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Contemporary Race Theory and the Problem of History: A Critique

When Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard P. Feynman said, “words can be meaningless if they are used in such a way that no sharp conclusions can be drawn,” he was referring specifically to the “natural” sciences and the “mental discipline” and “attitudes towards knowledge” that were necessary for intellectual progress. He might easily, however, have been speaking about the manner in which words like “structure,” “institutional,” “system,” and “policy” swirl about in the scholarly, political, and popular universe of contemporary race theory. Within this broad tendency, four schools of thought dominate—intersectional theory, structural/institutional/systemic racism, critical race theory, and racial formation theory. No better evidence for the truth of Feynman’s claim that “extreme precision of definition is often not worthwhile” can be found than in the inverse relationship between the “fineness of grain” with which different kinds of “racism” are taxonomized—structural, institutional, colorblind, polite, symbolic, nice, laissez-faire, new—and the strength of the taxonomies’ explanatory power.1 The inability of contemporary race theory to fully account for and explain (rather than just label) the social dynamics that produce and reproduce inequality stems from two core assumptions that form the bedrock for this taxonomic project. The first is that anti-Black racism is an unalterable feature of American life—hence the impetus towards labeling and naming the different and ostensibly novel forms that racism takes. A recent New Yorker profile of the late Derrick Bell, the father of Critical Race Theory, nicely summarizes the philosophy of history that underwrites much of contemporary race theory. Critical race theory, Jelani Cobb explains, developed out of Bell’s dawning realization that “racism is so deeply rooted in the makeup of American society that it has been able to reassert itself after each successive wave of reform aimed at eliminating it. Racism, he began to argue, is permanent.”2

The second is that class analysis in inadequate theoretically, and class struggle is politically outmoded. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, one-time president of the American Sociological Association and author of several field-defining texts in contemporary race theory, maintains that throughout U.S. history racial interests have taken precedence over class interests.3 Patricia Hill Collins, another former American Sociological Association president and one of the founders of intersectionality scholarship, argues that “with Marxist social thought, class analyses have long explained social inequality, leaving race and gender as descriptive interlopers.”4 Hence, much of the energy around labeling and naming the different and “new” forms that racism purportedly takes is animated by the belief that since racism is the central organizing principle of American life, racism and racial identity, rather than class inequality, should be the focus of analytical attention. The political strategy to combat this “new” form of racial inequality should, likewise, be identity-focused with racial identities serving to anchor and organize efforts to undo inequality. The intersectional framework, Hill Collins has argued, demonstrates “the centrality of identity politics to empower African American women and similarly subordinated groups.”5

Because all of these theories take for granted that racism is not only permanent but also the fundamental contradiction of American life, they all proceed from the assumption that racial groups are coherent and discrete entities with easily definable and shared interests. In other words, they conflate racial categories with racial groups and racial groups with political constituencies. Bonilla-Silva’s “structural interpretation” of racism posits that racial groups are “social collectivities” with shared “life chances” that form the basis for their collective “racial interests” (RR 471). One of the foundational concepts in Critical Race Theory, developed by Derrick Bell, is “interest convergence,” which maintains that “the interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will only be accommodated when it converges with the interest of whites.”6 All of these theories assume that because individuals assigned to certain racial categories are similarly situated (i.e., they either benefit in some ways from anti-Black racism or are the targets of anti-Black racism) that they are, thereby, intrinsically connected (i.e., they share a profound sense of group identity). The connections forged through shared identity lead individuals not only to define their interests in the same way but also to formulate uniform responses. The commitment of contemporary race theorists to the ideal of a “racial community” in the political realm is tied quite closely to how they deploy the concept of “racial interest” in the theoretical realm. Both notions assume levels of homogeneity within groups that elide and ignore the class relationships and conflicts within groups and the dynamics that arise as a result. This conceptual error has political and epistemic/theoretical implications.

Starting with the latter, the leading voices in contemporary race theory are sociologists and law professors, not historians. Nevertheless, their theories are all guided by propositions about American and world history. Derrick Bell, for example, maintained that in developing the theory of interest convergence he had to “rely as much on political history as legal precedent” (BVB 523). The lens through which Bell and others like him interpret history is inadequate, however, because the actions of individuals and organizations are viewed primarily in racial terms. The concept of “racial projects,” developed by sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant to explain the “political trajectory of race over the past six decades” exemplifies this trend. Their field-defining text, Racial Formation in the United States, which has been reissued twice since it first appeared in 1986, seeks to “identify patterns in the longue durée of racial formation, both nationally and in the entire modern world.”7 Like many other celebrated books in contemporary race theory, the assumption that underlies and organizes historical inquiry is that the battle for and against White Supremacy is the chief dynamic that has driven the course of history. Kimberlé Crenshaw, the doyen of intersectionality scholarship and a leading proponent of Critical Race Theory, maintains that scholars should begin by assuming that the goal of maintaining a “racial dictatorship throughout much of the nation’s history” has been the primary driving force in American life.8 Omi and Winant’s assertion that “at any particular historical moment, one racial project can be hegemonic while others are subservient, marginal, or oppositional to it” (RF 127) is echoed by Ibrahim Kendi, who writes, “History duels: the undeniable history of antiracist progress, the undeniable history of racist progress.”9

Missing in all of these historical accounts is any analysis of the class character of the movements devoted to either “racist progress” or “anti-racist progress.” All of these theorists overlook the class composition of the movements that defended racism as well as those that opposed it. As will be discussed in the following section, a key source of the political and theoretical inadequacy of contemporary race theory stems from its failure to deploy a class analytic to account for or understand the array of individuals, groups, and movements that were broadly committed to an “anti-racist” agenda in the post-Civil War era. As a result, they not only overestimate the degree of ideological consensus within any racial group; they also underestimate and undervalue the role that working-class people and class-based struggles have played in the past and should play in the future.

Politically it means that the solutions to inequality that arise from their theories are also posed primarily in racial terms. As such, they tend to be overly focused on eliminating the disparities that are the outcome of capitalist social property relations and insufficiently critical of the source of the social property relations themselves. Even when they demonstrate some awareness of how capitalism is implicated in the production and reproduction of racial inequality, their strategy for challenging both tends to be “top down” rather than “bottom up.” In other words, their preferred solutions generally do not focus on building working class power. Rather, they make themselves and the class to which they belong the key drivers of social change. This “class blindness” stems in part from the political economy of the present. Working class power has been under assault for a century, starting with the Populist movement in the ninetenth century (which their rendering of Jim Crow routinely ignores) and continuing through the repression of the 1930s, McCarthyism in the 1950s, and the neo-liberalism that has been embraced by every American president, Republican or Democratic, ever since. Although all of the leading voices in contemporary race theory consider themselves to be on the political left, their politics has been profoundly shaped by the historical erosion of working-class power. They do not take seriously the necessity for building working class power as a strategy for combating racism in the present because the left to which they belong is located in the academy and the professional managerial class and sees neither the value nor the necessity of working to build a movement that will neither be primarily composed of nor led by them.

Their blinkered vision when it comes to the politics of the present is also linked to how they misunderstand the past. Because their analyses are primed to search for continuities in anti-Black racism over time, they tend to ignore an equally pernicious and consistent factor in American history—the assault on organized efforts by working people of all races to challenge the power of capital, to evade or undermine the power of the wage relationship and market compulsion, and to harness the power of the state to put the needs of working people above the pursuit of capitalist profits. This tendency was represented most powerfully in the Populist Movement, which was crushed in the 1890s and whose demise was celebrated not only by avowed White Supremacists but also by a multi-racial, pro-capitalist coalition linked closely to the Republican Party. Ironically, contemporary race theorists’ ignorance of the political economy of “anti-racism” in the past has meant that the conceptual anchors upon which they build their analysis—racial community and racial interest—and the cognate construct to these, “race relations,” are actually Jim Crow era formulations. In their vigorous promotion of these ideas, they can be seen as intellectual architects of the very thing that their scholarship purports to reveal and thereby dismantle—a “new” Jim Crow.

Everything Old is New Again? The Uses and Abuses of Jim Crow

The taxonomic project that underwrites contemporary race theory is organized around a temporal logic—a contrast between “old” and “new” racisms. The color-conscious racism of the Jim Crow past, contemporary race theorists argue, has been superseded by the colorblind racism of a neo-Jim Crow present. The title that Michelle Alexander chose for her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, nicely illustrates the weltanschauung. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, one of the first to write about the “interlocking nature of oppression” (a precursor to intersectionality) in the 1980s, was also one of the first scholars to posit the existence of a “new seemingly color-blind racism” in the early aughts.10 Eduardo Bonilla-Silva who, like Collins, is a former president of the American Sociological Association became famous for officially coining the term “color-blind racism” in his book, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, which is currently in its fifth edition.

