This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.
In 2021, I heard Jonathan Tran speak about a story he encountered while researching his book Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism.
Tran told the story of Chinese immigrants who lived in the Mississippi Delta during the Reconstruction period. After the Civil War, white people not only prevented Black people from living in certain neighborhoods and attending schools with their white children; they discriminated similarly against Chinese people. But dissimilar to the Delta’s Black population, the Chinese were able to open modest grocery stores, which allowed them to accumulate wealth thanks to Black patronage. In this way, the Delta Chinese saw their material conditions improve — albeit modestly in comparison to their white counterparts — but this improvement came under a system of white supremacy, which necessitated the exclusion of the Delta’s Black population.
Tran tells this story to demonstrate the ways in which capitalism and white supremacy have become intertwined. In a nod to the Black radical tradition, Tran refers to this system as racial capitalism.
The story also demonstrates Tran’s commitment to storytelling. He doesn’t explain the negative effects of racial capitalism in a removed way; he leans into the complicated histories that have pitted racially marginalized groups against one another.
Tran, associate dean of Baylor University’s Honors College and associate professor of theology, also understands how our stories are influenced by material reality. Which is why, for Tran, any criticism of racism that does not also include a critique of our capitalist system is wrong-headed.
But Tran won’t settle for simply critiquing racial capitalism or popular anti-racist enterprises that steer clear of economics. Tran believes that Christian theology offers an alternative story to the economy of racial capitalism, an alternative that finds its locus in what he describes as the “divine economy.”
Tran and I sat down to talk Christian theology, leftist critiques of anti-racism, W.E.B. Du Bois, and what it means to live into a reconstructed reality.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Josiah R. Daniels, Sojourners: Tell me a little bit about your newest book, Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism.
Jonathan Tran: So, my background is primarily in philosophical theology. I’m very interested in language and how concepts work.
I began to grow suspicious of the way we talk about race and the origins of racism as finding their home in certain kinds of academic disciplines. So, for example, thinking that racism is a byproduct of enlightenment philosophy. Or thinking that racism finds its source at the intersection between [Martin] Heidegger and [Rudolf] Bultmann. These were the kinds of ideas that we academics really like but seemed increasingly unpersuasive to me. These arguments, which admittedly are genius in their own right, often ensued in ways completely irrespective of the material conditions of the world, as if racism is primarily a theoretical problem.
One [implication of these academic conversations is] that if we got our arguments right, we could crack the problem of racism. And two, anti-racism in the popular discourse is deeply personalist and imagines racism as primarily beginning between my ears and then insidiously working its way out. So, I have bad, prejudicial views towards you as a person of color, or you do of me. You have certain stereotypes of Asian Americans. These prejudice your ways of seeing me. And then they lead to racist behaviors.
[A “personalist” approach says] if “racism” is something that exists in persons, then “anti-racism” is a kind of search-and-destroy mission of finding the “source material” and then educating us out of [racism] by getting you to think better things about Asian people or Black people.
My account of racism banks back into a vision that concepts work in the world not because they’re good ideas, [but] because they map onto concrete realities of housing, health care, education, [and other concrete realities]. And the concepts [of racism] stick because they make sense of the material realities. [Racist ideas] are, in the language of Audrey Smedley, concretized through material realities.
The concept that you, as a Black man, are less than me “makes sense” because the material world seems to give coherence to that idea. Black folks have not been given access to health care or education in the same ways as others for hundreds of years. So, the idea that you are lesser-than “works” because it maps onto that reality. It’s not an idea in-and-of-itself that comes out of me as an individual; it’s a systemic reality. It’s not “individuals lead to systems and structures;” it’s always: “Systems and structures require diseased imaginations to make sense of our world.”
It’s what I call “the ultimate gaslighting move.” It justifies oppression by laying blame on the oppressed, by locating it in something natural or essential to who they are — their race. This is a more complicated story, admittedly, than the personalist one, but it actually describes the world a bit better.
Say a bit more about your critique against the personalist account of racism.
It’s helpful to think through the anti-racism strategy. I think doing so exposes how deeply personalist and convenient it is.
Let’s say we think racism is a function of individuals. And let’s say a mortgage company wants to become more anti-racist because they see what happened to [Ahmaud] Arbery, and [George] Floyd. They say, “We’re going to become more anti-racist — partly because everyone else has put up Black Lives Matter flags on their building and we’re going to do so too.” The next step is to hire diversity, equity, and inclusion consultants to come in and train folks.
