Racism is About Power, Not Unpleasant Sentiments

In September of 2011, the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis— a man who the best evidence suggested was innocent. On February 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was murdered by self-appointed community ‘guardian’ George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Then Michael Brown was murdered by the Ferguson police and his lifeless body was left lying in the street for hours. And then Freddie Gray was murdered by the Baltimore police. And on, and on.

These references, now long surpassed by crimes equally as brutal and egregious, are used to mark a moment in political history. Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter arose to challenge the power that both motivated and legitimated them. The goal wasn’t to replace one oppressive power with another. It was to end repressive power. This clarity of purpose was lost following the election of Donald Trump.

The threads that linked these murders were 1) state, or quasi-state power (Zimmerman), being used in 2) racially targeted murders. As illustrated by the inclusion of George Zimmerman, and later Dylann Roof, precise delineation of state power is tenuous because it is sometimes ambiguous. The prosecutorial fail against Mr. Zimmerman could have been contested at the Federal level. But the Obama administration chose not to do so. Dylann Roof was charged, prosecuted and is in prison.

The killers who aren’t in prison are the front-line representatives of state power— the police. To write that these cops are racist misrepresents the broader political context of their actions. The laws they are sent out to enforce exist predominantly to protect the ‘property’ of those who have it from those who don’t. And the system of adjudication is pay-to-play— the people who spend time in prison generally can’t afford adequate legal representation.

Understanding this relation of the police, and policing, to property is crucial. It ties the power that the police are given— both its type and extent, to maintaining an economic order. Racism alone doesn’t explain how and why laws are written as they are— or who writes them. Or why the judicial and carceral functions are class-based. When viewed through a prism of race, mass incarceration is racist. But when viewed through both race and class, racial bias is relocated to class position. It is poor people who are put in prison.

Through a binary constraint of black and white, race is the only possible explanation of social outcomes. This is a taxonomic, epistemic or ontological point— depending on one’s view of how these things get sorted. In other words, it is a limit on understanding by design. As is laid out below, economic explanations of race relations can accommodate racism, but essentialist / neoliberal explanations can’t accommodate economic explanations.

To bring this back to politics for a moment, following the election of Donald Trump, ‘fighting racism’ shifted from involved analyses of race and power to doing street battle with middle- and working-class jackasses. The very same police who murdered Mike Brown and Freddie Gray were recast as slightly right-of-neutral arbiters in a battle between fascists and anti-fascists. Surveillance and defense industry hacks in the CIA, NSA and FBI were recast as frontline protectors against incipient fascism.

This latter point comes via simplifying assumptions. The motive is shorthand, not deception. Through Russiagate, these Federal agencies came to the defense of liberalism. Individual representatives expanded on the base thesis of an attack on liberal democracy. Implied was / is that liberal democracy is both liberal and democratic. When combined with charges of a fascist insurgency, a reactionary response to restore the status quo emerged.

In other words, a thin theory of race and racism was used to shift social struggle against power into a struggle in support of power. History was reset to have begun in 2016. Democrats who had previously railed against immigrants and deported them in record numbers became beacons of light. Democrats who posed at Stone Mountain, home of the modern KKK, and who spent their time in office putting poor people in prison, were recast as great liberators.

Importantly, a public narrative regarding class was shifted back in favor of the rich. This thin theory of race was used to flatten power, to pose displaced manufacturing workers as the social equivalents of Charles Koch and Bill Gates through ‘whiteness.’ And this narrow conception of power ties up to American imperial power. George W. Bush can slaughter a million-brown people in Iraq, but the ‘problem of race’ is 300 tiki-torchers in Charlottesville?

This isn’t just a matter of numbers. Small groups can have outsized cultural and political influence. Ralph Nader makes this argument vis-a-vis fascism and Mr. Trump quite succinctly here. As it applies otherwise, the problem lies in the parsing. Barack Obama was brutal and relentless with immigrant deportations. And Donald Trump more likely than not based his racist and xenophobic appeals on how well they served Bill Clinton. If you want to claim alarming difference, know your history.

The small-to-middling political problem here is this: political solutions will require forming political coalitions with people we may not agree with. Despite liberal assurances to the contrary, many of Mr. Trump’s working-class voters know more about the Democrats’ policies than Democrats do. For this reason, they see liberal objections to Mr. Trump as either effete or ill-informed. By treating people like they aren’t stupid, political hay can be made.

And lest this point be lost, the rich most certainly agree with the current crop of anti-fascists that the problem is poor people. Pejorative terms for the poor and working class can be found all through leftish chatter. Marx and Gramsci must be rolling in their graves. Dave Chappelle jokes that black people prefer rich white people. What he left out is that white people prefer rich black people. Implication: only the rich can save us?

Elsewhere, when the mortgage lenders who disappeared the preponderance of black wealth in the late 2000s were bailed out, people with few resources, many of whom had lived in their homes for decades, were left homeless and destitute. This economic dispossession should read as familiar. The U.S. is now five decades into it.

If a loan can’t be repaid, it is an entry on a balance sheet. Mr. Obama demonstrated that banks won’t be allowed to fail. However, in the case of black wealth, working- and middle-class people were made homeless and destitute. Foreclosures ruin people’s credit. Without an address and telephone number, finding employment is close to impossible. Most landlords do credit checks, as do cell phone providers.

Mr. Obama’s bailouts weren’t for the benefit of racists. He was bailing out bankers. With respect to charging blacks higher interest rates, the lenders saw an angle to earn larger commissions and they used it. This is capitalism 101— find an opportunity and exploit it. If exploiting people’s vulnerabilities is a problem, end political economy that is premised on doing so.

Notice the trend here. The cops who shoot unarmed black youth are given immunity from prosecution. The bankers who charged blacks a higher interest rate on mortgage loans were bailed out. What ties these together is service to the existing economic order.

Emotive theories of racism focus on narrow motivations. What adds racial meaning to the ‘disappearance of black wealth’ is the intersection of race and class that is a function of history. If the lenders weren’t explicit racists— weren’t motivated by racial animus (they weren’t), then the theory must be broadened until it sticks to ‘work’ (e.g. racist people => racist group=> racist organization=> racist society).

In this particular case, blacks were charged higher interest rates because lenders could. They could because of power differentials that are the result of history and class. The explanation that fits is that racial / economic history landed these people in the class position they occupy. It only reduces to ‘racism’ when a sledgehammer is applied to it.

Almost all of these same power differentials impact whites as well. Through risk pricing based on ‘objective’ criteria, poor and economically vulnerable whites pay higher interest rates than the rich. That is, those least able to pay high interest rates are charged the highest interest rates. This is why capitalists love to operate in poor neighborhoods.

Consider for a moment the discourse around ‘deplorables’ — economically anxious whites who because of their racist views, deserve whatever comes their way. Add the liberal ‘criminal blacks’ canard and you have dispossessed blacks ‘getting what they deserve’ as well. This is class warfare from the perspective of the rich.

It is likely that many of those passionate about ending racism don’t understand its conceptual structure. Vile blather from the 1940s about ‘demonic races’ and ‘dead souls’ is now regularly put forward with ‘white’ being substituted for ‘black.’ In addition to dubious sources and tenor, broad characteristics attributed to any race represent claims of intrinsic— essential, difference. This, dear readers, is the KKK’s theory of race.

Whether intended or not, this thin view of racism works against the idea of economic exploitation. If interactions are motivated by racial animus, then 1) why are they taking place at all— what is the motivation for doing so, and 2) what distributional assumptions would support a conception of exploitation, if there is one? In fact, American slavery as an institution adheres quite closely to the form and function of capitalism.

The argument that it is lousy capitalism, either through the use of coercion to expropriate labor or through its toxic social consequences, is laughable. Two- and one-half centuries ago Adam Smith recognized that ‘employer combines’ gave employers the power to coerce and exploit labor. And capitalism has been in crisis almost as often as it hasn’t since the early nineteenth century.

Oddly, the thesis of settler colonialism, which is perfectly serviceable as a description of historical events, has likewise been used to flatten power, to equate the power of monarchs and oligarchs with that of the rabble. First, few people willingly leave their homes unless they have to. Second, granting that settlers willingly and enthusiastically pursued brutal campaigns of murder, rape, pillage and dispossession, their actions were conceived from above and disproportionately benefited oligarchs.

Whatever the sentiments and animosities of settlers, they served a political role that was conceived and set in motion from above. American slavery and genocide weren’t cases of self-organizing rabble deciding to brutalize people for the hell of it. Slavery was brought from Britain by oligarchs. Many of these oligarchs were slavers. Placing culpability where it belongs requires recognizing the institutional role that elites played.

The histories being written in the settler-colonial frame are more nuanced than portrayed here. However, interpretation has, once again, flattened power to place settlers and oligarchs as equals in political culpability. A contemporary analog is the role that Israeli settlers play in the systematic dispossession of Palestinians. The settler movement is sanctioned and backed by the power of the Israeli government. And implicitly, by the U.S.

When this logic is applied back to the street battles being fought in Charlottesville and Portland, what stands out is how narrow the theories of race and power are to perceive these movements as something new, and therefore insurrectionary. That is, they are significant locally and to the people to whom they are significant. But in terms of their collective political impact, that has been spread out over two or more centuries, not concentrated in the present as seems to be the sentiment. Formal state violence points to the loci of power, not a few hundred angry bullies lashing out.

The argument that these right-wing movements are the avant-garde of a fascist insurgency grants them more power than they currently possess. Only to the extent that they have the support of the oligarchs do they have power. So, is the problem street fighters or the power of the oligarchs?

Phrased differently, if the street fighters were to renounce their evil ways, wouldn’t the oligarchs still have the power to do as they wish? If they wish to do evil, say by launching a neoliberal revolution that dispossesses tens of millions of workers, sets the environment on fire, results in multiple murderous and strategically disastrous wars and brings one of their own to power, will it be racists, fascists and neo-Nazis who they turn to to accomplish it? History suggests no.

Put differently still, between the street fighters in Charlottesville and Portland and the oligarchs, who has the power to make sure that a Green New Deal, a Job Guaranty and Medicare for All don’t come to fruition? Who has the power to build more nuclear weapons rather than reducing the existing supply? And who, in the absence of something akin to a revolution, has the power to make sure that Bernie Sanders doesn’t find his way to the White House?

Finally, the way that liberal groups and the press decided to include black nationalists in counts of ‘hate’ and ‘racist’ groups is politically defenestrating, which is probably why they did it. The term ‘hate’ applies emotive character to political organizing. It implies that class struggle and other forms of political opposition are emotional responses to reasonable circumstances. This tactic has been used liberals and the right to delegitimate the left for decades.

The application of the term ‘racist’ likewise implies a dubious equivalence. White nationalists have a long history of racist violence, black nationalists don’t. White nationalism was closely aligned with state power, although less so today. Black nationalism hasn’t been so aligned. White nationalists adhere to essential theories of racial difference. Black nationalists do so to a much lesser extent.

These differences suggest that the (neo)liberal conception of racism that spread following the 2016 election is both politically loaded and reactionary. Fanonists, anarchists and anti-fascists may want to consider this in their thinking.


Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.