Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 6, 2020

Walter Benn Michaels: the Elvis superstar of class-reductionism

Filed under: affirmative action,class-reductionism,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 9:57 pm

Walter Benn Michaels

After posting a critique of Adolph Reed Jr.’s class-reductionism, the aggrieved professor emeritus who has written for Harpers, the Atlantic, the Nation, the NY Times, the Washington Post, and countless other peer-reviewed and non-peer reviewed magazines over the years felt the need to chew me out on my insignificant, little blog. His invective-filled comment charged me with racism. On top of that, just two days ago, I made the mistake of posting a link on Facebook to an article I wrote in 2016 critiquing Reed for endorsing Hillary Clinton in the DP primary. And for that transgression, Todd Cronan, one of his sycophants, repeated the charge, “Your fixation suggests you might be a racist.” Fixation? I’ve only roasted Max Blumenthal 10 times more often.

Cronan is the editor of nonsite.org (don’t ask me what that means), a peer-reviewed journal out of Emory University, where Cronan is a tenured art historian. So, what prompted someone regarded as one of America’s leading African-American Marxists, and a professor at a prestigious university regarded as the Harvard of the south, to resort to such a crude and demagogic attack? The answer is simple. Neither is prepared to defend an indefensible idea, namely that BLM is anti-leftist.

While Reed and Cedric Johnson have been critiqued on this blog over the past month or so for their class-reductionism, they are not nearly so bad as Walter Benn Michaels, a literature professor at University of Illinois at Chicago. (Michaels is white so if he bothers to respond to this article, I trust that he won’t accuse me of anti-Semitism since we are both Jews. I happen to like Jews. I just don’t have much use for self-important academics.)

Lately, Michaels has entered the fray over BLM just like Reed and Johnson before him. Like Reed, Michaels got a softball interview on a Jacobin podcast conducted by Jennifer Pan. Pan writes for Jacobin but you’d have to read her article on New Republic on “Why Diversity Training Isn’t Enough” to understand why she’d refuse to ask Michaels tough questions. In her article, she takes up “whiteness” studies and particularly a book by Robin DiAngelo titled “White Fragility”. It was already a NY Times best-seller but it went totally viral after the George Floyd protests because it charged white Americans with benefiting from structural racism, a not very controversial analysis in my view. However, when she decided to make an amalgam between DiAngelo, Ted Allen and David Roediger, that seemed kind of nutty. How can you link a pop sociologist with these two Marxists? Pan refers to Cedric Johnson’s dismissal of their work:

From a practical point of view, the political scientist Cedric Johnson has recently argued that whiteness studies promote a fatalistic view of white workers as too hopelessly committed to their racial identity to be won over to a multiracial left coalition. Such a perspective, he writes, inevitably prioritizes reeducating such workers over attempting to organize them.

I guess comrades Johnson and Pan have no idea that Ted Allen worked as a coal miner in West Virginia as a member of the United Mine Workers, serving as an organizer and president of one Local and later a member of another. He also co-developed a trade union organizing program for the Marion County, West Virginia Industrial Union Council, CIO. (From a useful article in Wiki.)

Listening to the 109-minute schmooze-fest between Pan and Michaels was almost as agonizing as listening to Bhaskar Sunkara interviewing Adolph Reed Jr. on another Jacobin podcast. If you need any evidence that Jacobin is deep into class-reductionism, just listen to these podcasts which are as devoid of critical questions as a Charlie Rose interview with Bill Gates.

In preparing a response to Michaels based on this podcast, I found a 2011 interview Sunkara did with Michaels that really needs some commentary. I missed it at the time since I was preoccupied with the Arab Spring but reading it now makes me wonder if Sunkara is even more politically degraded than I ever suspected. He let Michaels off the hook on some really rancid remarks.

