Marxism is a far better framework for organizing against racial oppression.
Critical race theory is the right’s current boogeyman du jour. Donald Trump has inveighed against critical race theory as a “Marxist doctrine.” (If only!) Likewise, pundits attributed Republican Glenn Youngkin’s win in Virginia’s gubernatorial election on Nov. 2 to parents’ opposition to critical race theory being taught in schools.
The parents’ concerns are, of course, unfounded. Critical race theory is a college-based critical thinking curriculum. It is not being taught in public schools. Additionally, there is little polling data to suggest that critical race theory was the issue that motivated Republican voters in Virginia.
Indeed, Youngkin’s surprise victory is more likely attributable to the pathetic, lackluster campaign of his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe. Rather than addressing key economic issues — the issues that traditionally motivate working-class voters — McAuliffe spent most of his campaign attacking Trump. Yes, that is correct: The former president.
Whether critical race theory proves to be an effective “culture war” rallying cry for the right in next year’s midterm elections, remains to be seen. But it would be a mistake for the left to invest too much energy in defending critical race theory. This is because critical race theory is a deeply essentialist — at times, even reactionary — “analysis” of race and structural racism. Not only is critical race theory decidedly not Marxist — most of it is postmodernist rubbish. It is another arcane holdover from academia’s degenerative retreat from Marxist studies.
To be clear, critical race theory has nothing to do with the accurate, truthful teaching of the history of slavery and racism in the United States. Rather, critical race theory is a specific academic discipline that emerged around the late 1980s as a means of understanding the intersection of race, gender, and other forms of identity-based oppression. It is intimately tied to postmodernism and the concept of “intersectionality.”
This is an important distinction because many on the left are defending critical race theory on the basis that it represents the accurate teaching of the history of racism. As socialists, we should fully support efforts to improve the quality of public education — which has become increasingly corporatized and “whitewashed,” in recent decades. But critical race theory has nothing whatsoever to do with such efforts.
So, What Exactly is Critical Race Theory?
In its initial incarnation, critical race theory did offer significant insight into the intersection of race and the law. CRT scholars focused primarily on the inherent racism of the U.S. legal system, and how defendants of color often find themselves at a considerable disadvantage compared to their white peers. There are, essentially, two sets of laws in America: One for Blacks and one for whites. In fact, early proponents of critical race theory engaged in some remarkable research on this particular aspect of systemic racism.
Sadly, like so many liberal arts disciplines, and what passes for “Marxist studies” in American universities, critical race theory was soon subsumed into the nebulous, pretentious field of postmodernism. Critical race theory scholars — many likely concerned that overtly “political” writing would not lead to a tenure-track position — jettisoned their early reality-based research in place of the highly subjective, quasi-philosophical inanity that makes up postmodernism. Critical race theorists began to place emphasis on personal narratives and “alternative realities,” rather than objective facts and historical accuracy. (See, the New York Times’ widely discredited “1619 Project.”)
In other words, critical race theory is inherently anti-science and ahistorical in nature. And it is thoroughly antagonistic to any concept of class struggle. Academic figures most often associated with critical race theory include Kimberle Crenshaw, Derrick Bell, Patricia J. Williams, and Richard Delgado, to name a few.
Phrases and practices common in critical race theory include “white privilege,” “allyship,” “microaggressions,” and “cultural appropriation.” While there is no doubt that white people enjoy certain material advantages in capitalist society compared to Blacks, the notion that a white homeless person has more institutional power than, say, Oprah Winfrey (net worth $2.6 billion) on account of his “white privilege,” is patently absurd.
Likewise, critical race theory casts all white people — including poor and working-class whites — as complicit in the maintenance of “white privilege,” and white supremacy. And all white people are, according to critical race theory, “addicted” to “whiteness” — whatever that means. Indeed, critical race theory often casts “whiteness” as the source of racial inequality. Not actual white supremacists or members of a neo-Nazi group like the Proud Boys. Just “whiteness.”
And the prescriptions for ending institutional racism offered by the liberal proponents of critical race theory are even more obtuse. They insist that white people engage in “the work” of “unlearning” their individual “white privilege.” This “work” is never clearly explained or described. As a result, individual white people are left to their own devices to “unlearn” their own inherent and innate white privilege. Thus, critical race theory casts racial justice activism as a glorified self-help exercise. This is how we get the rise in popularity of mandatory workplace diversity trainings or bestselling self-help books like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility.
Anti-Racism as Bourgeois Therapy
How such bourgeois, naval-gazing therapy sessions do anything to improve the material conditions of working-class Black people, is beyond me. Forget about organizing multi-racial, working-class movements to oppose systemic racism — like 2020’s unprecedented uprisings against police brutality in the wake of the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Critical race theorists would rather we individually (in true neoliberal fashion) purge ourselves of our inherent “white privilege.” Indeed, critical race theory is almost exclusively oriented around interpersonal instances of racism at work, at school, or among peer groups.
As Sofia Cutler wrote in a piece for Jacobin on the ideological weaknesses of Occupy Wall Street, shortly after Donald Trump’s election, “[R]ealizing one’s individual privilege does nothing to dismantle the prison industrial complex, or block environmentally destructive legislation, or improve wages for workers.”
