From culture wars to identity politics, it’s easy to get sucked into toxic rhetoric and forget the reality of racism staring the U.S. in the face.
“You can’t have racism without capitalism.”—Malcolm X
In today’s political climate, the word racism has become taboo. Some on the “Left” take issue with the term because of how it has been co-opted by the neoliberal elite. This is understandable, since the neoliberal Democratic Party has indeed exploited race relations in the United States to forward a “lesser evil” but no less dangerous brand of U.S. imperialism. Racism is thus increasingly viewed as an ideological weapon of liberalism rather than a material force of oppression. So-called “conservatives” have pounced on the limitations of neoliberal racial politics to strengthen their own brand as crusaders against the “woke” politics of the Democrats.
The problem with all of this is that racism is a very real manifestation of class struggle. Racism isn’t merely the hateful words and behaviors acted out by individuals. It isn’t simply a set of “institutional” problems that can be reformed away at the workplace or the criminal justice system, either. Some on the liberal “left” say that racism is “systemic,” but even this is misleading. Failing to name the system, U.S. imperialism, decontextualizes racism from its roots in class and power.
Understanding racism as an expression of class power is not merely a thought exercise. U.S. race relations permeate every aspect of material life for working people. Racist ideology has a clear psychological impact and disparities in policing, incarceration, healthcare, unemployment, and wages have life and death consequences. The purpose of the “Ghost Stories of Capitalism” series is to strengthen a leftist analysis of political economy and exploitation through the personal experience of this author. By telling our stories, we strengthen our capacity to move others to participate a class struggle for genuine liberation from the imperialist system at the root of oppression.
My earliest encounters with racism were marked by the pernicious Yellow Peril ideology which has flourished under the U.S.’s New Cold War regime against China. Many of these encounters happened outside of the home as my Vietnamese mother and white father navigated their own racial contradictions. They also happened outside of the formal education system since U.S. schools are notorious for whitewashing history and valorizing slave owners and their capitalist project. My race consciousness, so to speak, was planted by peers. Race was an unavoidable fact of life.
The words “chink” and “gook” were frequently employed by peers on the playground and in the streets. Many would cackle at me with stretched eyes to demonstrate that they looked more “Asian.” I was frequently reminded of racist stereotypes about the lack of sexual prowess possessed by “Asians.” Some took my perceived Chinese or “Asian” identity as an excuse to steal my belongings or enact some other kind of violence. Many years would pass before I understood these experiences as an outgrowth of U.S. imperialist policy. Anti-Asian racism manufactured consent for immigration laws banning Chinese laborers beginning the mid-to-late 19th century and the U.S.’s wars of aggression against China, the Philippines, Korea, and Vietnam later in the 20th century.
Mistreatment from peers, while infuriating, was not the primary force that awakened me to the interconnection between race and class. Witnessing struggle and oppression was the main catalyst. Once I entered adulthood, I realized that we were all children being force-fed reactionary and divisive ideology. Racism was not just about my suffering but the suffering of masses of people. Such revolutionary empathy is rooted in a number of experiences that reflect the inner workings of a capitalist system reliant on dehumanization to reproduce relations of exploitation.
I remember a seventh-grade social studies teacher who reinforced my school’s racist school tracking system by asking me to transfer classes so I would stop “hanging with the knuckleheads,” a euphemism for poor Black youth. I remember being stopped and frisked in my first year of high school by a city cop and watching my Black peers swiftly rush ahead of the scene to avoid the same, if not worse, treatment. I remember the white woman who ran clutching her purse when she spotted my Haitian friend speaking to me at the gate of my building. By the time I turned 21, I had attended the funerals of three Black youth very dear to my heart who died prematurely of suicide, preventable illness, and homicide. One doesn’t easily forget the screams of pain coming from their loved ones.
I came to understand racism as a mechanism of class warfare in my college years. There was nothing like being surrounded by rich, white elites for the first time in my life to cultivate rage at the system. During my sophomore year, an Afro-Dominican student and friend at the college was arrested and charged with a hate crime for getting into a fight with a white person in town and allegedly calling him the “n-word.” The school immediately suspended him and his entire future at the university was placed at risk. This seemingly absurd yet unjust turn of events spurred me into activism.
I quickly wrote an op-ed in the school newspaper which caused such a stir among residents and students alike that anonymous death threats came in my direction. I made contact with likeminded students and we began organizing around issues of race on campus. Our efforts helped create an environment where the charges against the student were dropped and he was allowed back on campus to finish his education. But we didn’t stop here. We continued our activism to tackle other issues such as the lack of an ethnic studies or Black studies program on campus. Burnout mounted as liberal identity reductionism and “dialogue” were favored by administrators and student activists over significant changes in policy, placing insurmountable barriers in front of change.
My frustrations ended up being a blessing in disguise. They led me to a semester-long trip to New York City and a foray as an intern in the labor movement. Occupy Wall Street had just begun, and activists were having intense conversations about race and class. These conversations were often fraught with tension. People spun in circles arguing about whether race or class were more important to movement politics.
The arguments felt worse than fruitless; they felt out of touch with reality. I knew racism and class warfare were interconnected, but I didn’t have the language to explain why or how. I began to develop such a language after several friends introduced me to the science of Marxism at the end of my New York semester. Huey P. Newton, Claudia Jones, Fidel Castro, Vladimir Lenin, and a host of revolutionary socialist leaders of the 20th century taught me that U.S. imperialism requires racism to reproduce class relations of exploitation. Capitalists accumulate profit from the exploitation of workers and their system of race-based benefits places a critical in front of the solidarity necessary to wrestle off the shackles of such a class arrangement.
This is no abstraction. Black workers in the U.S. are paid as low as half the wages of white workers for the same employment and are twice as likely to be unemployed. Incarceration and police brutality are experienced at far higher rates by Black workers than white workers. Life expectancy is falling for all U.S.-based workers but it is falling fastest in Black American and Indigenous communities. Any class struggle that fails to give these disparities their proper attention is bound to fail.
Furthermore, racism is a key pillar of the American Empire. All U.S. wars, whether on Indigenous peoples in North America or the people of Iraq, have been sanitized by a psychological campaign of dehumanization. American exceptionalism itself is a racist ideology. The U.S. is said to spread “democracy” and “freedom” around the world despite the innumerable war crimes that it has committed. In the last decade alone, the nations of Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Venezuela, Russia, China, Cuba, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the DPRK, and many more have been subject to some act of U.S. warfare. Racist propaganda against each one of these nations has rendered U.S. war crimes that much more effective by creating an endless list of “enemies” from which to fear.
Propaganda is one of the biggest fronts of the American empire’s endless war regime. Those who are genuinely interested in winning the class war at hand must seek truth from facts. The fact is that racism is a very real phenomenon that shapes every facet of U.S. imperialism. Solidarity with and among the oppressed is only possible if the scourge of racism is defeated, materially and ideologically. This doesn’t mean we conduct a witch hunt for individual “racists” but rather that our efforts to win political power possess a built-in and organized intention to develop new human beings. It also means that we deeply study the ways in which racism divides humanity for capitalist profit and domination as we search for the correct methods to wage class struggle and restore the needs of humanity.