The Leadership Center for Social Justice Podcast

What Is Antiracism?: And Why It Means Anticapitalism: A Conversation with Arun Kundnani

November 15, 2023 Arun Kundnani Season 2 Episode 5
The Leadership Center for Social Justice Podcast
What Is Antiracism?: And Why It Means Anticapitalism: A Conversation with Arun Kundnani
Show Notes Transcript

This episode features a conversation with author and scholar Arun Kundnani. Kundnani shares about his most recent book, What Is Antiracism?: And Why It Mean Anticapitalism. Arun shares how race makes and remakes itself through capitalist structures. Through studying the histories of colonialism and capitalism, Kundnani tracks a line between the systems of racism in the past and connects it to the systems of racism today. Distinguishing between the liberal form of antiracism which prompts individuals to go inward, Kundnani encourages people to follow a tradition of radical antiracism work that focuses on developing collectives locally and globally that focus on fighting against the structures and systems that divide us.


-What Is Antiracism?: And Why It Means Anticapitalism

-Arun Kundnani Website

Episode Transcription available here

Host: Ry O. Siggelkow

Producer: Adam Pfuhl

Podcast Engineer: Michael Moua

Music: Kavyesh Kaviraj

Episode Recorded on August 16th, 2023

You can find out more about the Leadership Center for Social Justice on our website and on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Ry Siggelkow [00:00:01] You're listening to the podcast of the Leadership Center for Social Justice at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. We seek to open a space for critical theological conversations about pressing social issues we face in our world today. Thanks for listening. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:00:28] Hello, everybody. I'm Ry Sigglekow and I direct the Leadership Center for Social Justice at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Today, I'm delighted to be in conversation with Arun Kundnani about his provocative and timely new book,What Is Anti-Racism?: And Why It Means Anti-Capitalism

Arun writes about racial capitalism and Islamophobia, surveillance and political violence, and black radical movements. In addition to this new book, he is the author of The Muslims Are Coming: Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror and The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain, which was selected as a New Statesman Book of the Year. 

Born in London, Arun moved to New York in 2010. A former editor of the journal Race and Class, housed at the Institute of Race Relations in the U.K. He was, as he puts it, miseducated at Cambridge University and holds a Ph.D. from London Metropolitan University. Arun has been an Open Society fellow and a scholar in residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. He is also active with the Imam Jameel Action Network. Welcome to the podcast, Arun. 

Arun Kundnani [00:01:58] Ry, thank you for having me. Yeah, thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about this stuff. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:02:04] Arun, this book is written in the wake of the global uprisings of the summer of 2020, which began here in Minneapolis in response to the murder of George Floyd. And it is clearly intended as a kind of intervention into contemporary discourse about racism and anti-racism. So I thought we could begin with you speaking to us a bit about what kind of intervention you hope this book will make and why you thought it especially necessary to write it today. 

Arun Kundnani [00:02:35] Yeah. So I wrote this book really after the Black Lives Matter uprisings of 2020 and that was an incredible moment for me. I mean, The New York Times reported that we had 15 million people on the streets, kind of one of the largest kind of moments like that in US history, from what I could see, being on the streets in New York City, the average age was maybe 18 years old, very young, organizing themselves with apps I've never even heard of. 

What struck me, I mean, there's a lot of things to say about it, but one of the things that struck me and kind of enraged me over that year especially was the kind of gap between what was happening on the streets and the kinds of demands that were being made on the streets by people involved in those protests and then how those demands were then kind of refracted into what was happening in liberal institutions in the United States. So obviously there was the conservative reaction to it, which is predictable. And we've talked about that at lots of different places. But, you know, there was something about the protests themselves, I mean, if you were involved in the protest and if you kind of followed what those young people on the streets were talking about, they were saying the slogans, defund the police, abolish ICE. And so what they were talking about was an understanding that these institutions like law enforcement, like prisons, like border agents, are not keeping us safe, they're sources of racial violence that harm people and the solution to that is not going to lie in, you know, more diversity in who runs those institutions or who works in them, better training and so on. But it's going to require that we actually dismantle these institutions in a much more fundamental way. So that was what lots of people were saying at these protests. But that was to me what seemed like the center of gravity for it.

And then what happened in, you know, in universities and kind of in liberal America generally, actually. People talked about it as a kind of racial reckoning that was going on. Everyone was reading Robin D'Angelo and listening to the podcasts and “doing the work” as the phrase was. It was a kind of process whereby white people were being invited to kind of turn in on themselves, examine their unconscious biases. Institutions, liberal institutions were kind of going through a process of thinking about who's represented in the leadership. Is the diversity of leadership representative of demographics of the United States and so on. And so actually, that's a very different set of ideas of what anti-racism might mean from what from the version of anti-racism that was coming out on the streets. So that kind of gap between the two was very striking.

