Idylls of the Liberal: The American Dreams of Mark Lilla and Ta-Nehisi Coates

Interior (Richard Hamilton, 1964-5. Screenprint.)

“Nostalgia is suicidal,” says Columbia political scientist Mark Lilla, in his new book The Once and Future Liberal. Regardless, nostalgia is a driving force in American politics, whether it is the old chestnut that times were better “when we actually made things,” the longing for a return to welfare state anchored in a robust manufacturing economy, or Trump’s Reagan-era neoliberal pastiche that seeks to “Make America Great Again.” But there is also a nostalgia that takes the form of high fantasy, one which takes us back several more centuries and resonates with an intelligentsia obsessed with Game of Thrones. It is an epic model of politics, with noble heroes and dastardly villains, broken alliances and secrets, and a crowd of commoners left to decide their loyalties.

Mark Lilla’s hardcover blog post, advertised as a rebuttal of “identity politics,” refers to these fairy tales directly with its Arthurian title. The liberal, Lilla recounts, is noble in spirit and pure of heart, destined from birth to save the kingdom from ruin, fighting courageously against the barbarian hordes of Republicans in Congress. But alas, it is not always the good and wise king who sits on the throne. The nobles, like Lilla, have the wisdom to know who is fit to govern. But the commoners all too often fail to understand. They resent the nobility for its privilege and status, and they clamor around foolish kings like Trump. This is because the privileged of birth have left unfulfilled their noblesse oblige; they have become captivated by the curious doctrine of “identity politics” and have failed to secure the obedience of the kingdom’s subjects to a wise and proper sovereign.

But it would be unfair to mock Lilla for living in a world of his own imagination. Such fantasies are shared by his critics, most notably Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates has a more sinister tale to tell. In an ominous fable called “The First White President,” Coates reveals that Trump’s ascendancy is thanks to a “bloody heirloom” called “whiteness.” Trump has taken the left-hand path further than all the sorcerers before him, inheriting their “ancestral talisman” but then “cracking the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.”

Unlike in Lilla’s mythology, Coates’s story has no redeeming force—only treachery. Our noble hero is nowhere to be found. It seemed that Hillary Clinton would rise majestically from the lake, but we learned too late that her heart was not pure, and in any case she was ultimately defeated. Some were led astray by Bernie Sanders, who ventured from a faraway land and gathered an unexpectedly large army. But all along, Coates tells us, Sanders was also a sorcerer like Trump, jealous of the king’s power and seeking to wield the amulet himself.

Both Lilla and Coates need to be reminded that we are not living in the legends of the 5th century. Politics is not a romantic tale of good and evil, in which great men raise their swords and lead their kingdoms to glory. There is no such thing as magic.

We live, in fact, in a 21st century capitalist democracy. And in our real, material society, events do not proceed as they do in the legends. Social change is not made by noble heroes, even if they find themselves in the right place at the right time to take the credit. It is made by the commoners—by those who remain nameless and faceless in the legends, and in the political ideologies of Lilla and Coates.

***

We must grant Lilla this: he is resolute in his convictions. In his book he proudly claims the title of liberal, which he goes on to define in the most boring, unattractive, and uninspiring way possible. This is a fatal error, because it is clear throughout the book that his goal is to inspire. What is not clear is who he seeks to inspire. Not the red-staters who he thinks have been let down by the “identity liberals”; to their credit, they’re not interested in reading this book. Not the identity liberals themselves, since he has made no effort to avoid offending them. Not the Democratic leadership, who have committed to an identity-based strategy and have no reason to listen to pontificating professors. And not leftists and socialists, who he disdains as out of touch. If anything, it seems that the only one who will be inspired by The Once and Future Liberal is the author. Mark Lilla has written a political self-help book for himself.

No matter. What is interesting for our purposes is to determine what this honorable title means. It is not the interpretation of classical liberalism which hails from Austria, the one which views the individual as the supreme reality and sole good. In fact, Lilla accuses identity liberalism of being an extreme individualism. He advocates a liberalism on the model of Roosevelt’s New Deal, not because he advocates a politics of the redistribution of wealth, but because this redistribution was part of a shared sense of national purpose and a commitment by the nation to take care of its citizens. “We’re all Americans and we owe that to each other,” Lilla proclaims. “That’s what liberalism means.” Liberalism, in other words, is a kind of benevolent patriotism, which reinstates an edenic golden age as a vision for the future.

