There is no history of capitalism without a history of racism. But what is the specific relationship between racism and capitalism? How can this relationship be theorized? To pose the titular question of Nancy Fraser’s 2018 address to the American Philosophical Association: “Is Capitalism Necessarily Racist?” As members of a working group devoted to understanding these questions, we agree with Fraser’s assessment that the stakes are urgent, as is the need to build alliances in the current conjuncture. We are grateful for the invitation to respond to her remarks.
Fraser answers her own question in the affirmative, arguing that capitalism harbors a “structural basis for racial oppression.” In her definition, capitalism is a social system wherein expropriation is a “necessary condition” for exploitation. She describes the relationship between these “two ‘exes’” as changing over space and time. For Fraser, racial oppression is predicated upon the “mark of race” that ostensibly separates the “free subjects” of exploitation from the “dependent subjects” of expropriation.
We have several disagreements with Fraser’s argument and her definitions. We also take issue with the theories she does (and does not) employ. Drawing upon a long tradition of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist Marxist thinkers, we propose an alternate set of definitions and interlocutors as well as an alternative periodization. Relatedly, we suggest that the answer to Fraser’s question depends not on how we define “race,” “racial oppression,” or even “racialized expropriation,” but on how we theorize racism and imperialism. Our response moves from an analysis of racism to the question of imperialism and ends with an engagement with Fraser’s remarks on building international solidarity today.
Fraser gestures towards a group of thinkers who have long debated the relationship between racism, imperialism, and capitalism. She names W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, Eric Williams, Barbara Fields, Angela Y. Davis, Cedric J. Robinson, and Robin D. G. Kelley as forerunners. Oddly, Fraser groups these disparate figures into one coherent block, bracketing their work within the period between the 1930s and the 1980s. She arbitrarily uses the title of Robinson’s 1983 book Black Marxism to name this group (we imagine Fraser might bristle were she lumped together with Clara Zetkin, Dorothy Healey, Selma James, Sharon Smith, and Jodi Dean in an undifferentiated group of Marxist white women). Further, Fraser incorrectly describes a “new generation” of scholars, including Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Barbara Ransby, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor as practitioners of “critical race theory.” Critical race theory is a distinct body of thought derived from legal scholarship interested in racial bias, gender, and the law, not the articulation of racism and capitalism that the named scholars have been researching and theorizing for decades. Fraser might have benefitted from a more generous attention to these intellectuals’ works as well as to the debates between them.
These scholars have long been discussing whether there is a “structural basis” or “contingent” relationship between capitalism and racism. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, for example, draws an “inextricable link” between racism and capitalism. For Taylor, capitalism has “used racism to justify plunder, conquest, and slavery,” to “divide and rule,” and to “blunt the class consciousness of all.” In Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s pithy summary, “capitalism requires inequality and racism enshrines it.” Critically, for these scholars it is racism rather than “racial oppression” that is operative. The distinction is key. In Black Marxism and his subsequent works, Cedric Robinson puts the term “racial” in quotes, forcefully arguing that “race” is an invention or a conceit (rather than a “mark”). Race, for Robinson, is not a natural element nor a representation of purported differences. Racism, it follows, cannot be invoked to simply describe the racially disproportionate impacts of mass incarceration, police violence, or poverty, as Fraser describes. To describe racism as equivalent with its “racial” effects is tautological. If the language of “race” belongs to metaphysics, Taylor, Gilmore, and Robinson’s analyses of racism bring us into the realm of dialectics.
Halfway through her address, Fraser adds a third “ex” to her analysis: imperial expansion. Reviewing scholars of imperialism, she finds no account of what this “third ex” has to do with “race.” For Fraser, racial oppression, exploitation, expropriation, and imperial expansion are newly conjoined under the current regime of “financialized capitalism.” Fraser might have benefitted from W. E. B. Du Bois’ insights on these relationships over a century ago. In his 1915 Atlantic article “The African Roots of War,” Du Bois considered how financialization enabled the working class of western imperialist countries to imagine themselves as “small shareholders” in a global imperialist project, one that accelerated in earnest after the 1884 Berlin Conference and the ensuing Scramble for Africa. Du Bois lamented the pathetic “dividends” these workers imagined themselves receiving in exchange for the intensification of their own exploitation. He observed racism working at multiple levels: in the imperial expropriation of the African continent; the ideological legitimation of white workers over colonized people; and the ways these “dividends of whiteness” served as a pitiful ruse to control and contain the organizing efforts of the working class in the U.S. and Europe, who (in both the late 1870s and the 1910s) were engaged in high intensities of organized struggle. In this way Du Bois sees racism as being deployed to justify ruling class control over the poor and working class as a whole.
