What Does It Mean to Dismantle Racial Capitalism Anyway? - Action Center on Race and the Economy

Editors’ note: This article is from Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine’s summer 2023 issue, “Movement Economies: Making Our Vision a Collective Reality.”

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Imagine this.

Flint, MI, has clean water and kids aren’t poisoned by lead. All of our communities have fresh, potable water, and our lakes and rivers aren’t polluted. Everyone is safely and comfortably housed. All of our children are well fed, and everyone has dental, medical, and mental healthcare.

These are just some of the things that we should have but that capitalism has robbed from us.

When one thinks about race and the economy, it’s important to understand that economic exploitation is not primarily about the greed and racism of a few, but rather is structural, and historically grounded.

Capitalism, as designed, is extractive. And the extraction that led to the original accumulation of capital had a whole lot to do with what historians have called the Atlantic or triangular trade. The three vertices of the triangle were Europe (especially Great Britain), the Americas, and Africa. The way the trade worked is that Europeans would sell manufactured goods (and horses and alcohol) to (primarily) West Africans and in exchange purchase human beings. These human beings were taken in slave ships across the Atlantic to the Americas; those who survived the passage—and many did not—were enslaved principally in Brazil, the Caribbean, and the United States, and produced agricultural goods for sale in Europe (goods such as rum, sugar, cotton, tobacco, and coffee).1

The profits from this trade were fundamental to the forming of a transnational capitalist class—and, of course, provided money that could purchase more human beings from West Africa. This human trade continued for over 200 years. The amount of wealth extracted and accumulated in this manner was extraordinary. David Blight, the distinguished Yale historian, has pointed out that enslaved humans in 1860 were “the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.”2 And, to say the obvious, even though the Civil War ended slavery in the United States, structural racism has remained a constant in our economy to the present.3

A couple of years ago, during a podcast interview, Maurice BP-Weeks (a cofounder of the Action Center on Race & the Economy, where we work) highlighted the importance of this extraction. “The most important thing about the concept of wealth extraction for me is intentionality…This isn’t a market inefficiency. It’s a strategic choice made by a set of actors.”4

The term racial capitalism was popularized by Cedric J. Robinson, a professor of political science and Black studies. Robinson encountered the term among scholars of apartheid South Africa in England, and adapted it for his 1983 book, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, to foreground the racialized nature of global capitalism.5 Robinson argued that the system of capitalism emerged from and relied on the existence of an already racialized society, and thus there can be no separation between the two. To be clear, racial capitalism is not a type of capitalism that divides workers along the lines of race; rather, all existing capitalism is racial capitalism, and by using the term, today’s scholars and activists reinforce the centrality of race in the material mechanisms of our global economy.

Of course, describing our economy is one matter. Changing it is another. It is to that theme we turn below.

Within the United States, racial capitalism affects everyone but is especially deeply felt in Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities. At the international level, people—who are overwhelmingly of color in the Global South—are targeted with unsafe working conditions, low wages, toxic and polluting industries, displacement, and other forms of violence in the name of profit.

Building a Movement against Racial Capitalism

We know what we are up against. Within the United States, racial capitalism affects everyone but is especially deeply felt in Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities. At the international level, people—who are overwhelmingly of color in the Global South—are targeted with unsafe working conditions, low wages, toxic and polluting industries, displacement, and other forms of violence in the name of profit.

