Still Waiting on a Marxist Analysis of Race . . .

Professor Adolf Reed Jr. argues in The limits of anti-racism that racism needs to be redefined on concrete and political terms. By redefining racism as a system that “stigmatized populations” by being “clustered on the bad side of

The Haitian Revolution:  First successful slave revolt, and subject of CLR James' classic marxist text The Black Jacobins

The Haitian Revolution: First successful slave revolt, and subject of CLR James' classic marxist text The Black Jacobins

the distribution of costs and benefits,” we begin to develop a more serious framework to view the problem. Seeing how the distribution of “costs” and “benefits” is itself racialized, adds a new framework challenging the old, played out Race vs. Class debate.

Most “anti-racist” left groups lack a serious understanding of how race penetrates and shapes the distribution of real world resources: energy-power, purchasing power, education, health services, etc. While anti-racist groups organize meetings to purge the internal white guilt of white activists to become “real anti-racist,” a school serving 100% students of color might have been closed down. Were the anti-racists there organizing against the school closure as an act against of racial oppression? No.

Has Marxism been a useable political framework that seriously challenges racism? Yes and No. Many Marxist militants of color have dedicated their lives to fighting both capitalism and racism. For example Nelson Peery, Harry Haywood, Ben Fletcher, CLR James, Claudia Jones, and Harry Chang all contributed greatly to an understanding of how Marxism and race relate. Oliver C Cox, Tomas Almaguer, and Theodore Allen are three outstanding academics who produced pioneering work, giving a historical and theoretical explanation of race and class as interwoven processes throughout American history.

Both Marxists and antiracists have a problem; it’s simple: they are separated. Marx created Marxism by synthesizing three sources: English Political Economy (Smith, Ricardo), German Idealism (Hegel) and Utopian Socialism (Fourier, Simon and Owen). The most mature work of Marx is Capital, where one the key points in the first volume, contrary to Smith’s argument, is that the source of surplus value is unpaid labor. Profits come from Surplus value. Ok, if that’s the case, how do we understand American Chattel Slavery, the Chinese railroad workers of the 1880s, and the Bracero program of World War II? What racial conditions were created and what surplus value was produced?

Were any of these five individuals listed above as the sources of Marxism non-white? No. So it’s about time there is an expansion of the theoretical roots of Marxism. As we can see there were key individuals that created and expanded earlier thought that Marx interwove to create his revolutionary framework. Before any Luxemburg versus Lenin, or Trotsky versus Stalin debate takes place, lets be a little imaginative and ponder the idea of what would happen to Marxism if Marx could talk with Malcolm X for a couple of days? Could Marx have had the theoretical prowess to begin his framework with four sources, one that included race? This obviously didn’t take place but it still represents a key task for today’s Marxist militants of color to accomplish.

Adolf Reed Jr.’s work contributes to the development of a political framework for activists to use that can help materialize the necessary historical project of synthesizing anti-racism and Marxism.


The Limits of Anti-racism

Adolph Reed Jr.

Antiracism is a favorite concept on the American left these days. Of course, all good sorts want to be against racism, but what does the word mean exactly?

The contemporary discourse of “antiracism” is focused much more on taxonomy than politics. It emphasizes the name by which we should call some strains of inequality—whether they should be broadly recognized as evidence of “racism”— over specifying the mechanisms that produce them or even the steps that can be taken to combat them. And, no, neither “overcoming racism” nor “rejecting whiteness” qualifies as such a step any more than does waiting for the “revolution” or urging God’s heavenly intervention. If organizing a rally against racism seems at present to be a more substantive political act than attending a prayer vigil for world peace, that’s only because contemporary antiracist activists understand themselves to be employing the same tactics and pursuing the same ends as their predecessors in the period of high insurgency in the struggle against racial segregation.

This view, however, is mistaken. The postwar activism that reached its crescendo in the South as the “civil rights movement” wasn’t a movement against a generic “racism;” it was specifically and explicitly directed toward full citizenship rights for black Americans and against the system of racial segregation that defined a specific regime of explicitly racial subordination in the South. The 1940s March on Washington Movement was also directed against specific targets, like employment discrimination in defense production. Black Power era and post-Black Power era struggles similarly focused on combating specific inequalities and pursuing specific goals like the effective exercise of voting rights and specific programs of redistribution.

Clarity lost

Whether or not one considers those goals correct or appropriate, they were clear and strategic in a way that “antiracism” simply is not. Sure, those earlier struggles relied on a discourse of racial justice, but their targets were concrete and strategic. It is only in a period of political demobilization that the historical specificities of those struggles have become smoothed out of sight in a romantic idealism that homogenizes them into timeless abstractions like “the black liberation movement”—an entity that, like Brigadoon, sporadically appears and returns impelled by its own logic.

Ironically, as the basis for a politics, antiracism seems to reflect, several generations downstream, the victory of the postwar psychologists in depoliticizing the critique of racial injustice by shifting its focus from the social structures that generate and reproduce racial inequality to an ultimately individual, and ahistorical, domain of “prejudice” or “intolerance.” (No doubt this shift was partly aided by political imperatives associated with the Cold War and domestic anticommunism.) Beryl Satter’s recent book on the racialized political economy of “contract buying” in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America, is a good illustration of how these processes worked; Robert Self’s book on Oakland since the 1930s, American Babylon, is another. Both make abundantly clear the role of the real estate industry in creating and recreating housing segregation and ghettoization.

