In late 2014, an unarmed Black man, Akai Gurley, was shot and killed by an Asian American police officer, Peter Liang, in Brooklyn. During Liang’s trial, sides were taken, with some in the Asian American community supporting Liang. Yet, there was also considerable support among Asian Americans, including activists and organizers, for Gurley’s family, demanding they receive justice for what was clearly another case of a police officer gunning down an innocent Black life. Gurley was simply walking up the stairs of an apartment building when he was gunned down by Liang.

One of the community organizations that supported Gurley’s family’s fight for justice was CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities. CAAAV, which stands for Communities Against Anti-Asian Violence, was formed by a group of Asian American women thirty years ago. Initially, the organization was focused on confronting anti-Asian hate crimes and xenophobia across New York City. But gradually, its leadership recognized that Asians living and working in the city needed more to be done for them to lead full and happy lives than stopping hate crimes against them. In order for Asians in the city to achieve true dignity and safety, they would need to tackle broader systemic issues such as standing against an economic system that cared more for the wealthy than it for ordinary people, especially Asians who have the highest percentage in poverty in New York City. Thus, it was necessary to challenge the status quo and their cronies, including the police. And to do so effectively requires building relationships and coalitions with other groups of color against the enemy.

“We find it important that we don’t let the system use race to divide and conquer, especially if there is a working-class struggle that’s common to everyone,” CAAAV’s Executive Director explained to me in an interview in early 2017.

Although receiving backlash from some in the community, such as being called “race traitors”, CAAAV stood steadfast in their support for Gurley’s family, as well as continuing to organize around issues that different groups of color face in the city, especially on questions of housing and affordability. Like groups before them, including the Black Panther Party, CAAAV understands the centrality of coalition-building, especially among people of color and marginalized groups, as one of the decisive paths to actually winning power from the ruling elite.

The story of capitalism in the United States is a story of coalitions built through race and class.

Ignoring the critical role that coalitions across race and class play in maintaining or undermining capitalist rule allows for those with privileges and power to maintain their position in the economic hierarchy, especially as neoliberalism starts to give way to something else.

Bill Fletcher Jr., prominent labor organizer and theorist, explained to me,

In order for those recipients of the polarization of wealth to survive, they’re going to have to create a more and more authoritarian state, a neoliberal authoritarian state or a neofascist state. And so, that’s the trajectory we’re on. I don’t think that trajectory is inevitable either. I think that’s very realistic. In order to avoid that it’s not like we can sit back and believe that a progressive or a radical social movement can succeed. It has to be organized.

Hence, through a combination of texts I’ve reviewed and interviews I’ve conducted, I will explore the dynamic of race, class and coalitions, in the process revealing the political framework ideal in mobilizing against the capitalist class.[1]  

 

COALITIONS AND CAPITAL

Forming enduring coalitions is at the heart of preserving capitalism in the U.S. and race has played a significant role in helping cultivate such coalitions. Since the founding of the U.S., the capitalist class has represented a tiny fraction of the population. The “founding fathers” themselves, many of whom were slaveowners and prominent landholders, knew that they couldn’t create a purely dictatorial political regime without risking a mass uprising against them. Instead, they needed some backing from a segment of the masses to maintain their disproportionate share of power and wealth. Thus, they persisted to cultivate an emergent white identity, which had been forged during the colonial era, that would convince many non-elite whites to side with them against Black and indigenous people.

They cultivated and mobilized around a white identity by extending particular liberal rights to only whites, such as the right to vote and to own land, while the bulk of the most dangerous and demeaning work was foisted on the shoulders of Black and indigenous people.  

“Capitalism in the West has always been connected to the exploitation of the racial Other,” explained Manisha Sinha, the Draper Chair of American History at the University of Connecticut and author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.

By not being victimized to the same degree that many people of color people were, white Americans eventually did see their fates as being connected to the fates of the capitalist elite, believing that the existing economic and political order was either functioning ideally or could easily be reformed. Class struggle was therefore obscured and replaced with the belief that the major struggle shaping the country and the world was between the so-called white civilization against everyone else. Fletcher, Jr. explained,

Race and racism have become the most effective form of class collaboration that exists. Because what you have in effect is the blurring of class lines particularly by whites so that you have the poorest white in West Virginia identifying with the Koch brothers despite the fact that materially they share nothing in common.

The coalition the capitalist class managed to forge with non-elite whites has allowed capitalism to regenerate and survive over generations. At the end of the Civil War, with the formal end of slavery and the potential for a social democratic economic and political system to finally take root in the former Confederacy due to the efforts of Black Americans and radical Republicans, the capitalist class, this time including Northern industrialists and Southern aristocrats encouraged the white masses to attack and intimidate Black men and women and their allies. White mobs, including poor whites steeped in anti-Black resentment, sowed chaos and dissension across the former Confederacy, forcing federal troops out and allowing for Southern planters and Northern industrialists to wrest back complete power over the region. Soon, what are now known as Black codes or Jim Crow laws were enacted, which severely curtailed basic civil and economic rights to Black Americans. This includes stripping away the right to vote from Black Americans, the right to not work, the right to legal protections that most whites had, as well as denying Black Americans basic protections against white violence against them, from being lynched to having their property seized and destroyed in anti-Black mob violence. Under Jim Crow, Black Americans were forced to live in a constant state of extreme vulnerability and threat of violence. 

“Planters after the end of slavery just complain and complain about seeking alternative ways to reestablish their control,” said Caitlin Rosenthal, Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management. “Race based violence becomes a tool for reestablishing control,” she added.