This individualistic focus on anti-racism is indicative of the upper-middle class positions many of the proponents of critical race theory occupy. Popular race reductionists like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, Shay Stewart-Bouley, and Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creative force behind the “1619 Project,” are all part of this petty-bourgeois layer of Black upper-middle class academics and intellectuals. (Stewart-Bouley is the executive director for a Boston-based “nonprofit.” Coates, meanwhile, parlayed his success as a bestselling author into writing for Marvel Comics’ Captain America and Black Panther series.)
Thus, it stands to reason that none of these upper-middle class professionals would be particularly interested in critiquing the capitalist system that depends on racism in order to function. And let’s be clear: These prominent figures represent the exception among Black Americans. Median Black household wealth is less than one sixteenth of that of whites. Thus, it is unclear to what degree figures like Coates and Stewart-Bouley can claim to accurately speak for the majority of Black people — most of whom are disproportionately poor and working-class.
The Limits of Identity Politics
Herein lies the ideological bankruptcy of identity politics, which suggests that all people of a particular race, gender, ethnicity or gender-identity share the same interests. Such a concept completely ignores the element of class. Call this “class reductionism” if you must. But, under capitalism, one cannot simply ignore one’s economic circumstances. Inability to afford proper shelter, food, clothing, and healthcare or to provide the same for your children, is not a mere lack of “privilege.” It is a dire, life-and-death situation.
Furthermore, how do proponents of identity politics explain how the patently racist and xenophobic Donald Trump increased his share of Black and Latino votes in 2020 from 2016? Likewise, how do the dictates of liberal identity politics explain the fact that Alex Kueng, one of the cops who helped hold George Floyd to the ground, was himself Black? Indeed, this aspect of Floyd’s murder has been almost entirely ignored by the race-reductionists who would rather cast blame for Floyd’s horrific murder on all white people just by virtue of their very whiteness.
Let’s just say it: This is bourgeois, essentialist garbage. The fact that many leftists are staunchly defending this nonsense — at a time when we should be building on the success of last summer’s monumental Black Lives Matter protests — is itself an incredibly damning indictment of the current state of the left.
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — the largest socialist organization in the country — was virtually absent from the nationwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Comrades in the Maine DSA literally held a meeting to debate whether the chapter should get involved in the protests. (Comrades argued that a “predominantly white group,” like DSA coming into “Black spaces,” as anything other than “allies,” would be “racist.” I wish I was making this up.)
DSA (or, more specifically, its Bread and Roses leadership caucus) was more interested in siphoning the energy of the anti-police protests into the electoral arena to ensure that Joe “Shoot ’em in the Leg!” Biden won the presidential election. It was, sadly, yet further evidence that the DSA is little more than a vehicle for the racist, imperialist Democratic Party.
Again, how does rallying the left to mobilize behind Biden — a lawmaker who opposed anti-segregation efforts; who was a lifelong friend of racist Sen. Strom Thurmond; who humiliated Anita Hill on national television; who, like Trump, has been credibly accused of sexual assault— do anything whatsoever to advance an anti-racist agenda?
Even Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the foremost proponents of critical race theory, acknowledged as early as June of 2019 that Biden “shouldn’t be president.”
Let’s Try Socialism
There is a better way to organize workers around both race and class. It is called Marxism. In fact, Marxism has been the chief organizing model for nearly every oppressed group for the last nearly 200 years. And the ideas of Marx and Engels have been deeply tied to the Black freedom struggle.
Radical Black thinkers and activists from W.E.B. DuBois to C.L.R. James, to the Black Panther Party, the Combahee River Collective, and Angela Davis, have all expressed socialist ideas in one form or another. Even the two most prominent figures of the civil rights movement — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X — were beginning to shift toward socialism before they were both assassinated. In the words of writer and communist, Kazembe Balagun, socialism is the “unfinished chapter of the Black freedom struggle.”
The myth that socialists downplay or ignore the significance of racial oppression is a deeply ahistorical one. Quite the reverse, socialists and communists have frequently been at the forefront of efforts to abolish racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression.
Marx himself understood the link between slavery and capitalism. “In the United States of America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured part of the Republic,” Marx wrote in Volume One of his three-part economic treatise, Capital. “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” Marx even kept a correspondence with Abraham Lincoln and supported the Union’s revolutionary goal of abolishing slavery during the Civil War.
Above all, Marxism insists that in order to truly change society, we must first understand how society functions. And we must understand how the ruling class utilizes racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism to keep workers divided. As Lenin wrote in What is to Be Done?, “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.”
But, contrary to the last word in the CRT acronym, critical race theory offers no coherent theoretical understanding of the world. It instead offers essentialist — and, indeed, bourgeois — myths and “truisms,” for understanding the world — and, for understanding race and racism, in particular. It also suggests that the individual experiences (of Black and white people) are universal. But Black people are not a monolith and the experience of living as a Black person is, indeed, quite different for someone like Michelle Obama compared to that of an unemployed, single Black mother.
Only solidarity — not postmodernist, race-reductionist politics — can eradicate systemic racism and white supremacy. The left should leave critical race theory to the right-wing and liberal culture warriors to fight over. (No doubt the right will move on to some new, novel boogeyman, in no time…) Our orientation should, instead, be the old labor slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”