Racial Capitalism: What’s in a Name?

This article for HWO accompanies Catherine Hall’s article in History Workshop Journal: ‘Racial Capitalism: What’s in a Name?

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the widespread anger that followed over police murders of unarmed Black people, Black Lives Matter demonstrations were held in the US, the UK and beyond. Among the placards at these protests were ones reading ‘Capitalism is Racist’ or ‘Abolish Racial Capitalism’.

London Black Lives Matter Peaceful Protest from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square via Buckingham Palace, June 2020, photographed by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona (Unsplash).

This term ‘racial capitalism’ has come to be one widely used by activists as well as by critical sociologists and historians in the recent past. It signals a connection between capitalist forms of political, social and economic organisation and racial hierarchies and inequalities. A new interest in capitalism and its history emerged after the financial crash of 2008 when it became clear that the system was fragile, and much less stable than many people had thought.

After decades of antiracist activity, it had also become clear that forms of racialisation were not disappearing and that global inequalities, far from reducing, were widening, embedded as they are in our contemporary societies. But how does the connection between capitalism and racialisation work and how can we best think about it? Is it always the same or has it changed over time? Did racial capitalism operate in the same ways in the eighteenth century as it did in the time of nineteenth century industrial capitalism or does now in our neoliberal present, when financial services are so critical to the economy?  If it has changed – how, when, and why?

‘Racial capitalism’ is not one ‘thing’ – there are many different phases of economic, political, cultural and spatial practices which need to be understood in their historical specificity. Neither ‘capitalism’ nor ‘racism’ are stable entities – they shift, change and adapt. It is how the connections work between race and capitalism that matters. One way of exploring the connections is to think historically. Given the centrality of the slave trade and slavery to modern forms of capitalism, what might we learn from looking at a specific example in the mid-eighteenth century Atlantic?

As someone who came of age politically in the context of 1970s socialist feminism, I have long thought of gender, racial and class inequalities as rooted in economic systems. But this thinking took on a new clarity when researching a family of English slaveowners who first went to Jamaica in the 1650s. Samuel Long, a lad of 18, was on the expedition sent by Oliver Cromwell to challenge the Spanish empire in the Caribbean. He became one of the founding fathers of the new colony of Jamaica. There, he established plantations which survived over six generations, purchased enslaved people to produce the sugar which brought wealth to his family, and contributed to the making of ‘slave codes’ which formalised the distinctions between White and Black people and ensured hereditary racial slavery.

His grandson, Edward, wrote a three volume History of Jamaica, published in 1774, which has remained in print ever since. Edward Long has become the subject of my attempt to grasp the workings of racial capitalism in the mid-eighteenth century Atlantic. Peter Fryer described him as the ‘father of English racism’ in his classic book Staying Power (1984) because of the influence that Long’s insistence on Black people as naturally and essentially different from White (Long always used capital letters in this way as a way of emphasising difference) has had on English racisms. Long wanted to keep Black people out of Britain and hated what he called the ‘bronzing’ of the population that was taking place in London as a result of interracial sex.

You may wonder why I chose to work on such a figure – why be interested in forms of racism when we should be focused on struggling against them?  People ask me – how can you bear to spend so long with such an obnoxious man whose writing has had such damaging effects and whose racist thinking still reverberates? My answer is that a better understanding of the entangled histories of Britain and the West Indian islands they colonised can hope to play a part in repairing the damage wrought by slavery and colonialism.  That harm can never be put right but the recognition that there is a debt to be paid, one that stretches from the past into the present, is critical to hopes of a more egalitarian future.

The work of reparation for slavery and colonialism is concerned with the relationship between past and present. It was the English who established the colonial system and racial slavery in Jamaica. We were not there then, but those of us who live in Britain now are beneficiaries of the gross inequalities associated with that history. Racialised inequalities in contemporary society have their roots in the days of slavery. These inequalities persist in the wake of our intertwined histories. Jamaica may become a republic but there will still be a debt to be paid. Investment in infrastructure is vital, as CARICOM (the governmental body representing the Caribbean region) insists, but it will not happen without a recognition by Britons and the British government of our historic involvement with the slavery business. These are our responsibilities given the ways in which our lives have been enriched over centuries. Edward Long was a key architect both of the practices and the theoretical justifications for racialisation. It seems worthwhile to think about him.

We first published the Legacies of British slave-ownership database, which documented the compensation received by the slave-owners who claimed ownership of enslaved people at the time of emancipation in 1834, in 2013. I remember that some critics said to us – this is very useful, but why focus on the individuals, we need to focus on the state. After all, it was the government that decided to compensate the slave-owners to the tune of 20 million pounds (at least 16 billion in today’s money) and the loans they took out to do so would be paid for by British taxpayers over many generations.

There are echoes of this today – government borrowing to limit energy bills will be paid for once again by the taxpayers, not by the fossil fuel companies who continue to make profit. It is right to point attention to the role of the state. From the beginning the colony of Jamaica was dependent on the power of the metropolitan state. Its army and navy secured the seas and protected the island not only from external enemies, especially France, but from enslaved rebels who continuously challenged their subjection and demanded freedom. The British state confirmed the laws which secured political and property rights to the colonists and hereditary racial slavery to Africans. It also passed ‘Navigation Laws’, with protective duties for sugar and credit arrangements, that embedded a system of mercantile capitalism to ensure that Jamaica functioned as a source of wealth for the ‘mother country’. The colony was there to benefit Britain. Understanding the role of the state gives us one clue as to how ‘racial capitalism’ operated at that time.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *