Books on Structural and Personal Racism: Favorites I Read in 2018

By Karyn Pomerantz, January 2019

Selected non-fiction books that provide an analysis of racism in US history.

Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi, 2016.

stamped by kendiMy favorite non-fiction history of 2018.  Kendi traces the rise and fall of racist ideology to justify the exploitation of Africans and African Americans.  He rejects the popular belief that racial prejudice creates discrimination and argues that the ruling elites create and promote racist ideas to divide and control the population and maximize earnings.  He condemns the racists who attack black people as biologically and intellectually substandard.  More unusual is his criticism of the assimilationist perspective that accepts black inferiority but attributes it to culture, the environment, poverty, and historical factors.  He calls out famous figures from Lincoln and Garrison for holding these ideas.  Kendi maintains that black people are not deficient or inferior but are targeted by a small ruling class to create wealth.  He calls for unity among all workers and contends that white workers benefit materially and socially from a more equal society. (See a fuller review on this blog at

The Color of Politics: Race and the Mainspring of American Politics by Michael Goldstein, NY Press, 1997.

color of politics by goldsteinGoldstein, a labor historian, argues that racism underlies the political, social, and economic history of the US, describing and countering other explanations.  From colonial times and the growing power of the planters, he notes the initial alliances and relationships among the white indentured servants and free black people. The decision of these planters to enslave Africans, and their creation of white superiority (and use of violence) to separate whites and blacks enabled them to justify slavery and reduce the risk of multiracial rebellion. This divide and conquer strategy by the ruling class dominates the periods of Reconstruction, the rise of unions, the New Deal, electoral politics, and imperialist and world wars. Countering racist oppression are the unions, mostly in the communist led Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), that organized black, white, and immigrant workers together and fought for broad, class based demands.  The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) had a militant multiracial membership with black officials and policies outlawing Klan members and discrimination.  The meatpacking union in Chicago expanded their workplace demands to antiracist community actions, mobilizing 1000s of members to protect black families moving into white neighborhoods. Goldstein shows how racism maintains the rule of a small elite and how mass, antiracist organizations can threaten its power.  While describing the damages caused by capitalism, he never calls for its elimination. However, he concludes by calling for “placing the principle of racial egalitarianism on the top furl of our marching banner.”

From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation by Keenaga Yamahta-Taylor, Haymarket Books, 2016.

from blm to black liberation by taylorWhile Kendi traces the evolution of ideas to justify racism and Goldstein depicts the consequences of multiracial organizing in the labor movement, Taylor offers a strategy for creating an antiracist movement and world.  This book is a must read for anyone trying to understand the structural barriers to equality and the way to break them down.

The early chapters describe the pervasiveness of police brutality, mass incarceration, unrelenting economic exploitation, and the rise of black rebellions against the police murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and so many others.  She acclaims the young Ferguson leaders for their militancy in the face of tanks and gas, and their rejection of cooptation by the Church, Democratic Party, and Al Sharpton (who called for pacifism and tried to kick their speakers off the podium at a march in DC).

Obama doesn’t get off easy either.  Understanding that many defended him because of the vicious racist attacks against his family and people’s baseless hope that he could make a difference, Taylor rightfully censures him for continuing imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, funding Israel, maintaining the Guantanamo Prison and torture, deporting millions, and refusing to pardon Troy Davis who was wrongfully executed.

She demonstrates that racism does not arise from the prejudices of white people or individual politicos.  From Black Lives Matter clearly places racism within the system of capitalism as a source of enormous profits for a corporate elite through cheap or free labor and as an ideological cleaver between groups of workers that Kendi (above) so brilliantly recounts.  After centuries of scapegoating blacks as criminals, low-lifes, crazy, and lazy, the ruling class easily blames black families for their disproportionately high rates of poverty and unemployment, attributing such “failures” to their culture or biology.

Repudiating these theories of personal responsibility, Taylor shows how social and economic policies enforced by employers and the government deny black individuals good housing, education, and jobs.  For example, black GIs after WWII secured only 2% of subsidized housing mortgages that created suburbs for white GIs and urban slums for black GIs.  Home ownership allowed white families to accrue 18 times greater wealth than black families that they passed down to generations while black families experienced poverty. (See Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law for a detailed history of housing discrimination, also reviewed on this blog below and at

The Latinx, black, Native Americans, and Chinese workers responded to these form of oppression with resistance and uprisings, including slave revolts, urban rebellions, boycotts, unionizing, strikes, marches, left wing organizations like the Black Panther Party and the Communist Party, black radical feminism, anti-Vietnam War protests, and voter registration campaigns.  The ruling class responded with cooptation, such as non-discrimination laws, elections, and voting rights.  President Kennedy, threatened by an upsurge in economic demands in Mississippi, secured foundation money to steer Freedom Summer activists away from anti-poverty struggles to voter registration campaigns in 1964.  However, lynchings, the Black Codes that criminalized behaviors such as loitering or disrespect of whites, convict labor, violent policing, and prison served as the means of social control.

Taylor devotes the last chapters to analyzing the rise of Black Lives Matter and how this new activism can develop into a liberation struggle. These chapters are the most controversial and important sections.

She quotes Malcolm X:

“… We have a rotten system.  It’s a system of exploitation…You can’t have capitalism without racism.”

Marx underscored how the rise of capitalism in the US and Europe created different levels of exploitation and schisms among workers.  The planters and business class gave white workers in colonial times a higher economic and social status than enslaved people, a bribe that continues today.  Objectively, black and white workers have much in common; they all labor for wages and have no actual power.

The ideology of white skin privilege implies that white people, especially men, benefit from racism and should sacrifice their somewhat better circumstances to counter it.  Taylor attacks this notion arguing that all workers experience the deleterious effects of capitalism in different degrees, and that these degrees are getting worse for everyone due to falling wages, joblessness, unaffordable housing, and increasing poverty.  While a disproportionate number of black families live under the poverty line, 19 million whites do as well.

Alternatively, Taylor calls for multiracial unity:

“Solidarity… is crucial to workers’ ability to resist the constant degradation of their living standards.  Solidarity is only possible through relentless struggle to win white workers to antiracism… Building the struggles against racism, police violence, poverty… is critical to people’s basic survival… it is also within those struggles for the basic rights of existence that people learn how to struggle, how to strategize and build movements and organizations.”

These struggles must eventually lead to more revolutionary goals and liberate the working class from capitalism and the oppression it unleashes.  It remains to be seen whether the new protest movements can move in this direction.

color of law bookColor of Law by Richard Rothstein and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond address the oppressive nature of housing policy through the legal system and its effects on impoverished people. Rothstein traces government laws that “redlined” real estate to deny housing to black families, forced them into substandard city housing in neighborhoods with poorly resourced schools, and steered 98 percent of the subsidized mortgages to white GIs returning from WWII.  Black residents lived in more environmentally toxic locations and accrued less wealth that home ownership conveys. Segregated housing ensured less contact among workers and more victim blaming.

Morris takes a micro level approach.  He spent over a year living in public and private housing interacting with the residents and landlords.  His reporting reveals the utter disruption and instability caused by rotten conditions, evictions, and the fees landlords charge.  There are many scenes of parents and kids hustling their belongings into trash bags before the movers arrive and frantically trying to find new housing.

A longer review of The Color of Law is on this blog at 

african am and latinx history by ortizAfrican American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz introduces a working class view of US history emphasizing the reciprocal effects of antiracist and anticolonial movements in the Americas, a perspective Ortiz labels emancipatory internationalism.. The Haitian revolution is one example.  Most people are aware of the impact of the Haitian insurrection on enslaved people and the plantation owners in the US.  It inspired slave revolts in the colonies and stoked fear in the planters.  (It also forced the French to sell its Louisiana territory to the US).  The uprisings led by Simon Bolivar throughout South America also encouraged abolitionists in the US as these anti-slavery campaigns also encouraged anti Spanish colonialists in South America.

Ortiz cites Frederick Douglass’ support of international solidarity:

“Neither geographical boundaries, nor national restrictions, ought, or should prevent me from rejoicing over the triumphs of freedom, no matter where or by whom achieved.”

This history demonstrates the reality of unity among workers of different countries bound together in their pursuit of freedom from colonialism and exploitation.

A short list of novels that portray personal experiences of racism.

behold the dreamers bookBehold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbu, 2017, tells the story of a family from Cameroon who moves to NYC, finds jobs, and pays thousands to lawyers to obtain green cards.  Once the financial world tanks, their economic security evaporates.  Mbu draws readers into a suspenseful tale of the effects of finance capitalism on the financiers and the immigrant workers they hire.



jesmyn ward photoJesmyn Ward has written several books about growing up in Mississippi, Salvage the Bones, Men We Reaped, Sing, Unburied, Sing. They portray the effects of poverty, addiction, family ties, and rural life on relationships and survival.  Her characters strive to connect with others, understand family dynamics, and secure a living.  Ward is an incredible, awarded writer who allows readers to enter the heads of her characters and the environment in which they live.

sour heart by zhangSour Heart by Jennifer Zhang is a collection of short stories about people immigrating from China to the United States.  It travels back and forth in time and location through the perspectives of angry young women and their relatives who experience intense poverty and isolation.  The writing is intense and often repetitive but worth reading or listening to the audio version.



year of the runaways bookThe Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota is a harrowing account of 4 people from India who escape to England in hopes of an education and employment.  They live in fear of detection by the immigration police, forced into worse housing and jobs.  It would be hard not to sympathize with any migrant trying to create a better life.  Sahota’s portrayal of their despair and friendships recall Rohinton Mistry’s classic, A Fine Balance.


heart berries bookHeart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot is a memoir of a Native American woman’s experience growing up in an abusive family on a reservation in the Pacific Northwest.  Mailhot has a unique voice; she writes in short sharp, powerful sentences that engages the reader (or listener) anxious to learn how she survives.  (The audiobook is excellent).


james baldwinJames Baldwin (anything) also places the reader in the heads of his characters as they struggle to find love in heterosexual, gay, and biracial relationships, respect, and racialized stigma.  His essays, such as The Fire Next Time, eloquently bares the mechanisms of capitalism and the racism it requires.

My Life as a Union Steward in a Government Union

by Sarah Harper, December 19, 2018

AFGE Dec 2018

This article discusses my union work as a public sector employee. When I started the job, I became a shop steward within my first year. My platform was fighting racism. I held a low level job as a technician, and was one of the few white techs in the library. I distinguished myself as a militant supporter of my coworkers against the bosses.

I started leafleting outside the building with InCAR (International Committee Against Racism) flyers. The topics dealt with across-the-board wage increases instead of percentages because percentages harmed the lower grades. The lower grades were held by predominantly Black workers. The leaflets also talked about larger social issues such as apartheid in South Africa. I put out flyers supporting the Metro workers when they went on strike. Flyers supporting the air traffic controllers (PATCO) workers and the Greyhound Bus workers when they were on strike were distributed.

Every time I ran for various union offices: President, executive board, shop steward. My campaign literature was devoted to fighting the racist, sexist practices by the bosses, I was known as a militant antiracist who stood toe to toe with the bosses. I did not back down.

One small struggle helped a Black woman get her job back. She and a quasi-supervisor tried to doctor their leave and earning statements to show higher salaries were necessary to get credit cards. The woman, a low level typist in a typing pool, decided not to do it, but left the evidence in the trash can. The quasi supervisor ratted on her to the boss! The bosses said the rest of her coworkers couldn’t trust her now. That was the reason they fired her. I knew the women in the typing pool. I struggled with them to sign a letter which said they trusted the woman and wanted her to have her job back. The woman was pregnant. I then passed out flyers in front of the building calling out the racist firing of the pregnant worker. Who should call me? The vice president of the union called to tell me that the bosses were upset and I should stop! I told the vice president that was not my concern. The firing was unnecessary and racist. I wanted the woman to get her job back. I went through the whole grievance procedure, as well. In the end, the union, under pressure, found the woman another job in another department.

Civil Rights Committee

It took 20 years to set up the Civil Rights Committee in our union. Why? The union misleaders did not want a group of angry workers fighting the bosses at work! When the Civil Rights Committee was established, it was little more than window dressing. The workers on it were weak and toed the line of the misleaders of the union. They did not make waves! I was able to get on the Committee when the union leadership changed. We started off with a forum on racial inequalities in the workplace. It was well attended. Unfortunately, nothing ever came of the forum. As a member, I tried to build coalitions between the diverse groups in the workplace: Blacks in Government (BIG), HACE, the Hispanic group, persons with disabilities and Native Americans. The public sector had special interest months. January was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; February Black history month; March Women; May Asian-Pacific; June LGBT; September 15 to October 15 Hispanic; October Disabilities; November Native American. We tailored programs to those months. We served lunch because free food was a big draw. The programs showed the union’s involvement and visibility.

During this time the bosses were harassing outspoken Black and Latin male union members. If they tried to speak to the Secretary of Labor about discrimination on the job, or fight back vigorously, security escorted them out of the building and told not to come back to work! They were put on administrative leave. When Civil Rights Committee members discussed their situations with our union misleaders, they passed the buck. We were told “Don’t worry, no reprimand or other disciplinary action has been taken yet!” What about the workers who were sitting at home worrying about their job?? Our Committee decided to write Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. These FOIA demanded how many workers were on paid administrative leave, the race of the workers, the gender of the workers and the reason for the administrative leave. Management decided to ignore our request. We just kept firing back our FOIA requests and made it public that we were doing so. Several union members were given their jobs back in this way. One of them approached me on his return and thanked the Civil Rights Committee for pressuring management. He felt that was the reason he was brought back to work.

