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White Supremacy as the Form of North American Capitalism

When it comes to thinking about race and human rights, I’m obsessed. You’ve probably noticed that. But what might be less obvious (or, who knows, maybe more obvious) is that the pandemic has put my obsession on blast. Case in point, I was up at 5:30 today, eventually landed at my desk, and there I saw that a long-time human rights activist I know from Portland had asked me a question via direct messenger.

By then it was 3:30am in Portland, but when I answered, she was awake. Good to know there are other people as obsessed as me. And thus began a half hour dialogue via text that went approximately like this (I made some edits for readability and added some stuff to close the loop on some points I made).

Her: I remember a post you wrote about racism and capitalism that I’d love to find again. I looked at the Race Files site but no luck. Does this ring a bell?

Me: You mean that white supremacy is the form that capitalism took in North America?

Her: Hi, yes!

Me: You’re up at 3:30am? Geez, you’re as obsessed as I am…

Here’s the whole thought (sort of). Ethnic nationalism is the mother of U.S. white supremacy, which in turn is the continuation of chattel slavery, the colonial labor system that dominated North America leading up to the American Revolution. That’s why we need to keep our eyes on the white nationalists. They are the keepers and champions of the root form of nationalism in the U.S. Liberal democracy is grafted on white nationalist root stock. And as with certain kinds of grafted trees, we must be ever mindful of the tendency of the tree to return to its root characteristics.

Chattel slavery was a system that was not just justified with white supremacy. Chattel slavery was the reason for white supremacy, which in turn is justified by the racial worldview – the idea that the race is a legitimate, even primary, means of understanding human difference. And white supremacy wasn’t just an idea, it was a set of institutions and power relations protected and governed by legal codes. It was a whole political and economic system.

White supremacy is the form that capitalism took in the U.S.
And that’s what gives it the power and force it has, adapting to changing circumstances, coopting resistance, etc.
Political systems are created to support and manage economy systems. In the chicken v. egg of political-economy, economic needs come first..and this has been true since hunter-gatherer societies became agrarian and so on…

Her: Ok that’s really helpful. Has it always relied on extractive labor? Or am I using that term incorrectly?

Me (Not yet having noticed the last question): When we understand this, the “cancelation” of black people that we have been witnessing becomes understandable, not primarily as an expression of hatred, but as a function of our political and economic systems justified by hatred. Black male unemployment was slightly lower than white male unemployment until the mid-1960s. Black women were far more likely to be employed outside of the home than white women until then, too, and even for a while afterward.

Since then the Black unemployment rate fluctuates but is generally about twice that of whites. And, importantly, this has been true since civil rights reforms caused black people to be included under worker protections.

Put another way, capitalists who happened to be white brought over between 10 and 12 million Africans to the Americas. If hate and separation was the goal, they would have done better to leave them in Africa, as Dorothy Fields (author of Racecraft) would say. They brought them across to enslave them because they needed cheap labor and because, as chattel, enslaved Black people became commodities of great value.

But once slavery was abolished the use value of Black people was diminished within the capitalist system. Use value refers to the tangible features of a commodity that satisfy some requirement, want or need, paraphrasing Webster.

Following this logic, killing Black people became even more common post-abolition. Black people were also subject to Black Codes that made unemployment and vagrancy among other acts punishable by imprisonment where they were leased as enslaved labor. Convict leasing had the dual effect of incarcerating and re-enslaving masses of Black men, and of keeping those not imprisoned on the farm, docile, and working for the man, so to speak, aware that becoming independent could put them on the wrong side of Black Codes that would land them back in enslavement.

And the beat goes on…Since Black people’s use value was reduced, they became in some ways more vulnerable. Following this logic, lynchings peaked in the South along with the great migration, basically as the expression of the idea that if Black people weren’t of use to whites, they were disposable. In a later generation, tough on crime policies suppressed Black Power and resulted in mass incarceration, with prisons turned into warehouses for people who were regarded as a permanent under-class aka excess labor.

So why are people so traumatized by the George Floyd video and not as much by Abu Graib, Afghanistan, children being tortured on our Southern border, Iraq, the 150,000 dead in this pandemic, millions of stateless refugees? Maybe because they saw themselves and their futures canceled in those 8 and a half minutes. Because they saw what happens when economic and political elites decide you are disposable, and having felt that disposability for a while now, they took that very personally. And with so many of all races unemployed, having been told in no uncertain terms that corporate health is more important than people’s health, more than just Black people are feeling vulnerable, which may explain why the BLM protests have been so multi-racial, even mostly white in some places.

Her: Hmmm. That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought of it that way. Given the reliance our food system has on cheap Mexican labor, why the anti immigrant push? Is white supremacy more important?

Me: Well, that’s complicated. First, 1965 was also the year of the Immigration and Nationality Act that took down racist barriers to immigration from Africa and Asia. But, it also imposed quotas on Mexican immigration. Those quotas, along with terrible trade agreements like NAFTA, which ruined the Mexican economy, drove the undocumented immigration “crisis” in the U.S.

Her: Ah…

Me: That “crisis” created a pool of cheap, highly exploitable workers who basically became replacement workers for African Americans in key industries. Domestic workers and farm workers especially. You know about the domestic worker and farm worker loopholes, right? That loophole in worker protections came to be because the labor force in those industries was disproportionately Black.

Her: Yes. I do

Me: But in order to keep that source of labor cheap and exploitable, you cannot provide an easy path to citizenship.
And that anti-immigrant politicking in service of maintaining an exploitable pool of workers has basically taken on a life of its own that’s more purely political now. And it’s gone from immigration limitation to total bans as labor protections have been reduced and the white middle class is crumbling, and as off-shoring has become much easier, creating new potential pools of labor at the same time that demographic change is threatening to tip the balance of power from the bottom-up.

Demographic change is both a source of anxiety that conservatives can exploit, and a threat to their ability to continue to use a highly manipulated white majority as a shield against the democratic aspirations of progressive-minded American people, among whom people of color, as aggregated by race, are the most progressive, the most likely force of change.

Her: Oh, because citizenship offers a pathway to economic advancement…and the wealth concentration is ridiculous
it’s hard to see a road forward. it’s bad here.

Me: In order to maintain extreme wealth inequality they need to dominate U.S. politics. As white supremacy is the form that capitalism took, and capitalism is not just an economic system but a cultural form, as in way of life, not just the economic system but that white normative way of life must be maintained. Demographic change is challenging that and immigration is one of the main drivers of demographic change.

And so on…half an hour into my day and it was only 7am-ish. If this pandemic doesn’t end quickly, I will soon have written the nuttiest, most meandering, fragmented, and off the cuff book, no, set of encyclo-f*@king-pedia of all time.

Scot Nakagawa

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot is a community organizer, activist, cultural worker, and political writer. He has spent the last four decades exploring questions of racial injustice and racial formation and effective forms of resistance and strategies for change through community campaigns, cultural organizing, popular education, writing, and direct political advocacy.

Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against vigilante white supremacist groups, white nationalism, Nativism, and authoritarian evangelical political movements. In this work, he has served as a strategist, organizer, and social movement analyst. Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow and the Association of Asian American Studies 2017 Community Leader. He is busy at work on a number of projects, including writing a playbook for anti-fascists, and a primer on race and power. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition; Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence; and Eyes Right!: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash.