You Can't Relationship Your Way Out of Racial Capitalism | Sojourners

You Can't Relationship Your Way Out of Racial Capitalism

There is a time-honored socialist tradition of evangelizing the church to be more attentive to the origin and structure of social inequality. In a 1908 interview, socialist, trade-unionist, and five-time presidential candidate Eugene Debs argued:

“For [socialists] believe in man and in the possibility of the love of man for man. We know that economic conditions determine man’s conduct toward man, and that so long as he must fight him for a job or a fortune, he cannot love his neighbor.”

Debs’s masculine language is jarring, but he’s right that we often fail to love our neighbor due to the historical, relational, and material conditions that created our world. Loving one’s neighbor is always framed by the material conditions that determine who has power, who is in charge of society, and who controls the means of production. Clarity of vision regarding this context is the first step in embodying a politic of love — which, as philosopher and activist Cornel West has often explained, is what justice means in public. But in order for the church to practice the politics of love, it must first be able to locate itself contextually. Said differently, the church needs to not only identify its neighbors but also the systems and structures that oppress these neighbors.

In the same 1908 interview, Debs said: “Christianity is impossible under capitalism. Under socialism it will be natural. For a human being loves love and he loves to love.”

According to Debs, Christianity is impossible within capitalism because it makes loving your neighbor impossible. You can hope to love your neighbor, but capitalism places our relationships in a default state of conflict and enmity which cannot be overcome individually. Debs’s insights are helpful, but his simple appeal to socialism fails to fully grasp what prevents us from loving our neighbors.

Deb’s economically myopic diagnosis lacks the analysis of race that the Black radical tradition provides. Scholars and activists such as Claudia Jones, Cedric Robinson, Robin D.G. Kelley, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and many more have analyzed how the material arrangements of our economy and social structures of our culture were formed through racial division and violence. There is no capitalism outside of racial capitalism, and as prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore said, “Capitalism requires inequality and racism enshrines it.”

Therefore, socialism does not have a monopoly on anti-capitalist analysis and action. Instead, socialism stands as one tradition among many when it comes to identifying the injustices that structure our economic and social relations. These other radical traditions — including the Black radical tradition, eco-socialist feminism, Marxism, and Indigenous anti-capitalist perspectives — are important because of the ways they analyze violence, state power, and colonialism through the lens of marginalized people who have historically resisted the injustices and inequities of racial capitalism.

Capitalism and racism are united in their reliance on hierarchies of social difference; these hierarchies act as sites of exploitation where conflicts surrounding race, gender, or even borders all reinforce our current political economy. Also, the very acts of living and working, which are structured by capital, place you in conflict with yourself and others. Everyone is impacted by the relational flow and material forms of racial capitalism. And while it is true that everyone is impacted, it cannot be understated that those who are disproportionately impacted by this system are Black and brown people.

COVID-19 exacerbated these economic and racial disparities. Considering this context, who is the “we” included in the now-infamous phrase, “We’re all in this together”? As the uncertainty and lockdowns spread during the early days of COVID-19, this phrase of “solidarity” and “commitment” was uttered by politicians, consumer brands, workplace supervisors, and university administrations. But who is this we? Who is my neighbor?

Recognizing a collective “we” is the epitome of the human predicament (Luke 10:25-37). Life comes with a built-in interdependence and mutuality, and yet corporate attempts to appeal to this universalized “we” were nothing more than opportune rhetoric. This bit of ad-copy by corporations and politicians ignores the existing inequities of racial capitalism — with its division of wealth and labor along racial lines — which structured the pandemic’s disruption and death. Healthcare workers were called essential but then treated as expendable, with Filipino nurses disproportionately suffering. The vaccines were hailed as a miracle for humanity, but the predominantly white countries of Europe and North America hoarded them. Wealth inequality skyrocketed, especially along racial lines. We were clearly not all in this together.

However, there were beautiful moments where communities embraced the politics of love: mutual aid networks flourished, historic protests for racial justice shook the foundations of white supremacist governance, and the institution of large government programs significantly reduced hunger and poverty. My family experienced one of these moments, as our second child came a few months into the pandemic and family and neighbors helped us with child care and meals. Moments of mutuality, political enactments of justice, and shared struggle point us to a more grounded and life-giving “we.” But as beautiful as these acts of kindness and protest were, they are insufficient.

Within the Christian tradition, the people included in the “we” spills over the boundaries of the ecclesial community and into the public arena. Loving our neighbor requires an attentiveness to the context of our common life, our political paradigms, and our socially constructed identities.

Given this, Christians should not embrace an abstract and ethereal “we” that insists the issue of inequality is due to personal sin; this individual framing misses how economic and cultural structures dictate the health and equity of a community. The political economy of racial capitalism creates and thrives upon what scholar Jodi Melamed calls “technolog[ies] of antirelationality.” The structural frames the interpersonal, and Melamed highlights the deadly and profitable ways that racial capitalism separates and reconnects us. We are simultaneously separated and reconnected through educational apartheid, mass incarceration, segregated neighborhoods, blue-lining, segmented labor markets, and militarized borders. Instead of addressing these systemic injustices, scarcity and violence are blamed on the most marginalized — with blame-shifting claims like, “immigrants are taking our jobs,” “the problem is an entitlement society,” or “the neighborhood is changing.” Life-giving community, a common life built around loving your neighbor, conflicts with the health and life of racial capitalism itself.

There are no interpersonal solutions to structural injustices; you can’t relationship your way out of systemic oppression. Racial capitalism precludes certain ways of practicing love, capturing even the ways we hope to draw near to one another. As theologian Denys Turner notes, not understanding these truths of the United States’ political economy means the church has “an ideological blurring of moral judgment” which leads to a “performative contradiction.” In other words, Christians speak of loving their neighbor but engage in actions that are not loving by virtue of the fact that our life together is structured by racial capitalism. Loving your neighbor might be your desire, but its possibility is not within your immediate, individualized power. But this does not mean the end of the responsibility of loving our neighbor, but a restructuring of it. Faithfulness to Christ’s call to love our neighbor requires seeking a more comprehensive transformation of our political economy.

Whether it is the Black radical tradition, Indigenous perspectives, Marxism, or eco-socialist feminism, these traditions can influence and guide the church in dismantling racial capitalism: providing analysis for the world as it is, providing vision for the world as it ought to be, and providing strategies for how we might integrate the love of one’s neighbor into the sinews and structures of our political economy.

Words of lament and transformed hearts are a start, but they are not enough. Vague, progressive messianism that proclaims the church is to be “with the marginalized” — which categorizes loving your neighbor as something the privileged gift — is paternalistic and misguided. Loving your neighbor is not an act of philanthropic charity but is a struggle to rebuild the world so there can be new ways of relating to each other beyond the strictures of racial capitalism. Love is only possible when working to transform our political economy. Love is justice. Love leads us to a new world.