The following is the first part of a response to the many replies FNT received to Ten Theses on the U.S. Racial Order. Part 2 will be coming out soon.
By Ba Jin
I was surprised and pleased by the thoughtful engagements Ten Theses on the U.S. Racial Order received on the FNT site, and on reblogs on other sites. Not only were there responses from the different tendencies within FNT, but members of Miami Autonomy and Solidarity, May First Anarchist Alliance and the Kasama network offered critiques, as did the Signalfire and Northstar blogs. Thanks to all who shared their insights.
The critiques I received have pushed my thinking further that it would’ve gone otherwise, forcing me to discard elements I can’t uphold, and deepen my understanding of the parts I think are defensible. The critiques have also spurred me to continue studying theories of race and nation in the revolutionary left tradition and academic social science. At this point, I can offer some initial responses to the range of critiques the Ten Theses received. I’ve included these below, organized thematically.
It should become clear below that I accept many of the critiques leveled at the Ten Theses, but also refuse to discard the effort wholesale. I still think revolutionaries need to grapple with the changing racial order in the U.S—even if my first attempt to do so fell short—and I hope we can use parts of the Ten Theses as kindling for an adequate theory of race. I believe such a theory must do the following:
- Examine “race” as a particular configuration of base and superstructure, which goes through periods of decomposition and recomposition;
- Examine “nation” in the same terms, and describe how these configurations relate to one another (in other words, we need a unified theory of race and nation);
- Describe how racial formation is affected by inter- and intra-class dynamics (racial conflict within the proletariat, proletarian solidarity across existing racial categories, conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie within racial categories, and cross-class alliances within racial categories);
- Account for the necessary incongruity between base and superstructure throughout the process of racial formation (how the superstructure lags behind the base, while old categories from the former are always taken up to express new changes in latter);
- Account for how racial formation influences, and is influenced by, the formation of gender in a given period;
- Determine if / how the reproduction of capital necessitates the continual reproduction of what we experience as race and gender.
With this in mind, I’ll now respond to the critiques of the Ten Theses.
The nature of “theses”
One critique I received from former members of the Sojourner Truth Organization was that the Ten Theses weren’t “theses” in the proper sense. Theses, they argued, should be a series of short thesis statements that lay out the fundamental elements of an analysis, with which one can easily agree, disagree and debate. (For an example, check out the “Theses on Fascism” adopted by the STO membership in 1981.) By contrast, the Ten Theses were written in a longer, more verbose style. They tended to expend lots of words describing race in the U.S, but without nailing down, in a sentence or two, the specific social dynamics at work below it. The Theses spent too much time describing appearances, and not enough time delving into the essences that lay below them.
While I’ve also seen “theses” pieces written in a descriptive style, I generally accept this critique. Writing the theses in the manner suggested by the ex-STO comrades would have forced me to sharpen my analysis as much as possible, and would have allowed for more focused and productive debates upon publication. In the future, I’ll try to write theses in this manner, and I encourage other groups to do the same.
On the strategic application of theses
Some of the critiques questioned the strategy implied by the Theses. Scott Nappolos worried the piece “suggests too much of a picture of watching and waiting” on objective conditions, and didn’t suggest “how revolutionaries can play a role in the subjective struggle.” For Nappolos, the Theses overemphasized objective forces, and ignored revolutionary agency. By contrast, a commenter on the Kasama website criticized the theses for implying that revolutionaries could conjure revolutionary blocs with sheer willpower. (I can’t find this person’s comment, because many old comments got deleted with the Kasama 2.0 site upgrade.)
The Theses could be read in such different ways because they provided a general situational analysis, a “lay of the land,” upon which concrete strategies could then be constructed; they weren’t meant to pinpoint a singular strategy in themselves. So, when I suggested a revolutionary bloc could be formed around an alliance of proletarian blacks and “dark” racial groups, I meant that the potential for such a bloc currently exists, due to the material conditions experienced by different sectors of the proletariat, and the racial categories through which the proletariat understands its own experience. I was not suggesting that simply because this potential exists, the bloc will automatically come into being without subjective effort; nor was I suggesting that revolutionaries could simply will it into existence in the absence favorable conditions. I was instead trying to outline the range of effective actions that our current conditions make possible.
