Destin Jenkins and Justin Leroy, eds., Histories of Racial Capitalism (New York: Columbia UP, 2021), 288 pp.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, we have seen no shortage of scholarship critiquing neoliberal capitalism far beyond the discipline of economics. Indeed, the volume at the center of this review is part of a rapidly expanding series, Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism, dedicated to that very purpose. However, in many recent mainstream publications of the field, one fundamental aspect regularly gets sidelined. Thomas Piketty’s bestselling Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014), for instance, relegates the connection between race and capital to highly specific, isolated instances. Shoshana Zuboff’s magisterial The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019) similarly mentions “race” barely a handful of times in passing. Such omissions are all the more disconcerting because they cannot stem from a lack of constitutive scholarship on the intersections of capitalism and race, neoliberal structures, and White supremacy. Already in 1983, Cedric J. Robinson published his seminal monograph Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition—a centuries- and continents-spanning survey of the construction and perpetuation of racial categories by the West and how they were both consolidated into and structured by capitalism. Histories of Racial Capitalism, edited by Destin Jenkins and Justin Leroy in 2021, continues this work and functions not only as a extension, but also as a reinvigoration of Black Marxism. It thus doubles as an excellent introduction to Robinson and the history of the Black radical tradition. Jenkins and Leroy posit the hermeneutic of racial capitalism as a methodological as well as analytical practice that rethinks past assumptions, present systems, and future-oriented politics, always alert to capitalism’s propensity to dominate through the creation of difference, insisting that “[t]o acknowledge capitalism as racial expands, rather than particularizes, our sense of what capitalism is” (1).
The essays in the volume developed out of a series of workshops that included scholars from different career stages and with diverse disciplinary backgrounds. Importantly, this interdisciplinary scope does not come at the price of readability: Most contributions are effortlessly accessible for academics from other disciplines. Indeed, a significant strength of Histories of Racial Capitalism lies in its accommodation of heterogeneous contributions while remaining grounded in a shared conversation, fostering exactly the interdisciplinary alliances that law professor Angela P. Harris in her foreword credits with “the potential to fruitfully disrupt some of the discourses that sustain neoliberal governance” (vii). This multitude of perspectives and methodologies allows to bring into focus and (en)counter what Leroy and Jenkins call racial capitalism’s “highly malleable structure” (3).
The volume proceeds in a loose chronological order, although even the most historical of its contributions maintain a keen eye on the present and future: K-Sue Park’s “Race, Innovation, and Financial Growth” examines how foreclosure was codified as a tool for Native American dispossession in the seventeenth century. The Indigenous population was routinely and systematically indebted and their property confiscated, frequently by means of state violence in a “force[d] equivalence between money and land” (31). This equivalence legitimized the expropriation of original landholders while at the same time making it easier for White settlers to obtain credit staked on real estate possessions in order to advance their own economic interests.
A web of intersectionalities takes the foreground in Shauna J. Sweeney’s contribution “Gendering Racial Capitalism and the Black Heretical Tradition,” the only essay to specifically address questions of gender. It traces women’s multiform roles within racial capitalist systems: as slaves whose value was exclusively defined through their capacity to produce Black labor; as subjugates in patriarchal nuclear family structures into which Black Americans were forced both before and after abolition to “stimulate habits of industry” (60); but also as spiritual centers and visionaries of new forms of resistance, from slave societies all the way to contemporary Black activist movements.
Debt as a crucial tool for capitalist advancement under the aegis of legal systems and state force is one of this volume’s central threads: In “The Indebted among the ‘Free,’” Mishal Khan studies the nexus of debt and racialization in India. “[A]bolition,” she argues, “was a racial project” (85). Once U.S.-American slavery had become unattractive as a capitalist mode since it placed certain responsibilities, especially financial ones, on slaveholders, Indian “coolies” were systematically indebted in their native country through cash advances, shipped to the Americas, and forced into plantation work as de-facto “debt” slaves without any financial or moral risks for the slaveholders: Having entered into their contracts “voluntarily,” these racialized laborers could be constructed as “free” (92).
