The Particularity of Racism: A Marxist Critique of Racial Categories

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(excerpted from Toward a Marxist Analysis of Black Oppression and Black Liberation, 1981, by Linda Burnham and Bob Wing)

  1. The Particular Nature of Black Oppression

The first task in the theoretical analysis of Black oppression, or any other social contradiction, is to analyze its essence, to grasp the particular nature of the unity of opposites that constitutes it and which determines its unique laws of motion as against all other social relations. From there the theoretical challenge is to unravel its interconnection with other social contradictions, especially its relation to the development of capitalism and the fundamental class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. This section takes up the first task. It attempts to lay bare the particularity of Black oppression in the U.S., and thereby sets the theoretical framework for the rest of the analysis.

Since concrete reality exists as a complex whole, the task of isolating one aspect for analysis entails a high level of theoretical abstraction. Consequently, an explicit discussion of the method of analysis utilized is a crucial starting point to clarify our approach and to facilitate critical reading.

  1. The Marxist Method and Black Oppression

We start by asking: What is the concrete object of analysis in studying Black oppression? What should we abstract from this complex of phenomena for intensive study to understand the essential nature of Black oppression?

In our view, the concrete practice of Black oppression consists in the systematic distinction, theoretically and practically, in the way that whites and Blacks are treated in U.S. society. Indeed the very term Black oppression is meaningless except as a comparative category; it means that Black people in the U.S. are oppressed in ways that white people are not. At the same time this oppression is located in the relations between Black and white people. Consequently, the object of theoretical analysis that will enable us to get to the essence of Black oppression is the relationship between whites and Blacks. Only an analysis of this relationship, which pervades every aspect of U.S. society, will enable us to determine the precise nature of Black oppression.

How is the white/Black relationship to be studied? Usually this is done by marshalling a mass of empirical facts as to the mechanisms and effects of this relationship, drawing comparisons and analogies to similar relationships, and theorizing or building a model that corresponds to this information. Undoubtedly such methods have a role in theoretical analysis, but by themselves they will never lead to clarity on the essence of Black oppression. To begin or rest the study of Black oppression upon the various theories (such as that it is national oppression, racist oppression, etc.), without determining the basic categories which reflect its objective and concrete social practice, is to rest the whole venture upon a shifting foundation of “contending opinions,” a mistake that has been made far too often with resulting confusion and frustration.

We submit therefore that what is needed is a dialectical materialist critique of the nature of the white vs. Black contradiction, beginning with analysis of the categorical opposites, white and Black, that constitute the unity of that contradiction. In short, what is needed is the application of what Engels called the “logical method of analysis” to Black oppression.

The logical method is rooted in the Marxist understanding of the relationship between the logical (the development of human concepts and categories) and the historical (the development of human social practice). Specifically, it assumes that the logic of concepts and categories is an accurate reflection of the social practice that produced them and that, consequently, the analysis of those concepts and categories, in turn, is key to the analysis of the social practice in question. Since this method has been sorely neglected in the U.S. communist movement, so renowned for its pragmatism, we will briefly review it. Our purpose is not to make a general contribution to understanding the Marxist method but rather to make the basis and assumptions of our analysis of Black oppression explicit.

According to Marxism, human social practice is qualitatively different from the activity of all other living things in that it is conscious activity. As Marx put it,

“A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in the imagination before he erects it in reality. … He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realizes a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will.”8

Unlike other animals, humans are not prisoners of instinct: we conceptualize what we intend to do before doing it, and act on the basis of those conceptions. Sometimes these conceptions are murky, other times sharp; sometimes the result of our activity is quite different from the conception that guided it. But the point is that concepts and categories are an integral element in human social practice; they give human practice its unique conscious quality.

Individuals conceptualize their actions before acting, but those concepts themselves grow out of the practice of society more broadly. Thus, on the relationship between concepts and practice, Marxism takes the clearcut materialist position that concepts and categories are the product of social practice, not vice versa. That is, at the point that a particular human activity reaches any level of general social importance (is no longer accidental or particular), society has already produced concepts and categories (indeed, whole theories) in an attempt to consciously harness that activity to its own ends, that is, to regulate, systematize, or otherwise control it. On the other hand, and this is what makes Marxist materialism dialectical, those concepts and categories which are produced by social practice are in turn wielded by humankind to consciously and systematically reproduce that practice and even revolutionize it.

In short, concepts and categories are products of social practice and they are also integral to that practice. Consequently, the analysis of concepts and categories is key to the analysis of the social practice that produced them—this is the theoretical basis for the logical method of analysis.

Marx’s Capital is the quintessential example of the logical method at work. Marx did not content himself solely with gathering data about the capitalist economy and theorizing about its functioning. Instead the majority of the three volumes is devoted to the dialectical materialist critique of the basic concepts and categories of capitalist production, categories such as “profit,” “value,” “commodity,” “money,” “interest,” “exchange,” “rent,” etc. Marx’s premise was that a systematic set of economic relations necessarily produces a systematic set of concepts and categories that reflect them. Therefore, by dialectically analyzing those categories and uncovering their essential content, he was able to provide powerful insight into the nature and “logic” of the relations of capitalist production themselves. Strikingly, Marx identified very few economic categories aside from those commonly recognized, but rather analyzed the categories already “alive” and integral to capitalist social practice. In a manner of speaking, Marx was able to make the economic relations “speak for themselves” by analyzing them, thus avoiding subjective theoretical speculation or model-building. Engels summarized Marx’s method in a review of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the forerunner to Capital:

