Nikole Hannah-Jones, Frederick Douglass, and the Left
August 30, 2022
Nikole Hannah-Jones, Frederick Douglass, and the Left Chris Wright 14 September 2023 Twitter conversations with public intellectuals are rarely worthy of note, but a recent exchange I had with Nikole Hannah-Jones, famed mastermind of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, was symptomatic of widespread tendencies in left-liberal culture and brought up important issues. Hannah-Jones is a spokeswoman for wokeness, the cultural phenomenon that, as I’ve written elsewhere , is brilliantly undermining the left and providing grist for the mill of the right-wing outrage machine. Historically, a crucial method of undermining the left is to divide the working class according to race and ethnicity, fostering resentments and enmity between groups of people who share economic and political interests. Accordingly, in a characteristic statement, Hannah-Jones tweeted that “it is Black people who are the greatest agents of democracy the United States has ever seen. No one see[s] this country with more clarity than Black Americans. It is why while so many other[s] falter, we always muster the courage to do what must be done.” Divide people by race, elevating some and lowering others, with the effect of undercutting interracial solidarity: that’s the way of the conservative and the liberal, not the leftist. Regarding Hannah-Jones’s tweet, we may pass over the grandiloquent language, as if “Black Americans” (as a group) have never “faltered” and have “always” mustered the courage “to do what must be done.” Only one thing is worth noting here: this is explicitly the language of myth-making, of glossing over messy reality in order to create a cult of black people. Other groups are inferior, less courageous and clear-sighted. The discursive terrain we’re on—since we’re in the realm of identity politics—is thus a mythopoetic exaltation of “a” people who have a particular skin color. Setting aside the rhetoric, her substantive claim is, in effect, that black activism is the main reason the U.S. achieved something slightly akin to democracy. Is this true? Upon consulting historical scholarship, we find that it is not. Consider Alexander Keyssar’s definitive survey of American democracy, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (2000). Electoral democracy was, in fact, expanding even before the abolition of slavery, and later it expanded to include women (a movement that was led by whites), and then finally, with the Civil Rights Movement, it expanded to include blacks in the South. This was a nearly two-hundred-year struggle, certain phases of which hardly involved black people at all. As a good historian and a non-ideologue, Keyssar emphasizes the salience of class, not race. “It is class—and its link to immigration—that shapes the periodization of the story,” he argues. “The history of the right to vote [is]…a protracted yet dynamic conflict between class tensions and the exigencies of war.” In the Jacksonian era, property requirements for white men’s right to vote were dismantled, as masses of propertyless whites mobilized to expand the suffrage. After the Civil War, agitation among freed slaves and the determination of white Republicans gave black men the right to vote, but by the end of the century they had lost it in the South. This was not, however, merely a result of racism, as woke orthodoxy would have it. For one thing, many poor whites were disfranchised as well, in order to protect the power of the propertied. More importantly, “[r]idding the electorate of blacks was a means of rendering most of the agricultural laborers of the rural South politically powerless…[which would allow] landowners and businessmen [to] wield unchallenged control of the state.” Class power was what mattered most. Contrary to common belief, the disfranchisement of Southern blacks was not the only example of democratic backsliding between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These tumultuous decades saw the explosive growth of an immigrant industrial working class that terrified the country’s economic and political leaders, who now turned against universal male suffrage. It was necessary to “diminish the power of the worst classes,” one eminent writer argued in 1883. Across the country, efforts to do so thrived. As Keyssar summarizes, they included “the introduction of literacy tests, lengthening residency periods, abolishing provisions that permitted noncitizen aliens to vote, restricting municipal elections to property owners or taxpayers, and the creation of complex, cumbersome registration procedures.” Hundreds of thousands of “paupers” were excluded from the franchise. Naturalization laws were made more restrictive, reducing the proportion of immigrants who could vote. Felons and ex-felons were disfranchised. The list of inventive means to purify the electorate and thus protect the existing distribution of economic (and hence political) power was very long. In short, black Southerners were hardly the only victims of disfranchisement; and when many of these laws were overturned in the 1960s and 1970s, it was because of activism not only by black people but also labor unions (crucial supporters of the Civil Rights Movement) and a vast liberal legal and political infrastructure that even swept up Nixon’s Republican Party in the reforming zeal. (For example, the Nixon administration shortened state residency requirements for voting, enfranchising millions.) It might seem I’m making too big a deal out of a couple of flippant tweets, but it’s the tendency of thought they represent that is at issue. American political culture suffers from a collective fixation on skin color and ethnicity: both on the left and the right, identity politics dominates. On one side are authorities like Hannah-Jones, Ibram X. Kendi, and (the more sophisticated) Robin D. G. Kelley, who obsess over a supposedly ubiquitous racism (or “white supremacy”) and romanticize the posturing and preening militancy of Black Power; on the other side are people like Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Christopher Rufo, and their billionaire backers, who preach their own identity politics in order to keep the focus off class, which would threaten to genuinely remake society. Identitarian leftists are playing the right’s game when they set white against black, as if there aren’t enormous, class-determined antagonisms of interest within both white