BAR Book Forum: Destin Jenkins and Justin Leroy’s “Histories of Racial Capitalism”
Racial capitalism is insidious and malleable, and can adapt to nearly any political context.
“We must avoid treating racial capitalism as a metanarrative that explains inequality at every moment across vast historical contexts and experiences.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured authors are Destin Jenkins and Justin Leroy. Jenkins is the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of History at the University of Chicago. Leroy is Assistant Professor of History and codirector of the Mellon Research Initiative on Racial Capitalism at the University of California, Davis. Their co-edited book is Histories of Racial Capitalism.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Justin Leroy (JL): One of the intellectual and political challenges of the post-2016 United States has been figuring out how to describe the polarization of mainstream politics. From the perspective of the left, I think there’s a tendency to either collapse all differences between liberals and the far right (i.e. Biden is the same as Trump) or to overstate those differences in unproductive ways (i.e. Trump is apocalyptic but Biden is not). My hope is that by including such a diverse array of racial capitalism’s forms in the book, we can show readers that our political present represents competing visions of racial capitalism. It’s important not to gloss over these distinctions in form and see them as identical, and equally important to recognize them both as racial capitalism nonetheless. The book shows us how insidious and malleable racial capitalism has been historically, and how it can adapt to nearly any political context.
Destin Jenkins (DJ): Much has been said about the current climate. But still needed is a framework, or explanatory device, that helps us make sense of the relationship between public health and the economy, social justice and abject violence, policing and capitalism. Our book provides a ‘way of seeing’ the links between a global pandemic and a national epidemic of racial health disparities, economic immiseration amidst Wall Street’s peak performance, and why protests against policing can be met with yet greater calls for authoritarianism.
“Our book provides a ‘way of seeing’ the links between a global pandemic and a national epidemic of racial health disparities.”
There are, of course, existing frames that seek to do this. Take, for instance, “the system,” which emerged as a dominant metaphor among Black radicals during the 1960s. Those who wielded it sought to grasp and chastise the macabre intricacies of a malleable yet definitive structure in which Black folks fared poorly; a sort of catchall for the political, economic, and social dynamics that appeared to work lock-step against Black life. Referring to “the system” made sense given the ways in which municipal “Master Plans,” from Oakland to Detroit, along the East Coast and Southeast, became the basis for community destruction, and given the fierce debates over how, if at all, Black folks could make political elites responsive to their demands.
But we have to ask: is “the system” still an effective way to distill this—our—political moment? The same should be asked of other frames (“structural racism,” or even plain old “capitalism”). It follows that we must remain conscious of the moment when ‘racial capitalism’ has exhausted itself as an explanatory device.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
DJ: My hope is that they’ll agree that we must avoid treating racial capitalism as a metanarrative that explains inequality at every moment across vast historical contexts and experiences. Contingency matters, and it matters for at least two reasons.
First, as suggested by the plurality of the title (Histories), racial capitalism cannot be made synonymous with a single event, moment, or paradigmatic system of domination and resistance. Second, contending with the contingency of racial capitalism is key to identifying past and present levers of power. It allows us to ask how the specific configuration of racial capitalism during, say, the mid-twentieth century, shaped specific protest tactics and strategies that may not be effective in this present moment.
JL: Absolutely. Racial capitalism looks different in different times and places, and it’s important not to compare the different forms of racial capitalism in the present against some kind of pure, ideal form such as enslavement or Indigenous dispossession. That inevitably leads us to deciding some forms of racial capitalism are “better” or “worse” than others, and accepting some forms in order to criticize others. This is a particular challenge of the present moment. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are politically and socially one of the most liberal places in the country, yet also have some of the worst economic inequality. This dynamic can be summed up in the image of Black Lives Matter signs in the windows of businesses that are gentrifying neighborhoods and pushing out residents of color, or in the giant rock painted in rainbow flag colors sitting under an awning, put there to prevent houseless people sleeping in alcoves in commercial districts. While we need to name the open white supremacy of the American right as a form of racial capitalism to be fought at every turn, in doing so we cannot rehabilitate the forms of racial capitalism that are devastating “liberal” California as somehow not as bad.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
DJ: Taken together, the essays may help readers un-learn a leading theory of Black liberation, namely that of multi-cultural representation. I want to be clear not to disparage the efforts of scholars writing in the 1980s and 1990s who sought to expose students (and the wider public) to different experiences and viewpoints of non-European immigrants, and helped expand our theories of race and racism.
