Black Scare, Red Scare

by Tatti Ribeiro and Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly, published on Frank News, July 5, 2022

Charisse  makes some very good points here that you don’t see very often.   It is always good to have a review of the historical through a different lens.  Many of these points come clear when you follow so call ‘women’s liberation’ as well.  [jb]

My name is Charisse Burden-Stelly. I’m finishing up my term as Visiting Scholar in the Race and Capitalism Project at the University of Chicago, and in the fall, I’ll start as an Associate Professor of African American Studies at Wayne State.

My work… it’s a lot of stuff, but it’s central focus in Black radicalism and racial capitalism. One thing I look at is the intersection of anti-radicalism and anti-Black racial oppression in the United States, specifically, but with an understanding that the United States is a transnational entity, given its role as an imperial neocolonial capitalist power.

And you have a new book coming out, right?

Yeah, I have one that is going to come out sometime in 2023, and that’s called Black Scare, Red Scare. And that is roughly about <laughs> the Black Scare and the Red Scare between 1917 and 1954. The basic premise of the book is looking at the ways the criminalization and delegitimizing of communists is intimately bound up in the disciplining and subjection of Black people.

I can’t wait to read it. I’m curious about how your historical perspective, research, and conclusions differ from the dominant historical narrative.

In the context of academia, mainstream narratives, generally speaking, tell some sort of linear progress narrative in the United States. Like, as we move through time, things get better. The United States gets more free, more just, more equitable, and more multicultural. That tends to be the dominant narrative.

That’s rooted in the US mythology, or the so-called American dream, where if you just work hard, do the right thing, pray, and have your bourgeois family with your 2.5 kids and your dog, you’ll be fine — and race and gender and sexuality will all matter less and less as we become more enlightened.

I reject this idea of a linear, progressive narrative. The time period roughly between 1945 to the 1980s is considered to be this moment of relative progress and prosperity,  but, when we look at things like anti-communism, the durability of anti-Black racial oppression, and the ongoing nature of settler colonialism, even in these times of so-called progress, these moments of interest convergence are actually aberrations. These moments are anomalies in the longer history of US domination.

What do you mean when you say they are moments of interest convergence?

This is a theory of the critical race theorist Derrick Bell. He talks about how there are moments in history where the interests of the ruling class converge with the interests of working people, such that the protracted struggles of the latter match up with the interests of the state. The Cold War, for him, is one such moment of interest convergence.

After World War II, The United States is competing for the hearts and minds of the decolonizing world, and so the US state has an incentive to roll back the excesses of Jim Crow. Bell sees Brown vs Board of Education, which Gerald Horn called the compromise of 1954, as precisely that – a way to give valence to moving toward racial equality as the Soviet Union is putting the US on blast. Ostensibly, in this moment, the US is supposed to be a beacon of democracy and liberty, and yet there’s the reality of lynching and this oppressive racial structure.

In the post-WWII context, there is the Soviet Union, there is the United States, and there is the decolonization movement. The US nominally supports some aspects of decolonization because it is going to open up markets that have heretofore been under a mercantilist model. As the European empires begin to crumble, the US is supporting a decolonization that is a market-based form of decolonization; one that needs to be pro-market, pro-exploitation, and anti-people.

So these competing forces created openings that allow for some of the progress that we see happening in the fifties, sixties, and seventies –  but make no mistake all of that progress comes through struggle. All of it. The US isn’t giving up anything. Rather, it’s making concessions based on labor struggles, women’s struggles, anticolonial struggles, and Black people’s struggles. The moment of intersecting convergence looks like progress, but then of course, as things unfold, those interests begin to diverge again. We see this with the Taft-Hartley Act. We see this in the state-level resistance to Brown and desegregation. By the 1980s with the rise of neoliberalism, concessions in favor of the masses were no longer necessary, and this is what allows for the beating back of labor, the beating back of particular types of racial progress, and the fundamental redistribution of wealth upward.

You sort of led me right into my next question – I noticed in your work you talk about this relationship between anti-communism in the US and the denigration of women and the suppression of labor and the working class. How do those things solidify structurally and politically?