And so what I wanted to do in the book was to kind of distinguish quite clearly in a way that I don't think anyone else has really done before, between what we can call a kind of radical anti-racist tradition that I think is what was being expressed on the streets and a liberal anti-racist tradition that is what was being expressed in those more kind of institutional spaces in the United States, the universities, the White House, you know, the CEOs of major corporations, in fact. As well, you know, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, the most powerful financial organization in the world, was talking about how we need to tackle systemic racism. And talking about diversity and so on. So I think that there was a need to kind of look at where all that comes from. And that was what I set out to do. And because what I want us to be changing is where we focus our energy, right? Like, if we're focusing all our energies on tackling what we call unconscious biases, thinking about representation, diversity, we're not actually, I think, putting ourselves in a position where we can build the kinds of collective power that we actually need, the kind of organizational power that we actually need to dismantle structural racism. So if we are serious that this is structural racism, there's structure to it, it's not going to be a process that we're going to be able to do unless we have a collective power. And you don't build collective power by turning inwards into yourself and and kind of focusing on individual attitudes and beliefs, you have to think about how do you build something that is greater than the sum of individuals, that has that kind of force that can take on these structures and dismantle them and then build something new. 

So that was the aim of the book and why that kind of historical story I tell in the book is I feel necessary for us to understand at this particular moment and what I hope it changes in terms of our behaviors and our decisions about what we do with our activism. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:07:43] You open the book by pointing us to a World War Two memorial site near Vught, a small town in the Netherlands, which today commemorates the lives of the many thousands of people held in confinement there in 1943, in what was once a Nazi run concentration camp. The camp had initially been built as a transit center to hold Dutch Jews who were rounded up and eventually sent on to death camps in Germany and Poland. You tell us that during this time the Nazis also made a contract with the Dutch corporation Philips. And the site functioned as a place of forced labor for the manufacturing of flashlights and radios. Among the many people imprisoned and forced to work there included "Roma, LGBTQ people, Jehovah's Witnesses, homeless people and people accused of ordinary crimes", as well as communists and others active in the resistance against Nazism. The site has a particular personal significance for you as you share about how your grandfather, Henricus van Herten, a Dutch Catholic bookkeeper, was imprisoned there in addition to a man named Anton de Kom, an anticolonial leader and anti-Nazi resistor from Suriname, who was imprisoned for organizing on a number of fronts against Dutch colonial rule. 

You point out that today the memorial is "spread out over several buildings and outdoor areas. The main building is a museum with exhibits on the history of the camp and Nazism in Europe". Outside the buildings, there are reconstructions of the concentration camp apparatus, including watchtowers and barbed wire fences. The museum serves both a commemorative and an educational purpose, with spaces of reflection for people to make connections between the history of the concentration camp and racism today. The lessons at the memorial encourage its visitors to reflect on how their lives make a difference in the world and how they show up in the face of contemporary racism, including the ongoing stereotyping of people, assumptions that people make based on physical appearance and the education needed to overcome the various forms of bias and prejudice that people continue to hold. 

Now, you point out that the lessons of the memorial are pretty superficial and watered down and really probably don't seek to offend or bring discomfort to anybody in particular. And yet what is much more disturbing and perhaps more illuminating is the fact that as one walks through the memorial, "it's impossible not to notice that”, you say, “alongside one of the memorial walls is a much taller wall topped with barbed wire and closed circuit TV cameras. On the other side of the wall", you write, "are prison buildings. Their arrangement mirroring that of the memorial's reconstructed camp buildings". On the same site of the memorial then is a functioning prison with a high security unit. "If you look left from the memorial's main entrance", you go on to say, "the tall metal doors of the prison entrance are visible, flanked by lines of people waiting to visit inmates. Many are women wearing hijabs and niqabs". This site now imprisons so-called "Islamic radicalizers", and it has become known informally as a "muslim detention center". Reports of abuse are rampant. Many of the inmates have not been convicted of a crime and some have gone on hunger strike for being treated "worse than animals". 

So this is how you decide to open the book. And it raises the question, how do we interpret the cruel irony in all of this? A site purportedly devoted to commemorating victims of racism and that expressly seeks to educate against racism stands apparently without contradiction next to a massive high security prison that confines, abuses, and effectively tortures hundreds of Muslims today. To me, this opening serves as a kind of parable for what you seek to demystify, diagnose and reveal about the strange contradictions, silences, confusions, and outright misunderstandings of how race and racism is understood in our contemporary moment. I wonder if you could share with us how you interpret the meaning of this memorial site and the contradictions that it reveals. And perhaps, if you're willing, also how the history of this site actually intersects with your own family history.


Arun Kundnani [00:12:33] Yeah. Thank you, Ry. I became aware of this place because my grandfather was imprisoned during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in World War Two. And so I had this experience of going to visit the camp for the first time 12 years or so ago. And then at that point, you know, this part of the original camp site had already been made into a kind of memorial to commemorate those who'd been imprisoned there and the genocidal violence that was directed particularly against Jews who were present there. And then almost all of them were sent to death camps in Nazi occupied Poland and in Germany. And so as you know, as you just described as you're walking around the site of this camp, you become aware that there's another functioning prison on the same site and that actually the buildings that the Nazis built are still being used as a functioning prison. And you become aware that, in fact, this prison is part of the kind of global infrastructure of the war on terror. It's a prison where people are put into solitary confinement and subjected to various kinds of mental torture. That is something that you see across various sites of the global war on terror, whether it's Guantanamo, whether it's Bagram in Afghanistan, when that was a US military base, Abu Ghraib in Iraq and so on. And so, you know, the picture in the book is slightly different. It's not the same size exactly. But the kind of logic of it is bound up with that story. 