Our Committee was very diverse with Asian, Latin, Black, white, Native American workers, and those with disabilities. We showed movies. We also had speakers. We had people from the community come and speak about police brutality. Redmond Barnes came from the People’s Coalition for Police Accountability and spoke about the struggle against the police murder of Prince Jones. We had a Hyattsville City council member come and speak about the fight against the racism of the rental agreement bill that the City of Hyattsville was trying to pass. Residents along with CASA were fighting the bill.  CASA is a group that helps immigrants fight injustices and deportations. The bill targeted the immigrant workers who rented rooms in their houses. We played Dr. King’s speech against the war in Vietnam with a montage of pictures playing in the background that my son had produced. This presentation was always a standing room only crowd. We wanted people to know that Dr. King was more than just his “I have a Dream” speech and cared about economic justice for all.

For Women’s month we showed ”With Babes and Banners” a documentary about the Flint Sit down Strike at the GM Plant in Flint Michigan. It highlighted the Women’s Brigades who won the strike by fighting off the company goons and the tear gas of the Michigan National Guard! The women decided that babysitting and cooking the meals was not enough. Being on the front lines was necessary to keep the men in the factory until the strike was won. When the cops and National Guard lobbed tear gas at the factory windows, the women broke the windows so air could get in so the men could breathe. The women held off the police so reinforcements could come and help. The women’s brigades were vital to the strike.

We also had discussions about the myths of immigrants not paying taxes and taking away jobs from US citizens. We had a speaker from Pew Research come to speak. We wanted to make sure that our members to expand their consciousness. We knew that our members did not only care about their paychecks.

The Committee members enthusiastically planned the programs. We divided up responsibilities so no one member struggled with all of the work. The members appreciated how collective the Committee was run. In order to float new ideas, I would discuss them with members before the meeting. We worked as equals rather than top down leadership. We played to the strengths of the members. Local 12 members enjoyed our presentations. Many presentations were filled to capacity.

Lessons Learned

My template for organizing was InCAR, which allowed rank and file members to pick struggles in the local areas with little top down directives. We collectively decided in which antiracist struggles to join. We knew that including all workers helped. We believed in multiracial unity and militant struggle.

The larger purpose of going into the job with the idea of fighting racism at every turn motivated me on the job. It enabled me to know diverse groups of workers. The Washington, DC area is diverse but very segregated. Without the mindset of bridging the racial divide, I would have remained in a “white bubble” both at work and in my community.

Learning to be more patient and less judgmental was essential in being a shop steward and advocate for workers. I boasted and believed that 99% of the time I blamed management for the workers’ situations.

The union leadership tried to stop me by not supporting me when I fought battles with management. They tried to isolate me from the members and intimidate me. I threatened their power by organizing the union members to press for more militant fight back against management.

Unfortunately during the first years the members thought it was a personal battle between me and the union president. Separating the personal from political was hard because both of us exhibited strong leadership skills. The fact that the president was Black made it harder to convince Black union members he did not act in their best interests.

Organizing is a process. Talking to workers and listening to them are essential elements. Taking things one step at a time became clear to me. Being only twenty-two and fresh out of college, a steep learning curve loomed ahead of me. My approach consisted of being accessible. I became friends with my coworkers. I ate lunch with them. I invited them to my house for parties. I spoke up when the supervisors tried to intimidate workers. Filing grievances was one avenue but not the only option. Informing workers about major struggles both in the workplace and in the world helped build a base for action. Passing out flyers before work was the main tool. The flyers calling out racist supervisors and unfair firings helped put pressure on the bosses and the union to get restitution for the employee. It was a matter of knowing that following the contract with the grievances and deadlines were important, but organizing other workers to get involved in the struggles were most important. If other workers did not stand up to fight back, nothing would change. Doing these activities made the union leadership upset. They then would have to act militant to cover themselves for not doing anything! I also called out the mistakes the union leaders were making. I would struggle with coworkers to attend the union meetings and pass resolutions to make the union leadership do the right thing.

My outlook enriched my life and my husband and children’s lives. My children gravitated to whom they liked knowing it made no difference to us what the color of their skin was.



Lucy Parsons, Working Class Anarchist

by Karyn Pomerantz, Dec. 2, 2018.

The wealth of this country should be equally distributed … if one man through shrewdness should then amass more wealth than his neighbor, his surplus should be taken away from him. Every man should carry arms and have the right of self-defense. Shops and means of transit should be free. There would be no need of elections, police or standing army… Every man should bring his products to an immense clearinghouse in each city or town, and every family to receive an equal portion.” Lucy Parsons, 1891.
LucyParsons photoThe life of Lucy Parsons holds many lessons for the working class and students today, especially since we recently witnessed a polarizing election, increased xenophobia, and racist, anti-Semitic murders. Lucy gained fame as the widow of Albert Parsons, the labor leader and anarchist whom the city of Chicago executed for his role in the fight for the 8 hour day in 1887. Known as the Haymarket Massacre, cops threw a bomb into the crowd that killed 7 policemen and blamed the deaths on the anarchist and socialist leaders, including Albert. May Day, the international workers’ day, commemorates this event. Lucy spent her life celebrating her husband’s and her political ideas. Today she is honored as a revolutionary leader in her own right.

The Parsons lived through a tumultuous period of history marked by severe exploitation, racism, and strikes. Thousands of immigrants arrived to escape violence and poverty in Russia and Eastern Europe, and millions of black sharecroppers fled north during the Great Migration. There were no labor protections and little solidarity among white and black workers. Workers organized numerous political and labor organizations from the trade union Knights of Labor and various socialist and anarchist parties to the militant International Workers of the World (the IWW or Wobblies).

This blog piece will cover her current relevance, using several biographies and her own writings. It includes her positions on political organizing, electoral reforms, unions, racism, women, and family. She prefigures many current political trends and remains a controversial activist. Scholars and biographers disagree on her racial and ethnic heritage, her antiracist activities, and her later role in the Communist Party USA.

Brief Background
Lucy’s early history is obscured by many lies and a tangle of family relationships. Born in 1851, she was enslaved in Virginia until her owner marched his “property” to Texas in 1863 where she became free after the Civil War during Reconstruction. With her light complexion and education she passed herself off as the daughter of a Mexican father and Native American mother, never denying this fabricated heritage. During the more liberal Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War she married Albert, a white radical Republican politician from Texas. Eventually they fled to Chicago in 1873 and joined various left wing organizations and wrote for several radical publications. Albert worked as a printer and joined the printers union. Lucy earned an income as a seamstress and organized numerous women’s organizations, and joined various socialist and anarchist groups. She eventually became a member of the Communist Party.

Their contemporaries included the anti-lynching journalist Ida Wells-Barnett, labor organizer Mother Jones, IWW founder Big Bill Haywood, socialist Eugene Debs, anarchist and free love advocate Emma Goldman, union leader Samuel Gompers, and anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.
LucyParsonsRR StrikeThey supported some of the most important struggles of the 19th Century, including the 8 hour day fight, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 that developed into a general strike, and other union campaigns in major US industries. The Parsons frequently gave public speeches, eventually traveling throughout the United States. After Albert’s hanging in 1887, Lucy maintained a leadership role until she died in a house fire in 1942 at the age of 92.

