The Contested Politics of Racial Capitalism in Táíwò and Kendi

(Táíwò photo credit to Jared Rodriguez. Kendi photo credit to Stephen Voss.)

With the recent publication of his book Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), Olúfẹmi O. Táíwò is becoming a leading thinker of the theory of racial capitalism. Since the publication of his two best-selling and award winning books, Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi has become the most prominent thinker on race in the US today. Kendi has also recently adopted the concept of racial capitalism to frame his social analysis.

Táíwò and Kendi share a commitment to careful investigation of the dynamics and interrelations of race and class, but in other ways they have sharply contrasting and even opposing politics. Not for the sake of labeling theorists as good and bad nor for trying to draw sharp lines around who belongs in contested political spaces, but for the sake of clearly defining political positions that shape efforts towards liberation, the contours of these contrasting and opposing politics are worth inquiring into.

The hotly debated tradition of racial capitalism theory and the renewed attention to race and class in contemporary social movements provide ample impetus for undertaking an investigative journey through the class politics of Táíwò and Kendi. Táíwò provides analytical tools for discerning the kind of class divides that Kendi tries to harmonize. Táíwò also happens to discuss many of the same historical figures that Kendi does, which enables an ideal opportunity to clearly compare and contrast their diverging class analyses. After briefly reviewing Táíwò’s book and then situating Táíwò’s class politics within the current political landscape, I use his work to pivot towards Kendi and then launch into a textual analysis of Kendi’s class politics.

Táíwò and Elite Capture

In Elite Capture (EC) Táíwò situates the emergence of the concept of identity politics in the radical milieu of the Combahee River Collective of the 1970s while showing how the concept has recently been put to other uses. Táíwò starts his book with an account of the political reaction to the pandemic and accompanying social unrest. 

Two strategic trends in the response quickly became clear: the elites’ tactic of performing symbolic identity politics to pacify protestors without enacting material reforms; and their efforts to rebrand (not replace) existing institutions, also using elements of identity politics. (EC 4-5)

The theory of elite capture is, among other things, a theory of how grassroots ideas can be invoked and used by elites against the meanings of their origin:

It is true that recent developments in the meaning and use of identity politics have not stopped police murders or emptied prisons. Identity politics has, however, equipped people, organizations, and institutions with a new vocabulary to describe their politics and aesthetic–even if the substance of those political decisions are irrelevant or even counter to the interests of the marginalized people whose identities are being deployed. But that is a feature of how identity politics is being used, rather than what identity politics is at its core. It is this ‘elite capture’–not identity politics itself–that stands between us and a transformative, nonsectarian, coalitional politics. (EC 9)

In part, Táíwò is mapping out the fault lines of how race and class are defined, discussed, and deployed within current debates around identity politics. On the one hand, liberal elites with pro-capitalist politics will adopt the language of racial and gender justice to provide spurious cover for elite projects like corporate exploitation and state-imposed austerity. Táíwò gives the example of how radical queer politics of Stonewall and healthcare rights around AIDS of a previous generation have been neutered and then co-opted into the white, capitalist Democratic politics of figures like Pete Buttigieg (EC 31). On the other hand, some socialists emphasize the centrality of class over race and gender in explaining social struggle and informing movement strategy. Táíwò references an article on the debates surrounding race and class in the Democratic Socialists of America, where some explicitly make the argument that identity politics distract from supposedly universalist and more legitimately socialist demands like universal healthcare and free college tuition.

Between these positions are theorists who emphasize how capitalism is intertwined with other systems of domination like white supremacy and patriarchy, and that giving primacy to one or the other distorts our understanding. One school of thought in the both/and approach to race and class has coalesced around a critique of “racial capitalism”, first analyzed and popularized as a global phenomena by Cedric Robinson in his 1983 book Black Marxism. A subsequent generation of major scholars who identified with and built on this theory include Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Robin D.G. Kelley, and Táíwò belongs to the newest generation.

Táíwò argues that elites from all demographics use identity politics to advance their own agendas, and that this warps the original politics of those who coined the term identity politics as an attack on capitalism and systemic oppression. Táíwò shows how this liberal identity politics becomes mired in an obsession with “attentional goods” about who we should be listening to. This then takes the form of “deference politics” whereby those in any social environment who belong to oppressed identity categories are given attentional goods as an attempt to offset institutional oppression.

