‘When Race Burns Class’ reviewed by S. Rosedale in Antidote #1

wrbc_3_0This short booklet produced by Solidarity Publishing consists of an interview with J. Sakai, author of ‘Settlers, Mythology of the White Proletariat’, a groundbreaking book for the North American left in the 80s. Predictably, most of the left misread the point of the book completely, using it to justify the application of race-only strategies against organized white supremacy. Within the first paragraph of his interview here, Sakai sets the record straight: “It wasn’t about race, but about class. Although people still have a hard time getting used to that – it isn’t race or sex that’s the taboo subject in this culture, but class.”

That cleared up, Sakai goes on to explain what went into his study on the impact race has made on class relations in America. The interviewer asks a good round of questions, prompting clarification on some of the crucial, if controversial, issues raised. To the question ‘how is settlerism different from racism’, Sakai replies, “Racism as we experience it today didn’t exist before capitalism’ …To Europeans before modern capitalism the most important ‘races’ were what we would call nations”. Describing the setter societies of North America in contrast to the European experience, Sakai explains that in the US, “settlerism filled the space that fascism normally occupies. … there was no mass movement for fascist seizure of power itself. Nor was the ruling class close to implementing fascism.” Why? “There was no class deadlock paralyzing society. … They hunted down the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement like it was deer hunting season, while white America went shopping at the mall – all without needing fascism.”

Sakai goes on to dismiss the misread notion that his study suggests racial issues should take precedence over class issues. “Why should it be so hard to understand that capitalism, which practically wants to barcode our assholes, has always found it convenient to color-code its classes?” Sakai’s best example of race as a capitalist means of control is laid bare in his analogy of Northern Ireland, “supposedly a “religious” or “ethnic” conflict between Catholic Irish Republicans and Protestant Loyalists … Actually, this has been an up-front class conflict between British capitalism’s historic settler garrison population (the Prots) and the historic colonial subjects (the “Catholics”). Both sides European, both “white”. The Northern Ireland Protestant settler working class has always had relative privilege, including the best jobs. …

Irish revolutionary Bernadette Devlin McAliskey picked up on this same comparison in real class when visiting the U.S. in the 1970s: “I was not very long there until, like water, I found my own level. ‘My people’ – the people who knew about oppression, discrimination, prejudice, poverty and the frustration and despair that they produce – were not Irish Americans. They were black, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos. And those who were supposed to be ‘my people’, the Irish Americans who knew about English misrule and the Famine and supported the civil rights movement at home, and knew that Partition and England were the cause of the problem, looked and sounded to me like Orangemen. They said exactly the same things about blacks that the loyalists said about us at home.”

In general terms, Sakai’s analysis suggests the colonized people in US history have been the proletariat, while the white working class has been a labor aristocracy. He explains, “This has been camouflaged in capitalist history by retroactively assigning white racial membership to various european immigrant peoples who weren’t ‘white’ at the time.” In ‘Settlers’ Sakai states, “This labor aristocracy of bribed workers is not neutral, but is fighting for its capitalist masters” and quoting Lenin, “No preparation of the proletariat for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie is possible, even in the preliminary sense, unless an immediate, systematic, extensive and open struggle is waged against this stratum…”

So, as Lenin might ask today, ‘what is to be done?’ We seem to be dumped at a crossroads here when Sakai claims, “… radical and democratic change can only come against the wishes of the bribed majority.” Is this to suggest the white working class is immune to the effects of capital today? What of the unorganized white working class? The unemployed? Clarity on this subject is crucial because the Left has failed or refused to answer these questions in action. While there is no shortage of lefties eager to measure the divisions – real or perceived – between races, there aren’t many prepared to bridge them. The absence of an alternative approach suggests to me the all too obvious beneficiaries.

Sakai acknowledges the problem in a criticism of the Left: “To believe what we’re told, no one should want to organize or educate workers unless they can be sure that the entire class is “bound for glory” as the main force for revolution! (which you won’t see here in this lifetime, trust me). So the white workers as a whole are either the revolutionary answer – which they aren’t unless your cause is snowmobiles and lawn tractors – or they’re like ignorant scum you wouldn’t waste your time on. Small wonder rebellious poor whites almost always seek out the Right rather than the left.”

One particularly problematic aspect carried over from Settlers into this interview is Sakai’s maintenance of the term ‘White left’, which I assume is meant to denote liberalism or opportunism on the organized Left. As such, I’m not sure what purpose is served in labeling the problem ‘white’ when the middle class Left today is more multi-racial than ever. But Settlers still stands up in terms of delivering a ‘people’s history’ of the US, illuminating the use of race as a means of class control. As a guide to race and class in America, it’s proven less capable of standing on its own. But as Sakai says himself, “we need a better map of class”.

How will this be mapped out? Some maintain that ‘the imperialist contradictions of oppressor and oppressed nations’ override ‘common working class interests’ when it comes to tactical unity around economic issues, even though both sides have a stake in the outcome. However, in a response to Settlers entitled, ‘Looking at the White Working Class Historically’, David Gilbert points out that “the predominance of white supremacy is not genetically determined nor is it carved in stone historically” and that “A system of white supremacy that was historically constructed can be historically deconstructed.” Or, as DeNiro’s safecracking character in the film The Score would put it, “Someone built it. Someone can unbuild it.”

Further Reading

In 1999, J. Sakai agreed to be interviewed by Solidarity Publishing and Distribution, a prisoner-support project based here in Montreal. The text of this interview is available alongside Kuwasi Balagoon’s The Continuing Appeal of Anti-Imperialism in the pamphlet When Race Burns Class, published and distributed by Kersplebedeb. The text of the interview, along with Balagoon’s review, are both provided here, so you can read them online.

In 2004, J. Sakai was interviewed by Ernesto Aguilar for KPFT Pacifica Radio. It is available in audio here, and the transcript became the pamphlet, “Stolen At Gunpoint: Interview with J. Sakai On the Chicano-Mexicano National Question,” and is currently hosted at anti-imperialism.com. (A lightly edited version also appears in the newest edition of Settlers as an appendix.)

Here is a list of links to other texts, discussing and debating Settlers:

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More by J. Sakai

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More on Global Class Structure

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