Similarly, just as our communities were finally winning political and economic rights at the tail-end of the 1960s, following generations of struggle, the economic elite once again sought to build relationships with non-elite whites. This time, the economic elite, especially the libertarian Right, built political narratives through think tanks and politicians who believed in their mission of deregulation and prioritizing corporate interests over workers’ interests. The elites themselves supported policymakers and politicians, such as Ronald Reagan, who could exploit the rising racial resentment among white workers, including the descendants of Italian and Irish immigrants, to again believe more fervently that Black and brown people were the main enemy, not the business owners and corporate elite. Trump is the latest incarnation of this type of politics and coalition-building. Figures like a Reagan or a Trump appeal to racial resentment that was lurking, having been left unaddressed for generations, to win power and once in power, they proceed to enact policies that serve the “free market” and the capitalist class, such as deregulating industries, while preserving certain privileges and resources for other members of their reactionary coalition, such as extending cheap credit to middle class white Americans to own homes or helping predominantly white communities foil attempts at desegregation and sharing resources.  

None of this is to suggest that we view all white Americans as simply agents of a capitalist elite order. Even the Black Panther Party believed in the potential of building alliances with whites. Still, the main lesson to land on is that through race, especially whiteness, the capitalist class forged the coalitions they would need to maintain power. Rather than ruling over the majority of people through force, which would most likely trigger mass protests, thus costing the dominant capitalists to drain themselves of resources and energy and social capital, the capitalist class has have sustained their wealth and power through coalitions predicated on race and making concessions for some over others.

 

COALITIONS & FORMULATING RESISTANCE

While coalitions have been instrumental in preserving capital, they also serve as the solution toward ending capitalist rule. Indeed, the Black anti-capitalist tradition in the U.S., which stretches from Du Bois to Angela Davis and Fletcher Jr., understands this. The Black anti-capitalist tradition, made up of Black thinkers and organizers, is one that recognizes that the ending of capitalist rule and domination in the U.S. would require a strategic mobilization of various groups of marginalized peoples based on the analysis of the relationship between white supremacy and capital.    

According to Du Bois and more recently, Cedric Robinson, whose work had been crucial in revitalizing discussions on the subject of “racial capitalism”, U.S. capitalism is shaped by racial hierarchy. Capitalism, regardless of where it takes root, requires a segment of a country’s population whose land and resources can be snatched away at a moment’s notice and who are forced to work and live in the worst and most dangerous conditions, in order to provide luxury for the elites in charge and even some semblance of luxury and the “good life” for other workers above them. Due to the intersection of white supremacy with capitalism in the United States., it has been predominantly Black and indigenous and other communities of color who have borne this burden the most, from having their lands stolen and handed over to white settlers, from being enslaved and then forced to work for pennies as sharecroppers, to the present day, with predominantly Black and brown communities left to fend for themselves and preyed upon by low-wage industries and the prison industrial complex.

Andrew Zimmerman, professor of history at George Washington University and the author of Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South, explained,

As Cedric Robinson has demonstrated, capitalism is always racial capitalism, and enslavement has been central to actually existing capitalism – from the plantation to the prison industrial complex. So, the Black freedom struggle has, perhaps, always been structurally central to the struggle against the many forms of domination that make up capitalism. The astonishing diversity and creativity of the Black freedom struggle in every moment of its history may be partly a result of this central position, but it also needs no structural explanation. Black radical movements are a part of the left that everybody interested in liberation should learn from.

As Marx accurately identified, the collapse of capital, or at the very least, the erosion of its power will start to occur when groups whose exploitation and dehumanization are critical to its functioning begin to rise up. Across Europe, especially at the time Marx was writing, this would have been the working class in major industrial cities. However, in the U.S., the functioning of the capitalist order relied not just on exploiting industrial workers but on the exploitation of rural workers as well, many of whom have been Black and Mexican. Later, as more Black Americans and other people of color started working in major factories, they were made to work the most demeaning and dangerous jobs.

In the modern era, most communities of color, especially Black and particular Latin American communities, remain the most vulnerable to extreme forms of economic exploitation, as many are often left with few alternatives other than working in low-wage industries as cleaners and cooks and domestic workers or whose bodies are profited off of by investors in the private prison industry. And like generations ago, due to media propaganda and political demagoguery, predominantly Black and brown communities remain relegated to filling the symbolic role of the Other that whites generally and even particular people of color, such as those who are more upwardly mobile, can compare themselves to and seek distance from.

Thus, if predominantly communities of color were to rebel and demand what they’re owed, it would cause the foundations of our economic system to truly begin to fall apart and shake.

“The fundamental lesson in US history is that every attempt by the oppressed to avoid race and to move a transformative movement has failed. And that the Black radical tradition identifies that,” Fletcher, Jr. explained, adding, “A second thing is the social movements of people of color, particularly African American movement, the Chicano movement, the Puerto Rican movement, are very destabilizing for US capitalism and that US capitalism needs the existence of racist oppression in order to solidify class collaboration among whites.”

If our communities were to rise up and demand a society that would actually meet most of our needs, it would mean stretching the existing economic and political order to its limits and beyond. Giants of the modern U.S. economy such as Walmart and other service sector industries would be shut down. Not to mention uprisings within prisons and in cities that have been under intense police surveillance. Further, to achieve a society in which the majority of our people are finally able to lead full and happy lives, there would need to be a redistribution of power and wealth, an expansion of rights to include a right to healthcare, housing, and jobs that can sustain communities, and an end to the existing conception of policing and an end to private prisons. In order for us to never arrive at a similar economic and political crisis, in which a handful have authority and power over our living and working conditions, in which whites and a handful of people of color can find ways to reinforce their economic privileges, there would need to be an empowerment of workers and community members to have decision-making power over workplaces and over the economy. Capitalism can never deliver on any of this in any formalized or sustained way.

