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Capitalism and Racism: A symbiotic relationship?

Malcolm X once said “You can’t have capitalism without racism.” Exactly how much truth is there to the sentence? Is there a link between these two socio-economic concepts, even? Capitalism is an economic concept, which advocates for freedom of opportunities, whereas racism is a social idea which is based on prejudice. At the surface, they couldn’t be further apart. But if we dig deep, we find that they have one common thing, which is the fundamental for both: an oppressed society. But to understand this, we have to go back to 15th century Europe, which arguably was the birthplace of capitalism, and see how racism comes into play, especially in the United States of America.


The definitive incident which marked the rise of a new, entrepreneurial socio-economic system was the break-up of the European village, thus reducing feudalism into a nominal order. Feudal fragmentation, class struggle, technological innovation, rapid civilization and most importantly, an expanding market, amongst other reasons, are some. The expanding market was facilitated by maritime trade and increased commodification of goods.


However, the very fundamental law of economics states that resources are scarce, whereas their utility is practically infinite. Grappling with a short supply of labor and land, and increased demand for mercantile activities, European states set out to trade with foreign countries such as India and Indonesia. Increased maritime activity was also facilitated by seafarers setting out to explore the New World, which was a facade for finding and creating new colonies elsewhere. Before Europe embarked on this mission proto-capitalist societies were roughly comparable across the three continents, that is, Europe, Asia and Africa. Major cities throughout had proportionate populations and similar business techniques. Even means of production, maritime techniques and level of output were commensurate. Thus there is no evidence to suggest that capitalism was solely unique to European states. However, it can be argued that the rise of capitalism led to colonialism. And with this, came a significant turning point in world history: Europe’s conquest of the Americas.


After the decimation of the Red Indians, colonists were left with vast amounts of land. However, there was an acute shortage of labor supply. Thus, Africans were shipped to America, as slaves. 1619 marked the beginning of the African slave trade in the United States. Consequently, the entire slavery enterprise was founded upon the framework of racial prejudice. Slavery and slave trade were major components of the American free enterprise system of the 18th and early 19th centuries and the ideology of racism was simply a convenient prop with which to support and justify the system. In a larger context, it was the basis for business, globally. Racism and imperialism were at the heart of forced expatriation of Africans to the New World, and the United States was an accomplice in this enterprise. One theory which explains this correlation between racism and capitalism is the Social Dominance Theory (SDT), which itself is a derivative of Social Dominance Orientation (SDO). SDO is defined as: “[the] desire to have one’s own most salient social group, however defined, be dominant over, better than or superior to any relevant outgroup(s)”. This is coherent throughout different social contexts and cultures. Both capitalism and racism have one thing in common: a desire for superiority over an oppressed populace. The black person’s value system was irrelevant to the mechanics of a capitalist society.


Fast forward five centuries, we see how much this dynamic affects the world we live in. It is no surprise that given the United States’ turbulent legacy of racial denigration and oppressive capitalism, it affects the politics of the country that leads the free world. Barack Obama’s election and re-election marked the presidency of the first African-American citizen. This was widely seen as a progressive step, converging towards a future with no racial inequality. However, it was also stained with racist sentiments from white middle-aged working class. Barack Obama received the lowest share of the white vote, at 39%, by any winning presidential candidate in U.S. history, when he was campaigning against Mitt Romney in 2012. Obama was campaigning for his second term, so understandably his policy repercussions were reflected in voter choice. However, racial resentment may have resulted in Obama losing up to five percentage points. This demonstrates the significant role of racial attitudes in U.S democracy. The very candidacy of Obama sparked racial resentment, just because of who he was as a person. Non-white votes played an impactful role in the 2012 elections, with 71% of Latinos and 93% of African-Americans voting for Obama.


Republican candidates have used racial resentment to appeal to many white working-class voters, resulting in a major shift of southern whites to the Republican Party. Presidential candidates do exploit the tension between blacks and whites, when they phrase racial stereotypes as the root of major problems. Donald Trump exploited this in 2016 with his Muslim ban, thus blaming the activities of ISIS on all the Muslims. This resentment, although not as overt, is the successor for biological racism that was prevalent till half a century ago. In Obama’s first year of presidency, racial resentment manifested itself politically as the Tea Party. It was driven by white racial backlash, under the pretext of fiscal conservatism and an all-new, grassroots movement. Another symptom of this resentment was fuelled by increasing racial tension and Donald Trump’s birther controversy, with the Muslim community facing a lot of backlash, and becoming the new “African-American” in terms of social indignation.


The impact of racial resentment affecting national decisions stretches far and wide, and there are too many examples which are beyond the scope of this article. However, we link two very basic human desires: greed and dominance, which are reflected in capitalism and racism respectively. Thus, the rise of a capitalist society five centuries back led to colonization of the USA, which in turn created racism as a tool to fulfill its ever-growing demands. Therefore we see how capitalism and racism enable each other, in a symbiotic relationship. The wheels which facilitated maritime trade were lubricated by the sweat of the black man, five centuries back. Today, the white man fears that the societies they oppressed may finally burst out, and thus elect dangerous leaders like Trump. And that leads to an increasingly polarized world, a world in which we live.

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