The Promise and Peril of Class in the Problem of the 20th Century

Article excerpt

This article, the 1996 Charles H. Thompson Lecture, notes that, historically, the dynamic interplay of race and class in America has functioned as a paradox: the agency of both was largely denied until the 1960s, when the explanatory power of race obscured the role of class. Race subsequently has been merged with and subsumed by class in a strategy designed to separate Americans into suspicious, warring multiples; strengthen the political and cultural Right; and demoralize the Left. This critique analyzes the socioeconomic and political conditions faced by African Americans and offers perspectives on their responses to the increasingly conservative ideological milieu.

David Levering Lewis, Department of History, Rutgers University*

The title of this lecture echoes one of the most quoted prophecies in American letters. A quarter century after uttering his famous 1899 tag-line, W. E. B. DuBois (1925) reflected upon its staying power in the magazine Foreign Affairs:

Once upon a time in my younger years and in the dawn of this century I wrote: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." It was a pert phrase which I then liked and which since I have often rehearsed to myself, asking how far it was prophecy and how far speculation? (p. 423) DuBois decided that the color line, or race, was still the central challenge of the century; but in elucidating the enduring phenomenon of race in 1925, he also paired class with race when he wrote that "most men would agree that our present Problem of Problems is what we call Labor" (p. 423), by which DuBois meant that equal to the problem of race was that of class.

As we are what we do in a democracy, wages for work define our class standing. Ethnic or racial and class conflicts are universal in history and perennials in the American experience. As American perennials, however, race and class tensions have operated since the end of the Reconstruction Era within a peculiarly American political discourse that has fairly effectively (and until recent years) evaded, muted, and even denied their centrality.

The thesis of this lecture is that in the 80-odd years from the 1876 compromise that ended Reconstruction to the beginning of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, the dynamic interplay of race and class has functioned, first, as a paradox in which the agency of class and race was largely denied. Second, when the class-race dynamic forced the recovery of race as a social and political factor during the 1960s, this led, inevitably, to the discovery and recasting of class into classes as a response to the problems unleashed by race. Third, the function of class since the 1980s has been to encourage the separation of Americans into suspicious and warring multiples for whom the messages of a potent political and cultural Right outmatch those of a demoralized left. Finally, the intended result of this Right-Left split over race is to mask and obscure our political understanding of the broad, contemporary implications of that other American perennial: the market economy. To no group or class, if I may use the term, is this issue of the relationship of class to race to economics more vital than to the men and women in this audience, whose past and potential leadership in education, public service, the arts, the academy, communications, business, and the old and newer professions merits the designation of what DuBois might well have called the "Talented Third."

Not so many decades ago, what it meant to be an American remained almost as unambiguous to the overwhelming majority of the citizens of this republic as it was for Alexis de Tocqueville (1835, 1840/1945) when he first described the national character in his classic Democracy in America. Among Americans' distinguishing characteristics, according to Tocqueville, were individualism, faith in popular sovereignty, mistrust of government, and, above all, their certainty of living in a land whose promise of material providence defied the constraints of all previous social and political experiments. …