How sweet is it to be engaged by one’s colleagues with such seriousness and generosity. I have tried with Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism to shift, if ever so slightly, the conversation on race and racism. The receptive enthusiasm found in this symposium and elsewhere suggests a hunger for such efforts, even as that hunger comes with significant questions about what I propose. The reception and questions show me that no matter what my particular provocations and proposals come to, the guild of religious ethics has a sure future insofar as represented by these voices along with Political Theology Network under the guidance of Professor Rubén Rosario Rodríguez.
Anyone who has read the symposium’s five essays will know that my colleagues have given me more than I can adequately respond to, here or anywhere. While it would be enormously fruitful to reflect on the many agreements and convergences, space requires that I focus on the questions. I will organize my response according to what seems like the largest and most pressing sets of questions, and attempt to do justice to the issues raised. I will first take up the question of whether my political economic approach proves adequate for understanding and engaging racism as we know it.
This question is raised powerfully by Professors Wong and Jordan, who invite me to think further about whether the threat of racialized psychological imaginaries exceeds or escapes my racial capitalist political economic framing. They generally agree with me that identarian approaches focused on individuals to the exclusion of structures and systems won’t do. But they wonder whether I have overcompensated and thereby miss something crucial. This question gets to the heart of things since Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism seeks above all else to propose political economy as a much neglected but absolutely critical framework if we are to make sense of the world in which we find ourselves.
Responding to Professors Wong and Jordan will take me down the path of first articulating the challenge they put to my approach and following out its logic in order to get to the stakes of their question. As it turns out, the stakes are high, and I try to show how high by describing the damage done should my framing prove inadequate. Responding to this challenge requires that I articulate the moral psychology and theory of concepts explicitly and implicitly operative in my particular version of racial capitalism. What I hope becomes clear is that the concerns Professors Wong and Jordan (and along with them, Keunwoo Kwon) raise are my concerns too, and very much sit at the center of my framing. To show how, I take the logic of their challenge further than they themselves do in order to anticipate challenges that push in similar directions.
From there, I briefly consider the matter of metaphysics, which Professors Wong and Stauffer believe central to my work. I think so too, but feared the metaphysics and the reason for the metaphysics would go unnoticed. Not so with these two, and so I revisit what they think is so important, and incidentally, what Professor Rosario Rodríguez finds problematic.
I next turn to the practical questions of, on the one hand, whether my account of “deep economy” turns out to be an instance of what Professor Stauffer calls “benevolent capitalism” and the other hand, whether my Asian American exemplification of deep economy proves ill-suited to the needs of most Asian American churches, something Professor Kuo wonders about. That I take up these practically-minded questions later should not indicate that I consider practical matters less important, but only that I need the conceptual questions resolved in order to properly address them.
I conclude by reflecting on a question raised by Professor Rosario Rodríguez as to whether I have unduly dismissed racial identity, especially as a site of political contestation, mobilization, and imagination. In writing the book, I wondered whether this question would become a particular bone of contention, and so I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify my views on the matter, if also mostly in my own head.
I interpret the questions put to my political economic approach like this: While Tran’s racial capitalist emphasis on structures and systems seems mostly correct, rightly deflating individualists/personalist (“identarian” as I say in the book) accounts of racism and accordingly moving the conversation forward, it misses something crucial. What goes missing is of two kinds, issuing in two different worries.
According to the first worry, my approach misses how racial capitalism’s systems and structures produce individual/personal racism, especially at the level of psychological perception and imagination. This structurally and systematically-produced individual/personal racism is so virulent that it outlives its structural and systematic origins, taking on a life of its own, even turning on those structures and systems, as when racists vote against their political economic interests. Missing this involves missing both how racist structures and systems get individualized/personalized/psychologized and how such racism does damage. The worry here is that the emphasis on structures and systems might actually miss one of the most important things about structural and systemic racism—that is, how its virulent psychological imaginary comes to infect entire societies. My book might be helpful in bringing to the fore structures and systems, but it does so in ways that push important things to the background, swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction and losing sight of what we can ill afford to lose sight of.
