88: Robin D. G. Kelley’s Race Rebels

In Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, Robin Kelley argues that extra-institutional forms of resistance, not formal SMOs, are foundational to black workers’ larger struggle for racial and economic justice.  Building on James Scott’s “infrapolitics,” or everyday small acts of resistance, evasion, and defiance, Kelley shifts the political history of the black working class to the “margins of struggle,” the unorganized, often spontaneous battles with authority, and the social movements that are somehow thought to be “inauthentic” representations of a community’s interests.  He thus locates black political resistance in the complexity of the lived experience of ordinary people whose lives are raced and classed.

Kelley investigates black infrapolitics in a variety of 20th century settings and constructs: the double-edged sword of the “mask of grins and lies”in the pre-WWII South; African American Communists in the South and African American volunteers in the Spanish-American War; the zoot suits, bebop, and hipster ethic in the black male working-class culture of Malcolm X’s youth and the gangsta rap of 1990s LA; bus protests long before Rosa Parks’ formal resistance.  In each situation, he locates resistance at a wide variety of scales, from enlisting to fight in a war or working to build the Communist party to walking, smiling, dressing, sitting, or singing in a certain way and in a certain time and place.

By focusing on infrapolitics, Kelley is able to situate now-famous protests like the Woolworth’s sit-ins in a long tradition of extra-institutional, everyday resistance; as George Lipsitz points out, he is also able pinpoint the beginnings of social movements in everyday forms of resistance that overcome oppression even as they are structured by its particular spatial, economic, and cultural forms.

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