Jamelle Bouie says structural racism is about capitalism but readers say he's wrong

Today’s opinion piece by NY Times’ columnist Jamelle Bouie is titled “What ‘Structural Racism’ Really Means.” I’ll confess I clicked on it for two competing reasons. First, I was genuinely curious how he would explain the term structural racism. Second, I suspected, whatever his answer, there would lots of people disagreeing with him about it. I was somewhat disappointed on the first count but not at all on the second.


Bouie’s argument here is derived from a 1948 book, “Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics” by Oliver Cromwell Cox, which he said he reread over the weekend. He did this, he explains, for a specific reason.

If there is a reason to revisit this specific book at this particular moment, it is to remind oneself that the challenge of racism is primarily structural and material, not cultural and linguistic, and that a disproportionate focus on the latter can too often obscure the former.

Cox was writing at a time when mainstream analysis of race in the United States made liberal use of an analogy to the Indian caste system in order to illustrate the vast gulf of experience that lay between Black and white Americans. His book was a rebuttal to this idea as well as an original argument in its own right.

Over the course of 600 pages, Cox provides a systematic study of caste, class and race relations, underscoring the paramount differences between caste and race, and, most important, tying race to the class system. “Racial antagonism,” he writes in the prologue, “is part and parcel of this class struggle, because it developed within the capitalist system as one of its fundamental traits.”

Bouie believes Cox was correct about racism arising not from some caste system but from a need created by capitalism:

For most of American history, until the Civil War, this socioeconomic need was the production of tobacco, agricultural staples and, eventually, cotton. After the war, it was the general demand for cheap workers and a pliant, divided labor force coming from Southern planters and Northern industrialists. Whether in the United States or around the world, Cox argues, it is capitalist exploitation — and not some inborn tribalism — that drives racial prejudice and conflict.


He concludes that racism doesn’t survive because people have racist ideas, it survives because “it is inscribed and reinscribed by the relationships and dynamics that structure our society.” He seems to be avoiding saying anything too bluntly but I think you could boil down his argument to this: Capitalism makes people racist.

The first thing to notice about this argument is that it’s essentially a long subtweet at a popular book titled “Caste” which came out last year. It’s odd that Bouie doesn’t mention that book directly since it seems to be the thing he is really arguing against in this piece.

Also, I can’t help but notice that many of the proponents of the left’s new thinking about race just happen to be Marxists/anti-capitalists. That’s true of the founders of Black Lives Matter, though their commitment to the ideology seems to be in flux. It’s true of some of the most prominent anti-racist trainers, including Robin DiAngelo, despite the millions she has made. So I think it’s fair to say there is some connection there between anti-racism and anti-capitalism, one which rarely gets discussed in the mainstream coverage.

But Bouie’s readers weren’t as impressed with Oliver Cromwell Cox’s argument as he was. Most of the top comments (in terms of upvotes from other readers) were critical. This one caught my eye. It presents an argument that the left really dislikes, one which suggests cultural differences matter.

From Wiki: “The poverty rate for native born and naturalized whites is identical (9.6%). On the other hand, the poverty rate for naturalized blacks is 11.8% compared to 25.1% for native born blacks, suggesting race alone does not explain income disparity. Not all minorities have low incomes.”

This speaks to culture as a contributor, separate from/in addition to race.


I won’t rehash the argument over the Model Minority Myth but Bouie and others seem very eager to discount evidence that some races or at least some portions within various races seem not to be strongly impacted by the tractor beam of racism generated by capitalism. Put more simply, a lot of minorities of all races manage to thrive. That ought to cast some doubt on the idea that capitalism itself is the problem. Another reader writes:

Back when I was a lawyer, I would meet with clients and listen to their convoluted explanations for why they thought they had been wronged and what injustices they thought they had suffered. Often, the grievances were so complicated and subjective, I found it more helpful to start by asking what the client wanted to happen, and see if that was something that was in the power of the law to accomplish. I feel the same way about most modern race activists.

The Abolitionists had a clear goal- end slavery. The Civil Rights marchers had a clear goal- end Jim Crow.

What do the Civil Rights activists want today? An end to all poverty? That will never happen. More quotas and affirmative action? That will never happen. More white guilt? I think we’ve reached the end of that road.

If those who claim to fight for equality want anything to actually improve (I think a large number of them don’t- because it would put them out of a job), they need to focus on specific policies and programs that can prove their effectiveness.

I think I know what the clear goal is, though I don’t believe it’s a good one or that it is often stated clearly. The goal is “equity” which differs from equality in that it stresses guaranteed and equal outcomes, not just equal opportunity. Of course the only way to guarantee outcomes is to significantly downplay those things that capitalism emphasizes, i.e. excellence, reason, hard work, subject matter mastery, diligence, aptitude, etc. And again, I think it’s not accidental that leading anti-racism trainers are to some degree skeptical of all of these things and often describe them as elements of white supremacy. One more:


The way to get working class whites to support social reforms is to stop talking about inequality in racial terms. When you play the races off against each other, as if all whites were affluent and prosperous (which is the prevailing myth), you alienate them and thus encourage them to vote with the wealthier whites because you have reinforced their identity as white rather than exploited underlings.

Most of the Build Back Better Plan would have helped blacks as well as whites, but we continue to lag generations beyond social reforms in Europe because the left as well as the right are constantly reminding people about their race and gender rather than their class.

Thus, the end result is the perpetuation of inequality through the division of the working class by dividing them according to race, gender, religion, and most of all rural v. urban.

There’s something to this, though I think there’s a silly view on the far side of this which basically says in the coming worker’s paradise, all races will be equal. In other words, some people who desire to reduce emphasis on race in favor of more emphasis on class are in fact socialists who see the focus on race as a distraction. But from my perspective, genuine socialism doesn’t look very good whether we approach it from a focus on class or from a focus on race. Either way the end game is often authoritarian and potentially catastrophic.

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