A central part of Táíwò’s critique is that while this deference politics has some merit and comes from a good place, in the hands of elites it becomes deformed into just another tool of elite control over larger groups, especially for those who exist outside of our immediate social environment. For example, deferring to someone who belongs to an oppressed identity group within a protest meeting in the USA can operate to silence and make even more invisible those hurt by forms of oppression who aren’t in the group. 

Using the lens of applied philosophy, Táíwò masterfully defines what elite capture is and illustrates how it operates discursively in contemporary social struggle. Táíwò is intent to show that identity politics don’t have to be abandoned to elites and that the antiracism and feminism of groups like Combahee can be preserved and weaponized against capitalism and state domination.

From Táíwò to Kendi

Kendi discusses many of the same issues as Táíwò, such as race and class in history and contemporary social movements. Whereas Táíwò situates himself squarely within the politics of the tradition of theorists of racial capitalism, Kendi has a more complicated relationship to this tradition. 

Why should we inquire into Kendi specifically? Kendi’s ideas on race are clearly presented, provide a powerful framework for analyzing racial politics, and constitute a critical contribution to race in public discourse. His books are masterfully written and very worth reading.

I think Kendi doesn’t receive much critical attention from socialists precisely because his discussion and theories on race are so persuasive and consistent with much socialist sentiment on race that this leads many to, intentionally or not, overlook other aspects. But Kendi’s thought has become so prominent and influential that I think all aspects of his politics need to be examined critically. In the social movement spaces I run in, Kendi’s class politics in particular are absorbed alongside his race politics, and, frankly, many more participants of today’s social movements are reading about class in Kendi than they are in Karl Marx.

One summer my labor activist group set out on an informal summer book club focused around race and class and for the first text someone suggested Kendi’s How to Be Antiracist. Before that I had a general idea of Kendi’s ideas and public persona as a prominent thinker on race, but it wasn’t until reading his works that I became unsettled at how fluidly he moves between pro- and anticapitalist ideas and figures, often conflating or confusing the two for his readers while subtly attacking and undermining anticapitalist politics.

If Kendi were an obscure figure or if these politics were less consequential in the social struggles of today, they wouldn’t be worth focusing on. But activists of all stripes, including especially newer activists who don’t know much of this history for themselves, end up reading him and accepting his arguments and interpretations of history. And it’s not just activists, but bosses and capitalists who look to Kendi as well for advice on how to be antiracist. In my own union organizing, watered down and pro-capitalist versions of antiracism are ubiquitous among both liberal union members and liberal bosses. Without a clear understanding of where race and class politics unite or divide us, our efforts are more exposed to co-optation and our strategies are less likely to be able to overcome liberal barriers to change.

My examination of how class informs Kendi’s politics will focus primarily on his two career-defining and NYT best-selling books, Stamped from the Beginning (SB) and How to Be Antiracist (HBA), written in 2016 and 2019 respectively, as well as his social media, interviews, and talks from the same period.

Kendi’s Condemnation of Radicals

The clearest way to unearth these class politics is to look at Kendi’s treatment of anticapitalists and how he consistently diminishes their class critiques or associates anticapitalism with racism and sexism. A juxtaposition between Kendi and Táíwò’s discussion of many of the same scholars is instructive. E. Franklin Frazier was a black radical writer and professor active in the 1930s-60s at a time when both anticapitalism and antiracism were very far outside of the mainstream. Táíwò calls Frazier’s most famous work, Black Bourgeoisie, a “pioneering analysis of elite capture” (EC 14) and leans heavily on Frazier’s analysis for elaborating and illustrating his own ideas. 

In contrast, Kendi launches a wide-ranging attack on Frazier as a political thinker (SB 342-3, 366-7). Kendi justly criticizes Frazier’s influential theories of the black family for pathologizing black women and men for failing to conform to mainstream family norms. Kendi also criticizes Frazier’s claim that compared to the white middle class, the black middle class failed to meet social norms and was more exploitative in its relations to the black poor. For Kendi, this is an instance of “class racism”, where black masses are taken to be good while black middle class is taken to be bad.

While these gender and race critiques of Frazier carry real weight and deserve serious consideration, Kendi wields them as a way to dismiss the class critique developed in Frazier’s book. The core argument of Frazier’s political-economic analysis is that the black middle class is singularly focused on elevating their own status even though doing so often meant separating themselves from and becoming complicit in the exploitation of the black masses. Frazier’s class analysis was a source of inspiration for mid-twentieth century activists like Gloria Richardson and continues its wide influence among radicals today like Táíwò. That Kendi and Táíwò have nearly total opposite appraisals of Frazier’s class critique is a clue to ascertaining the differences in their class politics. But it’s not just Frazier.

