Is Capitalism Racist? | The New Yorker


At the World’s Fair of 1904, hosted by St. Louis, Johnson finds a literal exhibit of this enduring legacy: an elaborate celebration of the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase that was “designed to domesticate the restive immigrant workers of St. Louis by turning them into white people,” and to insure white workers’ “proper alignment with the course of freedom-through-capitalism and imperial progress.” Such racial capitalism led to the city’s most notorious incident of racial violence before Ferguson, the East St. Louis massacre of 1917, which left dozens of black people dead and thousands more displaced, and which was sparked by the hiring of black replacement workers during an aluminum-ore processors’ strike. “The white workers of East St. