June 23, 2021 | 8 minutes read | Tags: Capitalism 101, Racial Capitalism

Capitalism 101 - Race

This third article in our Capitalism 101 series, ‘Race’ explores the idea of ‘racial capitalism’ by looking at the intersectional nature of oppression in capitalist society.

Capitalism 101 - Race

You can read the previous instalment, Class, Private Property and Wage Labour, here.

Racial Capitalism

You may have noticed that Red Fightback uses the term “racial capitalism” to describe the global economic and political system of our time. In this installment of the Capitalism 101 series, we will explore what is meant by this, and why we understand the fight against racial oppression and the fight against class oppression to be not only inseparable, but one and the same struggle.

In using the term racial capitalism, we are explicitly not saying that there are non-racial forms of capitalism. Quite the opposite. Capitalism inherently and from its origins is a system that depends on racial hierarchy.

This is because, as discussed in our previous 101, capitalism is just one historical iteration of class society. In all class societies, the ruling minority is sustained by the labour of the oppressed majority. This presents a challenge for the ruling class: how to prevent that majority from simply overpowering them. A key strategy ruling classes utilise in solving this problem is the stratification of the oppressed – to turn a portion of the oppressed class into the oppressors of other sections of the class, and thus destroy their capacity for solidarity. This is done through bribes, material and psychological. The upper strata of the oppressed classes are exploited less, face less violence, and are culturally celebrated – they are made to invest in the system of oppression because of the relative power, wealth and protections they are granted. Patriarchal and racial oppression are iterations of this social control strategy, as is the use of social democratic policies by the imperialist countries, to get their working classes invested in imperialism. In understanding that race is fundamental to class societies, we understand that all aspects of those societies must likewise be conditioned by race, including the state apparatus, systems of property ownership, and other structures of class oppression such as patriarchy and ableism.

This is why we say the fight against class oppression and the fight against racial oppression are one and the same. To be racially oppressed is to be an oppressed class within the oppressed class. The most exploited, the most brutalised. Race is a tool of categorisation, which designates which people are to bear the heaviest weights of class oppression – not only at the hands of the state, but also those of their own would-be class siblings. It is important that we understand racism as a function of class society, because otherwise we may get pulled into the psycho-social explanation, which claims that racism is a natural psychological response, derived from evolutionary preference for people who look like us. In naturalising racism, the psycho-social model must claim it is inevitable, and that nothing can be done to eliminate racial oppression (save perhaps ‘implicit-bias’ tests and liberal diversity training schemes.) Furthermore, any view of racism which reduces it to colourism, or natural hatred of people with phenotypic differences, is unable to account for historical instances of racial oppression amongst phenotypically similar groups, or for instances where racial hatred has not existed between groups with pronounced phenotypic differences. The only explanation that can account for all the historical variances, is to understand that race is used to structure a given group’s position in the class hierarchy – with a view to stabilising that hierarchy by materially dividing the oppressed classes.

The Invention of Whiteness

In his book Black Marxism, Cedric Robinson details how racialisation structured exploitation and expropriation in pre-capitalist Europe. Nordic and Aryan groups were racialised as superior, whereas Sinti, Roma and Jewish people were designated as of a lower class of person. This justified super-exploitation, enslavement, expulsion, theft of land and resources, and many instances of ethnic cleansing and colonial genocide. As capitalism came into being, these various racialisations were transformed to suit its purposes. The capitalist ruling classes did not invent the social control mechanism of racial division and hierarchy, but transformed them for the industrial age.

Robin Kelley, a theorist of racial capitalism, has described the most important event of its history as being the invention of white people. Prior to the colonisation of America by Europeans, ‘white’ people did not exist as a defined racial category. The people who would go on to become white, were at that time English, or Irish, or Spanish, or Nordic – the idea of a common white identity would have been meaningless to them. Nor were these various groups socially equal. Ireland had been a British colony for several hundred years, and the British had established racial oppression of the Irish, who were denied freedoms and property rights, and whose murder by an Englishman was considered a crime only insofar as it inflicted financial damage upon their masters. Here then we see an historical example of racial oppression with no reference to skin-colour – a death-blow to the psycho-social view of racism as in-group preference.

Marxist historian Theodore Allen describes the process of the Irish becoming white in the 1600s. In early American settlements, racial classifications were not equally enforced across social groups – white and Black indentured servants would live, work and socialise together. Allen demonstrates that the invention of whiteness was a ruling-class strategic response to solidarities between formerly racially oppressed working class Europeans and Black and indigenous people. There are numerous historical examples of white and Black labourers rebelling together, against the property-owning classes in the early colonial settlements. One example of such alliances was the 1675-1676 Bacon’s Rebellion; a wealthy white man from Virginia Colony, named Nathaniel Bacon, created a militia which united white and Black indentured servants and enslaved people, and launched repeated attacks against local indigenous tribes, leading to battles with the governor of the colony, and eventually to Bacon’s forces capturing the colonial capital of Jamestown. The power of this multi-racial alliance terrified the Virginian ruling classes. To flatten class solidarities between different groups, beginning in 1680 they began producing ‘slave codes’, consolidating whiteness as a racial category, and enshrining white superiority in law. The Virginia Slave Codes of 1705, for example, made it illegal for members of the emerging “white race” to work for Black people or themselves be slaves. Other slave codes denied Black people the right to travel, own arms, be educated, assemble together in public, or own property.

