Long Live Black/Red Bravery

Viola Liuzzo reviews Black Scare / Red Scare: Theorizing Capitalist Racism in the United States, Chicago University Press, 2023

There can be a strange tendency to consider our present moment the best of times and the worst of times. The vague noun ‘progressive’ implies a belief that the arc of history is bending towards justice. Yet when new laws or moral panics are cast as shocking reversals, the fact that they are part of the same old playbook often seems to be forgotten. Charisse Burden-Stelly’s new book Black Scare/Red Scare: Theorizing Capitalist Racism in the United States (University of Chicago Press) is a timely reminder that the repressive tools of this millennium, from the US PATRIOT Act to the UK Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, from the right-wing media’s demonization of immigrants to their demonization of antifa, are nothing new. Her well-researched history of the conflation of Black and left-wing organising by authorities determined to defame both is a welcome addition, methodically examining the tactics used by those in power to maintain their grip.

black scare red scare

The interconnectedness of Black Power and left-wing movements such as anti-Vietnam war organising in the 1960s are commonly-known trends in US history, as are the simultaneous presence of McCarthyism and the burgeoning civil rights movement in the 1950s. Burden-Stelly shows that the House Committee on Un-American Activities, established in 1938 to investigate alleged disloyal and rebel activity, was in fact highly precedented in the Lusk Committee of the late nineteen-teens. The new threat of Bolshevism provided a means to lump together radical union activity and Black campaigns for racial justice as sinister machinations by an outside enemy. Whereas in Germany, the smear was Jew = Red, preparing the ground for Hitler, in the USA the original Black/Red scare (which forged what is now the FBI) set a trend that only intensified in the 1940s and continues to set the tone today. Burden-Stelly highlights the particular persecution of the Industrial Workers of the World, the only significant interracial union, though without mentioning another ‘Black’ scare, the anti-anarchist repression of the 1800s, when Italians and Germans were tarred as ‘outside agitators’, and often considered non-white. She explains that African-Americans in the 1920s were not considered intelligent enough by the white establishment to organise themselves, an attitude that regrettably lives on today in the stereotyping of Black people and conspiracy theories that rich Jews such as George Soros are pulling the strings of social movements.

Throughout the book, Burden-Stelly demonstrates how the ‘superexploitation’ of racialized workers is used to divide the working class by playing on implicit and explicit notions of white separatism. While the UK case is different from that of the US, the same mechanics occur here, whether in a Windrush context (remember that employers and unions were maintaining a colour bar here well into the 1960s, such as in Bristol) or with the anti-immigrant rhetoric once again ramping up today. Service and domestic workers are less likely to be included in traditional labour organising, and more likely to be racialized. Burden-Stelly also argues that to an extent Black people have been able to ‘buy’ safety within society by adhering to anti-communism (compare the notion of the ‘good immigrant’). Of course, this only goes so far, and her analysis of the Black liberationist Marcus Garvey’s trajectory is particularly instructive. His strategy of upholding ‘American values’, to the point of speaking out against socialist Black activists, did not prevent his being categorized as a subversive and fully persecuted. Single-issue campaigners ignore intersectionality at their peril.

The fact that counter-histories such as Black Scare/Red Scare are currently being targeted as Critical Race Theory, as though the term were a slur, makes their publication vital. Burden-Stelly offers essential context for today, underlining that fights for freedom and equality are not only about redressing residual oppression but intervening as it is renewed. Fights for minority rights and workers’ rights will always be tied together by the state as ‘the antithesis… of citizenship’. Published by a university press, this is not a book for the general reader. The argument could have been strengthened by more quotation from primary sources, and the quotes are rarely introduced, occasionally causing confusion as to the positioning of the source and whether we are confronting fact, policy or opinion. The epilogue does good work in tying the argument to today’s world, but packs a lot in a short space, and signposting some further references would have been useful. Burden-Stelly argues that whiteness will continue to be weaponized against class solidarity, because Black campaigns for justice are ‘blamed for increased race hostility – not their mistreatment’ and ‘Black assertion [is] deemed a threat to national security while white terrorism and white supremacy [are] not’. Leftists are tarred as the dupes of foreign influences, while anti-racists are smeared as merely subversive pawns of the left. While general readers will find the book overly dense, the shared threat is addressed by many organisers and commentators today – for example, Naomi Klein discusses the use of ‘cultural marxism’ and CRT as joint attack words by the right in her interview on the Blind Boy podcast from October last year.

Despite Burden-Stelly’s avowed Marxism, the book carries an unresolved tension between the desire to radically change society and the desire to be treated fairly according to its terms. Historical reappraisals like this face a bind. It’s quite true that government, state and media scares unjustly smear campaigners of all stripes through polarising finger-pointing that divides society into ‘good citizens’ – those who accept the status quo – on one side and ‘subversives’ on the other. However, an emphasis on this fact can play into similar logic: by strenuously decrying the persecution of all those targeted with this broad brush, we can end up with no room for them to be, well, subversive, which seems to reaffirm the state’s own framework of ‘good citizenship’. Sometimes, a cigar-smoking revolutionary is just a cigar-smoking revolutionary. State repression isn’t just a sign of reactionary policy by those currently in charge, it’s also reflective of a genuine fear of radical politics. Radicals must balance the need to appeal to liberals’ sense of justice by calling out the truly repressive nature of the state, from which no-one is safe, with pushing the window of political possibility beyond civil changes and the existing rule of law. Happily, this is precisely what BLM and other recent anti-racist movements have achieved, putting abolition on the table in a move that brings together class and race in a direct reversal of the oppressive combination so thoroughly surveyed by Burden-Stelly. Living in the legacy of the Black/Red scare, long live Black/Red bravery!

Viola Liuzzo lives in Edinburgh.