What is the relationship between systems of racial domination, racial conflict, and capitalism? What classic texts have been instrumental in understanding this relationship? These questions were put before several leading scholars as they reviewed classic works with the aim of evaluating their usefulness in understanding current racial crises and conflicts. The net was broadly cast and it was entirely up to the author to define what constituted a “classic.” Focusing on the United States as well as the global racial order, authors invited by the National Race and Capitalism Project (NRCP) discussed the influence of different texts on their thinking for the Items series, “Reading Racial Conflict.” The range of books chosen was illuminating and sent us back to our bookshelves and in some cases—to the bookstore! In this final post for the series, we reflect upon how these authors challenged and widened our understanding of the political economy of race and racialization.“The difference in the authors’ perspectives depends to some degree on how we understand white working-class interests.”
J. Phillip Thompson, Ella Myers, and Michael Dawson reviewed books that argued capitalism, in the United States, was inextricably linked not only to class formation, but also the segmentation and racialization of labor markets and the emergence of a separate black and white proletariat. The latter, W. E. B. Du Bois argued, benefited from a “psychic wage” derived from racial oppression and the centrality of antiblackness to the capitalist social order.1The reviewed works of Du Bois, Boggs, and Barrera agree that capitalism in the United States is inextricably and historically linked to racial oppression and the formation of an enduring racial order. They do not directly address the degree to which this is a contingent feature of US capitalism or an enduring feature of capitalist social orders. These works also describe the commodification of black bodies and racialized forms of precarity that differentially and negatively affect all workers—but workers of color most of all. Drawing from Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, Thompson and Myers illuminate Du Bois’s argument that racial capitalism provided at least a limited democracy for white workers. Dawson evaluates the arguments of James Boggs (Racism and the Class Struggle) and Mario Barrera (Race and Class in the Southwest) that white workers do (Boggs) or do not (Barrera) benefit from what both authors viewed as a racialized internal colonialism that superexploits black and brown workers. The difference in the authors’ perspectives depends to some degree on how we understand white working-class interests. Myers’s analysis also reminds us Du Bois argued that there are rational and irrational aspects to white supremacy, and both aspects can lead to violence against black bodies. All of these authors provide evidence that during slavery and Jim Crow, blacks’ relationship to capitalism was not just one of exploitation but also property relations and expropriation.
Similar to Boggs and Barrera, Nikhil Pal Singh reminds us how Jack O’Dell’s work highlighted the importance of placing the relationship between race and capitalism in the United States within a global and, specifically, colonial context. Further, Singh links O’Dell’s analysis of race and capitalism to twentieth-century-long struggles for black liberation and against the ravages of racialized capitalism. While reminding us to remain attentive to regional and local variation, Singh’s probing of O’Dell’s corpus emphasizes the difficulty of organizing movements against racial oppression and capitalist exploitation. Historically, within the United States there have been multiple experiments with organizational forms. Unfortunately, the usual result has been organizations that overemphasize either race or class—and almost all organizations during the twentieth century, if not openly misogynist, ignored patriarchy.2For a more detailed exploration of these questions, see Michael Dawson, Blacks In and Out of the Left (Harvard University Press, 2011). A positive lesson to draw from Singh’s recounting is the need to ground our analyses on the material deprivation that marginalized and oppressed communities face.
The struggle against economic inequality is not only racialized but linked to the demonization and obscene violence directed against black bodies—violence perpetuated by both the state and white civil society (lynching is the iconic form of the latter, but a twenty-first-century example is the murder of Trayvon Martin). Megan Ming Francis—codirector of the NRCP—focuses on the autobiography of Ida B. Wells to extract lessons about how patriarchal politics seek to undermine the leadership of black women—even one as critically important as Wells, the most effective anti-lynching leader in US history. Francis demonstrates how Wells’s analysis of a Memphis lynching highlighted the role that violent attacks against blacks, whether through lynchings or pogroms (as in the 1921 destruction of Tulsa’s affluent black community by white citizens aided by the state), had in reinforcing black economic subordination. Dan Berger, in his review of the incarcerated George Jackson’s Blood In My Eye, extends this analysis into the mid- to late twentieth century. Berger argues the US state actively participates in the degradation of dignity and violence against black bodies through mass incarceration, which is central to maintaining modern racial capitalism. Within the United States, poor blacks receive “repression instead of redistribution.” Decent schools in poor black and brown neighborhoods; investment in infrastructure within those neighborhoods; and the closing of the racial wealth and employment gaps would all require redistributive policies. Instead, these communities are demonized, marginalized, and their residents incarcerated at inhumane rates.“Connolly asks us to focus on the long duration of processes and phenomena, such as the civil rights movement.”