And when you dig into where this idea comes from,that you can deal with people in this way. It comes from a history in the United States of developing practices of solitary confinement to tackle black radical activism within prison systems. This is what was kind of developed in the 1960s, and then really blossomed in the 1970s in response to prison uprisings that were predominantly led by black prisoners. And so the response from the prison system was, well, to deal with prison disruption of this kind, as they would say it, we would use this technique of solitary confinement. And the idea is that you can, by putting someone in solitary confinement, you can kind of remold that person. So you can kind of erase the person who's perceived to be a radical or an extremist or a disruptive influence in the prison population. Erase that personality down to a blank slate and then rebuild a kind of compliant personality or something. That's the kind of thinking that the psychologists working for the Federal Bureau of Prisons had when they were developing these techniques, which, of course, then, as we know since that, huge numbers of people have been subjected to the United States. Well, in the war on terror, these same techniques are used on the assumption that this can be a way of deradicalizing Muslims who seek to be extremists. That's what's going on. That's why people are being treated in that way and subjected to that solitary confinement. 

And so what you begin to understand is that what is happening in Vught today in this place that used to be a Nazi concentration camp is a different kind of racism. It's a different kind of racism because the way it works is not as Nazi antisemitism did. The idea of simply eliminating Jews from Europe, which was the Nazi plan in prisons, that the camps realized that aim for the Nazis. But in the case of the prisons in the war on terror, the aim is to kind of remold Western culture into something that's compliant with what is described as Western values. And so, torture. And in the case of wars like in Iraq which are genocidal wars. If you go to war in a country like Iraq, as we did, it's certainly not a war of self-defense. It's a war of aggression. And you end up, you know, through that violence leading to a deficit. We don't know the exact number, but no one's really systematically counted it. But certainly something like at least a million civilians. And if your rationale for carrying out that war is the idea which, you know, this is what we heard from Tony Blair, who was one of the main propagandists for the 2003 war. If your rationale, as he put it, it's not regime change, its values change. The idea is that the Iraqi society like other societies that are majority Muslim or Arab countries, that their cultural values are so antagonistic to the kind of liberal world that Tony Blair believed you could create that only a kind of war like that and that kind of industrial scale violence can do the work of erasing the preexisting culture and kind of creating that blank slate again, that then they hope to rebuild. They were fairly explicit about this as the motivation to the Iraq War. Of course, we know that they were lying about weapons of mass destruction and so on. And people have speculated about what the real reasons for that war was. But to me, that's what it was. And so it's the same thinking that is leading to that genocidal war in Iraq, as is leading to the solitary confinement of people to be found as Muslim extremists in this place Vught in Holland on the site of a Nazi concentration camp. So why can't we see?

So the question this begs is why can't we see that, right? That the Vught memorial that commemorates the Nazi genocide of Jews in Holland explicitly states on the wall “do not be a bystander when you see harm being done”. So I was seeing that everyone walking through that memorial is literally a bystander because they're standing right by a prison where people are being tortured and that torture is bound up in a kind of racial justification because it's directed at Muslims in this way. It's this assumption that Muslim culture is so dangerous to their values that it needs to be reshaped and reformed. So why can't we see that? And I think the answer is, this goes back to where we began, which is we actually have two different versions of anti-racism. We have a liberal version of anti-racism and a radical version. Liberal version of anti-racism says racism is about individual attitudes and prejudices and beliefs. And you need to find ways to tackle that. And so it's a kind of educational project. So it's about trying to get people to see that their assumptions are misguided and to correct those misplaced assumptions. And to kind of be more rational in how they perceive other people. Now in the case of the war on terror, it doesn't look like it's all about some kind of set of individual prejudices. It's clearly bound up with much bigger structural processes. And the racism that's bound up with the war on terror is not easily understood within that liberal idea about race. 

Now, the other person you mentioned who was at Vught with my grandfather, Anton De Kom, a black revolutionary who fought against Dutch colonialism in Suriname. And then to try and prevent his activism from building up a mass movement in Suriname against Dutch colonialism, the Dutch basically brought him to Holland in the 1930's where they thought he would be able to cause less trouble. And then he ends up joining the resistance to the Nazi occupation. Nazis occupy Netherlands in 1940 and then ends up himself being arrested and being placed in the Vught camp. Now, if you read his analysis of what anti-racism is, he has a structural analysis.  He sees racism as bound up with the way that capitalism organizes different labor forces and the kind of boundaries that it creates between outside forces in order to legitimize and organize the kind of differential kinds of relationship to capitalism that different racial groups have. Right, we can get into that. You know what that theory would look like but it means that it is coming from this radical anti-racist tradition. And we need that radical anti-racist tradition if we're going to be able to see the kinds of things that are happening in Vught as new forms of racism, because they are only understandable in this way when we look at the overall structures of racial capitalism. And unfortunately, you know, when we look at the Vught memorial in Holland today, we don't see very much about Anton De Kom. We certainly don't see his idea of what anti-racism might look like presented. What we get is this liberal version of anti-racism that doesn't give us the tools we need. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:22:26] Yeah. I wonder if you could give us a bit of a history or the intellectual roots of this liberal theory of anti-racism. And I guess I've been wondering how it relates to the way that Nazism is often remembered and understood today. I'm thinking of Mahmood Mamdani, his work on nationalism and German nationalism, and trying to understand Nazism as connected with the formation of nation states. And I suppose I'm wondering about perhaps the intellectual roots of liberal anti-racism. They're in some ways connected to how the West or how many European and sort of U.S. intellectual reflections on Nazism, how that is remembered today. What are some of the limits and problems of this liberal theory of anti-racism and how do we sort of get at the root of it? 

