Jacobin Magazine has long trucked in anti-antiracist rhetoric. They correctly point out that there are deficiencies in the antiracist industry, and reference data showing the inefficacy of the much-decried corporate antiracist training emerging from the likes of Robin DiAngelo. But they go far beyond this. Some contributors, such as notorious trust funder, Walker Bragman, see images of a white supremacist militiaman’s home and equate it to poverty, neglecting to even consider the presence of the Confederate flag, the expensive pickup truck, how costly it is to acquire and train with militia equipment in the first place, and how millions of middle-class people aren’t white nationalists. Given his background, yes, he may consider a middle-class lifestyle unimaginably squalid, but it is clear he is shoehorning class reductionism where it does not even apply. Why? Who knows. Who cares. It’s counterfactual, regardless.
Rather than focus on the worst of the Jacobin staff (Bragman, and Day, who is also covered in the aforementioned link), and pretend their views are representative of those of everyone at Jacobin, I will turn instead to the best of Jacobin, Jen Pan and Ariella Thornhill, to examine why even they can be accused of class reductionism, and why the premises upon which they base this framing of class consciousness is fundamentally wrong, according to the most basic tenets of communist theory as set out by the likes of Marx and Engels. I will then extend this to a Leninist critique of their framing of antiracism and the antiracism industry.
At the 40:30 mark of the above video, Thornhill starts with a solid critique of the social justice industry as it operates concretely in corporate settings, demonstrating how some of its proponents incorrectly identify racism as a consequence of individual failings, not as structural failings. But, she continues and says, citing a Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture, but cited by Thornhill here as Carmichael) quote, that “racism gets its power from capitalism.” This is true. Racism is empowered by capitalism. But capitalism also gets its power from racism. In the United States, racism is wielded as a wedge, primarily by conservatives, to divide the voting public and eradicate class solidarity. Only by way of racism is it possible to sow xenophobia about immigrants, or create paranoia over white birth rates. If it were not for the power racist messaging has over people, would Republicans even be able to get elected by the very same base whose policies they consistently shortchange? Would the Democratic Party have an ever-heightening ceiling under which their lesser evil status is protected? I believe these are questions worth considering. What’s more, racism did not spring from capitalism. It was not created by capitalism, but rather, capitalism and racism were both products of the the same Renaissance and Enlightenment forces in Europe.
In The Principles of Communism, Engels traces the origin of the proletariat, and thus the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, to the 18th century. Other scholars have traced the origin of capitalism, itself, to the 16th and 17th centuries in Great Britain and the Netherlands. Racism certainly predates the origin of the proletariat and its class struggle against the bourgeoisie, as evidenced by the Atlantic Slave Trade’s origin of 1526, which itself fell close on the heels of genocidal European imperialist expansion into the Western Hemisphere, which was empowered by the theocratic encomienda system and its flagrant racism. Encomienda was based on the idea that conquered peoples were vassals of the Spanish monarch. Turning back to The Principles of Communism, we see that the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie cannot even start until monarchies have fallen, and what’s more, in the battle between the bourgeoisie and monarchs, Engels opines, “Since the communists cannot enter upon the decisive struggle between themselves and the bourgeoisie until the bourgeoisie is in power, it follows that it is in the interest of the communists to help the bourgeoisie to power as soon as possible in order the sooner to be able to overthrow it.”
Racism, then, was employed in the Age of Discovery to strengthen the monarchy and stave off capitalism. Columbus was not a capitalist. He did not own the Niña, the Pinta, or the Santa Maria. He operated under a racist, theocratic system to strengthen the Catholic church and the Spanish monarchy, which served to slow European adoption of capitalism. It is important, then, to correctly identify that racism is empowered by hierarchy (such as you might find at a magazine, such as Jacobin, that is not collectively owned or managed), and that hierarchy is empowered by racism, by blocking solidarity between workers of different races. It happens that a major hierarchical struggle today is between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but we must also consider other systems of power, and the role of racism in disenfranchising the lumpenproletariat.
This concept of racism as a reactionary social viscousness that slows progress can also be seen in the long history of worker movements in the United States, which is something Jen Pan unfortunately glosses over in her video entitled, “Against Workplace Antiracism Training.”
Once again, Pan’s analysis is generally good. She accurately points out the problems with the liberal framing of racism and implementation of antiracist training in hierarchical organizations. But, at the 10:39 mark, she states, “For anyone who’s wondering what actually does work to reduce racism in the workplace, we fortunately have one tool that has proven to be pretty effective at doing this, and that is unions.” She correctly makes the disclaimer that unions are far from perfect, “and not 100% free from racism by any stretch of the imagination.” True. That’s true, and unions have been more effective at reducing workplace racism than white fragility workshops. But why? And is this really a dichotomy?
Early 20th century socialism in the United States was famously rife with racism, and many have argued racism, not just union-busting Pinkertons or patrician progressivism from the likes of FDR, was integral to the unraveling of the socialist movement of that time. From American Socialists and Evolutionary Thought, 1870–1920, we find the following passage about the attitude of socialist thought leaders at the time regarding race,
In 1905, the Appeal to Reason, the most influential of socialist periodicals, predicted that “socialism will separate the races” and envisioned separate black cities, plantations, and shops under the new order. Gaylord Wilshire blended overt evolutionary racism with economism, arguing that whites must continue to rule the South because blacks were inherently venal, incompetent, and not “fitted” to vote; but the race problem would nonetheless “automatically” disappear with capitalism.