Titled “Let Them Eat Diversity”, it gives Michaels a platform to denounce anti-racism as a capitalist plot to exploit immigrant labor at the expense of our good citizens. At the higher tier, it enabled Asians to get positions as doctors and lawyers in the USA. At the lower tier, it enabled Mexicans to fill dirty, low-paying jobs of the sort that has made them victims in the pandemic. In order to get red-blooded Americans to tolerate those flooding into the country, either legally or illegally, it was necessary to promote anti-racism so that Chinese, Indians, or Mexicans wouldn’t be victimized. Human Resource departments were analogous to Pinkerton guards defending scabs.

The agents of this anti-racism plot are HR officers that have seminars on diversity so as to make white people more open to the invasion of our homeland by those bent on stealing our jobs.

You might ask yourself at this point if I am misrepresenting Walter Benn Michaels. Let him speak for himself. Sunkara does offer a featherweight challenge to his narrative about identity politics trumping good old fashioned, virile class politics. Could HR departments really be nipping class-based movements in the bud? This is where Michaels jumps the shark. It seems he sees “neoliberalism” everywhere. In the HR departments. In the radical movement. Nobody seems to be ready to fight it except guess who… The Tea Party. He tells Sunkara:

The truth is, it’s hard to find any political movement that’s really against neoliberalism today, the closest I can come is the Tea Party. The Tea Party represents in my view, not actually a serious, because it’s so inchoate and it’s so in a certain sense diluted, but nonetheless a real reaction against neoliberalism that is not simply a reaction against neoliberalism from the old racist Right. It’s a striking fact that what the American Left mainly wants to do is reduce the Tea Party to racists as quickly as humanly possible.  They’re thrilled when some Nazis come out and say “Yeah, we support the Tea Party” or some member of the Tea Party says something racist, which is frequently enough. But you can’t understand the real politics of the Tea Party unless you understand how important their opposition to illegal immigration is. Because who’s for illegal immigration? As far as I know only one set of people is for illegal immigration, I mean you may be [as a Marxist], but as far as I know the only people who are openly for illegal immigration are neoliberal economists.

Next, Sunkara delicately asks how he felt about The Nation’s Richard Kim referring to his opposition to affirmative action as “Seething, misplaced, amnesiac resentment…masquerading as class-consciousness.” To which, Michaels replies, “Are you kidding me, I’ve been called a racist for twenty years.” Maybe so, but at least he can be consoled by the support of Bhaskar Sunkara and Jennifer Pan.

Probably because he has been writing books about topics like “The Beauty of a Social Problem” and writing articles like the kind submitted to the yearly Modern Language Association conferences ever since he became a don in 1974, Michaels sees everything through the prism of the academy. He is so worked up about diversity and affirmative action being a tool for the upward mobility of petty-bourgeois elements, rather than one for the hairy-chested, lunchbox-toting proletariat, that he misses how such programs got started.

The basic flaw in Michaels’s thesis is that he fails to distinguish between the gains made by some Blacks and women who have broken into the corporate board rooms and the fate of the overwhelming majority. This can only result from a cherry-picking of the data, all designed to make it appear that they have never had it so good. In other words, he is repeating ruling class propaganda. One would understand why the Elvis superstar of class-reductionism would be get so riled up about the selection of a Black CEO or cabinet member. His fiery attacks on privileged blacks like Barack Obama must make him feel like Lenin taking apart Kautsky. Too bad that he didn’t pay attention to what is happening at the grass roots level.

For example, minority admissions to law schools, a traditional portal into the upper middle class, had been dropping around the time Sunkara sat down with Michaels. A study published by the Columbia University Law School, a place that can certainly be described as “elitist”, painted a discouraging picture:

Web Site Shows Drop in Minority Enrollment at US Law Schools

December 28, 2007 (NEW YORK) – A new Web site created by Columbia Law School documents a disturbing drop in enrollment by African-American and Mexican-American students in America’s law schools. Even though African-American and Mexican-American students have applied to law schools in relatively constant numbers over the past 15 years, their representation in law schools has fallen.

Even more worrisome is the fact that during the same period, African-American and Mexican-American applicants are doing better than ever on leading indicators used by law schools to determine admissibility – undergraduate grade point average and LSAT scores. In addition, the size of law school classes and the total number of law schools have increased – making room for nearly 4,000 more students.