Political PrinciplesAnarchism
As anarchists, Lucy and Albert advocated for a revolution to topple capitalism. Anarchists promoted individual freedom versus collective or centralized governmental control. They repudiated the concept of a state and operated as independent activists rather than long-term members of political organizations or parties. Lucy was highly critical of other revolutionary groups and extremely caustic in her dealings with colleagues. As one of a few African American women leaders, she demanded that others take her seriously. She was very popular with workers and feared by the police and industry.

While the Parsons organized within major labor unions, their primary focus was revolution, not reform. They used personal appearances, meetings, writings, parades and picnics to whip up hatred of capitalism, reaching thousands of laborers in the Midwest and beyond. They exhorted their followers to use violence to eradicate the ruling class and warned striking workers against compromising with the bosses.

LucyParsons quote on the systemOne of Lucy’s famous speeches, An Open Letter to Tramps (1884) portrayed the plight of 35,000 impoverished, unemployed men and their wives and children in Chicago, and urged them to take up weapons to fight the larcenous industrial bosses:

“…Have you not worked hard all your life, since you were old enough for your labor to be of use in the production of wealth? … Then can you not see that the “good boss” or the “bad boss” cuts no figure whatsoever? That you are the common prey of both, and that their mission is simply robbery? Can you not see that it is the INDUSTRIAL SYSTEM and not the boss that must be changed?…each of you hungry tramps who read these lines, avail yourselves of these little methods of warfare which Science has placed in the hands of the poor man, and you will become a power in this or any other land. Learn the use of explosives!”

Lucy helped organize the International Workers of the World (IWW), the Wobblies, along with many anarchists, Marxists, and socialists. Their militancy, commitment to class struggle, and inclusion of anarchists attracted her. The IWW recruited unskilled laborers from major industries, including women, black and immigrant workers who were excluded from the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Led by Bill Haywood, the Wobblies led militant strikes in the mines, lumber fields, and textile factories where they won a 5% wage increase and an 8 hour day in Lowell, Massachusetts. They often used mass violence to win their strikes, until they were framed and many leaders executed.

“An injury to one is an injury to all… For one dollar a (boss) didn’t earn is one dollar a worker didn’t get.” (Big Bill Haywood, IWW)

Lucy Parsons Voting“Never be deceived that the rich will permit you to vote away their wealth.”

The Parsons opposed electoral politics, arguing that elections maintained capitalism. They refused to participate in any political campaigns or endorse any candidates, even those who identified as socialists. They consistently argued that capitalism was the problem, not political parties or politicians.

“…so-called laws” were not “worth the paper they are written on because capitalists had the power to do as they wanted even if “the producers of all wealth had willed it otherwise.”

Lucy’s inaction on racism diminishes her role as a labor activist. It is the most serious weakness of her and others’ political work. Many other union members and supporters held racist ideas and denied union membership to black people. This opened the door for the bosses to use black workers as strikebreakers, further inflaming white racism. A woman social reformer actually endorsed lynchings as a way to maintain social control over black people!

There is no evidence that Lucy (or most anarchists and socialists) organized black and white workers together. There was little multiracial unity. Although most industrial workers in Chicago were white, this was also the period of the Great Migration when 6 million southern black people fled the south to live in northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. White workers and their unions viewed black workers as strikebreakers and cheap labor who threatened their jobs; women workers were also viewed as cheap labor threatening men’s pay. US born workers feared immigrant workers from Europe as purveyors of communism and threats to their jobs.
This was an opportunity to include black workers in unions to strengthen the labor movement and unite immigrant and US born people. The Parsons made no effort to counter anti-black racism. They settled in white immigrant neighborhoods largely populated by German families. Many Eastern European immigrants were socialists and active labor organizers who strengthened US labor struggles and introduced new political ideologies, but did not advocate for black workers either.
Black workers led significant struggles outside of the northern labor movement. Ida Wells-Barnett risked her life organizing against lynchings. Socialists and communists organized the Southern Workers Tenant Union that united black and white sharecroppers in the south. When black soldiers returned from WWI in 1919, they battled white racists who attacked them, destroying lives, homes, and businesses in Tulsa, Detroit, and Rosewood. During the 1930s, black and white communists in the Communist party USA (CP) fought the prosecution of the Scottsboro Boys who were falsely accused of raping a white woman. Lucy participated in the Scottsboro movement but considered antiracist issues a distraction from class struggle. She didn’t appreciate the power of racism to divide and weaken the working class. (Williams in The Mythologizing and Re-Appropriation of a Radical Hero disputes this. Michael Goldstein in The Color of Politics writes that Lucy did endorse multi-culturalism and united workers across racial barriers although he only devotes 1 page to this assertion without any evidence).

Lucy helped to organize and joined the IWW but did not maintain her membership preferring to work more independently. She never held jobs that offered union membership. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 affected her deeply, confirming her ideas regarding direct action and rebellions as a strategy for challenging the state. She supported many strikes but primarily worked as a small business woman, as a seamstress, employing other women in her businesses. She never worked in a factory where she could have formed political and social relationships with other women. She focused on gravitational revolutionary work, writing and speaking about the need to eliminate capitalism. She viewed unions as models of cooperative working class organizations under a society built on anarchy although most aimed to reform capitalism rather than abolish it.

Lucy and other anarchists urged workers to arm themselves with dynamite to destroy factories and fight the police. They correctly believed that revolution required violence, not the ballot. However, they never utilized dynamite themselves or joined unions that could carry out strikes and rebellions. Their call for violence predates the 1960s Weather Underground who used violence such as bombs and provocative actions (like running through a high school topless) in ludicrous attempts to instigate revolution. They used inflammatory rhetoric urging violence but did not practice it themselves. Nonetheless, the police and government portrayed them as terrorists and criminals.

“(The working class) should rise and overthrow aristocracy by means of dynamite…” Lucy Parsons.

Lucy fought for recognition as a leader in labor and radical circles at the time in which male activists relegated women to the home. Even the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) did not welcome women, believing that they jeopardized men’s pay and their own health if they worked. The SLP also opposed women’s suffrage and ignored black workers. In their view (as for many today), racism distracted from class struggle. Lucy developed several organizations of women who primarily worked as seamstresses and servants. The Working Women’s Union (WWU) held weekly discussion meetings as Lucy tried to involve them in anarchist politics. It dissolved in 1880 due to decreasing attendance.

Meanwhile, Albert organized an American chapter of the International Working People’s Association (IWPA), an anarchist group founded in Europe. It agitated for anarchism and published the Alarm to voice their political ideology and strategies, such as violence against the state and the rejection of voting.

After Albert’s death, Lucy spent the rest of her life promoting Albert’s politics and martyrdom. She had several affairs, offending her comrades for betraying her husband and defying the moral customs of the period. At the same time, she rejected the free love practices of Emma Goldman and recoiled from gay or bisexual sex.

Lucy’s experiences with her children were sad. Her daughter, Lulu Eda, died from lymphedema when she was 8 years old. Lucy committed her son to a psychiatric hospital when he joined the Army during WWI, a war Lucy and the left opposed. He never left the hospital in the more than 20 years until his death.

Lessons Learned

Organizing labor: Lucy and her comrades encouraged strikes and disruption by workers to thwart the capitalists at the workplace and in the cities. They organized social events in the form of picnics and parades to attract thousands of workers to hear their messages.