Jim Crow takes up a lot of space in this conceptual universe because it provides the rationale for a series of contrasts: overt vs. covert; subtle vs. direct; sophisticated vs. crude; direct vs. indirect; visible vs. invisible; and, most crucially, legally sanctioned vs. institutional. The latter contrast is key. Hill Collins, for example, defines the “new racism” as “racial inequality that does not appear to be regulated by the state to the same degree” (BSP 55). Derrick Bell agrees that we are in a period where what appears as “the cessation of one form of discriminatory conduct [soon appears] in a more subtle though no less discriminatory form.”11 The way that Bonilla-Silva deployed the concepts of “institutions” and “structure” by way of contrast with Jim Crow has been accepted as axiomatic by critical race theorists, intersectionality scholars, and, increasingly, the general public. He writes:

In contrast to race relations in the Jim Crow period, however, racial practices that produce racial inequality in contemporary America (1) are increasingly covert, (2) are embedded in normal operations of institutions, (3) avoid direct racial terminology, and (4) are invisible to most Whites. (RR 476)

It would be a mischaracterization to describe Bonilla-Silva and Hill Collins as wholly ignoring economic factors. All of these scholars make some mention of the economic dimensions of Jim Crow (much attention is paid, for example, to the convict labor system and sharecropping). The problem lies in how economic factors are situated in the analysis.  In a world where the search for continuities and discontinuities in “racial formations” takes center stage, political economy is reduced to a backdrop, the setting within which the epic battle for and against White supremacy occurs. As a result, contemporary race scholarship has dealt with the economic aspects of Jim Crow in a way that ultimately occludes more about the class politics of the era than it clarifies.

It is worthwhile to examine in detail how the analyses of Marxist historians differ from those offered by the leading voices in contemporary race theory because many of them are quite explicit in positioning their work as having surpassed Marxism. Omi and Winant contend that “despite their anti-racist orientation, … Marxists [have] difficulties in explaining racial inequality and racial conflict” (RF 65). Bonilla-Silva, likewise, maintains that Marxism is inadequate because Marxists subordinate “racial matters to class matters” (RR 476). The editors of Critical Race Theory make a similar argument. “In traditional Marxist analysis,” they contend, “law appears merely as an instrument of class interests.”12 Because these critiques imply that a class analytic provides a limited explanation of the past that cannot adequately comprehend the complexities of racism, a comparison between the approaches adopted by Marxist historians Barbara Fields, Judith Stein, and Brian Kelley to that of race theorists Bonilla Silva, Omi and Winant, and Hill Collins is instructive. Comparing and contrasting their approaches to slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow not only demonstrate the falsity of their claims about Marxism but also show how much more convincing Marxist analyses of the past are precisely because they not only make visible the similarities in the class projects that animate both “racist” and “anti-racist” projects but also make clear that racial groups are not homologous to political constituencies with shared interests.

In much of contemporary race theory, slavery is less a mechanism for compelling labor than it is a tool for hierarchically ordering a multi-racial society. Omi and Winant call slavery a “master racial project” (RF 131). For Hill Collins it is a “form of racial rule” (BSP 55). Because they view slavery primarily in racial terms, they also view its ending that way. Bell described abolition as a measure to “bring about the desired racial reform” (BVB 523). Because Bonilla-Silva defines slavery as a period “when racial practices were overt” (RR 468), his interest in the post-Civil War era is attuned to how it impacted “racial mores”:

The transition from slavery to Jim Crow was characterized by inconsistency and no generally accepted code of racial mores. Slavery did not require either a very sophisticated and specific set of rules to preserve “social distance” or an elaborate racial ideology (racism) because of the thorough differences of status among the races. But as blacks became free, they posed a threat to white supremacy.13

Omi and Winant also posit that “boundless White rage and resentment … ultimately led to the Jim Crow system” (RF 206).

Bonilla Silva proceeds from the assumption that all societies possess a “racial structure,” and the best framework for understanding how that structure works is that of “racialized social systems,” defined as systems that “allocate differential economic, political, social, and even psychological rewards to groups along racial lines; lines that are socially constructed” (RR 474). Because his focus is on how rewards are distributed to groups along racial lines, he is attuned to the workings of only two social processes—segregation and discrimination:

Slowly but surely segregationist laws and practices emerged after 1865 and were solidified by the 1880s with the enactment of Jim Crow laws all over the South. These laws involved the disenfranchisement of blacks, racial separation in public accommodations, segregation in housing, schools, the workplace, and in other areas to ensure white supremacy. (RWR 20)

It has become commonplace to accuse Marxists of underplaying race and racism because they, as Bonilla-Silva puts it, regard racism as a “baseless ideology ultimately dependent upon on other, ‘real’ forces in society” (RR 476). While Barbara Fields does contend that “race belongs to the same family as the evil eye,” she is quite aware of the brutality of racism. “Racism belongs to the same family as murder and genocide. Which is to say that racism, unlike race, is not a fiction, an illusion, a superstition, or a hoax. It is a crime against humanity.”14 While Marxists are certainly aware that the legal nature and cultural expression of racial animus differs across historical time, historical conjunctures and epochs are defined and analyzed by their social property relations, not by how “overt” or “covert” expressions of racism are. It is this awareness that allows them to see ideology not in terms of “truth” vs. “fiction” but as the “interpretation in thought of the social relations” through which “people make sense of the social reality that they live and create from day to day” (RSI 133). Therefore, Fields maintains that “ideologies are real” (RSI 134).15 However, they do not suffice as an analysis of social relations.

When Fields analyzes the post-Civil War period, she does so not from the perspective of racial rule, racial mores, or racial lines. Her attention is on agrarian social property relations and the conflicts between those who worked the land and produced its wealth and those who owned the land and appropriated the surplus. Fields draws our attention to the fact that because slaves were a form of property, even though plantations produced commodities for the market “their internal social relations were not those of the market.”16 Thus, in seeking to contrast the pre- and post-Civil War South, she places her emphasis on the change from a world where planters accessed the surplus produced by slave labor through direct ownership of the slave as a productive asset to a world where their access was mediated by the wage relationship.

Thus, whereas Bonilla Silva and Hill Collins see sharecropping and debt peonage as forms of “racial rule” designed to ensure “White Supremacy,” Stein and Fields identify the crop-lien system as credit mechanisms, which crucially “gave the merchants control over the production process itself.”17 And where contemporary race theorists see African-Americans and Whites as homogenous contending armies ranged against one another in a battle for “supremacy,” Marxist scholars emphasize the contradictions between class forces, particularly when those class forces operate within the confines of a single racial group. Instead of a world marked by unassailable “White unity,” Marxists see a world riven with conflict between the Southern planters, a landed elite, and a rising commercial and industrial bourgeoisie based in the North. Because their focus is on class power and they define groups not by their racial categorization but by their relationship to the means of production, Marxists are able to avoid generalizations of the kind that Bonilla-Silva engages in when he writes, “blacks were restricted to menial jobs by the joint effort of planters, corporations, and unions” (RWR 27). They point out the degree to which the southern landed elite failed to retain significant influence in the national government with “almost every major policy conflict resolved in favor of big industry.”18 Once again, a more pointed comparison of the two perspectives is instructive.

While Hill Collins manages to avoid passive sentence constructions like “slowly but surely laws and practices emerged” that allow Bonilla-Silva to bypass even identifying, let along specifying, a concrete historical agent, her “political economy of racism” during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries makes the desire to maintain White Supremacy the key motivator rather than securing the cheapest possible labor, shifting economic risks from appropriators to producers and gaining control over the production process. Although she describes the form that exploitation took, noting that landowners “searched for ways to get Blacks to work for minimal compensation” and that “African Americans were economically exploited in different ways,” she still sees an essential homogeneity of interest within racial groups (BSP 62).

