- Ishani Sharma
UNMASKING THE ROLE OF RACE AND RACISM IN THE GLOBAL POLITICAL ECONOMY
Updated: Feb 1, 2022
In the wake of rising xenophobia around the world, as evidenced by the recent anti-Asian crimes in the United States, riots targeting Muslims in the Indian capital, and racialized police brutality that has gained much attention with the Black Lives Matter movement. This article seeks to highlight the obvious – albeit masked – role of race in the global political economy. It will be argued that the global political economy hinges on entrenched racial inequalities and a racialised division of labour. To justify the proposed argument, this article will proceed in two parts. First, it will make explicit the correlation between historical processes of racialised oppression and economic production, while also asserting that the legacies of racialized oppression form the foundation of the modern global economy. Second, arguing that racialised modes of production are critical to the smooth operation of capitalism, it will outline the modern structures sustaining and reinforcing racial inequalities in today’s political economy.
From the transatlantic slave trade to the colonisation of the global south, oppression on the grounds of race has characterised much of the world’s history. It is worth noting that these historical processes of racialised exploitation share a common underlying motive of economic production and maximisation of profits. As cogently illustrated by Cedric Robinson (2000), colonialism in Ireland, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas conditioned the twin motors of the transatlantic political economy: slave plantations and industrial manufacturing. Although it reflected white supremacy, the inhumane slave trade from West Africa to the Americas was carried out to acquire cheap labour for the plantation economy, which served the consumption demands of Europe and the Americas. Moreover, the slave trade signified a racialised division of labour in which Africans were mercilessly shipped to plantation sites to perform arduous, manual labour while the returns were reaped by the white Americans and Europeans who were ostensibly the ‘owners’ in this division. A similar pattern of racial division of labour was observable in European colonies, where native people were used to provide physical labour for the extraction of raw materials, which were then sent to the colonizing country for production, eventually contributing towards its industrialisation. Clearly, colonialism was motivated by the maximisation of profits through the racial exploitation of native land, resources, and labour which subsequently resulted in these racialised modes of production accounting for a large portion of British and American prosperity. Notwithstanding that, the slave trade and imperialism were both systems of extreme racial oppression, their linkages with economic production and disproportionate distribution of returns insinuate the pivotal role played by race in the global economy.
The oppression-based economic production did not end with decolonisation and the abolition of slavery, but instead with the enclosure movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, which granted common lands to landlords and resulted in the expansion of private property; it simply transformed into capitalism. Capitalism is an expropriative process that rests on capital accumulation by the bourgeoisie through exploitation of the working class in the forms of lower wages and disproportionate returns. However, as Robinson emphasises in Black Marxism, capitalism is more than just a class conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat; it emerges from a racialised division in which ethnic characteristics are folded into classed identities. He coined the term ‘racial capitalism’ to express the pervasive racial inequality that is not only a feature of capitalism, but also its cornerstone. “The violent dispossessions inherent to capital accumulation operate by leveraging, intensifying, and creating racial distinctions” and capitalism, as an economic model, is used to rationalise the resource and power disparities that were produced by years of racialised oppression.
Proponents of capitalism support a free market, which supposedly offers a level playing field where each individual, regardless of their group, has an equal chance at success and where everyone should act in their own self-interest for the benefit of all. That being said, Smith and his fellow pro-capitalists fail to recognise the long legacy of oppression faced by racialised groups who – in the absence of adequate reparations – do not lie on the same level as their oppressors. The fact that “nations that have been victims of European colonial projects, often in the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, fall among the very poorest of all nations in the twenty-first century”, bolsters the claim that racialised dispossession of the past continues to influence the present conditions of those racialised groups.
Another prominent example of the agonizing legacy of racialised repression is the condition of black Americans who were left to begin a new life with hardly any income and no wealth after the end of Reconstruction in 1876. Also, white vigilantism in the south led to the lynching of Blacks even until the 1960s. Even though the slaves were ‘free’, without any property, wealth or security, they could not essentially be free from the institutional setting of slavery, which rendered them inferior to their white counterparts. Consequently, inequalities between the formerly oppressed and the former oppressors soared. As rightly argued by Yates, “the children of poor parents are a lot less likely to end up rich than those whose parents are rich,” which explains the wide disparity in the net worth: in 2016, the median net worth of black households was $12,920, 9% of that of whites, for whom it was $143,600. Furthermore, in 2019, of all those employed in management, professional, and related occupations (the highest-paying major occupation group), 79% were white, compared to the 9.6% of black workers. Owing to the inherited legacy of racialised oppression, it is fair to assert that being a Black American, in and of itself, is a social and economic disadvantage. Even though slavery and colonialism have formally ended, the institutional setting of the racialised division of labour in which they flourished has continued till this day.