The society our people and communities need is one in which profit and private gain is no longer prioritized. It is about creating a government that is willing to constrain corporate power and greed and replace these with institutions that are publicly controlled and accountable. It is about generating institutions that generate policies that sustain true freedom and autonomy for the masses of people of color, such as providing healthcare and housing to all.  

“What is very clear about the history of Reconstruction and history of Jim Crow and efforts at the second Reconstruction is that having a public sector that is well funded and gives people options goes a very long, long way,” expressed N.D.B. Connolly, Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins and author of A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida. Much of this analysis emerges from a Black anti-capitalist lens. Different from Black cultural nationalists and more liberal people of color activists, leaders like Fred Hampton knew that the overarching system that ruled over everyone’s lives was capital but that it had to be combated through a movement of marginalized peoples, especially Black and brown and other colonized peoples. Unlike a liberal identity politics lens, Black anti-capitalists, including Black feminists such as members of the Combahee River Collective, knew that simply integrating into a more liberal form of capital would never be enough for the majority of poor and working-class Black women and men and others operating on the edge. That simply having people of color working as corporate executives or having communities of color be the last ones to organize for class struggle are both insufficient for liberating the vast majority of working people, especially people of color.

But none of this would even be possible without coalitions. If different groups of color were to organize their communities on their own, without help from one another, they would remain outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and outgunned. Given the massive demographic shifts of the past few decades, there is a greater potential for radical movements to not have to rely on gaining a majority of white support and could instead lean on different groups of color, along with a smaller percentage of whites. Still, even as whites become a minority, unless groups of color coalesce with the mindset that there needs to be systemic change, separate communities of color (i.e. Black Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans) won’t have the numbers or the power to truly resist the status quo. All racial groups will end up with a plurality, not a majority of the population. Therefore, in the near future, as we navigate an economic and political and climate crisis, it would take more than just one racial group (which is also assuming that there aren’t any internal differences and that too is a fabrication), whether it be Black or Latin or Asian, to rise up and to avoid the other groups mobilizing against them.

Unless communities are organized to turn their energies together against the status quo, they can be compelled to fight to preserve it, which is what had happened in California following WWII. At the war’s end, Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans and African Americans were expected to come together to forge a new liberal dawn within the state. White Americans were becoming a minority and there were liberal academics and activists envisioning electoral success through stitching together coalitions of color. However, this coalition could never take root due to poor organizing and the assumptions made by organizers that people of color would inevitably align with one another. Instead, particular communities of color still believed it was more useful for them to organize as their own bloc rather than trust other groups. Eventually, right-wing politicians such as Ronald Reagan exploited the tensions existing between different groups of color. Reagan succeeded in convincing many Mexican American and some Japanese Americans that the Democratic Party was beholden to African Americans and would never care about their own particular issues, such as language access and working conditions on large farms. Reagan cleaved off enough Mexican American support to become Governor, in spite of the state’s growing diversity.

Du Bois stressed solidarity among colonized peoples domestically and abroad, knowing that unless different groups of color support one another, groups or nations fighting to end imperialism and oppression can easily be isolated or have them pitted against one another. When colonized people stood together, as in newly independent African nations materially supporting one another’s freedom struggles, it was much harder for European imperialists to sustain control over them. Du Bois envisioned similar alliances in the U.S. with workers of color and even particular segments of white workers coming together to resist capital domination over their lives, with each seeing the other as a comrade. Examples of this have taken place, especially in the late 1960s, when groups inspired by Black and Brown and Yellow Power were combining efforts to demand greater economic and political rights. The creation of ethnic studies on campuses were the result of different organizations representing different groups joining together and demanding the existence of such academic programs to replace the Eurocentric courses they had to take.

Mari Matsuda, a co-founder of critical race theory, explained,

The most progressive Black leaders have always understood the need to combat racism while building alliances and confronting both inter and intragroup subordination.  The Black organizers bringing together poor whites and Blacks in the days of the STFU (I had to tell a student to look this up, he only knew that as an acronym for an expletive), Fred Hampton’s work in poor Black and white neighborhoods in Chicago, and the current group of Black Lives Matters activists who, behind closed doors, are working late into the night at various hotspots to educate themselves and others about the effects of patriarchy and homophobia in their own communities.  

The major problems across society will always stem from capitalist rule, even when the elites become more diverse. The solution will always be strategically combining efforts to shift power away from the economic elite into the hands of everyday people, especially poor and working-class Black and brown people.

 

COALITIONS & OBSTACLES

Developing coalitions among marginalized peoples may sound natural or somehow obvious, especially as the country becomes more and more diverse, yet there still remain major obstacles and insights one must contend with. These are obstacles/insights that must be examined and incorporated when mapping out the potential and our strategy in forming coalitions of color that would undermine capital.

The first significant obstacle or variable to confront is the emergence of a professional and managerial class among people of color. After the 1960s, the Asian and Latin population have grown at a much faster rate, with many having to flee the effects of European and U.S. colonization and imperialism. Like previous generations, there have been many arriving as laborers, desperate to work any jobs they can find. However, there has also been a significant number of Asian and Latin immigrants arriving into the U.S. with the necessary educational and professional pedigree to become part of the emerging white-collar professional class. Simultaneously, there have been Black and Latin and Asian Americans also in positions of power, serving as elected officials and business leaders. These are people of color who are the buffer between the white elites and the Black and brown masses.  These are people who, as public officials and business leaders, perpetuate policies that continue to hurt the vast majority of Black and Latin and Asian people, domestic and abroad. Even in towns and cities that have a significant number of people of color serving in local government, neighborhoods are gentrified while most Black and brown residents remain overpoliced as if trapped in open-air prisons.

