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Histories of Racial Capitalism and the Dynamics of the Capitalist System

Histories of Racial Capitalism

Histories of Racial Capitalism, edited by Destin Jenkins and Justin Leroy (Columbia University Press, 2021).

Julius Alexander McGee is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. Patrick Trent Greiner is assistant professor of sociology and of public policy studies at Vanderbilt University.
Destin Jenkins and Justin Leroy, eds., Histories of Racial Capitalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021), 266 pages, $30, paperback.

The term racial capitalism is a bit of a shibboleth. Those who invoke the phrase draw from a longstanding tradition of radical scholarship that brings attention to the material force of racialism in systems of capitalist domination. There is, however, a mounting critique that questions the term’s usefulness, casting doubt on the scholarly project Cedric Robinson initiated in Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition.1 In the face of such concerns, Histories of Racial Capitalism, edited by historians Destin Jenkins and Justin Leroy, is a much needed contribution—one that provides ample evidence the term is valuable and here to stay.2 Jenkins and Leroy make it clear from the start that the term racial capitalism is not meant to “claim ownership over the field of capitalism studies, or to narrow inquiries about capitalism to those that focus explicitly on race,” but instead used to “recognize that seemingly race neutral archetypes of capitalism are in fact thoroughly racialized.”3 In essence, the book captures the elusive realities of racialism and anti-Blackness that permeate mechanisms of capital accumulation.

As an edited volume, the book lacks a cohesive narrative structure, yet still manages to capture critical instances of racialism becoming a material force of accumulation. To this end, the editors and authors center on two prominent themes of racial capitalism scholarship: (1) that capitalism, rather than homogenizing and simplifying social relations, leading to a universal proletariat and bourgeoisie, differentiates populations that fall in its organizational domain, and (2) capitalism retains mechanisms of racialism that structured the feudal orders that preceded it. At least one of these themes is present in each chapter, establishing racial capitalism as a scholarly tradition with its own canon, ontology, and epistemology.

Tendency of Capitalism to Differentiate

Racial capitalism is distinguished, in part, by a focus on processes of racial differentiation that facilitate the expropriation of humans, nonhuman natures, and the extraction of surplus. Similarly, the volume situates capital as a socio-metabolic formation that makes “domination based on difference the main event,” where social as well as “economic domination are…justified by, and rooted in social theories of deep, even existential, difference,” and argues that in such social schema “difference between ruling classes and lower orders…was not simply one of wealth, but rather one of culture, religion, ethnicity, and nationality.”4

Differentiation under capital is strikingly reactive and thus contextually particularistic. It also represents one of the most consistently applied tendencies of the system. As the contributors illustrate, processes of differentiation unfold through myriad methods in every geographic, temporal, and cultural context with which capital might be associated.

Shauna J. Sweeney’s contribution, for instance, points to a general tendency to overlook the establishment of women as a political class as an active project under capitalism.5 Women whose knowledge and lifestyles challenged the relations of production were cast as witches and hunted with fervent violence. Sweeney’s work provides a clear point of connection with scholars such as Silvia Federici, pushing the bounds of racial capitalism.6 Sweeney’s extension includes an analysis of how the pathologizing of the Black family required Black women to be cast as “monstrous non-women,” who could then be transformed into chattel, “monitored, constrained, or ended with impunity” alongside the rest of their loved ones.7

The work of K-Sue Park, Mishal Khan, Allan S. Lumba, and Jenkins provides unique and informative illustrations as to how processes of financialization are used to create and maintain the racialism necessary for expropriation, while also producing novel opportunities for exploitation.8 In “Race, Innovation, and Financial Growth,” Park points to the ways that patterns of lending and foreclosure were tools of differentiation and accumulation in colonial North America that served to racially pattern lending requirements and property holdings. Park notes that the racialization of debt did not just result in the association of Indigenous and Black peoples with financial ineptitude, social irresponsibility, and general delinquency, but also determined who had access to land and at what costs. Doing so created space for the extraction of additional surplus via socially sanctioned usury, and incentivized white colonists to “use racial violence to ‘cheaply’ expropriate indigenous lands that could help them secure further credit.”9

Khan provides another illustration of how debt, mobilized by capital, has allowed for the continuation of accumulation and advanced the narrative that liberal capitalism is an incremental, but universal and indelible, force of manumission. In Khan’s work we see a historical moment where the flexibility and vast extent of differentiation under racial capitalism is apparent. As with pre-U.S. colonial debt regimes, Indian regimes were deeply racialized. Khan identifies racialisms that were mobilized to exploit and reinforce previously existing discourses of difference rooted in “internal feudal, caste, and service relations” of precolonial India.10 As Khan reminds us, such differentiation not only facilitates the creation of capital through expropriation in ways similar to the share-cropping traps of the post-Reconstruction South, but is also critical to the development of a global, racialized hierarchy of free laborers following abolition.

Extending the geographic terrain of racial capitalism’s analytic alongside Khan, Lumba’s study brings us across the world, focusing on the inextricably tangled dynamics of colonization and racial capitalism in the formation of a modern trans-Pacific economy. The racialization of Filipinos, Khan argues, was central to the construction and management of surplus populations and to the ongoing functionality of “economies of dispossession”—an important contribution to racial capitalism’s collective oeuvre. Equally important is Lumba’s argument that racialized differentiation and oppression led laboring peoples across the Pacific to formulate a “trans-Pacific radical tradition” of “collective resistance” that complements Robinson’s discussion of the Black radical tradition in surprising and potentially revolutionary ways.11

Bringing the United States back into focus, Jenkins draws attention to an all too often overlooked cornerstone of financialization, municipal finance, and infrastructural development. While there has been a rediscovery of the importance of racialism to urban growth, Jenkins uses the archives to expose the foundational role of the racial oppression of Black people in the formation of labor and municipal finance regimes in the “New South.” Yet, as Jenkins notes, southeastern municipal financiers had to make their cities’ Black laboring populations known, even as they obfuscated the “Black disposability” of their foundational labor force, to further the narrative of progressive justice—providing an equally important glimpse into the co-constitutive dynamics of capitalism and racialism.12

Though each chapter offers a unique view of differentiation’s function, the work of Pedro A. Regaldo breaks from the theme of debt and applies the lessons of racial capitalism to more contemporary phenomena.13 Regaldo explores how ongoing processes of differentiation were directed by the forces of social disinvestment, multiculturism, and racial self-interest to racially transform U.S. Latinx peoples into natural-born entrepreneurs. Throughout, Regaldo shows that racial differentiation was used to manipulate the character of governance during the financial crisis of the mid–1970s, further entrenching finance capital in urban decision-making logics. Critically, this historical movement functioned to distance the U.S. Latinx community from Blackness, further reinforcing the disposability of Black bodies in the process.

From Feudal Order to Capitalist Evolution

Building on the world-systems theory of Oliver Cromwell Cox, the theory of racial capitalism is premised on the notion that capitalism evolved from the feudal order that preceded it.14 This concept differentiates the theory of racial capitalism from other Marxist traditions, which typically contend that capitalism is a revolutionary negation of feudalism. By analyzing the many histories of people dispossessed by racial capitalism, the book effectively decenters proletarianization in feudal Europe as the origin of capitalism, and instead shows how capitalism emerged as a global regime predicated on the racialism of feudal Europe. The end result of this quest is a book that identifies the contingent, historical outgrowths of feudalism that structure the development of specific, racial capitalist regimes. This includes a critique of not just capitalism, but also of the Western philosophical thought endemic to white supremacist-patriarchal capitalism, which, of course, also stems from the feudal order of Europe. For instance, in the chapter titled “Gendering Racial Capitalism and the Black Heretical Tradition,” Sweeney does not just note the processes of differentiation unique to Black women.15 Rather, she reconceptualizes the history of revolutionary praxis under capitalism by centering the actions of Black women in maroon communities across the Americas. In doing so, she demonstrates the unique revolutionary praxis that emerges from groups dispossessed by racial capitalism and who exist outside the logics of Europe’s feudal system. Building on Robinson’s critiques in The Anthropology of Marxism, Sweeney puts forth a notion of Black spirituality reminiscent of bell hooks’s theory of radical love: “The particular metaphysical grammar of this struggle [for liberation under racial capitalism]…revolves around ontological preservations and should not be conflated with the insurrectionary overthrow of class exploitation.”16 In other words, liberation entails reparation that extends beyond the traditional bounds of class struggle and requires a spiritual, cultural, and political reconstitution of the Black subject as well.

In “Racial Capitalism and Black Philosophies of History,” Leroy takes this one step further by challenging the European philosophical thinking foundational to Marxian analysis itself. Leroy shows how central white supremacist logic is to philosophies developed under capitalism, demonstrating that, “Africa could not be part of [G. W. F.] Hegel’s philosophy of history, not because Africans lack the reason necessary to apprehend their own capacity for freedom [which Hegel argued], but because to acknowledge the violence wrought in the name of European development would render Hegel’s theory of history and freedom a farce.”17 While Karl Marx transcends Hegel’s limitation by acknowledging the reality of the process of “so-called primitive accumulation,” Histories of Racial Capitalism goes further, accentuating the origins of racial capitalism within the feudal milieu of primary accumulation.

Other authors engage with this notion more directly by examining how elements of feudalism persist in contemporary capitalism. For example, Park’s analysis exposes how the credit system of feudal Europe directly influenced the way white settlers colonized the Americas, and demonstrates the persistence of feudalistic racialism within U.S. racial capitalism.18 Manu Karuka, another contributor to the volume, analyzes how the counterrevolution against Reconstruction in the post-bellum United States led to “a new feudalism based on monopoly…of [the land’s] weather and raw material, in copper, iron, oil and coal, particularly monopoly of transportation of these commodities on new public iron roads and privately sequestered.”19 Karuka specifically highlights W. E. B. Du Bois’s argument that the Christian monarchy was replaced with a corporate monarchy during the construction of U.S. empire.20 Similarly, Ryan Cecil Jobson expands on the notion of this “new feudalism based on monopoly,” illustrating how it was foundational to the construction of the fossil economy, providing piercing insight into the ties between fossil fuels and enslavement under capitalism.21


Every chapter in this volume calls for a thorough read for those interested in understanding the material forces of racialism hidden beneath mechanisms of accumulation. The book lacks a cohesive narrative structure—which might be expected from an edited volume. Indeed, the absence of such a narrative through-line might be appropriate. After all, to be racialized as Black is to be left with a “flat line” as opposed to a “narrative arc.”22 Or, as Sweeney and Robinson might put it, under capitalism, Black racialisms leave their subjects ontologically fractured. Yet it is worth noting that undergirding the theory of racial capitalism is a cohesive narrative of history—one outlined by Cox in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Given this, it would have been useful to further incorporate and engage with the role of Cox’s work in contemporary theorizing of racial capitalism. There are still many insights to glean from the work of Cox and his cohort of twentieth-century Black radical thinkers. Indeed, Cox’s world-systems theory predates that of Immanuel Wallerstein by about a decade—again illustrating the necessity of the racial capitalism perspective’s criticism of the anti-Blackness that structured much of the academy. While there is clearly more than one history of racial capitalism, Cox’s work sketches the general arc of capitalism as a system of domination.23

One of the great merits of the volume is that it attunes us to the ways interlocking forms of oppression and domination alter the course of history. Demonstrating that racialism is wrapped up in patriarchy, capital accumulation, colonialism, and imperialism, Histories of Racial Capitalism allows us to imagine Patricia Hill Collins’s matrix of domination as a material force in history.24 Taking the writings of the authors in this volume seriously makes it clearer how one might understand the matrix of domination as a dynamic force, metamorphosed as it moves through time and space. While we may never understand its origins, we can come to know how it affects us in the present. Works that follow in the tradition of this volume can help us better understand not just history, but also the many revolutionary heuristics that might better orient humanity’s unfurling futures.


