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It's Not Racism vs. Anti-Racism; It's Capitalism vs. Socialism


It's Not Racism vs. Anti-Racism; It's Capitalism vs. Socialism

Walter Benn Michaels

The following is the author's contribution to a forum by The Nation on the question of 'identity politics' in the wake of this year's election. Read the complete forum here.


helen Keller made much the same observations almost a century ago when they were seeking to get women the right to vote. She was all for it but pointed out it was not enough. She used the example of England where white men had the right to vote for a long time yet were still toiling away for poverty wages in coal mines as the very rich made profits off their labor.

She pointed out they were dying of lung disease, to unsafe working conditions all by the thousands even as they had the right to vote and lived much of their lives barely able to keep a roof over the heads of their families with much of the rents paid from their wages going back to that same group of rich people.


This an article on Ms keller written in 1914.

As long as Miss Keller appears before the public in the light of a member of society struggling nobly under great handicaps and furnishing by her example inspiration for others who are unfortunately placed, she does a valuable work. But the moment she undertakes to speak ex cathedra, as it were, of all the political and social problems of the day, she receives a consideration out of all proportion to her fund of knowledge and judgment.

Helen Keller, struggling to point the way to the light for the deaf, dumb and blind is inspiring. Helen Keller preaching socialism; Helen Keller passing on the merits of the copper strike; Helen Keller sneering at the constitution of the United States; Helen Keller under these aspects is pitiful. She is beyond her depth. She speaks with the handicap of limitation which no amount of determination or science can overcome. Her knowledge is, and must be, almost purely theoretical, and unfortunately this world and its problems are both very practical.5

Even then the Press was acting as an advocate for the 1 percent.


This article is wrong in too many ways to count.

Paragraph 1...Mr. Michaels historical amnesia regarding the unique institutions of racism in US social psychology, broader society and economics. His reduction of the powerful US institution or racism to just a "ethical commitment" is utter nonsense.

The entire second paragraph is just one straw-men after another. I challenge Mr. Michael's to show me this posited upper class (i.e. employers, landlords, creditors) that "has no problem with seeing people being left behind as long as they haven’t been left behind because of their race or sex." Becasue the stark statistical differences in wealth drawn on black/white lines don't show this at all! Since when, for fucking crying out loud, has the principled left in recent times NOT been committed to "doing something for the vast majority of people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations"? Is Mr. Michael actually waving the stinking accusation of so-called "reverse discrimination"??? The fact is that the left STILL need to clean up it own house with regard to racism - just see the race makeup of a typical leftist activist organization in a US city to see that. A very large part of the left known as organized labor, has a long history of practicing overt racial discrimination which continues to this day. Even the laborers International is 100% white in my 23% black city. Finally, Mr. Michaels seems to be conflating real concern for racism with tokenism in upper "coordinator-class" employment - what Al Sharpton called "James T. Crow, Esq." Whether this confusion is real, I don't know.

Paragraph 3... This one is so bad that it needs to be practically deconstructed and debunked phrase-by phrase! So I'll just pick a few things. Where do we even begin with the first sentence? Could Mr. Michaels really think that the intersection of capitalist class syatem and institutions of racism can be reduced to this - that we can just ignore the deep institutions or racism and say it is all just class??? Tell an average, cop-harassed, hiring and housing discriminated black man (white men with felony records get hired at a higher rate than black men with no criminal record) this. Prepare for a broken nose and some lost teeth! Next, the; "But why, politically, should [greater and more concentrated black poverty] matter? WTF??? Becasue they are more poor and there are causes to this; that's why.

Paragraph 4: "You don’t build a left by arguing over who has been most victimized; you build it by organizing all the victims." Complete straw man - what "left" is he talking about? Any truth in it may be exactly the opposite - much of the organized left is still far too white.

In summary - If it is all just Capitalism, then why don't we see the poverty and affluence drawn on stark racial lines against poeple of African descent in, say, Sweden (yes, Sweden has racial minorities, yes, Sweden is capitalist), or, (to a large degree) Canada. Mr. Michaels uses a strange "zero sum" approach to racism/class syatem to make a thinly veiled argument for white superiority. Whether such an argument was intentional (I dearly hope it was not) or the result of profound ignorance as to the nature or US racism is really not important when it come to the damage such an approach will do if the left, or what left of the left. The left cannot afford to alienate most of its potential members (White-Anglo/European descendants will soon be a minority in the US - as they already are in all its major cities) through talk like this article.


Class-based economics is the core of left politics with helps explain why left politics falls short of explaining what is going on. One thing that needs to be included is religion. Trump got 85% of the evangelical vote. Why? It just wasn't because of race or economics. It also had a lot to do with religious beliefs. As the US has changed over the years including major changes such as same sex marriage, saying Happy Holidays rather than Merry Christmas to be politically correct, etc, evangelicals, who used to play a dominant role in the US, now feel lost in this country. Many of their religious values seem to no longer apply. The were voting to go back to the way things were.


