What would constitute an end to the race war?

An exchange unfolded between Noah Smith and Jamelle Bouie on twitter about an MTV poll that found Millenials took color blind approaches to race. Here are two of the tweets. You an click through to see the others:

The “war” mentioned here refers to black struggles to rectify the unjust circumstances they find themselves in resulting from a few hundred years of slavery and apartheid. Smith is taking the view that it is best to give this struggle up while Bouie is taking the opposite view.

The underlying assumption in the exchange is that the cessation of racial justice organizing would constitute an “end” to the race war. This might seem like an intuitive marker for the “end” or the “outcome.” But on closer inspection, I don’t think calling that series of events an “end” makes a great deal of a sense.

To see why, it’s useful to consider wealth. By now, most are probably aware of the fact that there is an enormous wealth gap between white and black people. Gittleman and Wolff (2004) tell us this has a lot to do with intergenerational wealth transfers. This gap shrinks somewhat when you control for income, but it remains quite massive even then.

In most discussions of wealth (including my own), it is generally described as consisting of piles of assets. But that’s not really what wealth is. At its core, wealth is a social relation of power and control. And I don’t mean this to be an abstract point. The value of an asset is not the value of the thing itself, but the value of the powers and rights one has — and can transmit to others — with regards to the thing. This is both obviously true and proven empirically.

So when we point to an overall wealth disparity, which is measured by tallying up all sorts of asset values, what we are actually pointing to is an overall power disparity. It is a disparity with respect to control over things and, derivatively, other people.

This insight is relevant to the question of when a race war can be said to “end.” The social relations that wealth actually consists of must be constantly reasserted. Physical things sit around as passively existing, but the social relations underlying the control of such things must be actively pressed upon others day to day and even moment to moment. Even if racial justice organizing ceases, this kind of active reassertion of power in the form of wealth would undermine any conclusion that the race war has actually ended.

Whites coming out every day and asserting hugely disproportionate power over blacks through the proxy of wealth is not a cessation of conflict. It is renewed daily conflict, which can either be responded to or not. Whether there is a response determines whether such a thing is a one-sided or two-sided war, but it would be a war nonetheless.

The way to end the war understood this way is to, at minimum, smooth out wealth disparities so that the power blacks can assert against whites via holdings is proportional to the power whites can assert against blacks via holdings. Keeping that power uneven, which not closing the racial wealth gap does, entails the perpetual reassertion of dominance by white people over black people in the realm of material relations.