Arun Kundnani [00:23:32] Yes. So for me, the kind of two or three key figures here are typically Magnus Hirschfeld, who's a German Jewish queer intellectual, working in the early 20th century. Ruth Benedict, the well-known kind of American anthropologist, Gunnar Myrdal who wrote the famous report on race relations in the United States in the 1940's. So Hirschfeld and Benedict, both of them are interested in how Nazism could have happened. 

And so Hirschfeld, in particular, as a victim of Nazism, is trying to figure out what happened. He's running this Institute of Sexology in Berlin that's pioneering this new work in understanding sexuality. When the Nazis come to power in 1933, they're shutting that down obviously, and they're burning his library out in the streets in front of it, and he's exiled to France. And so he's trying to understand what is Nazism and how was it able to come to power? And to do that he writes a book called in German Rassismus, which is the German word for racism. And what he argues in that book is that, well it will be a familiar argument to us today. It's a very kind of well-known argument, which is in the previous hundred years leading up to Hitler coming to power, German intellectuals and so-called scientists had kind of basically told the German people that the human species is divided into different racial groups, and there's a hierarchy in terms of their intellectual capacities and so on. And that became the kind of set of prejudices that individuals held. That's what was taught in schools and so on. And so then when you have in the 1930s an extremist politician like Hitler coming, he's able to manipulate those prejudices to push through a kind of hate filled political agenda, come to power through that manipulation, through his kind of emotional appeal to people's prejudices. And having come to power then can abolish liberal democracy and we get a Nazi regime. 

And now Rassismus, the German word, Rassismus is, you know, that book that he wrote in the 1930's, at that time it's not obvious that racism is the central core part of what Nazism is. That's a new argument that he's made, which is now obviously one that everyone understands. But it's also the first time that the word racism is actually used. And when the book is translated into English later in the 1930's, it's the first time that you have that word racism used. I mean the words kind of floating around. But it's the first time it has a sort of systematic argument attached. And so really that's the, in a way, that's the first kind of statement of liberal anti-racism that we get from Hirschfeld when his book is translated into English. And so the assumption there is that essentially what racism is, is a set of attitudes, prejudices. It's something that's in the individual mind. To be anti-racist is to challenge those ideas. It's a challenge to prejudice. It's kind of like an educational project.

And so what you get then from people like Ruth Benedict and then from Gunnar Myrdal in the United States, is a kind of idea that liberal anti-racism means, you know, kind of elites in society who have, by virtue of being elites, have kind of more access to education and are kind of better informed scientifically, as it were than regular folks, have to use their positions of power to kind of dissuade less educated, typically understood to be more likely to be economically impoverished people and to persuade those people that their racial prejudices that they acquired from the past are irrational in fact, because there's no longer any scientific evidence for them. It's been discredited scientifically. And so they need to get rid of those ideas because they're wrong. And this is the job of liberal intellectuals, liberal academics and so on. Right. So there's a straight line from there to that kind of argument that's developing for people like Benedict to Myrdal in the 1940s. Straight line from there to the liberal anti-racism that we see today, which is diversity training, unconscious bias stuff. The difference from the 1940s, the only difference there, is instead of thinking of these as consciously held beliefs, we now think of them as unconscious biases. But essentially it's the same idea, that there's something inside individual white minds that is the root of what racism is and the sort of idea that if we just get our representation right in Hollywood movies then that can educate the public into being less prejudiced.  

And so that's really where it comes from, from that moment in the 1940s. And I think for a period of time, running through the 1940s into the 1970s, a lot of that work that's done in the name of liberal anti-racism, actually trying to tell people that these prejudices are wrong does work. You know, it's a valuable thing to do for that period. And it does transform, I think, a lot of kind of the way that interpersonal relationships work in the United States, for example. I think that the kind of ways that at the interpersonal level, you know, white people interact with other people now and in a different way from the way they used to. But I mean, obviously, with all that remains all the problems that remain in terms of those in terms of those relationships. But what liberal anti-racism hasn't been able to do is to tackle the structures of oppression because those structures of oppression can continue irrespective of whether the majority of people in a society like the United States even hold racial prejudices consciously. And this is the kind of argument that Frantz Fanon makes so powerfully in his work in the late fifties and early sixties. 

Frantz Fanon is someone who's involved in the anti-colonial struggle against French colonialism in Algeria. He's from the Caribbean island of Martinique. He's one of the great theorists of racism and how it works in the 20th century. And he makes this argument very powerfully that racism is not a kind of mental disposition. It's not a kind of individual malady of the individual mind. It's a set of structures that are initially set up through military violence and have an economic purpose. The owners of slave plantations didn't build those plantations and have Africans pick cotton just because they really hate Africans. They did it because that was hugely profitable to them. And racism then becomes a way to justify that system of profit. It's after the fact of the infrastructure, the economic infrastructure itself. Once you understand that, then, the project of anti-racism doesn't become a matter of trying to get rid of those unconscious biases, changing individual mindsets, moving those pebbles to start an avalanche, whatever the phrase is, the project is let's close down the plantation. Let's not persuade the owners of the plantation to have less unconscious biases or racial attitudes. Let's just shut down the plantation because that's the root problem here. And when we talk about that today, that means things like the police forces, the borders, the prisons, the systems of economic exploitation that extract wealth from around the world and hoard it in the hands of a small minority. And do that through racial divisions itself. But that should be our target. And that's the problem that liberal anti-racism doesn't enable us to see. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:32:24] Most of the book is devoted to excavating radical traditions of anti-racism and the intellectual contributions of radical anti-racist thinkers. To do this, you take us through a number of historical situations in which people have struggled to overthrow colonial and imperial domination. To get at the roots of racism for you is not merely about critiquing capitalism, as the title might suggest, though it is that, but about looking very carefully at the often complicated and intertwined histories of the last 500 years of colonial and imperial rule, and the ways in which race and processes of racialization have been integral to the development of capitalism. 

