Liberation Road

Understanding Anti-Blackness: Analysis Implications

Dear Comrade,

How can we understand the centrality of anti-Blackness and the Black Freedom Struggle in a way that strengthens our analysis and our movement’s ability to build a multi-racial working-class movement? And when it comes to building a broader movement, how can we do it in a way that centers an understanding of anti-Blackness and thus the centrality of the Black Freedom Struggle, without getting into a counter-productive tendency of either seeing Black movement as completely separate from other social movements or hyper-focusing on class and excluding the significance of white supremacy and anti-Blackness?


Morgan Hastings

Dear Morgan,

This is such a vital question. And the short answer, I think, is racial capitalism.

When we talk about white supremacy and capitalism, there’s an unfortunate tendency for the conversation to devolve into a chicken-and-egg argument: which comes first?

Historically, one dominant strand of socialist thought argued that the capitalist class relationship comes first—that class is the principle or primary contradiction, in relation to which all other struggles are subordinate. In both its historical and contemporary forms, this line of thinking has not been entirely unsympathetic to struggles around race. But it has tended to draw a firm line between class politics and social justice struggles that take other structures as their starting point, viewing the latter as (secondary) struggles against oppression, in contrast to the structuring antagonism of capitalist exploitation.

At the same time, one strand of Black radical thought has long argued for a similar hierarchical division between anti-Blackness and all other forms of oppression. While this position has gone by many names historically, in the United States it is today most closely associated with the theoretical framework of “Afro-pessimism.” Afro-pessimists argue that the very category of the human subject has been constructed only in and through the denigration of Black people as non-human, and thus that modern civil society is constitutionally and irrevocably anti-Black. Here, the class-reductionist Marxist perspective finds its uncanny mirror image in a paradigm that radically separates Black struggle from other social movements: anti-Blackness is the undergirding structural antagonism, distinct from and incommensurate with all others.

As I’ve tried to suggest, these seemingly totally opposing arguments actually share a common set of assumptions. Both of them argue for a hierarchical relation between different structures of oppression, with one being paramount or primary—they just disagree about which one comes first.

This insistence on subordinating some structures and struggles beneath others is, as you note, counter-productive to building real solidarity across our movements. It also seems predicated on a weirdly zero-sum logic, in which paying attention to class and capitalism can only ever detract from our attention to white supremacy (and vice versa) rather than considering the ways in which our analysis of each can enrich and inform the other.

Luckily, many of our movements today reject such binary thinking in favor of an understanding of the interconnectedness of social struggles—a framework that often goes by the name of “intersectionality.” In the best versions of this paradigm, intersectionality allows us to grasp the connections between various structures of oppression. But intersectionality also has a tendency, inherent in its very name, to think of these structures as fundamentally separate systems that merely overlap or intersect at the margins—with “class” in one rubric, “race” in another, gender in still another, etc. etc. This can be helpful for pointing out the differences between subject positions (as for instance in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s pathbreaking work exploring the distinct experience of Black women as compared against both white women and Black men). But it is less helpful for grasping their underlying commonalities—and in particular, at grasping the deep structural and historical linkages between capitalism and white supremacy.

There is another framework that allows us to better understand that interrelation, and the name for it is racial capitalism. The term, first coined by Cedric Robinson in his seminal work Black Marxism, has gained increasing traction as a means to explain the fact that capitalism is and has always been racialized, and that racialization is inextricably entwined with capitalism. In contrast, then, both to paradigms that try to subordinate race to class, or class to race, and to frameworks that see the two as fundamentally separate systems that merely intersect, this paradigm allows us to understand the two as an integrated structure of oppression in which “race” and “class” are two sides of the same coin with only limited or relative autonomy. Viewed through this framework, we can’t ever talk about class without talking about race, nor can we talk about race without class, which means we need to be anti-racist in order to be anti-capitalist (and vice versa).

I believe a shared analysis of racial capitalism is crucial to building a multi-racial, working-class movement that avoids the pitfalls of both class- and race-reductionism. And while the work of building that movement will have to be developed through praxis, I think it is crucial, here, that our movements ground ourselves in shared theory. I have already mentioned Robinson’s Black Marxism, but I think the best way to develop this shared framework is by reading Black Marxists: both contemporary thinkers like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Robin D. G. Kelley, and now-historical figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois, James Boggs, Claudia Jones, Huey Newton and Stuart Hall. Together, such thinkers can help us advance an understanding of the Black Freedom Struggle and socialist struggle as inextricably intertwined.