  1. Julian Go, “Three Tensions in the Theory of Racial Capitalism,” Sociological Theory 39, no. 1 (2021): 38–47; Michael Ralph and Maya Singhal, “Racial Capitalism,” Theory and Society 48, no. 6 (2019): 851–81; Michael Walzer, “A Note on Racial Capitalism,” Dissent, July 29, 2020; Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, 3rd ed (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).
  2. Justin Leroy and Destin Jenkins, eds., Histories of Racial Capitalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021).
  3. Justin Leroy and Destin Jenkins, introduction to Histories of Racial Capitalism, 2.
  4. Leroy and Jenkins, introduction, 6.
  5. Shauna J. Sweeney, “Gendering Racial Capitalism and the Black Heretical Tradition,” in Histories of Racial Capitalism.
  6. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004).
  7. Sweeney, “Gendering Racial Capitalism and the Black Heretical Tradition,” 63.
  8. K-Sue Park, “Race Innovation and Financial Growth: The Example of Foreclosure,” in Histories of Racial Capitalism; Mishal Khan, “The Indebted Among the Free: Producing Indian Labor Through the Layers of Racial Capitalism,” in Histories of Racial Capitalism; Allan E. S. Lumba, “Transpacific Migrations, Racial Surplus, and Colonial Settlement,” in Histories of Racial Capitalism; Destin Jenkins, “Ghosts of the Past: Debt, the New South, and the Propaganda of History,” in Histories of Racial Capitalism.
  9. Park, “Race Innovation and Financial Growth,” 43.
  10. Khan, “The Indebted Among the Free,” 88.
  11. Lumba, “Transpacific Migrations, Racial Surplus, And Colonial Settlement,” 128–30; Robinson, Black Marxism.
  12. Jenkins, “Ghosts of The Past,” 206.
  13. Pedro A. Regaldo, “They Speak Our Language… Business: Latinx Businesspeople and the Pursuit of Wealth in New York City,” in Histories of Racial Capitalism.
  14. See Oliver Cromwell Cox, “The Foundations of Capitalism,” Science & Society 24, no. 3 (1960); Oliver Cromwell Cox, Capitalism and American Leadership (New York: Philosophical Library, 1962); Oliver Cromwell Cox, Capitalism as a System (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1964).
  15. Sweeney, “Gendering Racial Capitalism and the Black Heretical Tradition.”
  16. Cedric J. Robinson, An Anthropology of Marxism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2019); bell hooks, “Love as the Practice of Freedom,” Outlaw Culture (1994): 243–50; Sweeney, “Gendering Racial Capitalism and the Black Heretical Tradition,” 72.
  17. Justin Leroy, “Racial Capitalism and Black Philosophies of History,” in Histories of Racial Capitalism, 180.
  18. Park, “Race Innovation and Financial Growth.”
  19. Manu Karuka, “The Counterrevolution of Property Along the 32nd Parallel,” in Histories of Racial Capitalism, 154.
  20. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America 1860–1880 (1935; repr. New York: Free Press, 1998).
  21. Ryan Cecil Jobson, “Dead Labor: On Racial Capital and Fossil Capital,” in Histories of Racial Capitalism.
  22. Frank B. Wilderson III, “Afro-Pessimism and the End of Redemption,” Humanities Futures (2016).
  23. Oliver Cromwell Cox, Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1959); Oliver Cromwell Cox, Foundations of Capitalism (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959); Oliver Cromwell Cox, Capitalism and American Leadership (New York: Philosophical Library, 1962); Cox, Capitalism as a System; Sean P. Heir, “The Forgotten Architect: Cox, Wallerstein and World-System Theory,” Race & Class 42, no. 3 (2001): 69–86; Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974).
  24. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Philadelphia: Routledge, 2002).
2022, Volume 74, Number 01 (May)
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