Similarly, having major businesses run by people of color doesn’t change the inherent power unequal dynamic between the owner and their employees. Whether the owner is a person of color or not, the workers still lack power and will be exploited as they have always been.

Further, those who have succeeded in becoming business and political leaders under a capitalist regime, or live and work alongside middle-class whites, are people whose interests can be appealed to by forces interested in maintaining contemporary capitalism as the dominant economic system. These are people of color who can be cultivated to believe in the idea that reforming capitalism can be enough in order to achieve justice and consequently, who can help steer others away from demanding radical change. This is akin to what the late post-colonial theorist and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon had feared brewing in nations transitioning from direct colonial rule, where a tiny fraction of Black and brown people were set to replace the white elites and instead of aligning themselves with the masses, chose to emulate the European elites in terms of aesthetic as well as bourgeois mindset and policy toward the masses. The same can take place here in the U.S. with people of color who are upwardly mobile helping to preserve capitalism by directly enacting neoliberal policies or by simply aligning with those, such as middle class whites or center-left or center-right politicians and business interests, who may believe in cosmetic changes and reform while placing their trust in the ability of existing financial and law enforcement institutions to sustain financial “peace and stability”.

The next factor to consider when forming coalitions is that even when different groups generally exist under similar systems of control and oppression, they experience hardships under capital and white supremacy differently and this may lead to some communities believing that they are better off organizing on their own or others viewing particular issues as not worth fighting over. For instance, although there are cases of Asian Americans, especially South Asians, who experience racial profiling by law enforcement, it is predominantly Black Americans and particular groups of Latin Americans who experience the most extreme forms of brutality at the hands of police in a much more routine manner. Much of the toxicity surrounding so-called illegal immigration has been directed at Latin Americans, regardless of documentation and citizenship. Finally, compared to Latin Americans and Asian Americans, Black Americans remain the most racially segregated group in the U.S. This is all to say that such differences in experiences can be viewed by some as evidence that it would be best to simply advocate for their own group without coalitions. We already see instances of Indian Americans breaking away from other immigrant groups by appealing directly to Donald Trump and situating themselves as the “deserving” immigrants who should be allowed their VISAs to be extended, or versions of Black resistance such as ADOS which reflect an anti-diasporic and anti-immigrant vision of Black solidarity.  

The final factor is the reality that ordinary people have been steeped in ideologies that prop up the existing economic and political systems. There are Latin and Asian Americans who still believe that hard work and determination will earn them the American Dream, not to mention those voting for neoliberal Democrats with the hope that electoral politics can save them. Political scientists, such as Nicole Masuoka and Jane Junn, have revealed that different groups of color even hold stereotypes of each other. A number of Asians believe that Black Americans are lazy, and a number of Black and Latin Americans accept the conception of Asians as the model minority. There have been other studies among social scientists who have examined the lingering distrust between Black and Latin and Asian Americans, even those who share similar economic problems. In Bitter Fruit, Claire Jean Kim explores how Korean Americans in the early 1990s in New York City found it politically expedient for themselves to link up with the conservative white establishment against Black Americans and that the coalition between certain segments of Korean Americans and whites elevated a right-wing discourse which would eventually allow for right-wing political figures such as Rudy Giuliani to take power over the city. Like Reagan, Giuliani rose to power by exploiting tensions between different groups of color and once mayor, pushed forward anti-poor anti-egalitarian and pro-cop policies.

Yet, the potential for organizing effective coalitions remains. With rising diversity in a time of also rising inequality, the stage is set for either new forms of capital to reign or for far more egalitarian, socialist economic and political projects to root themselves and spread.

Matsuda explained,

We learn from this history that through every dark time, through the most violent oppression, the human will to freedom persists.  Any system built on exploitation and degradation of human beings is destined to failure. The serious question students of history and of current struggles have to ask is how will we make the transition to a community of mutually supporting, free, and equal citizens while holding back that fascist backlash that could kill us before we do it. 

 

RACE, CLASS & COALITION-BUILDING

Immediately following the election of Donald Trump, I interviewed several different community organizations in New York City and the surrounding area, such as community groups like CAAAV. All of the community organizations I spoke with served predominantly Asian immigrants and/or Asian Americans, from providing basic services like connecting residents to social workers to organizing around common issues. Ultimately, groups like CAAAV shine a light on how to critically think through the process of weaving together coalitions across communities of color in the present day and future.  

As noted earlier, CAAAV was founded thirty years ago, and over the decades, has served Asian Americans from mostly low-income backgrounds across the city. A major issue that’s been a major focus for CAAAV over the years has been the dwindling number of affordable housing. Costs of living have continued to soar in New York City, with property developers snatching up real estate and flipping what they’ve seized into luxury apartments for white-collar professionals to move into. The city has gradually been transforming into a playground for the professional classes while poor and working-class people, including many Asian Americans, are being priced out or are literally being pushed out of communities they’ve called home for generations. CAAAV organizes against the property developers and the slumlords by engaging with Asian immigrants and Asian Americans living and working in neighborhoods such as Manhattan’s Chinatown and in Queensbridge, where there are concentrations of low-income and economically struggling Asian American residents having to endure the problems of an unjust housing market and creeping gentrification.

However, unlike more liberal organizations that may have the best of intentions but end up speaking for the interests of marginalized communities and over them, CAAAV isn’t interested in identifying an issue and gathering voices to speak out against it. Rather, CAAAV’s enduring mission has been to develop community members themselves into community organizers, to be the ones pulling others from their buildings and neighborhoods together.

