The Capitalist Roots of U.S. Racial Oppression

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

A recent BBC report attributes climate-change damage in Africa to “racialized capitalism.” That confusing term reflects a new understanding of U.S. slavery on the part of many historians. Here the term signifies the commanding role of capitalism in the oppression of Africans and of African-descended peoples in the United States. Racial hatred, by implication, takes on a secondary role as a tool useful for enforcing oppression.

What follows is an attempt to highlight the contribution of capitalism to racial oppression in the United States.

W.E.B. DuBois 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, historian Joshua Rothman studies three wealthy U.S. slave traders. He points out 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.”

Profit rules

Reflecting on Rothman’s 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 northern side in the Civil War freed enslaved workers in the South. Reconstruction followed; it shocked the southern political establishment. 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.”

The old order took charge again after congressional shenanigans over the presidential elections of 1876 finished off Reconstruction. 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, over time local oligarchs and lending agencies cut back on their acreage; the U.S. Department of Agriculture would be complicit.

Oppression continued through institutional means. That’s significant in that public institutions in the United States by and large reflect capitalist priorities.

Local and state governments and the courts sharply restricted voting rights and managed police, judicial, and prison affairs in oppressive ways. Local authorities provided low-quality and scanty education for the descendants of enslaved people. 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 missed out on important benefits provided under the New Deal. Until the mid-twentieth century, their military service was debasing and discriminatory.


Oppression came from directions other than governmental action, or inaction. In the post-Civil War period, a trade-off arranged by higher-ups saw northerners tolerating continued abuse of African-descended workers in the South in return for the appearance of North-South harmony, viewed as essential for growing the nation’s capitalist economy.

Workers migrating from Europe entered into another kind of trade-off. They and their descendants have enjoyed an autonomy through which, at least in theory, they’ve been able to advance economically and entertain entrepreneurial aspirations. But as a class, they’ve never wholeheartedly opposed the oppressive labor arrangements visited upon African-descended workers, particularly in the South. To have actually done so would surely have put their autonomy at risk.

Theirs was a bargain similar to the one struck by European workers in the early 20th century. As recounted by DuBois, “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.”

Racial oppression rested on the same social and political attitudes that allowed U.S. capitalism to flourish. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner, explains that the frontier experience itself instilled “anti-social” attitudes in the European settler, who manifested “antipathy to control.” Indeed, “democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience and education, and pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds, has its dangers as well as benefits. Individualism in America has allowed a laxity in regard to governmental affairs.”

Since then, 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 resentful of their own desperate economic conditions, have colluded in oppressing African-Americans. Intent upon preserving a modicum of status, they curry favor with the upper echelons

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, members of one’s own family in the U.S. South, no stranger to social-class distinctions, formerly employed that stock regional term “uppity.” They were referring to African-descended neighbors deemed to be rising above their “station in life.”

A clear message

In pursuing their own economic interests, the upper orders of society arranged for the enslavement of Africans in the United States and, later on, for the oppression of their descendants. That’s clear, as is the fact that race-based hatred persists because it’s useful as an enforcement mechanism and can be readily applied to victims identifiable through their physical appearance.

Hatred has many applications. Inciting fear, it theoretically inhibits open rebellion among the oppressed. Hatred in the form of organized terror – the lynchings, massacres, and police violence – maybe assures quiescence, or maybe not. Hatred frequently leads to divisions within racially-diverse political coalitions, and to their demise.

Protest mobilizations against hatred and its manifestations 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.”

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.