Fields, Stein, and Kelley, on the other hand, identify the conflicts within the expropriating classes. All three point to the fact that the abolition of their main source of wealth in the form of commodified humans coupled with a precipitous drop in post-war land values meant that planters were cash-strapped, credit hungry, and at a “gross disadvantage” when competing with other forms of capital such as that held by railroad barons or Northern industrialists (NC 11). Both Fields and Kelley highlight the fact that the South was dominated by Wall Street and Northern capital and that the regional elites found themselves in the position of brokering “the sale of Southern resources to the most powerful corporations in the world, all of them based in the North.”19 Fields also points to the fact that they lost power within the national government during the time that the National Banking Acts were passed. Hence, “their forced reunion with their Northern conquerors occurred on a subaltern basis” (NC 11). When analyses of Jim Crow center on what Stein calls “specific social and class relationships” and look at the “prevailing pattern of the Southern economy,” it becomes clear, for example, that sharecropping, rather than being some kind of abstract victory for “White supremacy” actually represented the weakness of the Southern planter class, not its strength (BTW 428). The national government refused to subsidize the planters’ labor needs by, for example, providing credit, loans, or subsidies for the planters to import Chinese labor, as had been done in other post-emancipation societies like the British West Indies. Sharecropping was not simply a form of “racial rule” but, crucially, a mechanism for forcing the worker to “share the risks of capital” (BTW 429). New laws classified sharecroppers as employees, rather than renters, in order to enhance the landlord’s ability to intervene in the labor process. Because the planter elite lost power within the national government and became “junior partners of Northern capital,” their “efforts to sustain themselves as a ruling class” meant bending to the victors’ imperatives. And the “ramshackle structure of crop-lien, sharecropping and debt peonage” didn’t simply confirm the triumph of an abstract “White supremacy.” Rather, it acutely reflected how compromised the planters were as a ruling class. Sharecropping, Fields explains, “represented no shining victory of the planters. Its spread betrayed their weakness, their inability to carry through the transition to capitalism fully on their own terms.”20

Focusing on political economy also enables Marxists to see that dividing the world into ideological camps like “racist” and “anti-racist” is analytically inadequate. The newly emancipated, Fields points out, responded neither automatically nor predictably to market mediated compulsion. Because “a proletariat does not arise overnight,” the immediate problem to be solved was that of “instilling discipline into a people no longer subject to slavery but not yet susceptible to compulsion mediated solely through the market” (NC 19). Crucially, the commitment to securing the objective of “instilling discipline” into the worker and making it impossible to exist outside the matrix of the wage relationship crossed a number of divides—Republican and Democrat, Black and White, North and South, pro-slavery and abolitionist, racist and anti-racist. It is only by looking at the class character of not only the social forces committed to the maintenance of slavery but also those who wanted to abolish it that we can see what Stein calls the “whole pattern of social forces affecting blacks after the Civil War, not only the racial manifestations” (BTW 426).

Freedom meant the option to refuse work entirely. Therefore, coercion by the state in the form of laws that made it illegal to subsist outside the matrix of wage labor and contract obligations was required to impose the coercion of the market. This was a goal to which many “anti-racists” (White and Black) were as committed to as were the staunchest defenders of the slave system. The groups that were the social base of the Republican Party and had been active in the ending of slavery—business people, merchants, ministers, industrialists, self-defined “progressive” philanthropists, and charity officials—played a huge role in designing and passing laws that compelled the poor of all races to obey the rules of the market. The organizations through which they lobbied state legislatures—such as the New York State Board of Charities, the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, the American Social Science Association, the Educational Commission of Boston, and the Industrial Aid Society—all had strong ties to the Republican Party and the coalition that ended slavery.

Franklin Sanborn, a well-known abolitionist and charity reformer, was typical in that he paired “anti-racism” with a strong belief in punitive sanctions and forced labor for the poor. Sanborn, a staunch defender of John Brown, was one of the “secret six” who funded Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. He was also the first secretary of the Massachusetts Board of State Charities and onetime president of the National Conference on Charities and Correction. As secretary of the MA Board of State Charities, he was instrumental in helping to pass the Act Concerning Vagrants and Vagabonds (1866), which punished beggars of all races with six months of imprisonment and forced labor. Josephine Shaw Lowell, whose father organized the Freedman’s Bureau and whose brother, Robert Gould Shaw, led the first Black regiment from the free states into battle, was not only active in the National Freedman’s Relief Association of New York but also paired her commitment to abolition with a strong belief that punitive state power should be used as an instrument of labor compulsion. She once said that “the man who won’t work, shall be made to work” and “the state should support none ‘except those whom it can control.’”21

There is a very strong link between the reformers’ prior commitments to the abolitionist movement and the way in which they framed the terms on which relief to the poor would be offered. Many of these reformers were strong supporters of the Freedman’s Bank, chartered as a Reconstruction era safeguard for the cash wages of former slaves. The ideology behind the Bank’s founding reflects their views on how the poor of all races should be allowed to make claims on the federal government. The Bank was popularly understood and celebrated as safeguard against the improvidence of the Freedmen, teaching them to save their money so as not to become dependent on the state should economic adversity arise. “Every free man who can work will make more money than he needs and can save the balance against a rainy day,” wrote the editors of The Semi-Weekly Louisianan.22 This logic, which drew sharp lines between the “legitimate” right of a poor man to access his or her private savings and abject (and thereby illegitimate) dependence on state sponsored charity, reflected the assumptions that guided the distribution of organized relief to all the poor.

The irony of passing a rash of laws that put paupers to forced labor in the immediate aftermath of the abolition of slavery did not escape the reformers’ notice. Indeed, it was a problem that they faced head-on. As historian Amy Dru Stanley explains, “Not even the most steadfast proponents of the laws could escape the problem: a society priding itself on having abolished slavery was forcibly extracting labor from dependent persons” (ADS 1290). How could they reconcile forced labor for all of the poor while remaining committed to the abolition of slavery? Forced labor for recipients of charity was legitimized by an ideological construct—“the rule of exchange”—which held that in a free market society, where the rules of exchange were sacrosanct, it was heresy to get “something for nothing.” In other words, the beggar wasn’t actually being forced. Rather, they were simply being required to “render an equivalent”—work in exchange for charity.

It was the rule of exchange that charity reformers invoked to sweep away the “misunderstanding” regarding enforced labor. In defending the vagrancy acts they spoke most commonly in the idiom of the marketplace. As in any bargain, so in almsgiving, they claimed, the beggar owed something in return: a share of labor—surrendered willingly or not—for a portion of food or a night’s lodging. (ADS 1290)

It is important to note that the proponents of this legislation, which not only sought to criminalize living outside the strictures of market exchange but also linked forced labor to the operation of the wage system, trumpeted the fact that their policies were “colorblind” and applied with equal vigor in the North and the South. In other words, “it was not the abstract principle of compulsion that inflamed anti-slavery opposition, but its unequal application on account of race” (ADS 1286). In this worldview, forced labor coexisted quite easily with anti-racism. Indeed, a colorblind application of the principle that “a return in work be extracted in proportion to the relief thus given” was held up as a measure that further reinforced that the freemen were now part of the world of contracts signified by consent and reciprocity, even if those principles transformed charity into a “punitive bargain” (ADS 1291).

Closer examination of individuals and organizations, who held opposing views on slavery and significantly different views on “White supremacy” but nevertheless shared key assumptions and values with respect to how and where the limits to economic reform might be drawn, also demonstrates the limitations of making race and/or racial attitudes the sole criterion for judging and taxonomizing various systems or methods of rule. Stein draws our attention to the existence of a pro-capitalist coalition “held together by men—Black and White, Northern and Southern” (BTW 430). These men wanted to harness Northern capital to blend philanthropic and business interests to reestablish capitalist agriculture on the basis of nominally free labor, build new industry, and facilitate landownership amongst Blacks while making profits for stockholders. Alexander Purvis, the treasurer of Hampton Institute, together with a group of Northern business men and philanthropists provided the initial capital for the Southern Improvement Company in 1903. The Company purchased 4,500 acres of land in Macon Country, Alabama, and 250 acres in Accomack County, Virginia, to be cut up into 40-acre tracts of land to be sold to Black tenants who otherwise would lack the capital to buy land. He laid out the rationale for the Company in his article “Harnessing Labor and Capital by Means of Industrial Partnership”:

It is a false theory that capital shall not accumulate or that the return on it shall be restricted within definite limits. There must be allowed to capital the opportunity for enlarging returns. … The peculiar ability that a certain small percentage of men possess to conduct modern business ventures at a profit is of great value, is always in urgent demand, and must be well paid for … Brains must be paid for. Sagacity must have its reward.23

One year after the Southern Improvement Company was founded, Robert R. Morton, who would go on to lead Tuskegee after Booker T. Washington, wrote a letter to Washington wherein he lauded the Company for providing its investors a “reasonable return” while “at the same time helping the Negro to get hold of land and homes.”24

The Northern reformers who controlled the leading philanthropic boards were also stockholders in the Southern Improvement Company. The goal of the company was to develop a community of independent Black farmers while turning a profit for company investors who, in addition to earning profits from the cotton crops grown by the tenants, also planned to make money from the interest charged on real-estate sales and cash advances to tenants. Additional income streams were to come from manufacturing lumber, as the lands they leased to tenants were covered with pine trees.