Yeah, I mentioned the Taft-Hartley Act, which is important because it really rolls back the ability of labor to strike, to organize, and to assert labor power, And it’s fundamentally rooted in anti-communism. There is a simultaneous rooting out of those accused to be communists from labor unions and from the government and other organizations.

This is important because the communists tended to be the most radical forces; communists tended to be in the unions that were interracial and the most progressive. Taft-Hartley and the red-baiting and the anti-communism endemic in all this really dampens the power of unions, and they really haven’t recovered. I mean, of course, these things are always dialectical. In the 1960s, for example, you have really strong unions like the Revolutionary Union Movement in Detroit, and there are upsurges, but Taft-Hartley made it much more difficult.

And the suppression of labor is always linked to Black people because Black people, as Hubert Harrison and others, have argued, tend to be the most fully proletarianized race. Black people are a race of workers. There’s no ruling class in a real sense, and there is a very tiny, dependent petite bourgeoisie. So the suppression of labor, given the fact that the US is a white supremacist society, has an even more entrenched effect on Black people.

And at the same time, all of this is happening, there is an increase in racial violence and in policies to push Black people out of the inroads they had made during WWII into industrial labor. This particularly affects Black women. Claudia Jones argues, for example, that there starts to be this rise in discourse about the kitchen, children, and the church – the triple K. In turning it into some type of value or virtue for women to go back into the home and to re-adopt these traditional values, women, and of course Black women, in particular, are unable to earn a living. They end up being pushed back into domestic service, where Black women have been overrepresented historically.

So the post-WWII moment sees all of these linked attacks at the same time, and the practices of immiseration that happen domestically are linked to aggression abroad.

I want to step out of the historical lens for a second if you feel comfortable – because I’m curious what you think about the labor movement right now, and if you see any parallel trends. 

It’s interesting. There is some talk about how this increase in interest rates and the resulting recession is really an attack on labor and a response to the so-called Great Resignation where people are quitting their jobs, holding out for jobs with better wages, and unionizing everywhere from Starbucks to Amazon. So this move towards a recession can be seen as a means of disciplining labor, because part of the goal is to reach at least 5% unemployment and to get wages “under control,” despite the fact that they are generally abysmally low, to decrease inflation. This is a demand-side approach to economics.

I do think COVID-19, and watching the government sending billions of dollars for the war in Ukraine while not being able to pass even a very watered-down Build Back Better Bill, has heightened the contradictions and given way to a particular type of labor consciousness. But, because the ruling class is so powerful and because corporations have so much power to influence state policy, in the long term, the system is really just unsustainable.

Covid was good at highlighting the hypocrisy of it all. Especially this idea of preaching abroad what you can’t do at home. I mean, I think of Ed Murrow famously saying this almost 70 years ago – but we seem to still be having a hard time en masse addressing this issue. 

The thing about capitalism is that everybody’s not suffering. Some people are doing extraordinarily well. I will even say for myself, I had a job during the pandemic, I live alone, and I have no children. I wasn’t struggling socially and economically in the way that so many people were. That’s the nature of the beast — not everybody suffers. That’s what class hierarchy is. There is literally a poor tax in this country so that when things get bad, poor people pay more and do much worse. When you look at the majority of white folks, they don’t suffer economically and socially in the way that racialized groups do in this country. I think that the contradictions are not obvious because of that reality. And plus, people in the US always think they are doing better than they are. Most people think they’re middle class, but they’re actually poor. They don’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of.

The second thing, people in the US are probably the most propagandized people in the world. They really believe that Black folks are criminals, Muslims are oppressing women, that the Africans are corrupt and can’t control their own countries, and that the Eastern Europeans are commies. We’re so saturated with those narratives through the mainstream media and through our schools that they seem logical. And people think wars are a net good. The idea of a labor aristocracy, for example, means that people in the imperial countries are able to hold their standards because of the extreme exploitation of workers in the countries subjected to imperialism. I think that’s why people don’t fully grasp US hypocrisy..

I mean, we’re going to fight a war to “free” Muslim women, but we just effectively made abortions a states’ rights issue here. There’s this idea that unfreedom exists out there. I mean, Roe V. Wade is only 49 years old, and this country is more than 250 years old. It is an endemic mythology.

