Let Us Name the System: “Racial Capitalism”

If you’ve been watching mainstream TV news programs lately, you’ve probably noticed that a number of corporate journalists – prodded by the marvelous protests against police violence – seem to have learned a new phrase, which they invoke regularly: “systemic racism.”

That’s an improvement from a dozen years ago, when some in establishment media were hailing our society as “post-racial” because of the election of President Obama.

While anti-racist activists have been explaining for decades that the problem of racism goes beyond the bigoted attitudes of individual elected officials (like Rep. Steve King) or law enforcement chiefs (like Sheriff Joe Arpaio) or Fox News hosts (take your pick), mainstream TV news has always preferred to focus on individual racists rather than address the systemic racism embedded in housing, policing, schooling, employment and healthcare policies – institutionalized racism going back to the foundations of our country.

So it’s oddly disconcerting nowadays to hear regular mentions of the phrase “systemic racism” from mainstream journalists who adamantly refuse to criticize (or even name) the system that U.S. racism is entrenched in. That system is “CAPITALISM.”

Or as historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad calls it: “racial capitalism.”

The sad and deadly history began with the savage exploitation of African people as slaves. What history books euphemistically refer to as “Southern plantations” were really “slave labor camps” benefitting financial elites from New England to old England. After “emancipation” came the capitalist exploitation of African American workers in the worst and dirtiest jobs – not just as sharecroppers.

In the 1930s, when labor and socialist activism forced some concessions from U.S. capitalism, the two groups of workers excluded from the landmark National Labor Relations Act of 1935 were farm workers and domestic workers. The exclusions subjected millions of Black and Latinx workers to super-exploitation and mistreatment. (Although agricultural workers today from California to Florida are largely Latinx, farm workers in Florida were heavily African American when Edward R. Murrow produced his acclaimed “Harvest of Shame” documentary in 1960. Watch it here.)

At every stage in U.S. history – beginning with the brutal dispossession of Native Americans and continuing through modern methods of injustice from redlining to mass incarceration and private prisons – U.S. racism has been inextricably embedded in the system of profiteering.

So it’s fascinating to see pundits on CNN, MSNBC and other networks now discussing “systemic racism” after they’d spent months during the Democratic presidential primaries in panicked overdrive propping up “the system.” Reforms aimed at reducing the wealth/poverty extremes of neoliberal capitalism – whether proposed by Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren – were relentlessly dismissed as unrealistic, unaffordable, extreme. These were “shoot-the-moon policy ideas” (Washington Post) threatening to push Democrats “over a liberal cliff” (New York Times).

+ Medicare for All? “Too expensive.” Except it isn’t. For months, mainstream media pundits vehemently defended a system that ties one’s (private) health insurance to one’s job . . . and then COVID-19 threw tens of millions out of those jobs.

+ Green New Deal, providing millions of high-wage jobs while transforming our economy? Unaffordable.

+ A wealth tax on ultra-millionaires to provide universal childcare and better schools – or a Wall Street transaction tax to provide free public college? Unworkable.

Corporate liberal news outlets were aggressive in policing the Democratic primaries for structural reforms that went “too far” in addressing systemic racism and classism.

Despite the media naysaying, the good news is that progressive reforms remain popular with the public.

The bad news is that too many people still rely on media outlets entrenched in the corporate system for news on “systemic” racism.

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Jeff Cohen was director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College and cofounder of the online activism group RootsAction.org.

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