University of Chicago English Professor Kenneth Warren—author most recently of What Was African American Literature?—has an excellent essay in the most recent issue of Jacobin that everyone should read. “Race to Nowhere” is a critique of those who argue the path to racial equality is to improve “race relations.” More specifically it calls out a black elite dating back to Booker T. Washington that emphasizes better behavior among the black proletariat as the key to racial justice. As Warren characterizes such a view, “Class conflict could be imagined only in terms of deficiencies of character among the uncooperative.” In other words, the black elite has long held a “culture of poverty” view of the racial antagonisms that have plagued the United States.
As opposed to such reductionist cultural determinism Warren would have us think about racial inequality in terms of labor. Southern states broke from the Union to keep their enslaved workers who happened to be black. Similarly Jim Crow laws were enacted, often with the tacit support of the southern black elite, in an effort to control the black working class and even, perhaps, as a way to keep an interracial working class divided. In short, Jim Crow was a strike against Populism, that late-19th-century social movement that formed in opposition to the collusion of capital and the planter class. Warren writes:
Black elites, whose political viability depended on their perceived legitimacy as “race leaders,” were disturbed by the reality of poor blacks acting politically without their guidance or sanction. And when the planter and industrial elite struck back against Populism with violence and disfranchisement—a backlash that tended to make all blacks, and not merely workers, its target—black elites sought to meliorate these effects by proposing a transformation — not of the economic basis of society, but rather of the black image in the white mind—to improve “race relations.”
Although I love the essay and agree with Warren’s political vision, his historical vision of Populism is a bit too storybook.
As Charles Postel makes clear in his most recent history of populism, The Populist Vision, the larger movement was hardly an interracial alliance to the degree that it has been mythologized. Taking this a step further Postel writes that “the Populists played an active part in shaping the [Jim Crow] racial order that proved such an immovable political object.”
Reflecting contemporary historiographical fashion, which tends to over-stress the problems of “race relations” in ways that Warren criticizes, it might be argued that Postel goes too far out of his way to prove that white Populists had a race problem. Indeed there were moments when white and black populists cooperated. Tom Watson, the Georgia Populist, is famous for warning his fellow activists, black and white, that they were “made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both.” Alliance at times overcame such hatreds.
But Postel is right that racial unity was nearly impossible to achieve. I would argue this is because many populist leaders were small capitalists looking for ways to compete with the bourbon class and the industrial capitalists of the northeast. Thus they also sought to benefit from cheap black labor.
Inasmuch as this revises Warren’s rosy view of Populism it hardly detracts from Warren’s argument and in fact might even support it since labor, not race relations, was likely the problem within Populism as well with its larger challenges to the Gilded Age political economy. Most important, Warren’s larger political point, that the “most reliable path to progressive politics that produces true justice is that which begins with building the political power of workers,” that holds true.