Race, Gender and Structural Inequalities in the Great Recession and the Recovery

Published on political affairs pa, by Joel Wendland, July 5, 2011.

… Despite a common belief that Americans live in an era without structural or institutionalized inequalities like racism or sexism, how working families have experienced the Great Recession and the recovery has depended in no small part on their race and gender. The inequity of hardship faced in the recent period resulted from structural inequalities embedded historically into the labor force, specifically, and social life generally. Here I am going to argue theoretically about how these inequalities reveal that race and gender determine in very practical ways specific aspects of economic life in the U.S. I will then look at some data from the past few years that bears those theoretical generalizations out.  

Structural inequalities, bolstered by current incarnations of white supremacist or male supremacist ideologies, are key features of the capitalist system, and help to sustain and reproduce it. Still, race and gender are typically regarded as non-class social factors – when they are not downgraded to interpersonal phenomena. Even when viewed systemically or as historically specific systems of material conditions and ideological contradictions, race and gender are typically segregated from class abstractly or identified as derivative. They are viewed as non-class factors because they do not signify relationships of property, i.e. ownership (or lack thereof) of the means of production, extraction of surplus value, or self-conscious capitalist or working-class interests.

The political implications of viewing race, gender and class (or any other system or process of oppression) discretely in this manner, has proven disastrous for the working-class movement.

Historical roots:

Thinking back, we can look at the McCarthy period as one historic conjuncture when such divisions were forced into the ways social movements thought about and actively addressed structural inequalities. And we are still living with the consequences today. Historians such as Clarence Lang, Robbie Lieberman, Gerald Horne, Rosemary Feurer as well as others have indirectly or directly argued that one of the great successes of the McCarthy period – from a right-wing, anti-working class point of view – was the forced political split among the social movements which organized political activity around issues of race, class, or gender in the U.S. Of course McCarthyites hated all progressive political movements and saw civil rights activists (who may have ideologically supported capitalism or a least distanced themselves from anti-capitalist movements) as potential subversives.

Still, the outcome was to produce a split in the working-class politics of the popular front period (1930s and 1940s). Without detailing the popular front in all of its complexity and geographical diversity, my general argument is that the working class’ main goal in the popular front – political unity of diverse social forces, strata, and demographics – implied the ideological and practical inter-connectivity or intersectionality of determinant social factors like race, class and gender. Here it is worth noting that many leftist objections to the popular front – then and now – aside from the disapproval of the Soviet connection, typically lay in its refusal to exclusively emphasize the class basis of exploitation. Political thinking that insisted on the dialectical inter-connectivity of the the three social systems was regarded as liberal or the revisionist attempt to confuse the class question, potentially in alliance with the ruling class.

Dialectics of intersectionality: … (full long text and charts).

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