While Fraser maintains that there is no theoretical basis in Marx for understanding the structural basis of “racial oppression,” Du Bois’ analysis suggests otherwise. His writings align with Marx’s many writings, including those on Ireland and on Irish workers in English industrial centers. In April, 1870, Marx wrote, “The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker because he sees in him a competitor who lowers his standard of life. Compared with the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and for this very reason he makes himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland and thus strengthens their domination over himself.” Irish workers, he continued, saw their English counterparts as simultaneously accomplices, and “the stupid tool” of English colonialism in Ireland. Antagonism between English and Irish workers, he remarked, is “artificially sustained” by the press, religion, and popular culture under the control of the bosses. “This antagonism,” Marx concluded, “is the secret which enables the capitalist class to maintain its power, as this class is perfectly aware.”
Racial ideology not only facilitates class control, it also produces its own analytic barriers. As Barbara J. Fields has argued, “No one dreams of analyzing the struggle of the English against the Irish as a problem in race relations.” For Fields, academic specialists often reproduce assumptions that underpin racial ideology, namely that “race” is a referent for Black Americans. These analytic barriers not only compromise scholars’ ability to understand the history of racism, they also inhibit the comprehension of racism’s permutations. Fields explains that “the rationale that the English developed for suppressing the ‘barbarous’ Irish later served nearly word for word as a rationale for suppressing Africans and [I]ndigenous American Indians.”
Cedric Robinson also explores how racism was produced against Irish colonial subjects under British rule. The second chapter of Black Marxism is actually devoted to analyzing this process. For Robinson, the uneven development of capitalism has been accompanied by historic transformations in bourgeois ideology that depicted regional and so-called “ethnic” differences as “racial.” These bourgeois ideologies were foundational to the formation of fascism and rooted in imperialism. Racism, for Robinson, was a product of imperialism, slavery, and genocide. For Robinson, as for C.L.R. James (about whom Robinson wrote), confronting racism was critical to a conjoined struggle against capitalism and imperialism. As James famously noted: “The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.”
From these theorists, as from Marx, we learn that the blending of exploitation and expropriation is a deep structural feature of imperialism, not one unique to contemporary capitalism, as Fraser suggests. In the same set of letters, Marx described the conversion of the Irish peasantry’s farmland into English landlords’ pastureland, through “the systematic consolidation of farms.” Such concentration of real estate under a few English hands was a prerequisite for the conditions of super-exploitation of landless Irish migrants in English cities. Writing to Engels in 1867, Marx denounced as “ridiculous” the tendency to confuse the earlier stage of colonization, which replaced Irish people with English colonists, with “the present system, which is trying to supplant the Irish with sheep, pigs and oxen!” For Marx, racism against the Irish during British expropriation of their land is consistent with the racism against Irish during British exploitation of their labor in another historical stage. Where then is the so-called “mark” distinguishing them?
Fraser claims that the Marxist tradition fails to account for the “structural basis in capitalist society for racial oppression.” Had her understanding of the Marxist tradition been broadened she might have encountered a long tradition of debate over the very questions she posits as new. As Robin D. G Kelley observed on the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, “if we want to understand how the Marxist tradition deals with racism and colonialism … We need to pay attention to the Marxist traditions that rose out of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century.” To overlook these traditions is to redouble in critical theory what the dominant ideology has already excluded in elite knowledge production.
Fraser concludes her remarks by pointing to the political possibilities of building alliances to confront financialized capitalism today. We could not agree more with this emphasis on building solidarity. That said, we are wary of Fraser’s conclusion that “racism’s structural basis in capitalist society” is poised to crumble. In the current moment of far-right ascendance, sections of big capital are forging alliances with neo-fascist parties organized around reactionary nationalist, racist, gendered, and religious identities to promote authoritarian solutions to the crisis of neoliberalism. We are doubtful that these alliances will simply collapse under their own weight. Resistance, as Fraser describes, is key. The solution to the crisis will be the outcome of a complex political and ideological struggle with a clear understanding of anti-racist and anti-imperialist Marxist traditions. The forces assembling in opposition to neo-fascism will be unable to wrest power as long as they fail to address the organic crisis that has rolled out a welcome mat for the racist far right. Without a sincere analysis of the Marxist traditions committed to anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggle, this new alignment of capital and the far right will continue its rise unabated.
