A Review of
Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism
Reviewed by Joshua Livingston
“God enables, through creation and salvation, repair.”
Like all Asian Americans, I was handed a script. Only mine was a bit part as an extra. Yet at the same time, as an actor, I was coached to believe that I was a star. So, in my formative years, I signed a contract for a role that had nothing to do with “Asianness” and everything to do with a desire for achieving significance.
I was born to a single Korean woman in Atlantic City, New Jersey, a city that mediates many narrative tropes that could prove more than useful for a seedy backstory. Let’s say she was a casino waitress. I remember visiting Atlantic City with some friends once as a college student. I recall the free drinks, the buzzing neon, the cacophony of slots merging into atonal drones, and a circle of vultures that ominously hovered above us in the night sky. My father, the script says, was a Chinese American. Apparently, he had no idea she was carrying his baby.
I was born again three months later to a white couple from Long Island, NY. By “born again” I mean “saved,” as in adopted by a white couple from Long Island, NY. I was cradled in their longing, desire, and prayer. After 14 years of intense supplication and failed attempts for a baby, I arrived from stage left, concluding Act I, with a new stage being set.
Unbeknownst to me, my life was embodying a countertransference. Meaning, I served as a convenient stand-in for my parents’ fantasy. I mean this in a technical sense, not implying that they didn’t love me well. Only, as Erich Fromm says, “Love has no purpose … And that is why love is so rare these days, love without goals, love in which the only thing of importance is the act of loving itself. In this kind of love it is being and not consuming that plays the key role.” Growing up I was told that I was white, and for all intents and purposes, I was. I wasn’t simply a banana. I was a banana that was accidentally packaged with jumbo marshmallows. Racial capitalism is the campfire.
I spent most of my life believing that my narrative was about gratitude. I should be thankful that I was adopted. I should be thankful that I have two parents that love me. I should be thankful I didn’t have to endure a hard life with a single Korean mother. I should be thankful for America. I should be thankful I was raised as a Christian. And of course, I should be.
But then I learned my narrative was about consumption. My arrival was a consumer transaction and my Asianness was consumed by whiteness. Therefore, I intuited, I should consume a place in this world. I should consume an identity. I should consume those around me. I should consume according to my desires. I should consume like an American. I should consume like a Christian. And of course, I do.
For what it’s worth, this all-pervasive lack of identity has been the driving desire that fuels all of my consuming, and consumption is a vicious feedback loop where internal to the very structure of desire is lack. It’s just that for most of my life, I had no idea who I was, what I was doing, or for what reason. All I knew was that I needed to be somebody, but I was willing to settle for being something, so long as it matched the current moment of desire. For some strange reason, every decision I made was an attempt to belong somewhere, but I was willing to settle for belonging to anywhere, again, so long as it fed me. So I thought I could fulfill both of these drives by achieving something spectacular, no, miraculous (by God’s grace), and then I would be somebody and I would belong somewhere.
What did all of this mean for life as a Christian? After all, as the story goes, my true identity is “in Christ,” which of course meant a cosmic, ahistorical, apolitical, and consumptive Christ. Well, in brief, I wish I could say this journey took me all over the world and taught me all kinds of new perspectives. Alas, it only took me further down the spiral of religious consumptive practice around America. An urban Irish Catholic community in Philadelphia. A German Anabaptist community in Tampa Bay. A “multicultural” Presbyterian congregation in one neighborhood and a “Latinx” community in another, both in Chattanooga. And now, an Independent Christian Church in a former Klan community in Indianapolis (worshiping with a mostly Mexican congregation). God, I belong. Help me in my not belonging. End Act II.
Both of my adoptive parents are now dead. Shortly after my mom passed away to COVID in September of last year, I told Jonathan Tran on the phone that I felt strangely liberated. I used to have white parents and consequently, felt beholden to whiteness. Now I have no parents. Or more accurately, I have Asian parents, one of which has no idea who or where I am and the other has no idea I exist. But I only have Asian parents. Perhaps now the stage could be finally set for “Asianness?”
