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Photo by Jonathan Tran
Body Politics

The Author’s Response, Part 2

Racialized white identity no doubt exerts enormous power, but that power and its meaning are hardly unchanging and self-interpreting. In our desire to disabuse whites of power we should weary of reifying white racial identity as something that determines history without answering to it.

In the first part of my symposium response, I addressed two different worries raised about my political economic approach to racism and antiracism, what my book calls “racial capitalism.” The first worried that I had not sufficiently accounted for the individual/personal/psychological effects of racism. I responded that I had by laying out how I had. The second worried about a sui generis racism that does not result from racial capitalism but rather produces it. 

Just as I tried in Part 1 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 the logic of the second worry in order 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.

Racism is a material problem in that it carries the structural and systemic consequences of racist human action. Christians speak of human action in terms of desire and will, where desire directed to God wills goodness, leading to creaturely flourishing, and distorted desire kills willing and turns in on itself, unleashing catastrophic damage. Addressing this damage begins with examining and explaining the material consequences of distorted desire (those conventionalized structures and systems and their accompanying individual/personal/psychological imaginaries) while recognizing that distorted desire itself—as unwilled—comes with no explanation. We examine racism by examining how it materially works. Getting our explanations right therefore really matters.

Wittgenstein thinks that philosophical investigation goes bad when instead of looking for ordinary explanations for how, say, a mouse got into the rags of a mop, we propose that the mouse magically appeared there. The problem is not simply the absurdity of the magical explanation, but also the sad reality that right under our noses stood, if we had only looked, the straightforward explanation. Supposing absurdities like racism-taking-on-a-life-of-its-own behind disparities in COVID-19, for instance, distracts from the material determinants of health that straightforwardly explain COVID-19 disparities and opens the door to self-fulfilling prophecies. 

My worry is that understanding material racism in these immaterial ways leaves untapped resources that fall by the wayside once we decide they do us no good (more worrying still is the prospect of prematurely deciding nothing can be done so that nothing need be done). One might put this as a wager and decide it better to risk that something can be done than to risk nothing having decided nothing can be done. Early in the book, I speak of confronting a racism that can be “in the last resort lived.” A racism we cannot examine and explain such that we can only suffer it cannot be lived. And in the face of racism’s death-dealing powers, we need reasons to live. 

Where the material intends the theological is where the material requires a story big enough to make sense of it in all of its materiality (hence my Augustinian story about desire). I do not presume a metaphysical picture that divides neatly between facts and values such that speech about the world and speech about God are entirely distinct kinds of activity. As I say in the book’s preface and introduction, speaking about things entails sooner or later speaking about God, as is evident in my statement that racial capitalism parallels privation of goodness, those diseased desires and their catastrophic conventionalized structures and systems. 

Constructively, the book’s second half portrays a Christian community’s antiracism participating in a world shot through with justice and mercy, their leaning into the original revolution of God’s salvation in Christ. This allows antiracists to imagine their work less as resistance and more as proclamation. Like theology generally, this specific theological claim sits in the background of my book and surfaces only when explication becomes necessary, as I believe it does when explaining either the evils of racial capitalism or the goodness of challenging it. 

A metaphysics that believes that materiality (which Christians call “creation”) intends theology can afford to be patient. The fact that several of the symposium’s contributors picked up on this and recognized its centrality for my project affirms the kind of methodological patience I believe critical for Christian ethics. I think this is one way to avoid the overconfidence Professor Rosario Rodríguez thinks Christian metanarratives threaten, allowing the integrity of materiality—which is to say, the evidence—to speak for itself rather than theologically hedging one’s bets. 

Now I turn to a set of questions raised about Redeemer, the Christian church I portray as approximating God’s deep economy. Even as he finds much in it that is commendable, Professor Stauffer asks, “Does Redeemer’s microecology build economic power for those it seeks to serve, and if not, is Redeemer’s microecology just benevolent capitalism? And, relatedly, how does contestation work within this deep economy—who has a say and under what conditions?” As with the questions raised by Professors Wong and Jordan, I follow out the logic of Professor Stauffer’s question in order to get to the force of what I hear him asking, taking the question further than perhaps he himself might. 

The question asks whether Redeemer’s efforts in San Francisco’s Bayview/Hunters Point do much more than deepen racial capitalist dependency. Instead of these communities empowering themselves, partaking in Redeemer’s redistributive networks might only further ensnare them. Since capitalism is hardly devoid of philanthropic charity (which can be read as the logical conclusion of profit economies) Redeemer and its subsidiary Dayspring Partners might mainly serve as racial capitalism’s happier public face—even happier since it looks Asian. 

Community organizers like Professor Stauffer are committed to communities building their own political economic power, which usually doesn’t happen when outsiders come in and pay for stuff. Thus do Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson in Reparations: A Christian Call for Reparations and Repair say, “we are not talking about using White-controlled resources to ‘help’ Black communities. Instead, we want to transfer these resources into contexts that are wholly owned and wholly governed by Black communities. Simply put, until that happens, Black communities will remain in a position of culturally created dependence, never fully able to take the important step from receiving wealth to owning and deploying it.” Without ownership changing hands, isn’t Redeemer (and derivatively my book) simply peddling happy capitalism? 

