14 Theoretical Framework: The History of Racial Capitalism in the United States

Race, despite being one of the most salient social organizing factors of modern day society, is a form of human classification that is rarely interrogated. Discourse commonly posits race as a naturally emerging phenomenon stemming from human variation; theorist Cedric Robinson challenges these assumptions with his term “racial capitalism.” Robinson views race not as an inevitable social category, but as both a tool and defining feature of capitalism. Capitalism requires hierarchy to function–“It has become increasingly plain that accumulation for financial asset owning classes requires violence towards others and seeks to expropriate for capital the entire field of social provision,” (Melamed 2015: 76)–social hierarchy provides justification for this violence. Thus, from its inception in the 17th century, capitalism has created and sustained a global caste system based on the arbitrary categorization of race to allow for an uneven distribution of capital; “theses antinomies of accumulation require loss, disposability, and the unequal differentiation of human value, and racism enshrines the inequalities that capitalism requires,”  (Melamed 2015: 77). The function of the term “racial capitalism” is that it recognizes the integrated relationship of racism and capitalism, implying that they are indeed two sides of the same coin.

Although Robinson is credited as the first theorist to explicitly equate racism and capitalism, sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois devoted his later writings to examining the relationship between the two systems. Du Bois expanded his theory of American segregation, the “color line,” to a global scale, recognizing its roots in European colonial expansion and eventually acknowledging “colonialism and racism as instrumental in instituting historical capitalism” (Itzigsohn and Brown 2020: 5). Du Bois explicitly defined modernity as “colonialism and the creation of race, the invention of whiteness, and the exploitation, and dispossession constructed along racial lines” (Itzigsohn and Brown 2020: 15); it is significant that Du Bois saw racialization and racism not as a consequence of capitalism but as a “structuring element” (Itzigsohn and Brown 2020: 20). Important to this is the understanding that race is not innate. Du Bois used the example of global Jewish subjugation to demonstrate that racialization extends beyond physical difference and is ultimately arbitrary (Du Bois 2004: 98).

Indeed, racial stratification in the United States has historically been intensified as global economic cycles continually dictate the flow of immigrants to the United States, an insight that further links racialization with capitalist development. A salient example lies in the rise of Eastern European immigrantion to the U.S. post-World War II. These immigrants “sought racial classification as “white,” an achievement that could only be gained at the expense of blacks” (Winant 2001: 152). In aligning themselves with whiteness, Eastern European immigrants were able to gain economic stability and wider socio political acceptance. Historically examining the establishment and evolution of whiteness as a racial category in the United States reveals the unquestionable relationship between racism and capitalism.

The history of racial capitalism begins with slavery, colonialism, and genocide, continuing to the post-modern era in the form of “incarceration regimes, migrant exploitation, and contemporary racial warfare” (Melamed 2015: 77). Mass incarceration is a particularly salient tool of racial capitalism. Prison labor is an extensive source of capital for private businesses–prisoners do not have access to unions, health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation. For a next-to-nothing wage, prisoners do everything from data entry for Chevron to making lingerie for Victoria’s Secret. Corrections Corporation of America sells prison labor, and is paid per prisoner, so that “longer prison terms mean greater profits, but the larger point is that the profit motive promotes the expansion of imprisonment” (Curtin 2000: 213-4). The exploitation of prison labor coupled with the acute racial disparities present in U.S. incarceration rates makes clear that prisons are not the sites of rehabilitation that they claim to be; “…prison construction and the attendant drive to fill these new structures with human bodies has been driven by ideologies of racism and the pursuit of profit” (Davis 2003: 84).

In tracing the history of U.S. prisons back to slavery, lynchings, and the Black Codes, one can conclude that the American carceral state is the latest iteration in racial capitalism’s strategy to racialize and control bodies for capital. Slavery itself has many parallels to the modern day criminal justice system. In both of these institutions, subjects are beholden to the will of others and deprived of nearly all rights–enslaved and incarcerated peoples rely on others for the basic human requirements of food and shelter, are isolated to a fixed habitat apart from the general population, and are restricted to a daily routine set by their “superiors.” Most notable in the context of racial capitalism, both the carceral and slave states coerce their subjects, who are selected on the basis of race, to labor for longer hours and less pay than free laborers (Davis 2003: 27).

During the Antebellum period, slave states instituted laws called the Slave Codes, which controlled the movements of enslaved people and denied them of their rights. After the abolition of slavery, these states passed similar legislation, called the Black Codes, in order to continue this social control. “The New Black Codes proscribed a range of actions–such as vagrancy, absence of work, breach of job contracts, the possession of firearms, and insulting gestures or acts–that were criminalized only when the person charged was black” (Davis 2003: 28). In both the Slave Codes and the Black Codes lies the origin of modern equations of Blackness and criminality.

Lynching, particularly in the South, functioned as an extralegal institution of extreme violence and control after the abolition of slavery. The murder of Black Americans through lynching was justified by charges that were menial and often fabricated. These charges were also often used to exact racial domination through the courtroom; “in this sense, the work of the criminal justice system was intimately related to the extralegal work of lynching” (Davis 2003: 34). True, penitentiary populations, which were on the whole transformed from majority white to majority Black with the aboliton of slavery, “could be subjected to such intese exploitation and to such horrendous modes of punishment precisely because they continued to be perceived as slaves” (Davis 2003: 33). The analysis of racial capitalism makes clear both the progression of slavery, lynchings, and the Black Codes (and later segregation) to mass incarceration.

Civil rights lawyer and author Michelle Alexander (2020) examines the criminal justice system as a modern manifestation of racial capitalism in her book, “The New Jim Crow.” Alexander identifies three stages that “force Black men into the system of control”. The first stage is “roundup,” in which police apprehend as many people as possible on the basis of race and in the interest of monetary gain. The result is that primarily Black and brown people are held by the system. During the “period of formal control,” or imprisonment, the lives of racialized populations are “regulated and monitored by the system, and any form of resistance or disobedience is subject to swift sanction” (Alexander 2020: 230). Finally, during the “period of invisible punishment,” populations continue to be controlled outside of the “traditional sentencing framework” as employment, education, hosing, public benefits, and voting restrictions prevent assimilation to the white mainstream, or “civil society.” (Alexander 2020: 230-2). In this way the prison industrial complex, stimulated by capitalism, creates a legalized racial underclass that is denied basic rights and privileges of American citizenship. Scholars continue to track the trajectory of racial capitalism as it reproduces racial difference in the interest of amassing capital.



Power: Origins, Instances, and Protest Copyright © by Candy Lucero-Sanchez; Leah Rivera; Leslie Paz; and Liam Madigan. All Rights Reserved.

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