Today, we hear lots of talk about the need to address systemic and structural racism, and there is increasing awareness of the legacies of colonialism and slavery and how these are linked to ongoing racism. The racism of the Trump administration opened up significant conversations, perhaps in part because his rhetoric was so blatantly offensive to liberal anti-racists who had supported Obama. Today, one thinks of the debates that have emerged in the US around the New York Times 1619 project, which has brought questions of U.S. history to the forefront. On the right, we see increased resistance to a truthful telling of that history, with several laws introduced to ban books and threaten earlier narratives. On the left, the language of settler colonialism is becoming increasingly mainstream. So too the language of racial capitalism is deployed by activists online and in the streets. 

On the one hand, the shifts in conversation and the contestation over these issues seems quite significant. Moving in the direction of a more radical, or at least a more structural analysis of racism. And I think many people have come to recognize that the optimistic, liberal, colorblind anti-racism of the Obama years missed something important, and so many now are focused on the systemic and the structural character of racism. And yet at times it seems unclear what the systemic and structural dimensions of racism really are. I mean, increasingly, it seems that racist histories are being exposed that can no longer be dismissed or swept under the rug. And we see the afterlife of these histories of abuse most visibly, perhaps in the viral circulation of videos of police killings of black people. And yet it remains less clear, I think, just what the structural problems are that produce and reproduce racism. 

In the absence of clarity and consensus on these issues, there has been a prioritizing of diversity of representation and anti-bias training as at least good places to begin. But part of what I find really helpful about your book is your ability to show that radical anti-racism is inseparable from a long history of concrete engagement and concrete struggle against structures that are not merely in the past but continue today taking on new forms in the present. I wonder if you could help us demystify the meaning of the structural in what is often called structural racism today. 

Arun Kundnani [00:35:53] It's really striking to me that since 2020, especially, everyone's using this term structural racism or systemic racism. And I think what you just said is right, that people are sensing that there's something that is beyond this kind of colorblind approach that we need to grapple with. And there's something beyond just thinking of racism as, oh, there's a particular individual here with some prejudices. It's something that seems to operate above and beyond what people try to capture with this term structural racism. But then we get, as you say, we get into a kind of confusing situation because we don't really have an account of what that structure is in structural racism. And how do you fight a structure? Right. It's easy to see how if someone else that I'm engaging with has some views that I consider to be incorrect, I can try and engage with them by persuasion. I can try and shame them or do all kinds of other things to try and tackle that individual. But what do I do with the structure? I can't really see it. Where is it? So that's the problem. But unfortunately, we do have to tackle structures because actually that's where the problem lies today. And we need to be able to to tell a story of why those structures do reproduce themselves and constantly reinvent themselves over time, even as we push back against earlier forms of those structures. 

So if you think about what was the structure of racism in Jim Crow, the Jim Crow system of the U.S. South before the civil rights movement challenged it. We can kind of have a picture of what that looks like. There's a kind of political class that runs the system. It has various structures through which it controls the power. It prevents people from challenging it. And it involves an economic dimension of generating wealth to certain groups. And it has a whole set of ideologies and kinds of cultural attitudes to support it. So we actually can see that picture fairly clearly, right? We just haven't been able to kind of really tell a story of what structural racism looks like in what we can probably call the neoliberal era of capitalism since the 1970s, because we tend to think of it as a legacy of the past, right? So we tend to say, we have more so than ever, we have this really clear picture of what the past history of racism in the United States looks like, right? Like we kind of learned so much over the last few years about what plantation slavery looked like, what Jim Crow segregation looked like, of what redlining looked like in cities of the north as much as the south in the 20th century. We've kind of understood the history of white mob violence against black neighborhoods throughout the 20th century. But if we think of racism as simply a legacy of the past, we're not really grasping the core of how it reproduces itself today. 

And so to do that, I would say firstly that the structure in structural racism is something like racial capitalism. It's the way that there's a relationship between the process of how capitalism works and the need for racism in a country like the United States to exist in order for capitalism to work. And this is what people who are thinking about the idea of racial capitalism have been trying to develop over the last few years is an account of this. And I know in the book, I kind of go into the details of what a theory of racial capitalism might look like to explain why structural racism looks the way it does and why it's so hard to fight it. You know, the big paradox that we don't ever seem to be able to get beyond in a country like the United States is that everyone is an anti-racist, right? Everyone in the country is an anti-racist. The official kind of recommended value system for the United States for every kid who comes through the American education system is told to value diversity and to understand that racism is wrong and for once, everyone's being told that. So how come we live in such an obviously structurally racist society? That's the kind of mysterious thing about it that we have to figure out. I don't think the answer is going to be that, oh, in spite of what we all openly tell ourselves, deep down in our unconscious somewhere is hidden, some force that makes us all continue to perpetuate racism, even though our claimed value system isn't that. 