“History moves often in leaps and bounds and in a zigzag line, and as this would have to be followed throughout, it would mean not only that a considerable amount of material of slight importance would have to be included, but also the train of thought would frequently have to be interrupted…. The logical method of approach was therefore the only suitable one. This, however, is indeed nothing but the historical method, only stripped of the historical form and diverting chance occurrences. The point where this history begins must also be the starting point of the train of thought, and its further progress will be simply the reflection, in abstract and theoretically consistent form, of the historical course. Though the reflection is corrected, it is corrected in accordance with laws provided by the actual historical course, since each factor can be examined at the stage of development where it reaches its full maturity, its classical form.”9

Without the logical method of analysis, Marx could never have deepened political economy’s understanding of the law of value or discovered the law of surplus value, etc. Instead, he would have been mired at the level of phenomena or entrapped within the theoretical constructs of the bourgeois political economists before him, such as Adam Smith, whose theoretical work Marx respected. Even Marx’s socialist predecessors were limited to hating capitalist injustice while at the same time remaining enslaved to its assumptions and categories— property, money, value, etc.— precisely because they were unable to conduct a dialectical materialist critique of these categories and thus could not uncover the actual laws of capitalist production.[1]

How should this logical method be applied to the analysis of Black oppression?

We have already noted that the live categories in the social practice of Black oppression are the categories “white” and “Black.” This much is readily obvious. The real questions are where did these categories come from and what do they signify? Our fundamental thesis is that these categories were produced by the historical practice of Black enslavement in the U.S. and in turn became the objective conceptual basis for that oppression to be made more conscious and systematic and to be reproduced over centuries in new and various forms. If humankind could not distinguish “whites” from “Blacks,” “Blacks” could not be singled out for oppression. Contrary to “common sense,” the categories “white” and “Black” are neither natural nor neutral. To the contrary, they are deadly social categories produced by Black oppression and valid only within its realm. Indeed, the widely accepted view that the categories “white” and “Black” are merely descriptive of natural distinctions among people is itself testimony to how Black oppression has become “natural” to U.S. society.

Just as capitalism ensures that everyone knows what “profit” and “wages” are, racism ensures that everyone is able to distinguish white from Black. In fact, the ability to do so is a necessity for everyone who lives within a system where those categories are a fundamental basis to organize society. (By contrast, there is no similar agreement, indeed there is often violent disagreement, over how to characterize the relations between whites and Blacks; some call this racism, others national oppression, and still others, from the other side of the political spectrum, have taken to describing it as “reverse discrimination.”) The point is that the categories white and Black are an objective necessity for the functioning of the system of Black oppression— their use and content are verifiable regardless of one’s particular political or ideological orientation. Thus a critical examination of these categories in order to determine their essential social content is key to analyzing the nature of the social practice of Black oppression.

Although the logical method of analysis will be our starting point, it is in no way a substitute for concrete historical and empirical investigation. As Engels commented, “One can see that this method, the logical exposition, need by no means be confined to the purely abstract sphere. On the contrary, it requires historical illustration and continuous contact with reality. In the remainder of this section then, we will concentrate on the logical/categorical critique, while making use of some historical references. Section III, on the other hand, is entirely devoted to illustrating the logical analysis of Section II through an overview examination of U.S. history.

Taken as a whole, the logical analysis of racial categories and the historical analysis of racism and race relations in the U.S. comprise a theory of racism as applied to the concrete conditions of the U.S.

 

  1. The White vs. Black Distinction

Black and white—these are the operative categories of the race relation in the U.S. Willingly or not, and with varying degrees of consciousness, everyone in the U.S. lives by them. Their very existence as politically and socially charged categories is testimony to the fact that they reflect social reality.

But these categories do not exist or function independently of society. Quite the contrary, they exist only as reflections of human activity. In social life, the categories white and Black exist as racial groups4 defined in relation to each other.

Since Black and white are the operative categories of Black oppression, it is essential that we accurately identify the nature of these categories. Our thesis is that these categories have three defining characteristics. First, they are social—as opposed to natural—categories. Second, they are racial—as opposed to class or national— categories. Finally, they are antagonistic—as opposed to neutral or descriptive—categories.

4 What we call the white racial group and the Black racial group are simply what in every day language are called “white people” and “Black people.” We use this more cumbersome terminology in order to drive home the point that they are racial groups, not nationalities, and to emphasize them as groups, not individuals. We consciously avoid the term “race,” as this term has acquired the connotation of a biological concept, while racial groups are social concepts.

 

  1. Black and White as Categories of Social Practice

Contrary to a certain “common sense” view of racism, the categories Black and white are not “natural”1 categories of biology, genealogy, or geography (the continent or region of one’s ancestors’ origin)—instead they are social categories produced by historical practice.

This is a key point, because the false notion of “natural races” is a powerful idea that has served to justify and perpetuate Black oppression for centuries. This view holds that “races” are inherent in biology or genealogy and that racism is the result of some innate and inexorable human behavioral or psychological imperative toward “other-directed” prejudice. Consequently, racial contradictions are reputed to have plagued humankind ever since the different “races” first crossed paths and, at best, racial antagonism can only be rendered less virulent, but never fully eliminated.[2] However, a careful analysis of the white vs. Black distinction explodes this racist myth.

The peculiar logic of the white vs. Black distinction in the U.S. shows that it has precious little to do with biology, continental/ancestral “gene pools,” etc. People in the U.S. are considered Black if they have the slightest visible trace of African ancestry and are considered white only if they appear to be “pure white.” For example, a person may have one great-grandparent of African ancestry and seven of European ancestry but still be considered Black in the U.S. so long as African ancestry is visibly detectable. Obviously that determination is socially made. If the category were indeed a “natural” or biological one, such a person would have to be deemed “mainly white.” Indeed, the fact that there are no operative categories for the various shades between white and Black is itself further proof that the categories reflect social practice and not nature or genealogy. One study concluded that 21% of people who are categorized as white in the U.S. are part African and that the great majority of people who are considered Black are part European.12 Clearly the strange logic of the white vs. Black distinction is completely beyond the pale of natural science or genealogical charts to explain.

The point is that Black oppression in the U.S. is not a conflict between genealogically-determined “races,” but rather a social conflict which promotes and enforces a fallacious belief about people’s genealogical links to Africa in order to justify itself. The idea that biology is the determining factor in the white vs. Black distinction is a vulgar pseudoscientific myth concocted to promote the racist notion that “races are inherently different,” and “racism is inevitable.” The implicit assumption and inevitable conclusion of this view is that “the white race is superior.”

Further illustration that the white vs. Black distinction is social and not natural is provided through a comparison to other countries where the relations between those who would pass as “whites” and “Blacks” by U.S. standards are mediated by different categories and practices. For example, in South Africa there is a distinct category of “coloured” that stands between white and Black, indicating that the dynamics of racism there are somehow different than in the U.S. On the other hand, in Latin American countries (and many other parts of the world) there are numerous categories designed to describe different combinations of skin color, eye color, hair

color and texture, etc. These categories can be qualitatively distinguished from the white vs. Black racial categories of the U.S. In the main they tend to be more descriptive (albeit usually discriminatory toward darker people) and carry far less social onus and consequences than in the U.S.

Clearly the strict white vs. Black system of categorization existing in the U.S. is a product of the particular historical development of this country, not a universally valid biological or genealogical distinction that transcends history. In short, there is nothing natural about it. The white vs. Black distinction was produced— and is sustained—in the U.S. by socio-historical practice, not natural science. Thus the categories Black and white can only be understood as social categories. In fact, they defy either definition or description on any other basis. W.E.B. DuBois crystallized this point most eloquently. When challenged to present a definition of a “Black,” he decided that the only consistent answer was: “The Black man is a person who must ride ‘Jim Crow’ in Georgia.” 13

  1. Black and White as Racial Categories

Since the categories Black and white are, as we have demonstrated, social categories, what kind of social categories are they? Or put another way, what social groups do they identify?

Our thesis is that they are racial categories. This virtually self-evident point still eludes many communists who realize that there are no such things as “races” in biology or anthropology and therefore mechanically conclude that there are no “races” in the realm of social science despite the fact that race is clearly an operative category of social practice.

No consistent anti-racist or materialist can dispute the fact that “race” is an unscientific category in the world of nature. Since the 1930s, research has conclusively demolished the notion of biological races and proven that the vicissitudes of human history have resulted in immense genetical intermixture. The natural selection of different physical traits associated with different parts of the world was the result of millennia of prehistory where isolated human societies engaged in a primitive battle with nature. The last few thousand years, however, have been marked by steady gains in the human race’s command of nature (development of the forces of production). As a result, human history has been shaped by ever greater contact and exchange between peoples. The isolation of earlier societies came to an end, and along with this changed social practice came an increasing intermixture of peoples—proving in fact that the human race was one species, incredibly diverse yet biologically capable of intermixture. As a result, there is no longer any genetically pure people on earth, and scientifically speaking, there is only one race, the human race.

However, just because race is unscientific in a biological sense does not mean that it is not operative socially. Bourgeois society, in particular is not organized according to the latest findings of science, but according to the requirements of capital. Thus, to rule out the notion that white and Black are racial categories because “race” is unscientific is to mistakenly apply natural science criteria to social science. In fact, an analysis of the logic of the white vs. Black distinction proves that this distinction is thoroughly racial in character.

In the U.S., white and Black are determined on the basis of a distinction in the physical appearance of people, mainly a difference in their skin color/along with secondary features such as hair texture, etc.). That is, certain physical features are isolated and fetishized into mutually exclusive racial groups—the white and Black racial groups. The white vs. Black distinction categorizes people based on a reified notion of skin color, irrespective of their other attributes, such as culture, national origin, class, etc. This does not mean that people have no other attributes or that classification into a racial group makes them disappear, only that the white vs. Black distinction is indifferent to them—they are inessential to this particular system of categorization. Consequently it is not at all uncommon for a diplomat from a country such as Nigeria to be treated in an abusive manner in the streets of New York, “mistaken” as an “ordinary Black.” And a Puerto Rican family can be split upon arrival in the U.S. because some members begin to be treated as Blacks. Since a socially determined concept of physical features is the basis for the white vs. Black distinction, this distinction is properly called a racial distinction, a distinction between white and Black racial groups.

