Ask any graduate student studying critical race theory about the fundamental claims of the field and they are sure to tell you about these two concepts: First, race is a social construct. Though it is presented as an inevitable, ontologically established, identarian distinction that has always been, it is neither innate nor permanent. It is an invention and, as such, mutable. It is an idea established over time, an idea that groups together otherwise disparate peoples. It is an idea wherein belonging is not hard and fast, but largely negotiable. And, second, race is presented as a binary between black and white, but in truth, things are far more complicated.
In Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism, Jonathan Tran argues that, in spite of our awareness of the false, socially constructed nature of the established racial logic, this binary and identarian thinking is embedded within the concept of race. As such, antiracist thinkers that function within the discourse of race cannot help but deal in and, thereby, reinforce the selfsame logic that they intend to dismantle. Unless antiracists shift their framework, they will inevitably reinforce the fiction against which they struggle (122-123).
One of the implications of Tran’s work, here, is that it helps to explain why so many antiracist activist communities seem to be racially siloed in their composition and work as well as why Asian Americans experience a diminished sense of agency in such circles. Apart from justice groups composed of Asian Americans and committed to Asian American issues, the Asian American tends to endure a kind of secondary standing in these spaces. The very placelessness that Asian Americans have come to experience in society at large as a result of the modern racial logic’s binary character is replicated within these antiracist circles, for both are functioning with an identarian concept of race. “Antiracists now commit themselves to appropriating racial identity—and its founding white/black binary—for antiracist purposes” (8). It is this identarian-determined affiliation that then leads to “zero sum” thinking not only within our racialized society, but also within racially siloed antiracist justice circles (128). Even those who are working to combat the poisonous logics of racism cannot seem to escape its ill-effects, for the same logic is fundamental to their resistance. And so, while the real triumph of Tran’s project is that it promises to advance the study of race and related justice work, his ideas will surely be difficult for many to accept insofar as his critique appears to invalidate the logic undergirding not only the given system of race, but also many of our antiracist responses.
His solution to the problem is straightforward. We cannot begin with race. Instead, he encourages his audience toward a Marxist reading. Pushing past the temptation to treat race as an individual, psychological issue of bigotry and bias, he argues for a systemic analysis of how capitalism functions on a societal level to create unfair economic conditions that then lead to the production of the concept of race as a means of justification. Economics is not ancillary; it is at the heart of the issue. And, as such, must be our starting point and primary analytical lens.
Certainly, Tran is correct in noting the way in which much of antiracist intellectual thought has glossed over economics and, in doing so, missed the larger picture of what race is and how it functions in the United States. Capitalism is key not only to our understanding of the initiating cause of racial inequality, but also its perpetuation. If we want a fuller sense of race and its mechanics, we must recognize the economic factors that drive it. And, certainly, Tran is right to assert that racism is much more than an individual problem of bigotry and bias; it is a systemic one.
Acknowledging all of this, however, I wonder whether we might be acting too hastily if we sideline the role that imaginative and psychological formation play in the problem of race. While at times Tran appears to be making the nuanced argument that we cannot omit economic factors from our analysis of race, a move that he observes in the more personal/psychologically focused work of Chou and Feagin (53-54), at other points he appears to be making the more sweeping claim that, at the end of the day, the problem of race is not psychological at all, but economic. “Americans who resist antiracist efforts do so not because they suffer fragile psyches (by dint of being white or what have you),” Tran writes, “but because at some level they know that they have the most to lose should society be reset toward more just orders” (294). To say that racism is primarily structural, not personal, and that economics is central to the problem, not ancillary, however, is something different from saying that the psychological plays no significant part in the problem. After all, in speaking of the racial imaginary and its impact in the world, we are talking about more than individual bigotry. We are talking about a racialized way of seeing that is established through regular exposure to largely consistent story lines about various peoples. Television, children’s stories, films, news reports, history books—these become powerful sites of narratival exposure and imaginative formation. Just as it would be shortsighted to separate economics from the dominant racial logic’s imaginative/psychological formation (58), it is also a mistake to claim that these imaginative/psychological “aftermarket” effects play no meaningful, politically significant, systemic part in the problem of race in the United States (294).
In pushing back on this point, I am not dismissing Tran’s larger argument about the importance of recognizing the central role that capitalism plays in the problem of race in the United States. Instead, I am simply cautioning us against losing sight of the imaginative and psychological consequences that, over time, have taken on a life of their own.
I can imagine a counter argument being made that the very approach to the imaginative/psychological is too tightly bound to the binary of race to prove a helpful framework. Such an argument would be consistent with Tran’s larger critique of racial discourse as being too bound up with black and white thinking. However, I wonder whether Tran’s astute observation means that there is no place for such discourse or whether such discourse is only useful for certain aspects of antiracist work. If it is true to say that, in spite of its fabrication, racial thinking and the modern Western social imaginary have real, systemic, societal impact, then we must be able to utilize language that can captures this logic. The binary thinking embedded in the concept of race is part of the logic that helps us to understand the real impact of this way of seeing the world. And so, while less than useful when engaging in constructive justice work, the concepts of race and its binary discourse remain necessary to deconstructive analysis.
Moving beyond deconstruction, however, Tran is right to argue that the constructive work of justice cannot be accomplished using the flawed logic of race. As Audre Lorde famously stated, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” What we need is not manipulation of the same framework toward our side’s advantage, but an entirely new framework, an entirely new economy. As I discuss in Disordered: The Holy Icon and Racial Myths, the divine economy (oikonomia) of God is not the same as the economy that has formed around white masculinity as a result of capitalism’s pursuits. Though the latter presents itself as sacred, as properly ordered, it is fundamentally inconsistent with God’s holy order, the order found in Christ and into which he invites all to participate. God’s economy is one of connection and love. It is one that meets the brokenness of our sin, both personal and societal, with justice and mercy for the sake of our reconciliation. It is one that invites our participation through the work of liberation, a work that draws us back into the truth of our divinely intended, connective existence as creatures of God with and for the other.
The reality into which we are called to participate, to embody, and to invite others is profound in that it promises to create the very sociality for which we long. It promises to establish the Kingdom of God that is not yet our everyday reality and, at the same time, is present to us in certain spaces and in moments of profound connection. Through our participation in the gift that is the economy of God made available to us in Christ, we are invited into a different way of seeing and being in the world.
It is within this section that Tran makes one of the most profound and easily overlooked claims of the book: “The interconnections adjoining a Christian spirituality of liberation mean that the primary political key of Christian worship is not resistance but proclamation” (207). Because the connective liberative reality into which we are being called is rooted in Godself and characterizes the movement of the Spirit, it is already present in the world. Instances of it are all around us, beckoning us, if only we have the eyes to see. For this reason, we need not think of the work of justice as being primarily one of resistance driven by our hatred of oppression. Instead, the call of the Christian disciple is simply to participate in what God is already doing, which is the reality into which we are being invited. The call of the Christian disciple is one of participation and witness. What is profound in this statement is that it shifts the work of justice from being a fight driven by contempt and suffering that so often results in further binary thinking and exclusion to being the connective delight and joy found in our living into a different way of being with and for one another and inviting others into the same. This way of seeing and being is a true alternative to that of the modern racial logic. For this way of seeing and being is not about division, but connection. It is not born of fear, but of delight. And, as such, it is an ordering of the world that is truly beyond the binary.
Audre Lorde and Cheryl Clarke, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Reprint edition (Berkeley, Calif: Crossing Press, 2007), 112.
Jessica Wai-Fong Wong, Disordered: The Holy Icon and Racial Myths(Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2021).