Otobong Nkanga, “The Weight of Scars,” 2015.
Here is the real modern labor problem. Here is the kernel of the problem of religion and democracy, of humanity. … The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and Black. — W.E.B. Du Bois, “Black Reconstruction in America,” 1935
When the British Crown assumed direct rule over Kenya in 1895, that year marked a milestone in a project to restructure the social world to aggrandize a few well-placed elites in London. The British Crown had pursued this same project in Jamestown, where it created the colonies that would become the United States; in Bengal, where the British East India Company’s armed forces established a political foothold on the Indian subcontinent; and in countless far-off places. Racial capitalism is a framework to understand what the British Crown sought to build.
But what is racial capitalism, anyway, and where does the term come from? For some people, racial capitalism is one word too many: “Capitalism” alone explains the kinds of oppression and exploitation we see in the world. For others, “racial capitalism” is several words too few: The phrase fails to mention gender, ability, nationality, and other bases for systematic injustice. But racial capitalism is best understood as a way that both racism and capitalism work in history and in the present — and how the world as a whole is formed from the areas of colonialism built off the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Consider a closer look at the historical example of colonial Kenya, where the British Crown — an empire, not a corporation — embarked on a massive redistribution of economic and political power. The categories for these redistributions were racial. The colonial government expropriated the most agriculturally productive land and relegated the African “natives,” including the Maasai, Kikuyu, and Kalenjin who had lived and worked on these very lands, to “reserves.” The colonial government gave exorbitantly large estates to white settlers and restricted Indian settlement to low-lying lands.
By 1951, the result was a standard assignment of teams: wealthy capitalists at the top, proletarians and peasants at the bottom. Some other distinctions stood out as well. The historians Cora Ann Presley and Wunyabari Maloba have chronicled sharp age, gender, and racial stratifications in colonial Kenya within and across the economic designations of “worker” and “peasant.” African women and children were the lowest paid for farm labor overall. Even the highest-paid African men made less than half of the earnings of the lowest-paid Asian men and one-tenth of the lowest-paid European men. The stark divides evident in land and housing continued. The colonial government created racially segregated urban areas to serve as administrative centers, while reserving the most well-planned residential centers for whites and more crowded segments for “Asians.”
Race served as a hierarchical principle of accumulation in the society the British Empire created, whether speaking of income, land, or housing: more for whites, less for “Asians,” least for the Black “natives.” To the racial capitalism theorists, of which I consider myself one, these sorts of stratifications are social divisions that are just as relevant for political analysis as distinctions among capitalists, workers, and peasants. All of these stratifications, not just the latter ones, help explain why this system stayed in place.
Racial capitalism is hardly only an artifact of the past. It tells us just as much about conditions in the present and closer to home. Consider the mounting water crises in the United States, where the most publicized of these so far has occurred in Flint, Mich. The city temporarily switched its water source in 2014 from Detroit’s water supply to the Flint River as part of cost-cutting measures recommended by the city’s emergency manager. Almost immediately, residents began complaining about the color, taste, and odor of the contaminated water, and General Motors Corporation discontinued its use of local water. Compounding matters, Flint officials continued to insist into 2015 that the water was safe to drink.
This crisis was the culmination of a decades-long downward trajectory, as the geographer Laura Pulido explains in an article: “Flint was abandoned by capital decades ago, and as it became an increasingly poor and Black place, it was also abandoned by the local state. This abandonment can be seen in shrinking services, infrastructure investment, and democratic practices.”
The historian Peter James Hudson reminds us that the term “racial capitalism” is deeply tied to 1960s and ’70s South Africa, where revolutionaries like the National Liberation Front’s Neville Alexander (incarcerated with Nelson Mandela for working to destroy apartheid) and the South African Communist Party’s organizer (and onetime lawyer) Harold Wolpe debated their contemporaries about the nature of the relationship between race and class in South Africa’s social structure.
But the global studies scholar Yousuf Al-Bulushi reminds us of the relevance of broader trends and conversations in African political thought and practice at the time. During these same years, in Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam school of radical thought and in other countries, a connected set of researchers reshaped social science in a radically interdisciplinary direction. They argued that the global development of colonialism and capitalism had linked too tightly the history, economics, and sociology of far-flung reaches for countries or regions to be well understood in isolation. The work of this Tanzanian community — which included visiting thinkers like the American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, the Italian economist Giovanni Arrighi, and the Egyptian-French economist Samir Amin — helped develop a number of new directions in left intellectual thought, including what’s now known as the world-systems theory.
The African American political theorist Cedric Robinson met and exchanged ideas with intellectuals and activists who had participated in these communities as he traveled in England and throughout the African continent. Thus, his classic text “Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition” developed an analysis that borrowed from structural insights on the relationship of race, class, and capitalism developed by the South African Marxists, which he combined with the global scale of politics influenced by world-systems theories. As a result, Robinson’s book played an instrumental role in popularizing both the term and a version of the analysis known as “racial capitalism.”
To get back to basics, it’s helpful to be clear about what we mean by both racism and capitalism. To some, racism is a moral commitment held by individuals and institutions: for example, the explicit commitment to treat people of some skin types and assumed ancestries better than others. This view might reserve an accusation of racism for the most full-throated white supremacist groups. Other definitions might focus on subtler targets: for instance, the implicit association of negative ideas, imagery, or dispositions with racially marginalized people. These ways of thinking about racism prioritize acts, the bad things people do (e.g., hate crimes) or the bad ways people do innocuous or even good things (e.g., enforcing neutral policies in a racially discriminatory way). In this wider view of racism and racists, even well-meaning liberals may count as racists, or as acting in racist ways. This line of thinking is embedded in many anti-racist workshops and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
Another way to consider racism might focus on the ways race fits into or makes up social structures, rather than how racism might characterize particular actions or actors within those structures. The racial capitalism family of thinkers and theorists sits under this broader umbrella. As the American studies scholar Lisa Lowe puts it, these are the theories that begin with “the sense that actually existing capitalism exploits through culturally and socially constructed differences such as race, gender, region, and nationality and is lived through those uneven formations.”
If you ask a skeptical Marxist to define capitalism, the kind of person who thinks racial capitalism is one word too many, that person might say something like this: Capitalism is a system that organizes economic activity around those who control the means of production (capitalists), who use that leverage to buy the productive labor of others (the workers) and produce goods and services for exchange. Through today’s version of this production and exchange, capital accumulates, making it possible to make even bigger production and exchanges tomorrow. This cycle repeats endlessly — well, until the triumphant rise of the workers to dig capital’s graves (if you’re a glass-half-full type of person) or until we destroy the planet (for the pessimists).
A racial capitalism theorist needn’t disagree with this basic picture. After all, this framework doesn’t tell us what is being produced, where it’s being produced, or who does the accumulating. It’s possible, of course, that this highly abstract picture of the world tells us most or all of what we need to know to figure out the sides of political struggle as the years change: capitalists and workers. If that were right, it would be a good reason to think racial capitalism was one word too many, after all. But one reason to disagree returns to Lowe’s observation earlier: that “actually existing capitalism” has spread through “uneven formations” of differences like “race, gender, region, and nationality” and that these sources of unevenness are politically important. That disagreement might start from the suspicion that the steady deterioration of Flint’s water quality had something to do with which people lived there; that to determine which people in colonial Kenya got the fertile land and which people got the “reserves” was to largely determine the colony’s future.
The term “racial capitalism” has been used in many ways by many theorists, but not all in compatible ways, as the sociologist Julian Go helpfully explains. This opens the door for potential tensions in reconciling one person’s claims about racial capitalism with another’s, many of which critics have continually raised as the term surges in popularity. Hudson reminds us of one particularly important tension: South African Marxists Martin Legassick and David Hemson (among the first to use the term) focused on claims specific to the South African context, whereas Cedric Robinson preferred to wield it in a characterization of the world system as a whole.
In the end, racial capitalism is perhaps better thought of as a set of questions about how racism and capitalism work than as a separate theory of what our social system is like. But rather than insisting on principle how racial stratifications and disparities are “really” just disguised forms of class oppression (as “class reductionists” might) or how all social injustices might boil down to the preservation of white supremacy (as “race reductionists” might), theorists have simply tried to explain what these different but related things might have to do with each other. To ask such questions is simply to pay attention to how capitalism’s restructuring of production alters the relationships that make up our entire social world, not just our practices and roles in economic production.
Some skeptical Marxists see racial capitalism as a deviation from class and proper left thought in its insistence on the tight relationship of economic relations to broader social ones. But in this respect, racial capitalism is quite in agreement with orthodox Marxist thought. The writings of many figures in Marxist history link social categories to purely economic ones, and this connection is one of Marxism’s most basic and fundamental insights. This goes beyond the level of theory to the level of practice: Revolutionaries like Claudia Jones, Rosa Luxemburg, and Alexandra Kollontai connected women’s political rights to the class struggle; Samora Machel and James Connolly did the same with anti-colonial nationalism. We would do well to remember that the Russian Revolution gained a foothold for socialism by way of overthrowing an empire. The thinking offered by racial capitalism allows us to “open up, as opposed to foreclose, more complex analyses,” as the Black studies scholar Charisse Burden-Stelly wrote, analyses that integrate thinking about other forms of hierarchy and marginalization.
You don’t need to be sold on the phrase “racial capitalism” to understand it. Use it or don’t; the world will be what it is, whether we subtract a word or add several to any term. What matters about racism, capitalism, racial capitalism, and any other options are the ideas underneath and what we do with them. Racial capitalism offers us a clue: If it is true that racism and capitalism are in a mutually supporting relationship, then we should expect that any potentially effective anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggles will also be mutually supporting. Our ultimate goal isn’t to understand the origins of a term or even its lineage, but to understand the workings of a world we are trying to change.