So I think we have to look at the way that when you have a capitalist society that tells itself a certain story about what class relations look like in that society. The story it tells is that we, those of us who live in the United States, are all free individuals, and we are free to choose whatever job we want and we give up some of that time in return for a wage. And with that wage, we're able to consume what we need to live and other people own stuff. So they don't work for a wage. They own stuff and the ownership of that stuff generates their income and enables them to consume what they consume, a hell of a lot more than the people who consume on the basis of wage. That's the sort of official story of capitalism, right? Now, the problem is that most of the work that's done in the world is not done by people who are freely contracting to earn a wage, and then they receive a certain income and consume on the basis of that. Most of the work that's done is not waged work, even though that's the official story that capitalism sells. 

So the most glaring contradiction is that for most of the history of capitalism you had plantation slavery. You know, sometimes when I've talked about this stuff with students of mine, the way they write about it is that slaves didn't get any income for their work, which makes it seem like they just were getting zero as their wage. But the point is, they were property. They were property of someone else. They were owned by someone else. They were capital. As far as the systems go. So if capitalism is telling this official story that we are all freely contracting individuals so how do you explain plantation slavery? Well, when people ask that question, the answer comes from the system. Well, yep. The reason that those people who are slaves aren't freely contracting individuals is because they're African and that blackness means that they aren't human. And therefore there's a separate kind of labor regime for them. That's the old story from the early 19th century and so on. Except we do exactly the same thing staged in different forms, right?

So the migrant worker who's not able to access the same rights to freely engage in the labor market as other workers in the United States, because they're what's called undocumented or whatever, is on the road to deportation. And that deportability means that they can't be considered freely contracting workers. Also made to be in that category by a system of border regimes that has a racial basis. We removed a million Mexicans from the United States last year in order to uphold that racial segregation at the border so that the worker in El Paso gets paid $10 an hour for doing the same work that the worker in Juarez just on the other side of that border, but basically in exactly the same city, is getting paid $2 an hour for the same work. So in order to maintain that differentiation that capitalism requires, we have a racial story of who's allowed into the country and who's not. The border is a space where race is constantly remade. And work forces are continuously constituted on the basis of racial differences.In exactly the same way that the plantation did, in the same way that we have a global racial division of labor as a whole. 

So the exploitation of workers in, for example, Indonesia can happen where they make our shoes, basketball shoes, for a tiny income, where they make in Bangladesh, our clothes for a tiny income. And the corporations that own that production are then able to make super profits by selling that stuff in the United States.  And so that kind of imperialist economic relationship requires a racial justification because workers in Indonesia aren't saying, you know, when those workers organize and demand higher wages, what happens is that someone comes along and says, no you can't have higher wages. And if you try to leave your country and go to another part of the world to get higher wages, there's going to be this border to keep you out. And why is that justified? Well the reason that always comes is, these people have different cultural values and aren't going to integrate into our society. Well, culture is something that always changes all the time. It's something that always moves. So if you think culture is fixed like that, so that someone from another part of the world is always predetermined to behave in a certain way, well, that's called racism. To see someone's culture in that way is to set up a racial differentiation. And capitalism, neoliberal capitalism is constantly doing this in all these different states. 

That's why there's this kind of structural relationship between capitalism and racism. It's changing. It's different. That relationship looks very different today than it did 100 years ago with something like Jim Crow. It's different from 200 years ago with something like plantation slavery. But nevertheless, there is an ongoing structural relationship between racism and capitalism that leads to this situation that we find ourselves in, where we all talk about anti-racism. We're all doing all this work to challenge unconscious biases and so on. And yet we still have a school system in the United States as segregated as it was in the deep South in Jim Crow, Alabama. We still have these huge disparities in the world, we still have mass incarceration. We still have police violence. We still have a situation where millions of people around the world in Sub-Saharan Africa, in South Asia, are dying because of hunger. We have a situation where in those parts of the world they're going to bear the brunt of overheating of the planet and the consequent flooding, the consequent making those parts of the world uninhabitable from overheating. While they've not consumed, their consumption hasn't generated all the carbon in the atmosphere. The suburban home in the United States generates 50 times more carbon into the atmosphere than the people living in those parts. That's part of this longer history of colonialism and imperialism taking on this new form in the age of climate crisis. 

And so this is all the stuff that we ought to be grappling with if we're going to call ourselves anti-racist. You know, these are the kinds of ways that racism, structural racism continues to cause the deaths of millions of people around the world. And if we're starting with thinking about what happened to George Floyd, we should be able to start there and build up this bigger picture to understand this whole system and to think about all the violence that's carried out, whether it's police violence, military violence, border violence and the violence that's of economic inequality. And the ways that that plays out racially. That's a lot to grapple with. It's not straightforward. But I think that unless we're willing to do that, we're not really taking seriously the task of anti-racism that we have. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:49:16] These connections are global. And I think that a major part of your book is to kind of open up a conversation about the global dimensions of racism, but also the global dimensions of anti-racism. I guess I'm wondering about how we think about solidarity and practical organizing against racism today. How do we imagine and enact forms of concrete solidarity that are rooted locally but also stretch across national borders? I've been thinking a lot about the violence at the US-Mexico border these days, especially the violence of Texas' Operation Lone Star. This is a violence against immigrants, of course, and I think many people recognize that this is some form of racism. But I wonder about how central this is to common sense understanding of how racism works today. How do we imagine and enact solidarity across and against the violence of borders? How is this connected with anti-racist struggle today? 