According to the second worry, my political economic approach misses how racial capitalism’s structures and systems might themselves be determined by a sui generis ontologically-based perceptual and imaginative racism that predates the structures and systems that exploit them. This second worry’s account of racism, which goes beyond what Professors Wong and Jordan propose, is a bit more radical than what is suggested by the first. The first worry thinks of the individual/personal/psychological as an afterlife effect of the structures and systems, the afterlife—as an afterlife—as epiphenomenal of racial capitalist structures and systems. This first worry largely agrees with me about the structures and systems’ primacy and only wants to make sure we don’t lose sight of the individual/personal/psychological effects, how durable they are, so durable that they can exist independently from their originating structures and systems and even cut against them.
The second worry flips things around. It conceives of the structures and systems emanating from a more fundamental individual/personal/psychological source, that the racist structures and systems are themselves epiphenomenal of something self-generating, something primal. This second worry has it that even should we get rid of every racial capitalist structure and system, this primordial racism would eventually build them back.
Before answering the two worries, let me follow out their combined logic so that we understand their rhetorical force, their high stakes as it were. If my racial capitalist approach misses this individual/personal/psychological element, treating instead only the structural and systemic, then not only has my approach failed to understand racism but more worrying still, every antiracist corrective my approach inspires becomes part of the problem. Not only that. Insofar as these correctives come under the cover of antiracism, these problems will get a pass, either excused away or simply unnoticed. The structural-and-systemic-only lens will either miss or diminish the individual/personal/psychological stuff since according to its framing they do not count. All the while the onslaught of this individual/personal/psychological racism will continue unabated, indeed carried forward by the wrongheaded corrective measures.
People sometimes couch these worries in terms of what they call a “white savior complex.” The white savior is one who presumes structures and systems matter most and so goes about correcting them while ignoring how his individual/personal/psychological racism both created the problem and conveniently motivates its solution. Perhaps he even read my book, got inspired by my focus on structures and systems, and took to heart my doubts about “whiteness” as the problem. I have emboldened his white savior complex. Which means I have freed him to live out his racism.
When I endorse in the second half of the book a Christian community seeking to correct structures and systems, I seem to not only endorse a white savior complex but indeed a white Savior complex insofar as I tie my approach to Christian liberation theology, suggesting Jesus as the White Savior we all need embrace. At least this much results from my overemphasis on structural and systemic racism, which misses how individual/personal/psychological racism drives things. A fatal flaw in my analysis turns out to be a deadly flaw in how it practically gets lived out.
Responding, I want to say that the first worry is mine as well. However insufficiently, my political economic approach tries to take into account the individual/personal/psychological elements of racism, believing them to be pivotal for the operations of racial capitalism. However, insofar as I was not clear enough in the book, I’ll try to clarify here how my approach prioritizes the inextricably bound relationship between racial capitalist structures and systems and the diseased individual/personal/psychological racial imaginaries they produce, something reviewer Joshua E. Livingston describes as “the aftermarket effects of racial capitalism…ground up and dissolved into the water of our desires.”
The racial capitalism I propose requires subjects through whom distorted desires circulate. Without them, there can be no racial capitalism, at least as Asian American and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism conceives of it. Racism would not be systemic without these networked subjects of desire powering the racial capitalist political economy. In the book, I develop this in at least two ways, one explicit and one implicit.
First, I describe a moral psychology that puts identity, use, and, justification in dynamic feedback loop. The racial identification of persons according to use justifies both the use and the identification, just as the justification identifies what use is to be made of racially identified persons. This process and a society’s cultural commitment to it facilitates the commodification of human beings, transforming them into labor, property, and capital. The moral psychology comes with built-in theories of action and perception. It conceives of human action as oriented toward practical ends, positing action as intelligent insofar as it is ends-driven and recognizes itself as such—hence, the role of justification tying together identification and use.
Notice also the perceptual registers involved. Justification and use identifies for the actor what anything is, how to imagine it, and therefore involves psychological states that identify and justify how we ought to use somebody/something. In her book, Disordered: The Holy Icon and Racial Myths, Professor Wong powerfully describes the psychological imaginaries that I similarly intend when talking about racial capitalism as a moral psychology involving intelligent action and perceptual registers that depend on what Professor Jordan describes as “habits of mind that issue from the aftermarkets of racial capitalism” (emphasis added).
Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism’s first half documents a history where involvement on the part of some Asian Americans in exploitative “aftermarkets” produces the diseased psychology emblematic of racial capitalism. The racialized psychology that comes with this identification-use-justification feedback loop is both individuated to persons and collectivized as societies. Both are required for racial capitalism to work, and hence I could have spoken of a second feedback loop between individuals and societies concentrically wrapped around the identification-use-justification feedback loop.
The second way I develop the individual/personal/psychological account of racism is by way of an implicit theory of concepts, or what I refer to in the preface and notes (which I’ll admit exceed what any person should have to consult) as the ordinary language philosophy informing my account of racial capitalism. Indeed, previous versions of the book had whole sections unpacking the ordinary language philosophy influencing my decision to emblematize racial capitalism through oral history and ethnography. But alas, those sections proved too much for a book that was already too long and involved. Considering that ordinary language philosophy serves as my primary area of research, I could go on and on about this. As fun as that would be, present purposes necessitates only a brief summary.
Any concern about imaginaries and perception, how one imagines and perceives the world and others, will eventually turn to the matter of concepts, because imaginaries and perceptions are creatures of concepts. Kant’s critical philosophy popularized a basic insight of the analytic tradition, that without concepts, perception is blind, just as without perception, concepts are empty. It is through concepts that language-bearing animals perceive, experience, and imagine the world and others. Now, if one of the primary concepts through which you imagine things is race then you get what Professors Wong and Jordan refer to as a “racial imagination.” My theory of concepts is my theory of racial imagination. It shows how racial imagination works, gets produced and reproduced, and what it structurally and systemically looks like.
A concept (say, race) requires a practical form of life (say, racial capitalism) that conventionalizes it. Without forms of life, concepts won’t stick—so much so that one might describe concepts and forms of life emerging together. However one divides things up, concepts and forms of life go together. Just as well, individual speakers and speaking communities go together. It falls to individuals to speak as and for the community, just as it is the community that exerts normative force on individuals to speak as they do. Individuals carry forward a language, and in doing so advance, in whatever way, the community convened by that language. When it comes to racial capitalism we are talking about individuals inheriting, adopting, and projecting racial concepts through which they see and have the world and according build out toward a political economy held together by those concepts and their structural and systemic conventionalization.
If your concepts of race come bundled with concepts of identity, use, and justification, then you have what we have now, racial capitalism. And if your racial capitalist concepts get institutionalized through forms of life founded on dehumanizing terror, cruelty, and humiliation, then you have America. If as Stanley Hauerwas learned from Iris Murdoch, “You can only act in a world you can see, and you can only see what you have learned to say,” then we racial capitalists see, perceive, imagine, and act according to the concepts of racial terror we have long learned to say.
This theory of concepts—very much informed by what Stanley Cavell calls “Wittgenstein’s vision of language”—makes dubious, in my mind, accounts of racism (e.g., those based on narrowly-conceived theological doctrines) that do not seriously grapple with the material conditions that conventionalize racial concepts. In the American context it is the political economy of racial capitalism (documented in my book through the material histories of slavery, Reconstruction, and Chinese Exclusion which grew up alongside market capitalism) that provides this conventionalization, and it is my judgment that too much antiracism fails to take it seriously. The failure to do so suggests misunderstandings about concepts or underappreciation for the determining power of political economy (how “political” and “economy” each matters in “political economy”), or both.
My racial capitalist account situates the individual/personal/psychological within an explicit identification-use-justification moral psychology and an implicit theory of concepts, which together serve as my account’s philosophical foundation (which Professor Stauffer attaches to a “pragmatic” social practice theory of action). I not only take up psychological imaginaries; I attempt to show how racial capitalism materially produces and relies on them. It is only that I do not want to speak exclusively about the individual/personal/psychological. I do not because I think that any account of the individual/personal/psychological that does not tie in systems and structures does not account for how individual/personal psychologies work. Without structures and systems, concepts (psychological through and through) lack the conventionalized forms of life they need.
