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The Political Economy of Anti-Racism

Jennifer Lopez Holds Get Out The Vote Concert For Hillary Clinton In Miami

by Walter Benn Michaels (2018)

This essay originated as a kind of stump speech, an effort to spell out and update an argument about the uses of anti-racism and anti-discrimination that I’ve been making for some time to audiences that might or might not be familiar with it. The idea of publishing some version of it in conjunction with Adolph Reed’s piece was Adolph’s, and the proposed venue was the left journal Jacobin; it would be, as Adolph endearingly put it, “a nicely affirmative statement about where the magazine stood on the left v. identitarianism debates.” But, although some Jacobin editors expressed interest, the idea came almost instantaneously to naught. A preliminary edit of Adolph’s piece—cutting it in half and leaving out material that he thought was crucial—made him decide to withdraw it. And, truthfully, I had been from the start skeptical. First, because—although we both respect Jacobin and have both published in it before—I was a little less sanguine about the magazine’s desire actually to make any kind of statement about where it stood on the left v. identitarian issue. And, second, because part of my argument (as suggested below in a photo taken at a talk I gave at U.C. Riverside) involves a critique of the role played by elite universities in (to borrow a phrase from Adolph’s and Willie Legette’s note on V.O. Key) “suppressing working-class politics in the service of both black and white political elites.” But, of course, both the students at schools like the ones on my list and the more-or-less recent graduates of such schools make up a significant portion of Jacobin’s readership; why would Jacobin want to publish an attack on its audience?

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The Myth of ‘Cultural Appropriation’


by Walter Benn Michaels

Even our own stories don’t belong to us

Vanessa Place, Kenny Goldsmith, Kelley Walker, Dana Schutz, Sam Durant — these are all white people who in the recent past have made what they intended to be politically transgressive art, and succeeded. But not in the way they were hoping for. Dana Schutz’s painting of the dead Emmett Till was not meant to insult Till’s memory. Sam Durant’s “Scaffold,” a sculpture critiquing the execution by hanging of, among others, 38 Native Americans, was meant as just that — a critique. The point of all these works was resolutely antiracist.

Indeed, if one were to criticize them as political art, it would not be for expressing controversial positions. Just the opposite: Among the visitors to the Whitney Biennial or the Walker Art Center, the antiracism to which all these artists are committed is almost uncontested, and their politics could more plausibly be characterized as anodyne than outrageous.

So what got them in trouble? It wasn’t a belief in white supremacy; it was their embodiment of white privilege, the privilege that enabled them to treat something that didn’t belong to them as if it did. “Not Your Story” read a sign at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, protesting “Scaffold.” “The subject matter is not Schutz’s,” wrote Hannah Black in her open letter to the curators of the Whitney Biennial. The idea here is that when white artists seek to “imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities,” as Hal Niedzvicki (a former editor of the journal of the Canadian Writers Union) recently urged all writers to do, what they’re really doing is less imagining other cultures than stealing from them. And, as the Equity Task Force of that same union put it in protest of Niedzvicki’s editorial: “The theft of voice, stories, culture, and identity are part of a long-standing settler agenda for cultural genocide and cannot be treated lightly.”

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Identity Politics: A Zero-Sum Game

by Walter Benn Michaels New Labor Forum (November 6, 2010).

The current hard times have been harder on some people than on others, harder on the poor—obviously—than on the rich; but harder also on blacks and Hispanics than on whites. As of this writing, the unemployment rate for blacks is at 15.6 percent, and for Hispanics it’s at 12.7 percent. For white people, it’s 9.3 percent. 1

Of course, the vast majority of the unemployed are white. But it’s the disparity in rates, not in absolute numbers, that tends to get foregrounded, since that disparity functions not only as a measure of suffering but also, in William A. Garity’s concise summary, as “an index of discrimination in our society.” 2

And it’s the ongoing fact of discrimination that motivates our ongoing interest in identity politics. As long as inequality is apportioned by identity, we will be concerned with identity.

This is obviously both inevitable and appropriate. But it is also—and almost as obviously—irrelevant to a left politics, or even to the goal of reducing unemployment, as we can see just by imagining what it would be like if we finally did manage to get rid of discrimination. Suppose, for example, that unemployment for whites and for Asian-Americans were to rise to 10 percent while for blacks and Hispanics it fell to 10 percent. Or suppose that unemployment for everyone went to 15 percent. In both cases, we would have eliminated the racial disparity in unemployment rates, but in neither case would we have eliminated any unemployment. And we don’t even need hypotheticals to make the point. About three quarters of the job losers in the current recession have been men, which means that the numbers of men and women in the workforce are now roughly equal. So, from the standpoint of gender equity, the recession has actually been a good thing. It’s as if, unable to create more jobs for women, we’d hit upon the strategy of eliminating lots of the jobs for men—another victory for feminism and for anti-discrimination since, from the standpoint of anti-discrimination, the question of how many people are unemployed is completely irrelevant. What matters is only that, however many there are, their unemployment is properly proportioned.

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