Let’s face it. White people in the U.S. are committed to American capitalism, its brutality, its exploitation, its violence. Not all white people, mind you. And not all supporters of capitalism and its crimes are white. But probably the majority of the tens of millions who keep coming back every four years to vote for Trump, Romney, McCain, and Bush identify as white. They think “all lives matter” (but not really) and actively endorse, live, and work on behalf of the white supremacist status quo.
Why shouldn’t most white people support American capitalism? It is the same system that exploits them, denies them access to affordable healthcare, makes higher education outrageously debt-ridden, sends them to fight wars based on lies, and allows billionaires to pay zero taxes. It is the same system that could not handle the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing more than 211,000 people to die because it couldn’t function without forcing people back to work and into the marketplaces.
It is the same system that repeatedly justifies indiscriminate police killings of Black people, violates the sovereignty of Native peoples, poisons the environment and idly watches while climate change threatens human survival, mass incarcerates millions of working-class and poor people of color, brutalizes immigrants and refugees, especially those of color. It uses a “Constitutional” system to block meaningful democratic power to the people, while billionaires hob-nob with senators and TV reality stars, write laws, and collect fat handouts.
The capitalist class rules . . . through the buy-in of the majority of whites who favor this balance of power.
These despicable, alarming facts are consequences of capitalist hegemony; they allow white supremacy to endure. The capitalist class rules not through force or false ideologies, but rather primarily through the buy-in of the majority of whites who favor this balance of power. Activists and scholars, like Angela Davis, Robin D. G. Kelley, Gerald Horne, Charisse Burden-Stelly, Nikhil Pal Singh, and many others have called this reality “racial capitalism.”
In her book, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, Angela Davis insightfully notes that “neoliberal ideology drives us to focus on individuals, ourselves, individual victims, individual perpetrators.” This insidious individualism cause whites to locate themselves alone in relation to power and exploitation in ways that displace the cause of their pain onto racialized and minoritized others. Racist scripts about imagined imminent dangers of terrorism, immigration, “Black” crime, and Chinese disease are welcomed as “more real” or “more imminent” than struggling to pay the rent each month, avoiding expensive medical care to pay for groceries, wondering if the second job is going to pay enough to cover daycare expenses.
The term “racial capitalism,” Burden-Stelly writes, is a frame for understanding how racism and capitalism recreate one another “on a global scale, in specific localities, in discrete historical moments, in the entrenchment of the carceral state, and in the era of neoliberalization and permanent war.” This means that when white people enact and enable anti-Blackness, they are reigniting a systemic process, like the firing of a spark plug in an engine, a class process that depends on the extra-exploitation of people of color.
A recent report by Citigroup found that some $3 trillion in lost wages due to discrimination, as well as systemic disadvantages in education and housing values, targets racially oppressed peoples. What the report is dishonest about is where that money went. The report’s authors claim it was simply “erased from the GDP.” The truth, however, is that it sustains white-dominated capital accumulation. That is $3 trillion less than they would be paid if they shared equally in the advantages of typical white workers. This isn’t money that simply vanishes into thin air like Donald Trump’s solutions to a pandemic.
Capitalism needs racism to survive.
That savings is accumulated as surplus value. Marx showed that surplus value is the basis of profit and capital accumulation. It is also the basis on which the declining rate of profit, one of the major sources of economic crisis, another central contradiction of capitalism, is alleviated. Thus, while the Citi report denies the truth of racial capitalism, capitalism needs racism to survive, indeed, will insist on the new variant forms of racism to survive — unless it is replaced with a system that does not rely on racism.
Singh notes that racism extends from the birth pangs of capitalism to return again and again as the “infrastructures of appropriation and dispossession that are indispensable to capitalism.” This metaphor of “infrastructure” is meaningful because it shows how capitalism was built on racist slavery, racially based imperialism, and settler-colonialism. Those material relations — defined and enabled by anti-Blackness — became its substance and marrow.
Think, for example, about Marx’s argument that capitalism became possible only through “the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins.” In his research, Marx encountered a “slavery mentality” that continues to define capitalist exploitation as rooted in persistent anti-Blackness. It made capitalist exploitation structurally incapable of dispensing with racial differences because racism defined the political, cultural, as well as the economic features of capitalism.
Especially given the particular historical development of capitalism in the U.S., Marx discovered that “labor in the white skin can never free itself as long as labor in the black skin is branded.” He doesn’t mean that racism is a capitalist tool that tricks white workers into accepting class divisions.
The struggle against racism — the branding of labor in Black skin — is the essence of the class struggle itself.
Rather, he means that unless disrupted by a working class–led revolt, the racist fixture of capitalist development and capitalist structure of white supremacy would endure. But such a rebellion is impossible unless the white segment of the working class allowed itself to be especially conscious of capitalism’s racist fountainhead and of the need to fight, subvert, and transform the racist “infrastructures” of its condition of possibility. It has to recognize its own racialization as white, and grow to despise capitalism’s systemic refusal to value Black lives. In fact, if we read Marx correctly in this statement, we note that the struggle against racism — the branding of labor in Black skin — is the essence of the class struggle itself, the liberation of Black and white workers, and the beginning of a new process outside and beyond racial capitalism.
Seeing the problem of capitalism as a racist problem, a problem tied directly to the system of white supremacy, poses important challenges to the movements, parties, and allies of the working class.
In an interview with the People’s Forum this past summer, Gerald Horne noted that the facts of racial capitalism have sometimes had disastrous implications for how much the Left understands and enacts U.S. class politics. “If we understand this unresolved class question of slavery, it puts us on a faster track to understand this apparent mystery” of present-day racist police violence, racist discrimination, and the endurance of white supremacy.
White identity and supremacy developed out of shared interest in greasing the wheels of capitalism’s brutality.
However, white supremacy remains a “bedeviling” problem, Horne argues. It emerged and endures in a process of class collaboration among poor, working-class, petty bourgeois, and capitalist-class whites. In the U.S., white identity and supremacy developed out of shared interest in greasing the wheels of capitalism’s brutality: protecting slavery, gaining control over Native lands, imperial conquests.
Indeed, “class warriors” who today “turn up their noses at identity politics” may be caught in a modern and more “sophisticated” version of the class collaborationist trap initiated by white supremacy, Horne added. His point isn’t to favor identity politics, per se, or the reduction of complex multi-systemic analysis of reality to a single point of cultural identity (like race or ethnicity). Rather it is the need to recognize that U.S. capitalism is a white-supremacist project.
We should be prepared to engage, in theory and practice, the conditions and structures of capitalism that depend on white supremacy’s anti-Blackness — the hatred and oppression of Black people, of communities of color, of Native peoples — for its operation. Marxism that sees racism as wholly distinct from or subordinate to the class process, or merely as tools of the capitalist class to divide workers, must rethink.