“We develop tenant leaders to organize against the landlords or organize against NYCHA, the New York City Housing Authority, to hold them accountable for improving living conditions, to end displacement, and we believe that we need to develop leaders to lead the campaign to push back and propose what they want from the city,” CAAAV’s Executive Director explained, adding, “We train them on how to door knock, facilitate meetings, turn out for bigger coalition meetings, turn out for campaign meetings, turn out for actions, and we develop their skills to do that work.”

Adhikaar is a community organization founded by Nepali-speaking women with the initial goal of organizing other Nepali-speaking workers, many of whom are women working in the city as domestic workers or scraping by as workers in the nail salon industry. Like CAAAV, Adhikaar’s main goal isn’t to simply devise “solutions” from the top and lead the community on solely what it believes works best for everyone. Instead, Adhikaar’s focus is also on developing workers into their own community organizers through trainings and campaigns. As people are empowered and turned into organizers, they gradually start connecting the dots between their struggles and the struggles that other groups face and broader political and economic context everyone is mired in.

Adhikaar’s senior Communications and Development Associate explained, “And we are really trying to create a model where we are an organization that has its roots in the Nepali community but is focused on the larger movement for workers’ rights and economic justice and immigrant rights and making sure the Nepali speaking folks in this community have the resources to be leaders in those arenas as a whole, not just advocating for the Nepali community themselves.”

Echoing groups at the peak of the Black, Brown and Yellow Power era, such as the Black Panther Party, CAAAV and Adhikaar tap into the capacity for ordinary people, especially those in particular material positions, to shift their thinking. The Black Panther Party and other Black radical anti-capitalist groups such as the League of Revolutionary Black Workers knew that people were conditioned to feel alienated and hopeless and were infected by ruling class ideology. However, the BPP and the League believed that when people in marginalized economic and racial positions are attuned to their material positions and material interests, a revolutionary consciousness emerges. But this revolutionary consciousness cannot be achieved by simply telling someone what they need to hear. Instead, this type of ideological evolution often takes place when people learn together and address systemic problems together, thus recognizing they’re not the only ones facing hardships. Most importantly, a person is more likely to change their mindset when they’re doing it with others, including with organizers who are from their local community. Someone living in Manhattan’s Chinatown, struggling to pay rent or unable to find consistent work, is more likely to change their thinking or to have a discussion on issues when the organizer is someone they recognize as being part of the community rather than an outsider who wouldn’t understand the local customs or how to exactly relate to people’s anxieties and hesitations at being politically involved.

Therefore, the first lesson is that people’s political consciousnesses are malleable and can be impacted through political education and campaigning. Political education can help break through peoples’ apathies and cynicism and have them believe they have in common with those around them and beyond. At the same time, shifting minds always takes time and increasing effort and sometimes, people retreat to their prejudices and anxieties, which can feel more familiar to them than hope.

The next critical lesson one should glean from the experiences of groups like CAAAV and Adhikaar is the reality that more and more people across different groups of color are facing similar living and working conditions in the U.S. Under capitalism, there will always be a segment of society that will be made most vulnerable to the interests of capital. In the past, that segment was mainly Black American, Mexican American and indigenous. In the modern era, the segment of the most vulnerable, those who are herded into under resourced neighborhoods and into low-wage industries, that segment of people who wield the least amount of power and control over what happens to their communities now include more Asians and a more diverse group of Latin Americans, such as Dominicans and migrants from Central America.

The formal end of Jim Crow was a major achievement, which also laid the groundwork for the liberalization of the rest of American society, including immigration. Once immigration was reformed, ending the decades-long racist policy of favoring Western and Northern Europeans, it became much easier for immigrants of color to arrive to the U.S. Furthermore, as the U.S. empire expanded, destabilizing countries across the globe, this too prompted immigrants from Asia, Latin America and Africa to flee to the U.S. However, while demographics have been changing dramatically, neoliberalism has simultaneously festered and spread, which has led to dramatic cuts in the social safety net and the rapid disempowerment of workers and opposition to corporate power. The economy has drastically been altered as well, with fewer and fewer well-paid manufacturing jobs available and with large amounts of power and wealth concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer multinational corporations. Because of neoliberalism, there is extremely limited opportunity for social mobility which directly impacts many Asian and Latin immigrants, whom like most other groups of color, are now stuck at the bottom of the economic hierarchy with no way out, having to work in low-paying jobs while living in neighborhoods that lack access to basic resources, such as supermarkets and well-funded schools.

Asians in the U.S., who have often been portrayed by mass media as monolithic and propped up as symbols of the American Dream by conservatives, have been facing deteriorating living and working conditions over the past forty years. Although even other groups of color view most Asians as economically privileged, the reality is that a growing number of our people and communities are facing similar issues stemming from economic and racial marginalization, especially in areas where there are large concentrations of Asian, like in cities. While there remains a number of Asian Americans who are now living and working in predominantly white occupations and white areas, there are many others who are part of the frontline groups devastated by the economic crisis. Among all racial groups, Asian Americans have the largest wealth gap, which means that the gap between the richest Asian and the poorest Asian is higher than the gap between the richest and the poorest white, the richest Black American and the poorest Black American, and the richest Latino and the poorest.

Chhaya CDC is a community organization dedicated to addressing the economic needs of working-class South Asians. The group is mainly located in Jackson Heights, an area of Queens where generations of working-class South Asians have immigrated to and lived in. However, like in predominantly Black and Latin neighborhoods and neighborhoods like Chinatown in Manhattan, Jackson Heights has now been facing encroachment from property developers seeking to replace the locals with outsiders with more disposable income. Chhaya’s Director of Programs explained,

Its these neighborhoods which were designed for lower income to middle income families have suddenly in the last decade or so become very desirable urban centers of development. So, you take Jackson Heights for instance, which has been historically a center of South Asian community. Now, with an increasing white professional population living here, you have apartments that were once considered affordable going for a million dollars if they’re being sold. Rents are astronomical. We’re talking $2,000 for one bedroom apartments. So, it’s getting to a point where it’s almost impossible to live here.