Fraser ends her address by opposing the bromides of progressive neoliberalism, writing “racism cannot be defeated by equal-opportunity domination.” This insight builds on her earlier generative critiques of bourgeois feminists’ pursuit of recognition politics in place of redistribution. We appreciate her caution about working within the confines of neoliberal categories. Her focus on redistribution is necessary for a truly materialist politics of alliance. In the U.S., the managerial principles of diversity and inclusion which falsely call upon the legitimacy of anti-racism, have similarly arrested the momentum of redistributive demands. If Du Bois warned that the “dividends of whiteness” facilitated the first world war, it is the dividends of diversity and inclusion that serve a similar function in our own moment.
Fraser calls for alliances as the way forward, and we agree. Confronting racism and imperialism in the current conjuncture requires that intellectuals bring our work into closer collaboration with political and social movements. Racism is a primary wedge to break solidarity, which is the only weapon of the poor and the dispossessed in a struggle against imperialism. We believe that turning to this living history of Marxist movements in the peripheries and anti-colonial struggle in North America can clarify a model for a multi-front anti-colonial struggle to delink from the anarchy of the market that continues to wreak havoc on the world. The political task is to solidify a united front against racism and imperialism. Elements of this front are already present in the Poor People’s Campaign in the United States, the landless workers movement in Brazil, and the struggles of shack dwellers and metal workers of South Africa. In these struggles we can see the future in the present, illuminating the possibilities of an alternative path for humanity.
 Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, and Kendall Thomas. eds., Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement (New York: New Press, 1995); Richard Delgado, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (New York: New York University Press, 2017).
 Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 206.
 Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “The Worrying State of the Anti-Prison Movement,” Social Justice Blog, February 23, 2015.
 Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983; Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 2; Cedric J. Robinson, Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Black and the Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film Before World War II (University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton, “The World We Want: An Interview with Cedric and Elizabeth Robinson,” in Futures of Black Radicalism, ed. Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin (New York: Verso, 2017), 95-107.
 Karl Marx letter to Meyer and Vogt, London, April 9, 1870, in Karl Marx, The First International and After: Political Writings Volume 3 (New York: Verso, 2010), 168-169.
 Barbara J. Fields, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America,” New Left Review 181 (May/June 1990): 95-118.
 Robinson, Black Marxism, 10, 26, 27.
 C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938; New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 283.
 Marx to Engels, London, Nov. 30, 1867, 160.
 Robin D. G. Kelley, “Race and the Communist Manifesto,” Against the Current 72 (1998). Interested readers might also consult: Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: a Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Barbara Ransby, Eslanda: the Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013); Margaret Stevens, Red International and Black Caribbean: Communists in New York City, Mexico and the West Indies, 1919-1939 (London : Pluto Press, 2017); John Munro, The Anticolonial Front: the African American Freedom Struggle and Global Decolonisation, 1945-1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
 “The Imperialism of Finance Capital and ‘Trade Wars’: An Interview with Prabhat Patnaik,” Dossier no. 7 (The Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, 2019), 10; “Confronting Imperialism Means Winning Back the Power to Imagine Alternatives: An Interview with Vijay Prashad,” Red Pepper, October 15, 2018.
 Nancy Fraser, “From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a ‘Post-Socialist’ Age,” New Left Review, (July/August 1995).
 Samir Amin, Delinking: Towards a Polycentric World (London: Zed Books, 1990); Fidel Castro, “Second Declaration of Havana,” in Castro: The Declarations of Havana (New York: Verso, 2018), 115-117; Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014); Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (New York: Verso, 2019); Gilmore, “The Worrying State of the Anti-Prison Movement,”; Manu Karuka, Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019); E.M.S. Namboodiripad, “The Strategy of Indian Revolution,” in E.M.S. Selected Writings. Vol. 1 (Calcutta: National Books Agency, 1982), 286-294.
 Richard Pithouse, “The Dissent to Come,” New Frame, December 14, 2018; “The New Intellectual,” Dossier no. 13 (The Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, 2019), 37.