These men criticized the traditional crop-lien system because it was so clearly designed to make Black land ownership impossible. They, too, might have characterized that system as a form of “racial rule” that they abhorred. Because they offered Black farmers lease contracts with the option to buy, which “represented some deviation from Southern racist practices which often made it difficult for Black farmers to buy land,” they viewed the Company and themselves as offering a moral antidote to the manifest racism of the Southern planters in the Democratic Party (SIC 114). Purvis explicitly framed the Company’s goals as a mix of business and philanthropy in that it made space for the “Negro race to work out its own salvation on a commercial basis.”25 The Company lauded itself for the fact that it offered the opportunity for anyone, regardless of color, to become stockholders. Only one ever did: William V. Chambliss, onetime superintendent of the Alabama plantation that formed the foundation for the Company. Chambliss used his own money to lend tenants cash advances and demanded a mortgage on their property as security. Within a decade after the Company was founded, he owned a considerable amount of Alabama land and made a tidy sum while the vast majority of farmers sunk further into poverty. “Chambliss’ management, like that of the reformers, bore profits for himself but bitter fruit for the black tenants” (SIC 126).

Racial discrimination from the Company was not the primary source of the farmers’ suffering. Rather, it came from the normal business operations whereby the Company “used its power to shift risk onto the tenants” and thereby protect shareholders profits (HLC 127). The world, according to Purvis, was divided into “those who contribute their money and those who contribute their lives,” and the interests of the former would always predominate (HLC 65). The contractual restraints that the Company placed upon the tenants to guard against “deterioration” in land, capital, and “labor efficiency” protected the folks who contributed money and impoverished those who contributed their lives (SIC 115). The reformers felt no guilt. Indeed, they saw “their economic venture as a move toward social justice” (SIC 128).

Purvis’s worldview was echoed by a large segment of the African American bourgeoisie who shared the social and economic values that motivated the forming of the Southern Improvement Company. Like Purvis, they strongly believed that racial uplift and capitalist profits could be easily harmonized. The history of Black towns like Mound Bayou, Mississippi; Nicodemus, Kansas; Clearview, Oklahoma; and Dearfield, Colorado, that were “initially organized as a for-profit, speculative ventures” are instructive in that they bring the political economy of “anti-racism” in the post-Civil War era into sharp focus.26 Just as was the case in the larger American society, Black town promoters treated land as a commodity to be bought, sold, and speculated. “Real estate is the basis of all wealth,” crowed E.P. McCabe, one of the founders of Nicodemus.27 He, like other Black town boosters, lauded the fact that land speculation held the promise of getting rich quick while “uplifting the race.”

Several of the Black colonies were initially organized as for-profit enterprises, as were some White settlements. It was the fashion of the time for town developers and land investors to form corporations to plat and profit from town development. The prime movers who organized the Nicodemus Town Company, the (Dearfield) Negro Townsite and Land Company, and the Blackdom Townsite Company hoped to make profits by attracting investors, recruiting settlers, and selling town lots or memberships. These founders typically saw themselves as also “advancing the race” and did not see any conflict between that goal and profit-making.28

Men like Isiah Montgomery and Benjamin T. Greene, founders of the all-Black town Mound Bayou, Mississippi, and Charles Banks, founder of the Bank of Mount Bayou and the Mound Bayou Loan and Investment Company, are also typical of the worldview which fused private wealth accumulation with collective “race progress” and “racial empowerment.” The Colored American Magazine praised all three for having “improved the condition and raised the standing of the people of their race” by “raising capital and establishing banks amongst an impoverished people.”29 The notion that “the institutionalization and accumulation of Black wealth was key to the empowerment of Black people within the United States” not only fused the logic of wealth accumulation with the logic of racial progress but also produced formulations like “Black Wealth” (a precursor to the contemporary construct “the racial wealth gap”) that made it appear that the interests and enrichment of bourgeois Black individuals was tantamount to the progress of “the race.”30 Believers in the ideology of Black capital accumulation and the cognate myth of a self-sustaining Black economy that would uplift a whole people and thus repair race relations saw no problem with the highly unequal distribution of income in Black towns. Nor did they object to the fact that “[p]erhaps to an even greater extent than that found in corresponding white communities, the control of the black-town economy rested in the hands of a small group” (TBT 140). As was the case in the larger economy, tenantry expanded as capital gravitated into fewer and fewer hands. When called to answer for the problems that plagued an agrarian population threatened by economic forces beyond its control, those upon whom fate had smiled in the Black towns, as was the case with elites on the other side of the color line, responded that the solution to these problems was not less exposure capitalist agriculture and the rule of “King Cotton,” but more.

All of these towns specialized in cotton, which spelled a serious lack of diversification and eventually proved to be disastrous. Drought, falling commodity prices, and soaring interest rates resulted in those who had lands and farms losing them to foreclosure while the agricultural proletariat was reduced to penury. All of the town promoters promised that their residents would be shielded from the horrors of the crop-lien system. None, however, suggested that any reforms should be made in the credit system, thus making sharecropping inevitable. The town of Clearview, located between the Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory, and Fort Smith, Arkansas, promised at its founding in 1903 that it was a “solid Colored town” and the future “industrial hub of Black enterprise in the United States” whose citizens would prosper. Its founder, James E. Thompson, owned eighteen hundred acres, which he claimed to have bought “for the race” that were to be subdivided into plots to be sold to Black farmers who would then produce cotton for the export market (TBT 33). By 1911, however, “those advertising Clearview had abandoned all pretexts of economic independence, advising prospective newcomers that general ‘farming is run on the credit or supply system, just as it is in the southern states’” (TBT 116). Few farmers had the capital to realize the independence that had been promised. Most became renters who either paid Thompson in cash or worked for him on a sharecropping basis. A similar fate befell one of the earliest settlers in Mound Bayou, Simon Gaither, a former slave. He found himself so encumbered by debts on the forty-acre farm he owned in Mound Bayou that he had to work as sharecropper to a White landowner. Gaither’s situation was not atypical. Collapsing commodity prices and soaring interest rates meant that the few acres of land the typical farmer owned were not enough to be commercially self-sustaining, thus forcing many landowners into either sharecropping or seasonal wage labor.

The solutions to the problem that Gaither and others like him faced could not be found within the conceptual apparatus, political ideology, or economic program of Alexander Purvis and the Southern Improvement Society, Charles Banks and the Bank of Mound Bayou, Clearview, Mound Bayou, or any other all-Black town. Because contemporary race theory is so focused on understanding this period using concepts like “racial formation” and see the United States primarily as a “racial structure,” they overlook the Populist Movement, the one political movement of the time that not only recognized how the capitalist system, with or without discrimination as a mechanism, created enduring inequality. They also provided a program for ending inequality that didn’t rely on making capitalism more inclusive. Their approach to uprooting inequality was rooted in working class organizing and struck at the heart of the system itself.

The Populist Movement: A Challenge to the Historical Amnesia of Contemporary Race Theory

In their hyper focus on Jim Crow, contemporary race theorists rarely devote their theoretical energies to discussing Reconstruction. When they do, they see it solely in racial terms. Hill Collins, for example, writes:

During Reconstruction (1865-1877) African Americans made major political gains, and they succeeded in electing Black public officials to state office. White backlash challenged this new, multi-racial democracy by passing laws that mandated racial segregation of Blacks and Whites. (BSP 61)

This formulation is not so much wrong as incomplete. The work of Marxist historians like Judith Stein points out that the attack on Reconstruction was also a response to the rise of the Populist Movement, an interracial movement of farmers, sharecroppers, coal mine workers, laborers in the iron and steel industries, trade unionists, and labor radicals. This movement was aimed at transforming the whole pattern of social forces that resulted in inequality, not simply those that were “racial.” As such, it does not fit easily within the conceptual parameters of contemporary race theory. Closer attention to the Populist Movement, however, challenges two of the central tenets of contemporary race theory. The first is that what is “new” about the “new racism” is that the mechanisms that produce inequality are indirect, systemic, or “embedded in normal operations of [non-racial] institutions” (RR 476). The Populist movement took aim at precisely those institutions that needed neither segregation nor discrimination to produce inequality. The history of the Populist movement also challenges the argument made by many contemporary race scholars that class based social movements ignore and/or sublimate the issues of racial and gender inequality.

Because contemporary race theorists train their theoretical eye to look for racial groups engaged in racial conflict in order to protect or defend their racial interests, they overlook one of the most significant political movements of our time, which in the words of historian Megan Benson, sought “to build an entirely new economic system” and “successfully attempted coalitions with pre Jim-Crow Black voters” who “temporarily abandoned the politics of race and instead realigned according to class interests.”31 The Populist Movement arose in the 1870s, fueled by people whom the Gilded Age had left behind. Indigence and unemployment reached record numbers during the depression of the 1870s. Within four years of the Panic of 1873, the price of cotton fell by nearly 50 percent. High interest rates, credit offered on unfair terms, and the monopoly and price fixing policies of the railroads meant that farmers on both sides of the color line were losing their farms to foreclosure. As the wage system came to dominate, so too did the number of people that were exposed to chronic uncertainties in the form of intermittent employment, low wages, and destitution.