But Jonathan (in my words, not his) told me, “Sorry, there’s really no such thing.” (Strangely liberated, yet again.) “And what’s more, it’s not really helpful to speak in terms of ‘whiteness’ either.” (I could feel the weight falling off my body.) In other words, the identarian struggle for which I’d given my entire life was itself a fantasy. Not my fantasy. Not my white parents’ fantasy. Not even a cultural “Asian American” fantasy. (Although, ultimately, it produced all of these.) Rather, it was primarily a fantasy of racial capitalism.
Raymond Chang, pastor and president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative is spot on when he says that Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism “is a necessary companion to Dr. Willie Jennings’ The Christian Imagination. If you found yourself blessed and transformed by the work of Jennings, you will be deeply impacted by the work of Tran. If you haven’t read Jennings, pick up both. They should be required readings in every seminary and Christian college.” Jennings’ work describes how racialization begins when bodies are extracted from land. The question is: Why would bodies ever need to be uprooted from the land? This puts us squarely in the realm of political economy. Similarly, Brian Bantum, in his excellent book The Death of Race, describes how “our bodies do work,” the question being: What work is being done? Again, we are looking at the moral logic of embodiment in political economy.
Indeed, in this new book, Jonathan Tran has delivered our racially-charged, politicized age a healing balm. As many have pointed out, it goes a long way in carving out hopeful, and radical, alternatives to what has become corporate, progressive anti-racist strategies that root themselves in abstracted notions of “racial identity.” He does an excellent job depicting how racism in America is inherently and historically tied to political economy, and anti-racism efforts that tend to ignore or downplay this (via identity politics, DEI strategies, representation, etc.) inadvertently end up perpetuating problems of binary racialization, while also “marginalizing those already marginalized by racism” (292). Tran uses the elusive “Asian American” signifier as an example of how, in the service of “identarian anti-racism,” aside from the polyphony across socio-economic lines that that word implies, any sort of racial intelligibility exists somewhere on a scale between “whiteness” and “blackness.”
In a brilliant move of contextualization, Tran employs ethnographic case studies of two “Asian American” communities, contrasting their respective participation and embodiments within particular political economies. There’s the Chinese immigrants that settled in the Mississippi Delta between 1868 and 1969 who had to navigate a post-Reconstruction world by establishing grocery stores that market to the black community, in the process both alienating themselves from “whiteness” while earning off the poverty of “blackness.” And then there’s the contemporary example of Redeemer Community Church in San Francisco, planted in the Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhood, also known as “Black San Francisco.” Here we witness an example of a diverse collection of Asian Americans (and others) leveraging their economic proximity to “whiteness” to embody and develop a hopeful ecosystem. Rooted in the fertile ground of the church, they have developed opportunities for economic mobility for their historically disenfranchised black neighbors through education and business development. The point, however, is that none of these identarian ways of describing these communities actually gets to the root of what’s actually taking place on the ground, much less offer deep enough pathways for reversing the course of racial capitalism.
Tran says (in his own words this time),
“To claim a racial identity or to have one claimed of you is to be submitted to seasoned processes of racial commodification, indexed racially for use and used with racist justification. This process does not begin with ontological distinctions; it produces them along a path made by innumerable prudential judgments as bodies are passed down the line of cultural signification. More than anything race is about convenience” (75-76).
Regarding “ontological distinctions” (or as Krista Tippett might call it, “on being”), please don’t hear what Tran is not saying. He is not aiming at a sentimental post-racial equality, whereby all of our perceived differences can be solved by diversity, equity, and inclusion (well, maybe equity helps). His indictment on the anti-racism discourse of today is to look at a racial history that is economically insidious and requires a deeply radical reformulation of political life in America to address. In other words, everybody wants to talk about racism. Nobody wants to talk about capitalism. And most don’t even know what neoliberalism is. And that’s precisely how it works. Exploitative political economy functions as a naturalized backdrop and many of us have presumed that racism is an anomaly within it. It’s kind of like saying that saltiness is anomalous to the ocean, whereas in reality, it’s a crucial and necessary element of its ecology.