Táíwò lucidly draws out a connection between Frazier’s critique of black middle class politics in the US with Franz Fanon’s “seminal” works on anticolonial struggle that critique the black middle class in Africa for their role in facilitating new forms of colonialism as the old forms of direct European domination were defeated (EC 16-21). Fanon is maybe the most influential and widely read political thinker of the black diaspora in world history, and his critique of global colonialism is tightly bound up with his anticapitalist critique in African politics. Any history of racial thought in any part of the world would have to take his contribution into account. 

Interestingly, rather than engage Fanon’s revolutionary class or anticolonial politics at all, Kendi comments on Fanon only briefly and only for his conservative psychoanalytical gender politics, characterizing Fanon as “wanting to be a White [man], and constantly justifying that desire through imagining the wrongs of Black women…” (SB 403). The feminist critique of Fanon is too important to set aside, but to reduce all of Fanon’s contribution to the history of social struggle to his patriarchal politics seems like it’s being done intentionally to erase Fanon’s immensely influential anticapitalism and anticolonialism.

If one wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe Kendi is just being a good follower of black feminism in emphasizing gender critiques of some of important black men thinkers. Perhaps his treatment of eminent black feminists reveals a commitment to careful, comprehensive, and balanced political analysis. The Combahee River Collective was an organization of queer black women that coined and popularized the term “identity politics” in the 1970s. Kendi writes that their politics “embodied queer liberation, feminism, and anti-racism…” (HBA 187). From reading Kendi, one would think Combahee was uninterested in class politics. In Táíwò, when introducing Combahee and narrating its genesis, he writes that two of the founders “agreed with the [National Black Feminist Organization] goals but also wanted an organization that would discuss ‘radical economics’ more freely…” (EC 7). According to Taiwo, class politics were foundational for Combahee.

Why do Táíwò and Kendi present such opposite images of Combahee? How did the members of Combahee themselves see class? The opening paragraph of the famous Combahee River Collective Statement declares, “The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.” The statement clearly outlines the 4 major parts of their analysis to be around race, sex, sexuality, and class, which makes Kendi’s decision to exclude class from his 3-part description of Combahee’s politics very puzzling. 

While Combahee dissolved decades ago, some of its leading members continue to develop these ideas and are prominent in public discourse on these issues. In an extended interview with Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor about Combahee, one of the leading authors of the Collective’s statement, Barbara Smith, reflected, “I might not have called what we did ‘original’ Black feminism, but instead wrote that the reason Combahee’s Black feminism so powerful is because it’s anticapitalist. One would expect Black feminism to be antiracist and opposed to sexism. Anticapitalism is what gives it the sharpness, the edge, the thoroughness, the revolutionary potential” (How We Get Free 69). Or listen to Smith speaking on a panel in 2021: “I think that the reason the ideas of the Combahee River Collective have such staying power is because of the fact that we had a class analysis, specifically an anticapitalist and socialist analysis.” Contrary to Kendi’s portrayal, the class politics of Combahee are unmistakable and integral to their overall political project.

Stamped from the Beginning covers far too many figures to comment on all of them here, but taking note of Kendi’s treatment of a few more of them is instructive. Kendi spends considerable time telling the stories of the lives and ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Davis. While Kendi doesn’t hide the fact that Du Bois and Davis are unmistakably anticapitalist and were members of the Communist Party for certain periods, his discussion of their class politics also is inflected with certain overtones. When student activist Davis encountered other budding radicals at a black youth conference, Kendi describes the politics as “Du Bois’s old, antiracist socialism” (SB 399), as if radical class politics were stale and somehow the legacy of Du Bois alone instead of a widespread and enduring part of social movements throughout US history. 

Kendi repeatedly points out the shortcomings of the Communist Party’s racial politics and organizational whiteness (SB 315-6, 429, 459-50), which also troubled Davis and eventually contributed to her decision to leave the party in 1991. But Kendi makes almost no mention of what specifically about the Party and its anticapitalism and broader politics inspired Davis to spend decades with the Party. Kendi twice criticizes the NAACP for not fully supporting the 1930s defense campaign of the Scottsboro Boys (SB 335; HBA 117), a group of black boys in Alabama falsely accused of rape, but neglects to mention the Communist Party’s momentous national and global campaign to support the defense. Kendi spends pages on Angela Davis’s arrest and trial (SB 413-7) but doesn’t once mention that it was the Communist Party that played a leading role in organizing the era-defining global public campaign for her defense. Instead of a balanced view of the Communist Party, Kendi offers a cartoonish depiction of it as racist and sexist, which also makes Davis out to be somewhat of a dupe for going along with it even though that’s not a well-rounded depiction of how Davis herself experienced or remembers those years. 

