History of Racial Capitalism 

Notes from Emery Wright SMA General Assembly Call June 2021

What is racial capitalism?

Capitalism is not about competition or innovation or free markets or anything like what we have often heard.  It’s about the exploitation of land, resources, and trade for the profit of a few at the expense of everybody else. Capitalism creates the conditions of poverty. There’s no way for me to reform capitalism or make it better, only to move away from it.

In his book Black Marxism, Robinson said that he coined the term because of the ideas of revolutionaries over the 400 years or so of the transatlantic slave trade.  Racial Capitalism is something that came out of that, with the idea that enslaved Africans were the capital that made capitalism as we now know it. Robinson challenged the Marxist idea that capitalism was a revolutionary negation of feudalism. Instead capitalism emerged within the feudal order and flowered in the cultural soil of a Western civilization already thoroughly infused with racialism. Capitalism and racism, in other words, did not break from the old order but rather evolved from it to produce a modern world system of “racial capitalism” dependent on slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide.

“The shared past is precious, not for itself, but because it is the basis of consciousness, of knowing, of being.”  Cedric Robinson 

Racial Capitalism is the system we are living in but also what we are fighting against.  Our struggle, according to Robinson, is to destroy and Racial Capitalism through the Black Radical Tradition of the US South. It’s a global struggle. A lot of the ideas of racial capitalism came out of thinkers in the Caribbean, including Sylvia Wynter from Jamaica and Walter Rodney from Guyana.  

History of Racial Capitalism in US

One way to think about the history of racial capitalism as it has evolved in the United States is to talk about it as four different time periods. 

1500-1865: Boukman to Midnite Schools (Transatlantic Slave Trade to Emancipation) 

First, the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade, about 1500 for the western hemisphere, until emancipation in and around 1865. In the Caribbean, Central America, and the US South this was a time of uprisings but also a time when major capital was accumulated by what became the global powers. The United States of America became stronger, accumulating much wealth through the slave trade. Boukman was one of the leaders who sparked the uprising in Haiti against slavery and colonialism in 1791.  One of the sparks for what we’re doing now comes from Haiti. That revolution was the first to develop a political definition for Blackness. In the Constitution, it was defined by skin hue plus commitment to the abolition of slavery.  It was a political identity to confront racial capitalism.  

This was also the period of emancipation struggles, such as those led by enslaved people living in hidden “maroon communities” and sometimes participating in the struggles for Indigenous sovereignty.  

There were 150 years between when Native people were defending their land in what became Florida and when the US Army was mostly in control there. A lot of the Black Radical Tradition was in alignment with that sovereignty struggle in Florida.  

1865-1950: Reconstruction and Repression

A transition within racial capitalism had begun with an increased dependence on agriculture through the plantation system in the South, the Caribbean, and other parts of the hemisphere. After the emancipation of enslaved people (Haiti in 1804 and the United States in 1865), there were periods of Reconstruction with more rights for the freed people than they would have for many decades afterwards. Reconstruction lasted in the United States roughly from 1865 to 1877. W. E. B. DuBois called it the most radical period of US history.  

1862-1865 was the Port Royal Experiment. Once Union troops arrived in the Sea Islands along the South Carolina coast, white plantation owners fled and there were several years during which Black people were able to make demands of the United States government and military that foreshadowed our demands against racial capitalism. These were major demands in 1863, especially from people who had just been freed from being treated like property. 

  • The right to their own land
  • The right to the vote and civic engagement
  • Education/ culture/communication/media at all levels. 
  • Mutual Aid Societies, as we seek them now for advancement and liberation.  
  • Economic Development, Cooperatives, and access to Equity Capital.  

The betrayal of Reconstruction began in 1877 until about 1911 during which a series of laws developed the framework for Jim Crow. There was also some real resistance to that.  