Arun Kundnani [00:50:22] Yeah, So I think a lot of the writers that I look at in the book are thinking precisely about this question of like how does a struggle in one part of the world, especially if it's in a country that's an imperialist country like the United States or countries in Europe. How does that struggle, that might be a labor struggle or it might be a women's struggle or all kinds of movements that might be going on? How does that relate to, can it relate to, can it act in coordination with struggles that are happening in other parts of the world against colonialism or imperialism or whatever? And, you know, I mean, that's central to what C.L.R. James is thinking about, central to what Kwame Nkrumah's thinking about, central to what a lot of the Black Power thinkers are thinking about like H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:51:15] And Martin Luther King as well. 

Arun Kundnani [00:51:17] Absolutely. Martin Luther King was also for a lot of his life thinking about the power of US corporations in, for example, in Latin America, and how that connects to his work and civil rights movement. And obviously, of course, things like the war in Vietnam. And so I think a few things. 

So firstly, you know, solidarity is a hard word to actually- like I think sometimes the word solidarity isn't the most helpful way into it because it's a word that feels kind of heavy and it feels kind of also hard to pin down. It's obviously something that we on the left have as one of our core values. But it's often not easy to see how we actually do it. And so we can say what it certainly isn't, so it's not charity, it's not pity. It's not about “isn't it awful what we do to these other parts of the world” and kind of sympathy in this kind of patronizing, paternalist way. And nor is it kind of substituting ourselves for someone else's struggle. I don't personally think that is the best way to support. 

Let's look at some of the things over the last few years, you know, for example, in Brazil, there's a movement of landless workers. In this really interesting way of like building up its own kind of subsistence economic system where it can grow its own food and it can kind of build up its own economy because these people have been driven off of land and they are starting to figure out ways to to kind of squat land, claim it and develop it and build a community of that. In the last few years, we've seen one of the largest mass movements ever in history of farmers in India en masse coming to Delhi to protest against new legislation that would have impoverished them. But also going way beyond that in terms of questioning the whole way that the economy works in India because, even now it's still, the majority of people in India work in some kind of agricultural work. 

And so if we think about those things, that solidarity does not mean one of us going over to that part of the world and joining in that struggle alongside them, nor does it mean kind of donating money and stuff like that. I don't think that's what solidarity means. Solidarity means figuring out how we, in this country, can take on the same institutions that are oppressing our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, but doing it from here and building movements here and building collective power here. At the end of day, when we're talking about structures, the only way we fight that is if we have collective power, right? But that means- what does collective power mean? It means that we build a body of people who together are more than the sum of the individuals acting individually.  And that means we have some relationship within that group of people, of loyalty to each other, a kind of disciplined commitment to some cause where we're giving a certain amount of time on a regular basis to building something with those other people. Now, when you get even a really small number of people doing that, like 20 or 30 people doing that, you have the most powerful thing in the world, right? Because if you have 20 or 30 people who are committed to some cause and are willing to work and put in time and energy into doing that on a regular basis, you can I mean, I don't think it's romantic to say, change the world. 

I mean and this is where the history becomes really revealing. So Ghana was the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to liberate itself from British Colonialism, which happened towards the end of the 1950s. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King were there at the ceremony when Ghana was liberated. 30 years before, if you looked at what kind of anti-colonial movement exists in Ghana in terms of people who are sort of explicitly active, it would have been about 20 or 30 people. And yet within 30 years they're liberated, the whole country has begun a process that transforms the entire continent and redraws the maps of the world. I don't think probably in 1960 or so, the number of actual civil rights activists in the Deep South in the United States was probably about 30 people. Well, maybe not the whole Deep South. But if you say like Alabama and Mississippi. But they changed the country. 

So we don't need a lot of people. But what we do need is that sense of commitment to a cause. And then we can start to do things in this country that can- I think the word is coordination. But we can do things in this country that coordinate with struggles that other people are having in other parts of the world.  So, right now, for example, in Britain, there's a group called Palestine Action.  And what they do is they occupy and disrupt the offices and factories of companies based in Britain that supply the weapons and other items for use by Israel in maintaining its colonial system in Palestine. So they're not going off to Palestine to fight with the Palestinians. They're saying, let me use the opportunities I have in Britain to actually tackle things that are happening in Britain as a part of the colonial projects in Israel. So that seems to be a good example. The other example from Britain recently is we've had now two different groups of people who have been able to use civil disobedience methods to stop flights that were going to deport people to other parts of the world. And so these would be people who maybe applied for asylum in Britain and then had their asylum claims rejected and they're being bundled on a plane and sent back to Jamaica or to other parts of the world where they're from. By kind of basically standing on the runway and blocking those flights or using other kinds of civil disobedience efforts, they've stopped those flights from happening.  And then they've been brought in front of a court and prosecuted. And by explaining to the jury why what they believed was necessary, you know, is necessary for them to do what they did for human rights reasons. The juries have acquitted them. There are two cases like that. So what that means is that essentially it becomes possible now to do that kind of civil disobedience work with much less worry that you're going to end up being jailed. There's huge victories that are being achieved here that are having a big impact in reducing the capacity of the British government to be able to deport people to other parts of the world. Deportation is an inherently violent process that kills people. So we have to be standing up to it. And yet I think that's exactly the kind of thing that does far more to develop solidarity between Britain and movements in Jamaica than anything else, I think, is by doing that work.

