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Insurrectional Black Power: CLR James on Race and Class

During the exhilarating and dangerous late 1960s and early 1970s, no world historical figure of older generations had a more militant defense of Black Power than CLR James. But it was always a vision within a context, and after all these years have passed (along with James himself who died in 1989), the context remains crucial.

He told a British audience in 1970, wondering about Stokely Carmichael, the voice of Black Power, “WHAT HE DO, HE WELL DO!” thus adopting the Caribbean patois. He rarely failed to mention that Stokely had been, in his younger years, also a Trinidadian, and that he remained always a son of the Afro-Caribbean people. In 1968, in response to a Canadian college newspaper interviewer’s question over Carmichael’s insistence that colonization is a special kind of exploitation that robs the victims of their very identity, James insisted upon the bedrock of exploitation.

That is, “When colonialism is carried down to its roots, it is a form of economic exploitation, as well as racial, because it is the mass of the population that is being exploited economically under the colonist’s regimes.” James had no difficulty with his fellow Caribbean revolutionary Aime Cesaire, and the poet’s crucial delineation of “negritude.” For James, as for Cesaire, this quality, developed under the worst possible conditions, was a positive and creative contribution to global civilization.

In that moment, with revolutions abounding, Africans seemed to be moving rapidly ahead, away from colonialism and toward a different form of society. James lived long enough to see much of the progress rolled back. The victory of neocolonialist economics meant the defeat of liberation cultures with fresh degradations, both ecologically and socially, including the predatory nonwhite class that James had learned to understand in the Caribbean. (“The light skinned peoples of the cities,” better educated and often in the early leadership of independent movements, but in time, most usually, carrying on colonial business in new ways.)

James spoke from another time, but he remained quite clear until the end of his life that the destiny of the super-exploited, the nonwhite peoples, was to lead the way to the rendezvous with destiny. If the events of the recent [past] have shown us anything, this is the lesson. To ignore race, as he often said, in many contexts and many ways, was a disaster in any social understanding; only the ignoring of class would be worse. Or to put it in his own words, from Black Jacobins: “The race question is subsidiary to the class question, 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.” James is articulating what would later be called intersectionalism. Let us briefly define that idea so that we may understand the implications of James’s notion of Black power for us today.

Intersectional theory

Kimberlé Crenshaw, professor of Law at UCLA and Columbia University, first coined the term in 1989. While she gave it a name, she never claimed that this way of thinking about systems was new:

So many of the antecedents to it are as old as Anna Julia Cooper, and Maria Stewart in the 19th century in the US, all the way through Angela Davis and Deborah King. In every generation and in every intellectual sphere and in every political moment, there have been African American women who have articulated the need to think and talk about race through a lens that looks at gender, or think and talk about feminism through a lens that looks at race. So this is in continuity with that.

Let’s take a look at how intersectionality works. Imagine you are a black woman. If you align yourself with black men to fight racism, you may encounter patriarchy and misogyny. If you align yourself with white feminists to fight patriarchy, you will almost certainly encounter racism. The problem is: if you only consider power systems individually, you will never get to the root of oppression. Black women, queer minorities, they experience oppression that has previously not been addressed by social justice movements. One is not truly free until all that contributes to their personhood is liberated. For example, a black woman living in a world free of racism still faces patriarchy. Myopic ways of thinking about oppression do not address this complexity.

Crenshaw is a legal scholar, so it was inadequacy in the law that got her thinking about these issues:

The particular challenge in the law was one that was grounded in the fact that anti-discrimination law looks at race and gender separately. The consequence of that is when African American women or any other women of color experience either compound or overlapping discrimination, the law initially just was not there to come to their defense.

James, like Crenshaw, understands that black power must be understood intersectionally. One cannot think only in terms of race. For him, both race and class must be examined. It is to this intersection that we now turn.

Race and Class

James was first and foremost a Marxist. In 1969 he said, “I do not know, as a Marxist, black studies as such . this is the history of Western Civilization, the history that black people and white people and all serious students of modern history have to know.” James, much like Du Bois, saw the question of race through the lens of class. He fully understood that slavery in the Americas was fundamentally a capitalist enterprise. For him, if you dig deep enough, capitalism is at the root of all systems of oppression. Yet, unlike many white progressives, James was never blind to the reality of race.

Acknowledging this, he said, “It is over one hundred years since the abolition of slavery. The Negro people in the United States have taken plenty and they have reached a stage where they have decided that they are not going to take any more.” James understood very clearly that racism plays a unique role that fighting class alone would not remedy. He further understood that focusing upon class while ignoring race was akin to lighting a match near a powder keg and hoping it does not explode.

Contemporarily, many think that because incidents of overt racism have decreased, then white supremacy is not a part of American life. That is, since no one has publicly said n*gger recently, that Black people have no legitimate reason to discuss racial bias.

We focus too much on individual acts of racism in this country. Changing the heart of one racist does not undo systems of injustice that ensnare black and brown people.  Part of the reason why institutional racism remains intractable is because well meaning white people work to overcome their personal racism without applying the same vigor to undoing systems that affords them white privilege. We need less emotional expressions of white guilt, and more work on policy that rights the wrongs of the past 300 years. It is possible to treat someone like a n*gger without calling them one.

Lawrence Ware is a professor of philosophy and diversity coordinator for Oklahoma State University’s Ethics Center. Paul Buhle, the authorized biographer of C.L.R. James, is retired from teaching and has produced a dozen nonfiction art comic books in the last ten years.

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