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During ISU visit, researcher looks at where class, capitalism and anti-racism intersect

Boston college sociology professor Zine Magubane
Boston College sociology professor Zine Magubane.

Social class drove racism, but what many might not know is class also drove anti-racism. That's according to Boston College sociology professor Zine Magubane, who speaks Monday at an Illinois State University event.

Magubane said that to understand the impact racism has made in the United States means that people must understand social class.

“When people say race and class are equally constitutive of American history and American society today, oftentimes … they get criticized that they’re underplaying the role of racism. In that criticism is also a misunderstanding of what people mean when they say class. Usually as it’s understood, class is like an ascriptive attribute,” Magubane said.

Magubane said this criticism does not understand class analysis, which involves looking at the social relations of production in a particular society.

When analyzing the problem of inequality, Magubane said people must learn that class dynamics not only have driven racism but also anti-racism for decades. Within the argument of anti-racism, there is disagreement.

"Absent understanding of history, we cannot really critically interrogate these current efforts to achieve racial equality."
Zine Magubane, Boston College professor

“Oftentimes, things are posed in these bipolar terms. ‘All the Blacks were on one side, [and] all the whites were on another.’ What I hope people actually understand is that within African Americans all working astutely on anti-racism, there were these very sharp disagreements,” Magubane said. “Those disagreements refer back to the class component of the agenda they were pushing forward. If people can understand that as it worked in the past, they can more critically engage with these dynamics in the present.”

In the development of the American capitalist system that forms class dynamics today, Magubane said the working class primarily has faced assault and discrimination. One example of this is in housing and the mortgage bubble in the early 2000s, which resulted in many Americans losing their homes.

Prior to the mortgage crisis, Magubane said African Americans had lower rates of homeownership – that being one of the cornerstones of wealth accumulation in the U.S. She said the solution to this was offering subprime mortgages without posing the question of should housing become commodified, and this was at times disastrous.

Here, Magubane said a certain standard of anti-racism can be recognized because African Americans were more likely to be offered these predatory loans.

“However, the solution then proffered again was not to say housing should not be commodified. Rather it was to look at the discriminatory attitudes or evidence, once again, of racism being this overriding thing baked into America’s DNA and so on and so forth,” Magubane said. “So, indeed what would have led to more equality within our society and equalized racial wealth distribution, to use that terrible phrase, would have been the decommodification of housing.”

Another example of modern-day discrimination that allows the capitalist system to thrive Magubane addressed is the racial wealth gap and the imbedded authorization of the notion of wealth.

“The biggest problem is that the wealth is unequal rather than we live in a society predicated upon having wealth in order to secure the basic needs of life: food, housing, shelter, education,” Magubane said.

To understand the makeup of American history and modern day capitalism, Magubane said people need to become more knowledgeable and look with critical and observative scrutiny on the ethics of anti-racism.

“The threat to capitalism was in some ways seen as even more threatening than the possibility of racial equality within an overridden capitalist system … The elements within that struggle that were more closely aligned with challenging capitalism experienced much more terror and active attempts to destroy them than those movements – again, from the Civil War era, we can see it in Civil Rights – than those elements that were proffering a vison of racial equality that still maintained a capitalist system,” Magubane said.

Magubane said the easiest anti-racist elements to look at with this scrutiny are diversity and inclusion efforts and even aspects of the Black Lives Matter agenda, for example.

“Absent understanding of history, we cannot really critically interrogate these current efforts to achieve racial equality,” Magubane said.

Magubane will discuss the role of racism in American society during her lecture titled, “The Uses and Abuses of Jim Crow: Contemporary Race Theory and the Problem of History.” The lecture is available via Zoom at 3:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 28. It's sponsored by Illinois State University’s Department of History and African American Studies program.

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Jordan Mead is a reporting intern at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021.
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