Racism Isn’t an Unchangeable Fixture of American Life. We Can Dismantle It.

Thinking about racism as some kind of existential “original sin” that will always be with us no matter what we do, no matter what efforts we undertake to fight it, is a political dead end. Through organizing, we have struck blows against racism in the past — we can do so again today.

Essential workers mark the 30th anniversary of the Justice for Janitors movement on June 16, 2020 in New York City. Members of 32BJ SEIU took a knee in support of Black Lives Matter and to show that their struggles for justice are bound up together. Jeenah Moon / Getty

Since the latest upsurge in Black Lives Matter protests after the police murder of George Floyd, we’ve been hit with a deluge of racial justice reading lists. Political education on race is sorely needed, but many people on the Left are rightly disappointed by most of the books white people are being implored to read. A mixture of human resources–speak, self-help, and psychobabble seems to be the only framework available to talk about racism in the United States.

Though written before the Floyd protests, Calvin Baker’s A More Perfect Reunion: Race, Integration, and the Future of America comes at a time of peak interest in the topic. The central premise of the book is one most of us can agree with: substantive integration is needed more than abstract gestures toward “multiculturalism” or “diversity.”

I expected to find in this book an elucidation of what such integration would look like in the United States and how we could get there. Unfortunately, in this task, the book falls flat. I can’t say I recommend it for your racial justice reading list.

The book is built upon the premise, found throughout many contemporary writings on race, of race being America’s “original sin,” a lens through which an analysis of racism is pitched in moral, even quasi-religious, terms. In the religious concept of original sin, it isn’t just that the sin was present from the beginning — it’s that there was no going back for humankind once that first offense had been carried out. Writers like Baker that use this analogy to talk about race leave readers with the impression that racism is a transhistorical fact of life that we ultimately can’t do much about. Like sin, it’s here to stay.

In the process, they obscure the concrete dynamics that have both reproduced and changed racism over time — and they fail to provide a strategic guide to practical political activity. While sometimes hinting at a critique of shallow identity politics and psychological interpretations of racism, Baker frequently can’t help but slide back into this paradigm.

Then again, Baker can’t be fully blamed. Many of his book’s limitations stem from shortcomings in contemporary anti-racist thought more broadly. We need a more developed way to talk about racism that does not accept it as an inevitable and permanent by-product of being a white person — that understands there are concrete political, economic, and social factors that perpetuate racial inequality over time, and that this inequality can take various forms under different conditions. We must think about racism in terms that deal less with what is in people’s hearts and minds, and more with how their behavior is governed by the structures of everyday life.

Abolish the Race Line

From the beginning, Baker makes an important point: “Integration, which is nothing less than full equality, is a state that can exist only where the line of race is not eternally re-created.” Put even more simply, “The way to abolish the race line is simply to abolish the race line,” or eliminate race as a social construct pervading society.

Early passages such as these leave the reader with the impression that he will resist the temptation to talk about race like a psychological disease nearly impossible to erase. Such treatment is widespread in contemporary discourse on racism. So Baker’s arguing that “simply abolish[ing] the race line” seems to indicate that he doesn’t believe racism is somehow endemic to the human condition and thus unchangeable, undefeatable.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t last for long. He goes on to say, “Letting go of the myth of race would engender a crisis so profound in contemporary Americans that to call it spiritual or existential would be an understatement.” The problem “runs too deep, beyond our ability to see.”

It’s hard to imagine what kind of program can follow from this starting point: If racism really runs this deep, what hope could we actually have for dismantling it?

A key problem here is Baker’s opening premise, arguing that “the Left has been backing down in the face of antidemocratic white appeals to race for over a century.” This kind of statement has become popular to make about the Left in recent years. But it bears no resemblance to reality.

If anything, the Left (both liberal and socialist) has increased its emphasis on calling out white nationalism and racism since the 1960s. The New Left was galvanized partly by identity-based movements and incorporated the struggle against racial discrimination as a priority. Organizations like Students for a Democratic Society focused much of their practical activity on supporting the civil rights and Black Power movements. Though socialist organizations today are disproportionately white, it’s hard to find one that does not talk about the need to fight racial oppression and try to do so in their own practice.

But this ramped-up discourse on race has not compensated for other problems, such as the decline of unions and other working-class institutions, fundamental shifts in national economy, or the fall in working-class voter participation during the long rightward drift of the Democratic Party — in other words, the levers that have been and still could be used to substantively address racial inequality.

Historically, when working people use these levers, we have been able to achieve working-class and anti-racist advances, like the New Deal or substantial civil rights legislation. The decline of working-class power through such institutions better explains the Left’s failure to meet the challenge of opposing the rise of conservatism and its attendant white identity politics.

A Return to “Original Sin”

Baker does try to interrogate how ideas of race evolved over time. He highlights that a significant portion of the black population in early colonial Virginia were freedmen whose legal status underwent specific attacks over time. He also explores the sympathetic portrayal of a black character in Shakespeare’s Othello, and how this indicates a certain fluidity in the development of racial ideas within Europe. This is a refreshing alternative to simplistic ideas of a transhistorical and never-changing racism. But soon he reverts to a thesis very similar to the “original sin” narrative of racism in America.

The author believes the Founding Founders thought they were making a temporary compromise with slavery, sacrificing the freedom of black people for economic and political convenience, not realizing the train of events they let loose. Here, Baker is asserting another version of the argument that racism “took on a life of its own.” The problem with this framework is that it uses metaphor and psychobabble in lieu of actual analysis of concrete political dynamics. It makes it appear as if the mysterious “race” is acting on the world, instead of something carried out and maintained by specific people and institutions.

The book asserts that by the time the nineteenth century was well underway, race “dominated not only the social world but also the deep interior of the white self, in ways that were ever harder to see and continue to inform the entrenched structural racism we suffer to this day.”

Again, such analysis of racism has become common these days. But rarely are these claims ever interrogated. What exactly is the “deep interior of the white self?” And, most important for those of us who want to win a better world, how the hell are we supposed to change such a “deep interior”? Can such an interior be changed at all? If not, what’s the point of attempting to fight racism, since it’s such an intractable, interior, existentially rooted problem?

Phrases like these point to a larger problem throughout the book of how Baker constructs history. The book sweeps through a quick rundown of the failure of Reconstruction and, despite its many incredible short-term victories for black equality in the South, its long-term inability to truly integrate black people as full citizens.

A More Perfect Reunion is peppered with unhelpful phrases like the “white mind” and the “white psyche,” without much attempt to explain how millions of people can operate with such a uniform mind over time. Perhaps more important, phrases such as these obscure historical processes and the vast differentiation among white people as a whole.

According to Baker, after the failure of Reconstruction, “The cause of equal justice would not move significantly forward again until the 1950s.” This history is a bit more complicated. The civil rights movement that would eventually destroy Jim Crow didn’t kick off until the 1950s, but that doesn’t mean that impressive gains weren’t made in the 1930s and 1940s.

For example, the interracial union organizing within the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) during this period was groundbreaking. Many of these unions organized beyond the shop floor, along with creating an interracial social world that included dances, picnics, and sports leagues. This was so much the case that in the South, the CIO symbolized integration and an inherent challenge to the Jim Crow social order.

In 1944, the black newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier remarked on the “growing solidarity and mass action that will mean a new day in the South. One cannot visit Winston-Salem and mingle with the thousands of workers without sensing a revolution in thought and action. If there is a New Negro, it is to be found in the labor movement.”

It is a huge blind spot to not include discussion of the role of unions, both historically and currently, in the project of achieving true integration — not least because, as many historians have argued, such organizing helped paved the way for the emergence of the civil rights movement in the 1950s.

Baker includes more nuance when talking about the New Deal. While the current fashion is to completely dismiss it as racist, the author highlights the positive gains black workers made through programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration, which provided stable employment for hundreds of thousands of black workers. However, he also slides back into lazy analysis that attempts to portray every policy decision as being motivated primarily by racism.

He describes the many poor whites who were also excluded from New Deal policies (like the 70 percent of agricultural workers excluded from Social Security benefits who were white) as “collateral damage.” But this kind of description doesn’t really get at the way white people were also greatly harmed by the limits of the New Deal, nor why, if the architects of the New Deal were motivated principally by racism, they would pass policies that hurt enormous numbers of white people.

One chapter tracks the rise of black power in response to more subtle forms of discrimination in the North. This took the form of housing segregation, rising black unemployment, and severe inequality in the realm of public education. But Baker’s version of black power is limited to the Black Panthers and overlooks the other groups and constituencies that acted under this banner. Various actors pursuing black electoral politics and black business development were equally if not more significant to the articulation of what black power actually meant.

Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr adopted the slogan and tried to drive early efforts toward electing more black politicians. He worked closely with Stokely Carmichael to organize the first official Black Power conferences. For others, black power meant “black capitalism” and was compatible with the aim of granting more contracts to minority-owned businesses.

Along with this overstatement of the role of the Panthers within Black Power comes an inflated assessment of their impact on national politics. Baker claims “The Panthers took it to the street and pulled the entire national political conversation to the left, with the effect of making less radical liberal goals more achievable.” But the truth of the Panthers’ impact on American politics is more difficult to parse.

Most of the major civil rights legislation was already passed before the Panthers arrived on the scene. The War on Poverty was already well underway, and the Panthers did not engage with A. Philip Randolph’s comprehensive Freedom Budget. There aren’t many significant liberal legislative breakthroughs to point to in the 1970s, except for in the realm of the environment and occupational safety and health. The gains of the anti-war movement were achieved by social forces much broader than the Panthers.