"We’re frequently told that black poverty is worse than white poverty—more isolating, more concentrated—and maybe that’s true."

Not too happy about the phrasing of that statement. A bit too equivocal for my liking.

But overall, the article's message is correct...we should not build a hierarchy of suffering and of victims.

Should the poverty inflicted on the unemployed and the low-waged be differentiated when the cause remains the same and the solution is the same.


by "a bit too equivocal" do you mean the "maybe it's right" part? Because, based on actual hard data and science, there is no "maybe" about it.

To answer your rhetorical question; yes, it does need to be differentiated, because black workers spend a lot more time out of work becasue they have much more difficulty getting hired by white bosses (or even white union halls), and earn less when they do work. And the solution is NOT the same because the causes are not the same.

You seem to be denying the very existence or racial discrimination and its dominant deterministic role in economic class in all but a few thinly populated racially homogeneous areas of the US such as the Appalachian and lower Midwest coalfields.

And why do you thing addressing issues of racism and the class system are mutually exclusive? Both are important - but being as the face of poverty in the US is still predominantly black - go to Cleveland, go to Detroit, go to Milwaukee, go to southside Chicago, go to St. Louis, go to Philadelphia, go to Baltimore - we damn better be paying attention to racism!


Quote of the day.

"Mr. Trump is not alone in this deliberate ignorance, as postelection calls on the left to forget about identity politics have shown."--Michael Eric Dyson



by "a bit too equivocal" do you mean the "maybe it's right" part? Because, based on actual hard data and science, there is no "maybe" about it.

That is exactly what i meant, Yunzer. Statistic after statistic demonstrates it as a fact, not a supposition that requires qualifying adjectives

I'm not denying the effects of racial discrimination, just as i would not deny religious bigotry determined jobs and wealth in the north of Ireland.

Not being an American i just don't fully subscribe to another form American exceptionalism that race and capitalism can only be looked through by the prism of the US experience when we should be taking a wider world-view from a social and economic perspective.

I really wanted to point out that despite all the unique characteristics of American racism, the situation remains that it has aways been - the capitalist purpose is to divide and rule, otherwise, how else can a tiny elite maintain control over an overwheming majority.

Elsewhere, it is the immigrant that suffers bearing the added yoke of racism and to paraphrase what you say we damn better pay attention to the Latino racism as much as Black in the US or the West Virginia's and other rust states so-called native sons.

It is the universality of our class being oppressed which i think the author clumsily is drawing attention to (and probably myself, for that matter) From my point of view, it is only socialism that presents that shared solidarity and provides a banner under which every exploited person can muster under to make common cause against the ruling class.


A breath of fresh air!



This discussion is about the peculiarities of the system of racism in the US - the result of the US's unique historical syatem of black abject slavery and the powerful Jim Crow system replacing it which was that was a backlash to initial successful efforts at empowering blacks in the US south following the Civil War until the 1870s. Jim Crow extended into the 1960 - with powerful vestiges of it continuing to this day. Racism in the rest of the world tends to take the form of ant-immigrant nativism - which is much more self-limiting that US anti-black racism, or colonialist anti-native racism which is more refractory, but still limited by the fact that the colonizing whites are usually a minority. Only the experience of South Africa where the lot of all but a token number of bourgeois blacks has not improved a whit since the end of apartheid, might be similar to the US.

So I am not intending for my discussion to be about anything but the US's situation.

Economic mobility of all other minorities such as Latinos is much better than US blacks. Also, as a correction, I did not intend to mean that there is "racial" discrimination of Appalachian whites - just that poverty is white in that economically depressed and depopulated region simply becasue there are very few blacks to discriminate against there.

I remain skeptical of these attempts at some kind of "grand unified theory" of racism using Marx's theories. Marx was brilliant on social economic relation, but I don't believe he had much to say about racism. Racism is racism, and capitalist class exploitation is capitalist class exploitation. They are entirely two separate problems. In particular, I also remain very skeptical at this notion that racism is a tool of capitalists to "keep the working class divided". Even if this is true, the post-Trump proposed solution - for white leftists to tell blacks they are complaining too much or condescendingly tell them that they have insufficient class consciousness is, frankly, manifestly racist and vile.


Divide and conquer with social issues, so as to mask the economic inequality which gives rise to the myriad social issues. Until people address economic inequality -- which is a feature, not a bug, of capitalism -- nothing will change. This is why I have no patience for pat answers from affluent "liberals" living in their gentrified neighborhoods who clutch their pearls over Trump's sexism, racism, or gasp! his general imbecility. There are far bigger fish to fry besides partisan loyalty and smoke-and-mirror shows.

Wake me up when the Democratic Party decides to fight for the working class for a change. I just might pay attention. Until then, they are just as much the enemy as the Republicans.


Income inequality means that the majority of the US populace is lower class, while the middle class is shrinking. And Democrats wonder why they can never get enough support? DUH! The majority of the Dem's most loyal supporters belong in that shrinking middle class.

