Fighting anti-communism and anti-Blackness: An interview with Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly
The work of Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly, left, targets the anti-Black and anti-communist ideology of the extreme right. | Burden-Stelly photo via Twitter, photos on right via AP

Among the disheartening happenings in Detroit this year have been the dedication of ARPA emergency funding to increased police surveillance throughout the city and being deemed a federal “hot spot” for crime. It’s been feeling like the Motor City would be rounding out another disappointing year masked only by the North American Auto Show—and the giant rubber duck that apparently now comes with that—and promises of EV charging roads.

However, 2022 has also been a year of organizing baristas, organizing graduate students, guerilla information campaigns, tenants standing up to landlords and protecting those in their community from evictions, and what appears to be a political reawakening among Detroiters.

Detroit did, in fact, receive some good news on the academic front as well: Back during the spring, it was announced that renowned academic and author Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly accepted a position as Associate Professor of African American studies at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Known by the moniker “Dr. CBS,” Burden-Stelly has recently become a household name in political and academic circles alike. She set out this week on a book tour in support of her and Jodi Dean’s edited collection of Black communist women’s political writings, Organize, Fight, Win: Black Communist Women’s Political Writing.

“Wayne State, I thought, was a good fit for the type of work that I do, given both Wayne State’s and Detroit’s radical history, strong labor organizing history,” Burden-Stelly told People’s World at the beginning of the tour earlier this week. “Being a Black city, this was, in many ways, ground zero for deindustrialization and, although the city is coming back in different ways, a lot of the economic realities of the country coalesce here in Detroit.

“There is a definite contrast between the student populations at Wayne State and at Carleton College. Wayne State has a lot of working-class students who are from the area, and it’s really interesting to work with students who work for a living. There’s a much broader stratification between what the students bring to the classroom,” Burden-Stelly said when asked about what has her looking forward to working in Detroit. “It allows me to bring my skills to the classroom and think pedagogically how to help students access the material.”

When asked about how she approaches teaching as a (Walter) Rodneyist, Burden-Stelly replied: “I’m always bringing the race and class perspective to everything, focusing on internationalism, and the interplay between current events and history. I think that’s not something students are necessarily used to, and I think they’re trying to figure out if I’m this ‘wild-eyed radical’ or something,” Dr. Burden-Stelly laughed. “But they’re hanging with me, and those are just some of the things I’m looking forward to.”

As a member of the Research and Political Education Team for the Black Alliance for Peace; having co-authored W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History with radical historian Gerald Horne; creating public scholarship on imperialism, Black oppression, and anticommunism; and being a frequent contributor to the Black Agenda Report, Burden-Stelly’s ever-growing résumé is not only impressive but reads as a syllabus for the world’s repressed histories.

Her work on the connection between anti-communism and anti-Black racial oppression and policies is the focus of her forthcoming book, Black Scare/Red Scare, due out next year. The roles of anti-communism and anti-Blackness, and the interplay between them is very clearly alive and well, especially in how U.S. foreign policy reflects the domestic landscape.

“We still see the resonance of anti-communist discourse and belief. Anti-communism means anything—it means anti-internationalism, at one point it meant interracial organizing, it meant Civil Rights. For example, one of the questions that was often asked of white people by these [anti-communist] committees in the ’30s was whether they ever had any Black people in their home,” Burden-Stelly explained.

“One of the starkest contemporary examples of this link between anti-Blackness and anti-radicalism was the FBI’s indictment of the African People’s Socialist Party claiming that they’re—using that McCarran language of ‘being an agent of a foreign power’—working with Russia.”

Earlier this year, the FBI raided the APSP headquarters in St. Louis and St. Petersburg, Fla., under the pretense that the party has ties with and is being funded by Russia.

“It’s significant that it’s a Black organization that they targeted—especially one that was headquartered in Florida. As we know, there’s the ‘Anti-Woke Act’ and this anti-LGBTQ legislation that is coming out of Florida, and the anti-woke law is the convergence of anti-communism and anti-blackness,” she added.

“They think Critical Race Theory and so-called ‘Cultural Marxism’ and anything that challenges U.S. mythology is some socialist conspiracy to turn all the children transgender and ‘commie,’ I guess, or whatever it is they think is happening. But they always draw on this language of Cultural Marxism, which means everything and nothing.

“We also saw it during the uprisings of 2020, with the ‘outside agitator’ discourse. It was this idea that ‘outside agitators’—ANTIFA, anarchists, China-backed communists—were coming in and riling up the Blacks, which is this age-old argument about subversion,” Burden-Stelly said.

“But as we know, one of the key outside agitators was Kyle Rittenhouse—a white nationalist. So, that’s another way we see anti-communism playing out today.”

Illustrating her point further, Burden-Stelly went on to point out that this anti-communist and anti-Black rhetoric dominates international views as well.

“All of this discourse, although inaccurate and abstract, does, in very particular ways, permeate all aspects of society, up to and including the attention paid to the Family Code in Cuba, while so little attention is paid to the fact that a neo-fascist is going to be the next prime minister of Italy,” Burden-Stelly outlined.

“In true U.S. fashion, socialism is construed as authoritarianism, and fascism is construed as something more compatible with democracy—and that’s textbook anti-communism.”

Political education is in an uphill battle today, as it appears both unapproachable—whether that’s because of apathy or fatigue, academic-level rhetoric which makes it inaccessible, or simply being unavailable—and unappealing for many. Being a necessity to navigate not just the political landscape but also what appears as the depoliticized ‘everyday’ part of our social reality, political education appears to be the one thing that still helps even during the so-called post-truth era.

“Different types of intellectual engagements are important. Not everyone’s going to read books. Pamphlets, articles, podcasts, documentaries—having a multitude of types of readings and materials that people can collectively engage in is important,” Burden-Stelly explained when asked about approaching political education today.

“And that’s the other reason why joining an organization is important: that collective engagement,” she added. “You can’t mandate political education in every organization, but people need it. The foundation of political education is joining an organization. Every organization will have an ideological framework, and you have those basic tenets that are the basis for that education. You have to know what you believe. Being in the most highly propagandized society in the world can make radicals feel crazy, and it is constantly assaulting what we know to be true—it’s constantly assaulting our worldview.

“We’re in the stage of the battle of ideas, so it’s very important that we take that seriously and fortify ourselves against the propaganda, the creeping liberalism which is ever-present,” Burden-Stelly continued. “We have to study. It’s not that it’s fun, it’s not edutainment, it’s work—it has to be something that is purposeful, something that brings people together. It can’t just be about mastery and dogma, it has to be about what is to be done. I think that needs to be the driving force of political education.”

Detroit is coming back regardless of how we want it to and what costs it may entail. With the focus going to boutique hotels, preferential treatment being given to corporations buying up properties by the handful instead of residents, the building of an EV charging road instead of focusing on disintegrating infrastructure just down the road, etc. the situation feels dire at best. However, it would be cynical to focus only on what was lost in 2022 and miss what was won and what remains open—what remains to be won—still.

When you hear someone say, “This is an exciting time for Detroit,” they’re probably unaware of just how right they are.

Organize, Fight, Win: Black Communist Women’s Political Writing

Edited by Charisse Burden-Stelly and Jodi Dean

Verso Books, 2022.

Available for order here.


Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based in Detroit.  He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.