Friday, November 12, 2021

Jonathan Tran's "Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism"

Jonathan Tran is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Baylor University where he holds the George W. Baines Chair of Religion.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism offers the following:
The Delta Chinese Christians present us with a scenario where an alternative political economy had availed itself, but because of how things turned out, it could do little work. The terms of their arrival in America (driven by a Reconstruction-era labor scheme that pitted Chinese migrants against African American freedmen) required that they remain wedded to racial capitalism, even when the conditions of that arrival might have given them pause. Moreover, the Delta Chinese only made room for Christianity when the financial benefits (the success of their business model and the education of their children) of doing so became apparent. Rather than resisting racial capitalism, Christianity helped them further into it. The very terms by which they received Christianity would set the terms for what it could do for them. The Baptist Christianity which situated their lives in the American South permitted them a religious piety that enabled upright business practices and honorable dealings with their black customers but disabled any ability to recognize the political economy in which those practices and dealings occurred. Because the opportunity that the Chinese migrants initially stumbled upon allowed them to accumulate wealth while ignorant of the historical conditions that created it, they would need additional resources to see the scenario for the aftermarket reality that it was. Yet because Christianity had become for them, as it had for so many, synonymous with the racial capitalism that first created the aftermarket opportunity, then rather than playing this illuminating role, the Christianity only further blinded them to what they were doing. That they could continue in this blindness no matter the direct racism they personally experienced or the systemic effects they regularly witnessed demonstrates the inveterate nature of the political economy that dominated their daily lives, as well as the anemic Christianity adorning it. All the while, right under their noses sat, just beyond reach apparently, the θεία οικονομία (divine economy). That the tragic scenario of missed opportunities resembles the pattern of so much American Christianity, where the regnant political economy determines so much about religious life, means that the Delta Chinese Christians were at least not alone in compromising Christianity. Even though Delta Chinese Christianity did little to present an alternative to racial capitalism, instead providing a moving picture of its inner workings, it went a long way in demonstrating the moral cost of failing to do so.
Page 99 tries to make good on two of the book’s three primary goals: 1. Broaden conversations about race/racism so that what is currently an overly narrow focus on racial identity opens up to questions of political economy, especially the racial capitalism that uses racial identities for the sake of justifying domination and exploitation. “Racial capitalism” is a concept developed through the Black Marxist tradition that counts race/racism as integral to capitalist ideology. 2. Tell the story of American race/racism through those racialized as “Asian Americans.” I try to show how contemporary antiracism’s intense focus on racial identity (where the substance of race is white/black) cannot help marginalizing those already marginalized by racism. 3. Articulate Christian complicity in American racism while also encouraging Christians to do better, as a form of repentance more than anything else. In the second half of the book, I tell the real-life story of how a group of Asian American Christians try to do just that, and the types of complexities that come with doing so.

Page 99 gets at 1 and 2. Coming in a chapter that offers “a moving picture of racial capitalism” I recount the story of how Chinese migrants, after escaping a Reconstruction-era scheme to use them as cheap labor, took part in the political economy of racial capitalism by creating a business model that took advantage of racialized conditions. I present this scenario as a more accurate picture of how race/racism actually work, a picture that does not depend on sensationalized and hyperbolic accounts of white supremacy or “whiteness.” Rather, racism issues from structures and systems (often faceless, and no less deadly for it) that advantage some at the cost of others. Racism is not primarily about individual racist attitudes and microaggressions that sometimes rise to the level of structures and systems; it rather always operates systematically and structurally and accordingly produces requisite attitudes and aggressions. These are complicated stories, and I try to make this part of the argument with nuance and sympathy, attempting to attend to the dual role Asian Americans play as both racism’s victims and beneficiaries. A conviction driving the book is that racism is extraordinarily complex, and we need accounts of moral psychology sophisticated enough to take in those complexities (i.e., virtue signaling won’t do).
Visit Jonathan Tran's website.

--Marshal Zeringue