More to the point, affirmative action had little to do with the academy or becoming a Goldman-Sachs partner when it was first conceived. It was a legal tool made necessary by the racism that had infected the United Steelworkers Union, one of the flagship CIO unions that the Sandernista left and its class-reductionist contingents look back at as if it was the Garden of Eden.

NAACP leader Herbert Hill cited an open letter written by a Black member of the union to I.W. Abel, the USW president at the union’s 1968 convention:

The time has come for black workers to speak and act for ourselves. We make no apologies for the fact that we as black workers and loyal trade unionists now act on our own behalf. Furthermore we are fully prepared to do so…Blacks were in the forefront during the formation of this union 25 years ago. Through the acceptance of crumbs down through the years instead of our just desserts, we now find ourselves hindmost…

Problems were deepest in the south where Blacks were confined to menial positions in steel mills. White workers got used to viewing them as inferior. When you enforce racial equality on the job, attitudes tend to change in accordance with the reality that Blacks are just as good as whites at a job, even better.

Tired of being relegated to second-class citizenship in steel mills as janitors and other menial positions, Blacks supported affirmative action that would afford them preferential treatment to make up for discrimination endured in the past. About the Sparrows Point plant of Bethlehem Steel (one of the Little Steel companies and long shut down), Herbert Hill wrote:

[I]n steel manufacturing, in the building trades, on the railroads, and in virtually every other industry, a clear distinction exists between desirable jobs and those that are not. An extensive body of law based on many court cases supports this. Federal courts have analyzed in great detail and described in various industries the jobs that have higher pay, that involve less dangerous and cleaner work, and that provide opportunity for advancement, comparing them with jobs that are more dangerous, that provide lower pay, and little or no opportunity for advancement. In the racialized steel industry labor force there was no ambiguity between “white men’s jobs” and “nigger jobs.” In his opinion in the Bethlehem Lackawanna case, a federal Judge made a clear distinction between desirable and not desirable jobs. This was how affirmative action became the law of the land, not by co-opting black college graduates into Wall Street jobs but by allowing blacks to have access to well-paying and desirable jobs in factories.

In 1979 Brian Weber, a white worker employed by Kaiser aluminum, sued the USW for violating his civil rights. It seems that the union had complied with an affirmative action program that allowed Blacks and whites into a training program on a one-to-one basis even though there were far more white employees (as you might expect in Louisiana).

From that point on, affirmative action has been a lot like abortion rights. Republicans push to get rid of it and Democrats put up a feeble defense. With Jacobin authors trash-talking about diversity and affirmative action, they hardly act in the interests of black working people.

A socialist movement that disavows particular Black demands and those of other sectors of the population acting on their own interests on the basis of gender, sexual preference, etc. will inevitably lack the universality it needs to triumph over a unified capitalist class. To state it in dialectical terms, denying the existence of contradictions and a refusing to resolve them will only lead to deeper contradictions.

June 17, 2018

Harvard University, bias against Asian-Americans, affirmative action and “life itself”

Filed under: Academia,affirmative action,bard college,Education — louisproyect @ 9:18 pm

Edward Blum, using Asian-American student grievances to destroy affirmative action

Towards the end of the very fine documentary “The Chinese Exclusion Act” that I reviewed for CounterPunch on Friday, May Ngai, the radical history professor at Columbia University, weighs in on the new forms of discrimination that Chinese face even as the vicious racism directed against coolie labor has ended:

So in the late ’60s and early ’70s you have a disproportionate number of highly educated Asians who came in under the 1965 Act. This is a period of an expanding economy in the United States, with more and more R&D work; technical work. Now, a curious consequence of the Hart-Celler Act is that we’re still left with the idea that Chinese are other. They may not be the Yellow Peril of the 19th century and early 20th century. But now they’re the super-achieving students who keep your kids out of college – right? So they’re either evil or super-achievers.