Tasty bunny

All too often, “racism” is the subject of sentences that imply intentional activity or is characterized as an autonomous “force.” In this kind of formulation, “racism,” a conceptual abstraction, is imagined as a material entity. Abstractions can be useful, but they shouldn’t be given independent life.

I can appreciate such formulations as transient political rhetoric; hyperbolic claims made in order to draw attention and galvanize opinion against some particular injustice. But as the basis for social interpretation, and particularly interpretation directed toward strategic political action, they are useless. Their principal function is to feel good and tastily righteous in the mouths of those who propound them. People do things that reproduce patterns of racialized inequality, sometimes with self-consciously bigoted motives, sometimes not. Properly speaking, however, “racism” itself doesn’t do anything more than the Easter Bunny does.

Yes, racism exists, as a conceptual condensation of practices and ideas that reproduce, or seek to reproduce, hierarchy along lines defined by race. Apostles of antiracism  frequently can’t hear this sort of statement, because in their exceedingly simplistic version of the nexus of race and injustice there can be only the Manichean dichotomy of those who admit racism’s existence and those who deny it. There can be only Todd Gitlin (the sociologist and former SDS leader who has become, both fairly and as caricature, the symbol of a “class-first” line) and their own heroic, truth-telling selves, and whoever is not the latter must be the former. Thus the logic of straining to assign guilt by association substitutes for argument.

My position is—and I can’t count the number of times I’ve said this bluntly, yet to no avail, in response to those in blissful thrall of the comforting Manicheanism—that of course racism persists, in all the disparate, often unrelated kinds of social relations and “attitudes” that are characteristically lumped together under that rubric, but from the standpoint of trying to figure out how to combat even what most of us would agree is racial inequality and injustice, that acknowledgement and $2.25 will get me a ride on the subway. It doesn’t lend itself to any particular action except more taxonomic argument about what counts as racism.

Do what now?

And here’s a practical catch-22. In the logic of antiracism, exposure of the racial element of an instance of wrongdoing will lead to recognition of injustice, which in turn will lead to remedial action—though not much attention seems ever given to how this part is supposed to work. I suspect this is because the exposure part, which feels so righteously yet undemandingly good, is the real focus. But this exposure convinces only those who are already disposed to recognize.

Those who aren’t so disposed have multiple layers of obfuscating ideology, mainly forms of victim-blaming, through which to deny that a given disparity stems from racism or for that matter is even unjust. The Simi Valley jury’s reaction to the Rodney King tape, which saw King as perp and the cops as victims, is a classic illustration. So is “underclass” discourse. Victimization by subprime mortgage scams can be, and frequently is, dismissed as the fault of irresponsible poor folks aspiring beyond their means. And there is no shortage of black people in the public eye—Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey are two prime examples, as is Barack Obama—who embrace and recycle those narratives of poor black Americans’ wayward behavior and self-destructive habits.

And how does a simple narrative of “racism” account for the fact that so many black institutions, including churches and some racial advocacy organizations, and many, many black individuals actively promoted those risky mortgages as making the “American Dream of home ownership” possible for “us”? Sure, there are analogies available—black slave traders, slave snitches, “Uncle Toms” and various race traitors—but those analogies are moral judgments, not explanations. And to mention them only opens up another second-order debate about racial authenticity—about who “really” represents the black community. Even Clarence Thomas sees himself as a proud black man representing the race’s best interests.

My point is that it’s more effective politically to challenge the inequality and injustice directly and bypass the debate over whether it should be called “racism.”

I do recognize that, partly because of the terms on which the civil rights movement’s victories have been achieved, there is a strong practical imperative for stressing the racially invidious aspects of injustices: they have legal remedies. Race is one of the legal classes protected by anti-discrimination law; poverty, for instance, is not. But this makes identifying “racism” a technical requirement for pursuing certain grievances, not the basis of an overall political strategy for pursuit of racial justice, or, as I believe is a clearer left formulation, racial equality as an essential component of a program of social justice.


I’ve been struck by the level of visceral and vitriolic anti-Marxism I’ve seen from this strain of defenders of antiracism as a politics. It’s not clear to me what drives it because it takes the form of snide dismissals than direct arguments. Moreover, the dismissals typically include empty acknowledgment that “of course we should oppose capitalism,” whatever that might mean. In any event, the tenor of this anti-Marxism is reminiscent of those right-wing discourses, many of which masqueraded as liberal, in which only invoking the word “Marxism” was sufficient to dismiss an opposing argument or position.

This anti-Marxism has some curious effects. Leading professional antiracist Tim Wise came to the defense of Obama’s purged green jobs czar Van Jones by dismissing Jones’s “brief stint with a pseudo-Maoist group,” and pointing instead to “his more recent break with such groups and philosophies, in favor of a commitment to eco-friendly, sustainable capitalism.” In fact, Jones was a core member of a revolutionary organization, STORM, that took itself very seriously, almost comically so.

And are we to applaud his break with radical politics in favor of a style of capitalism that few actual capitalists embrace? This is the substance of Wise’s defense.

This sort of thing only deepens my suspicions about antiracism’s status within the comfort zone of neoliberalism’s discourses of “reform.” More to the point, I suspect as well that this vitriol toward radicalism is rooted partly in the conviction that a left politics based on class analysis and one focused on racial injustice are Manichean alternatives.


This is also a notion of fairly recent provenance, in part as well another artifact of the terms on which the civil rights victories were consolidated, including the emergence of a fully incorporated black political class in the 1970s and its subsequent evolution. By contrast, examining, for example, the contributions to historian and civil rights activist Rayford Logan’s 1944 volume What the Negro Wants, one sees quite a different picture. Nearly all the contributors—including nominal conservatives—to this collection of analyses from a broad cross section of black scholars and activists asserted in very concrete terms that the struggle for racial justice and the general struggle for social and industrial democracy were more than inseparable, that the victory of the former largely depended on the success of the latter. This was, at the time, barely even a matter for debate: rather, it was the frame of reference for any black mass politics and protest activity.

As I suggest above, various pressures of the postwar period—including carrots of success and sticks of intimidation and witch-hunting, as well as the articulation of class tensions within the Civil Rights movement itself—drove an evolution away from this perspective and toward reformulation of the movement’s goals along lines more consonant with postwar, post-New Deal, Cold War liberalism. Thus what the political scientist Preston Smith calls “racial democracy” came gradually to replace social democracy as a political goal—the redress of grievances that could be construed as specifically racial took precedence over the redistribution of wealth, and an individualized psychology replaced notions of reworking the material sphere. This dynamic intensified with the combination of popular demobilization in black politics and emergence of the post-segregation black political class in the 1970s and 1980s.

We live under a regime now that is capable simultaneously of including black people and Latinos, even celebrating that inclusion as a fulfillment of democracy, while excluding poor people without a whimper of opposition. Of course, those most visible in the excluded class are disproportionately black and Latino, and that fact gives the lie to the celebration. Or does it really? From the standpoint of a neoliberal ideal of equality, in which classification by race, gender, sexual orientation or any other recognized ascriptive status (that is, status based on what one allegedly is rather than what one does) does not impose explicit, intrinsic or necessary limitations on one’s participation and aspirations in the society, this celebration of inclusion of blacks, Latinos and others is warranted.

We’ll be back!

But this notion of democracy is inadequate, since it doesn’t begin to address the deep and deepening patterns of inequality and injustice embedded in the ostensibly “neutral” dynamics of American capitalism. What A. Philip Randolph and others—even anticommunists like Roy Wilkins—understood in the 1940s is that what racism meant was that, so long as such dynamics persisted without challenge, black people and other similarly stigmatized populations would be clustered on the bad side of the distribution of costs and benefits. To extrapolate anachronistically to the present, they would have understood that the struggle against racial health disparities, for example, has no real chance of success apart from a struggle to eliminate for-profit health care.

These seem really transparent points to me, but maybe that’s just me. I remain curious why the “debate” over antiracism as a politics takes such indirect and evasive forms—like the analogizing and guilt by association, moralistic bombast in lieu of concrete argument—and why it persists in establishing, even often while denying the move, the terms of debate as race vs. class. I’m increasingly convinced that a likely reason is that the race line is itself a class line, one that is entirely consistent with the neoliberal redefinition of equality and democracy. It reflects the social position of those positioned to benefit from the view that the market is a just, effective, or even acceptable system for rewarding talent and virtue and punishing their opposites and that, therefore, removal of “artificial” impediments to its functioning like race and gender will make it even more efficient and just.

From this perspective even the “left” antiracist line that we must fight both economic inequality and racial inequality, which seems always in practice to give priority to “fighting racism” (often theorized as a necessary precondition for doing anything else), looks suspiciously like only another version of the evasive “we’ll come back for you” (after we do all the business-friendly stuff) politics that the Democrats have so successfully employed to avoid addressing economic injustice.

Adolph Reed Jr. is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

19 responses to “Still Waiting on a Marxist Analysis of Race . . .

  1. This is a good critique of a certain dominant type of “antiracism.”

    I would add, to be more specific, more subtle, and more nuanced, Mike’s analysis of various tendencies at the STO archive:

    (look closely at the critique of Catalyst Project, which is of local relevance and reflects much of Reed’s critique. But also notice how many different ways there are of coming at issues of race and class).

    I think, as this link shows, I would disagree with Reed’s simplistic claim that “it’s more effective politically to challenge the inequality and injustice directly and bypass the debate over whether it should be called “racism.””

    I’m not entirely clear on which inequalities he means, and I fear that this leads toward a “class first” politics. At the very least, he seems to reduce race to a series of practical effects and economic inequalities, rather as a fundamental structuring element of our social world.

    Please also check out Noel Ignatin’s classic “Black Worker, White Worker,” which gives a good account of the centrality of race in a class politics:

  2. Harry Haywood’s work was really not about race, but nation. In that regard, it is not entirely right to say Marx had a blindspot on this issue, given his and Engels’ writings on and support for Ireland and its struggle for national liberation.

    I’d add one more topic to the three topics listed (chattel slavery, Chinese railroad workers, bracero program): the dispossession and mass murder of American Indians. Doesn’t this topic in particular show that defining racism in terms of the distribution of costs and benefits is a bit limited and is actually a severe understatement? White settlers coming to invade your land and kill your people is better conceptualized as a phenomenon of settler colonialism and national oppression, not as a phenomenon of the maldistribution of costs and benefits.

