Solidarity Blues: Race, Culture, and the American Left

By Richard Iton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE

Gateway Blues

In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the
workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic.
Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin when in the black it is
branded. —Karl Marx, Capital

I think America is growing more and more complicated, and it seems to me that
our conversation is not keeping up with that complexity. This . . . dialogue began
[with the suggestion] . . . that the unfinished business of America is black and
white, but it strikes me that . . . what we really need to do is understand how
complex this country is, with Samoan rap groups and Filipinos and Pakistani
cab drivers, and the racial relationships now in America are so complex and
so rich that it seems to me that we don't have a language even to keep up with
that complexity. —Richard Rodriguez, in "A Dialogue on Race with President
Clinton"

Why is there no "real" American left? How has the United States managed to avoid the degree of class-based social conflict characteristic of the politics of most Western societies? Although various arguments have been offered to explain American exceptionalism and the failure of socialism to establish a foothold in the United States as it has elsewhere in the West, my discussion will focus on the significance of one factor—race—and its role in the unmaking of the American left. I will argue that the particular demographic circumstances that have existed throughout American history, along with the way in which these circumstances have been interpreted and processed and, in particular, racialized, have contributed significantly to the unique pattern of social relations one finds in the United States.

To understand the relationship between race and American exceptionalism properly requires reexamination of the concepts and approaches that are commonly used to explain the absence of the American left. Unfortunately, investigations into the exceptionalism phenomenon have often employed methodolo

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