In his book Capitalism and Slavery, Trinidadian historian Dr. Eric Williams writes that “Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.”
Williams, like many others, argues that racism was created by the powerful to justify subjugation that was already in progress. In other words, the desire to exploit came first, and racism was developed as a moral system to justify the exploitation.
This has profound implications for how we approach the topic of dismantling racism and white supremacy.
Most people today know that race and racism are not “natural.” Scientifically, there is no such thing as “race.” Of course, there are differences in skin color between different groups of people. And it is possible to lump people into rough geographic groups based on their heritage and specific physical characteristics. But the concept of race is a vast oversimplification of this natural variation.
The fact that race is an artificial construct becomes clear when you study how “mixed-race” people are perceived in society today. In general, society considers a person who is half white and half black to be… black. In these sorts of examples, race is exposed as a set of stereotypes, a shorthand that people use to categorize people into a set of expectations and social boxes.
This, of course, isn’t to say that race isn’t “socially real.” In our culture, race is a material reality. But it’s a fuzzy one, a constructed one. This becomes obvious when we study the history of race and racism, and when we examine how these concepts have evolved over time to better serve the (fractured, not unitary) ruling class.
For another example of how race functions as a system of power, we can look at how various ethnic groups have shifted in and out of the privileged class “white” over time. The book How the Irish Became White traces this phenomenon, examining how mostly dirt-poor Irish immigrants to the US were treated as a sub-human race of lesser innate worth and intelligence, and how over time, the Irish became accepted as “white” in return for their largely collective agreement to oppress blacks and other non-white peoples.
Racism functions today, as it has historically, as a system used to justify the oppression and exploitation of billions of people of color worldwide. In his pioneering book The Nazi Doctors, Dr. Robert Jay Lifton writes that people cannot continue to commit atrocities without having them fully rationalized. He calls these justifications a “claim to virtue.” For the Nazis Lifton studied in particular, the mass murder of Jews was justifiable to create Lebensraum (“living space”) for the Aryan race.
Similarly, racism allows white supremacists (both overt and covert) to claim virtue as they brutally exploit people. The ideology of slavery and colonization relies on the idea that Black and indigenous peoples are “sub-human” and need to be “civilized.” Early white historians of slavery such as Ulrich B. Phillips wrote that slavery lifted the African people from barbarism, protected them, and benefited them.
From claiming that non-white people were separate species, to racist IQ tests, to Trump claiming Central American refugees are disease-ridden rapists, these campaigns of virtue have continued for hundreds of years.
If racism was born primarily out of political necessity to justify exploitation—this changes the way that we approach dismantling racism. Instead of a cultural attitude or idea that can educated away, this understanding has us see racism as fundamentally linked to a material system of exploitation. In fact, we could say that racism IS material exploitation.
Today, this system of racist exploitation takes many forms.
It takes the form of a massive private prison system that profits from the enslavement of the largest prison population in the world, a population that is disproportionately black, Latino, and indigenous. There are more black people in prison today than were in prison at the height of slavery, and these people are forced to work for free or slave wages (often $1 per hour or less) for private profit.
It takes the form of a complicit educational system that dehumanizes black and brown children from birth while railroading them on the school-to-prison pipeline.
It takes the form of an economic system that uses redlining, payday loans, and other predatory financial practices to steal from the poor black and brown people of this country, leaving people destitute and facing homelessness, disease, cold, and hunger.
It takes the form of the war on drugs, which originated in the crack cocaine epidemic in black inner cities started in the 1980’s. In 1996, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb, who worked for The Mercury News newspaper in San Rose, launched his “Dark Alliance” series of articles with this: “For the better part of a decade, a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.” This drug ring “opened the first pipeline between Colombia’s cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles” and, as a result, “helped spark a crack explosion in urban America.” This helped fuel the drug war, a key pillar of US internal counterinsurgency strategy, and led to massively profitable asset forfeiture programs, internal security business, and a booming private prison system. After this report, Webb was attacked by the three largest newspapers in the country, run out of his job, went bankrupt, and eventually ‘killed himself’ with two self-inflicted gunshots.
It takes the form of a fossil fuel and real-estate boom making billions of dollars while bulldozing through indigenous lands and building on top of burial grounds and sacred sites, and more broadly of environmental racism through which toxic and radioactive industries, waste, and facilities are offloaded onto communities of color.
