Racism — the strange Fruit of Capitalism

by Kiri Vadivelu | 2 min. read race

Class of capitalists scrambled to exploit the opportunities offered by the opening of the Americas, and as the great powers sought to extend their empires

“Strange Fruit” has been described as “a declaration of war ... the beginning of the civil rights movement”. When Billie Holiday first performed the song, in a New York nightclub in 1939, it had an electrifying effect. “There wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly, everyone was clapping”, she later wrote.

Racism - the strange fruit of capitalism
Racism - the Strange Fruit of Capitalism | © Kiri Vadivelu

Holiday was singing about the thousands of African Americans who were tortured and murdered by racist thugs, usually with total impunity. The last recorded lynching took place as late as 1981. But the killing of Blacks by police and racist vigilantes continues to this day. Trayvon Martin, Freddy Grey, Daunte Wright, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd—the list goes on and on.

Racism is built into the fabric of US society, impacting every aspect of life. African Americans are nearly twice as likely as other Americans to live in poverty and to be unemployed; and the imprisonment rate of Blacks is more than five times the rate among whites.

Racism is a modern phenomenon, the legacy of slavery. It developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a new class of capitalists scrambled to exploit the opportunities offered by the opening of the Americas, and as the great powers sought to extend their empires.

Today, it’s this capacity of racism to divide the working class that is most useful to the capitalists. They understand that when workers accept racist ideas, it undermines class solidarity and unity. The scapegoating of particular groups divides workers against each other, blunts their understanding of who their real enemies are and thus weakens their capacity to resist exploitation.

The capitalists don’t rule directly: they rely on governments to enact and enforce laws and policies in their interests. The state is not some neutral, independent body standing above society; it’s an instrument of class rule. It’s not that the politicians, judges, the heads of the public service and armed forces who run the state are racists—though of course some of them often are. But as members of the ruling class, they are committed to the maintenance of exploitation and the protection of the interests of their “own” capitalists vis-à-vis those of other countries.

Since the dawn of capitalism, the capitalists, politicians and bureaucrats who run the world have consciously and deliberately used racism to further their class interests. Racism is deeply embedded in capitalist society and all its institutions, and it’s too useful a weapon for them ever to give it up.

In other words, to eradicate racism, we have to get to the source of the problem. The strange and bitter fruit of racism will disappear from society only once we tear out the whole capitalist system, root and branch.

An except of Tess Lee Ack from RedFlag

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