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What is Racial Capitalism?

A new three-year research collaboration on Racial Capitalism: Histories, Methods and Archives kicked off on Wednesday, Oct. 4th, with an overflow crowd. The initiative, which is one of four groups supported by the Mellon Research Initiatives in the Humanities (MRI) at the UC Davis Humanities Institute, is co-directed by Associate Professor of English Mark Jerng and Assistant Professor of History Justin Leroy.

Jerng opened up the launch event with a brief preview of the three years of programming to come. Fifteen events are planned this year with a variation of formats, from reading group meetings to works in progress workshops to “disciplinary conversations” in which two or more scholars will reflect on methods and disciplinary approaches. To view upcoming events and selected readings, check out the initiative’s website.

The panel discussion titled “What is Racial Capitalism?” was framed by excerpts from Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Published in 1983, the book’s historiographically thorough exploration of the link between racialism and capitalism resonates clearly with contemporary political discussion. Leroy opened discussion with Neil Agarwal, a two-year Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor hired as part of the Racial Capitalism MRI who will be teaching undergraduate and graduate courses and helping to run the colloquium series.

Agarwal began by discussing Robinson’s notion of racial capitalism, which challenges received meanings of the racial. The first chapter of Black Marxism, circulated for this meeting, is a deep dive into European history which describes deep-rooted racialization practices in European society which were extended through colonization and the rise of Atlantic slave economies and new world plantation societies.

As Robinson demonstrates in this opening chapter: “there has never been a moment in modern European history (if before) that migratory and/or immigrant labor was not a significant aspect of European economies.” (23) In other words, racialism is at the heart of capitalism. This articulation opens new ways of thinking about capitalism as well as race, offering an alternative perspective on its deep links with systems of organizing human bodies.

In excavating the archive of black radical tradition, Robinson shows how colonization, imperialism, and ongoing processes of racial dispossession are often sites of transformation and possibility as well as of violence and primitive accumulation. Historically rigorous and analytically open, Robinson’s writing continues to inspire work today on race, nationalism, and capitalism.

Leroy discussed the tremendous intellectual and emotional energy that has gone into historical efforts to partition Africa and Africans apart from European history and to deny their centrality to the development of the modern world. Citing vitriol often aimed at historians who write about the important roles of people of color in western European history, Leroy discussed the impact of a pervasive refusal to acknowledge the role of black people as co-constructors of modernity which extends from Hegel to current scholarship.

As the conversation turned to include the audience, Jerng joined in again to briefly emphasize the distinction between racism and racialism in Robinson’s terms. Racialism is a material force- not just a set of ideas around consciousness or experience. Robinson defines the term as “the legitimation and corroboration of social organization as natural by reference to the ‘racial’ components of its elements.” (2)

Robinson is often writing about historical periods in which neither race nor racism were operative as terms. Applying racialization as a concept asks us, as readers, to expand racialization processes to the structures by which, for example, people are recruited for the army, or certain types of labor. Focusing on the centrality of racialism to the logistics of “smoothing out the production of labor” opens productive analytic possibilities for thinking the pervasiveness of race as a structuring analytic in our own capitalist system.

Audience participation in the discussion was wide-ranging and enthusiastic. From the dissipation of anti-bank movements after 2008 to Bernie Sanders’ treatment of race in his 2016 presidential election campaign, participants used Robinson’s concepts to think through new angles on the intersections of race, finance and nativist violence which characterize our current political moment.

There were also more critical questions: What does it mean to adopt the concepts and terms of Western philosophy when we are seeking ways out of some of those narratives? How and by whom is blackness defined? How to think about the relative dearth of women or gender as an analytic in Robinson’s work, despite his mentorship of a number of women scholars?

Given the interest this first meeting garnered, the Racial Capitalism MRI is likely to have a significant impact on the work of faculty and students across the humanities and social sciences. The next meeting will be on Wednesday, October 18th at 4pm in 126 Voorhies Hall. Lecturer Zenia Kish will be visiting from Stanford for a works-in-progress event on her work titled “Data Farming: Seeding a ‘Data Revolution’ in African Agriculture.”


– Anne O’Connor, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Cultural Studies Graduate Group

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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