[Marxism] Roediger and Zweig: an exchange on race and class

Mike Friedman mikedf at amnh.org
Wed Dec 13 10:07:49 MST 2006

This month's Monthly review features a short exchange between Marxist
historian David Roediger and economist Michael Zweig on the topic of race
and class that has been heatedly debated on this list. While the specific
issue is an apparent minor discrepancy over some statistics, the real
substance of the controversy goes to the heart of the issue raised by
Joaquin and others.

Roegiger's rejoinder is aimed at a point Zweig made in his article "Six
Points on Class," published in the special July-August 2006 issue of MR.
Roediger takes issue with Zweig's statement that "in the United States
two-thirds of all poor people are white." He observes that if this figure
were true, white poverty rates would be about the same as Black and Latino
rates, which they are patently not. Using Zweig's criteria, he shows that
whites account for 46% of the total poor (under Zweig's assumption of the
official poverty line). He notes that "Zweig's statistic could hold only
if the highly racialized poverty of Latinas/os were treated as simply
"white"," a point to which I will return. He then cites 2004 census
figures that show that the poverty rate among whites is 8.6%, while among
African Americans and Hispanics, respectively, 24% and 23% and that, on
average, Blacks and Latinas/os were 2.7 times more likely to live in
poverty as whites. Roediger produces various other statistics concerning
household income and incarceration rates to reaffirm his proximal point,
that poverty is racialized.

Roediger agrees with Zweig's view that "U.S. capitalism produces great
misery across the whole population," but underlines that only by
addressing "stark disparities across racial lines," will working class
unity be achieved. He approvingly notes Zwig's assertion that "much of the
mystification about the United States as a middle-class society" is due to
the portrayal of the poor and working poor as Black and Latina/o, which
leaves whites as "different, united and middle class."

He observes that such "mystification thrives not because there has been
too much emphasis on struggles for racial justice but rather because those
struggles have not made enough gains." He follows the preceding  with the
parenthetical point -- which I would have highlighted -- that those
struggles "by and large have not been seen as central to producing
conditions for united-working class action." This latter affirmation
points to Roediger's distal point, that, as long as white workers don't
address racial inequality, race will indeed "trump" class.

In fact, Zweig's rejoinder points to the continued existence of a racial
blind-spot, a sense of denial, on the part of swaths of the left. He
acknowledges that he included Hispanics in the statistics for white
poverty, since "most Hispanics in the United States report themselves to
be white." He then observes approvingly  that "[t]he problem here is that
for census purposes "Hispanic" is not a "race"."

"It seems perverse to insist that Hispanics who identify themselves as
white be excluded from that identity by analysts of race because many
Hispanics are poor," Zweig states. Zwig, who correctly notes that
Latinas/os labeled as "white" are disproportionately poor, can't seriously
be implying that Hispanics (light-skinned or not) are not subject to
racism, can he? But, if he isn't then he must recognize that not
"analysts," but a racist social order are objectively denying Hispanics
the status of "white," and that his statistical manipulation is but a
shell-game. He, in effect, reverses cause and effect. One question he
might ask himself is that, given real acknowledged patterns of oppression
faced by Latinas/os, why do some "self-identify" as white? Could it have
something to do with the aforementioned negative portrayals of Latinos and
Blacks? Could it have something to do with real inequality, which is then
ATTRIBUTED to some defficiencies on the part of the oppressed? Could it
have something to do with one's aspirations in this racist society for
one's children?

He then reaffirms his confusion -- no his *obfuscation*: "Given the mixed
racial experience of Hispanics in their home countries, and in their
self-identification here, Roediger's desire to acknowledge the "highly
racialized poverty of Latinas/os" seems to me a wrong approach to the
clarity that might emerge from a more nuanced understanding of *white
people* [emphasis added -- MF] in this country." How kind of Mr. Zweig to
consider Hispanics as white, How white of him.

Michael Friedman
Ph.D. Candidate in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior
City University of New York

Molecular Systematics Laboratory
Department of Invertebrate Zoology
American Museum of Natural History
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New York, NY 10024

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