| Arun Kundnani details the histories of liberal and radical anti racism and argues that anti racism ultimately means anti capitalism | MR Online Arun Kundnani details the histories of liberal and radical anti-racism and argues that anti-racism ultimately means anti-capitalism.

“What Is Anti-Racism? And Why It Means Anti-Capitalism,” A book review

Originally published: Black Agenda Report on March 6, 2024 (more by Black Agenda Report)  |

In 2020, a white Minneapolis police officer arrested George Floyd, threw him to the ground, and pressed a knee into his neck, murdering him by asphyxiation. In response, “Black Lives Matter” protests erupted across the U.S., and it briefly appeared as if a racial reckoning might be taking place. However, its meaning was soon appropriated by Amazon, Walmart, and other prominent corporations declaring that Black lives mattered and dedicating funds to diversity training and other efforts that amounted to no more than what Black Agenda Report has long criticized as putting “Black faces in high places.” Even Blackwater CEO Larry Fink declared the need to eradicate “systemic racism,” and in a cringeworthy moment, Nancy Pelosi led a group of Democratic Congresspersons who knelt wearing Ghanaian Kente cloth in the Halls of Congress to do penance for hundreds of years of racist violence. Pelosi even thanked George Floyd for being murdered to bring it to our attention.

Diversity training wasn’t new, but then it blossomed. Individuals with no history of radical engagement took up the cause of righting the explicit or implicit wrongheadedness of individuals prejudiced against Blacks and other people of color, as though that would ultimately eradicate racism.

In Arun Kundnani’s book “What Is Anti-Racism and Why It Means Anti-Capitalism,” he argues that these efforts are part of a tradition of liberal anti-racism, which he contrasts with radical anti-racism forged against colonialism and capitalism.

In a fascinating narrative, Kundnani, a former editor of the journal Race and Class, explains the history of these opposing traditions, which are now, he writes, confused. Black writers and thinkers, including CLR James, Claudia Jones, Stuart Hall, and Jamil Al Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown), are part of the tradition of anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism. By contrast, Human Resources consultant Robyn D’Angelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” is a leading proponent of liberal anti-racism.

The most important anti-racist thinkers and activist movements, Kundani writes, have not thought about anti-racism, as liberal anti-racists do, as being about what’s going on inside someone’s mind, consciously or unconsciously, but as a structure, a power relationship that exists in order to arrange and enforce certain distributions of economic resources.

How was liberal anti-racism shaped? Kundnani writes that we didn’t have “anti-racists” before the 1930s, that right before the 1930s there were people who were involved in fighting anti-semitism, white supremacy, European colonialism, and so forth. Anti-semitism, white supremacy, and European colonialism had been thought about as separate problems, but when the word “anti-racism” first entered the English language in the 1930s, it was used to express what these different forms of oppression have in common. The first person to make this argument was a gay German Jewish scholar named Magnus Hirschfeld, who wrote the book “Rassismus” in an effort to understand the rise of Nazism. “Rassismus” was then published as “Racism” in English translation.

In that book Hirschfeld argued essentially that, through the couple of centuries leading up to the Nazis coming to power, European intellectuals came up with ideas of racial hierarchy; they divided up the human population into a hierarchy of four to seven races, and these ideas then filtered down into the general population. They were taught in high schools in Germany, so that by the 1930s, you had a population who believed in certain racial prejudices. At the same time, science had moved on, and those ideas had become discredited. Yet they were still so widespread that they enabled extremist politicians like Hitler to manipulate them, identifying racial groups as threats, and through that manipulation to come to power and abolish liberal democracy.

To protect liberal democracy from this kind of extremism, the liberal anti-racist argument required intellectuals, university professors, and credentialed liberals to educate the masses on why their racial prejudices were wrong. This has become the mainstream argument about what anti-racism is among liberal Americans. According to Kundnani, there’s a straight line from that period of the 1930s to the billion-dollar-plus industry of diversity awareness programs in the United States today, and it’s not as though it accomplished nothing. The average interaction between a white and Black person in the U.S., he says, is in most cases better as a result.