What that mortgage company is really worried about is the individuals who are secretly redlining Black applicants. [They believe the real problem is] the bad actor in the system. [The racist mortgage worker,] she’s personally possessed of these racist ideas. They don’t know how it got there — maybe her parents are closeted racist Klan members, maybe she was educated in a way that she absorbed racist ideas. Their job is to train that out of her, and if they can’t educate her out of her racism, then they’re going to remove her from polite society — they’re gonna fire her.
Notice the utter convenience of this. Let’s say [they find] a tweet or she said something to a co-worker in a lunchroom dispute that shows she’s just a racist. And now they’re going to try to educate her, but more likely, they’ll just fire her.
What does it allow the company to do? It allows them to wash their hands of racism because they found their racist person. It endorses them as a liberally minded, progressive company in a world of extraordinary anti-Blackness.
The reality is that they are part of an industry, namely housing, that is deeply and profoundly and persistently anti-Black. They live in an industry that depends on inherited wealth in a way that can never equalize the playing field. And that wealth, oftentimes, is directly traceable to things like American chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and systems of segregation in our country such that by the time a poor Black family tries to get a loan, they can’t supply the one thing white families have as a matter of course: the basic lines of wealth that allow for down payments and accessible interest rates.
The great irony is the personalist approach against racism is really racism by other means.
The liberal, progressive forms of white racism have always been matched and mirrored to the kind of raging, white lunatic, Klan member racism. What we really need to be suspicious of is all those progressive folks who claimed the banner of Ta-Nehisi Coates, all while they send their kids to private schools that disenfranchise local economies and directly harm Black and brown children.
What you’re talking to me about reminds me of the phenomenon “elite capture.” Philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò talks about how anti-racist efforts have been captured by rich progressives and how identity politics, which is connected to anti-racist efforts, has experienced elite capture. You believe that the church and Christian theology can specifically address some of these issues. How?
To be sure, the church is all up in the personalist account. And my guess is you could probably find Christian origins to the personalist account. The same way that we want to personalize Christianity as our personal relationship with Jesus probably creates parallels to the personalist account of racism.
In fact, I think one of the most interesting parallels is the way DEI experientially looks a lot like an evangelical weekend retreat. DEI trainers come in and over three days, they make everyone, specifically white people, feel really guilty for their whiteness or what have you, all the while the company just goes back to its white kind of racist enterprise.
Similarly, you go to an evangelical retreat: They drum up a bunch of energy Saturday night. You have your come-to-Jesus moment. Lots of emotion Sunday. You just go down the hill from the retreat and continue life in your regular sinful ways.
So, we always have to begin with [recognizing] that the church has been deeply complicit in these things. But I think, like you, I don’t want to give up on Christianity. And for me, Christianity and the church are deeply integrated realities.
Therefore, I’m in a kind of desperate search for finding ways in which the church is not just a villain in the story. I’m looking for ways the church materially enacts a different imagination.
Racial capitalism is one of these modes of exploitation tied to racial idioms. Race is used to justify and facilitate forms of capitalist enterprise, domination, exploitation, expropriation, etc. I’m [looking] for ways the church’s practices — its actual, concrete, material life — allows a different story to emerge and a different idiom of political economy that’s not built on exploitation.
In the vast reaches of the church, in its history and its global reality, there are wonderful practices that are deeply non-exploitative — and anti-exploitative — that help us come to terms with the possibility of an economy and imagination that I describe as “deep economy” or “divine economy.”
This goes back to the earliest moments of the church, where the gospel was originally called by early church theologians “the divine economy.” The divine economy is the very opposite of exploitation and domination.
The idea is that the very fact we exist at all, versus not existing, is a function of divine gratuity and love. That we exist is an expression of God’s grace, peace, and patience. So that means creation is already preloaded, hardwired, if you will, as grace. We exist out of God’s abundance.
This is a vastly different political economy than one that imagines the world is fundamentally bracketed by scarcity, and scarcity then pits us in competition with one another, [and] that [the construct of] race just further facilitates.
Once you have this divine economy of gratuity and grace and abundance, then you begin to imagine the world as fundamentally structured towards grace, justice, and mercy.
