Neither Class Reduction nor Race Reduction: Toward a Revolutionary Left Framework on an Age-Old Debate
White supremacy and class struggle must thus be taken together as parts of a whole social system rather than separate categories of oppression.
“Socialist policies cannot be truly achieved within a racist power structure, and racism cannot be fully eradicated without a transformation of class society.”
Activists in the U.S. have debated race and class for decades to no resolution. Nonetheless, in this moment of U.S. imperial decay and crisis, the debate over whether race or class takes precedence in the struggle for liberation from U.S. capitalist and imperialist domination rages on. Two prominent strands of the debate have emerged over the last year which intersect with the rise of Bernie Sanders-led “democratic socialists” and the uprising against racist policing led by the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” For many leaders of the Sanders camp, white supremacy is either a distraction or a secondary issue that can be addressed through the amelioration of class exploitation vis-à-vis policies such as Medicare for All. Leaders of the Black Lives Matter camp often discuss white supremacy as the primary problem of U.S. society even if it “intersects” with gender, class, sexuality, and other aspects of the human experience with oppression.
Both arguments are limited and dragged down by the weight of liberalism. Liberalism presumes that the United States’ economic and political system possesses innate qualities of self-correction once the demands of the masses are fully heard. In the case of the Sanders camp, Medicare for All and other universal programs will disproportionately benefit Black Americans. Racism will “wither away” or be significantly reduced after the white masses have received what is rightfully theirs on an equal basis with Black people.
“For many leaders of the Sanders camp, white supremacy is either a distraction or a secondary issue.”
In the case of the Black Lives Matter camp, the Black Lives Matter Global Network Inc. has championed a movement “whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” This is done in part by “combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy. . .” As a non-profit beholden to mainly Democratic Party donors, BLM’s Global Network has focused on reminding the world of the contributions of Black people, getting out the vote for Democrats, and demanding prosecution of police officers responsible for the murder of Black people.
While BLM talks of “liberation,” its activity and analysis are decidedly liberal in that they center the eradication of racism via mild and selective concessions from the U.S. state. Black Lives Matter activists and organizations are of course politically diverse and contain militant elements, with Black Agenda Report having covered the movement extensively since it emerged in 2014. The Black Lives Matter Global Network has been given the most attention from establishment channels seeking to develop a “common sense” among the population that effectively neutralizes radical possibilities. Instead of the further development of mass demands, the debate over how to make “Black Lives Matter” has predominantly centered on questions of diversity and whether institutions of power can speak the language of consultant-driven racial politics.
“BLM’s Global Network has focused on reminding the world of the contributions of Black people, getting out the vote for Democrats, and demanding prosecution of police officers.”
Both ideological frameworks repeat the errors of “race reduction” and “class reduction.” The reaction from both camps following the January 6th riot on Capitol Hill offers a clarifying example. Some on the Left interpreted the mass of white hordes walking (and at times climbing) into Capitol Hill as a marker of frustration among the working class. If Medicare for All or monthly payments had been provided to the masses, then the riots would not have occurred. Others immediately called out the white supremacists and fascists who descended on Capitol Hill and demanded that these forces be apprehended by law enforcement and censored by tech monopolies in a renewed “War on Terror” campaign.
Liberalism is by definition ahistorical so it should come as no surprise that race reductionists and class reductionists get events like January 6th so wrong. The white supremacist state cannot censor itself, nor does it have any interest in creating the economic conditions for its own dissolution. White supremacy and class are not separate phenomenon, especially in the context of the United States. Gerald Horne and Theodore Allen have both proven through historical record that white supremacy is embedded in the capitalist political economy of the United States. Malcolm X stated this plainly when he remarked that “you can't have capitalism without racism.” White supremacy and class struggle must thus be taken together as parts of a whole social system rather than separate categories of oppression.
“White supremacy and class are not separate phenomenon, especially in the context of the United States.”
White supremacy appeared in the historical development of the United States as an intentional policy meant to consolidate the rule of settler colonialism and capitalism. European settlers of all classes would be united by their racial affiliation rather than divided by contradictory class interests. Black and other non-white peoples would be terrorized by the racialization of their being, thereby enhancing class exploitation by way of chattel bondage, Jim Crow fascism, and the like. White supremacy justified colonial expansionism, slavery, and the violence necessary to conduct each. White proletarians were kept fed with superiority even as white capitalists intensified the rate of exploitation for all workers, albeit to varying degrees of brutality and theft. When the U.S. became an imperialist power, so too did white supremacy reproduce its relations of domination between white proletarians and their global counterparts in the majority non-white world.
