Scholar Robin D.G. Kelley on how Today’s Abolitionist Movement can Fundamentally Change the CountryHistorians in the News
tags: racism, radicalism, Protest, social movements
It is vitally important that during a time such as this, we take a moment to step back and look at the bigger picture, the historical context, and the possibilities that lay before us. On the latest episode of Intercepted, Robin D.G. Kelley joined us to discuss all this and more. Kelley is the Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA and the author of several groundbreaking books, among them “Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times,” “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination,” and “Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression.”
What follows is a transcript of the extended conversation with Kelley, lightly edited for context and clarity.
JS: You just mentioned the term “racial capitalism.” I hope people are familiar with the work of Cedric Robinson, but if you can lay out your understanding of that term, of “racial capitalism,” and really explain that for people.
RK: Racial capitalism, as far as Cedric Robinson, the late political scientist, understands it or explained it basically was built based on this idea that capitalism itself is not distinct from racism. The way we think of racism is that racism is a by-product of capitalism. That is, capitalism emerges and racism is a way to divide workers. It’s a way to extract greater value from, say, enslaved people, Indigenous people, etc. But what Cedric argued was that the grounds of the civilization in which capitalism emerges is already based on racial hierarchy. And that racial hierarchy is not necessarily the global one, it’s even within Europe itself that racial distinctions were ways in which early capitalism was able to take advantage of certain groups over others, whether it’s in terms of wages, whether it’s in terms of dispossession and forcing people off the land, using violence against the Irish, for example. We don’t think of the Irish as a racialized group, but in many ways, in the 16th century, that’s what they were.
And so if you think of race as assigning meaning to whole groups of people, convincing, ideologically convincing others that some people are inferior to others, that some people are designed as beasts of burden and other people are designed to accept, to embrace the wealth of that, then what you end up getting is a system of extraction that allows for a kind of super-exploitation of Black and brown people. And racial capitalism also relies on an ideology or racial regime, and the racial regime convinces a lot of white people, who may get the crumbs of this extraction through slavery, through Jim Crow, through land disposession, convince them to be or support or shore up a regime that seems to benefit whiteness based in white supremacy but where their own share of the spoils is actually pretty miniscule. Du Bois called this the “wages of whiteness.” It’s like an ideological wage that doesn’t always translate materially. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.
So if you think of capitalism as racial capitalism, then the outcome is you cannot eliminate capitalism, overthrow it, without the complete destruction of white supremacy, of the racial regime under which it’s built.
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