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Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism

Jonathan Tran
Published by Oxford University Press in 2021

The first time I threw a punch it was because another middle schooler pushed me and called me “Chinese boy.” I’m bi-racial Filipino American, the son of a white father and a Filipino mother who met in the Philippines before moving to the States. I grew up attending mostly white public schools, where I was used to being mistaken for various ethnicities. But the way he said it – “Chineeeese boy”– felt like a dismissal, as if my inability to fight back was a foregone conclusion. My retaliatory punch was weak; there wasn’t even much emotion behind it. It was largely symbolic, an inevitable part of a larger performance, my racially inflected struggle to fit.

I share this adolescent account because it illustrates a common experience for Asian Americans as they navigate majority white settings. In the U.S., most conversations about race follow a black-white binary; other minority groups are sorted to either side as allies, wannabees, or disciplinary tools. And although the binary makes sense given the horrific history and continuing practice of anti-black racism in America, it is also the case that Asian Americans have their own stories to tell, and that these stories do not fit neatly into the narrative. Asian Americans often testify to the feeling of invisibility, erasure, and diminishment, of being perpetually sorted into categories that we did not choose. 

The fistfight was one of many memories that came to mind as I read Jonathan Tran’s astounding book Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism. Tran is professor of theology and ethics at Baylor University, and his book offers an illuminating account of being caught in the crossfire of contemporary racism and antiracism. But although Tran’s book centers Asian American experiences, its argument is not so narrowly aimed. These experiences give concreteness to a larger critique of antiracism’s identarian focus, which too often reinforces the very divisions it resists. By focusing on racial identity, Tran argues, antiracism fails to get to the heart of the problem: the political economy that drives racialization. He writes: “We live in a time when what need to be wide-ranging conversations about the inhumanity of our political economic orders have been reduced to narrow questions about personal identity” (292). This means that “all those antiracist efforts aimed at changing minds without changing structures and systems are doomed to fail. Racism does not begin with bad ideas” (294). 

Drawing on an alternative stream of analysis from Black Marxism, Tran argues that racism is ideological justification for economic exploitation. This is what he means by “racial capitalism.” But Tran also seeks to move “beyond Marxism,” since “given its ambivalence about ethical life… [it] often lacks the determinate forms of life necessary to get the revolution off the ground” (293). To cultivate these forms of life, Tran turns to theology, articulating a constructive account in which a triad of participation, revelation, and repair replaces racial capitalism’s triad of use, justification, and identity. This means that Tran’s project is simultaneously more constructive and more demanding than most forms of identarian anti-racism. It requires us to rethink the shape of our shared life, and to nourish forms of community that testify to the “deep economy” of God.

Tran’s argument proceeds in two parts, organized around two case studies. The first case study follows the story of migrant Chinese workers in the Mississippi Delta during Reconstruction. Victims of exploitation and exclusion, the Delta Chinese carved out a niche “aftermarket” of grocery stores, which allowed them to profit from the exploitation and exclusion of Black Americans. As the Delta Chinese moved upward in society, they also moved towards (Southern Baptist) Christianity, which failed to offer a critique of their economic practices, or the larger system that pit one exploited group against the other.

How should we evaluate the upward mobility of the Delta Chinese, and how might it speak to the place of Asian Americans in modern times? Tran moves through common racist and antiracist accounts (the model minority myth and the trope of “becoming white”), showing how both obscure the question of political economy. The result of Tran’s analysis in part one is an incisive picture of racial capitalism that acknowledges the suffering of Asian Americans at the hands of an exploitative political economy but also confronts Asian American complicity in exploiting others as part of that economy. But make no mistake: if racism is to be overcome, the political economy itself must be exposed, challenged, and changed. 

The second part of the book seeks a constructive account of political renewal, “showing how Christianity offers a way out of racism by stepping into ‘a revolution, the overturning that is the turning the world right side up by God’” (157). Tran does this through the contemporary case study of Redeemer Community Church (RCC) – a multi-ethnic Asian American community settled in a predominantly Black neighborhood in San Francisco caught between abandonment and gentrification. Working for the good of the Bayview/Hunters Point community led members of the church to start a small technology company (Dayspring Partners) and a Christian school (Rise University Preparatory), both of which receive significant attention for their cultivation of alternative approaches to business and education.

Although RCC and its offshoots function as model of a liberative political economy, Tran notes the complexities, tensions, and failures, which will surely attend any attempt to build something beautiful amid racial capitalism’s brutality. Here the narrative is driven forward by the personal stories of church leaders and members: their conversion to a more demanding form of Christian faith, their efforts to reject exploitation and embrace an alternative economy, and their continuing struggle for integrity amid America’s racisms and antiracisms (291). 

Here Tran cautions his readers about the iconoclastic mood that often accompanies our fervor for justice: “We are quick to call out anything that smacks of complicity . . . . But in the process of deconstructing everything, will we have the wherewithal to distinguish friend from foe, those things we need from those we don’t, those that heal from those that harm?” (191) Indeed, Tran’s book models a no less trenchant but more careful iconoclasm, one that seeks to name and negate the false god that fuels the evils of racism. Where others name the god “whiteness,” Tran suggests instead that its name is Mammon.   

