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Beyond the Great Awokening

Reassessing the legacies of past black organizing

This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of publication of Black Metropolis, St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton’s landmark study of Chicago. Black Metropolis appeared as World War II neared its end, with U.S. political leaders fiercely debating the best ways to bring about civilian reconversion and reconstruction. Drake and Cayton recognized that the outcomes of those debates would be critical for their fellow black Americans in the postwar decades. A pair of other influential studies published around the same time, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy by Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, and What the Negro Wants, an anthology edited by Rayford W. Logan, likewise affirmed the central challenges of racial equality in the postwar world, stressing continued expansion of New Deal social-wage policy and the steady growth of industrial unionism as keys to black advancement.

Against this backdrop of social-democratic policy debate, Drake and Cayton laid out a rich account of changes in Chicago’s black population between the 1840s and the early 1940s. They focused especially on the evolving patterns of employment and housing, and the overlapping dynamics of racial discrimination, political incorporation, and structured opportunity—what they describe as the Job Ceiling—in the 1930s and 1940s. Their description of the city’s racial hierarchy was grounded in their account of material social relations—showing that, for example, competition for employment underwrote racial discrimination in labor markets, and that housing market dynamics established white exclusivity as a basis of real estate value. They assumed, that is, “racism” and even “prejudice” did not constitute in themselves adequate explanations for patterned racial inequalities: “The intimate tie-up between strong folk-prejudices, economic interest, and social status is so intricate that it is difficult to unravel the threads.” And, they insisted, “Race conflict in northern urban areas arises when competition is particularly keen—for jobs, houses, political power, or prestige—and when Negroes are regarded (with or without foundation) as a threat to those who already have those things or who are competing for them.”

Drake and Cayton did not assume that racism is an unchanging, monolithic force eternally suppressing black people, because they knew better. Most of the book is an account of how black Americans’ circumstances as individuals and as a group had altered over the previous half-century, pointing out the large and small improvements and victories that black advocates won for equality in employment opportunities, civil rights, and material security. They also stressed how blacks had made the most of the greater freedom and economic and political opportunity afforded them in Chicago and other Northern cities, in contrast to the Jim Crow regime of the South.

The book concludes with a brief speculation on the future of American politics and how black political agendas might take shape in the postwar period. “The people are rather definite about what they want,” the authors concluded: “the abolition of the Job Ceiling; adequate housing; equal, unsegregated access to all places of public accommodation; the protection of the rights of those Negroes and whites who may desire to associate together socially. And they want to see this pattern extended to all of America—including the South.” Drake and Cayton were equally clear about the means best suited to realizing these goals: a broader struggle for “full employment in the postwar world and on the development of a world program for emancipating the Common Man.”

This prescription stands out in stark contrast to today’s boomlet in race-reductive analyses of American inequality and social injustice. So it’s a good idea to look at just how far we’ve traversed from Drake and Cayton’s policy agenda—and what that distance says about the racial and economic prospects ahead.

Discourse about race and politics in the United States has been driven in recent years more by moralizing than by careful analysis or strategic considerations. It also depends on naïve and unproductive ways of interpreting the past and its relation to the present. I’ve discussed a number of the political and intellectual casualties of what we might call this Great Awokening, among them a tendency to view the past anachronistically, through the lens of the assumptions, norms, and patterns of social relations of the present.

That inclination has only intensified with proliferation of notions like Afropessimism, which postulates that much of, if not all, the history of the world has been propelled by a universal “anti-blackness.” Adherents of the Afropessimist critique, and other race-reductive thinkers, posit a commitment to a transhistorical white supremacy as the cornerstone and motive force of the history, and prehistory, of the United States, as well as imperialist and colonialist subjugation in other areas of the world. Most famously, The New York Times’ award-winning 1619 Project, under the direction of Nikole Hannah-Jones, asserts that slavery and racial subordination have defined the essence of the United States since before the founding—a brand of ahistorical moralizing that is now being incorporated into high school history curricula.

Yet, as I have argued, the premise that subordination to white supremacy has been black Americans’ definitive and unrelenting experience in the United States is undone by the most casual observation. As just one instance, I recall a panel at an early 1990s conference on black politics at Harvard Law School, organized by the school’s black student group, on which a distinguished black Harvard Law professor declaimed—with no qualification or sense of irony—that nothing had changed for black Americans since 1865. Until recently, this obviously false contention could make sense as a rhetorical gambit, indeed one that depended on its falsity for its effectiveness. It was a jeremiad dressed up as an empirical claim; “nothing has changed” carried a silent qualifier—that whatever racial outrage triggered the declaration makes it seem as though nothing had changed. This kind of provocation pivots on the tacit rhetorical claim that the offense it targets is atavistic—but in order for it to gain any significant traction, it requires that we understand that things have changed to the extent that such offenses should no longer be condoned, accepted, or taken in stride.

However, the fervor of the Great Awokening has since transformed this fundamentally rhetorical device into an assertion of fact. That is one of the most intellectually disturbing features of the irrationalist race reductionism of our own historical moment. It sacrifices or openly rejects not only nuance in historical interpretation but also the idea of historicity itself—the understanding that the relation between past and present generates meanings and nuances beyond the bounds of outworn dogmas in either era. Inflexible race reductionism also rules out, on principle, the notion that we should strive to understand ideas and actions in the past synchronically, as enmeshed in their own complex contexts of meaning, as well as in relation to ours. Race reductionist politics depends on denying historical specificity, typically through a sleight-of-hand maneuver that depicts black Americans’ challenges and struggles as set in motion by a singular, transhistorical, and idealized abstraction called “racism,” “white supremacy,” or “anti-blackness.” What’s omitted from this Borg-like model of an undeviating, and seemingly all-conquering, white supremacist opposition are the actual policies and programs that actual black people, often along with others, fought for and against. Black Metropolis shines a spotlight on that difference.

Drake and Cayton also provide a suggestive (if inadvertent) explanation of a core paradox of the Awokening age: that, as actual class inequality intensifies among black Americans, the fervor of anti-racist politics escalates to ever more irrational lengths to deny this state of affairs, or to subordinate it to a race-reductionist set of priorities. The authors observed, “The Negro middle class views the white middle class as its competitor, and the Negro lower class sees it as an exploiter.” Of course, it would not have occurred to them to ask in 1945 how the black working class would view the black middle class if the latter were to replace its white counterparts; that possibility was then beyond the scope of pragmatic political imagination. Ventriloquizing the interests of a fictive, undifferentiated racial population has become an important source of political capital for advancing identitarian agendas skewed to benefit the upper strata and aspirants—a key development that in turn suggests the Great Awokening represents a form of cognitive dissonance within that class. That is to say, the more obviously the premises of race-reductionist politics are at odds with the daily realities of black Americans’ lives and expressed concerns, the more insistently the Woke must double down on the fantasy of monolithic, unchanged race-driven oppression. In this way, the vital contrasts of unequal life outcomes arbitrated by class, or other forces beyond the scope of race reduction, are simply factored out of the equation. This, indeed, may mark the point where wishful thinking approaches pathology. Or it may just show the deep wisdom of Upton Sinclair’s famous dictum: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”