Entangled Legacies of Exploitation: How Capitalism and Racism Converge in American History

Charisse Burden-Stelly explores how anti-communist ideologies were deployed to discipline Black radicals.

By Joel Wendland-Liu

Black Scare / Red Scare: Theorizing Capitalist Racism in the United States, by Charisse Burden-Stelly. Chicago, 2023. 344p, 9780226830131 $99.00, 9780226830155 $26.00, 9780226830148 $25.99

Book cover of Black Scare / Red Scare by Charisse Burden-Stelly about the convergence of capitalism and racism.

In the searing pages of Black Scare / Red Scare, Charisse Burden-Stelly (African American studies, Wayne State Univ.) unravels the sinister threads of racist oppression, capitalist exploitation, and political repression that have been woven into the fabric of U.S. history. From the damning legacy of European colonialism to the blood-soaked trails of U.S. imperialism, the blame for unspeakable atrocities has consistently been shifted onto the victims’ shoulders. Resistance through organized self-defense or strategies of self-determination against domination only belie—say the colonizers—the need for even deeper forms of control and subjugation, up to and including vigilante killings, mass imprisonment, legal lynching, military occupation, suppression of civil rights, and even carpet-bombings. Burden-Stelly explores and documents this logic and mythology as it related to the manifold forms of the ideological domination, legal criminalization, and economic subjugation of Black people, roughly between the beginning of World War I and the Korean War.

The book’s first part analyzes the political economy of the “Black Scare / Red Scare”—the intertwined fears of Black nationalism and communist uprisings. The second part investigates the use of anti-communism as a supposed mechanism of governance to discipline Black radicals. The research methodology centers on careful culling and analysis of two main archival sources. The first group of sources encompasses the sometimes well-known but mostly more obscure writings of influential Black radicals and occasionally their Euro-American allies. The second group of sources includes numerous U.S. government reports, including from the Department of Justice, attorney general, FBI, and congress, on Black radicals and anti-racists. In the first category, readers will find significant discussion of Black radicals along a spectrum of political positions, including Ben Fletcher, James Weldon Johnson, Hubert Harrison, W. E. B. Du Bois, Claudia Jones, Cyril Briggs, Richard B. Moore, and others. Students of twentieth-century Black political thought will discover a rich assortment of sources in the footnotes. Indeed, the author uses much of this work not simply to historicize Black perceptions of that period, but to show how Black thinkers theorized—with great precision—its economic system, ideological frames, and forms of governance.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century … Black rural folk were burdened with debt peonage, convict-labor schemes, or substantial wage or job discrimination that intensified rates of exploitation

The opening chapter is devoted to “theorizing” U.S. “capitalist racism”—the logic, structure, and material basis of the events that unfold in the book (p. 15). This chapter is shaped by and conditions the entire book, so it must be read carefully, perhaps re-read. In it, the author considers the large frame of U.S. capitalist racism, the original historical structure rooted in the enslavement of Africans and in genocidal settler-colonialism that crafted the “slave holders’ republic” (p. 24). A “Structural Location of Blackness” emerged and was cynically modified to fit the changing needs of Euro-American rulers over time in specific settings (p. 3). In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the generalized development of industrial conditions, which not coincidentally aligned with the violent transition from chattel slavery to wage-labor forms of exploitation, saw not the elimination of the racial component of capitalist racism but its extension with new forms of governance, namely Jim Crow, debt peonage, and super-exploitation via racialized appropriations of surplus value. Super-exploitation refers to the ideological and material process of constructing a group of proletarians with outsider status, causing them to be targeted for specialized forms of surplus-value appropriation. In this case, Black rural folk were burdened with debt peonage, convict-labor schemes, or substantial wage or job discrimination that intensified rates of exploitation. Super-exploitation enables the re-stabilization of the otherwise crisis-prone capitalist system.

This new political economic form (minus a brief period in which Reconstruction held a vague promise for a different direction) corresponded with the emergence of “Wall Street Imperialism,” a term deployed consistently throughout the text to reference the historically specific stage of U.S. monopoly capitalism that grafted racist legal, economic, and ideological structures; governance processes; and ideological systems to itself. Wall Street Imperialism indexes the structurally interactive forms of racism with the finance and industrial capitals that underpinned U.S. imperialism and its sudden ascension after World War I to hegemony within the world imperialist system. Insidiously rooted within this framework, U.S. militarism demanded deeper interconnection of each element with capital tied to the maintenance of war-making and international forms of wealth extraction.

The author’s comprehensive discussion of U.S. imperialism’s role in Haiti after 1915, U.S. neocolonialism in Liberia and Ethiopia, and readings of the Red Summer of 1919 provide case studies of these phenomena from three distinct geographical and chronological contexts. Further, “Red Scare logic” saw antiwar struggles during World War I and the Korean War as subversive (p. 120). According to this reasoning, Wall Street Imperialism’s version of peace rested on compelling a broad, popular “willingness” to fight endless wars against communist countries and to devote vast energy to the destruction of enemies (p. 124). This ideology also perceived any action to limit this capacity a threat. It depended on broad working-class acceptance and even demanded submission to immolation on the battlefields.

U.S. officials regarded Black subjugation as natural, and resistance to their oppression was a subversive threat that demanded especially harsh suppression

In this context, Black radicalism, which commonly advocated self-defense against white violence, organized resistance to racist-based economic super-exploitation, questioned the validity of war, and demanded protection for human and citizenship rights, all of which appeared to the government and to capitalists as a threat to “American” values (p. 12). Such tropes concealed the systemic reality. Burden-Stelly’s reading of government documents stemming from surveillance of Black communities shows that officials tended to regard Black people as the gullible stooges of foreign actors, as “disloyal” (p. 44) and “insolent” (p. 67) resistors to the racial-capitalist status quo, and, astoundingly, as the cause of white terrorism against Black communities. In other words, U.S. officials regarded Black subjugation as natural, and resistance to their oppression was a subversive threat that demanded especially harsh suppression. These officials depicted Black people as degraded racially and considered their very existence an inherently treasonous threat to racial capitalism’s dominance.

Among the author’s many critical contributions are two that this reviewer sees as crucial additions to scholarship and theory on this topic. First is Burden-Stelly’s depiction of the “Black Scare / Red Scare” as—apart from its direct impact on Black intellectuals, organizers, and workers—a “carrot and stick” instrument for extracting consent for the capitalist-racist status quo from the mass of Euro-American workers (p. 40). Euro-American workers accepted conditions of racist Black oppression to their own economic and political detriment. While collaboration with white supremacist ideology and structures “seemed” to provide white workers with “tangible benefits,” the reality is that in doing so they “collaborated” with capitalists in their own political and economic subjugation (p. 40). Ironically, the charge of gullibility appears to have been misdirected as racist social relations of production “won the support of white exploited workers in making Black oppression a cornerstone of US social relations” (p. 40). The repression of Black radicalism shaped this construction of Black freedom as subversive while threatening whites who favored interracial cooperation in worker organizing as susceptible to persecution as well. Hence, the carrot and the stick. Significantly, this analysis might produce some sympathy for the white workers duped into selling their souls for a mess of pottage, but it does not absolve them for complicity with racist terrorism, imperialism, or war.

A second important theoretical intervention is the examination of the “national question” as it was developed by the Communists in the 1920s, namely the Black Belt Nation Thesis which advocated for the creation of a nation-state in the South where Black people comprised majorities and pluralities of the population (p. 79). This thesis was premised on the reality that white supremacy was not merely a matter of skin color, but was rooted in human-created social structures of capitalism and imperialism. Thus, racism was specifically a national question. Most Black people at the time lived in the South, with significant concentration in the so-called Black Belt, and were tied to the land as farmers, indebted sharecroppers, or agricultural laborers. Thus, the land issue, a shared historical and cultural background, and common class composition suggested national self-determination as a plausible solution to the freedom struggle.

Notably, Burden-Stelly does not directly comment on the viability of the thesis as a political project, suggesting its “imperfect application” (p. 88). Still, despite the substantial transformation of the geographical and class makeup of the mass of Black people already in progress as part of the Great Migration, which seemed to undermine the precise premises on which the thesis was based, its status as a strategic policy of the Communist Party was important. That organization began in new ways to understand how racism operated within U.S. capitalism, prompted the deployment of exponentially larger resources for anti-racist struggle, and made the disruption of white collaborationism significantly more meaningful.

Burden-Stelly’s research, however, uniquely theorizes the systemic roots, interrelations, and adaptations of racism with anti-communism. The author unrelentingly establishes how U.S. capitalism could not operate, extend its imperialist reach, or manage its internal workforce to its desired ends without constructing such a scheme.

This book’s fundamental thesis, that anti-Black racism and anti-communism were entangled as an underlining feature of racial capitalism in this context, places it in good scholarly company. Most Red Scare scholarship, either surrounding the Palmer raids in 1919 and 1920 or the McCarthyism of the 1950s, tends to subsume much discussion of U.S. racism to an ancillary role. Others have emphasized the innocence of those persecuted by the state for radical organizing, emphasizing instead their advocacy of reforms or immediate issues. However, beginning with Black and Red (1985), Communist Front? (1988), and Black Liberation/Red Scare (CH, Jan’95, 32-2935), Gerald Horne radically shifted the grounds on which these topics are addressed. The anthology Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement (CH, Mar’10, 47-3992), edited by Robbie Lieberman and Clarence Lang, extended the scholarly discussion. Newer research, including Horne’s Black Revolutionary (2013), Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist (CH, Oct’14, 52-0715), and Tony Pecinovsky’s edited volume The Cancer of Colonialism (CH, Feb’23, 60-1800) narrated, to some extent, the relationship between state repression of radicalism and the persecution of Black activism. Burden-Stelly’s research, however, uniquely theorizes the systemic roots, interrelations, and adaptations of racism with anti-communism. The author unrelentingly establishes how U.S. capitalism could not operate, extend its imperialist reach, or manage its internal workforce to its desired ends without constructing such a scheme. If Burden-Stelly is right, American citizens are left to answer major questions about what it means to be American.

This carefully scaffolded study unveils the insidious dynamics of the “Black Scare / Red Scare” phenomenon, revealing how anti-communist ideologies served as governance technologies to discipline Black radicals. The book is meticulously structured and rich in historical detail. It demonstrates how U.S. capitalist racism, rooted in the historical structures of enslavement and settler-colonialism, evolved and adapted with the rise of industrialized conditions, resulting in the perpetuation of racialized exploitation. Ultimately, this work significantly contributes to scholarship and theory, challenging prevailing narratives and prompting a deeper understanding of the historical roots and contemporary manifestations of systemic racism.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. General readers through faculty; professionals.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – History, Geography & Area Studies – North America


Joel Wendland teaches in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Grand Valley State University and is the author of Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature in the Long Nineteenth-Century (2022).