By contrast, the logic of the white vs. Black distinction has nothing in common with the logic of nations or nationalities.[3] National categories are completely indifferent to physical features. They are determined by purely socio-historical factors such as the development of an all-sided economic structure, language, culture, etc., factors that are in turn inessential to the white vs. Black distinction. Racial groups and nations or nationalities are determined by qualitatively different standards and logic, a reflection of the fact that the social practices that produced them (national formation on one hand, racism on the other) are qualitatively different.6 The white vs. Black distinction is a socially-determined racial distinction, not a nationality distinction. These racial categories are a powerful social force in the U.S., literally dictating different life destinies along the color line.

  1. Black and White as Antagonistic Categories

In addition to being social and racial categories, the white vs. Black distinction is antagonistic; it is not a neutral or unbiased way to describe the physical characteristics of people. Were they neutral descriptions, we would expect to find numerous categories based on eye color, shades of skin color, hair color and texture, physical size, etc. But in the U.S. a rigid two-category system only tenuously related to physical appearance prevails.7

The inherently antagonistic nature of the white vs. Black distinction is graphically illustrated by analysis of its logic. In the U.S. to be “accepted” into the category of white one must appear to be “racially pure” whereas the category of Black is a “genetic dumping ground” for all those who have ostensibly been “contaminated” by the slightest “tinge of Black blood.” Put another way, the logic of racial categories purports that whites have unadulterated pedigrees whereas Blacks are mongrels.[4]

This baldfaced white supremacist logic is inherent in the white vs. Black distinction itself; it is the logical reflection of the fact that the historical relationship between the Black and white racial groups has been antagonistic, oppressive and racist. Produced by the historical practice of white supremacy and Black oppression, racial categories consequently define the antagonistic poles of the social relation of racial oppression. Far from being neutral categories to describe distinctive physical appearance, white and Black are categories produced by the social practice of racism and in turn are indispensable for the production and reproduction of white supremacy and Black oppression in U.S. society. They have no validity outside the context of racism and the struggle against it. The reality of these categories is that they are used to organize social practice in such a way as to decide the life destiny of millions of people in the U.S.—who shall be slave and who free, who may ride in the front of the bus and who must ride in the back, who may vote and who may not, who will be educated, hired, and promoted, and who not, etc. Racial oppression and the logic of its categories are a testimony to the limits of bourgeois irrationality, chauvinism, and barbarism. Yet the white vs. Black distinction is universally accepted as a natural fact of life in U.S. society, by “white” and “Black” alike—a dramatic indication of the power and pervasiveness of racism and its world outlook.[5]

In summation, an analysis of the white vs. Black distinction shows that Black oppression is racial oppression. It shows that the white vs. Black distinction is the logical expression produced by the historical practice of white supremacy and Black oppression— that people are not “white” and “Black” by nature (genealogy or biology) nor simply because they look different, but because the social practice of racism polarized society into hostile racial groups. Further, this white vs. Black polarization is a product of the particular historical development of the U.S. (which we will study in more detail in Section III).

Consequently the notion that the division of humanity into races is natural perpetuates the racist myth that Blacks and whites are inherently different and antagonistic, and that nothing can be done to eliminate this problem of “human nature.” On the other hand, the notion that racism and racial groups are not real because they are inconsistent with modern science and anthropology is a mechanical transference of natural science criteria to social analysis. And lastly to consider whites and Blacks as nations or nationalities qualitatively obscures the racial character of the white vs. Black distinction and, consequently, makes it impossible to grasp the dynamics of the social practice of Black oppression.

Before moving on to the historical examination of the system of racial oppression and its links to the development of capitalism in the U.S., we must extend our categorical analysis to the particularities of the Black and white racial groups respectively and the intersection of each with classes.

  1. The White Racial Group

The white racial group is the oppressor pole within the system of racial oppression. Its existence as a distinct social group is premised on the oppression of Blacks and therefore its objective interest (the white interest) is in racism. Independent of the will of white individuals, the system of racism creates the white racial group which shares in the benefits of Black oppression: to the degree that Blacks are overwhelmingly concentrated at the lowest level of political, economic, social and cultural existence that U.S. capitalist society has to offer, whites are proportionately spared that fate.

The white racial group is the objective oppressor social group created by the system of white supremacy. This objective condition is subjectively expressed in the self-conscious defense of those interests which whites have in common with each other. The social force that actively functions to promote that white group interest in the U.S. is what we have termed the white united front. While all whites benefit to one degree or another from racism, not all whites actively promote or support it—some may actively oppose racism and the interests of the white racial group– and therefore not all whites are in the white united front.

Obviously, the white racial group cuts across class lines. As the result of class differentiation, not all white individuals share in the white interest equally: in particular, class interest and racial interest are not the same. One set of interests flows from the class position of people in society, the other from their racial position. Thus, racial interest and class interest may coincide, or they may be contradictory. This is the key contradiction that makes the white united front inherently unstable and sets the conditions for breaking it up.

For white capitalists, class and racial interest completely coincide: it is no accident that it is a class of whites.[6]* The system of racial oppression was brought into being and perpetuated in order to unfold and expand the exploitation of labor by capital in North America. The vast scale, explosive pace and relative smoothness of capitalist development in the U.S. cannot be fully explained without the factor of racism. And the bourgeoisie’s present economic and political rule over the rest of society still rests upon racism as a key foundation stone. Consequently the white bourgeoisie constitutes the core and chief beneficiary of the white united front. It is therefore the main enemy of the anti-racist struggle.

