Much has been written about the connection between capitalism and racism, and I can’t possibly cover every aspect of such a complex topic. I’m not even going to try to address the history of global colonialism and imperialism. This is also a very controversial topic on the Left. I’m going to try to tread carefully, but I’ll make clear at the outset that my intent is not to downplay the urgent need for racial justice, and I don’t believe that there’s a trade-off between racial and economic justice.
If you want to read more on some of the things I will talk about here, here are some great articles (in the name of unabashed self-promotion, I’m putting my own article first):
Slavery was the hellish epitome of capitalism, capitalism with all of the niceties removed. Human beings with more melanin (the vast majority of whom were African-Americans, but some of whom were Native Americans) were brutally instrumentalized, treated as sources of labor and maximally exploited for the sake of capitalists’ profit margins. They were given enough food, water, shelter, and medical treatment to replenish their labor-power – and nothing above that amount. Northern banks and Southern plantation owners collaborated to convert their labor into surplus value.
Native American lands were forcibly seized, and the land and its natural resources were (and are) vigorously exploited for the sake of large corporations’ profit. Native Americans are subjected to pollution, environmental degradation, and the deprivation of basic human rights like access to clean, safe drinking water, all for the sake of fossil fuel CEOs’ paychecks and Wall Street hedge funds’ bottom lines. The struggle over Standing Rock and the Keystone XL pipeline is symbolic of so much of the awful history America has when it comes to racism. One could similarly write about the history of Latinxs, Asian-Americans, and countless other non-white groups.
Regardless of whether it was consciously or unconsciously developed as a tool for dividing and conquering, as long as it’s existed, racism has been used as an ideology to split poor and working-class people up and shore up capitalism. Poor whites derived a ‘psychic income’ from living in a white-supremacist society and looking down on poor African-Americans; throughout American history, many efforts to create coalitions for economic justice (e.g., the Populists, labor organizing drives in the 1940s and 1950s) have collapsed because of racism.
Race is a great distraction from class. But that’s not to say that race isn’t important and deserving of attention in its own right or that class isn’t racialized. This isn’t yet another attack on identity politics. God knows that centuries of racial injustice need to be addressed head-on. But it is to say that appeals to racism can be used to undermine emancipatory politics.
Conservatives use racism to gain power and ram through deeply unpopular right-wing economic policies; they use racism and white supremacy as a way of getting some to vote against their economic interests (and of depriving many people of color of the chance to vote). Neoliberals use a neoliberal form of identity politics (please note that there’s more than just ‘neoliberal identity politics’; see the In These Times article above for more on this), a form of politics that focuses on symbolism and superficial representation as a way of distracting from huge economic injustices. Neoliberals use race cynically. True representation is, of course, tremendously important. Women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community must be properly represented in the media, culture at large, and the halls of power. But neoliberal identity politics gives us tokenism, not true representation, and it doesn’t address economic injustice either.
For example: Hillary Clinton had the temerity to attack Bernie Sanders because he supposedly wasn’t anti-racist enough and because breaking up Wall Street wouldn’t solve racism. Wall Street, of course, is extremely racist (Exhibit A: Wells Fargo’s mortgage racism), and precisely because class is racialized, economic injustices disproportionately affect people of color. Even if Bernie hadn’t had a strong racial justice platform (which he did), targeting economic inequality would’ve disproportionately helped out people of color anyhow.
Any movement for emancipation needs to address racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. But all of these identity-based forms of discrimination are intertwined with capitalism and have economic consequences, as we saw with the statistics on America’s racial and gender income/wealth gaps. One of the most serious consequences of the capitalist system’s usage of racism as a tool of control and self-protection is that, when shit hits the proverbial fan, racism, xenophobia, and nationalism become weaponized in the form of fascism, which is what we will discuss next.