and black populations. The crudity of race reductionism can be stunning. Hannah-Jones is evidently of the opinion that every white person (including, say, an underpaid adjunct professor) is “a member of the ruling class.” She, on the other hand, a multimillionaire with deep ties to the establishment, is a revolutionary and one of the oppressed because she’s black. Not all advocates of identity politics adhere to such a preposterous racialism, but to the extent that one foregrounds factors other than class position (which is the most direct determinant of income, life chances, and economic and political power), one’s politics is in danger of sliding toward some such faux-radical reductionism. The effect, again, is to divide white workers, “privileged” members of the “ruling class” (no matter if they’re unemployed or barely scraping by), from black workers, who are the truly oppressed and deserve reparations paid for by taxes on whites. When you point this out to identitarians, specifically that the racialism of their politics—if it isn’t significantly tempered by emphasis on common interests and common grievances—has the effect of vitiating working-class solidarity, they’re apt to say something like, “If racism is already entrenched, how is acknowledging that what divides?” There are two errors here: first, sixty years after the transformative victories of the Civil Rights Movement, racism is vastly less “entrenched” than it once was; second, the most effective way to overcome some people’s residual racism is to educate them on the common interests shared by economically suffering people of different races, not to constantly attack them for being privileged racists. This will only alienate them, deepen their racism, and push them into the arms of the far-right. The Communist Party of the 1930s was much more intelligent when it adopted the slogan “Black and White, Unite and Fight!” In common struggle, whites and blacks overcame their mutual antipathies and built industrial unions that greatly benefited working people of all colors. In any case, in a time when you can virtually ruin a person’s life by taking a video of them saying something racist and posting it on the internet, it’s clear that racism is hardly as virulent or hegemonic as left-liberals like to pretend. It exists, but it’s relatively marginal compared to the forms of class power that are decimating working people of all ethnicities (worldwide). Not only blacks are affected by precarious employment, low wages, the housing crisis, student debt, global warming, psychopathically militaristic foreign policies, decades of disinvestment in public infrastructure, rising levels of homelessness, and countless other crises. Shouting about racism or white supremacy won’t solve any of these problems. Unsurprisingly, it fails to impress liberal identitarians that some of their most cherished icons have had contempt for forms of race politics that are fashionable today. White racial pride, for instance, is taken to be downright evil, but black pride—as exemplified by Hannah-Jones’ original tweet quoted above—is considered admirably rebellious or even revolutionary. It is scarcely acknowledged that, say, Frederick Douglass, a uniquely towering figure, fervently opposed even black racial pride. Whether or not one agrees with him, Douglass’s arguments should be grappled with: For my part I see no superiority or inferiority in race or color. Neither the one nor the other is a proper source of pride or complacency. Our race and our color are not of our choosing. We have no volition in the case one way or another… When a colored man is charged with a want of race pride, he may well ask, What race? For a large percentage of the colored race are related in some degree to more than one race. But the whole assumption of race pride is ridiculous. Let us have done with complexional superiorities or inferiorities, complexional pride or shame… Our policy should be to unite with the great mass of the American people in all their activities… We cannot afford to draw the color line in politics, trade, education, manners, religion, fashion, or civilization… This is from a speech in 1889 entitled “The Nation’s Problem.” A few years later, in 1894, Douglass sounded the same themes : We hear, since emancipation, much said by our modern colored leaders in commendation of race pride, race love, race effort, race superiority, race men, and the like… In all this talk of race, the motive may be good, but the method is bad. It is an effort to cast out Satan by Beelzebub. The evils which are now crushing the negro to earth have their root and sap, their force and mainspring, in this narrow spirit of race and color, and the negro has no more right to excuse and foster it than have men of any other race. I recognize and adopt no narrow basis for my thoughts, feelings, or modes of action. I would place myself, and I would place you, my young friends, upon grounds vastly higher and broader than any founded upon race or color. Neither law, learning, nor religion, is addressed to any man’s color or race. Science, education, the Word of God, and all the virtues known among men, are recommended to us, not as races, but as men. We are not recommended to love or hate any particular variety of the human family more than any other… The separatism , the racial self-love, of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s philosophy, and of influential strains of identity politics (on the left and the right), is diametrically opposed to the philosophy of Frederick Douglass, which is grounded in the much more capacious humanism of the Enlightenment. To be proud of being black is as senseless as to be proud of being white, or of being a man or a woman, or heterosexual or homosexual. Chauvinism is not a virtue. For many reasons, then—historical, politically strategic, and moral—identity politics is bankrupt, at least if it isn’t explicitly grounded in the imperative of class solidarity. The left will not be a real left until the likes of Hannah-Jones, who make a virtue of their historical and moral ignorance, are widely seen not as challenging power-structures but as indirectly defending them. Economic exploitation and insecurity, the roots of oppression, afflict people of all races; and all races have played, and will play, an integral role in the struggle to democratize society. The perennial conflict between rich and poor, whatever their skin color, is the fulcrum of injustice.