The petit bourgeoisie in the U.S. has been and remains overwhelmingly a class of whites. Racism has conspicuously barred the entry of Blacks and other minorities into this class throughout the country’s history. This situation has begun to change slightly only within the past few decades. Even so, the relatively few Blacks who make it into the petit bourgeoisie occupy the most peripheral and precarious positions and are discriminated against within the class. While some whites within the petit bourgeoisie will step forward and others will vacillate in the struggle against racism, the majority constitutes a backbone of the white united front in defense of white interests. Every liberal professor who contributes money to the NAACP is matched a hundred-fold by “terrified” storekeepers and landlords who “do business” in the ghettoes; hardpressed “American farmers” who hold their Black and Latino field hands in racist contempt; and Allan Bakke types convinced that “unqualified” Blacks should not be given a “free ride” into the already overcrowded professions. The petit bourgeoisie is a highly competitive and declining class and the defense of its increasingly desperate position is bound to have a sharp racist edge.

By contrast, the multi-racial working class suffers from racism in the same proportion as the capitalist class gains. Its economic and political slavery as a class is strengthened by the system of racism, and the working class is divided against itself by the racism within its ranks which promotes a distinct interest of white workers against Black workers. Consequently the class interests of white workers are in contradiction to their racial interests as whites. This is the only section of the white racial group whose class and racial interests are qualitatively in opposition to each other. As part of the working class, the interests of white workers are anti-racist. As part of the white racial group, however, their interests are racist since as whites they gain improved job opportunities, education, housing, etc. relative to Blacks and other minorities. Whether this contradiction is resolved in favor of the class rather than the racial interest is a central question of the class struggle, one for which the communists must devise a very definite strategy. But what is significant about this contradiction is that it provides the working class section of the white racial group with the best material basis to be won away from the racist white united front over to the anti-racist united front, because workers cannot qualitatively defend their class interests if they function politically, first and foremost, “as whites.”

But there is nothing automatic about such a resolution. For in an immediate quantitative way, there is in fact something to be gained for workers in defending their “white birthright” in the U.S. This unavoidable historical truth, so embarrassing to the conciliators of the racist outlook of many white workers, is the material basis for the reproduction of racism within the working class. The U.S. working class today is extremely broad and stratified in terms of income, conditions of work and life. Although even the more stable sectors of the working class cannot qualitatively escape the instability inherent in their class position, they can be substantially cushioned, especially in an imperialist country. There is understandably a high premium placed upon these more protected positions—and racism and national chauvinism have traditionally given and continue to give the competitive edge to “white Americans”—a prerogative within the working class which its “white interest” will seek to protect. (Witness the stiff resistance to affirmative action, superseniority, etc.) The “white interest” also shows up in the lower, less stable strata of the working class where the competition for survival is fierce and the racism is often more conspicuous. But the defense of white interest within the working class cannot be reduced to fights on unemployment lines or for job applications; it is far more pervasive and all-sided.

The force of tradition also plays a significant role in reinforcing the defense of the white racial group’s interests in the U.S. Historically the white racial interest became a powerful force precisely because the class and racial interests of the vast majority of whites coincided. For example, the racist enslavement of Blacks enabled most whites to become property holders of one type or another—either as bourgeois merchants, or as petit bourgeois shopkeepers, farmers, craftspersons, artisans, etc., while bourgeois planters were laying a firm foundation for a U.S. national capital on he backs of enslaved Black labor. In fact, the majority of the white racial group was part of the bourgeoisie or petit bourgeoisie up to about the twentieth century—and the whites that were part of the working class were overwhelmingly composed of European immigrants who in turn were themselves climbing off the lowest rungs of the proletarian ladder after a generation or so, leaving newer immigrants and Blacks behind. As a result, the white racial group—and its subjective expression, the white united front—had a powerful class basis for hundreds of years in North America. In fact, the white racial group largely coincided with the bourgeois/petit bourgeois class alliance that constituted the social basis of capitalist rule. In this sense, the white racial group is a bourgeois, racist formation key to the economic and political consolidation of the rule of the U.S. bourgeoisie.

However with the advent of the twentieth century, and especially during the last 50 years, important shifts occurred in the class position of the bulk of the white population, introducing a basic structural instability into the white racial group and the white united front. As U.S. monopoly capitalism matured and large scale European immigration came to an end, most whites have either been unable to climb out of the working lass or have been pressed back into it by capital. Thus the class basis to smash the white united front now exists. But the historical power of the white united front and the fact that the system of white supremacy and Black oppression continues to generate the white racial group with a distinct white interest as a powerful material force, even within the working class, means that this process will be difficult and protracted. This process has no chance of success, however, if the white interest among white workers is conciliated in the slightest instead of being consistently identified and struggled against.

  1. The Black Racial Group

As we have shown, Black people are the oppressed racial group within the racist system of white supremacy and Black oppression in the United States. The Black racial group is the dialectical opposite of the white racial group. All people who appear to be even partially of African descent, independent of their will or their other social or cultural characteristics (such as class or nationality) suffer from racial oppression and are part of the Black racial group. The Black racial group is the oppressed social group created by the system of racism. Consequently, the objective interest of this racial group as a group is in the overthrow of the system of racial oppression, in Black liberation.

More specifically, the oppressed Black racial group in the U.S. is a unity of two interconnected but distinct aspects: Black people are a racially oppressed section of the laboring masses, as well as a distinct racially oppressed people. Between these two, the principal defining aspect of the Black racial group is that of being a racially coerced section of labor in this country.

