Generational divide

Paul Gilroy is a professor at University College London, and director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Race and Racism there. He’s four years older than I am, and though in many ways we’re quite different it turns out we share a perception of today’s anti-racism work:

“Anti-racism has changed since Gilroy’s youth, its edge blunted. For much of the 20th century, being against racism meant being for a radically different political and economic settlement, such as socialism or communism. Today it can mean little more than doing what Gilroy mockingly calls ‘McKinsey multiculturalism’: keeping unjust societies as they are, except with a few ‘black and brown bodies’ in the corporate boardrooms. (‘I’m not very interested in decolonising the 1%’ he [says].) What is left is a more individualistic anti-racist culture, which is keen on checking privilege and affirming the validity of other people’s experiences, but has trouble creating durable institutions or political programmes.” — “The Last Humanist,” Yohann Koshy, The Guardian, August 5, 2021.

One reason I continue to call myself an “unrepentant Marxist” is that capitalism has proved unable to change racist systems in the U.S. (Indeed, from a historical perspective it’s arguable that capitalism initially thrived due to the way it exploited nonwhite labor, e.g., chattel slavery in the U.S.) I recognize that my view represents a tiny minority in the United States, or indeed in Unitarian Universalist circles, and that I may very well be wrong. However, if capitalism was able to solve the problem of racism in the U.S., I would think it would have done so many years ago. And it’s hard to see how a system built on inequality, as capitalism has always been, could somehow magically create racial equality. While Marxism may be the wrong answer, it’s no less wrong than capitalism.

Where does that leave us? sa Paul Gilroy points out, we’re left with an “individualistic anti-racist culture” which does not seriously address unjust societies.

4 thoughts on “Generational divide”

  1. Two points:

    First, I think on the whole the evidence suggests that capitalism with a strong “social democratic component” — government support for institutions that increase wages (minimum wages, unions, wage boards for different industries and occuptions), a strong social safety net, a strong “social trampoline” such as retraining programs that help unemployed or underemployed workers move to better jobs — is better than either pure capitalist systems, or supposedly “socialist” systems.

    For example, as this study shows, although China has slightly less income inequality than the United States, its income inequality trends are worse than the U.S.. And China’s income inequality is far worse than France’s. The same would be true of China compared to many other European countries, for example Germany and of course the Scandinavian social democracies. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2019/04/06/income-inequality-is-growing-fast-in-china-and-making-it-look-more-like-the-us/

    Second, I completely agree with you that racial inequities cannot be addressed adequately without addressing economic inequities. Basically, although any policy that significantly reduces income inequality in the United States would also significantly reduce racial inequality. Such policies could include higher minimum wages and other policies to raise wages, a true full employment policy for all places in the United States, a permanent refundable child credit building on the just-enacted temporary credit, universal access to affordable high-quality child care and preschool, a universal housing allowance, places such as Silicon Valley and Palo Alto allowing the building of denser housing and more multifamily housing, universal access to affordable higher education and training opportunities, etc.

    For example, a higher minimum wage would significantly advance racial equity. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/25/opinion/minimum-wage-race-protests.html

  2. I think he needs to talk to younger people. In my experience, people born after 1980 are more likely to see racism as inextricable from colonialism and capitalism, and they are prepared to renounce capitalism in order to dismantle racism. In fact, they’re enthusiastic about doing so, since they don’t want to end racism only, but also get rid of the baked-in economic injustices of the US system. The white middle-class liberal ideal I was raised with, with its hopes born of the ’50s and ’60s when the economy came closest to lifting more boats, doesn’t convince them, as the wealth and income gaps have widened and they perceive that even the New Deal and the postwar boom delivered their benefits disproportionately to white people. It doesn’t convince me either, but whereas for me that has been largely a process of unlearning, for them the persistence of a racial and economic underclass has always been evident.

    I know I’m hearing from a fairly radical wing–young UU ministers and my San-Francisco-educated, Discord-socialized teenage daughter–but it’s part of their everyday conversation.

  3. Oops, hadn’t finished. For a big chunk of this younger generation (two if you go by generational labels: Millennials and Gen Z), the problems and solutions are clearly systemic. I think we need to invite their voices as much as possible. They have a lot to teach the older folks.

  4. Amy, I agree that Millennials and Gen Z have a lot to teach us older folks; and I’m especially optimistic about Gen Zers. Nevertheless, I’m not seeing an alternative to capitalism proposed by the vast majority of those generations. Yes, they’re able to deconstruct capitalism — but what I’m not seeing are robustly conceived alternatives to capitalism. Capitalism still sets the norms; hyper-individualism is still the default; and there’s a reason Millennials and GenZers are drifting away from collectivist/communitarian institutions such as congregations and labor unions. I’m learning from the younger generations; but I think Millennials and Gen Zers need to learn from those of us in older generations who can articulate collectivist or communitarian visions that provide alternatives to their unquestioned assumptions of hyper-individualistic capitalism.

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