The Capitalist Foundations of Racialization

By Charisse Burden-Stelly, Black Perspectives

Racialization—one process of regulating, organizing, and subjecting populations through capital and labor—is integral to and endemic in the capitalist world-system. It justifies superexploitation, extreme surplus value extraction, and resource expropriation for the purpose of accumulation and profit. “Whiteness” is gained and “Blackness” is produced through the construction of hierarchies in the capitalist world-system based on divisions of labor that affect access to resources. Global hierarchies based on racial difference justify inequitable distributions of resources, the destabilization of local self-sustaining economies, and the conscription of entire populations into global labor regimes.

In this way, racialization has persisted throughout the capitalist world-system and has fundamentally shaped the global political economy. Racialization is a global technology of power that produces what sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant—following Korean Marxist Harry Chang—call “racial formations.” The latter are always being reconfigured, reproduced, and redeployed in relationship to regimes of accumulation. While they evolve from prior forms, they must be considered in relationship to contemporary political realities, in a global context, and across historical time. According to sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox,

The slave trade was simply a way of recruiting labor for the purpose of exploiting the great natural resources of America. This trade did not develop because Indians and Negroes were red and black… but simply because they were the best workers to be found for the heavy labor in the mines and plantations across the Atlantic….This then, is the beginning of modern race relations. It was not an abstract, natural, or immemorial feeling of mutual antipathy between groups, but rather a practical exploitative relationship.

Here, Cox convincingly argued that racialization is inextricable from relations of exploitation and accumulation. Similarly, philosopher Charles W. Mills argued that the “Racial Contract” perpetuates “an economy structured around the racial exploitation of others” and entrenches European economic domination and white privilege through the expropriation of racialized labor. Colonization, enslavement, and imperialism forced other civilizations into the web of European development, closing off the possibility of independent or alternative means of development elsewhere. Though a few people of color are represented in the ruling elite, the Racial Contract continues to be rewritten so that whites control a disproportionate amount of global resources.

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