva, and turn an already bloody day into Sandy Hook Part II. For white conservatives, since it happened in a state with strict gun control laws, it was a confirmation of their worst fears. The “libs” had disarmed the people of Jersey City and left them helpless in the face of black nationalist terror. Rural, West Milford quickly declared itself a “Second Amendment Sanctuary City. Democratic Party liberals, even leftists, on the other hand, finding themselves unable to interpret the story in terms of “intersectional” anti-racism, simply retreated into fantasy land, Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tliab declaring that the shooting proved that “white supremacy kills.”
Rashida Tlaib was engaging in wisfull thinking. I have to admit that during the Bush years and Obama years, I used to breath a sigh of relief whenever I found out that a mass murderer was white. These days I don’t really care. White, black, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, gentile, the only thing mass shooters really have in common is that they tend to be misogynists with a long record of domestic abuse, nihilists poisoned by toxic masculinity. Violence is a failure of the imagination. Guns are the icon of the American right-wing death cult. Yet the Jersey City shootings defy even this interpretation. Both shooters were black. One was a middle-aged woman.
There are times when I believe that Donald Trump became inevitable the day after the Sandy Hook Massacre. The young man who murdered dozens of grade school children wasn’t a right wing extremist or a white supremacist. He was a severely disturbed 21 year old with little or no connection to reality. Yet the NRA and the white supremacist, far-right took up debate on gun control as a call to arms. Whether like Alex Jones they denied the massacre outright, speculating that it might have been a “false flag” operation by Barack Obama to take their guns or they simply went out and bought another AR-15 while they could still get them, conservatives decided that their “liberty” to own guns was more important than dozens of dead children or their grieving families. What’s more, after they realized that Barack Obama had no intention of taking their guns, they decided that the Sandy Hook Massacre was a perfect opportunity to gaslight the “libs.” Indeed, by announcing to the world that they considered the Second Amendment more important than a pile of deal 6 year olds, conservatives were declaring war, making it clear that they were prepared to do anything and everything up to and including gunning down grade school kids to get one of their own in the White House.
Sandy Hook denial was a declaration of war, but not of class war. Conservatives and white supremacists, like Trump, have no intention of challenging the ruling class for economic power. As long as the Starbucks barrista says “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” and as long as they can continue to stockpile military grade weapons, they’re quite content to let the status quo alone. For Joan Terrell-Paige, a member of the Jersey City School Board, on the other hand, the Jersey City massacre was not only a declaration of cultural or race war. It was a declaration of class war.
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, both left-leaning Democrats,immediately called for Terrell’s resignation. Shortly thereafter, right-wing, Zionist billionaire Ronald Lauder, declared that he was ready to spend whatever it took to remove Terrell from office. Indeed, it’s hard to disagree with Murphy or Fulop, or even Lauder. Terrell’s long rant in the aftermath of a mass murder was not only viciously antisemitic. It’s guaranteed to pour gasoline on the fire, to make the already bad relations between blacks and Orthodox Jews in Jersey City even worse. But it’s more.
Terrell’s long antisemitic rant is not also not only a warning, a sign that the tensions between Jewish and black Democrats never really went away, but a crude, “intersectional” analysis of class in Jersey City. Liberal and leftist academics need to get out more. Terrell is only an extremist version of the way most real Americans talk about race and class.
No leftist academic sees gentrification in Jersey City through the lens of Jew vs. gentile. But in the real world, people don’t see the larger picture. They see their local oppressor, not the “one percent.” Poor blacks in Jersey City notice that Hasidic Jews have capital and they don’t. Where did they get it? They notice that Hasidic Jews can buy property and they can’t. Why? They notice that the murder of two Hasidic Jews gets the attention of the political and economic elites in a way the murder of dozens of black people doesn’t. Once again, why? Left-wing academics and socialists can’t ignore these questions. In an Ivy League faculty lounge, an “intersectional” class analysis is often spun out into long, highly “rational” debate that some how ends up with the declaration that we have to vote for Kamala Harris over Bernie Sanders. In the real world, mixing class and race can be as dangerous as working with nitroglycerin. One wrong move and boom.
In the United States, the choice between “socialism or barbarism” just might come down to the choice between “class war or race war.”