While the volume mostly centers on the United States, the global perspective offered by this and the next essay lay bare the pervasive interconnected system of capitalism. Allen S. E. Lumba’s “Transpacific Migration, Racial Surplus, and Colonial Settlement” uncovers how transpacific migration was “managed” through disciplining “surplus” laboring bodies and land under U.S. imperial hegemony. Focusing on the migration between the Philippines and Hawai‘i, Lumba convincingly recounts how these workers, however, kept exceeding their denomination as “surplus,” not only in how they unsettled colonial authorities, but especially also in how they cultivated brief moments of community—an undercommon history of transpacific collective resistance.
Capitalist systems have always been intertwined with state power, and Manu Karuka’s “The Counterrevolution of Property Along the 32nd Parallel” presents one of the most sweeping illustrations thereof. While being the chapter most lacking a clear focus, its very miscellaneousness exemplifies the complexity of that intertwinement: Building on W. E. B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, Karuka highlights the active role of the U.S. army in restoring, redistributing, and maintaining property and industrial rights, supporting private mining and railroad construction, securing waterways, and breaking up labor rights movements. Thus, Southern oligarchy was effectively preserved beyond Reconstruction in a “synthesis of agrarian capital, industrial capital, and war” (138).
What emerges from many of these contributions, in addition to the paradigms of debt, migration, and legal systems established in service of racial capitalism, is a picture of capitalism’s extreme malleability. While it operates through categories and hierarchies of difference, it is by no means tied to any specific one of them. Consequently, Justin Leroy, in “Racial Capitalism and Black Philosophies of History,” challenges the Hegelian notion of history as a perpetual progress narrative. He argues that the transition from slavery to abolition was by no means sure to be a transition towards freedom, since race, in the same breath, served to “naturaliz[e] the inequalities produced by capitalism” (180).
In other words, racial capitalism poses not just a systemic, but also a “narrative challenge,” as Jenkins concludes in his chapter “Ghosts of the Past” (188). The construction of racial differences has served both to obscure capitalist tensions and to actively suppress them. Taking the Alabama town Port of Mobile as an example, Jenkins demonstrates how—in order to take on municipal debt for its restoration after the Civil War—it harnessed Jim Crow laws to foster an image of stability and reliability with creditors, using racial pretexts to strike down labor protests and laying the blame for previous bond defaults on Black governance. Black workers—needed and eschewed, constructed and subjugated—remain “the source of stability and volatility” (205) within racial capitalism.
Continuing this examination of racial capitalist narratives, Ryan Cecil Jobson in “Dead Labor” interweaves W. E. B. Du Bois, Karl Marx, and Andreas Malmin in order to trace how the commodification of plantation slaves conceived human labor “in thermodynamic terms as labor power” (220). This transfiguration, Jobson argues, preconditioned practices of privatized violent extraction both of surplus value from laborers and of fossil fuels in the anthropocene: “Racial capital forms the contractual basis on which fossil capital came to pervade the extractive complexes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries” (228).
In the final chapter, Pedro A. Regalado offers a further twist on what dynamics can be made visible through the lens of racial capitalism by tracing how Latinx business people in New York mobilized the “racial malleability of ‘Hispanicity’” (233) for upward mobility. Elite Latinx networks managed to attract municipal and national investment from the 1960s onwards by disassociating themselves from African American and Black Latinx communities. Racial capitalism thus became one of the key routes for Latinx success—proffering up the illusion of emancipation through free market—at the cost of community projects and more systemic approaches to counter poverty.
Because of its multidisciplinary approach and maybe even more because of the prospective trajectory of many of the essays, a coda by the editors themselves would have been nice to bundle the volume’s deliberate heterogeneousness. The question Harris raises in her foreword remains: What are ways “to build […] the other worlds we know are possible” (xiv)? Nevertheless, Histories of Racial Capitalism strikes in a dozen directions at once, illustrating the temporal and spatial scope of intertwined capitalist and racist systems: scholarly rigorous and superbly written, it moves between historical analysis and theoretical debate, between specific U.S.-American contexts and global networks of finance, migration, and epistemology. In the words of Jodi Melamed: “capitalism is racial capitalism” (77).
Andrin Albrecht (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena)
Hannah Schoch (Universität Zürich)