That’s a great way to phrase it. How do you think Americans define freedom – and I guess then, fascism?

I think that freedom really is like freedom of the market and that democracy is equal participation in the marketplace. This is why individualism means freedom, but individualism can also really mean freedom to die. Some right-wing folks are doing really terrible, and they still want no government interference because that is seen as tyranny and control. It really is the liberty to die.

And, historically, federal government action has been necessary for things like civil rights, so there is this big emphasis on state’s rights. This particular understanding of freedom is so bound up in imperialism, war, and patriotism that has nothing to do with community. Community and mass mobilization tend to be seen as commie shit — especially for minoritized people. The freedom of assembly is not for everybody. It’s suspect when it’s Black people or radicals. The idea of freedom is really rooted in rugged individualism. Like, leave me alone with my guns. It’s the liberty to do whatever you want and to die however you want.

Freedom from constant work is not even a thought. How do you see fascism in the US? 

I am of two minds about this.

There is this quote about how fascism is a word that begins to be used when white people start getting treated like the colonized. Aime Cesaire is key here. There is this way that fascism and the particular enunciation of European fascism becomes the crime against humanity or the assault on civilization or the apex of barbarism when it is just the application of colonial and imperial processes on Europeans.

Okay. But what a lot of people understood is that colonial practices are the foundation of fascism. When we hold up fascism as the crime against humanity, it’s ahistorical. We know that the German massacre of the Herero in Namibia preceded the practices they exhibited towards Jewish folks. There’s Native American genocide. There is the fact that Hitler was looking at Jim Crow laws and the strong eugenics movement in the United States at the turn of the 20th century to model the Nuremberg laws and to model the Nazi project after. So that begs the question, is it that there’s a US brand of fascism or is it that US policy and practice is its own beast? And we can call it fascism or not.

At the same time, when people hold up these very particular features of European fascism and say “Oh, the US doesn’t fit that,” that can be an evasion. That makes it seem like fascism is something that happened in Europe, something that only happens over there. Again, it’s that US mythology.

All of that to say I am of two minds about this fascist thing. If we had a definition of fascism something like the convergence of warmongering, anticommunism, monopoly rule, and racial domination, well <laugh>, the US will fit squarely into that. But the inability to decenter the effects on the white working-class or the white petite bourgeoisie, to understand these broader dynamics that are, if not fascist outright, then fascist-like, or perhaps something worse, makes it really difficult to understand what a US brand of fascism is.

What do you think about this particular era of whiteness in America? 

Well, you know, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. We can’t extrapolate into the past or present and say that things have never changed – things are changing all the time. If we understand whiteness as Gerald Horne defines it, as a militarized identity politics, whiteness is ongoing and can become particularly vicious or intensified in moments of structural and material lack. And I think we’re absolutely in that moment again.

People attribute this upsurge in white nationalism or neofascism, or whatever it’s being called, to Donald Trump. I think that’s only part of the story, not least because  Donald Trump is a response to Barack Obama. Obama didn’t do anything for Black people in particular. Obama was the epitome of US imperialism, of protecting ruling class interests, of berating and shaming Black people — but he was Black. Which is to say that there had to be some pent-up racial feelings that Trump unleashed; it’s not as if he implanted these feelings, they were just latent until Trump started saying the quiet part out loud. And in fact, Joe Biden is a continuation of this. Many of the policies that were called “racist” under Trump, are now “pragmatic” under Biden. What does that say about Biden?

Trump is just a continuation of a long history of white supremacy. That’s the nature of this society that is anti-indigenous, that is rooted in anti-Black racial oppression, and that is anti-poor, foundationally.

Charisse Burden-Stelly will be featured at an event in Atlanta Georgia sponsored by Black Alliance for Peace.


Charisse Burden-Stelly is  a Black Studies scholar of political theory, political economy, intellectual history, and historical sociology, is particularly needed. We talk about dominant narratives, definitions of fascism, and the American Empire. There’s a lot to say about her work – but like most things, it’s best straight from the source. Enjoy!

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