To explain how this liberalism declined, and ended up replaced by identity liberalism, Lilla presents us with an impressionistic Leave It to Beaver narrative of American history. In the 1950s, the story goes, Americans all bought cars, TVs, and refrigerators, and moved to the suburbs, where they listened to Pat Boone and spread mayonnaise on white bread. This Fordist fantasy is simultaneously a nostalgic memory shared by many middle-of-the-road socialists and social democrats, and the apocalyptic pessimism of those now labelled by the delirious right “Cultural Marxists.” In Lilla’s topsy-turvy Frankfurt School-inflected account of the one-dimensional society, it is individualism rather than conformism which takes root in the suburbs. The romantic rejection of this society which rises from the Beatniks and flourishes in the 1960s counterculture is only a variation on the theme, when birth control pills and divorce split apart the only remaining source of collectivity, the nuclear family. It was a response to the “identity crisis,” as psychologist Erik Erikson had it, provoked by this paradoxical conformist individualism. “We have become a hyperindividualistic bourgeois society, materially and in our cultural dogmas,” Lilla laments.

“American” is rather a broad category to describe this particular experience. It is not the experience of black people during the long “Great Migration” which brought them from the South to the northern inner city. It is not the experience of the poor Appalachian whites who engaged in their own parallel migration. It is not the experience of immigrants who came from Latin America or Asia. Lilla seems to have mistaken his autobiography for American history.

In one of the many bizarre interviews about his book, a Slate reporter reminded Lilla that the period he describes as one of national purpose and unity was also the period of legal segregation. Tellingly, Lilla responded, “I’m not talking about the reality on the ground. I’m talking about the way we thought about the reality on the ground.” Lilla may disdain the (highly pertinent) question of who exactly this “we” is, but even he should acknowledge that historical analysis cannot proceed according to non-falsifiable statements about how everyone in a given decade thought.

What is left out, of course, is the reality of the social movements which transformed the social structure, and whose development takes place completely outside of the way Lilla thought about the reality on the ground. Lilla has a lot of trouble with the Civil Rights Movement. It is on the one hand a kind of “good” identity liberalism, acceptable given the gravity of the situation: “Identity politics on the left was at first about large classes of people—African-Americans, women—seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilizing and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights.” Yet at the same time, he insists that the civil rights movement was based on an impulse completely contrary to identity politics, because it addressed “the country as a whole,” “working to force America to live up to its principles”: “The leaders of the civil rights movement chose to take the concept of universal, equal citizenship more seriously than white America ever had.”

Like every other white mainstream political commentator in the United States, Mark Lilla invokes Martin Luther King Jr., and reduces him to an empty mascot. For Coates, too, King is a mascot—”the bloody heirloom remains potent even now,” he writes, “some five decades after Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a Memphis balcony.” Missing from both accounts is the King who advanced an internationalist and socialist politics, who spoke out forcefully against the Vietnam War and American imperialism, who saw the continuation of the struggle for civil rights in the Poor People’s Campaign and the sanitation workers’ strike by AFSCME Local 1733, which he had gone to Memphis to support when he was murdered.

Lilla, despite his ignorance of the actual history of the civil rights movement, claims to hold high standards for patriotic knowledge of American history. Among the hodge-podge of phenomena blamed for the rise of identity liberalism is the decline of liberal education, now replaced with self-centered and narcissistic pedagogy. (Imagine: a woman in a women’s studies class!) In fact, Lilla even implies that a potential model for the education of youth is the civics test given to aspiring citizens—you know, the one you take after swearing that you have never been a member of the Communist Party. In Lilla’s world, liberalism will succeed by subjecting students to more tests.