After accentuating the perpetual influence of historical racial oppression on the dynamics of the current political economy, which is marked by inherited racial inequalities, this article will now turn its attention to the contemporary structures that uphold and reinforce the racialised division of labour. As put forth by Marx, the relative surplus population (RSP), consisting of the unemployed and underemployed workers in a population, serves as a crucial component of capital accumulation and is indispensable for the growth of capitalism. To elaborate on Marx’s argument, RSP is used as leverage to limit workers’ demands for higher wages since they face the threat of easy replacement. “Surplus populations work the dark underbelly of capitalism, its backstage operations where cheap and irregular labour is used up in the search for hyper profit”, ensuring the dominance of capital owners over the system. Robinson (2000), while agreeing with Marx, highlights the racialised nature of RSP, which serves to maintain the ‘othering’ of racialised groups through a division of labour that confines them to manual work. This is exemplified by the low percentage of Black workers in the American managerial and professional industries, as noted above, and as Yates indicates, “black people... are overrepresented in jobs with relatively low wages and underrepresented in higher-paying jobs”, forming a major part of the RSP.
This pattern of racialised RSP is not unique to the United States but is rather a depressing feature of the global economic system. Colonialism, like slavery, left a legacy of racial inequality between the world’s north and south by dispossessing the colonies of their natural resources and wealth. As a result, the newly decolonised countries were plagued by extreme poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment, as evidenced by the above-mentioned fact that the previously colonised countries constitute the poorest of all nations. Unemployment and poverty in their home countries, accelerated by rapid globalisation, resulted in large-scale migration to the developed countries, creating a racialised working class in those countries and fuelling the racialisation of the surplus population. This results in a racialised organisation of industries based on ethnic identities. As Oyogoa correctly summarises: “white men from core countries are at the top of the workplace hierarchy and are racialised as possessing the qualities necessary for leadership and dominance over others, while workers from peripheral nations are racialised as naturally suited for servility”. Furthermore, the racialised migrant working class, which frequently lacks a public voice, serves as a cheap and disposable labour force that fosters capitalism’s purpose of extracting value from workers without providing proportionate returns.
Despite the fact that the labour provided by racialised migrants is necessary for the functioning of these capitalist societies, it is often troublesome for them to provide adequate housing and welfare for these groups, which leads to a racialised difference in cities where the migrants and refugees live in cluttered slums, while the native elites own multiple, fancy residences. This obvious polarity in global cities resemble racialisation in colonial towns, where European colonisers built mesmerising homes with large backyards while colonised natives lived in clustered dwellings riddled with disease and unhygienic conditions. Racialised RSP, and the consequent racialisation in housing and welfare, reflects the racialised division of labour that governs the global political economy.
Aside from racialised migration, the establishment of a state based on the neoliberal economic model, along with the dismantling of state welfare and the propagation of market-oriented governance, resulted in the formation of a security state that fosters migrant deportation, extensive policing and mass incarceration. Through the American example, this article will explain how mass incarceration in neoliberal states is based on, and maintains, racism and racial inequality. The era of mass imprisonment, exemplified by the ‘war on drugs campaign’ has profound effects on American social and economic inequality. Interestingly, Blacks and Hispanics account for nearly two-thirds of the state prison population, demonstrating how racial disparities pervade the penal system and further deepens social disadvantages. As previously discussed, being a racial minority in capitalist societies is, in and of itself, an economic disadvantage, which explains why Blacks and Hispanics in America are poorer than their White counterparts. A reduction in social welfare due to the market-oriented governance model and extreme racially-inherited poverty may serve as a motivating factor for these groups to commit theft or robbery for subsistence, leading to their high incarceration rate. However, entrenched inequality in the prison system is demonstrated by Black people being almost six times more likely to be imprisoned than White people and usually serving longer sentences for the same crime. Furthermore, the racial bias that labels the Black community and other ethnic minorities as ‘dangerous’ and ‘aggressive’ exposes them to institutional racism and police brutality. In addition to the racialised basis for mass incarceration of ethnic groups, the expanding prison industrial complex tends to confine them to their inherited inferior social status by restricting their upliftment. Incarceration not only affects these groups by disproportionately arresting them for minor offences, but it also has a long-term effect on their lives after they are released. “The stigma of a criminal conviction and the reduced human capital from time out of the labour force... limits the kinds of jobs that are available to formerly incarcerated workers,” as high-skilled, professional, and managerial roles are commonly out of reach for employees with criminal records due to a lack of necessary social ties. Not only that, former inmates are even denied access to certain welfare benefits, exacerbating the problem of illiteracy and poverty, and creating a “secondary labour market in which employment is precarious and there are few prospects for mobility,” resembling the relative surplus population that fuels the existence of capitalism. It is asserted, thus, that these modern structures of mass incarceration and RSP are inextricably connected, and help to perpetuate the systemic setting of profit-driven processes of racialised, economic repression.