This sentiment is echoed in the shockingly-racist, paternalistic analysis offered by many progressive voters regarding Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 Democratic Primaries, that hinged largely on older, Black voters in South Carolina, which ties back to unions, because these were some of the very same people who demanded the integration of unions, which had a long history of supporting racist, segregationist policies. It was only after decades of activism, including that of luminaries such as Martin Luther King, but also less-radical (liberal) Black leaders, specifically targeting and calling out major labor organizations, such as the AFL-CIO, that toleration of segregated local union shops stopped. Black people who participated in expanding the power of organized labor were, some 50 years later, dismissed as ignorant liberals by self-described radicals and leftists because they voted for vocally-pro union candidate, Joe Biden.
The point is that unions do not cure racism in the workplace (nor racism in the political left), but unions that unequivocally adopt antiracist policies and demand inclusive workplaces are effective at reducing racism. Racist, white union workers had to be forced to accept these policies through direct, antiracist action; the policies did not implement themselves. Socialists who believed that problems of racism would “take care of themselves” had to be deplatformed and ignored so that antiracism could be incorporated into the labor movement in the United States, which remains an ongoing process today. It is a false dichotomy that we can choose unions or liberal antiracism, but it is rather the case that we must choose antiracist unions. The AFL was founded in 1886, and for most of its 135-year history since, both before and after its merger with the CIO, it has been explicitly racist. It has been anti-Black, anti-immigrant, pro-war, and pro-cop.
I believe that I am in agreement with both Pan and Thornhill that management-mandated diversity and inclusion or white fragility workshops are ineffective. The evidence accords with this, though evidence also shows that voluntary antiracist training can be effective, and that different types of antiracist policies or programs have different outcomes. So what is the answer? First, we can identify what the answer is not, which is the cynicism directed toward studying antiracism that we hear from the panel of Pan, Thornhill, and Paul Prescod, in the following video starting at about the 19:00 minute mark:
Yes, it is good to be skeptical of the motives of plutocrats. Always. And it is good to point out how corporate messaging and antiracist actions have diverged from what activists on the street have been saying. But to transition to then question the validity of antiracism research, after stating studies have demonstrated subpar results from many forms of antiracism training so far, and then cite Medicare for All as a concrete solution to racial inequality, when in fact Medicare has always had unequal health outcomes for Black and white people in the United States, makes no sense to me. We should have universal healthcare, and that will help, but we should also absolutely figure out why Medicare delivers unequal outcomes for Black and white people right now, instead of carrying these unequal outcomes forward. I believe we can do both of these things. Prescod frames Jack Dorsey’s donation to Kendi’s foundation as a waste when Dorsey could, for instance, fund lobbying for Medicare for All, instead, but then goes on to say that “we know the Twitter founders of the world are never going to donate to the Bernies of the world.”
So then, it’s not an either/or. And, in spite of saying that “we need a political struggle,” that does not make this a dichotomy, because as much as we would like to force Dorsey to pay more taxes so that we can fund universal healthcare, that is not on the table, and a big part of why is the explicitly white supremacist Republican Party’s presence in Congress. We know the “Silicon Valley overlords” are not going to contribute to socialist political activism, so why get upset about them donating to an activist and academic who is attempting to garner knowledge about how to fight racism? That has to be better than funding Breitbart or Libertarian think tanks, at least, whose propaganda only bolsters white supremacy, which is what many plutocrats do. Because, as we’ve already seen, since classism and racism both reinforce each other, if a researcher like Kendi can devise actionable plans, perhaps implementing them to erode racism can mean a quicker journey to Medicare for All.
Looking at Kendi’s site, we see the quote, “Racism is a problem of bad policy, not bad people.” This is the exact position Pan and Thornhill took in their critique that too many diversity workshops frame racism as a consequence of individual failings. Maybe they think Kendi is being dishonest, or that he cannot accomplish this for some reason because people like Jack Dorsey donated to his foundation, but taken at face value, he seems to have identified the problem.
In the final video I included, the panel touched on UBI, and cast doubt on it because, like Kendi’s foundation, UBI trials have also been funded by plutocrats. To that I say, people who protest — and protest is presently a form of labor that goes largely uncompensated by wages — get UBI. If you are concerned that corporate messaging has distorted the calls made by activists, why not fund those activists, directly, with a UBI, and thereby magnify their voices? If you think racism can be better tackled by unions and organized labor, why not inject money directly into the pockets of union members and labor organizers? Surely they can devise better antiracist policies and practices than management, and the better funded they are, the stronger their bargaining power is to override management’s liberal white fragility seminars and demand more meaningful changes. And to workers who have not had the benefit of organizing, would having income not help them be able to organize and make demands of employers?
Lenin wrote in a 1907 piece, in reference to revolutionary traditions,
We said above that it is one of our tasks to care fully guard these traditions in general, to cultivate them, and to purge them of liberal (and opportunist) parasites.
The struggle to end racism is a revolutionary struggle. Antiracism is revolutionary in a white supremacist world. It is better to guard this tradition than to surrender it to liberal parasites. Yes, the world of corporate antiracist diversity training is swarming with liberal opportunists and new bosses that are the same as the old bosses, but this does not mean we throw out antiracism and pin all our hopes on unions or Medicare for All, when both of these institutions have been plagued by racism for as long as they have existed. And, what’s more, while both of these institutions have also been plagued by the encroachment of liberals (and worse!), socialists can be relied upon to always defend unions and universal healthcare. I do not understand prioritizing one of these efforts — be it universal healthcare, labor organization, or antiracism — over the other, or spending time critiquing liberal encroachment into antiracism but not unions or other socialist endeavors (nobody cares that Jacobin employs trust-fund liberals and is not worker owned, but people are mad about Jack Dorsey donating to Kendi’s foundation???).
We must demand both racial equality and economic equality. They are interlinked, and we must be explicit about demanding both. Unions must be explicitly antiracist, antiracism must be explicitly pro-worker, and everyone should be unequivocal about supporting universal healthcare. That’s what actual solidarity looks like.