While Kendi makes passing reference to Martin Luther King Jr.’s increased attention to economic issues later in his life, he doesn’t mention many of King’s more radical commitments, such as his support of black worker struggles or his opposition to the US war in Vietnam. In the year before his assassination Malcolm X spent toured Africa and met with socialist and communist revolutionaries, and Malcolm X himself was developing more economically radical politics. Malcolm’s increasingly anticapitalist critique is hard to miss, with lines in speeches like, “You show me a capitalist, I’ll show you a bloodsucker. He cannot be anything but a bloodsucker if he’s going to be a capitalist.” In a combined 18 indexed pages on Malcolm X in Kendi’s two main books, none of this is mentioned. 

Kendi summarizes the 10-point program of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense and describes how they attracted “thousands of committed and charismatic young community servants. They policed the police, provided free breakfast for children, and organized medical services and political education programs…” (SB 397). That’s all true, but no mention is made of the BPP’s revolutionary or anticapitalist politics or how community programs and radical politics fit together, until a few pages later when the BPP’s radical politics are mentioned only in passing and in connection with Eldridge Cleaver’s misogyny and homophobia (SB 402), again reinforcing Kendi’s association of anticapitalism with sexism.

How are we to respond to Kendi’s repeated insinuations and veiled accusations that anticapitalism is tied to sexism and racism? That many anticapitalists and their organizations are in fact individually sexist and racist is beyond doubt and is deserving of criticism, just as many capitalists and their organizations are individually sexist and racist. Where there’s room to object is the way Kendi emphasizes through repetition how anticapitalism is nearly always necessarily sexist and racist instead of sometimes incidentally so. 

Rather than praising the good aspects of anticapitalism in Frazier, Fanon, the BPP, and others and critiquing the bad aspects of sexism and racism and thus coming to a holistic understanding of how these politics intersect with social movement history, Kendi is often content to dispose of prominent anticapitalists altogether, justified through uncovering their sexism and racism. Or consider how Kendi treats Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., who at times preached and practiced sexism in damaging ways like every powerful man of that era, but who Kendi selectively chooses to shield from critique for their gender politics by not even mentioning it (there is only a fleeting hint of feminist criticism of King in SB 366 for King’s praise of Frazier). Or when black women feminists are anticapitalist, like Davis and Combahee, the class politics are downplayed or erased altogether. 

Rather than use feminism and antiracism as a way to build a deeper critique of oppressive systems by integrating them with a critique of capitalism in a history of political thought, Kendi often uses feminism and antiracism as a liberal scissors to cut off their connection to radical anticapitalism. 

Kendi’s Definition of Capitalism

A distinct source of confusion around Kendi’s class politics arises in How to Be Antiracist, where he devotes a whole chapter to “class” and “class racism.” He begins with the definition that “Antiracist anticapitalist” means “One who is opposing racial capitalism” (HBA 151), and he goes on to write, “Capitalism is essentially racist; racism is essentially capitalist” (HBA 163). These are definitions and claims that correspond to how these concepts are discussed in the literature on racial capitalism. But then Kendi goes on to diverge from the concepts in the literature in crucial ways that show that the class politics of his previous book remain basically unchanged despite his cosmetic adoption of terms like “racial capitalism.”

In the class chapter, Kendi condemns many of the central characteristics of capitalist society and settles on a definition of capitalism as “global theft, racially uneven playing fields [in the free market], unidirectional wealth that rushes upward in unprecedented amounts” (HBA 162). He argues that capitalism is interdependent with white supremacy and patriarchy.

This is all well and good, but it reflects more of a social democratic definition of capitalism, one that sees economic inequality, both in general and between races, as the central problem. What this definition of capitalism avoids, and why it is rejected by the major portion of radicals through history, is that it refuses to acknowledge the division of society into its two main and opposing economic classes: those who make money from actively working and those who make money from other people’s work by passively owning stuff. Capitalism divides society along lines of class into workers and capitalists. 

Inequality is a consequence of capitalism but the cause of that inequality is the creation and perpetuation of class division. Attacking inequality without attacking class domination assesses the symptom but ignores the disease. The definition of capitalism as a system of class exploitation is what’s emphasized by the tradition that includes thinkers on race and economics like Marx, Du Bois, Claudia Jones, Walter Rodney up through today’s major theorists of racial capitalism including those like Kelley and Gilmore.