1919-1924: The African Blood Brotherhood was a socialist organization started in New York that spread across the South and other areas.  They supported armed self-defense and some of the same demands that had come out right after slavery, including economic cooperative work and mutual aid.  They had a chapter in Tulsa which became leaders for resistance to the white attacks in the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. There have also been a series of massacres in New Orleans.  There has always been a connection between state violence and white vigilante violence and racial violence. Hurricane Katrina history lifted that up. Also, the mainstream government has always depended on a radical right wing. 

World War II veterans who, like the World War I veterans who formed the African Blood Brotherhood, created an infrastructure for social movement building in the US South. One of them was Amzie Moore in Mississippi, an architect for the voting rights struggle. Other veterans formed the Deacons for Defense and Justice, which, along with other organizations, protected people from the violence in the sixties.  

1964-1968: Civil Rights Movement and Black Power 

The 1960s and 70s was a period of expansion of the social movement organizations, connecting to changes on the global level. In reaction to all of this, the caretakers of racial capitalism started a massive counterattack on social movements similar to what we are seeing today. That happens whenever we’ve shown them the power of our collective action. 

What can we learn now that people couldn’t know before then? What lessons can we learn from the sixties and since then from the changes in the global economy? 

There was the growth of neoliberalism, along with the increase in a police state, especially after the 1967 rebellions. Police in California started developing SWAT Teams in the seventies. With neoliberalism came a counterattack but also a change in the character of racial capitalism.

Neoliberalism is the philosophy of corporate globalization. It is the dominant set of economic and political policies guiding this stage of capitalist globalization. Its main points include total rule by the “free” market; reduced social spending, particularly on safety nets for workers; and the power, deregulation, and privatization, as well as increased state surveillance and repression.  

As neoliberalism developed, a movement to end it, including the global economic policies that came with it began. Anti-corporate globalization had a huge culmination in 1999 at Seattle the World Trade Organization was shut down when grassroots forces, Indigenous people, and students took to the streets to fight this new character of racial capitalism. 

There was a big change happening with the move from agriculture-based economy to industrial-based economy (a lot of the super-exploitation that has affected migrant labor), still with racial capitalism. Some factory workers opposed racial capitalism, such as the members of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit. 

1999-2021: Economic Crisis and (Maybe) Fascism

This has been a somewhat similar period to the previous one, what some people have called a crisis of capitalism, with corporations seeking new markets. There has been radical change in how labor happens (or doesn’t, when they use technology to replace workers). There have been all kinds of new characteristics in the global economy, whether the liberal democracy in the early 20th century, the neoliberal democracy of the later twentieth century and since, or whatever we’ll call this period we are in now.  The point of the dominant governance we are experiencing is to manage the same system of exploitation and domination as earlier racial capitalism.

One way it can be managed is through fascism. The 1% who are running the economy can see fascism as a better way to run things. Whether during slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, or now, there have been the same problems. For us, as the Southern Movement Assembly, we are figuring out how we can learn from our collective history and to allow shared history to become the basis of our knowledge. What can we learn from the history of racial capitalism about how we have been struggling against it and how we can repair from it?  

Decolonization & Reparations

Discussions about reparations are too often focused only on how big a check should go to whom.  It’s a touchstone to ask how we can radically repair from the awful history of racial capitalism and colonialism. Yes, we need to make demands on the State, but we also need to pay attention to what we are building together. It’s been up to us to be the force of change, including through more awareness of the question of Indigenous sovereignty.  

It’s a national struggle, but it’s also a global struggle, so part of the repair work must involve decolonization.  We need to move away from ideas that existed even before capitalism that have harmed the planet that we live on. 

To paraphrase Cherisse Burden-Stelly: A lot of racial capitalism is about anti-Blackness and anti-radicalism. Anything getting to the root, calling for transformation and not reformation is what racial capitalism is against and we are for.  Being radical requires working from the bottom up. We believe in popular education. We learned about the concept of group-centered leadership from Ella Baker and popular education to prepare people to vote from Septima Clark. They were all part of the process of transforming this brutal racial and capitalistic system.  As is the Southern Movement Assembly.  

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