We're going to have to move to a stage where, you know, when we think about the climate crisis and the question of fossil fuels and how do we stop fossil fuels being extracted. We're going to have to be thinking about this very carefully, about what is it that we can do in the United States, for example, to act in coordination with people in Nigeria who are taking on the hugely damaging effects of Shell and in Nigeria or similar movements in other parts of the world where fossil fuels have distorted their wellbeing as well. You know, like what does that look like? How can we take on the corporations here while others are taking on all those corporations across the world? But that's the kind of conversations we need to be having. We always start with where we're at locally, right? I think before you get to the point where you can start to do that coordinated work with other people around the world, you have to have built up something where you are in the world and thinking about who's around locally, whether it's in your workplace or in your community or, you know, other parents in the school that your kids go to, wherever that hub is where you're going to be trying to build something. 

And that's where we just aren't, we're not doing enough in terms of building those communities, those kinds of forms of collective organization, you know. Maurice Bishop, the leader of the Grenada Revolution, which was a revolution that took place in the Caribbean island, Grenada in the late seventies. And then the US military was so terrified of it, that it sent in the Marines to squash it. But the leader of that revolution, Maurice Bishop, said organizations like this, what it means is unless we're able to come together into collective bodies where we have that kind of force that is greater than any of us as individuals, we're not going to be able to dismantle these structures because by virtue of being structures, if we're talking about structural racism, then the only way you dismantle a structure is collectively, not individually. And you have to build up that power. It's a power struggle. And he also said, you know, revolution is not instant coffee. Right. By which he meant it's not something that is going to happen overnight. It's going to take time, build up those relationships, build up that collective power, you know, try out all kinds of different things, see what works or doesn't. But it takes time. 

And there are large numbers of people doing that stuff in the United States. We're in a much better position than we were in the nineties. I think, you know, we're in a much stronger position in terms of thinking about what that kind of organizing work should look like. But we need more of it and we need, I think, much less. Yeah. One of the questions here is we're getting caught up in thinking that before we can do that, that kind of collective organizing work, building up movements, building up bodies that act collectively before we can do that, we need to work on ourselves, right? And I think that's the mistaken assumption that a lot of us have ended up with in our movement today is this idea that we turn inwards, first. We reflect on ourselves, first. We kind of somehow do self-care, do some kind of internal intervention ourselves to get us ready for some future down the road where we think that we can do this collective work. But we never get to that point, right? And actually, I think the best way that we process our own pain and our own kind of trauma and our own kind of experiences and our own internalization of all the kind of competitiveness and individualism that capitalism inculcates in us. Right? Because capitalism is not just something out there. It's something that gets put inside us as we get socialized in this society. 

So to tackle all of that, the best way to do that is not to kind of turn inwards, but to be part of something else, right? To be part of a movement. I think it's Jose Marti, who said the best way to find yourself is in service to others which I think is absolutely right. And we talked about identity. And I think we get hung up on trying to find out some deep truth about ourselves by thinking about the uniqueness of our pain. And I think it's something distinctively, it's something that neoliberalism inculcates in us. I think it has deeper cultural roots. I mean, you will know more than me, but my sense is there's something Calvinist in that, like trying to find this kind of truth inside yourself about who you are. I think it gets in the way of us actually coming together with others, not emphasizing the uniqueness of our pain but emphasizing our service to each other. Right? Our willingness to work for each other's well-being. To understand that my growth as an individual depends on everyone else's growth as an individual. For me to be, to overcome my traumas and my pain requires that I work with others on their pain and their trauma. So to deal with the structures that cause that because that's what capitalism does. It forces us to constantly compete with each other, to trample over each other for a few crumbs.But, you know, we'll need to work together and we'll need to get over that kind of narcissistic individualism that is so powerful in society. And when we do that, once we're in these kinds of collectives, you know, I think we experience a kind of joy, a kind of love, that maybe for the first time we feel fully human, right? But that's what we need to move towards. And I've seen it happen. I've seen it in my own life. You don't go into movements expecting to make yourself into a better person. But then you find that you do. Only because you are involved in this kind of process of collective growth with others.


Ry Siggelkow [01:05:43]  Absolutely. Those are wise words. Well, thank you so much, Arun, for your time today. And yes, I think I mentioned to you in an email that this book, "What is anti-racism and why it means anti-capitalism" is perhaps the best book on anti-racism I've ever read. It's simply a brilliant book. It's analytically clear. And I think there's so much to be learned from reading it. So I recommend it to people listening. And thanks again for your time. 

Arun Kundnani [01:06:14] Thanks so much, Ry. I really appreciate it. Thank you. 

Stella Pearce [01:06:27] Thank you for listening to the Leadership Center for Social Justice podcast. To learn more about the center and its programs, visit or follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at United_LCSJ.