So when I saw the headline on a NY Times article from two days ago titled “Harvard Rated Asian-American Applicants Lower on Personality Traits, Suit Says”, my immediate reaction was to side with the legal action that forced Harvard to turn over admission records in compliance with a suit being filed against the school for discrimination, especially since this was just a variation on what Jews faced once upon a time. A court document prepared by the Students for Fair Admissions stated: “It turns out that the suspicions of Asian-American alumni, students and applicants were right all along. Harvard today engages in the same kind of discrimination and stereotyping that it used to justify quotas on Jewish applicants in the 1920s and 1930s.”

It turns out that the founder of Students for Fair Admissions, who is not a lawyer, is a Jew named Edward Blum whose purpose it is to connect aggrieved students, who see themselves as victims of affirmative action, with attorneys all too happy to turn back the clock. He helped get the gears in motion in a suit against the University of Texas at Austin two years ago on behalf of two white women–Abigail Noel Fisher and Rachel Multer Michalewicz—who were angry that Black and Latino students with lower grades than theirs were admitted to the school under affirmative action. The Supreme Court rejected their claims. What will happen as Trump nominates more racists in this term and the one likely to follow in 2020 is predictable.

Blum is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “The Unintended Consequences of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act”. What’s that you ask? It stipulates that states and counties with a history of discriminatory voting practices are not permitted to change the rules for elections without first persuading the Justice Department (or a court) that their new policies will improve, or at least not harm, minority representation. So when Mississippi or Alabama decide to screw Black people out of the right to vote, people like Blum are on the side of the racists. Blum got his way in 2013, when the Supreme Court threw out Section 4 in a suit he helped initiate. Without Section 4, Section 5 is toothless.

In fact, Blum’s last big assault on racial equality took place last year when he heard about a proposed state law that would require had forced Poway, California to redo its voting districts so Latinos would have a better chance of winning elections.

How does Blum get funding for the work he does? It turns out that most of it comes from the Searle Freedom Trust, a rightwing foundation founded by Daniel Searle, the deceased pharmaceutical billionaire who stated its goals on its website as “creating an environment that promotes individual freedom and economic liberties, while encouraging personal responsibilities and a respect for traditional American values.”

In a follow-up article in today’s NY Times, you get a feel for the wariness some Asian-Americans about what Blum is up to. Titled “Asian-Americans Face Multiple Fronts in Battle Over Affirmative Action”, it identifies Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos in the USA as suffering higher degrees of poverty than Chinese or Japanese-Americans and being sympathetic to affirmative action.

In 2010, T.K. Park, who blogs as Ask a Korean, replied to a query about whether practices such as Harvard follows was an injustice since it limited the numbers of Asian-American admissions:

You might be surprised, because the Korean actually does think it is a good thing.

First of all, allow the Korean to first state his preferred end result: meritocracy must be an important element in college admissions. The meritocracy must involve clearly stated criteria such as test scores, quality of extracurricular activities, quality of letters of recommendation, and so on. And the Korean is not advocating that college campuses mirror exactly the local or national racial mix. There must be some sort of middle ground. The Korean does not know where the proper middle ground is. But the middle ground is probably not the 55 percent Asian American campus as it is in University of California, Irvine.

To explain why the Korean thinks so, allow the Korean to quote John Dewey: “Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” Because the Korean experienced two drastically different educational systems (Korean and American,) the truth of Dewey’s quote resonates even stronger with him. In fact, many of Korean educational system’s flaws (despite its numerous strengths) can be traced to this: Korea treats its schools as a place where students prepare for the real world, as opposed to treating it as the real world in and of itself. Thus, learning knowledge is emphasized, while learning social skills gets a short shrift.

The same principle must apply to colleges. College is not a meal ticket given for a certain set of “good behaviors”. It is a place where one receives education. And if colleges do not adequately reflect the “life itself” as Dewey said, they cannot provide adequate education.

What is missing from the discussion about “reverse discrimination” is any engagement with the broader question of competition among different ethnic groups to succeed in the high stakes game of musical chairs, where admission to an Ivy college will open doors to professional success after graduation.