This leads me to three reflections on Tran’s argument, related to solidarity, economy, and theology. First, I wonder whether our passion for liberation is always at risk of being read in terms of personal autonomy. But it is precisely our alienating lust for autonomy – afforded to us in greater measure by racial capitalism – that undermines the sort of solidarity required to fight racism. Freedom from, while necessary, is not sufficient for cultivating solidarity across difference. Cultivating solidarity across difference requires a more robust moral vision, freedom for, a vision of liberation that makes a claim on my life in connection with others and the place where I live. These visions of liberation will always limit our freedom, or at least insist on giving it a telos. Thus, it is important to distinguish between the minimal standards that our political economy must provide (what justice demands) while also seeking to show through embodied witness a more expansive economy of flourishing (what love requires). 

Here is where I recognize my own deficit (shared by other theologically trained academics) when it comes to economic analysis. Some of us worry that any engagement with Marxist analysis places us on the wrong track, tending towards an economic reductionism that has little space for God. But this does not excuse us from wrestling with economic critiques in their strongest forms. If we join Tran in seeking to move “beyond Marxism,” we must join Tran in moving through it, hearing its testimonies. The fact of exploitation is undeniable. We need to be confronted with the brutal facts of economic disparity and ask who is profiting and who is being dehumanized. Christian integrity requires that we reckon with these things and do our part to make them right.

The question of course is what this entails: is “racial capitalism” an unavoidable consequence of capitalism simpliciter? Must capitalism be replaced without remainder, or can it be redeemed? And regardless of what we call a more humane economy, what would it require to offer something better? For my part, I wonder whether the energy that gets attached to the labels, “capitalism” vs. “Marxism,” derails what the conversation should actually be about. Here we can learn from Tran in finding theological language to diagnose the problem. An example: “ideology obscures the nature of things so as to take advantage of them. Racially identifying some creature as but a thing to be used rather than a creature made to reveal God speaks lies about it. To rip it from its naturally occurring ecology, from the structures by which it has life and gives life to others, so as to extract capital is to act ruinously toward it” (196). It is precisely when we treat persons as things, seeking to extract their labor or use them as tools, that we nurture the conditions in which racism thrives. 

This is why part two of Tran’s book is just as vital as part one. Tran makes it plain that he intends this book primarily as a work of theology (xviii), not ethnography or social analysis. And yet, Tran does not offer anything conceptually new; his constructive theology of deep economy draws from a “constellation” of diverse voices. But to the degree that Tran is successful in his project (and I believe he is), his book invites us to reimagine the possibility of theology to bring together diverse disciplinary expertise in constructive ways. Engaging the political economy that drives racialization shows theology at its best, able to sit down at the table with many critical voices, and yet offering something distinct, discerning the Voice that tells us what we could not have told ourselves.

Justin Bailey

Dr. Justin Bailey is a professor in the Theology Department at Dordt University who works at the intersection of Christian theology, culture, and ministry. Having served as a pastor in a number of diverse settings, Justin's work as a professor explores the ways that culture shapes the practice of Christian faith, as well as the ways that the Christian imagination shapes believers to participate in culture. His research seeks to bridge gaps between church and academy, exploring the formational spaces where they overlap.

3 Comments

  • George Hunsberger says:

    Thank you, Justin. I find Tran’s interpretation and vision, and your explication of it, to be both illumining and important. We are indebted to you for opening up to us these pathways forward.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Justin, That was an excellent review of a book I would not have read. I am more tied to how Blacks have been used falsely in our country since their being stolen from their homeland. I think my adopted son’s difficulties are tied to him being half Black and half white. And you have one sentence that explains his difficulties. It is the last sentence of the second to last paragraph. His race is placed with those who labored for the U.S. He was never seen as someone who could also be part of the white race. He has had jeering from walking down the street with his white wife from both sides. It comes from the Blacks and the whites. Blacks have the unique position of being slaves of us and we need to erase that falsehood from our minds. I know Asians have had difficulties too with being “coolies” many ago but let’s open our hearts to Jesus’s overpowering love.

  • John Hwang says:

    Thank you for the excellent book review. Your analysis and reflections brought clarity and understanding to arguments that are new and complex to a non-academic reader. Your review gives me a deeper appreciation of Jonathan Tran’s book.

    I’ve been following and listening to most podcast interviews talking about this book. Frankly, I’ve been disappointed by most interviews and other book review. Most interviewers clearly didn’t read the book nor did they wrestle with the ideas/arguments.

    This book gives me the language to process my Asian American identity outside of the identitarian black/white binary. It’s also challenged me to explore Asian American complicity in the exploitation of other races in educational opportunities and in the political economy. It also inspires me to re-imagine what it looks like to be a Christian entrepreneur in a broken and divided world.

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