Conversation on Racism and Capitalism

On November 20, I co-organized a Conversation on Racism and Capitalism at Howard University.

We asked each panelist to speak for five to seven minutes in response to two questions:

1) What is the relationship between racism and capitalism?
2) What does racial justice look like?

The logic behind this panel is that idea of race shares a history with the rise of capitalism. Some would argue that the mass production of sugar in the British and Spanish colonies marked the rise of modern capitalism. This massive sugar production would not have been feasible without the genocide of the native peoples of the Caribbean and the enslavement of millions of Africans.

West Indian historian Eric Williams famously wrote in 1944 that “Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” Williams (1944), along with other scholars, argues that racism arose from the exploitative relationships of colonialism, slavery, and capitalism. In this historical sense, racism cannot be separated from capitalism.

Racism has evolved over time from codified racial disparities of the early days of this country to the color-blind racism that predominates today. Similarly, capitalism has changed, from merchant and industrial capitalism to the neoliberal and global capitalism of today. How has this relationship changed over time?

The second part of the discussion  focused on racial justice. What does racial justice look like? Our society is remarkably unequal. Racial disparities are enormous: black and Latino families have just 5 percent of the wealth of white families. Overall disparities are also staggering: 1% of Americans own nearly half of the wealth in this country (Norton and Ariely 2011).

In the context of massive overall inequality, it makes sense to ask questions about the utility of fighting against racism without paying attention to overall inequalities. Even if there were no racial disparities in income and wealth, we would still have millions of poor people of color, because of the unprecedented numbers of poor people in this country. And, that is just in the United States. If we think globally, it is true that the vast majority of poor people in the world are non-white. However, even in the absence of racial disparities, billions of non-white people would continue to be poor because of the extent of global inequality.

On the other hand, perhaps racism is what permits this massive inequality to exist. Perhaps a world without racist ideologies would inherently be a more equal world. Perhaps the devaluation of black lives is what makes it possible for the United States to have the largest prison system in the world.

On the other hand, perhaps the dismantling of racism would lead to the emergence of another ideology to justify the massive inequalities created by capitalism.

The panelists who discussed these and other issues were:

Peter James Hudson, an Assistant Professor of History at Vanderbilt University and curator of http://thepublicarchive.com
Gavin Mueller, a PhD student at George Mason University and a columnist for Jacobin.
Tamara Nopper, who has a PhD in Sociology and lectures at Temple and the University of Pennsylvania.
Louise Seamster, a PhD student in Sociology at Duke University.
Johnny Williams, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Trinity College.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a Professor of Geography at the City University of New York

After the talks, participants asked several provocative questions including: What is the role of the state in the reproduction of inequality? Now that we know that capitalism is the root of inequality, how do we dismantle it? What is the role of revolutionary parties in the move towards racial and economic justice? What is the role of small gains won through reform movements?

Below is a Storify of the event

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