I admit that I am not entirely sure how to answer this question about benevolent capitalism. I am not sure how to answer it since I’m not sure where racial capitalism’s political economy ends and where something other—something not capitalism—begins. If racial capitalism is as totalizing as I suggest in the book, it will be difficult to identify with much confidence when social ventures like Redeemer’s microecology have really left it behind. 

This relates to my simultaneous enthusiasm for and ambivalence about antiracist notions of abolition. We can agree that racial capitalism’s dominative terrors requires something like abolition, but can we also agree that we need achievable goals in the meantime? Does anything short of abolition represent a compromised position? 

The benefit of the way Professor Stauffer poses the question is that he doesn’t make abolition an up-or-down proposition. The community organizer in him rather makes it a practical question, where the issue of “Whether or not benevolent capitalism?” rests on the question of empowerment, and specifically whether social ventures run on democratic ownership and governance which activate “the economic agency of workers.” Professor Stauffer believes that radical democratic processes that vest in the hands of workers power and agency through ownership is precisely what makes something non-capitalist and what keeps it from reverting to capitalism (after all, capitalism is from a democratic socialist perspective about capitalist-versus-worker ownership). 

Dayspring Partners might answer Professor Stauffer’s question by arguing that private ownership provides the leadership necessary to ensure the company’s unheard of 3:1 CEO-worker compensation ratio. As well, it might argue that owners like Chi-Ming Chien (using my book’s Mary Hirschfeld quote) “whose demand for natural wealth would be satiable” can also provide what Professor Stauffer refers to as “guardrails to prevent the deformation of Tran’s deep economy into newer versions of racial capitalism.” Answering Kwon and Thompson’s call for Black ownership, Dayspring Partners would likely point to how the company has enlisted local Black churches to help steward its future. Still, if we are to take Professor Stauffer’s question seriously, we would have to concede that such measures might help but cannot fully protect against the deformation he worries about. 

I suppose these questions push out to larger questions about whether Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism goes far enough. Some of my socialist-minded friends are sure it doesn’t. Others committed to some version of “We aren’t against markets, just bad markets” think it already goes too far. I don’t know. Perhaps the best that I can say is that I hope Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism connects the Chi-Ming Chien’s of the world with organizers like Aaron Stauffer. Perhaps I’ve chickened out, but leaving to better people to resolve outstanding questions means the book aspires to conversations, partnerships, and friendships that actually give us a chance. 

Professor Kuo is like me in his willingness to ask hard questions of Asian Americans. Specifically he questions why Asian American scholars too often “fail to interrogate how Asian Americans have been complicit in marginalizing others with the same verve and level of analyses that the scholarship has investigated marginalizations of Asian Americans.” Also like me he thinks that some of the failures result from mistakenly categorizing Asian Americans in racial and essential terms. We both think that ingratiating itself to antiracist orthodoxy and its founding white-black binary delimits what Asian America (judging from, for example, the Yellow Power movement’s rich history of political creativity) might otherwise become. 

But then Professor Kuo wonders whether the model of Christian faithfulness I present in Redeemer exceeds what most Asian American churches can achieve or even imagine. After all, he reminds us, the vast majority of Asian American churches are not multiethnic communities mobilized under the banner of social justice, but rather immigrant Asian churches willfully ignorant of the gospel’s political economic mandate. If they are already conventionalized into racial capitalism (amalgamating, for example, conventions of Korean identity, American money, and cultural and religious patriarchy) then they might know no better than to find its inducements enticing. My account would then tempt shaming or canceling them. In that case, my portrayal of Redeemer serves as another model minority myth, a disciplinary measure meant to pit people against each other while also setting Redeemer up to fail by holding it to a standard it cannot possibility meet. 

I am glad for Professor Kuo’s question insofar as it expresses his concern for the immigrant Asian church and its future in America. These communities have been important to me personally. It was an immigrant Asian church (a Chinese Baptist Church with ties to the Mississippi Delta Christians I discuss in the book) that converted me to Christianity as a young adult. In my twenties, a large Taiwanese church commissioned me and others to organize on behalf of refugees in Atlanta. These churches have done a tremendous amount of good. I also have to admit that these same churches might reject a model like Redeemer for being too radical insofar as it reveals their complicity in the racism Professor Kuo describes. 

The fact that Redeemer itself came out of immigrant Asian Christianity tells us that anything can happen. Especially as new generations redefine Christianity on their own terms. The history of activism that first birthed “Asian America” as a political term of art as well as the consistent witness of Asian American liberation theology attest to possibilities going forward. I join Professor Kuo in hoping that this history and witness inspires Asian American Christians to radical futures, something that’s happened before and something that can happen again. 

