Arts Of The Working Class Logo


How “red scares” and “black scares” work together to protect racial capitalism.

  • Feb 22 2022
  • Charisse Burden Stelly
    is assistant professor of Africana studies and political science. Her research interests include racial capitalism, structural racism, anticommunism, and twentieth century Black anticapitalist thought, in particular, that of W.E.B. Bois. Besides her academic work, she is also a member of The Black Alliance for Peace.

The Black Scare, which is closely linked to anti-Blackness, can be understood as historically and contextually situated debasement, distortion, criminalization, and subjection of Blackness rooted in fear-mongering about Black social equality, political domination, and
economic parity on the one hand, and with displacement, devalorization, and devaluation of whiteness on the other hand. It’s also the characterization of Black agitation protests, unrest, or descent as dangerous, as antithetical to the interests of the United States, and/or
as spurred by or susceptible to foreign or outside influence or agitation. The Black Scare has historically been a means of maintaining what we might call the “badge of slavery”, that has legitimated the economic, social, and ideological denigration of Blackness. And this is particularly important because Black assertion is considered to be a form of radicalism because it is a fundamental challenge to the white supremacy that is foundational to and constitutive of the United States.

The Red Scare, which is linked to anti-communism/ anti-Marxism, is the criminalization and condemnation of anti-capitalist ideas, politics and/or practices through discourses of radical takeover, of infiltration, and disruption of the American way of life as a means of maintaining a society organized along class and race lines and dominated by a majority white capitalist elite. After 1917, The Red Scare was prominently articulated through the specter of the communist or the Bolshevist and the fellow traveler (so one who didn’t necessarily belong to a party, but who espoused those ideas). The Red Scare is a process by which a fear, hatred and obsession with communism and with radicalism writ large help to mold the United States into what it became throughout the 20th century (extending into 21st century) and whereby militant challenges to the status quo came to represent a danger to the nation attributed to agitators or plotters or traders or conspirators.

Governance aimed at managing and criminalizing racial and political others who threatened to upend or transform the racialized class order actually stoked white supremacy and cross-class collaboration among white folks that has obfuscated economic exploitation in the interests of the ruling class. This is the basis of the anti-communist/anti-Marxist mode of governance which includes all three branches of government (also state and local governments) and has been maintained through repressive action, intentional inaction, and also stifling reaction. Anti-communism/anti-Marxism as a mode of governance uses public authority and societal self-regulation to diffuse throughout society penalty for (and the marginalization regulation and criminalization of) ideas and beliefs that because they challenge racial capitalism and its foundations (not least racial hierarchy, economic inequality and class antagonism) are rendered communist and therefore antithetical to, or threatening or dangerous to “true Americanism.” [...]

These were especially prominent during the era of what we might call the first cold war at this point, because we’re probably barreling toward another, if not already firmly in one anti-communist/anti-Marxist governance is facilitated through an anti-radical state apparatus that encompasses all three branches of government. And then of course, public authorities aimed to eject, punish, and neutralize communists and their fellow travelers and sympathizers. And those were broad designations that included anybody who criticized or sought to transform a racial capitalist society. And this includes peace activists, civil rights leaders, dissident artists, and progressive labor organizers of all types. That is to say: anti-communism/anti-Marxism is not just about communists, it’s about people who are challenging some aspect of the status quo, who could then be red-baited as communist to protect racial capitalism against the threat of radical transformation. In effect, anti-communist/anti-Marxist governance as a product of two world wars and numerous revolutions that reflected a failure of the United States to adjust to power, political or revolutionary ramifications that confronted the 20th century world (and now the 21st century). In other words, anti-communist/anti-Marxist governance is a backlash to these phenomenons. It imposes a uniformity on communism and all that is said to be linked to it, positioning them as a preeminent threat to US national security and societal organization. And that then encourages an international strategy of military containment and rollback. Domestically, rigid and repressive opposition to change an imposition of adherence to the status quo allows for the vehement attack and discrediting of even reformist ideas and policies (historically, this is like The New Deal) and the eraser of any distinction between act, intention, and ideas. And importantly, through this regime, property becomes conflated with sort of life or human life such that an attack on a property takes on an enormous challenge to the state. [...]

Hundreds of thousands of individuals live in fear and hold their thoughts and opinions to themselves because the atmosphere of freedom is poisoned by the fact that repressive laws are passed. People might not want to join a March or protest or might feel that they need to speak out against something that is characterized as communist or radical like Black Lives Matter, for example, simply because laws and policies exist that repress them. So the soft power of anti-communist/ anti-Marxist governance means that racially, politically minoritized people are forced to genuflect to the status quo less they’d be marginalized, excluded, criminalized, physically attacked or worse. Likewise, ordinary citizens under the influence of anti-communist/ anti-Marxist governance are conditioned to be hostile to and prejudice against communities and other communists, and other political militants, and to enact private anti communist/anti-Marxist actions. These individuals include landlords, private employers, book publishers, those working in mass media, teachers, all around people espouse this rhetoric about communism or socialism that they know nothing about, but this is because they’re conditioned by the extant society. [...]

In reality, what anti-communism/anti-Marxism does is to transform anything counter-hegemonic or non-conforming into subversion, foreignness, or disloyalty by punishing it as communist, communist inspired, or communist infiltrated and therefore illegal, illicit or criminal. As such, US racial capitalism in the society that engenders is one of the most repressive of all western countries. It has adopted legislation and practices that actually represses democratic liberties more so than any other country in the west. It has refused to accommodate not only communism, but dissenting thoughts and actions of all kinds. And this is relatively— it’s not that it’s only the United States, but it’s relatively unique to the United States. And the United States actually has imported those policies abroad through its practices of imperialism, legitimating a repressive domestic and interventionist foreign policy through aggressive rhetoric, coercion of loyalty, grilling people on whether or not they are communists. And if they are considered to be communist or have been communist or socialist or whatever, they’re sort of hampered from holding leadership positions. And then there’s also widespread prosecution and persecution.

Excerpt from a talk prepared for the Albuquerque Anti-War Coalition‘s Anti-Communism & Imperialism panel discussion, where Dr. Charisse Burden Stelly discussed how anti-communism and anti-Blackness are intrinsically intertwined structures of white supremacist and capitalist control.


This text was published in the Extrablatt of ISSUE 19: ANTICRISTOS, a dialogue between AWC and the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM), in the frame of the exhibition Karl Marx und der Kapitalismus, opening on February 10, 2022.



To improve our website for you, please allow a cookie from Google Analytics to be set.

Basic cookies that are necessary for the correct function of the website are always set.

The cookie settings can be changed at any time on the Date Privacy page.