Against racism as side-effect

For several popular styles of political analysis, racism is always, by definition, a red herring. For doctrinaire class-first, class-only Marxism, racism can only ever be an epiphenomenon or an ideological distraction, and in more mainstream liberal discourse, something similar happens, though for different reasons: since it’s rude to accuse anyone of direct racism, politeness dictates that we go with more rational and respectable “economic anxieties.”

One corrolary of the latter theory is that racism should correlate closely with economic turmoil. Hence, for instance, Trump’s siren song only works because white America is being left behind, etc. I don’t think that makes sense of the data. If you’ll recall, there was a financial crisis of world-historical proportions in 2008, and later that year, a black man (who, for good measure, had the middle name of Hussein) was elected president. How could that happen if racial scapegoating correlates with white pain?

Things have gotten progressively worse on the race front even as the economy got better. No, it hasn’t gotten better as fast as anyone would like, and there are huge structural inequities built into the system. But again, the pain was worse during the actual world-historical financial crisis, and that was a relative low ebb of overt racism. It’s only now that unemployment has reached what counts as “normal” levels and economic growth is moving at a decent clip that we are seeing overt public racial scapegoating emerge as a successful political strategy among the relatively affluent.

It might just be the case that in a deeply racist country, racism has its own autonomous causality that can be decoupled from economics. Indeed, if anything the correlation over the course of the Obama years has been the reverse of the “economic pain causes racism” theory. It’s as though the crisis caused the country to largely put racism aside for a while — and now that white America is finding its feet, it can afford to indulge in the luxury of racial backlash again.

10 Responses to “Against racism as side-effect”

  1. George West Says:

    “we are seeing overt public racial scapegoating emerge as a successful political strategy among the relatively affluent.”

    This has *always* been the Marxist analysis. Fascism is a rearguard action by the ruling class; read Trotsky.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Marxism is contested. There is no one Marxist analysis. I am referring to contemporary Marxist analysts who posit that racial scapegoating is a kind of impotent acting-out that doesn’t realize that it’s really all about capitalism. Zizek often takes this line, for instance. If he’s not properly Marxist in your view, whatever — but I’m talking about an actual view that people really do hold.

  3. George West Says:

    You preempted me there; Zizek’s positions on most things are terrible. And he’s not a Marxist.

    I agree with you that the sort of vulgar economism practiced by Stainist types — economic downturn = immediate and absolute racism with no other worthy considerations — is wrong. But if we’re being strictly positivistic I can offer plenty of counter examples where this causal relationship is quite apparent; Greece, and in fact most of Europe, since 2008 is one.

    But the bulk of neo-Marxists accept that the superstructure has a certain level of autonomy. Extrapolating, from that, that racism can be meaningfully ‘decoupled’ from economics (by which I take you to mean materialism; I might be wrong) seems a stretch though; did it come about acausally? Is it purely a product of idealism?

  4. William Says:

    Great article that you linked to, an eye opener. Racism as a phantasy as independent of economics. Does your last point not contradict your thesis? Racism as a separate causality should mean that it persists despite the economic cycle? You could point to the questions of Obama’s origin of birth as an example of this continuity?

    Could you not say that racism is secondarily co-opted in order to channel surplus value along racist lines?

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I mean that outbursts of racist violence, for instance, may not correlate with any particular state of economic affairs (in the narrow sense of “economic”). It is also likely that there would be a huge difference between the American and European experience of racism, since Europe is not home to the descendants of the victims of a system of race-based chattel slavery that took place directly on European soil.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    William, Yes, there’s always a background hum of racism — this is America! — and yes, there were racist reactions to Obama, but those were viewed as shameful and fringe things, at least at first. All I’m saying is that the simplistic “they think they hate black people, but really they hate capitalism” view is wrong.

  7. William Says:

    Okay, so in your previous post the fact that America is one economic downturn away from a Trump presidency is not a result of the direct appeal of Trumps racism but the result of his structural position of occupying the only alternative.

    I think you make an interesting point about European verses American racism. Since moving to Canada from UK I have become aware of the dynamic with ‘First Nations’, but I have yet to mediate on it.

    Nonetheless, your theses which I accept, I believe that there is another aspect to the Trump phenomena. The agressivity of imaginary rivalry with other nations which also feature of his rhetoric. I was more inclined to believe that it takes place at the level of nationalism as distinct from that of racism, but given your comments about American experience of racism, perhaps the defining feature of North American nationalism is its founding relationship with racism.

  8. William Says:

    (as distinct from colonialism!)

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Okay, so in your previous post the fact that America is one economic downturn away from a Trump presidency is not a result of the direct appeal of Trumps racism but the result of his structural position of occupying the only alternative.

    Right.

  10. George West Says:

    Ok, gotcha. Just to reiterate, though, most Marxists (and I know a lot) don’t subscribe to that sort of determinism.

    Fair point on the US vs Europe distinction.


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