I conclude with some brief comments regarding the question Professor Rosario Rodríguez raises about racial particularity. He wonders whether my book’s sustained critique of racial identity as an antiracist mode of analysis throws out the baby with the bathwater. If it rejects racial identity altogether, instead championing postracial colorblindness, then it stops the conversation for those seeking to reclaim racial identity. He points to important antiracist efforts and exemplars that embrace racial identity as an indispensable site of political contestation, mobilization, and imagination. His Racism and God-Talk: A Latino/a Perspective envisions “mestizaje” as an incarnational mutuality that can redirect racial identity precisely by communing with it, reimagining it from the inside after having first blown it up. Do I take all such reclamation projects off the table? 

To answer this question, let me review what I have said, what I have left unsaid, and what remains to be seen. My book’s case against identarian antiracism involves five claims:

  1. Antiracist modes of analysis that subordinate political economy to racial identity do not sufficiently explain racism. Part I offers detailed case studies that show the problems that come with using racial identity as an explanatory lens, abstracting radical identity in one case (Chapter 1) and isolating it in another (Chapter 5), in both cases to the exclusion of the political economic forms of life that give race meaning and racism power. The account of racial capitalism offered in Chapter 2 is meant to show how racial capitalism better explains things. I offer “a moving picture of racial capitalism” where “aftermarkets” employ racial identity in order to facilitate dominative exploitation through the aforementioned use-identity-justification moral psychology and its material conventionalizations. 
  2. Focusing on racial identity to the exclusion of political economy obscures the political economic production of race, racial identity, and racism. When that history of production gets obscured, racial identity (like race and racism) takes on an air of something essential, natural, and ontological. Antiracist modes of analysis will then treat racial identity not as the contingent result of a contingent process but rather as essential, natural, and ontological. Modes of analysis focused on racial identity then get conceptually stuck in a vicious circle. 
  3. Identarian thinking posits racial identity as the most important thing about a person’s identity. Liberation which requires coalitional solidarity and democracy which requires conversation across difference then get held hostage to racial identity which does not yield easily to coalitions and conversations. As an example, one might ask how helpful it is to tell white people that the most important thing about them is that they are white (versus, say, poor and white or gendered). For far too long have white people been telling themselves that their being white is all that matters. Doing so has allowed them to impede the progress of liberation and democracy. It’s not clear that non-white people telling them the same thing doesn’t finally do the same thing.  
  4. Racial thinking involves a white-Black binary that identifies some as white and some as Black. This way of thinking, as a binary about white and Black racial identity, does not by its nature include those like Asian Americans who are neither white nor Black. Insisting on racial identity ends up marginalizing those already marginalized by racism. The concept of race has largely rendered Asian Americans invisible. 
  5. Racial capitalism commodifies racial identities. Racial identities, even those seeking to reverse the effects of racism, remain constantly vulnerable to racial capitalist commodification and its zero-sum analysis. Given the way racial capitalist conventions bundle concepts of identity with concepts of profit and property we should not be surprised when markets appropriate reclaimed racial identities, pitting them in competition with one another through representational melodramas played out on social media.

I problematize racial identity in these five ways. What remains to be seen is whether and how antiracism can champion racial identity while avoiding the pitfalls implicated in claims 1-5. One can imagine beyond these pitfalls a wide range of possibilities. Professor Rodríguez Rosario offers one such possibility when he speaks of “reconstructing mestizaje as a set of relationships rather than static identity, moving beyond a narrow ethnocentrism.” 

Perhaps Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism should have gone more in with reclamation projects of this kind, which just seem obviously admirable and important. Because the book sought other routes to liberation it did not so much as try, believing the pitfalls too difficult to navigate. To those compelled to try, I should then say, “More power to you.” I would like to think that pursuing other routes does not commit me to postracial colorblindness. Part of what I wanted to do is offer an approach that gives us more options. My case against identarianism is meant to open the conversation so that we might take in more than we currently do.  

Defending Racial Particularity within Tran’s “Deep Economy” of Grace

Racial identity as a source of cultural, political, and personal pride predates the North Atlantic slave trade; therefore, racial identity must be part of the calculus when articulating a theological anthropology.

Attuning the Church, Debating What Lies Beyond Racial Capitalism

The true gift Tran has given us is a theologically provocative understanding of the church as a certain kind of deep economy. I will be thinking with it and learning from it for a long time.

Beyond the Binary

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.

Dangerous Memories, Costly Faith, and a Faithful Future

How I understand Tran’s story is that the script for Asian American Christian resistances to racial capitalism needs to be formed by the dangerous memory of Jesus Christ’s witness. Otherwise, Asian American theologies end up resisting identarian essentializations of Asian America that do not always speak to concrete challenges and dynamics that Asian Americans experience.

The Durability of Whiteness

Tran gifts his reader with the invitation to think generatively rather than prefiguratively about social and economic relations, setting aside that which cannot be refashioned for just use.

The Author’s Response, Part 1

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.

The Author’s Response, Part 2

Racialized white identity no doubt exerts enormous power, but that power and its meaning are hardly unchanging and self-interpreting. In our desire to disabuse whites of power we should weary of reifying white racial identity as something that determines history without answering to it.

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