Racial Oppression Will Not be Overcome Under Capitalism

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Much of America’s chatterbox class is aghast at the authoritarian racism on ugly display on the white-nationalist Amerikaner FOX News right. The Don Lemons, Anderson Coopers, Rachel Maddows, and Joy Reids et al. shake their heads and roll their eyes at the nauseating idiocy of the Republifascist Caucasians who advance and support measures to suppress Black voting, who find absurd reasons to back cops who murder and maim people of color, and who preposterously deny the existence of systemic anti-Black racism in American life.

I get the disgust. Millions of white Amerikaners are perfectly willing to accept the absurd Derek Chauvin defense, according to which the white Minneapolis police officer’s act of placing his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nine-and-a-half minutes was just an unfortunate co-morbidity in Floyd’s supposedly self-inflicted, drug-induced death. These lethal idiots nod along like Nazified bobbleheads when some neofascist clown goes on FOX News or OAN to claim that Black people are no more likely to be killed by cops than whites or that the Democrats “stole” the 2020 presidential election from the malignant racist Donald Trump. Bear in mind the not-so-subtle racial subtext behind the Big “Stop the Steal” Lie: Trump should be president because he won the white vote.

Corporate Media Feeds White Racism

Still, the liberal non-FOX talking heads have little reason to be proud given their industry and the system that lines their pockets. American corporate media is a machine for generating white nationalist racism. It fills the nation’s telescreens with a steady parade of wealthy Black celebrities, including a Black president with a Muslim-sounding name for eight years and a Black-Indian female vice president today. The regular procession of Black and brown faces in high and celebrated places feeds the deadly illusion that racism no longer provides any serious barriers to Black advancement and equality while fueling many whites’ false and paranoid belief that “the Blacks” are moving ahead of them with unfair advantages granted by dastardly liberal and left elites.

At the same time, American corporate media feeds white viewers with a routine nightly news diet of de-contextualized Black inner-city criminality and bloodshed. This “urban nightmare” coverage is reinforced in television crime dramas and Hollywood movies (which are loaded with menacing Black characters and images and racist tropes), and objectively fascist “reality” freakshows like Jerry Springer and Maury Povich. It offers no serious commentary and perspective on the miserable, trauma-inducing conditions imposed on Black people living under savage race-class apartheid in deeply impoverished, hyper-segregated ghettoes of despair. The rooting of Black distress in 250 years of slavery, a century of Jim Crow, and a half century of racist mass incarceration and felony marking is routinely ignored.

When combined with pervasive images of supposedly racism-disproving Black success, this makes for a lethal mix, offering alleged proof that Black poverty and violence reflect Black failure, inferiority, and irresponsibility, not societal and racial oppression. Since racism purportedly no longer poses obstacles to Black progress – “look at Obama, Oprah, Kamala, Denzel, Beyonce, Michael, and LeBron” – the only cause of the ghetto carnage on the nightly news must be internal to Black people and culture.

The media imagery matters as much as it does thanks in great part to persistent extreme racial residential and concomitant educational segregation, which renders real Black experience and the lives of the majority of Black Americans (who are neither celebrities nor urban gang members) invisible to all but a minority of whites.

As if this isn’t bad enough, the corporate media and the Internet-based “social media” help untold tens millions of Americans into atomized and ignorant consumers, brain-addled and one-dimensional ex-citizens. Amerikaner minds are damaged by absurdly long working hours and corporate-poisoned food, water, and air, unmentioned comorbidities behind COVID-19’s strength in the U.S. Cognitively crippled subjects lose their capacity for rational thought beyond infantilized tribal identity and rage. They become incapable of grasping any complex historical, social, political, and environmental phenomena: racial oppression, climate change, the anti-democratic absurdity of the Electoral College, the meaning and liberating potential of Single Payer health insurance, arguments for unionization, the public health requirements imposed by a pandemic, the insane amount of public resources stolen from the potential meeting of human and environmental needs to pay for world history’s largest military-industrial complex, and the regular life-draining extraction of surplus value from humanity and Earth that lay at the dark heart of capitalism. They wander through life and politics in a crippling and deadly cloud of mass, corporate-manufactured amnesia, lacking elementary historical knowledge in ways that encourage them to repeat past crimes and atrocities. The preponderant majority of young American adults has no knowledge of the Nazi Holocaust. A tenth of those Americans think the Jews caused the Holocaust.