This view stems from our analysis of the connection between racial oppression and U.S. capitalism. As we have emphasized, racial oppression and class oppression are qualitatively distinct social contradictions with their own dynamics and laws of development. But they are also interconnected. In our view, the nature of this interconnection is defined by the fact that capitalism gave rise to and ultimately determines the form and content of racial oppression. In particular, the ultimate raison d’etre of racial oppression is the need of U.S. capital accumula­tion for a specially oppressed, coerced section of labor.

Thus the requirements of primitive accumulation of capital in the New World determined the need for an enslaved labor force and marked the origin of the racist system of white supremacy/Black oppression. In turn the needs of industrial capital ultimately led to the abolition of slavery and its replacement with the racist system of sharecropping. And it was the historical demands of monopoly capital which drove Blacks from the plantation and has kept them segregated in the role of last-hired, first-fired labor reserve in the ghetto heartlands of U.S. cities. After almost 350 years of bitter labor in this country, less than 1% of Blacks have escaped the condition of being part of the laboring masses within U.S. capitalism. (In the category “laboring masses” we include the bulk of the petit bourgeoisie as well as proletarians, tenant farmers, slaves, etc.)

This is not to say that racial oppression is directly a form of economic exploitation, or that economic considerations mechanically determine race relations. But we are saying that the Black racial group was fundamentally created as a coerced labor force for capital, and that this is the principal aspect of racial oppression. Thus, while racial oppression is qualitatively different from the class contradiction between workers and capitalists, it is a particular form of the capital vs. labor contradiction which has been created under the concrete and historically definite conditions of capitalist production in this country. Our main point here is that Black people are principally a distinct racially coerced section of the U.S. laboring masses. Compared to the white racial group, the Black racial group is relatively homogeneous in terms of class position and conditions of life. Still, it is also separated along class lines, a fact which gives rise to class contradictions among Blacks, and in turn is reflected in various class responses to the demands of the anti-racist struggle.

At least 90% of the Black population is part of the working class; their racial interests and class interests completely coincide. As such, Black workers objectively constitute a powerful force not only for the Black liberation struggle, but also for proletarian revolution in the United States. As among their white counterparts, however, class consciousness does not develop spontaneously from class conditions. In particular, the pervasiveness and harshness of racist oppression, combined with the historic failure of white workers to fight racism consistently, can obscure class unity and consciousness. Racism has served to concen­trate Blacks disproportionately in the lower depths of the working class, subjecting large sections of Black working class families to conditions of perpetual depression-like instability. These circumstances in turn usher in a myriad of ideological problems universally associated with the lumpenized sector of the proletariat.

The particularly insidious intersection of racial and class oppression in the U.S. serves to hide the critical state of absolute emiseration of large sections of the working class. Racism disguises and distorts this condition and makes it appear as solely a racial problem. In addition the system of racial oppression thoroughly orchestrates and frames the attack upon the Black section of the working class. Consequently the working class Black masses themselves often view their predicament as first and foremost a problem of racism.

The Black petit bourgeoisie is a class whose class interests usually coincide initially with its racial interests, and yet tend to conflict in the long run. The struggle against Black oppression entails the demand for equality of opportunity, including entry into petit bourgeois professions and business ventures. Successes scored in this realm mark important gains in the struggle of the Black racial group against white supremacy. In addition this class concentrates some of the most talented and determined elements among the Black masses, who tend to emerge as the “natural” spokespersons and leaders of the Black racial group with political influence far outstripping their numbers or their actual class position relative to broader U.S. society. And this phenomenon will continue to prevail, and gain widespread validation among the Black masses, so long as the Black liberation struggle remains principally locked into the bourgeois world view, because the implicit end goal of Black liberation in this petit bourgeois ideological framework must be for the “talented tenth” of the Black racial group to be allowed access (according to individual merit) into the petit bourgeois and bourgeois strata, comparable to their white counterparts.

Consequently the Black petit bourgeoisie plays a prominent and articulate role in the Black liberation struggle. However, the countercurrent is also powerful. To the extent that the Black petit bourgeois focus on consolidating their individual and family foothold in the petit bourgeoisie (their ability to pass it on to the next generation), their commitment to the Black liberation struggle falters and is bound to be increasingly marked by vacillation and opportunism. This phenomenon stems from the fact that the bourgeois world view proves itself completely inadequate to come up to the strategic demands of the Black liberation struggle. To the petit bourgeois, “liberation” is principally an individual and family question. Yet Black oppression is the racist subjugation of the whole racial group. Therefore liberation can only be mapped out in terms that bring the Black masses squarely up against capital. And, like all petit bourgeois forces, the Black petit bourgeoisie at best will prove to be an erratic and vacillating ally in the struggle against capital.

As for the handful of functioning Black capitalists, their class and racial interests are in opposition. The discriminatory terms on which they are permitted to enter the bourgeoisie presuppose the perpetuation of an oppressed Black racial group. The commodity market they stake out for themselves is based upon the continued ghettoized and marginal existence of the majority of the Black masses. Since they function in the most competitive sector of capital, they also require a pool of easily exploitable Black labor for their survival as capitalists. As a group, they can be expected to respond positively only to the most superficial aspects of the Black liberation struggle (renaming streets after prominent Black Americans, donating encyclopedias to ghetto libraries, etc.) while remaining silent or opposing outright the struggle on more basic issues (unemployment, police brutality, etc.).[7] They do, however, support antiracist reforms that remove obstacles to the reproduction and stabilization of their bourgeois class standing.

