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Taking Racism Seriously

Economic demands and specifically antiracist demands should not be counterposed — they should be brought together.

Outside a Black Panther Party "liberation school" in San Francisco's Fillmore District (1969). Bettmann / Corbis

One of the most frequent criticisms of Marxists is that we are economic reductionists who fail to take seriously the complexity and specific dynamics of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression.

It is a persistent and frustrating criticism, and not only because it ignores both an entire body of work done by Marxists analyzing oppression and a long history of socialist involvement in liberation struggles. More importantly, if ever there was a moment that demands a class analysis it is this one.

Seven years into our first black presidency, conditions continue to worsen for working class and poor African Americans. Black unemployment remains double that of whites, the black poverty rate stands at almost 28 percent, and 40 percent of black children live in poverty. More than one million blacks are in prison, and there is an epidemic of police violence.

Yet this persistence of poverty and state repression exists at a time of unprecedented black political power. To take one example, in Baltimore, where protests erupted this spring following the murder of Freddie Gray, the mayor, police chief, prosecuting attorney, and the majority of the city council are all black.

In the past year, we’ve seen this tension between the black political establishment and a new generation of activists — perhaps most visibly when Ferguson organizers took the stage at a rally in Washington to challenge Al Sharpton. The media described the moment as a clash between the young and the old, but it was much more directly the product of the class divisions that have developed in black America.

A new black liberation movement is going to have to take stock of this post-civil-rights-era reality and develop strategies and demands accordingly. It will have to develop an analysis of the structural determinants of racism that can counter the scapegoating and culture of poverty myths that dominate the discourse about black poverty.

In this context, a discussion of the relationship between racism and capitalism has never been more relevant. This is why Seth Ackerman’s recent article on racism and economic inequality is so disappointing.

Ackerman’s piece addresses the recent criticism that Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign is tone deaf to demands to take racism seriously and instead focuses too heavily on economic solutions as a cure-all. Ackerman disagrees, and makes an argument for why “racism is merely a symptom of economic inequality.”

But despite his invocation of Marx, he doesn’t offer a Marxist analysis but a kind of left-populism that relies on the crudest economic reductionism and only serves to further cement the trope that leftists refuse to grapple seriously with racism.

There are a number of problems with Ackerman’s piece, some having to do with what is said and others with what isn’t. The first issue arises from the language used — arguing that racism is rooted in capitalism is not at all the same thing as saying it is rooted in economic inequality. Income inequality, while a persistent feature of capitalism, is not synonymous with it.

This distinction has important political implications. Ackerman rhetorically asks, “But what were slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, and urban apartheid if not extreme forms of economic inequality?” He then quotes a brilliant passage from Barbara Fields in which she mocks the idea that “the chief business of slavery [was] the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco.”

But what Fields is describing in the essay quoted is not simply the creation of economic inequality, but the foundations of American slavery — the process by which Africans were forcefully dispossessed, physically separated from their homes, and brought against their will to a foreign land. She describes how racial ideology emerged both as a way to justify this dispossession and also as a result of it. Fields powerfully explains how slavery emerged in the context of early American capitalism and how, as a result, racism and racial ideology were built into the economic foundation of this country from its inception.

“Economic inequality” is an inadequate phrase to capture the sheer brutality of this process, and the idea that racial inequality is a symptom of it fails to capture the dynamics by which capitalism was established in the United States and by which it is sustained. As Marx wrote in Capital:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins are all things that characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation . . . Capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.

Racism and capitalism grew up together in America and cannot be separated from one another. Racism is not merely a product of economic inequality, but also part of how that inequality is produced and maintained. It is so woven into the fabric of capitalism that the system itself must be dismantled. But at the same time, a socialist project in this country can only be successful if it is accompanied by a struggle for black liberation.

This understanding of capitalism and racism is quite different from Ackerman’s contention that racism is merely a product of economic inequality. If it was, it would suggest that the main way to address racism is to fight economic inequality.

But this claim needs to be scrutinized more closely. It is certainly true that the struggle against racism today must entail a radical program of economic demands. These would include demands for a massive expansion of jobs, increased funding for the public sector, a rise in the minimum wage, and a tax hike on the rich. It is also clear that such reforms would benefit the entire working class and reduce income inequality. But such demands cannot be delinked from, or stand in the place of, explicit demands around racism.

As the historical record shows, we cannot assume that reductions in the overall level of inequality will trickle down to African Americans. In the golden age of postwar American capitalism, an era to which many left-liberals yearn to return,  economic inequality was much lower than it is today, but there was no corresponding decrease in racial inequality. If anything, it was even starker — in 1959, more than half of black families lived in poverty, while 15 percent of white families did.