Last year, a friend of mine who is a professor at Columbia revealed to me that there were four suicides between September and January, 2017. This was not just Columbia’s problems. In 2013, there were three suicides at Harvard. While not an Ivy, NYU is certainly a place that is on any A-List. I remember when George Rupp met with us in Columbia’s IT department to tell us that the competition between his school and NYU was intense. I got a chuckle out of him telling us that the appointment of some high-profile Marxists like Jon Elster had helped our reputation.

So, what do you expect when schools become pressure cookers in such competition? For NYU students, something had to give. After two students jumped from the upper floors walkway to their death inside the Eleanor Bobst Library, the administration enclosed the 12-story atrium with perforated aluminum screens in an effort to prevent suicides, just like they have done at the Golden Gate and George Washington bridges.

The most poignant story, however, was MIT’s. On April 10, 2002, Elizabeth Shin, a Korean-American student, self-immolated in her dormitory room. Even though she sent multiple emails to faculty members threatening suicide, the school ignored the warning signs. The night before she had burned herself to death, she even tried to plunge a knife into her chest but had a failure of nerve. A NY Times article dated April 28, 2002 conveys the hopes her parents placed in her:

For the Shins, M.I.T., whose undergraduate population is 30 percent Asian-American, was the gold standard. Elizabeth was accepted at Yale too. It is possible, her mother says wistfully, that Elizabeth would have been happier there. She was an artistic soul, and if her SAT’s were any measure, she was stronger in English — she got 799 out of 800 on her SAT verbal and her SAT II writing test — than in math and science. But Elizabeth wanted to do something important with her life, like find cures for diseases, as she put it. If that is your goal, her father says, and you get into M.I.T., ”you don’t think twice about it.”

”As far as M.I.T., to me, it’s the best institution on earth,” Cho Shin says.

Back in 1961, I was a junior in high school and well on my way to admission to Columbia University since I had no competition for the valedictorian award. But since my mother worried so much about my alienation and unhappiness from high school, she and the principal agreed that the best thing for me was to skip my senior year and go to Bard College on an early admission plan. Who knows? That might have saved me from jumping out a window. I sometimes think about what it would have been like to be a freshman at a male-only college where every other valedictorian was competing with me and themselves to stand out.

Bard College, as Ask a Korean cited John Dewey, was a place that reflected “life itself”. Armed with a Bard degree, it was likely that Merrill Lynch would have hired a Harvard graduate rather than me but to Bard’s credit it was a place where you would be inculcated against the values that Merrill Lynch represented.

Although I am a bit skeptical about the claim that John Dewey was experiment with democratic socialism (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/01/john-dewey-democratic-socialism-liberalism), I do give him credit for helping places like Bard College to create an environment where students don’t kill themselves over the stresses associated with Ivy schools.

In the 1930s, Bard and Sarah Lawrence became models of Deweyite precepts about higher education. His followers at Columbia University transformed an Episcopalian-oriented training ground for the clergy into Bard that some called the “Hudson Valley experimental school.”

An August 5, 1934 NY Times article titled “CURRICULUM IS REVERSED; New Plan at Bard College Is Designed to Give the Student’s Interest Freer Play” indicated how revolutionary the approach would be:

Second, the particular abilities, interests and purposes of the student himself [it became co-ed in 1944] will be the centre around which he will be permitted, under guidance, to build his own course of study. He will not be looked upon as so much material to be run into a mold but as an individual whose growth is to be stimulated and nourished. The student, as soon as he enters, will select one general field of study in which he will try his powers. The field be selects as his own will presumably be the one in which he has been most interested and has demonstrated most ability before coming to college.

That’s what we need, schools in which students are not “material to be run into a mold”. Ironically, it is just such schools that have become historically superseded by the corporatization of higher education and forced into bankruptcy. Ultimately, the goal should be to destroy corporatization in all its forms and allow students to prepare themselves for jobs in a socialist society that are not “bullshit”, as David Graeber puts it. Just as we have entered a new Gilded Age, history is crying out for a new Progressive movement that counted John Dewey among its leading lights. But given the class realities of a decaying capitalist system, the only progressivism that has a chance of succeeding today is one that is based on the need for working people to take power in their own name.

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