The social base of the Populist movement was not the bourgeoisie. Its greatest supporters lay with the poorest farmers, agrarian laborers, and sharecroppers, as well as the most distressed elements of the working class. Benjamin F. Foster, an African American member of the Populist Party in Kansas, declared that he supported the Populists because “they ‘are in favor of the masses and against the monopolies. It is the party of the poor man.’”32 The Populist Movement also had significant support among women who “participated in the Populist cause with evangelical fervor” (LCE 27). The Populist Party fielded women candidates in Oklahoma, Kansas, and North Carolina. Many local Populist organizations had women in significant leadership roles. The Farmers’ Alliance was “particularly receptive to women’s participation” (LCE 27). Black and White women were drawn to the Populist Movement, as it took on not only broad-based economic issues like poverty, homelessness, and joblessness but also addressed topics like the sexual double standard, prostitution, the right to divorce, women’s property ownership, and suffrage. It was for this reason that African American women were relied upon as financial backers to Black Populist organizations and “women constituted large numbers within the Colored Alliance.”33

Groups like the Knights of Labor, the Greenback labor parties, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance, and the Farmers’ Alliance reached impressive heights during the Gilded Age and approached the fight for equality using a conceptual apparatus that differed markedly from the bourgeois race reformers. They pursued a radically different type of class politics that did not accept the proposition that the interests of capital and labor could be harmonized. Indeed, the vision of equality held by the Populists challenged the prerogatives of property owners by targeting a wide variety of “non-racial” institutions that were producing widespread suffering and inequality while generating profits for a few. For example, the Farmers’ Alliance campaigned against the gold standard and in favor of free silver because it was a measure aimed at opposing the currency deflation, which made paying back debt so onerous. They favored cheaper agrarian credit. They lobbied for public ownership of the railroads and measures to limit the transport and carrying fees that they charged and which were onerous on the farmers who relied on the railroads to bring their goods to market. They demanded that debt burdens be shifted from individuals to corporations. They favored an income tax to redistribute wealth, changes to the tax code that would levy higher taxes on the profits gained through land speculation, and government-imposed limits on land speculation. They also strongly objected to the idea that people should be entirely responsible for dealing with the joblessness, poverty, foreclosures and other hardships that were the inevitable outcome of the normal workings of the business cycle coupled with wildly fluctuating commodity prices and interest rates. Rather, they believed that the state must provide help for its citizens and that employers must commit to wage guarantees. As Joseph Labadie, a member of the Knights of Labor, put it, “State-help is self-help. The people themselves are the State.”34

Populist methods of struggle also departed radically from those of the race reformers. Purvis maintained that there was no greater “waste of human energy” than the “continual contention, passive or active, between the working classes and the vested interests” (HLC 62). The Populists disagreed. Rather than the “top down” strategies that were the logical outcome of the attempts to “harmonize” the interests of capital and labor, they engaged in mass strike action to force employers to raise the wages of farmworkers and industrial laborers. As such, they were targeted for elimination not only by defenders of slavery—the planter class and the Democratic Party—but also many committed abolitionists and Republicans (White and Black) who were as passionate in their defenses of the wage system and the rights of private property as they were in their abhorrence of slavery. Populism was “one of the first of the great political efforts to tame the capitalist system” and, as such, earned the enmity of both the “pro-” and “anti-” racists of the time.35

Republicans of all races not only feared that their party would lose a substantial voting bloc if the People’s Party attracted Black supporters; they also feared the economic changes that a Populist victory could potentially bring about.

Consistent with their commitment to the philosophy of Booker T. Washington and their support for the Republican Party, the black-town leaders generally favored political programs on the national level which aided the American business community. Editors and other leaders opposed government regulation of the private sector. (TBT 143)

The ideas espoused by the Populist Party were rejected on the grounds that they endangered the stability of the capitalist system. The editors of The Western Cyclone, a Black newspaper published in Nicodemus, called the Populist proposal that a single tax be levied on land values “anarchical.”36 Strikes, boycotts, and other forms of protest that were the stock in trade of the Knights of Labor were also greeted with hostility as “black-town leaders felt that labor unions violated the freedom of the individual and disrupted the normal relationship between workers and capitalists” (TBT 143). Black landholders opposed the use of strikes by Black agrarian laborers, as did Black employers like William Howe, a stevedore boss, who faced off against an all-Black Knights of Labor assembly in Wilmington over the issue of wages in 1886. Howe attempted to bring in Black scab workers in order to break a Black led and organized industrial action.37

Howe’s behavior cannot be explained using concepts like “racial project” or “racial interests.” Nor can those of the Populists or even the founders of the all-Black towns. The search for continuities in “racial formation” across time cannot provide a full account of the dynamics of history. The pitfalls of contemporary race theorists’ approach to history can also be seen in how difficult these theorists find it to specify exactly what gets retained from the past, what changes, and how. Contemporary race theorists are united in their belief that what primarily connects the American past to the American present is an enduring and relentless commitment to maintaining White supremacy. This is the bedrock assumption upon which the concept “systemic racism” is built. Bonilla-Silva, for example, argues that to understand the “new racism” is primarily to understand how “white supremacy in the United States (i.e., the racial structure of America) has changed” (RWR 17). It would be foolish to deny that racism has played a key role in American history. However, the way in which contemporary race theorists analytically approach American history, as we see in the above discussion of slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, overemphasizes the role that racial prejudice and racial identity plays in driving events while failing to grapple comprehensively with political economy. Because they focus on searching for continuities in racial identity and sentiments, contemporary race theorists often employ metaphors as analytical substitutes for identifying concrete economic, political, or societal mechanisms that connect the past to the present. Hill Collins, echoing the idea that White supremacy is a permanent feature of American life, asserts, “The new racism reflects sedimented or past-in-present racial formations from prior historical periods” (BSP 55). The president of the Brookings Institution, a highly regarded liberal think-tank, managed to use three of the most shop-worn and analytically useless metaphors—“baked in,” “original sin,” and “legacy”—in the course of a single paragraph of his recent editorial, “Systemic Racism and America Today”:

Slavery was America’s “original sin.” It was not solved by the framers of the U.S. Constitution, nor was it resolved by the horrendous conflict that was the American Civil War. It simply changed its odious form and continued the generational enslavement of an entire strata of American society. … That is our legacy as Americans, and in many ways, the most hateful remnants of slavery persist in the U.S. today in the form of systemic racism baked into nearly every aspect of our society and who we are as a people.38

The tools provided by historical materialism are the only ones that allow us to truly understand the mechanisms through which the past endures in the present, rather than being stuck in pseudo-explanations like “the legacy of slavery,” “generational trauma,” or “past-in-present racial formations.”

The Invisible Hand of the Market or Colorblindness: Misplaced Motivations and the Mechanism Problem

Because so many of the leading intellectual lights in contemporary race theory fail to deploy class as an analytic, their principles of investigation and explanation actually mirror rather than challenge those of the scholars working in the “prejudice paradigm.” They, like the “prejudice paradigm” scholars they criticize, are wedded to motive-based explanations for racial inequality that don’t sufficiently account for how the profit motive can work to both unite and divide persons across and within racial groups. Instead of attributing inequality to the psychological motivation of individual actors, as scholars wedded to the prejudice paradigm do, they attribute it to the material motivations of groups, the boundaries of which are established by using both race and class as ascriptive markers of “within group” membership. This is the crux of the “racial interests” paradigm, which analytically positions race and class as complementary or competing identity categories. Class is primarily an experiential category such that any racial group is composed of persons having different ascriptive class attributes—making different amounts of money, holding different kinds of jobs, and possessing different educational qualifications. These status differences introduce fissures that are, these theories assert, ultimately sutured by racial solidarity.