Rejection of politicians: They rejected voting as the means to change the fundamental goals of capitalism – to make profit from the work of others. They did not support any candidate or bourgeois party.

Endorsement of direct action and violence: The anarchists understood that only violence would eliminate the bosses’ power and urged workers to arm themselves.

Lifelong commitment to revolution: Lucy committed herself to revolutionary principles and practice for 70 years without stopping her outreach, publishing and family responsibilities. She opposed US imperialism and wars, including WWI and the invasions in the Caribbean and Far East.

When one organization failed to accomplish its mission, she would form another. She also committed herself to keeping Albert’s memory alive through her speeches and writings about his life.

Powerful communication: She was an expressive, forceful speaker and writer who called directly for action against the wealthy and their politicians. She contributed to many newsletters, newspapers, and books to promulgate anarchism.


Racism: Lucy mirrored the racist ideas of the left and ordinary people of the time, ideas that are once again in fashion. The socialists and related parties viewed black workers as a category of workers, oppressed only from poverty, not from super-exploitation due to “racial” categories. In true “blame the victim” mentality, she wrote “…to the Negro himself we would say your deliverance lies mainly in your own hands.” (!)
“These were the men and women (communists, socialists, anarchists of this time) who claimed for themselves the mantle of radical change, but whose own prejudices served to replicate the unequal society against which they professed to be fighting.” (Jones J., The Goddess of Anarchism)

Sectarianism: Lucy denounced other anarchists and socialists who did not accept her outlook. She did not develop alliances with other labor radicals or with any antiracist activists. Her responses to them were caustic deal breakers. She had two close friends during her life but outlived them as well.

As Jacqueline Jones, the author of The Goddess of Anarchy from which much of this blog is based, concludes that:
“…Lucy Parsons lived a singularly eventful life… full of remarkable achievements… her story in all its complexity remains a powerful one for its useful legacies no less than its cautionary lessons.”

Her life holds many lessons for us today: fight for an inclusive, multiracial/ethnic strategy; use mass violence as necessary in strikes and rebellions; reject politicians; and build leadership among people who have been powerless. Build a movement of workers to take state power to replace capitalism instead of relying on reform organizations and workers’ spontaneity.

Asbaugh, Carolyn. Lucy Parsons: an American Revolutionary, 1976.
Greer, TS. A Lifelong Anarchist: Selected Works and Writings of Lucy Parsons. Ignacio Hills Press, 19??
lucyParsons GoddessJones, Jacqueline. The Goddess of Anarchism. NY: Basic Books, 2017.

Williams, Casey. Whose Lucy Parsons: THE MYTHOLOGIZING AND RE-APPROPRIATION OF A RADICAL HERO.…/casey-wiliams-whose-lucy-parsons
Viewed 11-28-18

How We Can Support the Caravan and Fight Racist Terror

5ed6324758d64391b97eabe8dee21718_18by Karyn Pomerantz, Nov. 1, 2018

appearing on Counterpunch, November 8, 2018

As we write, thousands of men, women and children are traveling to the southern U.S. border with Mexico. The largest group of the migrants who make up the “caravan” are from Honduras. They are fleeing poverty, corruption and violence that is largely the result of over 100 years of US domination, beginning with massive banana plantations. This American business took over most of the best land, and later the US came to dominate mining, coffee and banking as well. To keep its interests safe and also play a role in fighting the Sandanista rebels in neighboring Nicaragua in the 1970s, the US developed and dominated the military. Although a liberal reformer, Zelaya was elected in 2006, the military, with US support, overthrew him in 2009. Since then, poverty, crime, drug trafficking and police violence have driven ever more people to flee.

These conditions are not unlike those in other Latin American countries, such as El Salvador and Guatemala, from which migrants also come. Similar conditions also account for the over 200 million migrants currently seeking a survivable place to settle around the world. While each country has its own specific causes for migration, from wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria to hopeless poverty in Pakistan, India, and Somalia, these migrations reflect the drive for cheap labor, resources, and markets by the major capitalist countries, topped by the US. For decades, the US has off-loaded its manufacturing industries to countries with un-living wages, impoverishing workers in the US and other countries, especially exploiting black, Latin, and Asian people. (See Migration: a reflection of capitalism in this blog at

Rulers around the globe, from Trump to Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Orban in Hungary, use racism and nationalism to attack migrants and blame them for society’s ills. These ideas are not different from those of white supremacists who have murdered blacks, Jews and anti-racists from Charlottesville to Kentucky to Pittsburgh, encouraged by the White House. For most African Americans, racist terror began under slavery never stopped. Klan and Nazi organizations have flourished throughout US history, blaming black and Jewish people for the economic and social problems created by capitalism.

We have also seen powerful movements to fight racism and inequality around the world, from revolutions in Russia and China, reforms in Cuba, anti-colonial movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and the civil rights movement in the US. With the murders of black and Jewish people this past week and the growing Administration threats against the caravan, many are asking what we can do to oppose these trends. The following proposes some ideas. You can use the Comments section to add your own suggestions.


  Mass at the border to greet and protect the caravan. Stop the police and military from arresting and shooting the marchers with massive action.

  Speak up against racist and nationalist ideas. There are no such entities as “illegal” people or “invaders.” There are no distinct human races with different capabilities. Jewish people do not control US policy; they are rich and poor, conservative and radical.

  If you are in the armed forces, refuse to follow orders to detain or attack people trying to cross the border.

  Refuse to work in a detention center which imprisons migrants.

  Join the sanctuary movement and find placements for immigrants and oppose deportations.

  Organize demonstrations and vigils against deportations and racist violence.

  Confront white supremacists wherever they rally.

  Forge friendships and political alliances with people from different backgrounds. Fight for each other’s issues, such as open borders and against police violence, to grow the anti-racist movements and build trust.

  Build a stronger, inclusive labor movement to organize for better working conditions and to unite US born workers with immigrants. During the early 20th Century, the AFL (American Federation of Labor) opposed immigration fearing that Eastern European and Mexican workers would take “American” jobs and spread communist ideas. The CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) organized immigrant workers during the 1930s; immigrant women working in the garment industry created the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, one of the most militant unions in that period. Mexican workers organized the United Farmworkers Union in California led by Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta and struck big agriculture for better wages and safer working conditions. Thousands supported the grape boycott to pressure growers to recognize the union (California has the strongest labor movement in the US with 22 percent of the workforce unionized while the national average is 11 percent).

   Support immigrants on the job. Unions can oppose “reverification” actions where ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) can demand to see the immigration status of employees. Many unions have represented workers caught by this policy and lobbied against it in California.

   Defend Immigrants with sanctuary places, legal aid, and amassing people at sites where raids occur and at the border. The meatpackers union exemplified fighting racism off the job when they defended black residents who moved into segregated Chicago neighborhoods during the Great Migration. They also guaranteed that black union members serve on the executive boards and other leadership positions.

  Reject anti-communism when it is used to attack mass struggle. Communists built the CIO and led many labor struggles in the shipping, garment, and meatpacking industries among others. The Russian Revolution in 1917 inspired people around the world to challenge capitalism and build a more equitable society. Important anti-racist communists in the US, such as Paul Robeson, William Patterson, and Claudia Jones, led campaigns to free the Scottsboro boys, falsely accused of raping a white woman, abolish racist ideas, publish progressive newspapers, support international anticolonial struggles, and build antiracist organizations.


  Do not remain silent in the face of racist speech or acts.

  Do not defend or excuse racist speech as “free speech”. Fascists use free speech principles to recruit members and build deadly movements.

  Do not adopt nationalism and separatism as a response to racism and anti- Semitism. For example, Zionists in Israel use the history of the Nazi holocaust, which murdered six million Jews, to justify oppression of Palestinians.  Farrakhan, a black nationalist, voices hate against Jewish people.

  Do not allow violent racist attacks to be portrayed as “not the American way.” Violence and white supremacy instigated by a small financial elite have always dominated American domestic and foreign policy, from the war against Britain, enslavement, colonizing South America and Asia to conducting the current wars in the Middle East and exploiting globalized labor.

  Do not think that voting out Trump and the Republicans will end deportations. Obama deported more immigrants (3.5 million people by 2012) than all previous administrations. The police have murdered black and Latin citizens with impunity under liberal and conservative administrations.

Capitalists and the politicians who represent them need cheap labor to maintain profits, and the super-exploitation of immigrants, as well as women and non-white workers, helps maximize profits. Immigrants are also scapegoated and blamed for many problems, like unemployment.

We must not allow white supremacists to build their movement attacking workers of color, native born or immigrant. We need to unite students, employed and unemployed, immigrant and US born from all backgrounds to oppose racist ideas and practices. As Ibram Kendi writes in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Epilogue): 
“Racial reformers have customarily requested or demanded that … White Americans sacrifice their own privilege for the betterment of Black people… based on a myth that racism materially benefits the majority of White people, that White people would not gain in… an anti-racist America…. It is also true that a society of equal opportunity would actually benefit the vast majority of White people much more than racism does. 
…eradicating racism must involve Americans committed to antiracist policies seizing and maintaining power … over the world.”

We have an opportunity to realize this potential to create a more equal world. But we must fight racism every day.

Kavanaugh – The Tip of the Iceberg

By Karyn Pomerantz, October 16, 2018

Kava nopeThe Kavanaugh hearings and his confirmation as a Supreme Court justice have opened a floodgate of women’s stories of rape and sexual harassment, building on the many recent accounts from the #MeToo movement.  Kavanaugh’s arrogant behavior represents the entitled status of ruling class men who wield their power without consideration for anyone except corporate and right wing politicians.  His danger extends beyond his individual actions to the realm of policy:

  • support for the Patriot Act and torture,
  • opposition to abortion,
  • threats to end the pre-existing condition protection in the Affordable Care Act,
  • support for the public charge policy that would deny immigrants’ use of federal benefits, such as Medicaid and food stamps, whether they were here legally or not
  • support for the detention of immigrants years after they were charged with a crime no matter how minor,
  • support for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 US Census.

His nomination represents the ruling class’ assault on the social safety net with Trump leading the way.

The hearings revealed how the power elite tries to shame and intimidate women into silence.  According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, sixty-three percent (63%) of the people who are raped do not report the crime while only 12 percent of child sexual abuse is reported. One in five women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, yet over 90% of students do not report the assault. Sexual violence also occurs in same sex relationships.  Over 46 percent of lesbians, 75 percent of bisexual women, 40 percent of gay men, and 47 percent of bisexual men reported forms of sexual violence (NSVRC, Statistics About Sexual Violence, Viewed 10-9-2018).


Racism has always been used to depict black men as hyper-sexual violent rapists (of white women) yet black men have a lower rate of rape than white men. (RAINN, Perpetrators of Sexual Violence: Statistics, Viewed 10-13-18).  Among women raped, 17.7 percent were white and 18.8 percent are black. Native Americans have the highest rate of rape, twice the rate of any other groups (RAINN, Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics, Viewed 10-13-18).

While rape is one of the severest forms of violence, there are many other assaults on women’s health and well-being, that disproportionately affect black and Latinx women:

  • High maternal and infant mortality rates
  • Immigration policies of detention, deportation, public charge policies, and migration caused by severe poverty and violence
  • Poor access to health care, abortion and contraception in many areas
  • Economic exploitation by employers; women make 80 percent of white men’s earnings while black and Latinx women earn even less
  • Economic exploitation in the home providing unpaid domestic labor
  • No access to education and expensive school fees that push girls to engage in sex for money in many countries
  • High rates of HIV

kav fight for 15While the media highlights white middle class women in #MeToo, poor women working in fast food, hotels, and factories have joined efforts to prevent sexual harassment.  USA Today reports that workers at McDonald’s filed a suit, and some city councils are passing policies against sexual violence ( September 2018. Viewed 10-13-18).

Legislative and electoral strategies cannot eradicate sexism; it is too profitable due to women’s lower wages and free household labor.

Women have long fought their oppression, demanding equal pay, education, health care, reproductive rights, and political participation.  During the 19th Century in the US, women rebelled against slavery and organized for voting rights.  Women in the Lowell, Massachusetts textile mills led the first strike to demand better conditions and wages.  They played significant roles in the civil rights movement during the early and mid 20th Century, holding leadership positions in SNCC and CORE, two mass anti-racist organizations.  Black women, such as Lucy Parsons, Louise Thompson, and Claudia Jones, advocated for socialism and communism and defended the Scottsboro Boys, who were falsely convicted of raping a white woman in the South in the 1930s.  Many immigrant women led the union organizing drives in the garment, farmworkers and textile industries in the late 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century.

kav chinese womenIn the newly launched Soviet Union, Alexandra Kollantai and other communists established communal kitchens and housekeeping to alleviate the burdens of domestic labor.  Women also joined and led the revolutionary liberation struggles in China, Vietnam, and South Africa.

Hundreds of women teachers went out on strike in West Virginia in 2018 to demand funding for education and a living wage, and women are joining unions and struggles to raise the minimum wage in the Fight for $15 campaign. Recently, women initiated Black Lives Matter and MeToo!. More women have entered political races for local office since the Trump election.  Hundreds of women protested Kavanaugh’s nomination and confirmation to the Supreme Court risking arrest to do so.

Racism Weakens the Women’s Movement

While the civil rights struggle inspired women’s activism during the 1960s and 1970s, leaders of the women’s movement marginalized and ignored the specific needs of working class and black, Latinx, Asian, and Native women.  Racism weakened the movement for women’s liberation by separating women based on their racial classification and economic status, and choosing a more narrow set of demands and issues that appealed to middle class educated white women.  This was not new.