In addition to constituting a racially oppressed sector of the laboring masses, the Black racial group has been forged by the historical experience of racial oppression, and the struggle to – survive and overcome it, into a culturally distinct and cohesive black people. In fact, precisely because they are a racially oppressed section of the laboring masses, Blacks have developed into a racially oppressed people, who constitute an integral part of the U.S. people, yet at the same time a distinct people in themselves.

Whites and Blacks have lived and worked together in the same economy and on the same territory for more than 350 years in the course of which they were forged into a single U.S. nationality. However, racism divides the whole society, and hence the U.S. nationality, into antagonistic racial groups: “white Americans” and “Black Americans.”Consequently, whites and Blacks experience U.S. national life from opposite ends of the racial contradiction, and these qualitatively different experiences have given rise to distinctive cultural expressions within the U.S. national culture.

But contrary to some romantic notions which attribute to pre-colonial Africa a far greater cultural cohesion than was the case, Blacks did not come to the western hemisphere as a distinct people, nor did this distinctiveness spring into being immediately. In fact, at the time of the origins of racial oppression in the U.S. (the late seventeenth century), the Black racial group included a vast array of quite distinct African ethnic and tribal groups. But precisely because racism ignores all characteristics of people and divides them into racial groups based on their skin color, the Black racial group was formed and faced racial oppression. Blacks were forced to become a racially oppressed sector of the laboring masses long before they were forged into a distinct, unified people. In fact it was the experience of racism and slavery within this country that, by the end of the eighteenth or the beginning of the nineteenth century, had begun to amalgamate these different African peoples—together with the various European cultures that Blacks interacted with daily, including those inherited from their own white parentage—into a distinct Black or Afro-American people with a distinct culture. Since that time, Black culture has been enriched and deepened in accordance with the changing experiences of Black people within the U.S.

Thus, Black people and their culture are distinct yet at the same time are part and parcel of the American nationality and culture. Racism denies both of these facts. It attempts to deny that Blacks—or Africans— have any culture worthy of the name, and systematically tries to suppress or co-opt any such expressions. And it attempts to deny that Blacks have made any significant contribution to American culture. In line with the white supremacy/Black oppression logic of racism, American culture and the American nationality—both material and spiritual—are mythologically claimed to be the exclusive product and property of whites. This racist claim is an obvious justification for racial oppression: “Since Blacks have contributed nothing, they should get nothing.” In fact, Black people are a distinct people whose culture is extraordinarily rich, vibrant, and diverse, and almost every field of U.S. cultural expression today is thoroughly influenced by it. Black people are central to the American nation and nationality.[8]

Because Black people in the U.S. have a distinct culture rooted in a common condition and life experience of racial oppression, many people—even among those who reject the Black Nation thesis—tend to see the Black racial group as an oppressed nationality. But a distinct and common culture, even one which is the outgrowth of a common condition of oppression, is an insufficient basis for the forging of a nationality. A nationality is the product of an all-sided community whose material basis rests in a distinct common economic life.[9] Black people, by contrast, have always been locked into an oppressive position within the larger U.S. capitalist society as a specially exploitable labor force for capitalist development. Consequently their cultural distinctiveness is the product of oppression and the struggle against that oppression within capitalist society and not the result of an economic life outside that society.

Moreover, culture is neither essential to the white vs. Black distinction, nor is it key to the oppression faced by Blacks. For example, individual Blacks who may not be central to the social and cultural life of the Black community or recently arrived Africans or West Indians are treated no differently than Blacks steeped in U.S. Black culture.

Even beyond Black experience, cultural oppression within the U.S. has always been color-coded: it has always been powerfully affected by racial oppression. As a result, those immigrant nationalities who qualify as “white” in the U.S. racial system are integrated into the larger social fabric in a qualitatively different way and on qualitatively different terms than those who are considered non-white. All immigrants face national minority oppression to one degree or another. But this oppression tends to recede more or less rapidly for the white immigrants, and their U.S. born descendants rarely face ongoing discrimination of any decisive social consequence. Conversely, native peoples and non-white immigrants face all-sided, systematic, and protracted oppression due not only to their nationality, but more crucially because of their color: racism singles out “non-whites” on the basis of color and imposes on their particular class condition both racial oppression and an intensified form of national oppression. Moreover, racism locks their U.S.-born descendants into continuing systematic oppression on the basis of color, even if they are fully steeped in U.S. culture and traditions and have lost touch with the language and culture of their forebears.[10]

In fact, capitalism’s historic tendency is to break down national distinctions, not to perpetuate and extend them. As Lenin noted, capitalism requires a common language and culture in its workplaces, marketplaces, educational system, etc., and therefore tends to assimilate all people within its national boundaries into a single nationality. This process is faster or slower depending on the degree to which capitalist production dominates a particular country, and is more or less democratically accomplished according to the nature of the political life of each country. But proceed it does in every capitalist country. The U.S. is no exception. Indeed, as the most powerful capitalist country, the U.S. tends to assimilate nationalities very rapidly, a process which is somewhat slowed only by a constant flow of immigrants. Here is the grain of truth in the “melting pot” theory.