The Capitol Hill riot was an outgrowth of a profound popular confusion that has taken hold in the United States over this basic history. Only a negation of the history of white supremacy could produce the conclusion that Medicare for All and $2,000 per month would have prevented the addle minded white Americans from storming Capitol Hill. Many of the rioters believe that Kamala Harris and Joe Biden are “communists” aligned with China against rightwing freedom fighters in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The self-described “patriots” who stormed Capitol Hill are the spawn of the Trump era—a period where the crisis of U.S. imperialism opened a lane for white reaction to pose as “working class” interests. This lane was opened primarily by the Democratic Party, which used the Trump era to promote racist conspiracies of “Russian collusion” and antagonize non-ruling class white Americans as “deplorables.” All the while, white liberals and the so-called leadership of “Black Lives Matter” have followed the Democrats down a “race only” framework which seeks inclusion within a decaying imperialist state alongside openly racist “blue MAGA” demagogues like Joe Biden.
“The crisis of U.S. imperialism opened a lane for white reaction to pose as “working class” interests.”
Many on the white left have lamented “identity politics” while others in the Black Lives Matter camp have condemned socialists for ignoring race. The only means of combatting this irreconcilable contradiction is to return to politics. Radicals and revolutionaries must set the parameters of political debate by raising what the narrow prison cell of liberal politics erases from historical memory. For example, both race-first and class-first advocates often side with the U.S. ruling class on the critical question of war and peace. U.S. aggression toward Syria, China, and a host of countries is virtually ignored in place of false equivalencies between the victim and the perpetrator of imperialist crimes. Class-first and race-first activists, while differing in their approach to domestic affairs, often stand on the same side when it comes to U.S. militarism beyond the “red, white, and blue”-painted colonial borders of the United States.
Unity around endless U.S. wars is a racist unity at its core. But militarism isn’t the only aspect of U.S. imperialism erased by race-first and class-first politics. So too is the plight of political prisoners such as Mumia Abu-Jamal and Julian Assange. The same goes for censorship and the ongoing repression of the real Left, which has gone virtually ignored since the advent of Russiagate. Also left off the table is the question of power, entirely. For if power was on the table, then it would be quite easy to link the struggle against U.S. militarism to the freedom of Julian Assange and Mumia Abu-Jamal, not to mention the demand for an end to censorship by corporate tech monopolies and their allies in the intelligence apparatus. These questions dig into the very roots of the U.S. imperialist system and decenter its ideological framework of American exceptionalism. Race reductionists and class reductionists, in the final analysis, are religious zealots of American exceptionalism which orients the fight for justice as a battle for a more “perfect” America where the so-called values of “liberty” and “democracy” are truly applicable to all.
“Both race-first and class-first advocates often side with the U.S. ruling class on the critical question of war and peace.”
One doesn’t have to look far for examples of how to place politics in command and transcend the long debate regarding race and class in the United States. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed for venturing down the long road of international solidarity and peace. His list days were spent organizing with striking Black sanitation workers and demanding an end to the U.S. invasion in Vietnam. In his speech Beyond Vietnam, King declared,
I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
King is but one of scores of revolutionary activists and thinkers, particularly in the Black movement, who by their word and deed demonstrate that the debate over race versus class is marked by opportunism. Socialist policies cannot be truly achieved within a racist power structure, and racism cannot be fully eradicated without a transformation of class society i.e., the seizing of the means of production from the ruling class by the exploited classes. The war on Black America is a race war AND a class war. Class must factor into the analysis, and scholars have been popularizing the term “racial capitalism” to assist new generations of activists in avoiding the pitfalls of the “race versus class” debate.
“The debate over race versus class is marked by opportunism.”
A revolutionary framework must approach all struggles from the vantage point that “racial capitalism” or imperialism is incapable of securing socialism, self-determination, and peace. Only from here can we possibly discuss how to move forward in this moment of crisis. While race reductionism and class reductionism must be rejected, attention to self-determination should not. Revolutionaries should reject the liberalism of the “streets to the suits” phenomenon that has occurred in Black politics AND so-called class-centered movements like the Bernie Sanders campaign. Careful attention should be paid to the conditions that gave rise to each. This means that popular demands for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal must speak to, and take into account, the particular conditions of a thoroughly racist social order. The United States’ role as the world’s foremost imperialist power must also be placed at the forefront of all political struggle, as no truly social democratic movement can be sustained by championing the imperialist thuggery of its homegrown military apparatus. Whatever 2021 holds for the political future of the United States, it is far time that a revolutionary left framework on the debate over race and class be injected into what is, at this time, a still politically immature movement.
Danny Haiphong is a contributing editor to Black Agenda Report and co-author of the book American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People's History of Fake News- From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror. Follow his work on Twitter @SpiritofHo and on YouTube as co-host with Margaret Kimberley of Black Agenda Report Present's: The Left Lens. You can support Danny at www.patreon.com/dannyhaiphong.
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