By 2020, white households will own 86 times more wealth than black households.
“In 2016, the median wealth for nonretired black households 25 years old and older was less than one-tenth that of similarly situated white households — or $13,460 compared with $142,180,” the Center for American Progress reported.
Despite efforts by some to confront the wealth gap, there remains a lack of will in examining this crisis.
White progressives are still claiming it’s class, not race, that matters. Similarly, the Democrat establishment is focused on the white suburban voter while appropriating calls for diversity without seeking radical change.
Yet, there is a path forward that recognizes the futility of separating class and race and is willing to challenge systems of power, including capitalism. This radical and egalitarian alternative emerges once we begin exploring the following concept: Racial capitalism.
BR HQ finally saw @BootsRiley's #SorryToBotherYou last night. Possibly the clearest example of racial capitalism (the modern world system dependent on slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide) that we've ever seen: https://t.co/Xg8R4JLEe9
— Boston Review (@BostonReview) July 19, 2018
Racial capitalism has featured prominently in the work of famed political scientist Cedric Robinson. Yet, countless others have explored it as well through their research on American political and economic life.
Comprehending what racial capitalism means is necessary when building a society that’s safer, more equitable, and just.
Neoliberalism & Capital
Theorists like Karl Marx understood that under capitalism, workers produce goods that end up enriching their employers. An employee on a factory line or at a fast food chain will spend countless hours manufacturing items and cooking burgers and yet, they won’t directly benefit from what they make or do. Instead, the profit that’s gained from their hard work is sucked up by the CEO. The worker labors while those above them rarely break a sweat.
Therefore, those at the top of the economic hierarchy want to protect the status quo. Up until the early 20th century, economic elites in the U.S. strove to earn as much profit as they could while preventing workers from organizing and forcing many poor Americans to survive on extremely low wages.
However, during the Great Depression, the status quo became vulnerable. According to Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, workers were even more frustrated than before and led strikes and took over factories. Recognizing the potential for a revolution, some elites conceded to some of their demands, such as the right to unionize and funding for a social safety net.
But major businesses and their allies weren’t satisfied at this truce and took advantage of the first signs of an economic downturn in the 1970s by advocating for the deregulation of corporations and cutting taxes on the wealthy. And by the 1980s, this pro-business movement won power through the election of Ronald Reagan as president.
Reagan believed that the U.S. had to be run like a corporation. Political scientists Sanford Schram, Wendy Brown, and Adolph Reed Jr. have described this thinking as “neoliberalism.” Government services are cut and worker protections are removed in the name of efficiency and profit. The government’s goal is to help big business since the profits they make will “trickle” down to the masses. Currently, both Republicans AND Democrats share in this vision. After all, it was during Bill Clinton’s administration that welfare was gutted.
Yet, one would only be telling half the story by stopping here. And although neoliberalism is a useful lens, it doesn’t capture the importance of race in how our economic system functions.
Race & Capital
In Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Cedric Robinson explores the failure of Marx and European radicals to situate colonialism and enslavement in their analysis of capitalism. Unlike Marx, the legendary sociologist Du Bois, as explained by Robinson, understood that the resources Europeans drained from Africa and Asia, including labor, financed the industrialization of Western Europe and the U.S.
Du Bois also knew that modern capitalism in the U.S. took root after the Civil War. The Southern agrarian elite wanted to preserve their power. They forged alliances with Northern economic elites and mobilized anti-black hatred among the white masses. Soon, the economic elites and their political allies stripped African Americans of their new freedoms and again, forced them to the bottom of the economic hierarchy.
“As ideologues for both victorious northern industrial capital and a now chastened southern agrarian capital, the white intelligentsia — academician and otherwise — rewove social and historical legends that accommodated the exploitative projects of those ruling classes,” Robinson explained.
Therefore, in a modern capitalist society, the main conflict is not of worker against employer, but rather, that of the black masses versus white elites. Even the white worker and black worker inhabit different social positions. Although the white worker suffers too, they still benefit from access to resources such as low-interest loans to purchase homes and from policies that were passed during the New Deal, while most African Americans are excluded from the decent paying jobs and kept segregated into the poorest neighborhoods.
And as noted by Carol Anderson, David Roediger, and Nikhil Pal Singh, it is the currency of whiteness that’s been exploited by the economic elite to maintain their power. Politicians like Ronald Reagan united business elites and the white working class by directing their frustrations at African Americans, through stereotyping most African Americans as welfare cheats. In turn, white Americans were implicitly portrayed as having achieved their economic status, not through exploitation and stealing land, but by hard work and intellect.
This pattern of stigmatizing African Americans while praising white America has been the dominant electoral strategy for generations. And although the economic hierarchy has shifted somewhat, African Americans remain at the bottom while white elites reap.
Justice & Capital
Finally, there are three lessons to draw on.
Lesson 1: Race and class are intertwined.
The current debate between identity politics and politics rooted in class struggle is limiting. This false binary ignores the reality that for much of U.S. history, race and class have been linked and embodied in the struggle of African Americans. After all, African Americans have been at the bottom of the economic hierarchy, as people who were once enslaved and later, as workers and agricultural farmers who were forced to work for little or no pay, into our current era where a segment of the population is now trapped in low-wage work or in occupations that have yet to be unionized, like fast food chains.
Lesson 2: Poor and working-class people of color are the source of revolutionary change.
As mentioned, what most African Americans experience is a direct product of a political and economic regime designed to exploit them while finding ways to help everyone else, including other groups of color, without completely overriding the influence of the white elites at the top.
Therefore, once poor and working class African Americans do rebel, the political and economic foundations of the country will be shaken to their core. Unlike a rebellion led by white workers, which has been co-opted by anti-blackness and calls for white solidarity, a mass movement based on the experiences and insights of poor and working class African Americans will effectively challenge the power of white elites.
Lesson 3: Radical cross-racial coalitions are possible.
Throughout history, poor whites have also been treated as Other, evidenced by the forced sterilization of poor white women and coercing poor whites to work in dangerous conditions. The hardships that many poor whites face, however, still stem from a system of racial capitalism. For instance, by cutting off funding for social programs to hurt blacks, countless whites are negatively impacted too. Therefore, it is in their interest to ally themselves with African Americans in overthrowing the status quo.
Similarly, Latino and Asian Americans are also negatively impacted by racial capitalism. In many ways, there are more similarities among poor whites, poor and working-class Latinos and Asian Americans and African Americans than with their more economically and politically privileged counterparts.
Ultimately, the struggle for economic justice is an anti-colonial and anti-imperialist one. The Black radical tradition of slave resistance and revolution is one of the most important ways to build a freer and just world.
“Molded by a long and brutal experience and rooted in a specifically African development, the tradition will provide for no compromise between liberation and annihilation,” Robinson wrote, “And in time, we will see who are our true allies and our true enemies.”
Sudip Bhattacharya is a Rutgers University Ph.D. student in political science who focuses on race and social justice. He has a master’s degree in journalism from Georgetown University. His work has been published at CNN, The Washington City Paper, The Lancaster Newspapers, The Daily Gazette (Schenectady), The Jersey Journal, Media Diversified (Writers of Colour), Reappropriate, AsAm News, The New Engagement, and Gaali Gang.