Authors: Ibram X. Kendi
In the twenty-first century, persisting racial inequities in poverty, unemployment, and wealth show the lifework of the conjoined twins.
The Black poverty rate in 2017 stood at 20 percent, nearly triple the White poverty rate.
The Black unemployment rate has been at least twice as high as the White unemployment rate for the last fifty years.
The wage gap between Blacks and Whites is the largest in forty years. The
median net worth of White families is about ten times that of Black families. According to one forecast,
White households are expected to own eighty-six times more wealth than Black households by 2020 and sixty-eight times more than Latinx households. The disparity stands to only get worse if racist housing policies, tax policies benefiting the rich, and mass incarceration continue unabated, according to forecasters. By 2053, the median wealth of Black households is expected to redline at $0, and Latinx households will redline two decades later.
The inequities wrought by racism and capitalism are not restricted to the United States.
Africa’s unprecedented capitalist growth over the past two decades has enriched foreign investors and a handful of Africans, while the number of people living in extreme poverty is growing in Sub-Saharan Africa. With extreme poverty falling rapidly elsewhere, forecasters project that
nearly nine in ten extremely poor people will live in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2030.
In Latin America, people of African descent remain disproportionately poor.
The global gap between the richest (and Whitest) regions of the world and the poorest (and Blackest) regions of the world has tripled in size since the 1960s—at the same time as the global non-White middle class has grown.
Upward mobility is greater for White people, and downward mobility is greater for Black people. And equity is nonexistent on the race-class ladder in the United States. In
the highest-income quintile, White median wealth is about $444,500, around $300,000 more than for upper-income Latinx and Blacks.
Black middle-income households have less wealth than White middle-income households, whose homes are valued higher.
White poverty is not as distressing as Black poverty. Poor Blacks are much more likely to live in neighborhoods where other families are poor, creating a poverty of resources and opportunities. Sociologists refer to this as the “double burden.” Poor Blacks in metropolitan Chicago are ten times more likely than poor Whites to live in high-poverty areas. With Black poverty dense and White poverty scattered, Black poverty is visible and surrounds its victims; White poverty blends in.
Attributing these inequities solely to capitalism is as faulty as attributing them solely to racism. Believing these inequities will be eliminated through eliminating capitalism is as faulty as believing these inequities will be eliminated through eliminating racism. Rolling back racism in a capitalist nation can eliminate the inequities between the Black and White poor, middle-income Latinx and Asians, rich Whites and Natives.
Antiracist policies in the 1960s and 1970s narrowed these inequities on some measures. But antiracist policies alone cannot eliminate the inequities between rich and poor Asians or between rich Whites and “White trash”—the inequities between race-classes. As racial disparities within the classes narrowed in recent decades, the economic inequities within the races have broadened, as have the class-racist ideas justifying those inequities.
Antiracist policies cannot eliminate class racism without anticapitalist policies. Anticapitalism cannot eliminate class racism without antiracism. Case in point is the persistent racism Afro-Cubans faced in socialist Cuba after revolutionaries eliminated capitalism there in 1959,
as chronicled by historian Devyn Spence Benson. Revolutionaries demanded Afro-Cubans assimilate into an imagined post-racial Cuba—“Not Blacks, but Citizens”—built on White Cuban social norms and racist ideas after a three-year campaign against racism abruptly ended in 1961.
Socialist and communist spaces are not automatically antiracist. Some socialists and communists have pushed a segregationist or post-racial program in order not to alienate racist White workers. For example, delegates at the founding meeting of the
Socialist Party of America (SPA) in 1901 refused to adopt an anti-lynching petition. Assimilationist leaders of some socialist and communist organizations have asked people of color to leave their racial identities and antiracist battle plans at the door, decrying “identity politics.” Some of these socialists and communists may not be familiar with their ideological guide’s writings on race. “
The discovery of gold and silver in America,” Karl Marx once wrote, “the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.” Marx recognized the birth of the conjoined twins.