This nuance may address some of the other comments that came up. For example, Ajagbe Adewole-Ogunade argued on the Kasama site that a black-brown alliance is unlikely, because “there’s a lot of antagonism that would have to be overcome in order to bring this about due to competition over resources, and the influence of white supremacist ideology.” I would say, even if barriers exist that hinder a given objective possibility from coming about, this doesn’t mean the possibility isn’t there. We should not only identify barriers, but also determine whether those barriers (for Ajagbe, ideology and resource competition) outweigh contrary tendencies (for me, the fact that “dark” racial groups “struggle alongside lumpen and working class blacks in poor urban neighborhoods, the prison system, warehouses, sales floors, construction sites, small factories”), and also, whether revolutionaries can shift the balance of these forces in a given context.
Also on the Kasama site, 2up2down2furious questioned whether “breaking with the Black bourgeoisie” required sectarian “verbal attacks from radicals at the Black bourgeoisie early on” in organizing campaigns. This would depend on the concrete strategy in a given context. The important point is that alliances between the black bourgeoisie and proletariat are a fetter to continued movement. How that fetter might be torn asunder can only be determined in practice, by taking stock of the local situation, how the black bourgeoisie is regarded by the black proletariat, what events are likely to shape this relationship in the future, and so on.
On the FNT site, Kloncke’s asked: “if you can clarify…how you imagine the unified insurgent force of black and ‘dark’ groups would go about radicalizing other racial groups in the ‘middle layer’?” Again, a range of strategies could be pursued in different contexts. I merely suggested that all these strategies would be conditioned by the fact that proletarian blacks and “dark” racial groups “lay claim between them to a broad swath of production and transport in the U.S. economy.” My hunch was that this material fact gives the bloc I described a lot of social power, allowing it to unsettle the racial ideology and material benefits that would otherwise prevent “middle layer” groups from unifying with the rest of the proletariat.
Finally, Amanezca on Kasama emphasized “the international aspect of revolution and the potential of, say, millions of Mexican workers in the US protesting in solidarity with the struggle currently happening in Mexico could potentially spill over into the rest of the population who may have similar grievances with the regime right here.” Amanezca brings up a major shortcoming of the Theses, which Neftali also identified on the Signalfire blog: namely, the lack of attention to the international forces impinging on race dynamics in the U.S. Based on these comments and further reflection, I’m convinced that it’s impossible for the Theses to provide a solid basis for developing strategy without accounting for this. Any future analysis of race in the U.S. must consider immigration, the global restructuring of production, and so on.
For the time being, I’ll say the following. I think it’s undeniable that the circulation of people between Mexico and the U.S. also entails a significant circulation of struggles, especially with Mexican migrants comprising about 60% of undocumented people in the U.S. (This dynamic arguably came to a head in 2006, when the general strike in the U.S. coincided with the uprisings in Atenco and Oaxaca.) I imagine new surge of such activity would probably involve a mix between Mexican workers protesting over stuff happening back home, as well as over the conditions they experience in the U.S, and developing a profoundly internationalist consciousness in the process. I think this is consistent with the experience of immigrants in the U.S. labor movement at the turn of the last century.
Critiques of the racial “middle layer”
The main line of critique that emerged in responses to the Ten Theses took aim at the category of the racial “middle layer.” F, Scott Nappolos, Noel Ignatiev, and Crashcourse666 all leveled critiques on this point on the FNT site, as did commentators on Kasama, Signalfire and North Star. Different critiques came from different political directions. To address them, I’ll first describe the issue I was trying to deal with in the Theses—the situation of groups considered neither “white” nor “black” in the U.S. today—and then evaluate how well the “middle layer” category helped me to account for it.
F took issue with the “middle layer” category, disagreeing that “a relatively recent ideology (multiculturalism, colorblindness) can be said to have created and maintained the designation of multiple peoples as non white but also non black,” because there have always existed groups in the U.S. who were considered neither “black” nor “white.” This is certainly true. But what I was trying to understand through the “middle layer” category (and I think this remains something that revolutionaries have to analyze) is how the black/white binary is being reproduced less effectively today than it has been in the past. Compared with previous eras, groups entering the U.S. today are less compelled by objective forces, and less motivated subjectively, to place themselves in relation to the white/black binary, or seek inclusion within one of these categories.
The contrast becomes clearer if we look at it historically. In 1927, the Supreme Court heard the case of Martha Lum, a Chinese-American girl who had tried to attend a white elementary school in Jim Crow Mississippi. The court ruled that Jim Crow segregation was essentially “white/nonwhite,” obligating Martha, and presumably all Chinese-Americans under Jim Crow laws, to attend black schools. Even before this ruling, the same had been true more or less automatically for dark-skinned immigrants from the West Indies. The story was different for Mexicans enveloped by the U.S. after the Mexican-American war, who found themselves classified as “white” at first, before encountering the racism of the white working class that moved west. The common thread in all these stories is that, for decades, social forces continually reproduced a fairly rigid black/white binary within which groups were placed, and in which they struggled to place themselves advantageously, over time.
By comparison, I think today there is far less structural pressure to conform to “white” or “black” categories, thanks to the defeat of a range of forces (Jim Crow, white mob violence, exclusionary unions, and so on). If we view the U.S. as a convection oven, with new groups arriving in the middle and being forced to one end of the racial hierarchy or the other, then we could say the temperature has dropped, slowing the convection process to a crawl. Regardless of how well or poorly the Theses analyzed this process, I believe this is a reality that must be grappled with and understood by revolutionaries today.
This isn’t to say that no groups are becoming “black” or “white.” 2up2down2furious on the Kasama site argued that it is “a bit inaccurate” to present “immigrant Latin@s as a middle group incapable of becoming assimilated to whiteness and largely protected from falling to the point in the racial hierarchy historically reserved for Blacks.” To be clear, I think the term “Latin@” refers to a wide range of groups, coming from different national backgrounds, with different socioeconomic conditions, and displaying different phenotypes. Because of this, it seems possible for the various groups included under the category “Latin@” to diverge racially in the U.S: some groups may remain neither “white” nor “black” in popular understanding, while others may become one or the other (say, Argentinians and Garifunas, respectively), depending partly on their material relations with white and black communities. My hunch is that the upcoming immigration reform will systematize these trends, similar to the Johnson-Reed immigration reforms in the 1920s.
Yet even if we accept that there’s something exceptional about the racial order today, many the critiques of the Theses still insisted that the “middle layer” category was a poor way to understand it. For most commenters on this topic, the “middle layer” category lumped together too wide a range of groups with disparate histories and political trajectories, and was thus illegitimate. F argued the “middle layer” category “is too much of a generalization of entirely disparate racialized groups to be correct or of any usefulness.”
NPC, in a comment on the Kasama site reproduced at FNT, offered a good clarification on this point: “the role of a structural analytic category is not to reduce everything to itself but to point out a shared function or pattern within an overall structure.” For NPC, all categories used in analyses abstract from the concrete differences contained within them, and this is unavoidable. The goal is to do this in a way that’s useful, and create analytic categories that accurately describe processes in the real world. An analytic category should identify how the phenomena grouped within it “work,” since this is what makes it useful in practice. For example, the category “diesel engine” groups together a wide range of engines in cars, tractors and industrial equipment; but at the same time, it refers to a fundamental aspect of how all these engines work, such that the category can be put to use by someone looking to run a vehicle on vegetable oil. This kind of analytic category can be contrasted with descriptive categories, which simply describe a phenomenon by its appearance (like “big engines” or “small engines”).
While NPC’s clarification is very useful, F’s questions still stand: “how can this ‘middle ground’ – above blacks, below whites – actually be defined for all the peoples encompassed by the ‘middle layer’ category?” In other words, what is the underlying tendency common to all the groups in this category? What makes them “work” the same way in U.S. society? After considering all the critiques to the Theses, I’m forced to admit that the “middle layer” category didn’t rise to the level of an analytic category. “Middle layer” is a convenient descriptive label for any group considered neither “black” nor “white,” but the Theses failed to identify material forces creating a layer of people who think of themselves, and are considered to be, of this category. In fact, it’s precisely the absence of such forces that characterizes the groups I labeled “middle layer” (i.e. the fact that they aren’t forced to conform to the racial binary). A different approach is needed to understand the position/s of groups considered neither “white” nor “black”.
Neftali’s comments on the Signalfire blog help us in this respect, by emphasizing the importance of nationality. In his comments, Neftali cites the examples Mexicans from Puebla, Yemeni deli owners, and Fujianese debt slaves in New York City to indicate how experiences of different immigrant groups are highly particular, and how much these experiences are determined by the nations from which they emigrated. Neftali argues: “The national minorities under this label [the “middle layer”] are qualitatively distinct from each other, they hold distinct relations to the means of production as social blocs in the US Empire which relate to the conditions of the relationship of US Imperialism to their home countries.” He argues out that no distinct racial category for all nonblack, nonwhite people exists, precisely because they do not experience the same material conditions as Afro-Americans.
