This article is one in a series of arguments on class and race in our summer issue.
Wars of position rage between “race reductionists” who insist on the political primacy of race and their “class reductionist” counterparts. But some of us, especially those of us who make use of racial capitalism as a set of frameworks, insist that such debate is tired.
In Golden Gulag, Ruth Wilson Gilmore offers an intricate definition of racism: “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” It follows that races are divisions of populations into hierarchies of vulnerability to premature death (the likely fate of the materially insecure).
What’s the difference between “race” and “class,” then? They are two, compatible ways of explaining how society is split into strata of material security. Class zooms in on how global production was and is organized: capitalists own the means of production, the proletariat owns its labor, enslaved people own neither, and Indigenous and colonized peoples are targeted for elimination or assimilation into one of the other categories. Alongside this hierarchy in function is a hierarchy of material security; to be a capitalist, after all, one must have secure access to the “means of subsistence,” and a proletariat becomes possible when this same security is unavailable for masses of people.
Race asks more generally: how is society organized? Slavery and indigeneity were legal and social statuses that approached rightlessness. The racial categorizations fashioned out of these colonial designations marked certain groups of people as available for plunder, domination, and subjugation in social life, well beyond the workplace. Indigenous and enslaved people have always faced systematically higher levels of social violence and predation of all kinds, and thus death. And this stratified distribution of security remains necessary to sustain exploitative social arrangements: as the South African activist Steve Biko once put it, “that we are oppressed to varying degrees is a deliberate design to stratify us not only socially but also in terms of the enemy’s aspirations.”
The history of racial capitalism helps explain how the broader racial organization of the whole of global society emerged from regional economic and political distinctions. Starting in 1492, European empires and descendant states atop the Atlantic system created racial governance systems to divide and rule their colonies, ranging from the straightforward to the dizzyingly complex. Justifications were varied—based on religion or pseudoscience—and were often helped along by a thick layer of convenient obfuscations (“racecraft,” as Barbara J. and Karen E. Fields famously put it) and longstanding habits of political thought.
The political stakes of racial divisions, however, were less variable than the myths that justified them. In the colonies, as a social stratum’s ancestral proximity to the European elite increased, so did its presumed share of social rights and protections. As a stratum’s ancestral proximity to the Atlantic system’s most exploited and plundered populations increased—those dispossessed of their land or labor—its presumed share of rights and protections dropped precipitously. This organization, and consequent differences in social and geographic distribution of rights and resources, proliferated and hardened over time as colonial conquests and economic links expanded. The system built across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans took over almost the entire world.
Today, many of the institutions and laws permitting explicitly racial stratifications of exploitation and predation have been effectively challenged. But stratifications remain, as do the organizational logics that inform them and the group social identities built out of them. Globally, racially marginalized communities are still the most polluted, policed, and preyed upon; progress on racial justice has been far less sweeping than advertised.
This history is a unified story about both kinds of division. Asking whether we should talk about class or race, it reveals, is like asking whether we should talk about guitars or musical instruments: confused. We could do both by doing either.
Some criticisms confuse the phrase “racial capitalism” with its analysis, such as the accusation that it focuses excessively on racial divisions (as opposed to gender, nationality, ability, and others). But the “what” of racial capitalism is less important than the “why”: the historical processes that explain why society is racially organized point us to the events that are formative of the same world order that is also unjust with respect to gender, nationality, ability, and countless other aspects of social life. By paying attention to this broad global and historical context, rather than focusing all of our attention on production, the racial capitalism approach can “open up, as opposed to foreclose, more complex analyses,” as Charisse Burden-Stelly recently argued.
This also helps answer another common criticism: how could race even be real, much less fundamental, if it means one thing in France and another in Brazil? One could just as easily notice that what counts as “middle class” differs even more wildly across different contexts, though people are curiously more reluctant to infer from this fact that class does not exist.
But the deeper answer is that racial capitalism is a way of thinking about the world’s history, not just any particular country’s. If we were focused on the networks that actually produce commodities and circulate capital rather than the ones that dominate political discussions—seems like the more materialist thing to do, right?—we might lose our appetite for the pretense that we live in separate social systems. Multinational institutions and investment patterns of shareholders half the world away govern the lives of people on this planet just as surely as their local and national governments—and in many cases, more so.
As the philosopher Vanessa Wills reminds us, it is production as a social process that is properly at the center of materialist thought, not class as an identity. Our economic systems are and have long been global: individual states (capitalist or not) are themselves components of a planetary economic system. Racial capitalism encourages us to think globally, which is essential in an era of global climate crisis.
If there’s reason to use “racial capitalism” over just “capitalism,” one would be to acknowledge the various African scholars and intellectuals who helped shape the term, from the South African revolutionaries like Neville Alexander who brought it into use to the Dar es Salaam school of intellectuals like Samir Amin, Marjorie Mbilinyi, and Issa G. Shivji, which further developed the world-systems approach that informed later theorizing on racial capitalism. But acknowledgement of these figures and their intellectual contributions doesn’t depend on the name we use for analyses of history or for the system we live in. Call it whatever you want. What matters are the substantive commitments we decide to take up, and what we do with them.
Gilmore’s framework doesn’t answer every question we could ask about race and class. But as Cedric Robinson, a seminal scholar of racial capitalism, said in the preface to the 2000 edition of Black Marxism: “As a scholar, it was never my purpose to exhaust a subject, only to suggest that it was there.”
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, where he focuses on social/political philosophy and ethics. He is also a member of Pan-African Community Action and an organizer of the Undercommons.