Notes on: Walton, S. (2020). Why the critical race theory concept of 'White supremacy' should not be dismissed by Neo – Marxists: Lessons from contemporary Black radicalism. Power and Education. 12 (1): 78 – 94  DOI: 10.1177/1757743819871316

Dave Harris

[A useful summary of the debates over the years between marxists like Cole and CRT spokespersons like Gillborn. A plea for  neo-marxism that looks alot like the old stuff in British Cultural Studies based on Gramsci associated with S Hall -- see my own wonderful 1992 book]

An essential points of disagreement between Marxists and CRT has been over white supremacy. Marxists see it as actively damaging to radical movements because it misrepresents the white working class as beneficiaries of racism and thus alienates them. Some think it should be replaced with 'racialisation', rooted in capitalist modes of production with a definite basis. But white supremacy itself could be grounded like this and has more appeal for black radicals.

[Usual summary of the debates and the origins of CRT, including the struggles with CLS, the emergence into educational theory, the tension between CRT and Marxism, including their critique that CRT reified his and centralises race]

In CRT, white supremacy means both the process and a state of affairs. White-identified people are given precedence over other groups through various political and cultural structures and practices that are reproduced by structures and individuals, both consciously and unconsciously. They are taken for granted and invisible. It is broader than just the attitudes and actions of extreme racist white groups. It is the most fundamental and widely accepted concept in CRT, and shared with other black theorists [Gilroy is cited --old Brit Cult Studs hand]. It is essential because it emphasises racism as a structural element and as something that appears in individual and group actions and beliefs. It also shows the nature of power relationships, the way in which detriment and privilege is distributed in a one-way flow of power. It reveals forms of domination by one group over another, part of a process that is constantly re-established within the social frameworks, on an everyday basis, even by people who are ' "lovers of diversity… believers in justice"' (81) [quoting Leonardo], so all white people are complicit, 'sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly'.

Walton wants to emphasise this notion of process, domination rather than dominance, the role the actors play, not just the way in which dominance manifests itself, the way dominance is reproduced and sustained and persists, not just remains from history, how it becomes normal.

Marxists have repeatedly criticised this concept. It diverts attention from modes of production; homogenises all white people; cannot explain 'non-colour-coded racism'; cannot explain 'hybridist racism', like Islamophobia where skin colour is combined with religious intolerance; cannot explain racism between nonwhite actors; does not refer to everyday racism but overdoes historical usage and thus merges with past forms like fascism; does not help motivate action against racism especially in involving white people. Cole has done the most to develop these [2017 seems to be the main source   New Developments in Critical Race Theory and Education: Revisiting Racialized Capitalism and Socialism in Austerity. New York: Palgrave.]

So, for Cole, a better concept would be racialisation, 'the categorisation of people (falsely) into distinct "races"' (84) arising from particular historical economic and political forces, including patterns of migration. It is fundamentally an ideological process to produce a racialised labour force and divide the working class. Social relations have often been structured according to biological and cultural characteristics. These have often been accompanied by all sorts of attitudes to racial minorities often with racist implications, dominative racism, aggressive racism, overt as well as covert racism [ISA's and RSA's]. The modes of production are crucial. Class antagonisms are at the bottom of it, because the extraction of surplus value is still required [fits nicely with Fanon].

Social class is the main factor dividing privilege and material resources and a focus on race tends to lose sight of the life chances of working class white people. The white working class share 'to a large degree' their identity with black and other racialised minority groups (85) and this is not recognised by narratives of white supremacy. Indeed poor whites can be seen as a cause of racial and economic inequalities. Class exploitation and oppression is masked. White supremacy is counter-productive as a unifier. There was further criticism of a 'race traitor' movement that urges white people to dis-identify with whiteness, 'at best only a partial solution' (85).

Everyone agrees that racialisation is a real phenomenon and that attempts are still made to categorise people into different races. Even genetic theories are still being advanced, as Gillborn notes [even in 2018], and even though proponents of these ideas 'rarely if ever [mention] race directly' (86). However, there are no other processes described, and Gillborn sees these as a consequence of white supremacy.

Contemporary black radicals take a different tack and show that 'a more nuanced, colour sensitive Marxism needs to be developed' and that white supremacy could be incorporated into it. Marxism is a predominantly white endeavour and should be modified if it is to capture the experiences of black workers. It is primarily designed to emancipate the white working class. Marxists have historically ignored or downplayed Western imperialism and its effects on the different relationships producing white and black workers currently: this might be a comment on scholars rather than Marxism as such, and Cole might be an exception.

However, nonwhite groups do not identify with the struggles of the white working class. Trade unions, for example have often been '"a bastion of racism and exclusion"' (88) [quoting Andrews — but what's that got to do with Marxism?]. Black workers have had to found their own associations, and it is not surprising that they see white workers as relatively privileged.

Marxism may still be infected by the '"psychosis of whiteness", a feature of virtually all of Western thought' [our old friend epistemic whiteness?]. This is like Orientalism, a fundamental otherness sustained by a tradition of academic writing, but focused on black people, infecting academic discourse but also all areas of public pedagogy. This denies the responsibility of white people for the horrors of imperialism. It does not imply that this is essential to Marxist thought, however — and again Cole might well be exempt [I think Marx is exempt!]. Whiteness may well be 'all pervasive and invisible… deeply embedded and fundamental' however [but is it fundamental? What is its role in reproduction?]. Andrews refers to historical examples where it is functional for slavery and colonialism and has shaped the modern world.

Many Marxist thinkers have fallen 'prey to the psychosis of whiteness' and not recognised its fundamental role in the development of capitalism and the role it continues to play in the impoverishment of the developing world or modes of production within capitalism. In this sense, for Andrews, 'whiteness and white supremacy are ontologically prior to capitalism' in creating the conditions in which black people can be exploited (89) and it is this that has created the Western system including its modes of production: '"racism actually predates class in a Marxist sense"' [but feudalism predate capitalism, and the social relations there were not based on race] . White supremacy is intrinsic to a proper understanding of capitalism how it is created and how it evolves. Racism is not just a product of modes of production. Modes of production [modern ones, colonialism or US slavery?] are not explicable without white supremacy — they are 'already the products of and infected with white supremacy'. If we do not recognise this, we simply have to operate with an abstract and homogeneous notion of 'people' affected by capitalism [no -- classes] : in practice, white people are 'simply not at the same risk of being racialised' [but are they at the same risk of being exploited?].

Incorporating white supremacy does add a layer of complexity to politics and it may be tough for white working class radicals, but omitting it means we might find it hard to involve black radicals. It might have to be explained to both sides. A proper theory has to be 'explicit about all the variables' (90)

So there are 'potential synergies between' CRT and neo-Marxism, and a more nuanced Marxist analysis [back to Althusser and Gramsci?] is possible. Doubts and scepticism remain. Non-colour-coded racism remains, although we might be able to treat whiteness as a shifting signifier, or to separate racism and xenophobia [a linguistic trick?]. Black/White distinctions might still be taken as 'the fundamental form of racism' while accepting that racism is multifaceted. (91)