More recently, as the economy was beginning to recover following the financial crisis, black unemployment was still peaking, reaching a high of 16.8 percent in 2010. It’s only started to fall over the past year.

Fighting economic inequality is insufficient — any challenge to capital has to be coupled with race-specific demands for reform. Jobs programs would have to include affirmative-action policies and a prohibition on discrimination on the basis of a criminal record; fights to expand funding for public hospitals, schools, and services would have to recognize the specific needs of black communities hollowed out by decades of deindustrialization and neglect; and housing policies would need to explicitly target practices such as redlining and predatory lending.

The crisis faced by black America is also not solely economic — it is also a social crisis. Mass incarceration, police violence, and resegregation have devastated black communities, and have to be understood as a corollary to a ruling-class program of austerity designed to permanently lower the standard of living in this country. But to analyze this relationship merely as cause (austerity) and symptom (racism and police violence) is to miss the ways in which racism and repression are indispensable parts of the ruling-class project.

Economic demands and specifically antiracist demands should not be counterposed — they should be brought together. Doing so will allow us to begin building a serious movement against racism, and at the same time, confront the broader ruling-class assault on the working class. This fight will require forging a unity not by collapsing the fight against racism into a broader class fight for economic equality, but by highlighting the central role of racism and making it a concern of the entire working class.

The final major problem with Ackerman’s piece is his complete misinterpretation of Marx’s argument for working-class unity. Racism has been the achilles heel of the working-class movement since the defeat of radical Reconstruction. W. E. B. Du Bois captured how this defeat and the reimposition of racism helped smash the potential of worker solidarity:

The race element was emphasized in order that property-holders could get the support of the majority of white laborers and make it more possible to exploit Negro labor. But the race philosophy came as a new and terrible thing to make labor unity or labor class-consciousness impossible. So long as the Southern white laborers could be induced to prefer poverty to equality with the Negro, just so long was a labor movement in the South made impossible.

Today, we see the consequences of this quite dramatically as manufacturing and jobs shift to the low-wage, non-unionized — and deeply racist — South. Ackerman quotes Marx on a similar theme when discussing the racism of English workers toward the Irish:

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.

But instead of interpreting this passage as a call for the English worker to overcome his “artificial antagonism” in order to make a united working class movement possible, Ackerman interprets this as an argument from Marx that Irish workers need to unite with English workers, missing the entire thrust of Marx’s argument.

The question of how this solidarity is achieved is important. While Ackerman is wrong in arguing that racism is best understood as a symptom of economic inequality, and that this provides the basis for unity, his assertion does raise the thorny question of how to achieve unity.

Class struggle changes people’s ideas and preconceptions and forges new bonds of solidarity. Working-class struggles have played a central role in winning white workers over to the fight against racism, and there is a rich history of multiracial struggle in the US that should be more widely studied and shared. But to only look to — or worse, wait for — economic struggles to help break down racist divisions would be wrong.

It works the other way as well. Black liberation movements have shifted consciousness on a mass scale while disrupting capitalism and opening up new space for working-class struggle.

This is the dynamic that C. L. R. James recognized when he rejected the premise of some socialists that the black liberation struggle could only be successful under the leadership of organized labor and socialists. He argued instead that the independent black movement has a “vitality and validity of its own,” that it “is able to intervene with terrific force on the general social and political life of the nation,” that it has a “real contribution to make to the development of the proletariat,” and that it is “in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism.”

Written in 1948, his arguments anticipated the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, which not only fought racism and changed attitudes but also helped to inspire a renewed wave of rank-and-file labor struggle.

The role of antiracist struggles in affecting broader shifts in consciousness has also been demonstrated over the past year, which saw the dramatic rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the last two years alone, there has been a fourteen-percentage-point decline in the number of whites who say they are satisfied with the way blacks are treated.

For socialists, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement is one of the most important developments in recent years. It has exposed the depths of racism in this country, has brought tens of thousands of people — mainly black, but also white — into the streets, and has politicized millions more. But it is also still in its formative stages. Its audience and potential reaches far beyond its organizational development.

This movement poses new challenges for socialists. We must develop and argue for strategies that can help to deepen the struggle and begin to score some concrete victories. This will necessitate finding ways to bring these struggles together with the social power of the working class and to make a convincing and non-reductive case for the relationship between racism and capitalism. Only then can we articulate an anticapitalist vision of liberation for all people.