What happened to the promise of Barak Obama's post-racial United States of America? This is Noel Pearson's main question, in an essay that fronts this new collection.
The "Janus face of race and class" continues to confound, and we have never been as mistaken as we are today, he writes - as "race has become the all-consuming and all-purpose explanation for why, fifty years after civil rights, America is still burning".
Noel Pearson has been a towering figure in Indigenous politics over the years, and this collection will be welcomed by all those who care about the long-running thorn in the side of the Australian (not to mention American) polity.
If we don't get our thinking clear on the race-class issue in the United States and Australia as it concerns its black peoples, Pearson threatens, then "we will still be talking about white supremacy, white privilege and black oppression and black lives mattering into the next century".
Born at Hope Vale in Queensland in 1964 when it was still under the aegis of the Lutheran church mission, Pearson stepped up early to involvement in community affairs, and while revering Paul Keating's Labor style, also drew close to the conservative side of politics during his activist career. Recently involved in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Pearson reports "betrayal" at the Coalition government's repudiation of it.
The most interesting part of the new essay perhaps is the argument Pearson rehearses for the different utilities of race and class as political analyses. On Pearson's account, the central paralysis emerges today around "identity politics" versus "class politics".
Pearson is correct that identity politics has pushed Marxian approaches off the agenda in political activism of the American left, and especially in race politics. He's surely also right that black people themselves think that "America's problem with African Americans is at its core a problem of race". No room for a class politics that attempts to understand racism.
Pearson's take on this inflamed opposition is both instructive and brave, given the vehemence that follows these politics and the attendant cancel culture.
Class is a necessary tool of analysis because it identifies a reality of economic structure, according to Pearson. Race, as an ideology, is ascribed in a different register. Using a classic Marxist "base/superstructure" model, Pearson approves the view that hierarchical societies don't depend just on force and coercion to stabilise the dominance over the lower classes, but also on ideologies. The ideology of race is critical to the present hierarchy, but it isn't the complete story.
Does this make Pearson just one Australian version of the African-American left - think Cornel West and Adolph Reed - who have been "cancelled" in the flight from class to race? The two concepts of race and class, one ideological and the other arising from the real political economy, "are fused and in the case of America were baked into the colonial society from 1619", the date that the first slaves were sold into the British colony of Virginia, Pearson argues.
The concept of race has been co-opted by the mechanisms of class to devastating effect against the interests of black Australians, he writes, dividing them from the "Hansonesque" white working classes. Despite subscribing to a Marxian version of political economy, Pearson maintains he has not identified with socialism because "analysis is one thing and policy another".
In determining the inflation of the category of "race" to cover all ills, Pearson sees a co-option of another sort. It is demonstrated, he argues, by the self-interest displayed by those on the "middle-class left" (an oxymoron or impossible category, as he declares) including those black members of it. These progressives, he argues, block the economic ascendancy of the working class, however "progressive" they appear, keeping Aboriginal Australians tied to models of welfare and dependence. It is tantamount to accusing the left of elitism and privilege, but Pearson argues he has observed this incontrovertibly now over 30 years' experience in politics.
In this view, as the right of politics leans on race as a category to distract from class, so do the left, and for the same reason: their class interests align as middle class and they are no friend to aspirations of the working classes, black or white, to autonomy and self-determining.
So says Pearson, reform for Black Australians as for Black Americans must come in the form of socio-economic justice. The enveloping smoke-screen of "racism" needs to be pushed aside as just one more ideological ascription harnessed to divide and conquer.
It's hard to imagine this argument, if it were to be heard by opinion-makers, black or white on the right and the left, bringing anything but outrage down on Pearson's head. It may be why, as he complains, "my attempt at illumination, so that we of the advantaged left might at least be conscious of our hypocrisy, never registers".
A provocative record of an at-times iconoclastic writer.
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