Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Tom Watson, a white congressman from Georgia, worked diligently to organize white and Black farmers into the Populist Party. He sought to appeal to the farmers’ material interests, arguing that together, as a united class, they could overcome Southern structures of debt bondage and economic oppression. But Watson’s case was also based on the communal experience he had observed in farmers’ homes. White and Black tenants lived in “adjoining” residences, and “their houses are almost equally destitute of comforts,” Watson wrote in 1892. “Their living is confined to bare necessities. . . . They pay the same high rent for gulled and impoverished land.”
As Watson drafted these words, states across the South were implementing Jim Crow laws, which determined where Black people could eat, drink, sleep, and use the bathroom, as well as how they could travel and which beaches and parks they could visit. It was not a coincidence that these legal efforts occurred against the backdrop of the rise of Populism.
Following Reconstruction, white Southern politicians aimed to eliminate spaces where white and Black people could congregate and develop a sense of both community and solidarity. If poor white people had less contact with their Black neighbors, they would be far more likely to defer to white elites. As Watson declared bluntly of the politics of separation: “You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings.”
Today, the United States is no longer segregated as a matter of explicit law. But throughout the country—in cities and rural areas, blue states and red ones—racial separation remains a common feature of collective life. Alongside real improvements since the high tide of Jim Crow, recent decades have brought profound backsliding, and many communities and institutions are more segregated now than they were thirty years ago. The consequences are significant for left political organizing aimed at building a multiracial working-class majority. Segregation has long undermined the left’s transformative ambitions, and it remains a direct threat today.
Bernie Sanders’s defeat in the 2020 Democratic primary notwithstanding, the past few years have been marked by positive developments for democratic socialists. For starters, the left is present at the political table in a way that has not been the case in my lifetime. It has a meaningful agenda—expressed in the Fight for $15, the Green New Deal and the Red Deal, Medicare for All, and the vision statement of the Movement for Black Lives—that addresses many of the central problems of American life.
The left also enjoys genuine popularity and extra-institutional energy. One can see this in the labor unrest and racial justice protests that have punctuated the past half-decade. Public opinion has also shifted in recent years, with universalist economic programs proving especially appealing to voters.
However, despite these promising signs, the left is at an impasse. The potential constituency for its redistributive vision does not neatly map onto existing party coalitions. The Obama–Biden Democratic coalition is multiracial but not class-based. It is increasingly organized around cultural aspirations that especially tie together college-educated white voters with minority groups. Its political aims involve an ameliorist but not transformative economic and racial agenda.