Is inequality in America primarily a function of class? Or is racism its most insidious expression? Since the 2016 election, the left has picked up this debate with renewed fury. Writers like Mark Lilla have argued that the left's focus on confronting racism, sexism, homophobia—"identity politics," he calls it—has empowered the right; he recommends renewed focus on economics and the working class. Other commentators, like Ta-Nehisi Coates, counter that Trump's success was based in the politics of white supremacy. They insist that any response to Trump that does not explicitly confront racism will fail.
The new Netflix series Altered Carbon is a slick, sexy, noirish cyberpunk romp. It also comments indirectly on left-wing politics. The show imagines a post-racial future in which class inequality has become exponentially worse. At first, the story seems to suggest that class is the most enduring form of oppression—the one type of inequality that consistently gets worse as the centuries pass. But the show, almost despite itself, ends up offering a more complicated vision, in which racial discrimination, like class inequality, persists, even in a far future when humans have left their bodies behind.
That's the high concept of the series: Human beings in Altered Carbon don't have bodies; they have "sleeves." With a bit of help from alien technology, humanity has developed the ability to transform human personalities into digital information, stored in "cortical stacks." These stacks can then be placed in any convenient body-sleeve. The story follows one Takaheshi Kovacs, a criminal and revolutionary who was de-bodied for centuries as punishment for his transgressions. He is pulled from storage by the wealthy Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), who was killed before the system could back up his memory, and was subsequently revived without the memories of his death. The police think that he killed himself, but Bancroft wants Kovacs to prove it was murder. Kovacs has to help him, or be returned to bodiless storage.
A body-switching fictional future is also, by implication, a post-racial future. If anyone can be placed in any body, race becomes a lot less important. Altered Carbon has a diverse cast, including black, white, Asian, and Hispanic actors, and the future it portrays is a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic place, in which racial differences are rarely remarked upon. Hispanic police officer Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) resurrects her dead grandmother in the sleeve of a man covered in tattoos and piercings. The characters make some comment on her change in gender, but not really on the fact that she's now white.
This post-racial future isn't a utopia, though. In fact, the very technology that has made race less important has intensified class distinctions. Re-sleeving is expensive, especially if you want to grow clones of yourself and thereby stay in duplicates of the same body through multiple lifespans. The world is effectively controlled by the Meths, or Methusalehs, an incredibly wealthy elite who literally live in the clouds and multiply their assets over centuries as the little people down below use up their short lives and die. Miraculous new technology hasn't helped everyone escape the effects of death; instead, it's just made the rich richer and more untouchable.
In the world of Altered Carbon, cortical stack technology was originally invented by a black woman, Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry). Falconer had hoped to release humans from their single lifespan and perhaps—though the show does not say this—from the prison of identities that invited discrimination on the basis of gender and race. Yet when faced with the growing tyranny of the wealthy, Quellcrist turns against the fruits of her own work, and ends up leading a radical resistance to try to destroy the technology that makes immortality possible. Ending the basis for racism, as it turns out, only made classism worse.
But has racism really ended? There are some indications in the show that prejudice persists, even though bodies no longer technically matter. Most of the Meths whom we see are white. And the one black woman who wants to become a Meth (Tamara Taylor) is treated by them with vicious disdain. Another black woman (Hayley Law) suffers terrible abuse and is almost destroyed by her encounter with a white Meth family. The oligarchy maybe isn't quite as post-racial as it seems.
Even more telling, though, is Takeshi Kovacs himself. Kovacs is Asian as a child, and in most flashback sequences as an adult he's portrayed by Will Yun Lee. Still, through most of the show, Kovacs is in a white sleeve, and is played by Joel Kinnaman. Thus, an Asian man is portrayed through most of the series by a white actor. Ghost in the Shell and Death Note whitewashed their main characters in Western reboots. Altered Carbon does the same thing within a single narrative.
Kovacs is also an Asian in a white body in the original 2002 Altered Carbon novel by Richard K. Morgan, so the issue here isn't unfaithfulness to the source material. The point, rather, is that, even as the story insists bodies don't matter, the narrative and the casting work to turn a story about an Asian person into yet another story about a white man. In our time, actors "re-sleeve" into different characters all the time, but racism still determines what roles different people can play, and, as a result, who gets more money and fame. Even when identity is supposedly disconnected from bodies—when you have a character who in theory could be played by any actor—racial and racist scripts persist. The fact that people (or characters) can change bodies doesn't make race disappear. It just becomes another way to put the same bodies as ever at the center of the mini-series.
Altered Carbon presents a world that looks post-racial, and in which humanity has escaped from identity, and identity politics, once and for all. But even when bodies are interchangeable commodities, certain bodies are treated as having more value than others. for the greater profit of rich people and white people, and especially of rich white people. Bancroft is so obscenely wealthy he could be literally any body—but he chooses to be a middle-aged white guy. Altered Carbon is about class inequality in the future. But since the show was created in the present, it can't help but be about racism too. The cyberpunk dystopia of the far future doesn't look so different from the dystopia we've got now.