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Racism divides workers. To unite them, we need to confront it.
A focus on race is sometimes considered to be a distraction from the “deeper” issue of class, but we can’t have worker unity without confronting white supremacy.
When I was a undergraduate, I was greatly influenced by the work Dr. Peter Gran, Temple University’s resident historian of modern Egypt. The author of Beyond Eurocentrism, Gran argued that the world was more effectively seen as stratified through class than through the typical East/West divide. His book showed the limitations of a post-colonial lens, and essentially argued for a Marxist or class-based lens for understanding oppression. As an anti-capitalist and budding anarcho-communist, I quite agreed with Gran’s analysis, and I was fascinated by his views on Egypt.
Egypt’s political economy fell into what he called the “Italian Road”. Within that framework, the division of an industrial northern region and an agrarian southern region worked to deflect class conflict in the country as a whole. This rang true to me, as my parents grew up in Cairo, i.e. lower Egypt, and Upper Egyptians (who, ironically, live in the south of the country) were often the butt of their jokes. According to Gran, you can see the same political divisions in Italy, Brazil, Mexico, and India. I was fascinated by his argument that issues of class conflict were deflected by an emphasis on regional divide. He argued that in other political economies, the categories of caste, tribe and ethnicity, and race worked to obscure if not hide class conflict.
In Gran’s argument, it is in bourgeois democracies like Great Britain, the U.S. and Israel that class conflict is deflected or disguised as racial conflict. The idea that the working people of the U.S. are divided by race is not a new argument, but it is certainly one that bears repeating. The single most powerful tool in dividing working people is racism, and ultimately, white supremacy.
Ideally, we would come together to confront the forces that divide us: both capitalism and racism. Racism serves capital, and keeps the wealthy rich and in charge. Although we are numerous enough to confront our rulers, they continue to reign.
Throughout U.S. history, up to the present day, there have been movements organized to advance the causes of antiracism and civil rights. Those who see class warfare as our primary oppressing force have criticized antiracist movements, however. Conversely, Ta-Nehisi Coates asserts that we face a racial divide, and not a class divide created controversy. Coates’ comments were framed within a debate on reparations, when presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, for example, was advocating an approach to reparations based more on class than race.
I cringe when I see the two named in opposition to each other, as if it could be one or the other at work. They are complementary forces that must be overcome to bring about true solidarity. Certainly, some antiracist activists and programs do not address the material reality of economic oppression, subjugation, and poverty. But a correction there can be made. Fighting racism sometimes does create space for Black and Brown people in the managerial class. But we should set ourselves to transforming both class and race-based ills.
Some proponents of capitalism may resist such a correction, but the fact is that Black and Brown people are as oppressed as their white counterparts by the market economy. Racism simply multiplies the effects of capitalism. Brian Jones is a writer who views classism and racism as part of the same struggle:
Because racism is central to the operation of capitalism, antiracism must be central to any movement that hopes to challenge it. As Coates rightly notes, racism has systematically hampered even strong left movements trying to win reform in the United States. Therefore, the specific legacy of racism in the US must be addressed if we are to have any hope of winning the kinds of progressive legislation Bernie Sanders is proposing.
Antiracism is sometimes accused of increasing racial animus and thus should be tamped down in the name of social justice. It’s an argument made most often, but not always, by white people. Sometimes it’s made by people of color, many of whom are Marxist – and who offer a cogent criticism of the blindspots of neoliberal antiracism.
Racism seems like a psychological phenomenon, especially when middle-class and managerial-class folks bring it up. But the psychological harm of racism is material and affects earning potential. It has been materially harmful in my own life. Of course, talking about racism can make both white folks and BIPOC who are not ready to face their trauma uncomfortable or even hostile. It can stymie progress. That is an obstacle, but not a reason to give up—and certainly not something for which BIPOC should be blamed.
We need to be unified against white supremacy, and workers of all races benefit from a collective confrontation of the force of racism. Similarly, workers of all races benefit from a confrontation of class conflict and capitalism. What’s dividing us isn’t antiracism, but racism. The conflict among workers of color and their white counterparts isn’t an equal struggle, and suspicion and mistrust of white workers among BIPOC is an earned suspicion.
Keep in mind, this road is not politically convenient, and we can expect what has been called “whitelash” to follow. We can expect more divisions and more intense partisanship. In fact, as dialogue on racism has become more visible, it hasn’t just increased white supremacist hate, it’s actually exposed some inconvenient truths about BIPOC individuals. For example, more BIPOC are voting Republican than ever before. BIPOC are not an ideological monolith, just as workers aren’t all opposed to capitalism. That should lead us to keep going, keep educating, acknowledging the complexity of both class and race, in order to shed light on all oppression. Because none of us is free until we all are.