  3. Reed’s is a worthy critique, and offers an opportunity for needed self-reflection and development in the white anti-racist milieu, but I find that at the very least this anti-racist trend can create an opening for white people to become more trust-worthy allies to people of color in radical struggle. In itself, the discourse of anti-racism is not a “movement” worthy of the name; rather more it is a set of trainings, readings, and lectures. Still, it may in itself be valuable to the practice of organizing, if it divests white progressives and radicals of some social ineptitude (the same can be said for anti-patriarchy, and anti-classism.) That this works on the level of individual behavior and attitude, as Reed points out, does not disqualify its potential value. (I certainly prefer working with men who have “confronted their sexism,” for example.) However, Reed is more concerned about anti-racism’s potential for actually undermining radical analysis and struggle, which is important.

    Also, as skeptical as I am about Tim Wise’s apparently lucrative anti-racist roadshow, I did not read his piece on Van Jones as a defense of Jones or capitalism, but rather as a critique of the way even a guy playing “inside politics,” and who appears to have become something of a booster of capitalism himself, can be used to inflame the divide between white workers and workers of color.

  4. While largely agreeing with Reed, I can see the limitations of his piece being so short. My theoretical underpinnings regarding race and class are informed by CLR James and his conception that “action precedes consciousness.” Which I take to mean that one can learn something abstractly, but it remains just that — ideas untested by human activity remain in the realm of abstraction. It takes social practice to bring them to consciousness. Otherwise consciousness is reduced to a religious idea with enlightenment only being brought to worshippers by a prophet — or in the case of anti-oppression workshops, a highly-paid “expert” facilitator.

    James ideas are supported by Frederick Douglas, who while giving a speech commemorating the liberation struggles of West Indian slaves in 1857, said:

    “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

    This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

    Looking at it in the context of the global situation, CLR James observed: “The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.”

    Additionally, James brilliant works, like “The Black Jacobins,” shows that slavery did not occur to passive African victims, but was vociferously opposed from its origins. James writes:

    “The docile Negro is a myth. Slaves on slave ships jumped overboard, went on vast hunger strikes, attacked the crews. There are records of slaves overcoming the crew and taking the ship into harbor, a feat of tremendous revolutionary daring. In British Guiana during the eighteenth century the Negro slaves revolted, seized the Dutch colony, and held it for years. They withdrew to the interior, forced the whites to sign a treaty of peace, and have remained free to this day. Every West Indian colony, particularly Jamaica and San Domingo and Cuba, the largest islands, had its settlements of maroons, bold Negroes who had fled into the wilds and organized themselves to defend their freedom. In Jamaica the British government, after vainly trying to suppress them, accepted their existence by treaties of peace, scrupulously observed by both sides over many years, and then broken by British treachery. In America the Negroes made nearly 150 distinct revolts against slavery. The only place where Negroes did not revolt is in the pages of capitalist historians. All this revolutionary history can come as a surprise only to those who, whatever International they belong to, whether Second, Third, or Fourth, have not yet ejected from their systems the pertinacious lies of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. It is not strange that the Negroes revolted. It would have been strange if they had not.” (from his essay “Revolution and the Negro” [1939])

    So CLR James situates racist practices and its opposition in an historical context, much as Ted Allen did in finding the origins of American-style chattel slavery in the reaction to Bacon’s Rebellion, starting in 1676. Allen points out that the “white race” was a social control formation of the ruling class in response to the white and black unity in the latter stages of Bacon’s Rebellion. (here’s an introduction to Allen’s grand opus:

    The monumental research of African-American Marxist W.E.B. Du Bois (in “Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880,” [1935]) discovered examples of the refusal of work by “slave” workers. He clearly shows how race and prefigurative class formations interact in the process of transformative struggle:

    “[the] Civil War meant emancipation and…the black worker won the war by a general strike which transferred his labor from the Confederate planter to the Northern invader, in whose army lines workers began to be organized as a new labor force. […] This was not merely the desire to stop work. It was a strike on a wide basis against the conditions of work. It was a general strike that involved directly in the end perhaps half a million people. They wanted to stop the economy of the plantation system, and to do that they left the plantations.” p. 67

    By the time of World War II, the American Communist Party was attacking the black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porter leader A. Phillip Randolph’s civil rights March on Washington in 1941, saying it undermined the “unity” needed for the war effort. Randolph persevered and his pressure succeeded in forcing FDR to sign Executive Order 8802 forbidding racial discrimination in the hiring for defense contractors, as well as creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee to enforce it. The CP’s pro-war patriotism pushed its racism further; it expelled all Japanese American Party members and their spouses and supported the mass imprisonment of all Japanese Americans. Prior to World War II, the CP had distinguished itself for its anti-racism in connection with class struggle, especially in supporting the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti and providing lawyers in the defense against the “legal lynching” of the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s. But the period of World War II was rife, especially in places like Detroit , with both hate strikes against the inclusion of black workers in mass production as well as race riots in the streets.