Over the past few decades, neoliberal policies and political discourse has aided in the shifting of power and wealth to corporate entities and those interested in prioritizing the needs and interests of the economic elite over the needs and interests of ordinary people. In New York City, government has been shifting power from ordinary people to corporate interests. They’ve stepped aside as ocorporate developers and their allies to transform neighborhoods, including places that were once havens for working-class people of color and immigrants, into high-end property they can turn a larger profit off of.ld any Asians lack affordable housing, affordable healthcare, and of course, are forced to function in workplaces where workers lack the power to effectively respond to threats and intimidation from their employers. So, while some in our community can serve as corporate executives or in government or as direct enforcers like police, there are countless other Asians who are experiencing economically precarious lives and who are ignored and shunted aside to make way for “economic development.”

Many of the community organizations I interviewed understood this and therefore, oriented themselves toward serving such vulnerable populations. MinKwon, a community group that serves predominantly Korean and Chinese residents, focuses their energy on populations that have been ignored and forced to fend for themselves. Their interim Executive Director expressed,

In those program areas, we put an emphasis on especially serving people who are low income, limited English proficient, or undocumented. So we will provide these services and organizing work in many communities but our effort is more focused on those parts of the population. And that also goes for voter engagement. When we go out and engage people, we try to engage people who may not have access to the political process or knowledge readily.

After thirty years of neoliberalism in the explicit forms of Reaganism and Clintonism, after years of neglect and condescension by policymakers and community leaders who claimed to know what was best, after thirty years of communities being occupied and gutted by the police and by financialization, Black Americans and Asian Americans and Latin Americans are now sharing similar experiences and realities. Consequently, they are sharing enemies, from property developers to law enforcement. CAAAV’s Executive Director explained,

In 1995, we organized around the family of Yong Xin Huang who was killed by the police. He was 15 or 16, living in Brooklyn. And that was right around the time when Hilton Vega, Anthony Baez, Nicholas Heyward Jr. were killed. All in the mid-nineties. And we carried that framework of multiracial organizing around a system since the 90s because we knew we couldn’t just keep our groups isolated, that if we really want systemic change, we have to work in unity across different racial backgrounds. But why police accountability is still important to us is because when we look at gentrification, we also have to look at policing and how neighborhoods are policed. During the nineties, during Giuliani’s crackdown on New York, he was pushing out street vendors, harassing street vendors out of New York, under the quality of life policing. And that made way to displacement to happen. Police are used as a tool for displacement. So, when we have a vacate order in Chinatown, the police are called in, to arrest every tenant who doesn’t want to leave their building. And when you look at Black neighborhoods, it’s the same thing where the cops are called on to police Black bodies and to arrest them or whatever it made be. The whole public housing patrols is to sweep people out of public housing. That’s conducted by the NYPD. So, you can’t look at one without looking at the other and how the police are used by the system for people to be pushed out.

The purpose of law enforcement is to serve as a tool for the well-connected and wealthy to shape and sculpt the city in their image. Therefore, law enforcement harm and brutalize those who stand in the way of economic “progress” and financial stability, which includes harassing and intimidating unarmed Black men and women and forcing out working-class residents, especially from neighborhoods like Chinatown.

Adhikaar regards itself as helping mobilize Nepali-speaking workers alongside other workers of color against those industries that exploit and dehumanize them. Their goal isn’t to mobilize Nepali-speaking workers to win concessions only as Nepali-speaking workers. Organizing in that manner would earn some improvement in living conditions but it would never lead to the type of necessary change that would significantly improve the lives of workers, including Nepali-speaking. Only organizing with others against a common enemy would and that willingness to fight against a common enemy relies on developing an analysis and identity that can bring people together.

Adhikaar’s Communications and Development Associate explained,

Creating an anti-oppressive community is part of our ethos, undeniably. And it goes along with that. If we look at the history of the country we’ve come to and the history of the people that we work with. Fellow domestic workers, fellow nail salon workers. And we look at the things that they’re experiencing in the systems of oppression that their worlds have been constructed by, it’s all the same system. And being able to address that with our members will only allow for a stronger organizing strategy and it can be really difficult, especially when you look at the systems of power and oppression that are replicated within our communities. It all comes down to that basic disconnect between the person who has the power and the person who is vulnerable. If we can create a membership that is so clear on that concept, whether it’s a small business owner with nail salon workers, whether it’s the partnership between cab drivers, if that concept can be clear then all of these seemingly separate efforts to fight for worker’s rights, immigrant rights, they’ll be more connected.

Strengthening the bonds between different groups of color, especially between non-Black people of color and Black Americans depends on narratives that encourages people to view others as being part of a grand struggle, a narrative that produces an identity that different people can easily attach themselves to, such as not just being Indian American or Nepali or Jamaican American but as working-class “people of color”. A common political and social identity must be forged to have people view others as being part of their community. This is a natural part of any struggle against systemic oppression, whether it’s organizers pulling together Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino and others under the umbrella of an Asian American identity or similarly, Mexican and Dominican and Puerto Ricans to view themselves as being members of a broader Latino American community, or movements developing the identity of workers across race and gender in struggles against factory owners at the peak of class struggle during the New Deal.