The way racial capitalism works in the United States means that exploitation occurs simultaneously along racial and class lines (and other factors, including gender). An example of this can be seen in the Paycheck Protection Program, the 2020 program approved by Congress with the stated goal of assisting businesses that were struggling to pay their workers in the wake of the COVID-19 economic shutdown. A 2021 Reveal News analysis of more than five million PPP loans in large metropolitan areas found that the rate of lending in majority-White neighborhoods was significantly higher than in majority-BIPOC neighborhoods.6 Specifically, Black-owned businesses were less likely to obtain PPP loans from banks due to the racial biases of lenders.7 This means that in 2020, the year of the so-called racial reckoning, “one of the largest financial [government] bailouts since the Great Depression” actually served to further the racial wealth gap.8

In our work, we aim to counter such tendencies as they manifest in both the policies of corporations and those of government agencies—be they federal, state, or local. Our campaigns are centered around racial economic justice. In doing so, we have always taken care to recognize the role that corporations—particularly in the finance and tech sectors—play in causing harm to communities of color. In response, we seek to devise interventions to counter that dynamic.

An example of our approach is the #StopShotSpotter campaign, which ACRE helps anchor and coordinate.9 ShotSpotter is an artificial-intelligence–powered gunshot-detection technology that is owned by the corporation that newly rebranded itself as SoundThinking. It is essentially a microphone that is placed in neighborhoods across cities that alerts the local police department of locations where sounds that resemble gunshots are picked up. SoundThinking is a part of the growing surveillance-industrial complex that is being used to criminalize, police, and incarcerate people living in Black and people of color communities.

It is no surprise that the technology is extremely faulty and it is deployed almost exclusively in non-White neighborhoods.10 An investigation by the Associated Press found that “the system can miss live gunfire right under its microphones, or misclassify the sounds of fireworks or cars backfiring as gunshots.”11 A study by the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern Law School in Evanston, IL, found that ShotSpotter has a false alarm rate of 89 percent.12 The Office of the Inspector General of the City of Chicago reported, “[Chicago Police Department] responses to ShotSpotter alerts rarely produce documented evidence of a gun-related crime, rarely give rise to investigatory stops, and even less frequently lead to the recovery of gun crime-related evidence during an investigatory stop.”13

What ShotSpotter does do, however, is contribute to the overpolicing of Black and people of color communities, further increasing the risk of adverse police encounters. A 65-year-old Black man was thrown in jail for nearly a year after he was wrongly accused of murder based on a ShotSpotter alert.14 Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old Latino boy, was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer responding to a ShotSpotter alert in March 2021.15

Organizers in cities including Detroit, Durham, and Chicago are joining together through the #StopShotSpotter campaign to demand that their cities cancel their contracts with SoundThinking and to alert shareholders about the investment risk posed by the company’s dismal record. SoundThinking’s contracts with cities across the country turn public money into corporate profit by creating a market for a failed service targeting communities of color. SoundThinking has created a profit model based on false promises of public safety, turning the contributions of people of color to public funds against them via surveillance technologies and increased police encounters.

Racial capitalism gives us a framework for understanding why ShotSpotter exists and the intersecting mechanisms of harm that it inflicts on our communities. There isn’t anything explicitly racist, per se, about the technology behind ShotSpotter. It is a glorified microphone that is purportedly able to identify gunfire after it has already occurred. But that technology relies on racialized tropes of criminality and danger, is concentrated in poor Black and people of color urban neighborhoods, and is placed in the hands of departments staffed by racist police officers. Thus, SoundThinking’s executives and investors profit from and contribute to a racialized market.

Resistance to debt restructuring in Puerto Rico presents a second example of how interrelated campaigns challenge practices of racial capitalism. Banks targeted Puerto Rico with predatory and unsustainable debt deals16 because of technicalities specific to its colonial status.17 The deals burdened Puerto Rico with a debt load that was out of proportion to its revenues, which had suffered due to US colonialism, extraction, and climate catastrophe. When Puerto Rico was inevitably unable to pay back the debt, the hedge fund managers who owned the loans demanded that the government cut services, privatize schools, slash pensions, and lower the minimum wage so that they could profit by collecting the full value of the bonds they had purchased for “pennies on the dollar.”18 While Puerto Ricans were struggling to rebuild after the devastating Hurricane Maria, mortgage servicers owned by the private equity firms TPG Capital and the Blackstone Group were aggressively foreclosing on their homes.19

