In the name of equity
Progressives write racial discrimination into the law of the land.
In April, a group of farmers from Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Ohio sued the federal government because they are ineligible for a program in the Biden administration’s COVID-19 stimulus plan which allocates $4 billion to forgive loans. They are ineligible because they are white. Announcing the program, Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack said it would “deliver historic debt relief to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers,” “socially disadvantaged,” in this case, meaning non-white. In the name of “equity,” racial discrimination has been written into the law of the land.
The authors of this policy would, no doubt, consider themselves “progressive.” And, on the face of it, the open embrace by self-described progressives of the political left of racist policies such as these, is a stunning rebuke of their own intellectual tradition.
Left wing politics used to be class-based politics. Leftists believed that a person’s economic status defined his social or political identity. Other factors, such as nationality or race, were irrelevant. “Working Men of All Countries, Unite!” exhorted Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto. The political struggle that mattered was the struggle between economic classes. “To the workers, the capitalist is unprincipled and an exploiter,” a young Walter Mondale wrote, “To the capitalist the worker is weak minded [and] lazy.”
To leftists, the politics of nation or race were simply capitalist ruses, meant to divide the proletariat and distract it from its historic mission. “[A]ll sorts of ‘progressive’ bourgeois parties and groups have been more and more often resorting to the method of dividing the workers by advocating different bourgeois ideas and doctrines designed to weaken the struggle of the working class,” Lenin wrote. “One such idea is refined nationalism, which advocates the division and splitting up of the proletariat on the most plausible and specious pretexts, as for example, that of protecting the interests of ‘national culture,’ ‘national autonomy,’ or ‘independence’, and so on, and so forth.”
Another of these “specious pretexts” – the most noxious – was race. The Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany, for example, included the Reich Citizenship Law, which declared that only those of German or related blood were eligible to be Reich citizens. The laws explicitly described Germany as “the race-based state.” To the Nazis, a person’s race defined his social or political identity. While Marx and Engels believed that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” the Nazis could be said to have believed that the history of all hitherto existing society was the history of racial struggles: “[T]he sacred mission of the German people,” Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, is “to assemble and preserve the most valuable racial elements…and raise them to the dominant position.”
Some on the left still see politics in class terms. And, when working-class voters don’t behave as this theory says they should, they reach back to Marxist theories of “false consciousness” to explain it. When Donald Trump won 60 percent of the white working class vote in 2016, Joshua Zeitz argued in Politico that those voters were “manifestly undercutting their economic self-interest,” and explained that “Trump might be increasing economic inequality, but at least the working-class whites feel like they belong in Trump’s America. He urged them to privilege race over class when they entered their polling stations.”
But there are others on the left, increasingly so, who see politics in the racial terms their ideological ancestors rightly reviled. That is how we end up with the federal government implementing a scheme which would take similarly distressed farmers and help the one and not the other solely based on their racial characteristics. The state is increasingly and explicitly “race-based,” and all this, perversely, in the name of “equity.”
Those on the left, like Joshua Zeitz, who puzzle over the question of why white, working-class Americans supposedly see politics in racial and not class terms, might want to ask where they got the idea. Was it from nefarious capitalists, stirring racial animus to distract them from their historic mission? Or was it from politicians like Tom Vilsack, who divide the American people into a set of racial interest groups whose votes can be bought wholesale with taxpayers’ money? I disagree that these white, working-class Americans were privileging “race over class when they entered their polling stations,” but if you think that is the case, it is in part because “progressives” are privileging race when making public policy.