Ross Douthat, Black Lives Matter, and the Left

There have been a number of left-leaning posts on social media today in surprised agreement with a piece by conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat about the trajectory of current protest movement, arguing that it abandons the class focus of Bernie Sanders for corporate multiculturalism. As he puts it:


"And so far, as my colleague Sydney Ember noted last week, this revolution has been more unifying than Sanders’s version — uniting the Democratic establishment that once closed ranks against him, earning support from just about every major corporate and cultural institution, sending anti-racism titles skyrocketing up the best-seller list, even bringing Mitt Romney into the streets as a marcher and inducing Donald Trump to make grudging noises about police reform.

Ember quotes the law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, the theorist of intersectionality, marveling at the change: 'You basically have a moment where every corporation worth its salt is saying something about structural racism and anti-blackness, and that stuff is even outdistancing what candidates in the Democratic Party were actually saying.'

All this, from one perspective, vindicates critics who said Sanders’s vision of revolution was too class-bound and race-blind all along.

But the longer arc of the current revolutionary moment may actually end up vindicating the socialist critique of post-1970s liberalism — that it’s obsessed with cultural power at the expense of economic transformation, and that it puts the language of radicalism in the service of elitism."


First of all, there should be nothing surprising here. Douthat is playing to the same racist, Middle American resentments that have been a mainstay of the populist right for half-century now. The idea is that comfortable white elites align themselves with the black and brown poor at little cost to themselves but at great expense to aggrieved, hard-working, tax-paying, law-abiding white Americans in the middle. It was a staple of George Wallace's message, of Nixon's Silent Majority, of Pat Buchanan's anti-immigrant presidential campaigns.


It was at the heart of Tucker Carlson's recent rant when he complained about the NFL knuckling under, innocent people being fired from their jobs, the outrages of Democratic leaders and radical professors, and of the moral bullying of decent Americans who love their country:"This may be a lot of things, this moment we’re living through," he said, "but it is definitely not about black lives. Remember that when they come for you, and at this rate, they will."


White liberals and leftists have been rediscovering and re-deploying a version of this faux-class politics almost continually since then, fearing that antiracist politics is the last refuge of the professional managerial class.


Second, Kimberlé Crenshaw's frank observation that corporations are talking more about structural racism and antiblackness than Democratic candidates were a few months ago less evidence of the triumph of neoliberal multiculturalism than of corporations feeling the heat of these protests and being forced to respond. The proliferating effects of any protest movement go in different directions and express a variety of political beliefs and aims. White supremacy, after all, is practiced everywhere in the US. If one result of the movement is that a greater light is shone on everyday racist practices in the corporate workplace, so much the better.


But in the piece Douthat doesn't simply see corporate cooptation, he paints a grim portrait of a new corporate and academic elite made up of people of color lording it over the "proles," which is how right-wing populism always yokes racism to class resentments, playing on fears less about class rule than who is doing the ruling.


Third, and most important, the Douthatian critique being trumpeted by some progressives obscures ways that race and class are mutually constituted, and so therefore misses how profound this moment truly is. The central demand of this enormous, widespread and still growing protest moment is not to demographically diversify elite institutions, but to dismantle one of the most important institutions of class rule: the police. Regardless of where Bernie Sanders stands on the question, what could more fully express class radicalism than this?

© 2020 by Joe Lowndes