N. D. B. Connolly’s review of Robert Allen’s Black Awakening in Capitalist America reminds us class and political divisions within black civil society sometimes fueled and often undermined the struggle for black liberation. Connolly posits that the lens of neocolonialism is more useful than neoliberalism for understanding the continuities and discontinuities within black politics. While controversial, he does make the critical point that we must reclaim language—such as that associated with neocolonialism and socialism—that, while no longer fashionable, may often be analytically the most precise. Connolly asks us to focus on the long duration of processes and phenomena, such as the civil rights movement. By doing so, we can also be more precise in identifying what has changed—for example, the degree to which financialization dominates life at all levels in the twenty-first century and has produced new forms of racialized economic subordination—and what has not changed—such as all too many black elites acting as neocolonial agents.
Leah Wright Rigueur sharply drives home the critical importance of an historical perspective to understand the roots of contemporary racial politics. Using the example of former black Republican senator Edward Brooke, she follows the road to black neoliberalism and Obama that started with black Republican moderates like Brooke. She correctly argues that Brooke and his intellectual counterparts laid the “ideological groundwork for modern black neoliberalism.” Black neoliberals were particularly apt to “shun” [black] radicalism and were “skeptical of collective civil disobedience,” laying the foundation for the largely tamed black politics of the 1990s to 2014—a politics celebrated by, for example, former President Obama when he demonized the black radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s. Wright Rigueur quotes Brooke as saying “You’re living in a capitalist society if you like it or not.” Brooke argued (and others argue today) that one must reform racial capitalism as best as possible. Brooke’s argument stands in stark contrast to Boggs’s, Du Bois’s, and Wells’s, who all claimed that pragmatic utopianism had proved a sounder path to black liberation.
Tianna Paschel and Adom Getachew remind us racial capitalism is a global system that systemically structures racialized patterns of wealth and deprivation across and within regions. Analyzing, respectively, the works of Walter Rodney (How Europe Underdeveloped Africa) and Eric Williams (Capitalism and Slavery), Paschel and Getachew demonstrate that today’s demands for reparations, whether from state officials in the Caribbean or black social movements in the United States, are based on the historical and continuing patterns of exploitation and expropriation that transferred vast amounts of wealth from Africa (and the worldwide descendants of Africa) to the global North, particularly Europe and the United States. Racial capitalism is responsible—from its emergence, through the slave trade, and to the present—for the global racialized division of labor and Africa’s continued poverty. Yet recent waves of neocolonialization through foreign direct investment (from not only the United States and Europe but China as well) now imperils, among many aspects of life in sub-Saharan Africa, food security for the peoples of the region.
“The assault on marginalized peoples in the Trump era has been unyielding and shone a bright spotlight on the durability of white supremacy and predatory capitalism.”
As we write this retrospective of the “Reading Racial Conflict” series, we do so amidst a still burning St. Louis, a presidential voting commission seemingly intent on advancing voter suppression, and a Congress determined to take away health care from the poorest Americans. The assault on marginalized peoples in the Trump era has been unyielding and shone a bright spotlight on the durability of white supremacy and predatory capitalism. But this is not entirely new political terrain. We have been here before and we must remember the lessons of our past in order to chart a new path forward.
Collectively, these authors show the importance of applying historical insights on race, racial conflict, and political economy to the contemporary period. What has emerged from these writers is less a plan of action than a conceptual framework of how to understand the intersection of race and global capitalism. Our hope is that this Items series can aid a new generation of scholars and activists as they mobilize for radical economic reform and a politics that firmly decenters white supremacy.