Colouring Lessons: Race Is A Structure Of Oppression, And Is Alive And Well

Race is a structure of oppression. So long as the structure remains, so does race. However, while there is plenty of talk about ethnicity and social cohesion, pathological cultures, and broken communities, race is usually mentioned only in its disavowal. And racism? Few would profess to that habit; most would comfortably label racism as a reactionary attitude. But to what imaginary golden mean? It is a privilege to believe that racism is a reaction rather than a catalysing agent of oppression. Meanwhile, all of us are variously implicated in this structure of oppression called race.

Even on the left, race is seen to be somewhat passé, and happily so now that the next world crisis in capital accumulation has arrived and we can all finally re-focus on the real thing: class. But what is the difference between race and class? Is it the difference between superstructure and base? Race does involve identification, both in order to oppress and in order to redeem. Yet in this respect, it is no more or less an identity than class. With the exception of Black Marxism, what the left has historically been unable or unwilling to consider is that, as a structure of oppression, race runs deeper than class.

Marx’s masterful hermeneutic shift from contract to class involved leaving behind the realm of exchange – wherein all things were of equivalent value and all transactions were equitable – and entering into the realm of production – wherein value was consistently expropriated and relations were exploitative. Nevertheless, in the colonial world, Marxism was more often used as a weapon for struggle and less so as a faith to guide contemplation. One reason for this engagement is that class exploitation never quite explained the reality of oppression experienced under the colonial exigencies of the world market.

In truth, Marx did not shift his hermeneutic far enough from liberalism and its obsession with civil society. Continue reading