Meanwhile, we plebs are wondering: when will somebody represent us? When will somebody speak to us? Or are we only handy to keep around election time to keep up the pretense of democratically elected officials? We're tired of playing this little game for the sake of people making six-digit+ income figures.


All i can say is that the whole issue of the success of capitalist class domination over the working class is most definitely about the lack of class consciousness which makes working people so easy to turn against one another and ably assists the owning employing class to maintain their ruling position in society whether by race, nationalism, caste, gender, creed or job-status and a myriad of other supposed differences between us. And i think it's why there is an ever recurring debate on identity politics

Marx certainly expressed a degree of prejudice himself when a daughter married the mixed-race Paul Lafargue but when you have more time, though, this article is worth a read which may change your more negative view of Marx on race, though.

"Contrary to accusations that Marx was a class reductionist, his Civil War writings reveal that race did not take a back seat to the class struggle; rather, the struggle against slavery was the harbinger that propelled the working class to join the struggle for human emancipation by identifying the different forms that oppression took."


"To some men peace merely means the liberty to exploit other people without fear of retaliation or interference. To others peace means the freedom to rob others without interruption. To still others it means the leisure to devour the goods of the earth without being compelled to interrupt their pleasures to feed those whom their greed is starving. And to practically everybody peace simply means the absence of any physical violence that might cast a shadow over lives devoted to the satisfaction of their animal appetites for comfort and pleasure." ~ Thomas Merton


I'm sorry, there must be a communication difficulty. I never wrote that the problem is a lack of class consciousness. It certainly is!. Or that Marx was not aware of the US slave syatem of his day, he was.

The problem is one of whites telling black anti-racists that they complain too much and that the black anti racist needs to start regarding the white co-worker (the white co-worker who called him a nigger and got the white boss to fire him) that the only problem is class and the white racists are his brothers! Sorry, it isn't going to work.

You wrote that you are not a USAn. You may not understand the situation here. Certainly Marx, in Paris or London, probably didn't understand the situation either - which has little applicability to the current situation anyway.


I think what you are talking about is sometimes referred to as "The Culture War". It is very much alive.


Racism vs. Anti-racism vs. capitalism vs. soicalism - that does look a lot like a false dichotomy. It's all of the above. Anecdotally, I have heard white people say they voted for such and such or against something, which goes against their own economic interests because it might help blacks even as it helps them or other whites, although they seemed unable to acknowledge that others would benefit.

I thought as I read it that this was just another way of going from "Black Lives Matter" to "All Lives Matter." Both of these are true but the focus when one is more at risk ought very much to be on the ones most at risk. Maybe it would make sense to think of this as a form of focus triage in terms of where you will expend the most effort and energy. In an ideal world, I think we could agree that all those seeking treatment should have immediate and adequate care and attention. But in our world, some do need more immediate care and attention than others whilst at the same time working towards that day when everyone and all can be properly cared for. It's not a perfect analogy but maybe gets my idea across that I think this article has veered off in an unhelpful way given the realities of black lives in America.


I find myself caught somewhere in the middle here, seeing vailid points on both sides.

I think perhaps we should be aware of the unique ways systemic racism is used in a capitalist system of exploitation. I make the same point about sexism. So to a degree I agree with the article that a principled Left stance can be that fighting against racism and sexism are good things, but not central to Left politics. On the other hand, I see your point about class exploitation affecting workers differently based on race and/or sex discrimination, like when you wrote: "yes, it does need to be differentiated, because black workers spend a lot more time out of work becasue they have much more difficulty getting hired by white bosses (or even white union halls), and earn less when they do work."

But does that make them completely separate issues, like you say in the quote I started this post with? I don't know. I can't quite go that far, I think, because it seems to me that the overarching structure of capitalist relations uses whatever is at hand to maintain itself, so if there's racism, then that's what will be used.


Maybe I didn't read carefully enough, but this is not why I "liked" this article. I liked it because I agree that the duopoly uses prejudices and reactions to the "isms" as reasons to gather fierce loyalty, even as those "leaders" are actually enabling and enforcing rather brutal policies and laws that hurt all people who don't have the means to get out of the lower to middle classes.

I don't subscribe to a full on Marxism as opposed to capitalism, especially an FDR type capitalism (only better), but I do think that this is an important point to be made, especially after Bernie was smeared to hell and back for being racist and misogynistic.

Good discussion here.


Interesting. It can happen here and did.
Poison the well and then the votes. The voting system is obviously corrupt to its very core when over 70,000 votes are removed from the polls in Michigan alone.
So is that capitalism or socialism?
Or, maybe just plain good old American Bigotry?
It sure the heck doesn't reflect DEMOCRACY.
Drink no poisoned water, eat no poisoned food and breathe no poisoned air. It's not good for you and your family.
I stand with The People of Standing Rock.
I stand with The People of Puerto Rico.
I stand with The People of the Aleutian Islands.
I'm too old to run and hide so I'll just have to stand up and dance.