Black and Blue: African Americans, the Labor Movement, and the Decline of the Democratic Party

Article excerpt

Paul Frymer, Black and Blue: African Americans, the Labor Movement, and the Decline of the Democratic Party. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008. Pp. 202. Cloth $55.00. Paper $24.95.

Paul Frymer's Black and Blue is primarily concerned with the labor movement and the quest for racial equality within it, and the impact this quest had on the Democratic Party. He argues that the 1964 Civil Rights Act has dictated the nature of the fight against employment discrimination, rather than the 1935 Wagner Act creating the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) which oversees elections for union representation. A study in American Political Development (APD), Frymer concludes that the courts, rather than the Congress, dictate how racial discrimination issues in the workplace and in unions should be handled, and this development has been to the detriment of the labor movement and the broader Democratic coalition. Thus Frymer believes he is offering us in part a "biography and autopsy of the Democratic Party."

Frymer notes that white racism has not only divided the labor movement, but also that it was "institutionalized" within it to the extent that racist practices have proven incredibly difficult to exorcise. He asserts that neither civil rights nor labor leaders have been able to articulate effectively how class and race are linked in capitalist America and as a result, unions on the whole have become weaker than ever, a situation exacerbated by internal problems within the Democratic Party. In fact, his central conclusion is that, although designed for very different purposes, the Wagner Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act "'institutionalized the labor-race divide" and the social conflict that this fostered has made other societal problems worse. Moreover, what remains of the New Deal's legacy continues to be challenged by conservatives, and the courts have become "even more central to the state than ever before."

The courts required integrated and diversified unions, but in doing so fundamentally weakened them as part of the Democratic or New Deal coalition. The persistence of white working-class racism and blue-collar votes for the Republican Party consistently undermined union gains and weakened pro-labor interests. Corporate capitalists and Republican politicians use race as a way of dividing workers. While Frymer agrees that race remains an important factor in American politics, he suggests that seeing it is an individual and "irrational" phenomenon, and categorized as a "psychological disorder," allows white racism to be depoliticized, and as a consequence, it is dismissed or simply understood as a relic of less enlightened times. Frymer argues that white racism is not simply about the flaws of individuals, but is the product of a political system that nominally promotes nondiscrimination, while successful appeals to racist beliefs continue. Yet he is not downhearted: "Seeing racism as institutionally driven, however, offers greater optimism for the future. …