Whatever it may be, an identity must be cultivated, developed and reinforced. A sense of community must be encouraged and believed in among people who materially may share similar living and working conditions and yet, still not trust one another as deeply as they need to. Developing such an identity is more likely when different people can identify a common narrative and common enemy to rally around. For Marx, that enemy would have been the dominant capitalists of a society and that narrative would’ve been class struggle. In the modern era in the U.S., the common enemies remain those within the capitalist class who have the most power and influence and those who protect them and help enhance their rule.

A common identity is developed through campaigns and trainings that identify common issues and common enemies. Forging such identities orient different groups of people toward recognizing those who truly oppress them, as in property developers and the police. It is a never-ending process that won’t necessarily end until we win power. Even for those who become organizers or who have an elevated political consciousness, it is crucial to maintain campaigns and trainings that reinforce common identities and force people to reflect on an organizing strategy and the conditions they and their communities are woven into.

CAAAV’s Executive Director explained,

Because we organize under the understanding that tenants are having a common struggle and that youth have a common struggle, we work with that understanding that across different races in housing, most of the folks we work with, in terms of organizations, they’re based almost entirely in low income and working class or no income. And it’s that unifying class understanding but also the understanding that as tenants struggling against a larger landlord that’s how they get united around a common cause or a common issue to work towards.

Adhikaar expressed a similar push for fostering solidarity/shared identity in their efforts organizing workers within industries.

Our goal for the world isn’t just happiness for Nepalis everywhere, it’s justice within low-wage industries. So, for example, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights requires a lot of work in building and working in coalition with all the domestic worker groups and all the domestic groups in New York, working with Filipina domestic workers, working with other large groups, lot of Caribbean, Latina domestic workers. All of that work happened by putting all those different groups together.

Most importantly, the campaigning and training must be connected and contextualized within the Black anti-capitalist struggle and anti-settler colonial struggle that Black radicals and indigenous peoples and others like Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans have been a part of for generations. It has been Black and indigenous people who have often led the most radical movements against capital, those who represent the true revolutionary interests of each era, who knew that capitalism will fold into itself if one were to attack it in the plantations across the South, in the reservations scattered across the Midwest, inside prisons and the service-sector industry. It is about inculcating in most people, especially people of color, a deeper awareness and clarity about the world around them and a more solid grasp about who our enemies are and what forms of resistance can be most effective in weakening capitalist rule over our communities. It is simultaneously about building a shared identity that is pro-Black and accepts our fates as being inextricably linked as people of color, regardless of what others may try to convince us of, including other people of color who aim for more liberal reforms or others who don’t believe in having a collective fight.

MinKwon’s interim Executive Director stated,

With regards to Akai Gurley and Eric Garner and these Black Lives Matter related incidents, we came out clearly in support of Black Lives Matter. We feel that the way that African Americans are treated is a barometer and kind of litmus test for how all people of color will be treated. You may be treated slightly differently because you are not Black, maybe you’re brown or Asian, but the way the white mainstream and the elites and those in power are treating the African American community, that’s going to show you really where race relations are in this country and as we saw with Eric Garner and countless other incidences of racial conflict, there’s still so much tremendous amount of work to be done in the U.S. We see we have a shared fate with other people of color.

Whatever campaigns and trainings we proceed to grow as organizers and as community groups must meet the needs of our communities while pushing us closer to developing that common radical identity against capitalism and white supremacy. What a Black anti-capitalist vision combined with the experiences of groups like CAAAV and Adhikaar provide is a blueprint for the rest of us to organize in communities of color, which include bolstering the work that’s already being done by organizations like CAAAV and Adhikaar.

“And so, from a practical standpoint, connecting these different struggles, connecting the fight for Black Lives, and Adhikaar’s fight, it makes a lot of sense, right?” Adhikaar’s Communications and Development Associate explained, “Because we’re kind of fighting against this broader oppressive system that exists in the United States and in the world.”

Materially, this means developing campaigns and trainings with community members in predominantly communities of color, especially in areas that have been devastated by neoliberalism and neglect from policymakers. This means setting up organizations or rather, orienting groups to focus more on communities of color in building across different groups or again, in working with existing organizations such as CAAAV and Adhikaar or modeling new groups or other groups over what existing organizations like CAAAV and Adhikaar have been already doing.

Gradually, as organizing within predominantly communities of color gains momentum and as various groups start to converge after months of political education and campaign-building, then we continue to connect and expand. The goal will always be to grow and sustain power and to win power, not as individuals or within our own ethnic and racial grouping but as groups of people who believe in one another, even if we don’t share the same exact experiences surviving under capitalism and white supremacy.

 

COALITIONS & QUESTIONS AHEAD

Moving forward, organizations and organizers must adopt a political lens that combines the insights of Black radical anti-capitalists and the insights of organizations like CAAAV and Adhikaar. With more organizations like CAAAV and Adhikaar across the country, building networks of support for one another and capacity to build power, winning power while withstanding counterrevolutionary forces will become much easier to accomplish.

Still, none of this is to say that having the ideal political lens is equal to having a magic formula that can finally achieve the power our communities would need. As many organizers already know, even the best ideas when pressed into reality can still feel incomplete and require even deeper reflection. For instance, though undermining capital requires that mostly predominantly communities of color have been mobilized against its institutions and reactionary allies, what role do white Americans play in all of this? As mentioned earlier, radical groups of color in the past did believe that they could work with segments of white America, especially its poor and downtrodden. At the same time, many rightfully expressed skepticisms in doing so, given the history of white radicals and white labor betraying them. What then is the role of white Americans in struggling against capital in the modern era? How that does their role fit in the broader context of the organizing analysis just put forth?

