Inthe address to the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, Martin Luther King Jr. presented his celebrated analysis of how white supremacy percolated through post-Civil War America, preserving the opposition between white and black, and binding poor whites to political beliefs inimical to their own interests.
Despite the pertinence of the theme to our own moment, the plot against black equality was not, in King’s analysis, motivated by what Robin DiAngelo characterizes today as pathologies “foundational” to the “very identities” of white people. Nor did King make white supremacy sound so permanently ingrained as to be “likely,” in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s words, “to afflict black people until this country passes into dust.”
Instead, King claimed, white supremacy had only needed to be so monstrously and artificially imposed from above because, comparatively recently, poor black/white solidarity seemed to be on the verge of becoming a reality.
In the 1892 presidential election, a new third party ran on a program of radical redistribution and ambitious currency reform, winning a startling 22 Electoral College votes. This was the People’s Party, the Populist Party, and it unsettled elites by alerting, as King puts it, “the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced.”
For King, segregation was an elite counter-insurgency, motivated to “cripple and eventually destroy” the new class politics of the Populists. “The roots” of modern American racism, then, are not found in the constitutional refusal of the struggling majority of whites and blacks to recognize their shared interests. Instead these roots were planted because, for a startling moment, ordinary people across the color line had come impermissibly close to making this recognition.
King was not alone in conjuring the memory of how “the Pops” had tried to “settle the race question”— as they put it — through interracial proletarian solidarity. In 1969, one year after King’s assassination and weeks before his own, Fred Hampton defended the Black Panther Party’s organizing with poor “white people, or hunkies” on the basis that “the priority of this struggle is class.” Jack Newfield and Jeff Greenfield’s A Populist Manifesto (1972) advocated a “coalition of self-interest between black and low- and moderate-income whites.” And in 1973, the Oklahoma senator, Fred Harris, invoked populism as an alternative to the do-gooder paternalism of many of his fellow liberals, warning that “you can’t appeal to black people and poor people … on the basis of their own self-interest and to everybody else” — i.e., the broad middle class — “on the basis of morality.”
In a statement representing pretty much the inverse of today’s liberals’ preoccupation with the minutiae of unconscious bias, workplace micro-aggressions, and exclusionary dating preferences, Harris concluded that populism’s people shouldn’t “have to love each other. … All they have to do is recognize their common interests.”
Yet these examples of progressive populism — and King’s theatrical retelling of the story of the original Populist movement itself — were in counterflow to the main current. As Thomas Frank argues in his new book The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism, the 19th-century Populist Party’s egalitarian influence laid the ground for what Frank regards as the high point of American liberalism: the New Deal era. Thereafter, however, beginning in the 1950s, American liberals lost their identification with “the people,” transferring their allegiance to the specialized expertise of educated professionals.