By W. T. Whitney Jr.
February 19, 2022
A recent BBC report attributes climate-change damage in Africa to “racialized capitalism.” That term, or its kin “racial capitalism,” reflects a new understanding of U.S. slavery on the part of many historians. Its meaning, however, is not entirely clear.
The actual experience of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the United States sheds light on the matter. We learn that class-based exploitation and expropriation did account for their oppression. It’s evident also that stigmatization and manifestations of hatred are adjuncts. They are tools for implementing oppression.
W.E.B. Du Bois describes Europeans “scurrying down the hot, mysterious coasts of Africa to the Good Hope of Gain until for the first time a real commerce was born […] That sinister traffic, on which the British Empire and the American Republic were largely built cost black Africa no less than 100,000,000 souls, the wreckage of its political and social life, and left the continent in precisely that state of helplessness which invites aggression and exploitation.” (“The African Roots of War” 1915)
In his recently published book The Ledger and the Chain, which is about three wealthy U.S. slave traders, historian Joshua Rothman states that, “By 1860, four million enslaved people in the United States were a pillar of American prosperity, cumulatively worth more than the whole country had invested in manufacturing, railroads, and banks put together.” Slave traders “helped define the financial, political, legal, cultural, and demographic contours of a growing nation.”
Reflecting on these observations, New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie suggests that, “we should not think of the slave system or the slave trade as somehow about racism and hatred. It was about profit. That’s why — and how — it lasted so long.” He regards “chattel slavery … as part of a larger class system.” That characteristic, claims Bouie, accounts for “the ideas, ideologies and institutions” produced by slavery.
The Civil War allowed enslaved workers in the South to go free. Reconstruction, which followed, was a shock to the political establishment there. Formerly enslaved people proved to be adept at organizing, articulating demands, and making politics work. Even the new National Labor Union briefly extended its organizing into the South. As described by Communist author James S. Allen in his 1937 book Reconstruction, “A strong tendency for solidarity with Negro workers and for alliance with the Negro people made itself felt early.”
After congressional shenanigans over the presidential elections of 1876 had finished off Reconstruction, the old order was in charge again. The freedmen were fodder for the profitable convict-leasing system. As tenant farmers, they provided a lifeline for the survival of plantations. Although some of them slowly and tenaciously gained land ownership, local oligarchs and lending agencies over time cut back on their acreage; the U.S. Department of Agriculture would be complicit.
Oppression continued through institutional means. That’s significant inasmuch as public institutions in the United States do reflect capitalist priorities.
Local and state governments and the courts sharply restricted voting rights and managed police, judicial, and prison affairs to the great disadvantage of oppressed African-descendants. The same local authorities controlled the quality and availability of schools. Poor schooling confined already marginalized workers to a future of diminished hopes and low wages.
The U.S. Supreme Court legitimized exclusionary legislation and administrative actions, especially in regard to higher education. African-Americans conspicuously missed out on the benefits of the federal government’s turn to social reform via the New Deal. Until the mid-twentieth century, their military service was debasing and discriminatory.
Oppression of another sort
That kind of oppression stemmed from governmental actions, or inaction. There was another kind, which reflected the opposing orientations of European immigrant workers and their African-descended counterparts. Those with European heritage seem for the most part to have acquired attitudes that excluded solidarity with the formerly enslaved workers and/or led to hostility.
The theorizing of famous frontier historian Frederick Jackson Turner might work to explain such a mind-set. The European settlers, and their progeny, may have been conditioned by experiences along a “continually advancing frontier line … [which was] productive of individualism …The tendency is anti-social.” Turner foresaw “danger” in a “democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience and education, and pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds.”
Consequently, the settlers may have seized upon an unspoken trade- off that was advantageous to themselves and their capitalist overlords. They gained the autonomy they needed to advance economically or perhaps become entrepreneurs. Thus rewarded, they would not raise objections to the abuse of African-Americans, or maybe would join in. The overall goal of this hypothetical arrangement was to leave sectional animosities behind and allow capitalist production systems to develop, unimpeded.
Du Bois describes a similar arrangement emanating from early twentieth century Europe: “the laborer at home is demanding and beginning to receive a part of his share” on condition that the labor movement and other progressive forces go along with the imperialists’ plundering of “the darker nations of the world.”
Manipulation of one set of workers against another continues. Capitalist enforcers have taken advantage of the precariousness of workers’ lives. They’ve used poverty-stricken African-Americans as strike breakers to weaken labor unity. And very poor European-descended workers, mainly in the South and resenting their own desperate economic conditions, have colluded in oppressing African-Americans. They curry favor with the upper echelons so as to preserve status.
Some miscellaneous observations: first, the Thirteenth Amendment in 1965 abolished slavery, but it also legalized “involuntary servitude” as punishment for crime. It led to the convict leasing system that would continue for the next half century. It contributed to the profitable prison-industrial system of today.
Secondly, the purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868 was to assure “due process of law [and] equal protection of the laws” for formerly enslaved people. Instead, according to historian Eric Foner, it became “a vehicle for protecting corporate rights rather than those of the former slaves.”
Thirdly, one’s own family in the U.S. South years ago used that stock regional term “uppity’ in reference to African-descended neighbors deemed to be rising above their “station in life.”
A clear meaning
The material presented here shows that, all along, in the United States, social-class relationships beneficial to the upper orders of society have led to the oppression of Africans and their descendants. And hatred, that by-product of oppression, has persisted, mainly through the ease with which targets can be identified by their physical appearance, and though its usefulness.
The oppressor may value hatred for its inhibitory effect on amply-justified rebelliousness cropping up among the oppressed. Maybe they’ve assumed that hatred in the form of organized terror – the lynchings, massacres, and police violence – instills quiescence. Hatred leading to divisions within racially-diverse political coalitions, and to their floundering, has been routine.
Protest mobilizations against hatred and its manifestations surely are necessary. But unless they are directed against the class-based origins of the oppression, they won’t do much to end it. Jamelle Bouie, the New Times columnist, agrees.
Citing the 1944 book Capitalism and Slavery, authored by Trinidadian historian and political leader Eric Williams, Bouie describes the settlers’ reliance first on Native Americans to provide forced labor and then on indentured white servants. The former did not survive long, and the latter were in short supply, independent-minded, and desirous of land once they were free. Plantation owners turned to enslaved Africans.
Bouie quotes Williams: “The Negro, in a strange environment, conspicuous by his color and features, and ignorant of the white man’s language and ways, could be kept permanently divorced from the land.” Williams adds that, “Racial differences made it easier to justify and rationalize Negro slavery … to demand that resignation and that complete moral and intellectual subjection which alone make slave labor possible.
Moreover, “The features of the man, his hair, color and dentifrice, his ‘subhuman’ characteristics so widely pleaded, were only the later rationalizations to justify a simple economic fact that the colonies needed labor and resorted to Negro labor because it was cheapest and best.”
Bouie concludes: “One thing I’d like you to consider […] is the extent to which racial distinctions and racial divisions are rooted in relationships of class, labor and property, even when they take on a life and logic of their own. And if that’s true, I would like you to think about what that means for unraveling those divisions and distinctions, and consigning the ideology of ‘race’ to the ash heap of history.”