Nikhil Singh’s essay for our Reading Racial Conflict series reflects on the work of black activist and intellectual Jack O’Dell. For Singh, O’Dell’s historical analysis of the relationship between antiracist and anticapitalist movements is relevant in a moment in which voices on the American left are debating the compatibility between politics of the (white) working class vis-à-vis that of marginalized identities. O’Dell’s focus on the reinventing of black freedom struggles over the long term provides an opportunity to consider the present in light of that history.
Reading Racial Conflict
Racial conflict and mobilizations around demands for racial justice have increasingly commanded public and scholarly attention in the United States and elsewhere. Frameworks for understanding the current moment and acting in it abound and generate much needed debate. With this series, we offer one lens into understanding the present: through a critical engagement with prior influential efforts to analyze racialization and the political economy of race in the past—what some scholars such as Cedric Robinson have labeled “racial capitalism.” Items, working with the multi-university Race and Capitalism project, has asked a group of scholars to read the present moment through a “classic” or touchstone work in social science, the humanities, or African-American studies—with what constitutes a “classic” left to each author’s discretion. Over the coming months, scholars will share how the insights of W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, C. L. R. James, Walter Rodney, and others might shed light on the current context and how economic, political, and racial inequalities shape each other—in the past, present, and future. The codirectors of the Race and Capitalism project, Michael Dawson of the University of Chicago and Megan Ming Francis of the University of Washington, join the Items editors in curating this discussion, which provides a unique perspective into how growing economic inequality, political exclusion, a discriminatory criminal justice system, and social movements have collided in ways that seem both familiar and new.
Ella Myers provides an account of W. E. B. Du Bois's nuanced analysis of the sense of entitlement among whites in the United States. Drawing from Du Bois's Black Reconstruction and other writings, Myers draws attention to both the concept of a compensatory "wage" that elevates the social status of lower class whites in ways that bind them to white capital, but also to the irrational aspects of antiblack racism. Myers's essay complements the earlier Reading Racial Conflict essay by J. Phillip Thompson on Black Reconstruction, and also makes a direct connection to debates on the role of the white working class in Trump's electoral victory.
Black and Woke in Capitalist America: Revisiting Robert Allen’s Black Awakening… for New Times’ Sakeby N. D. B. Connolly
In a new contribution to the Reading Racial Conflict series, N. D. B. Connolly analyzes an early gathering of black supporters in the new Trump administration, and much more about the contemporary political economy of race, through Robert Allen’s 1969 Black Awakening in Capitalist America. Drawing on Allen, Connolly makes a strong case for the relevance of (neo)colonialism—and its emphasis on both violence and the co-opting of sections of the elite among the “colonized”—as an essential framework for understanding America’s present.
Adom Getachew engages in a close reading of Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery in our latest essay in the "Reading Racial Conflict" series. Getachew connects Williams’s classic argument for how the institution of slavery fueled capitalist development in the global North to recent demands, emerging from the Caribbean and other regions devastated by the slave trade, for reparations.
In the latest essay in our "Reading Racial Conflict" series, Megan Ming Francis draws attention to the extraordinary work of Ida B. Wells. In the late nineteenth century, Wells exposed the extent of racial violence in the United States by documenting lynching and then disseminating her findings through her books, journalism, and activism. Ming Francis emphasizes a further innovation by Wells—i.e., how she connected lynchings to the economic interests and status anxieties of white southerners, as well as the relevance of this connection to understanding contemporary racial conflicts.
Tianna Paschel’s contribution to the "Reading Racial Conflict" series takes an international perspective. Her essay examines the roots and persistence of racial inequalities globally through the legacies of colonialism and impact of transnational capitalism. Paschel engages these questions of global justice through the lens of Walter Rodney and his extraordinarily influential book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Paschel argues for the continued relevance of this classic work to understanding today’s global economy and its winners and losers.
J. Phillip Thompson’s contribution to the "Reading Racial Conflict" series reflects on the concept of the two proletariats developed by W. E. B. Du Bois in his Black Reconstruction. Du Bois’s notion of a working class bifurcated along racial lines, Thompson argues, is critical for understandings of American capitalism and democracy. Thompson sees movements for racial justice as central to addressing inequalities, no less so than those directly claiming to represent the working class, which have historically tended to exclude black workers.
Michael C. Dawson launches the “Reading Racial Conflict” series by reflecting on the contemporary relevance of two major works on the political economy of race and capitalism: James Boggs’s Racism and the Class Struggle and Mario Barrera’s Race and Class in the Southwest. In their analyses of the divide among the white and non-white working classes in the 1960s and ’70s, Dawson sees antecedents of Donald Trump’s rise in the 2016 presidential campaign.
As we launch our series “Reading Racial Conflict,” we republish this archival piece by the late Manning Marable. Based on a talk given at the Council in 1995, Marable provides a sweeping overview of the changing nature of black studies, understandings of race, and the social context within which these debates are taking place. Paraphrasing Du Bois’s famous comment about the “color line” being the definitive problem of the twentieth century, Marable writes (quite presciently): “the problem of the twenty-first century is the challenge of ‘multicultural democracy.’”