In the 1920s, W.E.B. Du Bois started binge-reading Karl Marx. By the time the Great Depression depressed the Black poor worse than the White poor, and he saw in the New Deal the same old deal of government racism for Black workers, Du Bois conceived of an antiracist anticapitalism. Howard University economist Abram Harris, steeped in a post-racial Marxism that ignores the color line as stubbornly as any color-blind racist,
pleaded with Du Bois to reconsider his intersecting of anticapitalism and antiracism. But the reality of
what scholars now call racial capitalism—the singular name of the conjoined twins—made up Du Bois’s mind.
The lowest and most fatal degree” of Black workers’ “suffering comes not from capitalists but from fellow white workers,” Du Bois stated. “White labor…deprives the Negro of his right to vote, denies him education, denies him affiliation with trade unions, expels him from decent houses, and neighborhoods, and heaps upon him the public insults of open color discrimination.” The United States has a White “working-class aristocracy,” Du Bois constructed. “
Instead of a horizontal division of classes, there was a vertical fissure, a complete separation of classes by race, cutting square across the economic layers.” The vertical cutting knife? Racism, sharpened through the centuries. “This flat and incontrovertible fact, imported Russian Communism ignored, would not discuss.”
But Du Bois discussed it. An antiracist anticapitalism could seal the horizontal class fissures and vertical race fissures—and, importantly, their intersections—with equalizing racial and economic policies. In 1948, he officially abandoned the idea of a vanguard Talented Tenth of elite Blacks and
called for a “Guiding One Hundredth.” Du Bois helped breed a new crop of antiracist anticapitalists before they were driven underground or into prison by the red scares of the 1950s, before resurfacing in the 1960s. They are resurfacing again in the twenty-first century in the wake of the Great Recession, the Occupy movement, the movement for Black Lives, and the campaigns of democratic socialists, recognizing “there is an
inextricable link between racism and capitalism,” to quote Princeton scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. They are winning elections, rushing into anticapitalist organizations, and exposing the myths of capitalism.
I keep using the term “anticapitalist” as opposed to socialist or communist to include the people who publicly or privately question or loathe capitalism but do not identify as socialist or communist. I use “anticapitalist” because conservative defenders of capitalism regularly say their liberal and socialist opponents are against capitalism. They say efforts to provide a safety net for all people are “anticapitalist.” They say attempts to prevent monopolies are “anticapitalist.” They say efforts that strengthen weak unions and weaken exploitative owners are “anticapitalist.” They say plans to normalize worker ownership and regulations protecting consumers, workers, and environments from big business are “anticapitalist.” They say laws taxing the richest more than the middle class, redistributing pilfered wealth, and guaranteeing basic incomes are “anticapitalist.” They say wars to end poverty are “anticapitalist.” They say campaigns to remove the profit motive from essential life sectors like education, healthcare, utilities, mass media, and incarceration are “anticapitalist.”
In doing so, these conservative defenders are defining capitalism. They define capitalism as the freedom to exploit people into economic ruin; the freedom to assassinate unions; the freedom to prey on unprotected consumers, workers, and environments; the freedom to value quarterly profits over climate change; the freedom to undermine small businesses and cushion corporations; the freedom from competition; the freedom not to pay taxes; the freedom to heave the tax burden onto the middle and lower classes; the freedom to commodify everything and everyone; the freedom to keep poor people poor and middle-income people struggling to stay middle income, and make rich people richer.
The history of capitalism—of world warring, classing, slave trading, enslaving, colonizing, depressing wages, and dispossessing land and labor and resources and rights—bears out the conservative definition of capitalism.