By contrast, the historic tendency of U.S. capitalism has been to produce and reproduce antagonistic racial groups within it, not to break them down. In the early years, the various African ethnic and national groups were transformed into the Black racial group while the various European nationalities became the white racial group. Over the course of time this racial division was reproduced many times over and extended to draw in the millions of immigrants of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today that color line remains as impenetrable as ever. More rapidly than ever before, all European peoples (from Hungarian “refugees” to Latin Americans of no visible Black or Indian ancestry) are integrated into the white racial group. At the same time, non-white nationalities are assimilated into the oppressed racial groups within the U.S. nationality. In particular, the Black vs. white contradiction remains as vicious and all-pervasive as ever.

In other words, racial groups and national minority groups are not the same thing. Under capitalism, the historic tendency is for nationalities to be broken down and assimilated into the dominant nation. By contrast U.S. capitalism produces and reproduces racial groups as an integral part of its historical development, assimilating all people into the racial system internal to it. Since the laws governing the development of nationalities and racial groups are qualitatively different, it is theoretically and politically crucial to be precise on this matter and to identify Black people as a racially oppressed people, not a nationality.

 

[1] For a critique of these errors, especially as made by the socialist Proudhon, see Marx’s Poverty of Philosophy.

[2] In Part I of this article, we showed how the Black Nation thesis conciliates this racist view

[3] For a fuller discussion of the relationship of racism and national oppression, see Racial Oppression and National Oppression: Their Particularities and Their Interconnection in the United States, in Working Papers of the National Conference on Racism and National Oppression.

[4] There are in addition a number of other categories in the U.S. that are partly racial and partly national in determination, notably Indian or Native American, Asian or Oriental, Chicano, La Raza, and Latino. Unlike the categories Chinese, Mexican, Navajo, Puerto Rican, etc. which are categories of nationality, these categories incorporate numerous nationalities into a single concept on an implicitly racial basis: e.g. Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese, etc. (the “yellow peoples”) are collectively called Asian. On the other hand, unlike the strictly racial categories of Black and white, these categories are limited to certain continents or even particular nationalities—e.g. Chicano refers only to people of Mexican descent, whereas Latino is far more inclusive. (By contrast, Black and white are strictly a matter of color.) Thus these categories are quasiracial, quasi-national in character. They are an accurate categorical reflection of the fact that these peoples face both national minority oppression and racial oppression in this country: they are discriminated against on the basis of both their nationality (e.g. lack of citizenship, language, national culture, etc.) as well as their color and physical features.

[5] By contrast, nations and nationalities harbor no such inherently chauvinistic logic within themselves, and are not necessarily locked into oppressive relations with one another. It is possible for nations to develop relations of equality, mutual benefit, mutual dependence, alliances, and/or competition with one another—not just relations of national oppression. In fact, some nations are oblivious to each other’s existence, whereas the notion of “white” has absolutely no meaning apart from “not Black” or “not colored.”

[6] The few functioning Black capitalists are completely peripheral to national production and have nothing to do with the ruling circles of capital.

[7] This is not to rule out the possibility that individuals from this sector of the Black racial group can and will at certain crucial junctures take up the anti-racist struggle from a revolutionary perspective or even go over to the side of the proletariat in the struggle against capital

[8] The white supremacy dialectic poses an interesting insight concerning the interrelationship between Black people and culture and the broader U.S. culture. Despite racist discrimination, Blacks have in the past been able and continue to qualitatively appropriate to themselves the broader American nationality and culture. Yet due to the white supremacy dialectic, the process is not reversible. Except as commodities, white Americans cannot appropriate the experience of Black Americans. And it is precisely this experience which constitutes the creative, human impulse for Black culture. Therefore, to the extent that “Black culture” can be successfully “marketed” for broad American and international consumption, it is already in the process of being severed from its material, ideological and political foundations. Thus the force and vitality of Black culture is inextricably tied to the struggle for Black liberation and the struggle against racist oppression.

[9] The white supremacy dialectic poses an interesting insight concerning the interrelationship between Black people and culture and the broader U.S. culture. Despite racist discrimination, Blacks have in the past been able and continue to qualitatively appropriate to themselves the broader American nationality and culture. Yet due to the white supremacy dialectic, the process is not reversible. Except as commodities, white Americans cannot appropriate the experience of Black Americans. And it is precisely this experience which constitutes the creative, human impulse for Black culture. Therefore, to the extent that “Black culture” can be successfully “marketed” for broad American and international consumption, it is already in the process of being severed from its material, ideological and political foundations. Thus the force and vitality of Black culture is inextricably tied to the struggle for Black liberation and the struggle against racist oppression.

[10] As we noted above, non-white people are forced into oppressed racial groups independent of their will and regardless of their nationality or consciousness. As a result, racial consciousness among non-white nationalities tends to lag behind the reality of racial oppression and that oppression is often conceived of as solely national minority oppression—oppression due to nationality. However, in the 1960s a number of these non-white nationalities, influenced by the Black movement, developed their own racial self-identifications, going so far as to produce new terms to replace the ones that have been imposed upon them: e.g. La Raza and Chicano to replace Mexican-American or Spanish; Asian to replace Oriental; Native American also became more popularized. It is not surprising that these terms were usually coined and promoted by second and third generation minorities (and urbanized Native Americans) who were more assimilated into U.S. culture.

 

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