Whiteness as Property

Content warning: sexual violence

The word ‘property’ is important for understanding how race structures class. As we learned in the previous 101, class is based on one’s relationship to property – with the ruling class owning property, and the working class not. The slave codes created whiteness as a form of property, in which all people to whom whiteness was conferred had a stake. Having property in whiteness gave the owner protection from being designated as property themselves, prevented them from being enslaved, and gave them the right to own other forms of property. Whiteness creates class stratification amongst the working class, as it gives white sections of the class a form of property which they can use to accumulate capital, and like all forms of property, its value is dependent on the ability to exclude others from access. Having property in whiteness creates a material incentive to uphold white supremacy, so as to hold onto the various benefits it produces. There is nothing metaphorical about this – whiteness is a form of property from which value can be accumulated. Whiteness gives access to higher paid professions. In white neighbourhoods, housing values appreciate, whereas in Black neighbourhoods housing values depreciate. White slave owners could accumulate further property through the rape of Black women, whose children would themselves be his slaves – and it was his legally enshrined whiteness, and her Blackness, which facilitated this. Capital accumulation is structured by race.

The philosophical justifications for private property, from liberal theorists such as John Locke, were themselves created with the motive of defining indigenous rights to land out of existence. By only recognising European fixed agricultural practices as creating property in the land, British colonialists claimed that the land of the ‘New World’ was unspoiled, in its natural state, and therefore did not belong to anyone. As such we see that private property, the foundation of capitalism, was first conceptualised in a relation of racial and colonial domination and genocide.

Ideologies of racial supremacy

From this material basis of the class stratification of the oppressed, comes both the superstructural legal practices which support this division, and the ideologies of racial supremacy. To legitimise their strategy of racial oppression, and obscure the class motivation behind it, the ruling elites have historically conjured up myriad explanations for why some groups are inferior and others superior. Religion has fulfilled this function in numerous instances, with claims that the supremacy of one group or other is divinely ordained. Come the enlightenment, and religious arguments were falling out of favour. Instead now it was the ‘uncivilized’ nature of Indigenous Americans that created the moral need for a white civilizing mission. Phrenology and other race sciences were invented with a view to demonstrating the ‘natural’ inferiority of Black and other colonised people. A condition was even hypothesised – drapetomania – a mental illness caused by white masters treating enslaved Africans ‘too well’, thus disrupting their ‘natural submissiveness’, and causing them to run away. To this day, attempts to define race with reference to biology persist, and serve to obscure race as a social and class relation.

Contemporary liberals often lean into ‘culture’ as the more palatable iteration of race science for the modern age. Take for example the supposed patriarchal values of Islam, and therefore Islamic societies, which stand in opposition to the farcical imagination of a ‘feminist’ West, and thus demand a liberalising mission to the Middle East, where bombs and drones ‘liberate’ women from their burqas. Murderous policing of Black communities is still justified by a supposed ‘natural’ aggressiveness on the part of Black men, but now also by an ‘aggressive culture’ characterised by violent music and gangs. Over the past year, we have seen how claims about Chinese dietary practices being responsible for Covid-19 have led to a spike in sinophobic violence. Robin Kelley notes that ideologies of racial supremacy were created to obscure ruling class motives and soothe the white conscience, as only through the denigration of other peoples to a subhuman status could one commit the horrors of enslavement and genocide. For Black and Brown people to be colonised, they needed no ideological justification – as Kelley puts it, “bombs and tanks were enough.”


A liberal understanding of the relationship between race and class views race and class as distinct systems of disadvantage, which compound one another when they interact. Marxism, as we have shown, understands that there is one system: class society – and that class is structured along lines of race and gender. Whiteness and manhood are themselves property relations, which create class division amongst oppressed people.

Many Marxists have analysed racism as merely a set of ideologies used to divide workers. We have shown that this position is incorrect. Racial hierarchy is a tool of bribery and class stratification, used to create concrete material divisions between workers. It cannot therefore be overcome subjectively. We cannot merely reject the ideologies of racial supremacy, and then get down to the ‘real business’ of proletarian struggle against the bourgeoisie. We must first carry out anti-racist class struggle amongst the ranks of the working class.

Racism is the greatest single barrier to working class revolution in Britain. Race structures accumulation, exploitation and colonial violence across the world. So long as white members of the working class continue to accept the bribes of whiteness, they cannot participate in the struggle for emancipation, as their interests are set against the Black and Brown majority of the global working class.

We must therefore struggle relentlessly against racism and white supremacy within the workers movement. In our unions we must struggle against anti-migrant and nationalistic tendencies. In our housing campaigns, we must foreground the struggle against gentrification, whereby the lowering of property values in Black and Brown neighborhoods facilitates cheap land purchases by developers, who are then motivated to kick local people from their homes and replace them with white folk so that property values can once again appreciate. We must refuse the bribes of social democracy, which grant predominantly white workers in the imperial core with benefits paid for in the blood of the global south majority. We must fight whiteness as the property relation that it is, and as with private property, that means fighting for its total abolition.

What exists on the other side of this abolition is nothing less than the greatest freedom and security that humanity has ever experienced.

Suggested reading:

Allen, T. (1994). The Invention of the White Race. Vol I. New York. Verso.

Harris, C. (1993). Whiteness as Property. Harvard Law Review, Vol. 106, No. 8. P. 1707-1791.

Kelley, R. (2019). Race and the Making of the Global Capitalist Order. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32ZwK2Zlw1U. Published: 2nd May 2019. Accessed: 23rd June 2021.

Robinson, C. (2000). Black Marxism. The University of North Carolina Press.

In the next instalment of our ‘Capitalism 101’ series, we will be discussing gender. What is gender, where does it come from, and what does it do? What is the relationship between capitalism and gender?

Find the introduction to the series here and all the posts in the series here.