The problem, Kundnani points out, is that to really understand racism today, we need to go back to a different, more radical tradition of anti-racism that arises from an understanding of European colonialism first and foremost rather than starting from the rise of Nazism. This is where writers like CLR James and Frantz Fanon come in. James also begins to use the word “racism” in the 1930s, but what he understands by it is not some idea of irrational individual prejudice but a set of racialized, enforced social rules that enable the economic resources of a society to be distributed in such a way that one racial group has tremendous advantages over others in terms of its wealth.

Initially, he uses the word racism to talk about British colonialism in Kenya, where the best land is owned by a tiny number of people in the country’s white minority, and the black majority has to subsist on a smaller per capita amount of less useful land. So the concept of racism is a way of understanding how that distribution of land becomes enforced.

Writing in the 1950s, James says we have to move away from this tendency to think about racism as a disposition of the mind. It’s not a disposition of mind, he asserts, but a militarily enforced structure of economic oppression.

Since 2020, it’s become common to talk about structural or systemic racism but without the meaning provided by CRL James. When Black Rock CEO Larry Fink, one of the most powerful capitalists in the world uses the same term—systemic racism—as Frantz Fanon, one of history’s greatest revolutionaries, we’ve lost any real sense of what that term might mean. Then, Kundnani argues, the radical anti-racist tradition becomes essential to help us think that through.

A lot of people, he says, now use the term “racial capitalism,” which you’re not likely to ever hear Larry Fink, Walmart, or Amazon using. People are using the term in hopes of finding a way to understand how racism and capitalism are intertwined.  If we’re going to understand what anti-racism has to do with economic resources, then we have to think about how racism connects to capitalism, because capitalism is our economic system. If you want to ask what the structure in structural racism is, the answer is capitalism. But that’s not easy to think through. Most of the time when people use the words “racial capitalism,” they don’t have a fully worked out answer to that question. But the term “racial capitalism” becomes a way of trying to indicate that there is something there that needs to be understood. There’s something that ties racism and capitalism together.

The term “racial capitalism” actually goes back to the anti-apartheid movement, Kundnani says, where it became obvious that there were two separate working classes, white and black. The white working class looked quite a lot like what you might find in Volume One of Karl Marx’s “Capital,” where you have a male worker employed in waged work in some kind of industrial field, who is exploited in the ways that Marx describes: some part of the value that he creates for his labor is appropriated by capitalists for their profit, and in return, that worker receives a wage and, one way or another, through that wage is able to support a family in some basic condition of living.

On the other hand, you have a much larger Black working class who are not solely living on their wages, which are a tiny fraction of the wages paid to whites. The Black workers are migrating between the industrial and mining areas where they’re employed, and are only paid a temporary wage. Their families are also to some degree practicing a more traditional African subsistence economy that generates some part of what they need to live on in marginalized communities much like native reservations.

Apartheid in this analysis is essentially a way to maintain this system in which a separate Black working class can be much more heavily exploited. But it requires a whole infrastructure of violence to keep the Black working class down. It relies on military violence and things like pass laws to prevent the free movement of people, and so on.

South Africa’s racialized capitalism ultimately provided a model for analyzing racialized capitalism around the world.

One modern example that Kundnani discusses is the U.S. border. Millions of mostly Latin American people are violently moved across the border every year. What this does, he says, is assure that there’s a working class on the Mexican side who are working for a fifth of what those on the U.S. side are making but just as productively. At the same time, the border creates a class of undocumented and therefore easily exploited workers on the U.S. side. So the border involves a whole infrastructure of violence enforcing a form of racialized capitalism.

In a tour de force, Kundnani goes on to a sweeping description of Neoliberalism as a global system of racialized capitalism that we must understand in order to resist it. His book is likely to become a staple of radical anti-racism for years to come, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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