To sum up, it is concluded that the global political economy has always been and continues to be racialised since it is based on racial inequality and a racialised division of labour. Examining the economic and profit motives of slavery and colonialism as historical systems of racialised oppression, it is explicit that race has always played a role in the global economy. Furthermore, the repercussions of racial trauma continue to haunt these communities in the form of poverty, illiteracy, and underdevelopment. It is maintained that the legacy of racial exploitation in the past is preserved and reinforced by modern structures of racialised relative surplus population, which is the foundation of capitalist economies, and mass incarceration in neoliberal, security states, which disproportionately affects racial minorities. By restricting the opportunities available to racialised groups, these systems retain the institutional setting of a racialised division of labour. To introduce the much needed changes in the political economy, it is essential that the role played by race and racism is brought to the fore.
 Robinson, C. (2000). The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press).  Marx, K. (1867). Das Kapital, a Critique of Political Economy (Chicago: H. Regnery).  Robinson, C. (2000). The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press).  Jenkins, D. and Leroy, J. (2021). “Introduction: The Old History of Capitalism” in D. Jenkins and J. Leroy (eds), Histories of Racial Capitalism (New York City: Columbia University Press), pp. 1-26.  Smith, A. (1776). The Wealth of Nations (Oxford, Oxford University Press).  Bhattacharayya, G. (2018). Rethinking Racial Capitalism: Questions of Reproduction and Survival (Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield).  Yates, M.D. (2020). “It’s Still Slavery by Another Name”, Monthly Review, 72 (1), pp.40-50.  “Figure 1. Real Median Household Income by Race and Hispanic Origin: 1967 to 2017,” Current Population Survey, 1968 to 2018 Annual Social and Economic Supplements, U.S. Census Bureau.  The Employment Situation—January 2020,” News Release, U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics, U.S. Department of Labour.  Marx, K. (1867). Das Kapital, a Critique of Political Economy (Chicago: H. Regnery).  Rajaram, P.K. (2018). “Refugees as Surplus Population: Race, Migration and Capitalist Value Regimes”, New Political Economy, 23 (5), pp. 627-639.  Yates, M.D. (2020). “It’s Still Slavery by Another Name”, Monthly Review, 72 (1), pp.40-50.  Oyogoa, F. (2016). “Cruise Ships: Continuity and Change in the World System”, Journal of World-Systems Research, 22 (1), pp. 31-37.  Yates, M.D. (2020). “It’s Still Slavery by Another Name”, Monthly Review, 72 (1), pp.40-50.  Lopez, G. (2015). Mass incarceration in America, explained in 22 maps and charts. Available at https://www.vox.com/2015/7/13/8913297/mass-incarceration-maps-charts [Accessed 26 Mar. 2021].  Western, B. (2007). “Mass Imprisonment and Economic Inequality”, Social Research: An International Quarterly, 74 (2), pp. 509-532.  Western, B. (2007). “Mass Imprisonment and Economic Inequality”, Social Research: An International Quarterly, 74 (2), pp. 509-532.
Bhattacharayya, G. (2018). Rethinking Racial Capitalism: Questions of Reproduction and Survival (Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield).
“Figure 1. Real Median Household Income by Race and Hispanic Origin: 1967 to 2017,” Current Population Survey, 1968 to 2018 Annual Social and Economic Supplements, U.S. Census Bureau.
Jenkins, D. and Leroy, J. (2021). “Introduction: The Old History of Capitalism” in D. Jenkins and J. Leroy (eds), Histories of Racial Capitalism (New York City: Columbia University Press), pp. 1-26.
Lopez, G. (2015). Mass incarceration in America, explained in 22 maps and charts. Available at https://www.vox.com/2015/7/13/8913297/mass-incarceration-maps-charts [Accessed 26 Mar. 2021].
Marx, K. (1867). Das Kapital, a Critique of Political Economy (Chicago: H. Regnery).
Oyogoa, F. (2016). “Cruise Ships: Continuity and Change in the World System”, Journal of World-Systems Research, 22 (1), pp. 31-37.
Rajaram, P.K. (2018). “Refugees as Surplus Population: Race, Migration and Capitalist Value Regimes”, New Political Economy, 23 (5), pp. 627-639.
Robinson, C. (2000). The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press).
Smith, A. (1776). The Wealth of Nations (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
The Employment Situation—January 2020,” News Release, U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics, U.S. Department of Labour.
Western, B. (2007). “Mass Imprisonment and Economic Inequality”, Social Research: An International Quarterly, 74 (2), pp. 509-532.
Yates, M.D. (2020). “It’s Still Slavery by Another Name”, Monthly Review, 72 (1), pp.40
Cover Image: Source
About the author: Ishani Sharma is a second-year undergraduate student at the Jindal School of International Affairs pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs. Her areas of interest include human rights, international diplomacy, and geopolitical dynamics