Generally, the motivation to accept the social democratic definition of capitalism is grounded in wanting to reconcile the needs and aims of both workers and capitalists to create economic structures that are not as bad (reformist socialism), instead of trying to overcome the class division entirely with the abolition of private property and the wage system through more direct confrontation with existing social structures (revolutionary socialism).

Social democratic countries in Northern Europe, for example, are less economically unequal than many other countries due to the strong state that redistributes some capitalist wealth into well-funded social programs and social services, like healthcare and education. But according to the class-based definition of capitalism, while class exploitation may not be as harsh and these societies may have some desirable features, these countries are not less capitalist at bottom because they still fundamentally depend on the capitalist exploitation of labor.

Kendi doesn’t explicitly comment on why he favors the social democratic definition of capitalism over the class definition, but I can point to what may be some of its causes or effects. In what appears initially as a somewhat odd move, after spending a whole chapter in How to Be Antiracist critiquing capitalism, Kendi spends the last couple pages of the chapter explicitly defending black elites. Specifically, he criticizes the idea that black elites are any less black than poor blacks. “To be antiracist is to recognize neither poor Blacks nor elite Blacks as the truest representative of Black people” (HBA 165). In Stamped from the Beginning, he writes that any casting of either “Black poor” or “Black elites” as bad or inferior is a form of “class racism” (SB 6). 

I’ll leave others to debate the definition of blackness, but I will comment on the class connotations here. In defending black elites in a chapter on class in How to Be Antiracist, he appears to in part be defending black capitalists. While Kendi doesn’t distinguish between elites and capitalists, he appears to lump capitalists in with elites and then defend elites in general (more nuance could be brought in by drafting precise definitions of and mapping the relationship and overlap between elites and capitalists). Whether black capitalists are truly black or not, they are truly capitalists, meaning they own the capital, such as the corporations and real estate, that gives them access to passive income that workers have to pay to them. So it appears Kendi is against capitalism as long as it’s framed in terms of excessive inequality in general or inequality between races or as theft of racially marginalized peoples’ resources by European peoples. But when black people are themselves capitalists, I have not picked up on even a hint of criticism by Kendi in any of his written works, lectures, or interviews.

The reason Kendi is able to reconcile a critique of capitalism with a defense of black capitalists lies within his social democratic definition of capitalism. When the class opposition of workers versus capitalists is de-emphasized and rather the social democratic definition of capitalism as economic inequality in general is emphasized, then black capitalists can be rescued from criticism. Once black capitalists are given protected status within Kendi’s politics, white capitalists are too, for Kendi is at least consistent in his politics even if he uses the terms differently than most other radicals and other theorists of racial capitalism. 

What seems to matter for Kendi is not whether black and white capitalists in general exploit black and white workers, but whether particular black and white capitalists can meet the criteria for being considered antiracist. Kendi is perfectly willing to critique individual black elites for their racist politics (HBA 140-1), but he’s resolutely against any broader critique of black elites, including black capitalists, as a class because he seems to think such a broad critique would be an instance of “class racism.” 

There is an alternative way to handle the issue of black elites. We can say that white elites and capitalists form a class that systematically dominates non-elites, and black elites and capitalists play largely the same social role of dominating others even though black elites are themselves sometimes the target of racism as well. Rather than making the mistake of Frazier of claiming that black elites are worse than white elites, we can use a class analysis to say that white and black elites both deserve condemnation for exercising domination over non-elites. White elites are proportionally worse to the extent that they have more power and exercise greater domination than black elites, but elites of any kind in an oppressive and capitalist society depend and thrive upon domination.

For example, Kendi is frequently consulted and gives talks to corporate audiences about how to think about and create antiracist policies. Whether Kendi thinks any particular corporation is antiracist he doesn’t say, but in spending time thinking about and giving advice to such corporations, he seems to believe that large corporations can be a positive force in broader social and antiracist change. In contrast, among the writings of the central theorists of racial capitalism you will not find advice for how billion-dollar corporations can be antiracist. Under capitalism, profit-driven corporations are the primary embodiment of capital which theorists of racial capitalism argue is racist and exploitative in its nature regardless of the choices of this or that CEO.