    W.E.B. Du Bois had taken an anti-war position during World War II and at war’s end continued to advocate for peace, against nuclear weapons, for the freedom of Africa from colonialism, and in opposition to U.S. President Truman’s foreign policy for U.S. hegemony. As part of the new Red Scare of McCarthyism, he was indicted in the United States under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, but was acquitted for lack of evidence. He was clearly targeted because he took a revolutionary approach, seeing racism as a vicious form of the exploitation of labor for profit. He was part of the radical black socialist tradition that recognized that racism could not be eliminated without the overthrow of class society. In the Cold War, attempts were made to separate class and race, as well as to associate class with Marxism and to demonize it. In the case of Du Bois, an attempt was made to discredit him and purge him from public life. Non-white liberals were called upon to show their loyalty to America by inventing a new ideology of race and merit that diminishes or denies class, calling it “white skin privilege.” To do this,

    “Intellectuals, including college professors, were relied upon to advance a competing but non-revolutionary definition of racism as the practice of discrimination or exclusion resulting from prejudices held by the majority (i.e. white) group. The linkage of racism to the exploitation of labor and the hyper-exploitation of minority labor was denied. The notion of the oppression of minorities was replaced by the ideas of disadvantage and lack of equal opportunity. This rerouting of racism from an economic basis (the labor process) to an idealist basis (attitudes and beliefs) also diffused the responsibility for racism by expanding it beyond those who control the labor process (capitalists) to the majority group (whites) as a whole. This model of racism was and still is widely promulgated in schools, professional associations, and the mass media.” (from an unpublished essay by C. O’Connell)

    Reed rightly brings up Robert O. Self’s excellent “American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland” to demonstrate neo-segregation in housing in Oakland in the post-WWII period, much like Thomas Sugrue does in “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit” and Mike Davis does in “City of Quartz” about Los Angeles. But what Self’s analysis isn’t broad enough to cover is the historical racism in the West toward Asians. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 spread like wildfire across the U.S., nearly becoming a nationwide general strike. But it inspired white workers in San Francisco, organized into the Workingman’s Party, to take up the racist call of “the Chinese must go” and attack and burn down parts of Chinatown. Earlier, in 1871 in Los Angeles a similar race riot had led to the lynching of at least 20 Chinese. Alexander Saxton’s excellent “The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California” documents this ugly history well. As does Jean Pfaelzer’s “Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese-Americans.”

    It was the anti-Chinese agitation, often by white labor against the ruling class who wanted to continue bringing in “coolies” as cheap labor to undermine, that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Which in turn led to racist attacks on the “yellow peril” continuing into the 20th century, resulting in the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924. Legal exclusion of Asian immigration led to Asian workers being scapegoated for social problems not of their making, again leading to the FDR to sign Executive Order 9066, imprisoning over 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. With few exceptions, these racist acts were largely unchallenged by the left and were even cheered on by the CP, the CIO, and even by the otherwise anti-racist ILWU.

    Even Maya Angelou, in her memoir “I know Why the Caged Bird Sings” related to this, in her account of her family moving from Arkansas to San Francisco’s Fillmore District during World War II. She writes:

    “The Asian population dwindled before my eyes…As the Japanese disappeared, soundlessly and without protest, the Negroes entered with their loud jukeboxes, their just-released animosities and the relief of escape from Southern bonds. The Japanese area became San Francisco’s Harlem in a matter of months.

    A person unaware of all the factors that make up oppression might have expected sympathy or even support from the Negro newcomers for the dislodged Japanese. Especially in view of the fact that they (the Blacks) had themselves undergone concentration-camp living for centuries in slavery’s plantations and later in sharecropper’s cabins. But the sensations of common relationships were missing.” p. 209-210

    This is haunting and one of the reasons that amnesia and ignorance of history allow these injustices to continue, often unchallenged. We all need to learn the history of all the kinds of oppression, bridge these gaps and forge bonds of common relationships, in order to fight the oppressions of capitalism with unity.

    Various forms of anti-Asian racism are still rampant, although largely unacknowledged, in the Bay Area today. In “American Babylon,” Self points out that racism in the Bay Area was different, as was the civil rights movement here. In California, Jim Crow took more subtle and invisible forms. Many of the white students involved in the Free Speech Movement in the fall and winter of 1964 had just participated in Freedom Summer projects in Mississippi and were banned from promoting groups like SNCC and CORE on the UC Berkeley campus when they got back. They’d pissed off the Knowlands, the ruling class Republican family who ran the political machine that controlled the East Bay, by picketing their Tribune Tower in downtown Oakland for the racist hiring practices at the newspaper. The Knowlands pressured their chums on the UC Board of Regents to ban all political activity on campus that advocated illegal activity, like civil disobedience. Students had also been getting radicalized by picketing and getting arrested at sit-ins across the Bay in San Francisco at auto dealerships on “Auto Row” along Van Ness, at the massive Sheraton Palace Hotel in the financial district, at Mel’s Diner, and at Lucky Grocery, targeted because all of these businesses refused to hire non-whites, particularly discriminating against African Americans.

    There was this invisible historical thread which made an, albeit tenuous, connection between earlier types of working class militancy and the class focus of civil rights activity in the Bay Area in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The protests were different than in the South because Jim Crow wasn’t as overt. The struggle was over ending segregation in workforce, not the right to access public places like it was in the apartheid South. This can be attributed to the militancy of radical factions of the non-white working class, like the Oakland-based West Coast branch of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters whose main organizer was C.L. Dellums, uncle of current mayor of Oakland (and former House rep.) Ron Dellums. Without the Brotherhood, you probably would never have had the Black Panthers a generation later.