It takes the form of a US and western foreign policy that backs right-wing coups and wars in places like Honduras, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, The Philippines, and elsewhere for the sake of geopolitical and financial power, then demonizes refugees fleeing from this violence who can then be exploited for low wage jobs, prostitution, and practical slavery while they live in fear.
It takes the form of global trade agreements like NAFTA which impoverish millions of poor people of color globally and make it even more profitable and easy for corporations to make billions on the exploitation of cheap labor in sweatshops, maquiladoras, and electronics factories.
These are just a few examples.
Feminist author Marilyn Frye described oppression as being similar to a birdcage. Examine any one bar of the cage, and it appears to be no obstacle. After all, a bird can simply fly around it. Only when you consider the inter-relationship between the different bars do you get a sense of how the cage works to immobilize and confine the occupant.
Racism works in a similar way. Education, prisons, mass media, banks, war, politicians, non-profits, developers, drugs and alcohol, entertainment, and various other institutions and forces combined form a cage that is locked tightly around people of color.
This brutal system is responsible for the deaths of millions and an obscene amount of suffering.
The routine public executions of black and brown people conducted by the police are a terrorist tactic no different from the lashing of slaves. For both white and black and brown community, these displays clearly teach and enforce the power hierarchy. Body cameras have only made these dominance displays more public, and thus more effective.
When we understand how racism functions, we are better able to plan our attack against it.
If racism is a system of power set up to benefit the ruling class, education (the favorite method of liberals) can never be enough. Fundamentally, racism is not based on ignorance; it’s based on power and exploitation. That doesn’t mean education is worthless, but it does mean that ending racism is primarily a power struggle, not a matter of changing minds. Education is necessary, but not sufficient.
A radical approach to dismantling racism requires dismantling the material institutions that uphold and benefit from white supremacy.
To call this understanding of racism “economic” is an oversimplification. Systems of oppression function mostly to steal from the poor and reward the rich, but they are not purely rational. And this approach doesn’t mean subordinating racism to class struggle. Racism is not “less important” than class struggle, and arguments that it is (mainly from white people) have rightly drawn a lot of criticism from people of color activists.
That said, radical people of color have long understood that racism is one key pillar in a system of domination and exploitation that is much broader than racism alone. Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition in Chicago is a key example, bringing together black, Puerto Rican, working class white, and socialist groups, not to subordinate their struggles to a larger goal, but to coordinate their fight against the ruling class as a united front.
Modern white supremacy has its foundation in ideas and in culture, but it expresses itself primarily through economic power, military power, police power, media power, and so on. These are all concrete institutions that can be destroyed. I believe that too little attention is paid to vulnerabilities in the global system of white supremacist empire.
This line of thought has not been explored much by radical leftists. Revolutionary traditions have been dominated by strains of Marxism, which focus on seizing state and corporate power and institutions, not on destroying or incapacitating them.
The revolutionary strategy “Decisive Ecological Warfare” (DEW) was originally described in 2011 as an emergency measure to address the environmental crisis. However, this strategy has implications for the fight against racism as well.
The DEW strategy calls for underground guerilla cells to target key nodes in global industrial infrastructure, such as energy systems, communications, finance, trade hubs, and so on. The goal is to cause “cascading systems failure” in the global capitalist economy while minimizing civilian casualties. If successful, this strategy could fatally damage capitalism and deal a major blow to the power of white supremacy.
The first objection most people in the global north have to this strategy is reflexive: we are dependent on capitalist systems for survival. This is the depraved genius of any abusive system; white supremacist capitalism systematically exterminates alternative ways to live, and thus makes us dependent upon the same system that exploits and murders us. It’s the exact same method used by abusive men to control and coerce their wives and girlfriends.
Capitalism does not care about us. The state does not care about us. In the face of global ecological collapse, these institutions will leave us to die while the rich retreat to gated communities with armed guards. They make us dependent on their system then profit from our misery and death. We need to build alternative grassroots institutions, food systems, self-defense groups, and communities outside of capitalism. This is essential whether we pursue DEW or not. But without DEW and other forms of offensive struggle, the corporate-state will destroy alternative communities whenever possible. Defending these spaces will be a losing battle without larger changes.
No war is won through defense alone.
No one strategy is a magic bullet. But Decisive Ecological Warfare offers revolutionaries a weapon that could strike decisive blows against white supremacist, capitalist power structures, and create opportunities for new types of communities based on justice to exist and flourish.
Max Wilbert is a writer, activist, and organizer with the group Deep Green Resistance. He lives on occupied Kalapuya Territory in Oregon.