Op-Ed

We must put a stop to racial capitalism, making money off black and brown bodies

David Whitfield/ 2019 Olympian Board of Contributors
David Whitfield/ 2019 Olympian Board of Contributors sbloom@theolympian.com

Please walk with me through three examples of racial capitalism, a hideous impediment to social justice and a barrier to our nation’s motto: e pluribus unum.

University of Denver Law Professor Nancy Leong defines Racial Capitalism as “the commodification of nonwhites for social and economic gain,” and “the process of getting some sort of social or economic benefit from someone else’s racial identity.”

Here’s the first example: In 2013, Pennsylvania Judge Mark Arthur Ciavarella was “sentenced to 28 years for selling black teens to prisons,” in the “Kids for cash” scandal, denying some 5,000 young men and women their constitutional rights. He received $2.2 million as a finder’s fee for his efforts. This is racial capitalism in its rawest form.

My second example involves President Andrew Jackson, who took 11 million acres of land from the Choctaw and other southern tribes, passed the land on to white settlers, then sent the tribal people on the “Trail of Tears,” exiling them to Oklahoma and Kansas. Thousands died along the way.

The land taken from Native Americans in general and the 11 million acres taken from the Choctaw in particular were collateral for cotton planters to borrow money. As Harvard Professor Walter Johnson said, “There was no such thing as capitalism without slavery.” In case cotton didn’t do well enough to cover the amount of money advanced to planters, cotton merchants demanded some type of security from the planters. “That security was the value of the enslaved. Enslaved people were the capital,” wrote Professor Johnson.

A third example is happening right now. Brown children at our southern border are making someone tons of money. Specifically, it costs $775 per child per night to “cage” or hold them. ... “More than 2,000 children were separated from their parents in the policy’s first six weeks (42 nights). …” Forty-two nights for 2,000 children brings $65,100,000. Money for whom? Is that not getting social and economic value from the racial identity of another? Given America’s dogma on race, would white children be caged for such cash, or economic benefit?

“The history of racial capitalism, it must be emphasized, is a history of wages as well as whips, of factories as well as plantations, of whiteness as well as blackness, of “freedom” as well as slavery, says Professor Johnson. Racial capitalism has serious negative consequences both for individuals and society. According to Professor Leong, “The process of racial capitalism relies upon and reinforces commodification of racial identity, which degrades that identity by reducing it to another thing to be bought and sold.” Commodification can also foster racial resentment by causing nonwhites to feel used, or exploited by whites.

Racial capitalism often inflates the dominance and importance of whites and often fosters debilitating blind spots that surface for many who don’t recognize the racial dimensions of their own enterprises. I imagine that some of you run companies, make laws, and set policy with the possibility of having racial capitalism as a formidable blind spot.

Racism is fraught with blind spots; it is also ubiquitous, buried in education, occupations, families, housing, churches, and banks. Many prominent American banks including JP Morgan and Wachovia Corp made fortunes from slavery and accepted slaves as “collateral” during the 1800s. JP Morgan recently admitted that it “accepted approximately 13,000 enslaved individuals as collateral on loans and took possession of approximately 1,250 enslaved individuals.”

When it comes to racial capitalism, think about who owns racism; people of color do not; yet it is located among us because we wear it 24-7; it is used to navigate systems designed to keep us “in our lane.” And since race is a social fabrication by whites, it is owned by whites and only whites can stop it, because they have the institutional power to enforce it. We of color do not. Racial capitalism too, is owned by and can be stopped by whites only.

It is not the American dream to be limited, institutionally or structurally, for something you cannot change: the color of your skin! E pluribus unum is an empty phrase so long as racial capitalism persists.

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David Whitfield is founder of the veteran-owned Intercultural Leadership Executive Coaching, and a member of The Olympian’s 2019 Board of Contributors. He may be reached at dr.d.whitfield@gmail.com.
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