    During the 1934 General Strike, that came out of the 83-day strike of maritime and longshore workers up and down the West Coast, the longshore workers reached out to the African America community and promised that if they refused to be used as scabs, they would break the color line and integrate the workforce. It worked and now the majority in ILWU local 10 is black. The ruling class would have tried to hire scabs from the African America community in Oakland, who were disproportionately suffering from the Depression. Oakland ended up being shut down just as tightly as San Francisco in ’34 .

    It was this practice of fighting against racism in solidarity with African American workers that has left an admirable legacy in the Bay Area. The ugly underside to that history is the anti-Asian racism that still exists. Another improperly acknowledged history is the genocide of Native Americans, mentioned by someone else earlier in this thread.

    On final positive example of overcoming racism in struggle was the 1993 Lucasville Prison Uprising in Ohio. It was the longest prison riot in U.S. history, with the fewest fatalities. The uprising at the supermax Southern Ohio Correctional Facility began on April 11, 1993, becoming an 11-day occupation. It drew together the Muslims, the Aryan Brotherhood, and the Black Gangster Disciples in united action as a class; graffiti left behind said things like “Black and White Together” and “Convict Race.” It ended through negotiations by those uniting across race lines; although only 9 prisoners and 1 guard were killed, the Lucasville 5 are on deathrow not for what happened in the prison but because of the inspiring example their action: instead of being simply prisoners, divided and conquered by racism, they rose up and rebelled as men united as one.

    Staughton Lynd is a lawyer for the Lucasville 5 defendants and wrote the book “Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising” that has first- and second-hand accounts of what happened. Lynd attributes his understanding of the historical significance of the uprising to the ideas of consciousness of CLR James. In his shorter article, entitled “Overcoming Racism,” ( Lynd uses Lucasville to detail how white working-class racism can be overcome. It’s a powerful example that can serve anti-racism in anti-capitalist struggles. It’s something no anti-racism workshop can teach, we must learn it in the fight.

  5. it’s adolph reed, not adolf reed.

  6. >>>”While anti-racist groups organize meetings to purge the internal white guilt of white activists to become “real anti-racist,” a school serving 100% students of color might have been closed down. Were the anti-racists there organizing against the school closure as an act against of racial oppression? No”

    >>>”Has Marxism been a useable political framework that seriously challenges racism? Yes and No.”

    I think the whole point of Reed’s piece is that trying to fit our strategic thinking in the framework of “fighting racism” gets us nowhere. Racism is a proxy term that umbrellas a gamut of things that range from racial profiling to mean slurs to housing discrimination to a lack of diversity on corporate boards. We need to stop trying to “fight racism” because it’s meaningless — and because of the decline of class politics on the left, this “fight against racism” often defaults into things like increasing diversity, which doesn’t necessarily create a more just society, just reproduces an unjust society that is more racially diverse. Rather than “fight racism” or frame things in that way, we need to fight on issues — a public school closing, for example. Now, if that public school is 100% students of color, there is an “anti-racist” dimension to that struggle that needs to be talked about. But this is not “anti-racist” like fighting for the continuation of Black Studies at, say, Harvard is anti-racist, or like getting Obama elected is “a blow against racism.” Because “racism” is an abstraction, and different kinds of “racism” are composed of different class bases. So, the public school fight above could not be reduced to an anti-racist struggle. It is a struggle that combines SPECIFIC forms of class and racial oppressions, and should be viewed as such. It should be framed concretely as a struggle to defend public education, to resist budget cuts, to call attention to the fact that these attacks are disproportionately attacking communities of color and to understand why this is so.

    Anyways, this is a point of clarification. It should be obvious that I’m not belittling the very real forms of racial oppression that have existed and continue to exist in the US. I’m just saying that we need to be as concrete as possible, and that this will help us gain the strategic thinking necessary to articulate goals, win fights, and build coalitions that stretch across lines that divide the working class… and advance the struggle.

    • I just wanted to say I really like Hieronymous’s comment and is a good starting point on what the original piece asks for – a Marxist Analysis on Race. Would love to work with you Hieronymous!

  7. I’m excited to start seeing contemporary and local (ie East Bay) perspectives on the necessity of a Marxist analysis of race! I’d like to read the comments made (some of them are as long as the entry lol) but I’ll leave that for another time. Just got to hand it to this entry and the writers that feel the same way! I and other POC radicals in the Bay are trying to work on this issue and are finding more and more allies in the discourse. It’s encouraging and empowering to see these analysis so do keep up the good work! Regardless on the accuracy or strength of such arguments, it’s still a positive thing and is a good place to grow and formulate ideas that can be important for the struggle! I think letting these ideas ferment in our heads is good for the youth and can help direct our actions so do know that they are useful for us. I’ll have to re-examine these pieces again so I can write a piece like this for the on-the-ground analysis of the actions we have undertaken at Berkeley and elsewhere! It will be nice to see the actors of this movement grow along and see how it will play out when we start reaching to the communities most hurt (ie Oakland, Richmond and Vallejo) – cities like these are the places I am ultimately interested and since their residents are majorily POC, a Marxist analysis on race is even more important!

  8. சர்வதேசியவாதிகள்

    Campaign Against Operation Green Hunt!

    War Against Naxals: The War Against Adivasis, Fishermen and Peasants!

    Resist the Naxal Witch Hunt!
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    Campaign across Tamilnadu
    Public Meeting, CHENNAI
    January 30, 2010

  9. This is a definitely a key discussion. I agree with Reed’s critique of liberal anti-racism. I think if I have to sit through another “anti-racist training” that focuses only on the internal psychological hang ups of white people I’m going to vomit. In fact, the exact scenario Reed polemicizes against happened to us here in Seattle. The new neoliberal “all-cuts budget” superintendent of the Seattle Public schools is a Black woman. One of the first things she did was to close 5 schools in majority people of color working class neighborhoods, including the African American Academy. This prompted mass protests which my friends and I, and my co-teachers and students participated in. At a rowdy school board meeting the cops actually tossed out the local head of the NAACP for questioning the superintendent’s decision. At a mandatory “anti-racist” training at her nonprofit workplace, one my friends suggested that if her coworkers want to be anti-racist they should join the fight against these school closures. In response, the white man running the training suggested that she, a woman of color, had internalized racism because she was working with white people to attack a Black leader and because she was talking about class instead of race. This bullshit is holding us all back for sure. The reality was this was a working class based neighborhood movement lead by Black folks…. and it benefited not only the Black community but everyone in Seattle’s ghettoes, including a significant minority of working class white families who aren’t gentrifiers and are in fact getting kicked out by gentrification too and can’t afford to send their kids to private schools. It was a classic case of what Selma James talked about in her essay Sex, Race, and Class – the most militant people of color working class demands actually benefit the entire class. She said Power to people of color and therefore to the class…

    That being said, I’m not sure if the alternative that Reed proposes is an adequate answer to what ya’ll are asking for. Does he pose a revolutionary answer to the class-race system of American capitalism? Or is he calling to revive New-Deal era forms of social democracy? I agree we need a strategy to tear down white supremacy that involves working class mobilization both inside and outside the workplace. But will it be a return of the politics of A Philip Randolph or a creative remix of CLR James, the Boggses, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers plus new insights forged in struggles today? I agree that “racism” is an inadequate term. I’d propose we identify the enemy instead as “white supremacy”, a system that takes power status and resources away from people of color and give them to white people. But is this system simply about the distribution of costs and benefits as Reed says or is it more part of the deeper structures of colonization, primitive accumulation, and divide and conquer discipline in the workforce that Boris and Heironymous suggest? These differences matter not simply in terms of diagnosing the problem but in terms of forging strategies to fight back.

    • “I’d propose we identify the enemy instead as “white supremacy”, a system that takes power status and resources away from people of color and give them to white people.”

      i wouldnt propose white supremacy instead of racism. white supremacy simply does not encapsulate the complexities of situations such as the white working class families that are being squeezed out of certain Seattle neighborhoods by (largely, but i imagine not exclusively white) gentrifiers, for example. “white supremacy” doesnt explain why appalachia has many of the poorest counties in the US, despite being 90% white. the term gentrification has come to be used solely in racial terms. if its white people moving in, its gentrification. but in fact, “gentry” means rich people. any time rich people displace poor people, its gentrification. in the mission district of san francisco, many of the pseudo-hipster types that are gentrifying are not white. i know a black woman professional who recently bought a house in west oakland. i know a black man who is evicting his niece because he wants to raise the rent. yes, the patterns are 90% of the time rich white people squeezing out mostly black and brown people in urban spaces. but there was a battle in the part of LA im from where rich white people were trying to squeeze out a trailor park. no leftists gave a fuck because its not sexy to defend rednecks.
      rednecks pick up on this and it only feeds their antipathy toward leftists and people of color who they see in alliance against everything white. this feeds their reactionary tendencies, and walk in their shoes you will see the logic in it. communists should be trying to reverse this phenomenon, not advance it. helping poor white people is another version of anti-racism in action. but nobody wants to do that cuz its not cool. the “white supremacy” analysis rationalizes such anti-racist inaction.

      another major pitfall of “white supremacy” is that it doesnt adequately explain black-brown racially driven violence, competition for geography (see Los Angeles especially on this), and competition for jobs.

      “white supremacy” doesnt take into account the fact that once inculcated in society generally, racial forms of social organization achieve a life of their own and cant be controlled from the top down or even be monopolized by the white people who invented it. there is a case of a segregated AFL longshoreman’s local in New Orleans that the radical CIO tried to come in and establish an integrated local in place of. the black AFLers wanted to remain segregated because they actually had more power. they controlled most of the docks and were able to discriminate against white workers. this vingnette can be applied to countless situations, say the power black workers have at workplaces like the DMV and the post office to hire their people at the expense of whites but also other minorities. latinos monopoloize the construction industry and use racism to keep others out. my point, which im making sloppily but truthfully nonetheless, is that white supremacy is simplistic and is ITSELF A RACIST WAY OF UNDERSTANDING RACISM BECAUSE IT OBFUSCATES THE WAYS PEOPLE RECLAIM RACIAL CLASSIFICATION TO ACHIEVE POWER WITHIN THE SYSTEM. its a stupid thing to do, using racism to gain power, but its rational within the capitalist box. not only rational, but innevitable.

      “white supremacy” makes a black on white hate crime a conceptual impossibility, yet if we were all to be sincere, we would admit that we have witnessed or experience much behavior from black people toward white people that is uncalled for and violent solely on the basis that they dislike or hate white people.

      such everyday counter-narratives to the narrow depiction of racial strife that “white supremacy” connotes as the openness with which people of all races (ESPECIALLY blacks and latinos) make anti-chinese/asian remarks must get their due scrutiny. these horozontal racism epitomized historically by that of working class and poor whites must recieve their due scrutiny. the horizontal type of racism is what the most oppressed sections of society experience most directly and most often (eg, ask any black high school student in Los Angeles from what source came their most recent racially motivated attack, 95% of the time they will attest, i guarantee, that the perpetrator was a “mexican”). anti-racist workshops go wrong only insofar as they ignore this fact.

      proletarian anti-racist workshops for communist revolution are critically absent from the menu of radical activities.

  10. i should clarify. white supremacy is obviously real. im just saying it should not take the place of the concept “racism.” white supremacy is just one type of racism, the dominant but by no means exclusive type. my comment focused on the counter narrative that doesnt get nearly enough air time, so if it seems like i ignored white supremacy its because i think everyone reading this blog knows about slavery and genocide and lynching and eurocentric standards of beauty and incarceration statistics etc.. i am bending the stick the other way to pry open a perspective in folks minds that never seems to recieve enough attention. when someone writes the marxist opus on racism in the US, i hope it has a hefty dose of what i touch on above. if not, it will in fact hide a huge dimension of modern racism (in particular the horizontal dimension), and thus will silence the a large portion of the experiences of racism’s most victimized. and to me, thats racist in itself.

  11. As a general comment, one has to explore the historical development of capitalism and the role of the Blacks in it. I think almost everyone will find this as a quite unique set of parameters with which to discus it. Hammoid is right that there is more than one kind of racism…come to Hawai’i and you will see this quite clearly. However, even as someone who is of Catalan-Hawai’ian decent I can see the Black question as being totally central TO the development of capitalism, a la USA.

    I think there is *may* be danger, on the other hand, of being overly analytical on this and thus come to mechanical conclusions. For example, today, the ‘vanguard’ of the anti-racist struggle…that is the most active and politically power groups in the last 10 years are not Blacks even though what I state above is true historically, but Latinos, and specifically immigrants, *because of racism*, are being forged into a new oppressed nationality. And..have acted as a vanguard for the whole workers movement since 2006.


  12. Thanks for this post. There’s a lot here I want to get back to. For now, just on one of the early points y’all made in passing, about slavery … some recent scholarship on slavery has done a fair bit to talk about how marxism does and doesn’t help us understand slavery, and how understanding slavery might help make marxism better. There’s a really good article on this by Walter Johnson that’s a reading of the primitive accumulation sections of v1 of Capital, it’s called “The Pedestal and the Veil.” His book on slave markets, Soul By Soul is good and he edited a good collection of essays on slavery called The Chattel Principle. There’s also a decent book on some of this with regard to marxist theory, mostly hegelian marxism, it’s called Through The Prism of Slavery, by Dale Tomich.
    take care,

  13. Pingback: What in the hell … :: … is required to organize with someone? :: January :: 2010

  14. Pingback: The Need Of The Moment: Insight and Solidarity « Kloncke

  15. blackwatertown

    CLR James’s book The Black Jacobins is a good historical read. Gives you a new perspective on Haiti’s importance in the development of the United States, the USA’s relationship with Napoleon and the Louisiana Purchase – as well as a time when the Caribbean was not all Cuba, Cuba, Cuba.

  16. Very interesting article. Regarding the title, there IS a marxist analysis of race. It was written 57 years ago by Richard Fraser as part of an ongoing struggle within the U.S section of the Socialist Workers Party over the question of blacks in the U.S.

    Fraser argued against the theory held by George Breitman that blacks in the US constituted a distinct nation. Upholding the Leninist understanding of what constituted a nation, Fraser showed that blacks did NOT have their own language, territory, culture (which were the main requirements if what marxists believe to be a nation).

    Fraser, basing his findings on the study of various black writers including Cox and CLR James, McKay, showed that blacks constituted a race/color caste situated at the bottom of US capitalist society and, because of both World Wars, were dispersed throughout the industrial centers of the U.S.

    He also drew the conclusion that as a result the of the historical Impulse and desire to be integrated Into U.S society, (whose culture had been based on Black slave labor and most influenced by Black artists and their traditions) while simultaneously being denied that right, both politically and socially within US capitalism, the only solution to the black (Negro was used then) question was to fight for revolutionary integration of blacks into a socialist society. It’s worth checking out the article below as it is the ONLY marxist analysis of the race question With regards the US and subsequently, of the question throughout the world. There is also an introduction given by the Spartacist League when it was still a revolutionary organization, as a result the only organization to defend this tradition and analysis is the League for the Fourth International Whose U.S section, the Internationalist Group, i am a member of.

    For the introduction, you can find it here:

    For the Fraser’s main analysis of the black race question you can find it here:

    For a biography of Richard Fraser and a number of his other noteworthy work on the same question, you can go here:

    For a modern application if Fraser’s theory by the Internationalist Group/LFI you can go here:

  17. Pingback: On Race and Revolution: An Ongoing Discussion | Advance the Struggle

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