Kendi’s commitments here make sense in relation to his larger treatment of radical class politics as well, as he is most scathing and dismissive in his criticism of those radicals who explicitly include black capitalists in their critique (Frazier, Fanon). When possible Kendi minimizes or erases the radical class politics of important historical actors almost entirely (Combahee River Collective, Malcolm X, Black Panther Party). For those figures who are unavoidably radical, Kendi tends to soften or deemphasize their class politics and their relationships to radical working class social movements (King, Du Bois, Davis). Another way Kendi engages with radicals is in eliding some of them from his history altogether, excluding some figures who are absolutely central to antiracist history in the US (Ella Baker, Fred Hampton, A Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin). One could defend Kendi on the grounds that in just two books he can’t discuss everyone, but one could equally claim that who Kendi chooses to include and exclude is indicative of his political project.

Is there anything real and concrete at stake in the differences between social democratic anticapitalism and radical revolutionary anticapitalism? One way to answer this question is to say that if it wasn’t important Kendi himself wouldn’t spill so much ink praising one and demonizing the other. Another way to answer this question is to ask another question: Why have revolutionaries themselves been motivated to not just criticize capitalism in the abstract as a form of inequality but to criticize and organize against capitalists as a class? 

Take, for example, Fred Hampton, community organizer, head of the Chicago Black Panther Party, and perhaps, at least among the younger generation, the most well-known radical revolutionary in US history. That Kendi doesn’t even mention Hampton in his major works on race and history isn’t surprising given the kind of speeches Hampton gave, with passages like: 

“We have to understand very clearly that there’s a man in our community called a capitalist. Sometimes he’s black and sometimes he’s white. But that man has to be driven out of our community, because anybody who comes into the community to make profit off the people by exploiting them can be defined as a capitalist.”

Why do the primary theorists of racial capitalism maintain a more class-based definition of capitalism than a social democratic definition based on inequality? If you comb through the literature of the original theorists of racial capitalism in the US, such as Cedric Robinson, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, you won’t find the social democratic definition of capitalism or any defense of capitalists. Among the younger generation of racial capitalism theorists, a critique of elites is often central to their work, including Táíwò’s work on elite capture and Charisse Burden-Stelly’s critical review of Isabel Wilkerson’s best-seller Caste.

What Kendi’s social democratic definition of capitalism encourages is a cross-class strategy for fighting economic inequality. If capitalists themselves aren’t inherently part of the problem, then the good capitalists can be brought together with the good workers and good middle-class professionals in pushing for antiracist policy reform. Kendi is a professor who has proven his intellectual merits and risen into the upper rungs of academia, who writes about grassroots movement history but who also helps manage many millions of dollars in funding, much of it donated from corporate profits, for the Center for Antiracist Research that he founded and leads. For Kendi, cross-class coalitional politics is a practical route for advancing his brand of social justice, which can be grafted neatly onto the strategies and goals of a social democratic program.

In contrast to Kendi, the class definition of capitalism aims to create a multi-racial working class movement against capitalist exploitation and social oppression, attacking capitalist power as held by capitalists themselves. This politics is coalitional in its approach as well but insists that capitalists can not be part of the coalition. For example, critiques of the non-profit industrial complex and the corporate funding of most nonprofits is one way this exclusion of capitalists from radical movements is expressed. The definition of working class advanced most widely in this context includes all who work for wages and salaries or who are coercively excluded from access to jobs and income like the disabled, incarcerated, and houseless, all of whom have interests diametrically opposed to the capitalist class that owns the means of production. The key for uniting a broad-based working class against the capitalist class is a universalist politics based in opposition to all oppression and exploitation. 

Kendi and Unions

While different revolutionary tendencies have different strategies, common to nearly all of them are some kind of emphasis on labor unions as a potentially key institution of anticapitalist struggle. Kendi’s treatment of unions is perhaps where his politics reveals some of its more practical consequences.

Kendi discusses labor unions only fleetingly in his two main books, noting only the briefest generalizations that some unions were racist and some were antiracist and that unions were targeted along with people of color as part of the right wing attack escalated in the Reagan years (SB 274, 337; HBA 160-1). That many unions, in fact nearly all of the prominent ones earlier in US history, were either racist or very racist is fundamental to understanding the development of class struggle in the US. Kendi discusses Du Bois’ influential theory in Black Reconstruction about how race cleaves through and helps define the nature of class hierarchy in the US (SB 331; HBA 160). But leaving an analysis of race and class struggle in unions at that provides, at best, little additional insight and, at worst, is an historical erasure of a central terrain in the history of social struggle.