Marxists also see individuals and groups as motivated by their interests. Because their focus is on motives like controlling the production process, the search for profits, and shifting the risks of the capitalist system from employers to employees and stockholders to workers they are able to avoid what Barbara Reskin, who like Bonilla-Silva and Hill Collins is a former president of the American Sociological Association, terms sociology’s “explanatory stalemate.” Sociologists, she noted, endlessly document the existence of disparities, which they attribute to the desire of groups to protect or increase their share of scarce resources but cannot explain the mechanisms through which motives operate. She outlined the crux of the problem in her 2002 Presidential Address:

Sociologists’ principal contribution to our understanding of ascriptive inequality has been to document race and sex disparities. We have made little headway, however, in explaining these disparities because most research has sought to explain variation across ascriptive groups in more or less desirable outcomes in terms of allocators’ motives. … Explanation requires including mechanisms in our models—the specific processes that link groups’ ascribed characteristics to variable outcomes … Redirecting our attention from motives to mechanisms is essential for understanding inequality and—equally important—for contributing meaningfully to social policies that will promote social equality.39

Reskin is not a Marxist. Therefore, although her critique of ascriptive theories is absolutely correct, the remedies she suggests for researchers—using Max Weber’s theories about bureaucracy’s “constraining impact,” relying on case studies or discrimination lawsuits rather than individual level data, or exploring “contextual and structural ‘effects’” as “proxies for mechanisms”—ultimately miss the mark (IM 14–15). It is only by applying a Marxian class analytic, grounded in political economy, that we can even begin to understand how inequality is produced and reproduced.

One of the most powerful critiques that Reskin makes of motivation-based theories is that they “treat mechanisms as invisible hands” (IM 5). Although she was not writing specifically about the theorists that I have made the focus of my critique in this essay, her observation gets to the crux of what I believe to be these theories’ central weakness. As discussed in the opening paragraphs above, in positing the existence of a “new seemingly color-blind” racism they are speaking directly to the notion that what makes this racism distinctive is the alleged novelty of the invisibility of its mechanisms. Bell has written that “contemporary color barriers are less visible but neither less real or oppressive” (DB 374). Bonilla-Silva (giving a nod to Bell) agrees that “[c]olor-blind racism became the dominant racial ideology as the mechanisms and practices for keeping blacks and other racial minorities ‘at the bottom of the well’ changed” (RWR 3).40

Contemporary race theorists are united in their quest to explain how inequality endures when it flies in the face of the professed “anti-racist” commitments of key social actors, when it occurs within the context of a democratic society predicated on the political equality of all citizens, and where the legal barriers to African American advance have been dismantled. At bottom, the obsession of contemporary race theorists with documenting what amounts to the qualitative features of racism today (its “covertness,” “subtlety,” or “niceness/politeness” ), their interest in explaining the “unconscious” or “internalized” nature of racism, and how frequently they must substitute metaphors like “baked in” or “legacy” for mechanisms are the three strongest indicators of how their hostility to Marxian class analysis has left them unable to recognize (let alone grapple with) with how the “internal laws of capitalism” operate “beneath the façade of equity.”41 Marx’s comments on the phenomenon of “invisibility” in Capital are instructive:

It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers—a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labor and thereby its social productivity—which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state.42

What contemporary race theorists mis-conceptualize as a qualitative shift in the nature of racism—i.e., the alleged subtlety of contemporary racism—Marxists understand as part and parcel of the mechanisms of reproduction that govern capitalism. Contemporary race theory is unable to see this, however, because none of their explanations require engaging (or even evincing knowledge of) capitalism’s unique systemic requirements and structural imperatives. The closest that any of these theories come to a theory of capitalism is the analytical construct “racial capitalism,” which, despite its high-minded rhetoric, still maintains that racism “anticipated capitalism in time” and thereby drove its dynamics.43 Cedric Robinson, like Bonilla-Silva, Hill Collins, and others, argues that Marxism has “theoretical and ideological weaknesses” that make it unable to fully comprehend the complexities of racism.44

Several decades ago, the economic historian Ellen Meiksins Wood pointed to the need for histories that brought the “specificity of capitalism” into “sharp relief.”45 The type of historical inquiry she called for is precisely the opposite of what scholars who tout the virtues of “racial capitalism” do. Nancy Leong’s article, “Racial Capitalism,” which appeared in the Harvard Law Review defines racial capitalism as the “process of deriving social and economic value from the racial identity of another person.”46 Despite its considerable length (the essay runs just shy of 80 pages), it, like many other studies that purport to be about the phenomenon of “racial” capitalism, never discusses any of the specific structural imperatives of capitalism that make it possible for inequality to be reproduced absent an individual’s (or group’s) conscious motivations or perceptions. Contemporary race theorists of all stripes would have us believe that the answer lies in discovering how “new structures of racial domination” are responsible for “how racial inequality is perpetuated in a color-blind world” (RWR 25). Marxists would have us return to the perennial question of how and why the market has “an unprecedented role in capitalist societies, as not only a simple mechanism of exchange or distribution but the principal determinant and regulator of social reproduction.”47 Marxists have long pointed to the structural features of capitalism: all economic actors are dependent on the market; human labor power is a commodity for sale; goods and services are produced for profitable exchange. They have also made clear what the systemic requirements and imperatives of capitalism are: competition, accumulation, profit maximization, and ever-increasing labor productivity. Finally, they have shown how class is not an identity, it’s a relationship—the defining feature of which is the exploitation of workers/producers/wage laborers by the owners of capital. The relationship and its imperatives provide the system with its structure. Capitalists must compete with other capitalists to survive. In order to survive, they must generate profits. In order to generate profits, they must exploit the worker to the maximum. Exploitation takes many forms but is always geared to gaining maximum productivity out of the worker as well as maximum control over the production process. What contemporary race theory describes as “new” racism is better understood in terms of how neoliberalism has enhanced the exploitative powers of the propertied classes, particularly as regards the enhanced abilities of the appropriating classes to rely on the state to enforce their class interests.

Bonilla-Silva, for example, uses the example of housing segregation to buttress his claims about the existence of a “new racism.” He argues that in the past (the “Jim Crow era”) overtly discriminatory practices prevailed. Today, however, “covert behaviors have replaced these practices and maintained the same outcome—separate communities” (RWR 33). Nowhere in his analysis does he make room for what a recent article in Jacobin aptly termed “the commodity logic of the housing market.”48 In a capitalist society, housing is not considered a public good. Rather, it is a commodity, the construction and distribution of which is dictated by the imperatives of profit maximization. Recent studies have demonstrated that currently there is not a single place in the United States where minimum wage workers (of any race) can afford to live near their jobs.49 This phenomenon is directly tied to the fact that private equity firms with deep ties to the Democratic Party are buying up suburban neighborhoods. In a recent interview David Sirota explained how investment firms like BlackRock and BlackStone, who are major donors to the Democrats, are aggressively outbidding one another in their quest to buy up housing and use it as a vehicle for generating further profits. “You’ve got huge amounts of capital that are looking for bigger returns, frankly than even the market is giving right now, and real estate has been an asset class that more and more investors are pouring into.”50

The fact that Sirota mentions the reliance of the Democratic Party on real estate capital is key. When contemporary race theorists talk about racism being “institutional,” they further underscore their inability to see institutions as expressions of class power. Their analyses rarely connect the emergence of any given institution to processes of capital accumulation and the class struggles through which they take place. Nor do they connect how class struggles and contradictions are resolved in and through state policy. No discussion of the current housing crises would be complete without noting how billionaires like Charles Koch have begun bankrolling conservative legal groups who are leading the court battles to eliminate prohibitions against tenant evictions. Critical Race Theory is expressly concerned with exploring how legal institutions consistently fail to deliver racial equality. However, they dismiss Marxism on the grounds that Marxists see law as a simple “instrument” of “class interests.” They fail to understand that Marxist political economy is centered on accounting for class contradiction and struggle, seeking to explicate the conflicts that occur within and between classes, in order to understand how institutions emerge as vehicles to enable a class or a coalition of classes to harness control over the authority and resources of the state. Contemporary race theorists of all stripes criticize Marxists for “class reductionism.” However, as historian Dan O’Meara points out, Marxists are well aware that the existence of class contradictions does not automatically dictate the specific policy form in which they will be resolved. “Any analysis of the state and state policy must necessarily pose for itself the question of organization and ideology—of the particular organizational and ideological forms of the collective harnessing of the forces of this or that class or alliance of classes.”51 In the case of Charles Koch, he contributed $7.7 million to three conservative organizations with the aim of pressuring the federal courts to strike down the Center for Disease Control’s eviction moratorium, which is expressly designed to keep Americans (of all ancestries!) from being thrown onto the street amidst a deadly global pandemic.52 The way in which the Koch Foundation frames the housing question—its ideology—is equally important. The Koch Foundation also supports several non-profits. Acts Housing, one such venture, uses language of “empowerment” to frame the question of homelessness and housing: Acts Housing “has created a model that is empowering low-income individuals and families to turn their dreams of homeownership into reality. Better yet, it’s helping them build confidence in their economic abilities and become self-sufficient in the process.”53 This is but one example, but it illustrates that whether you are seeking to uncover the roots of racial disparities in COVID rates,54 asthma rates,55 or police assisted murder,56 class analysis gets you further than quixotic attempts to capture the essential features of the analytical unicorn that is the “new” racism.