Neftali would have us cast aside analysis of race and focus instead on national oppression, seeing race as its ideological byproduct. However, I think this is too reductive, for reasons I’ll outline below. Instead, I believe we need a unified theory of race and nation, which would help us understand processes through which different national groups wind up in similar conditions, lose their national identities, and come to think of themselves as a racial group engaged in common struggle. This would help us to understand under what conditions this process occurs—whether historically, as in the case of Ibos becoming black slaves and Irish becoming white, or in the case of immigrants today.
Though it was controversial, I think the category “‘dark’ racial group” may bring us a step closer to understanding this process. To clarify F and Crashcourse’s comments, I used “dark” not to describe literal skin color, but to imply a political condition, in which people are held in a low socio-economic position with racial ideas ascribed to them, and thus come to be considered “close” to blacks while they may not be considered “black” themselves. I’m not wedded to this exact formulation, but I do think some groups are experiencing something like this in the U.S. today. Developing a category for this situation raises useful questions: what structural factors are squeezing different ethnic groups and nationalities into similar material conditions? When do these factors cause people to start thinking of themselves in terms of a racial category? How do the groups undergoing this process relate to other groups in other racial categories? And so on.
It’s urgent that revolutionaries grapple with these dynamics and the potentials create. An academic article from the Latino Studies journal in 2012, looking at Mexican immigrants in Winston-Salem, helps illustrate this. Following the imposition of harsh anti-immigrant state laws, the author of this article found that many Mexican immigrants felt they were being profiled and repressed “by the color of their skin”; they were coming “to think of themselves in racialized terms” and understand their situation “in relation to native-born blacks.” Given certain conditions (in this case, low job competition) this shift created a degree of solidarity between the immigrant and black communities, which was eventually expressed in a local church coalition. In what other ways could such alliances be expressed? Where else might they be possible? This is what revolutionaries must strive to understand.
Finally, F notes that I do not analyze gender as a “structural factor” in the class composition of the U.S. “Gender is a structure that interacts with the structure of race under capitalism,” F argues, and “without taking this into account in your framework, your analysis of the current racial order in the u.s. is necessarily incomplete.” This is true; I was (and still am) ill-equipped to offer a “grand unified theory” of class, race and gender, and so decided I would imperfectly deal with race and class in the Theses in abstraction, while indicating a few points at which race and class formation dovetailed with gender, and at which I hoped other analyses could be connected. This was only a temporary solution, but I hoped it would allow some thinking to advance for the time being.
I’m still unable to offer a “grand unified theory,” but I can offer one provisional point for discussion. P. Valentine, in the article “The Gender Distinction in Communization Theory” published in the first issue of LIES: A Journal of Materialist Feminism, works toward an explanation of where gender comes from: what is it about the way capital reproduces itself that gives rise to what we experience as gender? For Valentine, the category “woman” comes to refer to “those whose activity, unwaged and waged, is appropriated in their totality by society (‘men’).” This relationship generates a “distinction between the spheres of waged/unwaged; social/ non-social; public/private,” which is maintained through sexual violence. Near the end of the article, Valentine asks, how might we understand race in similar structural terms?
Along these lines, I want to contribute the following guess. What we experience as distinctions between “races” (different “species” as Fanon puts it) may be generated by, and imperfectly correspond to, the distinction between populations that experience expanded reproduction, and those that experience contracted reproduction, in the course of capital accumulation. For many Marxist theorists, some differentiation along these lines is considered a necessary component to the reproduction of capitalism as a whole. Some see the process of “primitive accumulation” as a necessary component of the reproduction of capital. Others describe similar processes, with different nuances, in the terms “looting” or “non-exchange of equivalents,” or as Ruthie Gilmore describes it, “exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death”. Still others claim these dynamics are growing increasingly necessary for capitalism due to the growing circulation of fictitious capital in the world system.
Regardless, if we could link such processes with the production of “race,” it would have profound implications. The manner in which racial lines are drawn in a particular time and place might be seen to vary with political exigencies; but the very dynamics of capital accumulation would require that such a line be continually drawn and re-drawn. We could then analyze how the distinction between expanded and contracted reproduction that underlies race interacts with the differential appropriation that, in Valentine’s view, underlies gender. We would be one step closer to a “grand unified theory” of class, race and gender.
 Jones, Jennifer A. “Blacks may be second class, but they can’t make them leave: Mexican racial formation and immigrant status in Winston-Salem.” Latino Studies. 10(1-2). 2012.