Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on race and class in Ferguson (and how The Nation butchers the story by putting a sportswriter on it)
Let's start with the headline from Time:
The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race
Sure, sure, clickbait. But also not accurate, and distorting Jabbar's message (and note the URL says "coming-race-war-class-warfare," so that was probably Abdul-Jabbar's original title before an editor struck out the taboo word, "class"). Compare the Washington Times:
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Ferguson unrest about class warfare, not race
So to Abdul-Jabbar's message. There's a media critique we're all familiar with, but I'm going to extract what I consider to be the heart of the argument:
[U]nless we want the Ferguson atrocity to also be swallowed and become nothing more than an intestinal irritant to history, we have to address the situation not just as another act of systemic racism, but as what else it is: class warfare.
This fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor. Of course, to many in America, being a person of color is synonymous with being poor, and being poor is synonymous with being a criminal. Ironically, this misperception is true even among the poor.
And that’s how the status quo wants it.
The U.S. Census Report finds that 50 million Americans are poor. Fifty million voters is a powerful block if they ever organized in an effort to pursue their common economic goals.
I’m not saying the protests in Ferguson aren’t justified—they are. In fact, we need more protests across the country. Where’s our Kent State? What will it take to mobilize 4 million students in peaceful protest? Because that’s what it will take to evoke actual change. The middle class has to join the poor and whites have to join African-Americansin mass demonstrations, in ousting corrupt politicians, in boycotting exploitative businesses, in passing legislation that promotes economic equality and opportunity, and in punishing those who gamble with our financial future.
Otherwise, all we’re going to get is what we got out of Ferguson: a bunch of politicians and celebrities expressing sympathy and outrage. If we don’t have a specific agenda—a list of exactly what we want to change and how—we will be gathering over and over again beside the dead bodies of our murdered children, parents, and neighbors.
Ding! OK, OK, confirmation bias. But it's nice to hear somebody who's not a WASP -- even a downwardly mobile one -- make my argument. So, here is what the Washington Times says in response... Heh, heh, whoopsie, they just quote it, like I did. ("[C]ontinuous news writer" is now a job title.)
So, here's what "liberal icon" The Nation" has to say. Unbelievably, The Nation assigns the story to a sports columnist, instead of treating Abdul-Jabbar as a serious analyst in his own right:
The Major Problem With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Powerful Essay on Ferguson
I guess Abdul-Jabbar won't be going on The Nation cruise any time soon.
And yet… there is also a serious and extremely fundamental problem with Kareem’s piece. This is first seen when he writes that making Ferguson about the “fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor.”
Michael Brown was shot dead by the police because he is black. If he was white, no matter how poor, he almost certainly wouldn’t have died. If that is not your starting point, then you are lost without a compass.
Wait, wait. Which is it? "Powerful essay" or "lost without a compass"?
Yes, Ferguson is in so many ways a “class issue”. But Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown is about racism. If we don’t acknowledge the centrality of racism both in this case and in how racism is used to divide people....
Of course, Zirin's sloppy language ("centrality") distorts what Abdul-Jabbar says. He starts with "racial injustice" -- why Michael Brown got shot -- but he doesn't end there. Quoting Abdul-Jabbar again:
Will the recent rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, be a tipping point in the struggle against racial injustice, or will it be a minor footnote in some future grad student’s thesis on Civil Unrest in the Early Twenty-First Century?
But he fits "racial injustice" into the larger frame of class warfare. Abdul-Jabbar again:
And, unless we want the Ferguson atrocity to also be swallowed and become nothing more than an intestinal irritant to history, we have to address the situation not just as another act of systemic racism, but as what else it is: class warfare.
It's not either/or, as Zirin would have it; but both/and. Of course, Zirin is writing at The Nation, hence is a Democratic apologist, hence cannot admit the dreaded class warfare into the mix, because Democratic strategy is based on identity politics, not class politics.
Returning to Abdul-Jabbar's piece, I want to pull out one piece of his sophisticated media critique:
By focusing on just the racial aspect, the discussion becomes about whether Michael Brown’s death—or that of the other three unarmed black men who were killed by police in the U.S. within that month—is about discrimination or about police justification. Then we’ll argue about whether there isn’t just as much black-against-white racism in the U.S. as there is white-against-black. ...
The "militarization of the police" (though real) is the "progressive" flip side to the right's "police justification." It's a "Look! Over there!" tactic to avoid talking about class. So let's watch the Nation, at the end of Zirin's piece, go exactly go Abdul-Jabbar says "the discussion" will go, given Zirin's (and Democrats') focus on "just the racial aspect."
I rest my case. With friends like these....
NOTE To be fair, Zirin writes at the end:
The point of all of this is to say that fighting racism, sexism and anti-LGBT bigotry is not a distraction from building a united struggle but a precondition for building a united struggle. ... [Solidarity] starts by arguing explicitly with white workers that their sympathies should lie with the people of Ferguson and not the politicians or the police. ....
No, with all workers. Even if you leave out of the equation the pragmatic idea that you only succeed by appealing to people from "all walks of life" (Gene Sharp), this is just straight up Democratic identity politics, and The Nation is the Vatican City of identity politics, which is just a mirror image of conservative tribalism, a betrayal of the interests of black people, and a gross category error that leads to immoral practices and bad results when justice needs to be done.
UPDATE I feel that class warfare ("exploitation") is primary. There are many forces in our complex system, but I say "Follow the money," and that means "Follow capital" and that means asking "who has capital and who doens't. And why." That is not to say that racial injustice is trivial. I'm not trying to minimize it. I want it to go away! But if you want to win a war, you've got to know your enemy, eh? I am not going so far as to say that Abdul-Jabbar agrees, but he does say poverty, an outcome of class warfare, is an "even worse Ebola-level affliction." I'll take that level of strength, even if it's not "primary."