White women suffragists threw black women under the bus in 1869.  Trying to win support for voting rights from Southern Democrats, they excluded black women and their issues in their movement, prioritizing women’s issues over racial justice.  The Fifteenth Amendment allowed voting for black men but denied this to women. Suffrage leaders Stanton and Anthony lashed out at black men, accusing them of illiteracy and the inability to understand political issues.  (Men often accused women of the same problems).  When Frederick Douglass offered a compromise that would allow voting for any excluded group, Stanton and Anthony rejected it.

kav black and white unity signThe dissension broke the suffrage movement at this time, which was only renewed decades later.  In 1913 suffragists led by Alice Paul and others organized a parade of 5,000 women down Pennsylvania Ave in Washington, DC to promote voting rights. Yet they relegated black suffragists to the end of the march!  Using arguments popular through US history, they did not want to alienate Southern participants but they themselves held the same attitudes (Kendi I. Stamped from the Beginning. NY: Nation Press, 2016).

In 1963, Betty Frieden’s immensely popular book, The Feminine Mystique, addressed middle class white women’s oppression as free household labor and advocated for equal rights for professional women in the workplace.  There was no acknowledgement of white and non-white working class women’s needs.  She and other women established the National Organization of Women (NOW), and developed and promoted the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) with demands for non-discriminatory employment opportunities, maternity leave, child care, abortion, and contraceptives. NOW, led by Friedan, proposed an electoral, legislative approach to winning the ERA that led to opportunistic compromises.   ERA proponents eliminated many provisions in the ERA to gain wider support among state legislators.  As it became clear that NOW did not fight for black women, many left the organization (Smith S. Women and Socialism. Chicago: Haymarket, 2016).

Don’t Trust the Liberals-Build a Mass Militant Movement

NOW’s reliance on electoral politics rather than building a mass movement doomed it to failure.  It supported Bill Clinton who demolished welfare for poor women, advocated sexual abstinence, and opposed gay marriage.  Obama extended the Hyde Act banning federal funds, such as Medicaid, to pay for abortions to the Affordable Care Act.  Yet NOW and moderate women’s groups clung to the Democratic Party.

kav women's lib marchMore radical women renounced this incremental strategy.  They staged demonstrations against labor practices and cultural norms, such as beauty pageants, bridal showers and prevailing standards of beauty.  The Boston Women’s Health Collective wrote Our Bodies, Ourselves to teach women about their health, sexuality, and birth control, criticizing the medical establishment for medicalizing women’s conditions.  The book addressed women in other countries and the racism experienced by US women.  Thousands read the book; it is still in print today

Marxists condemned capitalism as the source of sexism in the United States and opposed US imperialist wars while the conservative leaders of the Feminist Majority led by Eleanor Smeal supported the war in Afghanistan as an opportunity to liberate women there.


During the 1960s and 1970s, separatism of men and women became popular.  Feminists accused all men as the source of sexism, blaming the “patriarchy” or male supremacy as the cause of women’s oppression. Many men adopted the ideology of male supremacy and the so-called ideal of masculinity, such as hyper-sexuality, aggression, and heterosexual orientation, traits used to justify sexual violence. Black men were seen as especially threatening to women.

Black women feminists opposed separatism, arguing that feminists needed to combat racism as well as women’s oppression.  They developed the concept of intersectionality in the 1970s put forward by Kimberle Crenshaw (See blog post on Intersectionality, October 2018, ), acknowledging that women (and men) experience multiple forms of exploitation, especially racism.  While sexist practices, such as rape or fewer job promotions, affect all groups of women, black, Asian, Latinx, and Native women suffer much more.  They could not ignore the effects of racism on men and women.

The Cohambee River Collective of black feminists led by Barbara and Betty Smith published the Cohambee statement that pledged their solidarity with black men:

kav cohambee statement“… we feel solidarity with progressive black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand… we struggle together with black men against racism while we also struggle with black men about sexism.

These lessons can guide the current generations of young men and women to build an inclusive movement based on class: solidarity among workers and opposition to capitalism.  Reject the Democrats and voting as the way out; they will only use us to preserve this system.”


See more about sexism at:

Intersectionality: A Marxist Critique

by Barbara Foley, September 26, 2018

This is a slightly revised version of an article with this title that appeared in Science & Society 82, 2 (April 2018): 269-75.

intersectionality graphic2  Intersectionality, a way of thinking about the nature and causes of social inequality, proposes that the effects of multiple forms of oppression are cumulative and, as the term suggests, interwoven.  Not only do  racism, sexism, homophobia, disablism, religious bigotry, and so-called “classism” wreak pain and harm in the lives of many people, but any two or more of these types of oppression can be experienced simultaneously in the lives of given individuals or demographic sectors.  According to the intersectional model, it is only by taking into account the complex experiences of many people who are pressed to the margins of mainstream society that matters of social justice can be effectively addressed.  In order to assess the usefulness of intersectionality as an analytical model and practical program, however—and, indeed, to decide whether or not it can actually be said to be a “theory,” as a number of its proponents insist—we need to ask not only what kinds of questions it encourages and remedies, but also what kinds of questions it discourages and what kinds of remedies it forecloses.

It is standard procedure in discussions of intersectionality to cite important forebears—from Sojourner Truth to Anna Julia Cooper, from Alexandra Kollontai to Claudia Jones to the Combahee River Collective—but then to zero in on the work of the legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, who first coined and explicated the term in the late 1980s.  Concerned with overcoming the discriminatory situation faced by African American women workers at General Motors, Crenshaw demonstrated the inadequacy of existing categories denoting gender and race as grounds for legal action, since these could not be mobilized simultaneously in the case of a given individual: you had to be either a woman or nonwhite, but not both at the same time.   Crenshaw famously developed the metaphor of a crossroads of two avenues, one denoting race, the other gender, to make the point that accidents occurring at the intersection could not be attributed to solely one cause; it took motion along two crossing roads to make an accident happen (Crenshaw, 1989).

While Crenshaw’s model ably describes the workings of what the African American feminist writer Patricia Hill Collins has termed a “matrix of oppressions,” the model’s spatial two-dimensionality points to its inadequacy as an explanation of why this “matrix” exists in the first place (Collins, 1990).  Who created these avenues?  Why would certain people be traveling down them?  Where were they constructed, and when?  The spatial model discourages questions like these. The fact that the black women in question are workers who earn at best modest wages, but make the bosses of General Motors (GM) very rich, is simply taken as a given.  That is, to return to the metaphor of intersecting roads, the ground on which the roads have been built is a given, not even called into question.  While Crenshaw succeeded in demonstrating that the GM workers had been subjected to double discrimination—no doubt a legal outcome of considerable value to the women she represented—her model for analysis and compensation was confined to the limits of the law. As the Marxist-feminist theorist Delia Aguilar has ironically noted, class was not even an “actionable” category for the workers in question (Aguilar, 2015, 209).

Although intersectionality can usefully describe the effects of multiple oppressions, I propose, it does not offer an adequate explanatory framework for addressing the root causes of social inequality in the capitalist socioeconomic system. In fact, intersectionality can pose a barrier when one begins to ask other kinds of questions about the reasons for inequality—that is, when one moves past the discourse of “rights” and institutional policy, which presuppose the existence of social relations based upon the private ownership of the means of production and the exploitation of labor.

