Racism and class struggle

Often white (but not only white) “progressives” and “Marxists” will complain about how raising issues of racism or national oppression divert attention away from organizing people along class lines. How can the unity of the working class be achieved on an international level if we keep talking about racism and national oppression. There is a vulgar idealism at work here, the kind that imagines that because people think or talk about race, that’s why racism exists. “Gee, if all we did was stop thinking ourselves in terms of races, it would all go away,” or that racism and national oppression acquire a reality only on the level of discourse. This kind of view is just wrong.

When I talk about racism and class struggle I am not talking about the cute little things that a lot of us petty bourgeois racialized people like to talk about. We like to complain about white privilege as a cultural category alone, for instance. Like when white people wear blackface or wear geisha costumes. That shit is ignorant, but that is not even the primary problem of racism and class struggle. What’s more important is understanding the entire set of social relations that enable white people to even imagine thinking they can dress up as another race or culture. This is more insidious.

Racism is the cultural, political, economic and social privilege that white people derive from the social organization of our entire material existence. That is, society is organized along racialized lines, and this is the structural reality we call racism.

As a petty bourgeois racialized person, racism does not affect me in the same way or to the same intensity that it affects a working class or poor racialized person, and as a racialized male, not in the same ways that it affects racialized females. Certainly, there are contradictions. I may have certain economic privileges that working class or poor white people do not have, but they have cultural and social privileges that I do not have. If both of us apply for the same job and even if I have better credentials, a white person is more likely to get it. But generally, racialized people are more likely to be poor and receive lower wages than white people, racialized working class and poor people are more likely to catch hell from the police than anyone else, and racialized working class and poor women are amongst the most oppressed and exploited people in our society.

When we talk about this kind of social organization on a global scale, we are talking about imperialism and national oppression. Real cultural, political, economic and social privileges accrue to people in imperialist countries, and particularly to white people.

Given all of this, bringing attention to racism and national oppression does not divert from the “real” issue of class and achieving class consciousness. It is racism and national oppression that prevent the achievement of class consciousness. If it is true that racism as a structural reality cannot be resolved without the resolution of the class problem; it is equally true that where some working people benefit from the exploitation of others because of the colour of their skin or their national origin, working class consciousness will never be achieved to the extent necessary for the emancipation of the great mass of humanity. And let me stress why that is: because white working people who are privileged will see no incentive to unite with racialized working people, not because racialized people are being too insular. We didn’t put ourselves in (physical, cultural, social, economic) ghettos, white people did.

To wrap it all up, for our academic Marxist friends who seem not to have bothered to read any Marxist who isn’t white except for some excerpt from Fanon that made them uncomfortable, here is Marx himself: “Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the Black it is branded.”

The real problem isn’t entirely captured by the fact that white people are generally culturally degenerate, the real problem is that white privilege exists as a result of the social organization of our entire existence — after all, a bunch of white kids calling me a Paki might hurt my feelings, but that’s just not the same thing as so many Pakistanis here working several low-paying part-time jobs (if even that) in order to support their families.

This system of white supremacy is one and the same as capitalism, and it has to be smashed with it — you cannot smash capitalism unless and until you smash white supremacy. This is why we have to organize against racism and national oppression, not as a “distraction,” but precisely in order to achieve the unity of the working class.

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1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    JMP said,

    February 19, 2012 @ 2:50 am

    Missed this one when it appeared and am sorry that I did. A brief but focused (and good) post that, while mainly raising/identifying the questions, does so in a materialist manner. Too often, in my opinion, we end up trying to give the right answers to the wrong questions rather than asking the right questions to begin with.

    I think this point of yours is crucial: “Racism is the cultural, political, economic and social privilege that white people derive from the social organization of our entire material existence. That is, society is organized along racialized lines, and this is the structural reality we call racism.” The phrase “material existence” is important because I often feel that discussions of racism on the part of marxists ignores the fact of “material existence.” Too often we are told that racism is just some imported ideology that the ruling class uses to “divide the workers”… But if this is the case, then what is its material force? Why does it communicate so strongly to the “material existence” of the white working class––that is, why, historically, has the white working class, especially in the United States and Canada, been so willing to turn on racialized people and act in a racist manner? Because the ideology of racism communicates, in some shape or form, to the material existence of broad sectors of the white working class.

    And so clearly, as you point out, when one addresses this problem one is not “diverting attention” from the principal contradiction of class. One is only trying to make sense of how class is composed and dressed up in a racist context. But, as you began this entry, it is often the case that when this problem is raised a certain group of “marxists” will claim that such a diversion is being made. So I would argue that one could equally make a counter-claim: by ignoring questions of white supremacy and racialization, people are diverting attention from concrete class questions because they are already assuming that “the proletariat” is primarily white population.

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