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Black Scare / Red Scare: Theorizing Capitalist Racism in the United States

Charisse Burden-Stelly

(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2023)
Paper: $26.00
Book Review by Alex Mikulich

Antonio Gramsci famously wrote in his Prison Notebooks that “The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of historical processes to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.”


Black Scare / Red Scare: Theorizing Capitalist Racism in the United States unearths a material inventory of the American consciousness that is indispensable for understanding the contradictions of U.S. racial capitalism and “True Americanism” today.


Charisse Burden-Stelly, associate professor of African American studies at Wayne State University, weaves together a very comprehensive inventory of the intimate interconnections in U.S. history between red baiting, anti-Black white supremacy, and anti-radicalism that have left an infinity of traces in the American consciousness.


She writes that “history doesn’t repeat itself,” but we can detect how history “rhymes.”  She invites us to hear the rhyme of the history in two sets of contradictions.


On the one hand, she describes how racial oppression is purposefully mischaracterized as “inferiority.” Whiteness obfuscates the contradictions in the way surplus value extraction functions to benefit capital while simultaneously rendering Black bodies disposable.


On the other hand, Blacks are a “sub proletariat” who are superexploited both by capital and by the white proletariat and the labor movement. She names these contradictions between indispensability and dispensability as the “aporia of value minus worth” that is most obvious in the “fact that immense value of enslaved Africans invited, instead of prevented, maximum cruelty.”


For example, in her interview with CNN’s Dana Bash on January 28, 2024, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi suggested that “some of the activists calling for a ceasefire” in Palestine are “connected to Russia.”  Pelosi added that this is “Mr. Putin’s message,” implying that some activists calling for a ceasefire are unwitting tools of the Kremlin.


Pelosi’s rhetoric is a recent case in point of what Charisse Burden-Stelly exposes as the enduring “Black Scare / Red Scare Longue Durée” that “illuminates the striking continuities in the co-constitution of anti-Black and antiradical policy and practice” in the United States.


DSA members would benefit from employing Burden-Stelly’s historical analysis.

A recent example is state Senator Rob Sampson (R-Wolcott), a capitalist landlord himself, equating the housing eviction for cause bill (SB 143) with the enslavement of African peoples.


Sampson’s rhetoric echoes discourse that has been utilized in the United States since the pattern of lynching African Americans in the early 20th century and the inauguration of anti-communism during World War I (see Rob Sampson, A Wake Up Call Against Counter Systemic Racism,” CT Examiner, June 16, 2021).


That Sampson even attempts to frame his white capitalist position as a landlord as analogous to enslavement of Africans is, of course, absurd and grotesque.  Sampson’s discourse does, however, reflect a deeper history of “True Americanism.”


If anti-communism is one mode of governing U.S. capitalist racist society, Burden-Stelly argues, then “True Americanism” is its “legitimating architecture” that rationalizes and codifies discourses, political narratives, legal instruments, and public policy.  True Americanism is the reigning ideology that normalizes U.S. anti-Blackness and anti-radicalism.


Since I have been a member of the Democratic Socialists of America for nearly thirty years, I must admit, while I knew the reality of “red baiting” through the example of the anti-communist McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, I had not made the connection between anti-communism and anti-radicalism to anti-Blackness and white supremacy.


It was only over the past ten years, while working on my book Unlearning White Supremacy , that I began to wade into the ocean of historical interconnections that Burden-Stelly unveils.


Black Scare / Red Scare demonstrates how fascism and anti-Blackness are constitutive traits of the founding of the U.S. political system.


Burden-Stelly effectively employs a dialectical materialist method to theorize the architecture of U.S. capitalist racist society.  The cornerstones of that architecture include Wall Street Imperialism domestically in the U.S. north and south and internationally through war-driven accumulation and colonialism, as well as the “Structural Location of Blackness” and the “Negro Question” through social, political, and economic super-exploitation of the Black sub proletariat.


Last, and perhaps most importantly, Burden-Stelly beautifully reconstructs critical social theory through her practice of Africana Critical Theory and celebration of Black radicalism through W.E.B. Du Bois, Benjamin Harrison Fletcher, Angelo Herndon, Eslanda Goode Robeson, and Dorothy Hunton.  “True Americanism” has erased the memory of their lives and radicalism, and yet their praxes stand as testimony for “what should be.”


Black Scare / Red Scare is a timely material inventory of the American consciousness in this time of U.S.-led genocide.


Alex Mikulich’s latest book is Unlearning White Supremacy: A Spirituality for Racial Liberation (Orbis Books, 2022).  He joined the Democratic Socialist of America in 1988 through the inspiration of John Cort, who founded the Religious Socialism working group.  He joined CT DSA last year.