Kendi only briefly notes in the passive voice how government jobs “had become safe avenues into the single-family urban home of the Black middle class” (HBA 27), painting holders of government jobs as passive beneficiaries. This diminishes how such government jobs were a result of the heroic two-fold struggle of the civil rights movement’s anti-discrimination wins and particularly black involvement in the militant public sector unionism of the 1960s and 70s. 

For instance, some of the most pitched labor battles in this period were those of public sanitation workers, mostly led by black workers, who clashed with city governments over demands for decent wages and safer working conditions. As Joe Burns writes about in his book on public sector unionism, Strike Back, when sanitation worker unions fought white mayors in the 1960s, many civil rights organizations lined up behind them in support (Strike Back 46-7). Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while on a visit to Memphis supporting the sanitation workers strike there. 

However, as the victories of the black freedom movement started prying open doors to political office in black majority cities, fights between mostly black sanitation workers and newly ascended black Democratic political elites became fraught. As Robin D.G. Kelley highlights, in 1977, Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, engaged in the most brutal union-busting when he fired the city’s nearly 2,000 striking sanitation workers as he hoped to win over the business community in his re-election campaign. Shortly after, Democratic mayors in San Antonio and Tuscaloosa also fired striking sanitation workers. Coleman Young, the first black mayor of Detroit and a former union organizer, broke the strike of sanitation workers in his city by readying their termination papers and threatening to fire all of them. While Kendi rightly condemns Reagan’s vicious union-busting in his famous firing of striking public air traffic controllers in 1981, Democratic mayors, white and black, were doing the same thing to public sanitation workers in the decade prior.

Perhaps the single most militant, largest scale, and historically influential American union fight of the 21st century has been the organizing campaigns and strikes conducted by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). CTU has counted black leaders like Karen Lewis and Stacey Davis Gates as its presidents and has been explicit in its antiracist demands. Not even passing reference is made to CTU or any union campaigns of the last 20 years in Kendi’s two major books or social media accounts, despite name-dropping dozens of leaders from a broad range of social movements when surveying contemporary antiracist efforts (SB 500-3 and elsewhere). 

Instead, Kendi is giving talks to billionaire-funded groups that have been major antagonists of CTU, like Teach for America (TFA) and Educators 4 Excellence (E4E), who are among the most anti-union forces in the country and have been roundly condemned by anticapitalist activists, from Jacobin Magazine to the Movement for Black Lives. While Kendi and radical critics can agree that whiteness in the educator union movement is a serious problem, instead of addressing the problem by publicly allying himself with antiracist unionists like Karen Lewis and Stacey Davis Gates, Kendi is lending his name in association with billionaire capitalist funders of TFA and E4E like the Waltons (of WalMart wealth) and Michael Bloomberg. One could half-heartedly defend Kendi by pointing out that he has on a couple occasions spoken at teacher union events, but giving equal attention to pro-union and anti-union organizations is below the standards we should have of intellectuals who claim the mantle of anticapitalism.

Black workers have always been at the forefront of the US labor movement even as they were often fighting against racist union leaders and policies within the more mainstream sectors of the movement. Just as Kendi tends to downplay the class role of capitalists in exercising economic domination, so he tends to downplay the role of workers as a class fighting against capitalism and white supremacy, again revealing his social democratic critique of capitalism that papers over class identity, class division, and class struggle. Unions have often been a primary vehicle of working class and antiracist struggle, and Kendi pays them scant attention as a positive social force even as black workers have often been in the lead.

To Class Struggle or Not to Class Struggle

In summary, while Kendi uses the language of racial capitalism in critiquing American society, he maintains a persevering focus on erasing, minimizing, and demeaning those radicals who have taken the fight explicitly against capitalists.

But if you look closely, there is a gradual, if somewhat small and slow, shift on class that may be occurring in Kendi’s thought from 2016 on, especially since 2019, the year he published How to Be Antiracist. He hasn’t gone very far, but it is noticeable and may at some point become noteworthy.

In Stamped from the Beginning (2016), Kendi narrates the lives of famous black anticapitalists like Du Bois and Angela Davis, even though he never comes close to endorsing their economic critiques and mischaracterizes anticapitalists consistently throughout the book. Still, that he praises figures with anticapitalist politics at all is further than many liberals will go. In contrast to the fawning of many liberal race commentators over Democratic superstar politicians who present themselves as racial progressives, like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Kendi is plenty willing to openly criticize them (SB 450-4, 464, 492-5). And then in How to Be Antiracist, Kendi starts to endorse anticapitalist terminology even if in substance he is only endorsing the watered-down social democratic meanings of the terms.