It’s not that the church comes up with these ideas; it’s that the church lives this out in a way that allows us to see the concepts concretizing.
Practices, like the way we think about money, the way we think about strangers, the ways we think about hospitality, the way that we think about resources, the way that we think about careers, vocations, the ways we live with each other, the sacramental ordering of baptism as a shared communal life, the understanding of the Eucharist as God saying, “This is my body, given for you,” around which other bodies gather and then mobilize. These are deeply political, economic terms. We just have forgotten that because we’ve been taught in the church to think on personalist, individual terms.
Baptism is often thought of as a story about individual salvation. Well, it is surely that, but my salvation can’t be thought of except for in continuity with the salvation of others who’ve also been saved by Christ. So, baptism is both an entry into salvation and an entry into the community of salvation.
I would like to think that churches are a eucharistic presence in neighborhoods. So, think about the very notion of bread. Bread is given to those who hunger. And maybe they hunger, both in a bodily sense but also because they exist in a political economic body that deprives them of the basic nutrients of life, oftentimes for identitarian and descriptive identity purposes.
So then what Christ is saying is, “Here’s my body, given to this neighborhood.” But the giving of that body cannot be divorced from a church giving of itself. And how does it give? It shares its resources. It imagines itself taking part in a community, being tutored and trained by that community, of giving its practical resources, educational resources, financial resources.
If I understand what you’re saying correctly, you are not coming out against diversity, equity, and inclusion. But you’re saying you want to probe a bit more about how it is often personalized. And how it is often just another cog in the system of racial capitalism. I think you also believe we need to be transformed as people, but that transformation is not just something that happens at an individual level.
That’s exactly right. There’s probably no serious account of transformation that can be individual. Transformation is a social phenomenon. It’s habituated and inculcated. It’s about participation with other bodies through which one’s body is transformed, saved, and sanctified.
If you hear a worry like mine, your antennae should come up for the ways that the Right is gaming the system. But if anything, my argument comes not simply from the Left, but the left Left. It’s an argument against the center-Left. My worry is that there are forms of diversity and anti-racism that are really center-Left capitalist enterprises.
In W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, he imagines a basic war between democracy and modern age capitalism. He thinks capitalism always undercuts the possibility for democratic life by introducing divide-and-conquer racial strategies. Du Bois thinks that the white worker is also disenfranchised from genuine political power, but being told he is white helps him feel a lot better about things because it tells him he is different from poor Black people. They are the reason for his sorry lot in life. This removes all culpability from those that are actually responsible for the arrangement in the first place — the powerful elites that [control] the cotton empire that made America the richest country in the world. For the white worker, the most important thing is race — as if that tells the whole story. [Contrary to the popular anti-racist initiatives which are hyper fixated on race,] Du Bois was trying to destabilize the concept by showing how [race] existed within a political economy.
What are you thinking about in terms of reconstruction in your own world?
I want to say that the best forms of reconstruction are leaning into things that are already true about the world and about our common life as creatures. If we have to reinvent the wheel on these things, then we’re always going to be behind the forces that are oppressing us because they’re just ingenious, irrepressible, relentless, and they’ve been here a lot longer than those of us who are trying to offer something else.
This is where it has to be, for me, a theological story. The difference between the argument I’ve made and the Marxist story, is the Marxist story is waiting for the revolution to start. [Christians] are not trying to start something, we’re leaning into something that’s 2,000 years old — in fact, older: built into the very order of creation. And that’s why I tend to want to say that the primary way we think about these things isn’t fundamentally resistance, right? That would suggest that capitalism is the driver of history, and we’re just trying to resist it, that oppression and evil are the primary actors and agents of history. Rather, we’re proclaimers. We’re proclaiming that God is the agent of history, the author, the one who begins and brings it to completion.
It’s an eternal story where God wins front to back. As we know from Augustine, there is no drama in the story about whether evil will get the upper hand and defeat God. There is no contest between God and evil.
The reconstruction is leaning into the structure of creation.
How do we train our eyes to reconstruct our imaginations, to see the world as in fact God’s world and see sin, oppression, and domination as momentary events that have quite powerful pervasive effects, but are not the end of the story? What we’re saying is: No, God is the author and end of history. That’s already decided. We’re simply living into that structured reality.