Liberals who are “
capitalist to the bone,” as U.S. senator Elizabeth Warren identifies herself, present a different definition of capitalism. “I believe in markets and the benefits they can produce when they work,” Warren said when asked what that identity meant to her. “I love the competition that comes with a market that has decent rules….The problem is when the rules are not enforced, when the markets are not level playing fields, all that wealth is scraped in one direction,” leading to deception and theft. “Theft is not capitalism,” Warren said. She has proposed a series of regulations and reforms that her conservative opponents class as “anticapitalist.” They say other countries that have these rules are not capitalist. Warren should be applauded for her efforts to establish and enforce rules that end the theft and level the playing field for, hopefully, all race-classes, not just the White middle class. But if Warren succeeds, then the new economic system will operate in a fundamentally different way than it has ever operated before in American history. Either the new economic system will not be capitalist or the old system it replaces was not capitalist. They cannot both be capitalist.
When Senator Warren and others define capitalism in this way—as markets and market rules and competition and benefits from winning—they are disentangling capitalism from theft and racism and sexism and imperialism. If that’s their capitalism, I can see how they can remain capitalist to the bone. However, history does not affirm this definition of capitalism. Markets and market rules and competition and benefits from winning existed long before the rise of capitalism in the modern world. What capitalism introduced to this mix was global theft, racially uneven playing fields, unidirectional wealth that rushes upward in unprecedented amounts. Since the dawn of racial capitalism, when were markets level playing fields? When could working people compete equally with capitalists? When could Black people compete equally with White people? When could African nations compete equally with European nations? When did the rules not generally benefit the wealthy and White nations? Humanity needs honest definitions of capitalism and racism based in the actual living history of the conjoined twins.
The top 1 percent now own around half of the world’s wealth, up from 42.5 percent at the height of the Great Recession in 2008. The world’s 3.5 billion poorest adults, comprising 70 percent of the world’s working-age population, own 2.7 percent of global wealth. Most of these poor adults live in non-White countries that were subjected to centuries of slave trading and colonizing and resource dispossessing, which created the modern wealth of the West. The wealth extraction continues today via foreign companies that own or control key natural resources in the global south, taken through force with the threat of “economic sanctions” or granted by “elected” politicians. Racial capitalism makes countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo one of the richest countries in the world belowground and one of the poorest countries in the world aboveground.
To love capitalism is to end up loving racism. To love racism is to end up loving capitalism. The conjoined twins are two sides of the same destructive body. The idea that capitalism is merely free markets, competition, free trade, supplying and demanding, and private ownership of the means of production operating for a profit is as whimsical and ahistorical as the White-supremacist idea that calling something racist is the primary form of racism. Popular definitions of capitalism, like popular racist ideas, do not live in historical or material reality. Capitalism is essentially racist; racism is essentially capitalist. They were birthed together from the same unnatural causes, and they shall one day die together from unnatural causes. Or racial capitalism will live into another epoch of theft and rapacious inequity, especially if activists naïvely fight the conjoined twins independently, as if they are not the same.
Y PARENTS WERE
worried. I felt alive when I moved into this Black neighborhood. I felt I needed to live around Black people in order to study and uplift Black people. Not just any Black people: poor Black people. I considered poor Blacks to be the truest and most authentic representatives of Black people. I made urban poverty an entryway into the supposedly crime-riddled and impoverished house of authentic Blackness.
For Lerone Bennett Jr., the longtime executive editor of
magazine, my identifying of poverty, hustling, criminality, sex, and gambling in the urban world as the most authentic Black world probably would have reminded him of the blaxploitation films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Black Power movement of the era, in shattering the White standard of assimilationist ideas, sent creative Black people on a mission to erect Black standards, a new Black aesthetic. Blaxploitation films arrived right on time, with Black casts, urban settings, and Black heroes and heroines: pimps, gangsters, prostitutes, and rapists.
Both of my parents saw
(1972) upon their release. But their Christian theology, even in its liberational form, halted them from seeing
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
in 1971. It was a movie about a male brothel worker who is brutalized by LAPD officers but then beats them up in retaliation, eludes a police manhunt in impoverished communities, uses his sexual prowess to secure aid from women, and reaches freedom in Mexico. “
I made this film for the Black aesthetic,” Melvin Van Peebles said. “White critics aren’t used to that. The movie is Black life, unpandered.”