Furthermore, Kendi appears to be slowly shifting in his public comments on unions. In his two major books he never hints at or comes close to advancing a pro-union politics, and if you search Kendi’s twitter account for the word “union” before 2019, the only instances that come up related to labor unions are criticisms of police unions (such criticism is entirely warranted and a central part of radical union politics). Despite thousands of tweets covering nearly every political issue, he never says a positive word about unions on Twitter. But then in 2019 he advocates “strengthening unions” among a list of other progressive political goals. 

Kendi’s most significant flirtation with anticapitalist rhetoric comes in his 2021 podcast interview with historian Robin D.G. Kelley in an episode titled Beyond Capitalism: A Multiracial Labor Movement. The two thinkers discuss the bitter fight between Amazon and the workers in Bessemer, Alabama and talk about the political challenges, past triumphs, and future potential of multiracial labor organizing. In the interview, Kendi uses phrases like “the struggle to unionize, the struggle to free the working class,” the kinds of phrases that are conspicuously absent in his earlier major books and that grasp towards more class radicalism. Is Kendi really experimenting with these politics, or is he just mirroring the terminology and phrases of his interview subject? His continuing presence at anti-union education reform events in 2021 suggests his pro-unionism is selective and lackluster.

Kendi then provided a book jacket blurb for Táíwò’s 2022 Elite Capture, which is perplexing given the contrast between Kendi and Táíwò’s class politics and their opposing assessment of many of the same thinkers noted above. But perhaps these discrepancies are partly explained by Kendi recently shuffling towards more radical class politics.

But this possible shift should not be overstated, as Kendi is still regularly speaking at corporate events, and whatever tiny movement against capitalism he has made in the last three years is recognizable mostly as a change in terminology rather than any evidence of a change in his historical evaluation of anticapitalist figures and struggles. While a (limited) pro-union politics is a welcome addition to Kendi’s thought, pro-unionism is not inherently anticapitalist and is easily reconciled with a social democratic vision of capitalism, where unions are advocated not as vehicles of radical class power against capitalist domination but rather solely as a means to dampen inequality within capitalism. If Kendi is to ever tie together his antiracism with radical anticapitalism, he still has a long journey ahead.

Grassroots Radicalism vs. Liberal Advocacy

The first half of Du Bois’s life and Kendi’s life to the present have some striking parallels. Kendi himself vividly narrates the journey of Du Bois’s life in its political complexities and historical trials in Stamped from the Beginning. Kendi notes how Du Bois co-founded and helped lead the NAACP in the early 20th century during the period when he was more committed to an elitist Talented Tenth theory of social change, believing that the 10% of enlightened black people would lead the race to social equality. 

But as Du Bois himself became radicalized through his studies, his disenchantment with liberal strategies for change, and his witnessing of the economic devastation of the Great Depression, he became more at odds with the leadership of the NAACP. Instead of fighting within a coalition of progressive white capitalists and philanthropists, labor union officials, and black civic and academic leaders that exemplified his efforts in the NAACP, Du Bois came to champion Pan-Africanism, black autonomy in social struggle, and a sharper turn towards anticapitalist radicalism (The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois 291-8). Kelley describes Du Bois’s transformation as his rejection of elite politics and embrace of grassroots social movements of the kind exemplified in the black radicalism of the reconstruction era that Du Bois so closely studied. Partly due to his continuing political evolution, Du Bois eventually felt compelled to leave the NAACP behind.

Like Du Bois at the peak of his popularity in the 1910s and 20s, Kendi has become the most prominent thinker on race, and perhaps on social issues more broadly, today. Kendi too has founded a racial justice advocacy organization that brings in millions of dollars in fundraising, that oversees dozens of staff. Is Kendi’s exploration of radical politics constrained by his leadership of a well-funded liberal advocacy organization? Just as Du Bois had to fight with new leaders of the NAACP over his continued relevance in the org after his increasing radicalization, will Kendi have to choose between liberal advocacy and radical grassroots democracy and anticapitalism? Social democratic politics attempts to find a middle ground between liberal advocacy and radical social movements, but eventually for Du Bois as for Marx as for Fred Hampton as for countless other revolutionaries, social democracy was not enough.

Kendi is a passionate activist and a towering figure in contemporary social thought. In How to Be Antiracist, Kendi showed himself to be capable of changing his views, of transforming his relation to the world around him as he processed new experiences and investigated new social conditions. Maybe Kendi will change again. But whether he does or not, radical workers will go on theorizing, critiquing, and fighting the way we always have.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s