In contrast to racial capitalism, Tran’s book insists that, “(f)or Christianity, a genuinely political economy–where individual desire and communal flourishing serve one another–shares patterns of common life built into the divine economy. It only requires the ecclesia to make good on what the “called out ones” already claim as true” (19). Again, in the spirit of Jennings (who, by the way, is one of Tran’s former teachers), liberation in Christ is not simply personal, communal or political (although, ultimately, it’s all of these), it’s primarily ecological.
Here is where the Hauerwasian side of Tran’s theology shines. Only, where Hauerwas’s ecclesiology was primarily aimed as a critique of the political theory of liberalism, Tran rounds out that critique by employing the insights on theologies of race via Willie Jennings and J. Kameron Carter. But it’s the “deep economy” that’s formed in the way of the divine economy that stands out here as a prophetic and faithful way to be church. Another way Tran draws this out is via the “traditioned” teleology of Alasdair MacIntyre, only remembering that MacIntyre’s Aristotelian virtue ethics and Catholic faith came by way of his commitments to Marxism.
For those of us working at the intersection of church and community economic development, this is not revolutionary thinking. But for churches on the sidelines of racial discourse longing to get in the game, Tran is a very good coach. The story of Redeemer Community Church is exactly that: A “story-formed community” shaped in light of God’s story of divine economy: the in-breaking of God’s redeeming presence in all of creation. Much of the book’s text attempts to make clear that Redeemer’s presence has never been to “change the world,” contrary to much of the academic aspirations experienced by its members. Rather, their life together is meant to serve as a signpost of proclamation; that the God of creation, despite the thunder and lightning of racial capitalism, is speaking and healing through the still, small voice of a gathered church. In the manner of the church in Acts, Redeemer is a comprehensive community with cultural, political, and economic dimensions to it, each being redeemed in their own way. All of a sudden, their Asianness is beside the point. And in light of their witness, so is mine. In fact, it can get in the way.
Jonathan Tran goes to great lengths to explore the roots of racialization in America by distinguishing between the bad fruit of political economy and its “aftermarket effects,” on the one hand, and the ontologies of libidinal economy, or an innate antiblackness that’s rooted in distorted desire, on the other. Indeed, it’s a compelling and historically truthful argument. However, as with any teacher who needs to make a point, there is always the risk of making a contrast so stark that it becomes overdetermined. Sometimes we just need these rhetorics to penetrate our thick skulls and hardened hearts.
On the weekend that I finished reading Tran’s book, I saw in the news that an Asian American woman in Manhattan was randomly pushed to her death in front of an oncoming subway. Once again, my brain began to hurt and my heart began to grieve. How is this an aftermarket effect of political economy, Dr. Tran? Well, I don’t think it is. But I can only say that in today’s context of hyper-capitalist neoliberal globalization, where libidinal desire is an aftermarket effect. And what does this mean? It means that the aftermarket effects of racial capitalism have been ground up and dissolved into the water of our desires. The powers of neoliberalism would have us believe their work remains in a systemic and structural apparatus somewhere “out there,” while we never even consider how aftermarket effects are also aftermarket affects. We feel the market in our bodies. We learn the market in our desires. We project the market in our fantasies. We eroticize the market in our dreams.
The economic geographer David Harvey describes the situation:
“The process of neoliberalization has, however, entailed much ‘creative destruction’, not only of prior institutional frameworks and powers (even challenging traditional forms of state sovereignty) but also of divisions of labor, social relations, welfare provisions, technological mixes, ways of life and thought, reproductive activities, attachments to the land and habits of the heart… It holds that the social good will be maximized by maximizing the reach and frequency of market transactions, and it seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market.”
So, while racial capitalism began as a tool of the market, and remains so, it also subsists in the malformed desires and feelings of today’s globalized and technologized human body. Hence, the “Spirit” in the title of the book, is so easily passed over. With religion itself captive to the all-pervasive (all-perversive?) neoliberal marketplace, we can finally do alway with the fantasies of a sacred and secular divide. God has apocalyptically entered the stage with a radically new Act, and it’s on the church to dig into the roots of our desire so as to draw healing strength from God’s redeemed ecology.