Continuing his focus on education, Lilla presents a curious historical narrative to explain why he focuses primarily on universities. It seems more likely that he focuses on universities because he works in them; but there is nothing wrong with talking about universities, since, contrary to popular belief, they are part of the “real world,” and they are places where many people formulate and disseminate ideas. We are presented with descriptions of a stifling climate in the American university: students who are afraid to speak, because they might be “called out”; discussions of any topic narcissistically referred back to the speaker and their identity; denunciation of people who violate taboos.

It is ceding no ground to Lilla’s liberalism to acknowledge that these phenomena are real, and they are destructive. There are indeed toxic climates in universities which, by reducing everything to an individual’s identity, interfere with the ability of people to think, learn, and teach.

However, Lilla is mistaken to think this is something new. Universities have always been stifled by toxic identity politics; it’s just that in the past, the identity was that of white men. As Coates correctly points out, in Lilla’s world “all politics are identity politics—except the politics of white people.” For a long time, students of color were afraid to bring up questions of race, because they would be accused of changing the subject; women found themselves condescended to and silenced by entitled male academics, if not openly sexually harassed with impunity; and criticizing the European canon was seen as blasphemous at best, illiterate at worst.

Now the white male identity cannot be assumed; while racist and sexist abuses persist, progressive change has insisted on the recognition of marginalized identities. But the unforeseen dilemma we now face is that there is nothing to prevent people of marginalized identities from engaging in the kind of toxic behavior once monopolized by white men.

It is a maddening and debilitating feature of our contemporary academic climate that we are asked to choose between differing forms of toxic discourse. Good riddance to the racist, sexist regime that was classical liberal education; now it is time to tackle the underlying structure of liberal discourse, one that fosters individualism and competition and incorporates new identities into its repressive climate.

***

Lilla snidely invokes the complex history of the term “identity politics” with a quotation from the 1977 Combahee River Collective Statement, the first use of the term in its contemporary meaning, under a chapter heading he titles “Pseudo-Politics.” Whether “identity politics” is still a useful term for the anti-racist, feminist, and socialist politics of the Combahee River Collective—in a forthcoming book I argue that new terms are needed—it seems certain that Lilla knows absolutely nothing about that organization’s actual political practice. As Collective member Demita Frazier recalled in a 1995 interview with Sojourner:

I never believed that Combahee, or other Black feminist groups I have participated in, should focus only on issues of concern for us as Black women, or that, as lesbian/bisexual women, we should only focus on lesbian issues. It’s really important to note that Combahee was instrumental in founding a local battered women’s shelter. We worked in coalition with community activists, women and men, lesbians and straight folks. We were very active in the reproductive rights movement, even though, at the time, most of us were lesbians. We found ourselves involved in coalition with the labor movement because we believed in the importance of supporting other groups even if the individuals in that group weren’t all feminist. We understood that coalition building was crucial to our own survival.

Lilla not only shows himself to be petty and ignorant in describing this important activist work as “pseudo-politics,” he also undermines the whole premise of his argument. The Combahee River Collective’s practice was not strictly limited to the identity of individual activists, but was rather about forming coalitions and expanding the scope of what could be demanded politically.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, however, illustrates the debilitating limits of what “identity politics” has now come to represent, something far from the radical and coalitional practice of the Combahee River Collective: a moralizing discourse which monopolizes the discussion of race, yet fails to propose either a coherent theory of racial oppression or a viable program for eliminating it. Coates deploys his considerable erudition and rhetorical flourish in service of sheer obfuscation—the story of whiteness as magic and Trump as sorcerer. Despite the gingerly placed historical references, in Coates’s telling whiteness has no history. It is a malevolent force which surges from the netherworld in moments which can only be identified by the intensity of Coates’s own feelings—the American Dream become Coates’s personal nightmare.

Coates goes as far as to make the extraordinary claim that before Trump, whiteness lay dormant—when in fact our very first president owned slaves while in office, the first of eight to do so (four more were slaveowners while not in office). That Coates goes on to be disingenuous should not surprise us. If whiteness is magic, it has no real historical specificity, no clearly identifiable social effects, no limits on its scope of action, and no structure which can be dismantled. In Coates’s legends, there is no point in resistance to evil. There are no moments in which whiteness is opposed. The noble heroes are all found wanting, perhaps to leave room for one of Coates’s preference in the future.