Conclusion: Booker T. Washington Redux

Contemporary race theory proceeds from the mistaken premise that Jim Crow provides an adequate conceptual anchor for taxonomizing racism. There is, however, one area where framing social action in terms of “old and new Jim Crow” works well. Ironically, it is contemporary race theorists who bear primary responsibility for raising Booker T. Washington from the dead and giving us a “new” version of a way of framing American inequality that is, indeed, a “legacy” (to use their favored term) of Jim Crow. It was Booker T. Washington and his onetime aide-de-camp Robert Park, founder of the “Chicago school” of “race relations,” who were the first to push the idea that America should be understood not as a capitalist society but rather as a racially plural society whose most salient divisions were between Black and White, rather than rich and poor. Marxist historians have done excellent work explaining the rise of Booker T. Washington in the wake of the destruction of Reconstruction on the one hand and the populist movement on the other. Stein’s path-breaking essay, “On Booker T. Washington and Others,” argues persuasively that Washington’s rise to popularity on the backs of Northern philanthropy and big business cannot be divorced from the threat that the populist movement, which brought together poor Black and White farmers, posed to Democrats, Republicans, Northern industry, and Southern planters. Most Americans have been taught to see the Civil War either in “racial” terms as a conflict over the institution of slavery or in nationalist terms as a fight to save the union. They have been far less likely to view the Civil War through the lens of political economy and think about the conflict and its aftermath in terms of the threat that it potentially posed to the existing scheme of social property relations. However, at the time, The New York Times editorialized that the demands made by the Freedmen and women for the planters to be dispossessed and the plantations be given back to them, the people who had created all of their value, represented a profound threat. It “struck at ‘the fundamental relation of industry to capital’” and, as such, concerned “Massachusetts quite as much as Mississippi.”57 Washington, Stein explains, was a key node in the network of economic relations that articulated the South, supplier of raw materials and cheap labor, to the industrial North. Feted by presidents (of universities and nation states), captains of industry, and philanthropists of all stripes, Washington gave thousands of speeches. Three themes reappear over and over. The first is that American society must be understood in terms of racial difference, rather than class inequality. In other words, he was the first to posit that America was a “racialized” social system. The remarks that he made before the Southern Sociological Society in 1914 are typical:

There are millions of black people throughout the world. Everywhere, especially in Europe, people are looking to us here in the South, black and white, to show the world how it is possible for two races, different in color, to live together on the same soil, under the same laws, and each race work out its salvation in justice to the other.58

The second theme that appears again and again in Washington’s work is that races are corporate groups with defined “racial” interests. Ironically, Derrick Bell’s agenda-setting piece, “Racial Realism,” which includes a strident critique of Washington as a “race traitor” willing to “denigrate and disparage all who look like him to gain personal favor,” is premised on the logic of races as “corporate entities”—which is one of Washington’s foundational and most enduring ideas. Bell argued that “the decline of black people is marked by a precipitous decline in our economic status and the frustration of our political hopes” (DB 370).59 Whereas Bell invokes, without hesitation, the idea that African Americans share common class interests and unitary political goals, during Washington’s era this idea was most frequently posed in terms of “race leadership.” In Up from Slavery, he described his efforts at Tuskegee in term of actions directed at “lifting up my race.”60 He marveled that Harvard University, when it gave him an honorary degree, recognized him as “one of the great leaders of his race” (UFS 151). It fell on the race leader to both decide on and articulate the collective “interests” of the group. This phenomenon, which contemporary scholars have termed “elite brokerage politics,” was described by Washington as the “best” of the Whites and the “best” of the Blacks coming together in the spirit of friendship to solve their common problems. The Southern Sociological Congress, he believed, was an ideal organization for the “friendships between individual white people and individual black people which form the basis for cooperation between the races” to flourish (SSC 155). One hundred years before Derrick Bell came up with the idea of “interest convergence,” Washington had reminded the assembled delegates that, although each race had its own “interests,” the point of the Congress was to determine when those interests coincided:

In spite of the difficulties that grow out of the situation in the South, the races have many fundamental interests in common and there is much that should be done for the welfare of each race which can only be done with the hearty cooperation of both. (SSC 154)

Finally, Washington was as deeply invested then, as contemporary race theorists are now, in an ideal of “racial equality” that not only poses no serious threat to the extant system of property relations but actively works to render them invisible. In chapter twelve of Up from Slavery, aptly titled “Raising Money,” he declared himself to have “no patience” with people who “are always condemning the rich because they are rich.” He also warned of the dire consequences that an aggressive program of wealth redistribution might bring. “[H]ow many people would be made poor, and how much suffering would result, if wealthy people were to part all at once with any large portion of their wealth in a way to disorganize and cripple great business enterprises?” he asked (UFS 88). Washington had no problem with institutions and practices that disadvantaged the poor and working classes as long as they were “colorblind.” For example, he supported limiting the franchise to the propertied and literate as long as the restrictions “should be made to apply with equal and exact justice to both races” (UFS 115). His attitude anticipates Kendi, who argued that “[t]o be anti-racist is to equalize the race-classes.”61

Robert Park spent seven years working for Washington and credited him with having profoundly shaped his sociological imagination. It was from Washington that he “gained a clinical and first hand knowledge of a first class social problem.”62 The influence that Washington’s framing of American inequality had on Park is significant. Even the concept “race relations,” which every sociology department in America currently offers a course on, originated with Washington’s political project. The construct “race relations,” Fields reminds us, provided “a definition [of the problem] and a solution apparently capable of bypassing the issue of naked power that lay at its core.”63 The idea of races as corporate entities, so fundamental to the project of elite brokerage politics, needed little modification to become sociologically useful. Park debuted the idea in the pages of the discipline’s flagship journal, The American Journal of Sociology, in 1914—one year after he left Washington’s employ. In “Racial Assimilation in Secondary Groups with Particular Reference to the Negro,” he declared that that there was “a common interest among all the different colors and classes of the race.”64 The “sentiment of racial loyalty” was growing, as was “the sentiment which Negroes … call ‘race pride’” (RA 617). Race pride, in his estimation, operated as an effective “check” on class conflict. “Loyalty attaches to individuals, particularly to the upper classes, who furnish, in their persons and in their lives, the models for the masses of the people below them” (RA 622). This idea is not so far off from the “Whiteness as Property” argument so beloved by Critical Race Theory. It also bears a close resemblance to the “people who look like me” argument, which is trotted out with regularity to buttress claims that the victories of individual elite Blacks (such as hosting shows on MSNBC65 or winning Oscars66 ) are tantamount to victories for “the race.”

The tendency to render seismic changes in social property relation in terms of race rather than political economy, which is so prevalent in race theory today, can also be seen in Park’s work. Washington, Park, and contemporary race theorists are all guilty of seeing slavery as a “racial” system. Park’s argument that “the relations between the black man and the white in slavery that had been direct and personal, became every year, as the old associations were broken, more and more indirect and secondary” anticipates Bonilla-Silva’s framing of the issue in terms of “racial mores.” A logic that is similar to the “racialized social systems” approach can also be seen in Park. He, like Bonilla Silva, Kendi, Hill Collins, and others, frames the shift from pre- to post-Civil War as a period of “race adjustment” (RA 620). Park, like the doyens of contemporary race theory, also framed the “race problem” as fundamentally about the “struggle for equal opportunities” (RA 622). This idea bears more than a passing resemblance to Bonilla-Silva’s notion of “races” struggling to maximize their collective “life-chances.”

There’s never been a time to declare one’s commitment to what historian Touré Reed calls “race reductionism.”67 We ought not be surprised. The initial framing of American inequality in solely “racialized” terms occurred during the Gilded Age. No mystery, then, that our second “Gilded Age,” which is marked by even more brutal and deadly class oppression than the first, has seen it fit to bestow the highest honors (in the form of Pulitzer Prizes,68 MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grants,69 and New York Times best-sellers70) on “race reductionist” scholarship and race-reductionist “thought leaders” whose work, unfortunately, discourages thought and leads in the wrong direction.