I believe that the organizing analysis I have argued for isn’t necessarily exclusive to communities of color nor should it be. After all, it is an organizing analysis that’s fundamentally rooted in the mission of dislodging capital, which is something that would benefit people even across race and across gender, including many white Americans. Indeed, there are countless white Americans too facing the stark brutal reality of the late stages of capital, losing their homes to foreclosure, witnessing jobs they relied on for generations disappear, and facing an epidemic of alienation that has led many into drug addiction and suicide. Hence, there are parts of the country where one could organize predominantly white and economically marginalized communities to also challenge the front-facing institutions of capital, whether it be the banks or local industry or right-wing politicians themselves. Again, our enduring mission is to win power, not to simply have the moral high ground and therefore, to have white Americans across the country also rising up and applying direction pressure onto local institutions that are tied to the national economy would be incredibly important and would further drain the elite of their resources and sense of control.

The difference, however, in terms then of building a movement that is cross-racial and doesn’t necessarily have a Black anti-capitalist lens and one that does is that white Americans can still be included and in ways, remain an important coalitional partner, but their inclusion wouldn’t be colorblind. To organize white Americans would require white comrades to yes, organize white workers and the poor against institutions of domination but also, to include trainings and campaigns that aim to deconstruct whiteness. This could take the form of classes directly confronting the issue of whiteness and or in the form of campaigns that expose the contradictions inherent in capital, to show that whites with wealth do not care about them and only want them as pawns to help crush radical social movements for justice. Race is then not ignored but instead, amplified through public education by groups, preferably by a mix of white and Black and brown comrades from the community, and that white Americans are introduced to a Black anti-capitalist praxis.

This would be necessary to do for two main reasons. First, creating ties with particular white communities is about serving their needs and material interests. We cannot replicate the abandonment of communities that has already occurred by neoliberal governance. Second, to navigate building solidarity with segments of white America is helping inoculate people from right-wing appeals to once more activate against movements for economic justice. I am not expecting all white Americans to side with the movements we are seeking to build, even if we were to introduce enough of them to anti-capitalist rhetoric that discusses the links between white supremacy and capitalism and their own oppression, but even having a few more who understand what it is we’re fighting for and how they must ignore the siren call of reactionary policies would be crucial when the capitalists are truly desperate in clinging to their power.

Another question for us to grapple with is the role that people of color who aren’t working class or poor and who are more economically privileged will play in fomenting radical change to the existing economic and political systemt. To clarify, I am not referring to people of color who are CEOs or extremely wealthy, but rather people of color who own and run small businesses and others who are middle class and live rather comfortably compared to other people of color, but are still barely hanging on in times of crisis. For many African Americans, being in the middle class doesn’t preclude them from still having less wealth than the average white family and from experiencing other modes of oppression, such as police brutality. Even for some Asians who own stores, their businesses in cities like New York City are also under attack from the political and economic elite who rather see more upscale establishments replacing them. Context then is critical in determining how to incorporate people of color who aren’t necessarily struggling in the same extreme ways that many others are.

Still, one of the biggest challenges that lies ahead is how we effectively disentangle and deprogram enough people, including those who may lean toward a left economic agenda, from conservative and neoliberal dogma that has been socialized in them. The reality is that many people, including those who have been marginalized, will continue to cling onto the old ways of thinking because it makes them feel safe and is familiar to them, such as thinking that other groups are competing against them and can’t be trusted and that the American Dream is achievable through hard work and those who fail to achieve it, including themselves, are failures. This is evident in surveys as well as in instances of people of color choosing to elbow one another out of the way for scraps. At an anecdotal level, I’ve been witness to many of our people sharing doubts and skepticism toward one another as my comrades and I and community members are organizing them on pertinent issues like housing. I have been privy to discussions among people of color about other people of color that sound like the discussions white people would have of us. Not to mention there are people of color, including the economically marginalized, who still believe in vestiges of the past that are holding us back from a brighter future, like still taking the word of party leaders within the Democratic Party or in community leaders who aspire to reform the status quo and not change it completely.

None of this is to say that organizing is impossible. Instead, it is a reminder that organizing will be tedious and difficult. Yet, there is no alternative. Given the political and economic crisis we are all in, our only hope then is to end capital and to do so starts with organizing in communities of color and expanding to include others strategically, especially when at the very least, more and more people are enduring similar issues and challenges stemming from a collapsing economic order.

Capitalism breeds crisis and subsequently, the potential for its own gravediggers to come into being. As Marx understood, it was because of capitalism that a proletariat was created in the first place, ironically. Peasants forced off their land were now sharing similar tight spaces inside factories and in ghettos, thus creating the conditions for people to recognize that their plight was shared and that they are more of them than the industrialists who ruined their communities. In the modern era, thanks to neoliberalism, more and more people are finding themselves vulnerable, more and more people are finding themselves working nearly non-stop to simply attain basic necessities, like a roof over their heads or some modicum of healthcare. Many more are being treated as disposable, being siphoned off into prisons and detention facilities.

“White supremacist capitalism is laying the foundation of their own demise,” Fletcher Jr. explained.

The potential for an uprising is growing. The question is what will that uprising look like. Will it be sporadic and eventually contained? Will it manage to break through and create some pressure on the existing economic and political system? Or, will it be sustained and coordinated and able to produce a force strong enough to delegitimize our mainstream politics and institutions? All of this depends on our commitment to thinking critically about the links between race and class, between white supremacy and capitalism, and in our willingness in fostering coalitions that attack that relationship, especially when times look to be at their bleakest.

 

 

 


 

[1] Interviews with community organizations like CAAAV were done in 2017 and all other interviews took place in 2019.

Share

Created with Sketch.

Comments

You must create an account to join the discussion.

Registration