We must continuously remind ourselves that race as a concept is weak, issuing from folk fictions unaccountable to the world of facts. It requires conventions that give it life, and if we can challenge those conventions we will soon find it fading away (the question of whether we want race to remain, especially as an antiracist tactic, I take up later). The second half of the book involves me in describing a Christian community whose conventions put the lie to race as a concept, and it is my conviction that we will need many more rival conventionalizations if we are to learn to unsay, unsee, and undo race and the racial capitalist world race makes possible, which will begin to happen when those conceptualizations start to dismantle racial capitalism’s act-see-say totality. My worry about identarianism’s fixation on racial identity is that it does the opposite, giving further sense to race’s inherent senselessness.
My account of racial capitalism’s individual/personal/psychological investitures should make clear that I don’t have much confidence in the idea that racism takes on a life of its own, somehow separate from the conventionalizing structures and systems that give it life. From the perspective of the explicated moral psychology and implicit theory of concepts, the idea makes little sense. I don’t even know where one would start theorizing such a possibility since I cannot think of anywhere where racial capitalist structures and systems do not hold sway, making racism-taking-on-a-life-of-its-own at best a fanciful thought experiment.
As I say throughout, racism persists because racism works. We have built a world dependent on racism, where the racism serves to maintain that world. Without that world, one I describe as drowning in inequality and injustice, the racism would be idle, doing no work. On its own, racism doesn’t work.
Let me turn for a moment to the interesting question of how we are to think of racism running counter to economic interests like when race-based interests are chosen over economic interests, or as Professor Jordan says, when “deep deformities outlast their economic usefulness.” I do not think that this eventuality contradicts much of what I have said. To claim that racism serves the ends of profit is not to claim that every racist act turns a profit. This can be explained simply by the fact that not every profit-driven act turns a profit. Things happen. People make mistakes, especially for—as in the case of racists—those acting with bad information.
Heather McGhee’s excellent book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (which came out just as my book went into production) shows how poor whites habitually vote against their own economic interests due to race-based competitive thinking that results in confusions about social programs. In other words, they do not know they are acting against their interests; the racism gets in the way. Far from contradicting the Black Marxist story I tell, white racists duped by racism confirms it. Disciplined by race, these folks can’t get past the competitive logic bestowed by race thinking’s divide-and-conquer strategy. They believe racism to be useful—after all, it pays out the “psychological wage” of white racial identity—even as its usefulness accrues to locales of the political economy far afield from their working-class interests. For from contradictory, this is what racial capitalism does.
I admit I do not account for what the second worry worries about, this primal sui generis racism that does not issue, quoting Professor Jordan again, “from the aftermarkets of racial capitalism” but indeed “prefigures” them. Again, Professors Wong and Jordan do not so much propose this possibility as much as gesture toward it, behooving me to wrestle with how I think about this eventuality. A racism that arrives in the world fully-fledged prior to the formation of racial capitalist structures and systems and their individuated investitures is not something I have tried to account for. In part because I would not know how. It would be like trying to account for a substantive evil that does not derive its existence from some prior and more fundamental good the evil corrupts. I can no more grant evil that kind of ontological status than can I grant racism thissui generisprefigurative possibility.
On my account, racism as political economy arrives as deformation of God’s divine economy, a system of dominative exploitation deriving from an economy of grace (something I call, following Oliver Cromwell Cox, “the plenteous harvest”). It is the literal privation of the good, the kidnapping, enslavement, and exploitation of human bodies created in divine freedom and for creaturely freedom. This privative evil has, to echo an earlier locution, no life of its own because ontologically it cannot. It exists by extraction and exploitation. In this way, my political economic approach is a theological approach, grounded in theological convictions about what can and cannot finally be theorized.
Just as I tried earlier to follow out the logic of the first worry in order to get at what is at stake if I am wrong, let me follow out this logic and try to conversely get at what is at stake if it turns out to be wrong. Material problems answer to material solutions (the doctrine of the incarnation views creation as intending speech about God, meaning that materiality intends theology—more on this momentarily). I understand racism as a material problem and propose material solutions.
To be continued…