1. Richard P. Feynman, The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist (New York: Basic Books, 1998), 20.
2. Jelani Cobb, “The Man Behind Critical Race Theory,” The New Yorker, September 13, 2021,
3. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, “Rethinking Racism: Towards a Structural Interpretation,” American Sociological Review 62, no. 3 (June 1997): 471. Hereafter cited in the text as “RR” followed by the page number.
4. Patricia Hill Collins, “Intersectionality’s Definitional Dilemmas,” Annual Review of Sociology 41 (2015): 11.
5. Hill Collins, “Intersectionality’s Definitional Dilemmas,” 8.
6. Derrick A. Bell, Jr., “Brown v. Board and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma,” Harvard Law Review 93, no. 3 (January 1980): 523. Hereafter cited in the text as “BVB” followed by the page number.
7. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2015), 127. Hereafter cited in the text as “RF” followed by the page number.
8. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, “Unmasking Colorblindness in the Law,” in Seeing Race Again: Countering Colorblindness across the Disciplines (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), 65.
9. Ibram X. Kendi, How To Be an Anti-Racist (New York: One World Press, 2019), 33.
10. Patricia Hill Collins, “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought,” Social Problems 33, no. 6 (October 1986): 19; and Patricia Hill Collins, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism (New York: Routledge, 2005), 85. The latter is hereafter cited in the text as “BSP” followed by the page number.
11. Derrick Bell, “Racial Realism,” Connecticut Law Review 24, no. 2 (Winter 1992): 373. Hereafter cited in the text as “DB” followed by the page number.
12. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas, eds., Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement (New York: The New Press, 1996), xxiv.
13. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018), 28. Hereafter cited in the text as “RWR” followed by the page number.
14. Barbara J. Fields and Karen E. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (London: Verso, 2012), 101. Hereafter cited in the text as “RSI” followed by the page number.
15. Emphasis by the author.
16. Barbara Jeanne Fields, “The Nineteenth Century American South: History and Theory,” Plantation Society 2, no. 1 (April 1983): 9. Hereafter cited in the text as “NC” followed by the page number.
17. Judith Stein, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others: The Political Economy of Racism in the United States,” Science & Society 38 (Winter 1974/1975): 434. Hereafter cited in the text as “BTW” followed by the page number.
18. Steven Hahn, “Class and State in Post-emancipation Societies: Southern Planters in Comparative Perspective,” The American Historical Reivew 95 (February 1990): 94.
19. Brian Kelly, “Labor, Race, and the Search for a Central theme in the History of the Jim Crow South,” Irish Journal of American Studies 10 (2001): 61.
20. Barbara Jeanne Fields, “The Advent of Capitalist Agriculture: The New South in a Bourgeois World,” in Essays on the Postbellum Southern Economy (Arlington: University of Texas at Arlington, 1985), 84.
21. Amy Dru Stanley, “Beggars Can’t Be Choosers: Compulsion and Contract in Postbellum America,” The Journal of American History 78, no. 4 (March 1992): 1276, 1267. Hereafter cited in the text as “ADS” followed by the page number.
22. “The Freedman’s Savings Bank,” The Semi-Weekly Louisianan, October 26, 1871.
23. Alexander Purvis, “Harnessing Labor and Capital by Means of Industrial Partnership,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 20 (July 1902): 66. Hereafter cited in the text as “HLC” followed by the page number.
24. Quoted in James D. Anderson, “The Southern Improvement Company: Northern Reformers’ Investment in Negro Cotton Tenancy: 1900-1920,” Agricultural History 52 (January 1978): 113. Hereafter cited in the text as “SIC” followed by the page number.
25. Alexander Purvis, Proceedings of the Capon Springs Conference for Christian Education in the South (Capon Springs, 1898), 44.
26. Jacob K. Friefeld, Mikal Eckstrom, and Richard Edwards, “African American Homesteader Colonies and the Settling of the Great Plains,” Center for Great Plains Studies (Winter 2019): 15.
27. Quoted in Norman L. Crockett, The Black Towns (Topeka: University of Kansas Press, 2021), 117. Hereafter cited in the text as “TBT” followed by the page number.
28. Friefield, Eckstrom, and Edwards, “African American Homesteader Colonies,” 23.
29. Booker T. Washington, “The Negro in Business,” The Colored American Magazine 10, no. 2 (February 1906): 90.
30. Robert Gabriel Nelson, “The People’s Capital: The Politics of Wealth in the Gilded Age” (PhD diss., University of California Berkeley, 2019), 75.
31. Megan Benson, “Reform and Retaliation: Cora Diehl and the Logan County Elections of 1891,” Oklahoma Politics (October 1995): 28. Hereafter cited in the text as “LCE” followed by the page number.
32. Quoted in William H. Chafe, “The Negro and Populism: A Kansas Case Study,” The Journal of Southern History 34, no. 3 (August 1968): 409.
33. Omar H. Ali, In the Lion’s Mouth: Black Populism in the New South, 1886-1900 (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2010), location 2467.
34. Quoted in Nelson, “The People’s Capital,” 42.
35. Thomas Frank, The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism (New York: Henry Holt, 2020), 11.
36. The Western Cyclone, October 7, 1877.
37. Ali, In the Lion’s Mouth.
38. James R. Allen, “Systemic Racism and America Today,” Brookings Institution, June 11, 2020,
39. Barbara F. Reskin, “Including Mechanisms in our Models of Ascriptive Inequality,” American Sociological Review 68 (February 2003): 1. Hereafter cited in the text as “IM” followed by the page number.
40. The phrase “at the bottom of the well” is borrowed from Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (New York: Basic Books, 1993).
41. Hadas Their, “Under Capitalism, there’s No Such Thing as a ‘Fair Day’s Wage for a Fair Day’s Work,’” Jacobin, September 7, 2020,
42. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume III (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 791.
43. Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 9.
44. Robinson, Black Marxism, 9.
45. Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review, 1999), 62.
46. Nancy Leong, “Racial Capitalism,” Harvard Law Review 126 (June 2013): 2152.
47. Wood, The Origin of Capitalism, 70.
48. Andrej Holm, “We Want a Society Without Landlords,” Jacobin, May 24, 2021,
49. Dan Threet, “The Market is Incapable of Creating Affordable Housing,” Jacobin, August 8, 2021,
50. “David Sirota: Private Equity Firms Buying Up Suburban Neighborhoods Have Deep Ties to Democrats,” The Hill, June 11, 2021,
51. Dan O’Meara, Volkskapitalisme: Class, Capital, and Ideology in the Development of Afrikaner Nationalism, 1934-1948 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 5.
52. Andrew Perez and David Sirota, “Charles Koch Funded Eviction Push While Investing in Real Estate Companies,” The Guardian, May 21, 2021,
53. Koch Foundation, “What Can You Do With a 6K Fixer Upper? From Homelessness to Homeownership,” Stand Together,
54. See Touré F. Reed, “The Dangers of Letting Racecraft Displace Class During the Pandemic,” Jacobin, August 13, 2020,
55. See Meagan Day, “The Rich Breathe Easier Than the Poor,” Jacobin, June 9, 2021,
56. See Meagan Day, “We’re Learning More About the Relationships Between Race, Class, and Police Brutality,” Jacobin, June 23, 2020,
57. Kelly, “Labor, Race, U.S. South,” 58.
58. Booker T. Washington, “The Southern Sociological Congress as a Factor for Social Welfare,” in Battling for Social Betterment: Southern Sociological Congress, Memphis, Tennessee, May 6-10, 1914, ed. James Edward McCulloch (Nashville: Southern Sociological Congress, 1914). Hereafter cited in the text as “SSC” followed by the page number.
59. Emphasis by the author.
60. Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (New York: Dover, 1995), 28. Hereafter cited in the text as “UFS” followed by the page number.
61. Kendi, How to Be an Anti-Racist, 152.
62. Robert E. Park, “Methods of Teaching: Impressions and a Verdict,” Social Forces 20 (October 1941): 41.
63. Barbara J. Fields, “Origins of the New South and the Negro Question,” The Journal of Southern History 67 (November 2001): 814.
64. Robert E. Park, “Racial Assimilation in Secondary Groups with Particular Reference to the Negro,” American Journal of Sociology 19 (March 1914): 617. Hereafter cited in the text as “RA” followed by the page number.
65. See Sridhar Pappu, “MSNBC’s Joy Reid on Her Groundbreaking Move to Prime Time: ‘I Feel the Burden to Do it Right,’” Vogue, July 20, 2020,
66. See Patricia Garcia, “Ava DuVernay Doesn’t Want Praise, She Wants Change.” Vogue, February 6, 2017,
67. Touré F. Reed, Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism (New York: Verso, 2020).
68. See Jeff Barrus, “Nikole Hannah-Jones Wins Pulitzer Prize for 1619 Project,” Pulitzer Center, May 4, 2020,
69. See “Boston University’s Ibram X. Kendi wins 2021 MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant,” WCVB Boston, September 28, 2021,
70. See Jemima McEvoy, “Books About Racism Dominate Best-Seller Lists Amid Protests,” Forbes, June 11, 2020,
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