The need for simplistic historical narratives about racism to be challenged isn’t academic or pedantic. They obscure both the realities of how change has been achieved in the past and the unique factors in our time that drive inequality in all its forms. In A More Perfect Reunion, the history seems to be selectively constructed to fit a predetermined narrative championing a revived ethnic politics rather than to explain the trends in present-day inequality.

Integration in Our Time

What makes this book puzzling is that Baker both reinforces dominant tropes in recent anti-racist thought while at other times challenging them. For example, he describes the concept of white privilege as “a semantic shuffling meant to signify its speaker as aware of the problem, and wishes to distance herself from it, but is far from committed to fixing it.”

This is a welcome critique of a concept that has gained wide currency in many activist circles. The framework of white privilege places too much emphasis on the individual’s role in benefiting from and perpetuating racism. While one can argue that in many specific situations this privilege exists, it is not helpful for trying to organize working people around concrete issues. It’s hard to imagine lecturing a white worker making $8 an hour about their privilege and expecting them not to look at you like you’re insane, much less join you in a collective project like a union drive.

Some passages are especially timely for our current moment, when performative wokeness and psychological explorations of race are all the rage. Baker asserts that addressing race “requires practical focus on the material substance of inequality, not simply symbolic performances, which often mask at least as much as they reveal”; later, “You can’t police the American psychic interior, however, whatever skin is wrapped around it.”

This is a useful reminder that trying to change the individual thoughts and feelings of all white people won’t get us very far. But these lines are in contradiction with so much of the book’s ruminations on the “white psyche” and the workings of race in the mind.

For example, Baker posits that race “dominated not only the social world but the deep interior of the white self.” Baker seems to recognize the limits of the psychological interpretation of race that is so dominant among American progressives and leftists today, but he can’t quite manage to fully extricate himself from it.

Which Way Forward?

Baker’s heart seems to be in the right place. But his discussion of contemporary racial issues is vague and without clear points of action.

He mounts a critique of various features of public education in the United States that reflect and reproduce racial and economic inequality: school segregation, overreliance on tests, unequal resources. He cites important studies showing that integrated schools produce better results. But we can’t talk about school integration without talking about a massive shift in resources funded by progressive taxation. One gets a sense that the author probably supports these measures, but it’s not given priority or stated in a clear way. Yet nowhere does Baker really wrestle with such a shift in resources or how we would go about effecting it.

When talking about the low percentages of black people attending quality universities, it’s surprising that no mention is made of the obvious barrier of skyrocketing tuition costs, which is especially detrimental to black students seeking higher education. More space is given to the dilemma of how these students can be fully integrated in a cultural sense — a concern only for the tiny number of black people who make it into elite institutions.

Baker hints at a correct diagnosis of systemic problems but fails to provide any path toward solutions. He states, “Not only are the gains of the growing economy better for some than others; for black people the new economy is measurably worse.” While this is undoubtedly true, the next step is missing: it’s not followed by any kind of call to rebuild the trade union movement, or an explanation of how unions have been vital for the advancement of black workers. Nor is there any emphasis on the growing threat to public-sector employment, historically a bastion of security for black people.

Toward the end of the book, Baker restates the pressing racial issues on the agenda today like school segregation, attacks on voting rights, health disparities, and economic inequality. He warns that we are so far from fulfilling the aspirations of the civil rights movement, citing the words of Thurgood Marshall shortly before his death: “In the past thirty-five years or more we have truly come full circle. We are back where we started . . . the important question now is where the civil rights struggle should go from here.”

This is indeed the question, and there have been major developments recently in progressive politics that may point toward an answer — most notably through the Bernie Sanders campaign. His two presidential campaigns represented the seeds of a progressive movement that could tackle the material roots of racial inequality.

A theme running throughout the book is the inability of the broad left to mount a serious challenge to conservative reaction. But the Sanders campaign provided a glimpse of what such a serious left challenge could look like. Many of the policies Bernie championed would erode racial disparities in all facets of life; in my more optimistic moments, I even hope it could usher in a major realignment in US politics. And especially in 2020, Sanders assembled a multiracial, working-class coalition to back his policy agenda. Baker’s failure to even comment on these developments in passing makes his discussion of our moment seem hollow.

While true integration is certainly the task of our time, A More Perfect Reunion fails to provide a clear vision of how to get there. Meaningful integration would involve the full and equal participation of black people in all of our institutions and social life.

As bland and straightforward as that may sound, it has radical implications. Such integration cannot be achieved when the material basis of a dignified life is being undermined for all workers, and racial divisions are stoked to reproduce this process. Only when everyone has high-quality jobs, health care, and education can we erode the tyrannical power racism has exerted on our lives.