By the late 1990s (I’m thinking here of President Clinton’s 1997 Initiative on Race), though, this project was flattened into a call to ‘reach beyond the Black-white binary,’ turned into scorecards that marked progress among and across racial and ethnic groups, and reduced to an effort to increase representation in some areas, and decrease representation in other areas. It’s this numerical standard that informs the multi-cultural theory of change, or the common idea that the answer to inequality is through multi-cultural representation across American institutions. (Without, of course, rocking the foundations of racial capitalism, empire, etc.) But as we note in the “Introduction,” the limited inclusion and participation of racially marked populations through the extension of credit and political rights, the pervasive “racial” of racial capitalism recedes, entrenching itself through obfuscation.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
DJ: W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois’s commentary remains as prescient as ever, and his influence can be seen all throughout the edited volume, whether in Manu Karuka’s discussion of the counter-revolutionary settlement of the American Southwest, in my own discussion of “the propaganda of history” as a means of mobilizing investment capital, or in Ryan Jobson’s discussion of fossil capital.
I’m constantly floored by the multiplicity of methods Du Bois used to assert the humanity of Black people. Along with his essays, poems, and spirituals, there’s the Exposition des Negres d’Amerique; the remarkable set of infographics and data visualizations exhibited in Paris in 1900. (I’d highly recommend checking out these visualizations in, W.E.B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizaing Black America, edited by Whitney Battle-Baptise and Britt Rusert).
JL: Saidiya Hartman. The arresting power of her language shakes us out of conventional ways of thinking, and the poetry she brings to black life sets my mind on fire. I spent weeks thinking about her most recent book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments after reading it, and I teach her Lose Your Mother nearly every year.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
JL: Racial capitalism is highly resistant to destruction. It has survived what Atlantic slavery and Jim Crow apartheid could not. I’m not sure how much success we can have if our goal is simply to dismantle racial capitalism. Instead, I see this book as aligned with an abolitionist politics that is based on building the new rather than simply fighting defensive battles against the old. This is something the present-day prison and police abolitionist movement does better than the movement to end slavery—I think an important criticism of nineteenth century abolitionists is that even though they accomplished something almost unprecedented by forcing the United States to imagine a world without slavery, they didn’t always spend a lot of time envisioning what that world would look like, leaving an opening for racial capitalism to reconstruct itself in new ways from the remains of slavery.
“Racial capitalism has survived what Atlantic slavery and Jim Crow apartheid could not.”
DJ: The daunting, and urgent, task of imagining new worlds was not my ambition, and I say that for two reasons. For starters, I am still confronting the limits of my own imagination. I am more inclined to follow the lead of prison abolitionists, afro-futurist writers, and those who seek to adapt the eighteenth century tradition of mutual aid and altruistic exchange to a new tomorrow.
The other reason is that a central motivation behind the volume was to contend with the paradox of racial capitalism. Our sense is that the major ruptures of the modern world—from the formal end to the transatlantic slave trade to emancipation, from decolonization to the non-violent revolutions of the mid twentieth century—created new social, political, and economic opportunities, however fleeting. But it was also in these moments of rupture, in which racial capitalism was reproduced, in no small part by individual and institutions who hedged their bets that the ‘old’ was coming to pass, and adapted to that which emerged in its wake.
Roberto Sirvent is a teacher living in California.
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