Yet we know, from reading the same history books as Coates, that there was resistance. And indeed, the complex evolution of white supremacy is marked by this resistance—first and foremost the resistance of slaves, who from Saint-Domingue to Virginia refused to accept the notion that one person could be the property of another.

Lilla also erases this history of resistance when he relies on a sentimental notion of “citizenship,” completely eliding the historical complexity of this category and its relationship to the class differentiation that accompanied the formation of modern nation-states. In fact, Lilla’s notion of citizenship is targeted specifically against socialists and Bernie Sanders-style progressives who would base politics on class. “Citizenship is not an identity in the way we currently use the term, but it provides one possible way of encouraging people to identify with one another,” Lilla writes. “There is good reason why progressives should stop framing their calls for economic justice in terms of class and start appealing instead to our shared citizenship.” (Astoundingly, he adds in a footnote that if progressives “want to become a major force in American politics again” they should ignore “the latest books from Verso Press” and instead read Teddy Roosevelt.)

What Lilla asks us to repress is what Sandro Mezzadra describes as the “structural nexus between citizenship and labor.” Mezzadra writes: “Labor status (‘free labor’ as it was imagined and constructed by the legal doctrine of freedom of contract) was tied since the early days of the Republic to citizenship status, to the recognition as a full adult citizen.” Citizenship “emerged as an abstract legal and political framework” that tied people who otherwise concretely belonged to a plurality of regions, cultures, and languages, to the borders of the nation and the sovereignty of its state. “Free” wage labor, alongside the category of the citizen, “was imagined as severing all but the monetary bond between employer and employee”—that is, removing the fetters of custom and law that tied serfs to lord and manor.

However, this imagined figure of the free laborer did not correspond to the reality of waged work. In fact, even in England, workers were compelled by various “extra-economic” pressures to work. The category of “freedom” was not simply bestowed as a legal gift, but was the result of bitter and prolonged struggles. Free wage labor came into being because it was imposed by the refusal of workers to accept the legal subordination formalized in contract law. Accordingly, free wage labor in the United States only came to exist as a function of the struggles against indentured servitude and slavery, in the complex and contradictory history by which “citizenship” came to be formed. In other words, citizenship itself is part of the history of the formation of racial categories and their intermingling with the exploitation of labor. Yet Lilla’s only mention of the politics of immigration and refugees is confined to one huffy footnote. “I will not be discussing such matters here,” he says, refusing to engage in any discussion that may trouble his sentimental celebration of citizenship.

Coates traces a history familiar to anyone who has seriously studied the history of racism, or the history of capitalism: the differentiation between two forms of forced labor (indentured servitude and slavery), which came to be racially coded. But he does not account for the second episode: the point at which African slaves, legally emancipated, were integrated into a racially differentiated capitalist labor market, now “free laborers” who confronted the exploitation of wage labor alongside the survivals of slavery which divided them from white workers. The survivals of slavery granted certain privileges to white workers while continuing to impose racialized violence on black workers; but this does not change the fact that black and white workers also shared a common antagonism to their bosses, which, in many crucial moments, they clearly recognized.

In fact, as Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra recounts, such alliances existed even during times of slavery, when the “motley crew” turned the world upside down at every opportunity. In an account of the collective rebellions in the ports of New York in the mid-eighteenth century, they write:

The multiracial waterfront posed a political problem for New York’s rulers. The cooperative nature of work in the port had created dangerous insurrectionary connections between slaves of African descent… “and scum and dregs of the white population”… The authorities approached the solidarity with a trident in hand, each of its points carefully sharpened to puncture the prevailing multiracial practices and bonds of proletarian life in Atlantic New York. First they went after the taverns and other settings where ‘‘cabals’’ of poor whites and blacks could be formed and subversive plans disseminated. Next they self-consciously recomposed the proletariat of New York to make it more difficult for workers along the waterfront to find among themselves sources of unity. And finally, they endeavored to teach racial lessons to New York’s people of European descent, promoting a white identity that would transcend and unify the city’s fractious ethnic divisions.

We have, then, a series of omissions, elisions, and cherry-picked targets. It is easy to get bogged down in circular debates on particular details while missing the larger question: why does Coates deem it important to undermine the critique of capitalism? Why this target, when since the 17th century the resistance to racial oppression and capitalist exploitation have gone hand in hand? Why this target, when anti-capitalist politics, despite their recent growth, still remain politically marginal, their meekest expressions repressed by the bureaucracy of the Democratic Party? Why this target, when members of every mass socialist organization appear at anti-fascist demonstrations to put their bodies on the line against racism?

Indeed, as people of color, anti-racists, anti-fascists, and prison abolitionists within socialist organizations are dedicating time and resources to the battle against white supremacy, Coates decides to stand with Lilla on the sidelines and criticize them tout court. Socialist politics only appears in Coates’s essay as an alternative to racial politics, one which begins and ends in whiteness:

An imagined white working class remains central to our politics and to our cultural understanding of those politics, not simply when it comes to addressing broad economic issues but also when it comes to addressing racism. At its most sympathetic, this belief holds that most Americans—regardless of race—are exploited by an unfettered capitalist economy. The key, then, is to address those broader patterns that afflict the masses of all races; the people who suffer from those patterns more than others (blacks, for instance) will benefit disproportionately from that which benefits everyone.… This notion—raceless antiracism—marks the modern left, from the New Democrat Bill Clinton to the socialist Bernie Sanders.

But by speaking exclusively of a raceless anti-racism, and ignoring the historical existence and present resurgence of socialist anti-racism, Coates both discourages newcomers from joining and deepening socialism’s anti-racist commitments, and contributes to the McCarthyist rhetoric of the mainstream media that has consistently been used to undermine anti-racist activism in general. Anti-communism has a long history as a weapon of white supremacy, so for Coates to adopt its biases is troubling. As Robin D.G. Kelley recounts in his vital book Hammer and Hoe, “anti-Communism was also a veil for racism,” illustrated dramatically by the poster Kelley reproduces reading: “NEGROES BEWARE: DO NOT ATTEND COMMUNIST MEETINGS… The Ku Klux Klan is Watching you.”

***

Both Lilla and Coates reflect on the questions of race and identity in order to explain the Trump presidency. Lilla suggests that the failure of liberals to provide a common vision, one centered on responsible citizenship, left an empty space that was filled by the perverse vision of Donald Trump. Liberals, caught up in identity politics, drove away the ordinary white people whose economic anxiety had left them susceptible to Trumpism. Coates has an easy point to score against this argument. Since black people and other people of color have suffered from even more economic anxiety, why have they not joined the Trump coalition?

The answer he provides, of course, is white supremacy—which is completely obvious to anyone who is not as actively self-delusional as Mark Lilla. It is no great insight on Coates’s part to recognize that Trump explicitly framed people of color as national enemies and gave them no reason to vote for him. He appealed to the white supremacist impulses that are still powerful for a portion of the white population (not a majority, but the portion of the white population which votes, and the portion within that which voted for Trump).

There is no denying this. However, writing volumes of florid prose which righteously assert this point does nothing to prevent Trump and his ilk from dominating the American political scene. Difficult as it is for people of color (including me) to come to terms with, we are not about to get rid of white people. This country is full of them. Coates is not wrong when he implies that insofar as they are caught up in the social formation of “whiteness,” they are an intrinsically reactionary force. The relevant question is how to subdue this force.

Fortunately the answer is clear: the abolition of whiteness. This is not the same thing as the abolition of white people. In fact, it is impossible to abolish whiteness unless the people currently coded as white recognize their responsibility to participate in this project—in short, becoming “race traitors.”

Treason to the white race, in fact, is in the interest of the vast majority of people classified as white. This should not be taken to mean that the privileges granted to white people by white supremacy are not real—they are all too real, and many white people enthusiastically participate in white supremacy to preserve these privileges. However, for the white people who are not owners of capital, white privilege is a poisoned bait. As the black communist Harry Haywood wrote in his 1948 book Negro Liberation:

It is not accidental… that where the Negroes are most oppressed, the position of the whites is also most degraded. Facts unearthed and widely publicized… have thrown vivid light on the “paradise” of racial bigotry below the Mason-Dixon Line. They expose the staggering price of “white supremacy” in terms of health, living and cultural standards of the great masses of southern whites. They show “white supremacy”… to be synonymous with the most outrageous poverty and misery of the southern white people. They show that “keeping the Negro down” spells for the entire South the nation’s lowest wage and living standards. “White supremacy” means the nation’s greatest proportion of tenants and sharecroppers, its highest rate of child labor, its most degrading and widespread exploitation of women, its poorest health and housing record, its highest illiteracy and lowest proportion of students in high schools and colleges, its highest death and disease rates, its lowest level of union organization and its least democracy.

These words could be written again today with only the most minor modifications. And they explain why Mark Lilla and Ta-Nehisi Coates are ultimately mirror images of each other, in their failure to recognize that overcoming white supremacy is not an “identity” issue, one which is restricted to the interests of a particular racial group, but rather at the center of a universal program for emancipation.

Whiteness is not magic. It is also not a psychological disposition or a particular type of body. It is a material social relation, as material as that of class. It is absurd to try to determine in the abstract which of these relations is primary. It is instead necessary to study a very specific concrete history—the history of plantation slavery and the development of capitalism in the United States—to explain both kinds of social relation. Capitalism is a fundamental target of any emancipatory struggle not because of some kind of priority of the “economic” over the “cultural” (whatever these would mean as essential categories), but rather because in actual history, racism has been an integral component of capitalism.

This is why, even when opposing the most reactionary expressions of identity politics, socialists should never make the mistake of thinking Mark Lilla is on their side. If socialists fail to actively oppose white supremacy, they allow capital to wield one of its deadliest weapons. In order to build a mass anti-capitalist movement—in order to foster the kind of solidarity, commitment, and collective action that is required for social transformation—it is necessary to oppose every expression of racial hierarchies and divisions which are visible in our society and reassert themselves in our movements. This is not to make movements “safe spaces,” but to make them expansive and powerful; it is not for white people to act as “allies,” but for them to reject the privileges conferred by whiteness in order to be able to act as comrades. Wherever racial oppression threatens the safety of a portion of the multiracial working class—whether it is an ICE raid, a police killing, or a fascist rally—socialists must be at the front lines in our collective defense.

***

Identity liberals, Lilla claims, have missed the most important lesson of the Roosevelt period: the political primacy of winning elections. “They remain under the spell of movement politics,” he complains. Marxism and socialism, Lilla argues, are ultimately to blame for the hegemony of movement politics, ever since they arrived on our shores after the 1848 revolutions.  Lilla would rather that we appreciate the brilliance of “the framers of our Constitution,” who ensured that achieving justice “would require a lot of tedious, incremental work.” Today, Lilla tells us, we should get back to the tedious, incremental work:

A popular wave from the left has risen up to resist a populist one from the right, and it’s encouraging to observe. But “resistance” will not be enough. Our short-term strategy must be to direct every bit of that energy into electoral politics so we can actually bring about the change we profess to seek.

Part of the damage done by identity liberals is that “at a time when it is crucial to direct our efforts into seizing institutional power by winning elections, we dissipate them in expressive movements indifferent to the effects they may have on the voting public.” In sum: “We need no more marchers. We need more mayors.”

For all his oppositional tone, Coates turns out to be unable to move beyond Lilla’s electoralism. This is not because he advocates an electoral strategy, but rather because his cloak-and-dagger narrative fixates on politicians, using them to symbolize entire political tendencies, analyses, and movements. Socialism appears in Coates’s analysis solely as the personal vision of Bernie Sanders, which not only buries the long history of anti-racists who saw socialism as an integral and necessary part of their mission, but also reduces mass movements to famous individuals. What Coates seems to ignore is that political figures are not simply mouthpieces for the unitary views of their supporters, and their supporters are not simply sheep who will fall in line with their supposed leader’s every declaration. What was significant about the Sanders campaign were not his personal views or his congressional record, but the fact that a wide range of constituencies with a wide range of demands identified with his call for “political revolution.” The unique demands of these different groups were made equivalent through their shared opposition to the existing political system.

