‘Left,’ ‘progressive,’ and ‘working-class’ do not mean ‘white’

There is a long tradition of left-of-center politics in the United States. But too often when reading positions espoused by white political activists, writers, bloggers, and pundits who have dubbed themselves progressive, left of center, radical, or even liberal, they speak as if the mantle of the left does not fall across the shoulders of black Americans and other people of color.

Recently, the mere mention of ‘black’ has come under attack from some segments of this erstwhile left. It has been dubbed ‘identity politics’ and dismissed as irrelevant in the struggle to re-engage ‘the working class’ by the ‘progressive’ wing of the Democratic Party.

A line from Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues sums up how I feel about much of this: “Makes me wanna holler and throw up both my hands.”

Too often the “we progressives” line does not include me and mine and the long unbroken stream of my political ancestors and mentors—everyone from Frederick Douglass, Ida

. Wells, and W.E.B. Du Bois through A Philip Randolph, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Angela Davis, to Black Lives Matter and the Rev. William Barber. The hundreds of articles moaning and bewailing Democrats’ inability to engage “the working class” completely dismisses the fact that the majority of black folks here in the United States are working class. By 2032 the majority of the entire working class will be people of color.

This is an appeal to those of you who write, speechify to, and organize Democrats: The default position and norm in all things political and demographic is not white—nor is it male.

Part of the problem is that the history of progressive, left, and radical activism in the U.S. by black folks and other people of color gets parceled off into “black history” or “civil rights history” boxes as if it isn’t just part of U.S. political history. 

A mythology acceptable to mostly white folks has developed, centered on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and non-violence as the symbol of our struggles. But that erases the complex intersections of black American political activity which have included self-defense, black power, union organizing against racist bosses and white unions, socialism, and Pan-Africanism, all alongside fighting for the right to vote and participate in the electoral process. 

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