Gender, race and class:—the “contemporary holy trinity,” as Terry Eagleton once called them (Eagleton, 1986, 82), or the “trilogy,” in Martha Gimenez’s phrase (Gimenez, 2001)—how do these categories correlate with one another? If gender, race and class are analytical categories, are they commensurable (that is, similar in kind), or distinct?  Can their causal roles be situated in some kind of hierarchy, or are they, by virtue of their “interlocked” and simultaneous operations, of necessity basically equivalent to one another as causal “factors”?

When I ask these questions, I am not asserting that a black female auto worker is black on Monday and Wednesday, female on Tuesday and Thursday, a proletarian on Friday, and—for good measure—a Muslim on Saturday.  (We’ll leave Sunday for another selfhood of her choosing.)  (For a version of this rather clever formulation I am indebted to Kathryn Russell [Russell, 2007].)  But I am proposing that some kinds of causes take priority over others—and, moreover, that, while gender, race and class can be viewed as comparable identities, they in fact require quite different analytical approaches.  Here is where the Marxist claim for the explanatory superiority of a class analysis comes into the mix, and the distinction between oppression and exploitation becomes crucially important.  Oppression, as Gregory Meyerson puts it, is indeed multiple and intersecting, producing experiences of various kinds; but its causes are not multiple but singular (Meyerson, 2000).  That is, “race” does not cause racism; gender does not cause sexism.  But the ways in which “race” and gender—as modes of oppression–have historically been shaped by the division of labor can and should be understood within the explanatory framework supplied by class analysis, which foregrounds the issue of exploitation, that is, of the profits gained from the extraction of what Marx called “surplus value” from the labor of those who produce the things that society needs.  (In considering the historical division of labor along lines of gender, we need to go back to the origins of monogamous marriage, as Friedrich Engels argued in On the Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State.  The historical division of labor along lines of “race” is largely traceable to the age of colonialism, imperialism, and modern chattel slavery [Fields and Fields; Baptist].)  If class analysis is ignored, as Eve Mitchell points out, categories for defining types of identity that are themselves the product of exploited labor end up being taken for granted and, in the process, legitimated (Mitchell, 2013).

exploitation       An effective critique of the limitations of intersectionality hinges upon the formulation of a more robust and materialist understanding of social class than is usually allowed: not class as an identity or an experiential category, but class analysis as a mode of structural explanation.  In the writings of Karl Marx, “class” figures in several ways.  At times, as in the chapter on “The Working Day” in Volume I of Capital, it is an empirical category, one inhabited by children who inhale factory dust, men who lose fingers in power-looms, women who drag barges, and slaves who pick cotton in the blazing sun (Marx, 1990, 340-416).   All these people are oppressed as well as exploited.  But most of the time, for Marx, class is a relationship, a social relation of production; that is why, in the opening chapter of Capital, he can talk about the commodity, with its odd identity as a conjunction of use value and exchange value, as an embodiment of irreconcilable class antagonisms.  To assert the priority of a class analysis is not to claim that a worker is more important than a homemaker, or even that the worker primarily thinks of herself as a worker; indeed, based on her personal experience with spousal abuse or police brutality, she may well think of herself more as a woman, or a black person.  It is to propose, however, that the ways in which productive human activity is organized—and, in class-based society, compels the mass of the population to be divided up into various categories in order to insure that the many will be divided from one another and will labor for the benefit of the few—this class-based organization constitutes the principal issue requiring investigation if we wish to understand the roots of social inequality.  To say this is not to “reduce” gender or “race” to class as modes of oppression. It is, rather, to insist that the distinction between exploitation and oppression makes possible an understanding of the material (that is, socially grounded) roots of oppressions of various kinds.  It is also to posit that “classism,” a frequently heard term, is a deeply flawed concept.  For this term often views class to a set of prejudiced attitudes, equivalent to ideologies of racism and sexism.  As a Marxist, I say that we need more, not less, class-based antipathy.

In closing, I suggest that intersectionality is less valuable as an explanatory framework than as an ideological reflection of the times in which it has moved into prominence (see Wallis, 2015).  These times—extending back several decades now—have been marked by several interrelated developments.  One is the world-historical (if in the long run temporary) defeat of movements to set up and consolidate worker-run egalitarian societies, primarily in China and the USSR.  Another—hardly independent of the first—is the neoliberal assault upon the standard of living of the world’s workers, as well as upon those unions that have historically supplied a ground for a class-based and class-conscious resistance to capital.  The growing regime of what has been called “flexible accumulation” (Harvey, 1990, 141-72), which fragments the workforce into gig and precarious economies of various kinds, has accompanied and consolidated this capitalist assault on the working class, not just in the US but around the world.  For some decades now, a political manifestation of these altered economic circumstances has been the emergence of “New Social Movements” positing the need for pluralist coalitions around a range of non-class-based reform movements rather than resistance to capitalism.  Central to all these developments has been the “retreat from class,” a phrase originated by Ellen Meiksins Wood (Wood, 1986); in academic circles, this has been displayed in attacks on Marxism as a class-reductionist “master narrative” in need of supplementation by a range of alternative methodologies (Laclau and Mouffe).

fish unitedThese and related phenomena have for some time now constituted the ideological air that we breathe; intersectionality is in many ways a reflection of, and reaction to, these economic and political developments. Those of us who look to intersectionality for a comprehension of the causes of the social inequalities that grow more intense every day, here in the US and around the world, would do much better to seek analysis and remedy in an antiracist, antisexist, and internationalist revolutionary Marxism: a Marxism that envisions the communist transformation of society in the not too distant future.

Works Cited

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Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.  New York: Basic Books. 2014.


Collins, Patricia Hill. 1990. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.  New York: Routledge.


Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Practice.”  University of Chicago Legal Forum 89:139-67.


Eagleton, Terry.  1986. Against the Grain: Selected Essays 1975-1985.  London: Verso.


Engels, Friedrich. On the Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.  New York: International Publishers. 1972.


Fields, Karen E., and Barbara J. Fields.  Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life. London: Verso. 2014.


Gimenez, Martha.  2001. “Marxism and Class, Gender and Race: Rethinking the Trilogy.” Race, Gender & Class 8, 2: 22-33.


Harvey, David.  1990. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the origins of Cultural Change.  Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.


Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe.  Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. 2nd ed. London: Verso. 2001.


Marx, Karl.  1990. Capital. Vol. 1.  Trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin.


Meyerson, Gregory.  2000. “Rethinking Black Marxism: Reflections on Cedric Robinson and Others.”  Cultural Logic 3(2). Accessed 18 May 2016.


Mitchell, Eve. 2013. “I Am a Woman and a Human: A Marxist Feminist Critique of Intersectionality Theory.” marxist-feminist-critique-of-intersectionality-theory/.


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Russell, Kathryn.  2007. “Feminist Dialectics and Marxist Theory.” Radical Philosophy Review 10, 1: 33-54.


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Wallis, Victor.  2015. “Intersectionality’s Binding Agent: The Political Primacy of Class.” New Political Science 37, 4: 604-619.


Wood, Ellen Meiksins.  1986. The Retreat from Class: A New “True” Socialism.  London: Verso.