We now know that black Americans were a fundamentally important link in this chain. Sanders is extremely popular among black voters—in fact, more registered black voters view Sanders favorably than any of the other “racial” demographics surveyed by the Harvard-Harris Poll, and more black voters have a “very favorable view” of Sanders than they do of Hillary Clinton. Yet, while critical of Hillary Clinton, Coates claims that she “acknowledged the existence of systemic racism more explicitly than any of her modern Democratic predecessors.”

An effective political practice involves, as Judith Butler puts it, “establishing practices of translation” between the differing demands of the groups that form a coalition, and eventually finding that “despite any apparent logical incompatibility,” these demands “may nevertheless belong to an overlapping set of social and political aims.” Today, this process of translation has led far beyond the Sanders campaign and the electoral arena in general, with young people seeking out alternative modes of organization and political struggle. Coates, however, is primarily interested in tearing apart Bernie Sanders’s language, and thus discrediting those of his supporters who are in the process of discovering new political possibilities. Every comment Sanders makes about “identity politics” is presented as if it shows the blind spot of any critique of capitalism, as if it illustrates the impotence of class struggle in overcoming white supremacy.

Here once again there is a yawning gap in the narrative. As historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has demonstrated, it was the “black-labor-left” coalition of the 1940s which lay the groundwork for the legislative achievements of the 1960s, famously represented by Socialist Party Member, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and core organizer of the 1963 March on Washington A. Philip Randolph. Hall offers us a corrective to the reductive narratives of both Lilla and Coates:

Historians have depicted the postwar years as the moment when race eclipsed class as the defining issue of American liberalism. But among civil rights unionists neither class nor race trumped the other, and both were expansively understood. Proceeding from the assumption that, from the founding of the Republic, racism has been bound up with economic exploitation, civil rights unionists sought to combine protection from discrimination with universalistic social welfare policies and individual rights with labor rights. For them, workplace democracy, union wages, and fair and full employment went hand in hand with open, affordable housing, political enfranchisement, educational equity, and an enhanced safety net, including health care for all.

By ignoring social movements and fixating on politicians, Coates distorts both the history of mass anti-racist movements and the potential for their contemporary growth. Socialist movements exist in the United States due to the courageous efforts of black socialists, communists, and trade-unionists. It is a legacy which must be carried forward today, and Coates does the struggle against white supremacy an enormous disservice by hiding it behind the liberal contempt for Bernie Sanders.

The red herring on which this manipulative narrative turns is the question of the “white working class.” Coates cites everyone from Sanders to Lilla as apologists for the “white working class,” whose racism and complicity in Trump’s power they deny by pointing to economic anxiety and frustration with elites.

Here Coates makes a peculiar move. He demonstrates conclusively that this argument of Lilla and Sanders is wrong. He points out that a Gallup study of pre-election polling data shows that voters “who supported Trump generally had a higher mean household income ($81,898) than those who did not ($77,046),” and they were “less likely to be unemployed and less likely to be employed part-time.” In other words, as Coates correctly concludes, “when white pundits cast the elevation of Trump as the handiwork of an inscrutable white working class, they are being too modest, declining to claim credit for their own economic class.”

But despite proving that the so-called “white working class” is not actually Trump’s base, Coates insists that for whites, racial solidarity takes precedence over any other political interest, citing the fact that Trump’s support was higher among whites as a whole than any other demographic. Once again, this is hardly a stunning new insight, so we have to ask why Coates emphasizes it. It becomes clear, as his argument unfolds, that Coates’s goal is to invalidate the possibility of class solidarity across racial boundaries. Even after showing the research which should shatter any belief that this monolith exists, Coates clings to the chimerical figure of the white working class, in order to exclude it from anti-racist struggle.

This is because Coates appears to lack any interest in seeing that struggle succeed. His demand is for moral repentance, not liberation. But instead of asking whites to feel guilty, we should demand the abolition of whiteness, a project in which they have a responsibility to actively participate. As long as Coates is unwilling to embrace the multiracial mass movement that can abolish whiteness, he and Lilla will forever be left to fight over the throne of a kingdom that remains unchanged. As usual, it is up to the nameless and faceless commoners to make history, rather than to appeal to the conscience of the king.

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint and author of Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (Verso, Spring 2018).