Puerto Ricans living on the island as well as those on the US mainland organized against this Wall Street profiteering. In Puerto Rico, community leaders, students, union members, and retirees banded together and held demonstrations calling for the cancellation of Puerto Rico’s predatory debt. Ultimately, the debt was reduced by more than $25 billion.20

Stateside, Puerto Ricans in New York,21 New Jersey,22 and Florida23 pushed their state pension funds to refuse any new investments in private equity firms that were foreclosing on Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of the hurricane. The New Jersey pension fund confirmed that no new investments were being considered and voted to urge TPG to participate in negotiations with Puerto Rican advocates.24 After sustained pressure and demonstrations, the TPG-owned servicers eventually gave in to demands to implement foreclosure moratoriums.25

The framework of racial capitalism helps movement activists and leaders to understand the interconnectedness of colonial extraction and racism in the treatment of Puerto Rico by the United States and US-based corporations. Anti-Blackness and White supremacy serve as the foundation upon which Puerto Rico’s colonization exists; thus, when finance companies target Puerto Rico as a playground for extraction, they depend on the racialization of the state and its people to justify their actions.

Dismantling Racial Capitalism: Toward a Long-Term Agenda

By running campaigns that target finance and technology corporations, we can challenge two central nodes of power in the oligarchic political-economic system that upholds and profits from racial capitalism in the United States and the world.

More broadly, campaigns aim to make the racist practices of corporations explicit, expose the corporations profiting from racism, and force public officials to stop funneling public dollars to corporations and instead direct those resources to public services that improve all communities. As Georgetown philosopher Olúfẹmi O. Táíwò smartly put it, the broader strategic issue is that “If it is true that racism and capitalism are in a mutually supporting relationship, then we should expect that any potentially effective anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggles will also be mutually supporting.”26 This means we must focus our aim not just on structural racism and not just on capitalism, but rather on how those two forces are interconnected and intertwined. This, for us, is the heart of the racial capitalism concept—and why we must always keep this front of mind in our work.

As one of us observed in a Nation interview a year ago, too often, when it comes to movement strategy, “We play checkers, they [corporate executives] play chess. And unless we straighten that out, we’re always going to be chasing results while playing their game.”27

We believe one answer lies in taking on tangible fights that empower people to make a real impact on their lives and that have a real chance of winning. That helps build the bases of our movement organizations, while also starting a broader national conversation about the allocation of power and resources in our economy.

We are motivated to run the campaigns that we do because we want to live in a world where Black people and people of color can thrive. To us, this looks like improved access to healthcare, housing, and education. It looks like building not just individual, but community wealth. We know a better world is possible. Across the country, we hear of stories about emergency mental health services that don’t involve calling the cops; we hear of community land trusts that are keeping rents below market and allowing residents to build equity; and so many more alternatives to our current reality.28 We must find ways to support these alternatives so that they can scale.

This work, however, must be linked to a sharp analysis that also directly challenges the power centers of racial capitalism. For us, this means a range of things. In finance, for example, it involves challenging the undemocratic nature of the Federal Reserve to make it more responsive to the public and shift its focus from supporting Wall Street to financing needed public infrastructure (such as renewable energy) on the one end, while advocating for public, community-controlled banks in places like Chicago and Philadelphia to facilitate local community investment, supported by city deposits, on the other.29 In the world of work, it means actively challenging the “gig economy.”30 It also means supporting community-centered strategies that leverage labor union power, like Bargaining for the Common Good.31

In all this, we know that racial capitalism is, like the hydra, a many-headed monster. In this work, there is no one right answer—and anyone who tells you otherwise has surely not examined the nature of contemporary racial capitalism very closely. We believe one answer lies in taking on tangible fights that empower people to make a real impact on their lives and that have a real chance of winning. That helps build the bases of our movement organizations, while also starting a broader national conversation about the allocation of power and resources in our economy.