Racial Capitalism

Then there’s the deeper system that cable news talking heads are dedicated to protecting far-out “radicals” like (the vaguely social democratish) Bernie Sanders: capitalism, whose hegemony is normalized in the long commercial breaks (loaded with clever drug, car, insurance, and investment service advertisements directed at the upper middle class) between liberal CNN and MSNBC talking heads’ segments. From its earliest origins, capitalism has relied on the subjugation, destruction, and exploitation of nonwhite labor, lands, and civilizations – and on racist ideologies and sentiments that pretend to justify that pillage.

Capitalism has also long profited from the division of the populace along racial lines, something that has worked to prevent united mass opposition to its rule while granting masses of non-elite Caucasians in what the great Black American Marxist intellectual W.E.B. DuBois called “the psychological wage of racism”: the insidious yet powerful idea that they are somebody, part of a great privileged “Us.” and not one of “Them”: “niggers,” “gooks,” “wetbacks,” “Japs,” “savages,” “red devils,” “Chinamen,” “Chinks,” “Japs,” “kikes,” “towel heads,” “camel jockeys,” etc.

Many who support capitalism cringe at the notion that racial oppression and white supremacism are inherent in the workings of their supposedly “democratic”[1] regime. Liberal and some moderate, non-Amerikaner whites proudly agree that Black Lives Matter, advocating interventions to make capitalism less racially indecent and more racially inclusive: affirmative action programs, corporate pressure campaigns against white nationalist state governments like those atop Georgia and Texas, racial sensitivity training, sympathetic media and political treatments of Black victims of police violence, integrated news teams and commercials, racially inclusive television dramas and comedies, a really bad Broadway musical that absurdly portrayed Blacks and LatinX people as Founders of the U.S. slave nation, integrated corporate and police review boards, and more.

While much of this liberal activism is well intended, the attempt to overcome racial inequality and cruelty under capitalism is doomed to fail. Meaningfully attacking a substantive portion of the misery that America and the West have inflicted on Africa and diasporic people of African descent is beyond the capacities and interests of those atop the profit system’s de facto class dictatorship. Profit rates are under continuous attack thanks to the anarchic logic of global competition. Real and potential popular opposition to and resentment of the amoral system that poisons the Earth, cancelling livable ecology along with social justice and democracy, necessitates persistent racial divide and rule (whose ugly outcomes are a great seller on cable news, offering endless fodder for the chattering classes) and the preservation of DuBois’s “psychological wage.” The notion of the ownership class and its increasingly cojoined permanent political caste permitting properly proportionate public and private resources to be spent on overcoming divisions that have propped up its parasitic and plutocratic power since 1600 is preposterous. The resources required for even of a hint of the reparations due is far beyond the investment level the masters of capital and empire would ever let America make.

The Real Issue to be Faced

There are no lasting and substantive solutions to “the race problem” under capitalism. DuBois understood this, which is why he was rejected by the Carnegie Corporation as the distinguished scholar to head a great 1930s and 1940s research project on how to understand and overcome “The American Dilemma” of racial separatism and inequality. Carnegie went instead with the milquetoast Swedish social democrat Gunnar Myrdal, whose exhaustive documentation of American racism was accompanied by soft and squeamish recommendations that fell far short of the structural and institutional changes required. For Myrdal, the solutions were about erasing prejudice from white heart and minds, in accord with America’s supposedly democratic values and institutions. For Du Bois and the great and forgotten Black sociologist Oliver Cox, Myrdal’s “idealistic preachments” on behalf of racial inclusion and democracy were comforting bourgeois deflections from the social systemic and political-economic roots of racial division.[2]

As the ecologically ruinous post-World War II “Golden Age” of American and Western capitalism wound down, environmentalists warned of impending ruin. Two key assassinations – that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968 (one year to the day after he came out against the U.S. war on Vietnam) and that of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy (who would have become president on January 20, 1969, had he lived to run for the office) – preceded the fascistic “law and order” presidency of Richard Nixon. Nixon won the White House with his deeply racist “southern strategy” and launched the War on Drugs to criminalize Blacks and antiwar protesters [3]. He loved New York governor Nelson Rockefeller’s vicious military suppression of the 1971 Attica Prison Rebellion because “you see it’s the Black business…the whole thing was led by the Blacks.”

Writing near the end of his life on the historical eve of this reactionary disaster, Dr. King reflected on how “the Black revolution” was forcing the United States “to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that the radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.

That was an elegant way of calling for revolution over and against what King called “the triple evils that are interrelated:” racism, capitalism, and military imperialism. The alternative, King felt, in the wake of two straight summers of racial bloodshed, was continuing violence and “a rightwing takeover and a fascist state that will destroy the soul of the nation.

I’m not sure the U.S. ever had a decent and democratic soul to be destroyed, but King was right about the choice. It’s socialism or fascism (if we’re lucky, given the little problem of capitalogenic ecocide).

We have recently won a partial reprieve from the right-wing takeover that King warned about. A clumsy and undisciplined but virulent and dangerous white-supremacist pandemo-fascist sat in the White House, with open fascists (Steve Bannon and then Stephen Miller), as his top political advisors for four years. He would have returned for a tragic, potentially terminal second term but for the historical “accident” of COVID-19. In the short breathing space that we have been given, we would be fools not to turn our attention to King’s “real issue to be faced,” which means a rather bigger and deeper commitment to societal change than liberal neo-Myrdalian media stars like Rachel Maddow, Don Lemon, Anderson Cooper, and Joy Reid will ever publicly embrace, whatever their private beliefs or knowledge [4]. It’s long past time to organize for a real revolution, nothing less.


[1]. The former Democratic US House Majority Leader turned multi-millionaire corporate lobbyist Richard Gephardt recently explained his corporate clients’ opposition to racist voter suppression legislation being advanced in Texas in the following terms: “Corporations are always reticent to get involved in partisan battling. But this is about whether we’re going protect the democracy. If you lose the democracy, you lose the capitalism.” (New York Times, 13 April, 2021, B1). To what democracy is Gephardt referring? The United States is an open corporate and financial plutocracy and oligarchy where the majority populace is virtually powerless on key policy matters. The U.S. populace does not elect its chief executive on the basis of a national popular vote. Its lower legislative body is badly gerrymandered and its powerful upper legislative body grants two seats to each state regardless of the states’ wildly divergent population sizes. These and other characteristics of the U.S. system of governance (absurdly called the “envy of the world” by Joe Biden) are open violations of the elementary democratic principle of one person, one vote. And why on Earth does Gephardt think capitalism requires democracy? Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary defines capitalism as “the economic system in which all or most of the means of production and distribution … are privately owned and operated for profit, originally under fully competitive conditions: it has been generally characterized by a tendency toward concentration of wealth and, [in] its latter phase, by the growth of great corporations, increased government controls, etc.” There’s nothing about popular self-rule (democracy) in that definition. And there shouldn’t be. “Democracy and capitalism have very different beliefs about the proper distribution of power,” liberal economist Lester Thurow noted in the mid-1990s: “One [democracy] believes in a completely equal distribution of political power, ‘one man, one vote,’ while the other [capitalism] believes that it is the duty of the economically fit to drive the unfit out of business and into extinction. … To put it in its starkest form, capitalism is perfectly compatible with slavery. Democracy is not.” Thurow might have added that capitalism is perfectly compatible with and generative of fascism, racism, nativism, sexism, militarism, and imperialism among other authoritarian and anti-democratic forces and formations. More than being merely compatible with slavery, moreover, U.S.-American capitalism arose largely on the basis of the Black cotton slave system in the nation’s pre-Civil War South. This is demonstrated at length in historian Edward Baptist’s prize-winning study The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, which is richly consistent with something Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed in 1967: “Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad.”

“We must make our choice,” onetime Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis is reputed to have said or written: “We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” This statement (whoever made it) was perhaps unintentionally anti-capitalist. Consistent with Webster’s (above), the historically astute French economist Thomas Piketty has shown that capitalism has always been inexorably pulled by its very nature towards the concentration of wealth (and hence power) into ever fewer hands relative to the total human population.

2. See Cox’s brilliant critical review of Myrdal’s American Dilemma in Oliver Cox, Race: A Study in Social Dynamics (New York: Monthly review Press, 2000), 207-238.

3. In a 2016 Harper’s essay, Dan Baum reported that Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, admitted that the war on drugs was designed to criminalize the Black community. In a 1994 interview, Mr. Ehrlichman said, “You want to know what this was really all about?” He continued: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

4. Lefties like to quote this aphorism from Upton Sinclair: “It Is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding It.” In my experience within the intellectual and professional classes, the bigger problem has been how salary and status prevent affluent professionals from saying publicly what they often privately understand to be true.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).