Racial Capitalism: Race, Class, and the Black Radical Tradition
“Racial capitalism” is a concept that has become central to contemporary radical movements, from Black Lives Matter to the prison abolition movement to movements against state violence and for climate justice. The concept was first developed by Cedric Robinson in his monumental Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, where he argues that “the development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society pursued essentially racial directions.” For Robinson, capitalism and racism evolved together and thus must be understood as inseparable from each other. Why, even at its origins, was capitalism racialized? And how, in racial capitalism, are we to understand race, class, identity, and exploitation?
In this course, we will take seriously the challenge of thinking through Robinson’s concept of racial capitalism in all of its complexity. The class will be centered in a close reading of Black Marxism, alongside selections from thinkers in the Black Radical Tradition, including Oliver Cox, W. E. B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, C. L. R. James, and Richard Wright. Students will also examine contemporary scholars and activists who have carried forward the analysis of racial capitalism (including challenging and supplementing Robinson’s general failure to consider the intersections of gender and sexuality with race and class), including Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Joy James, Walter Johnson, Robin Kelley, Fred Moten, Noel Ignatiev, Donna Murch, and Robyn Spencer, as well as the collection Futures of Black Radicalism. We will conclude by looking at recent debates regarding the relationship between Marxism and intersectionality. How do the histories of global capitalism and global racism intersect? How do anti-capitalist and anti-racist theory and practice align (or fail to align)? What is the relationship between intersectionalist feminism and theorizations of racial capitalism? Does capitalism need racism—or, as Nancy Fraser’s asked in a recent essay, “Is Capitalism Necessarily Racist?”—and does racism need capitalism? How does studying racial capitalism help us better understand race, capital, and the contemporary world?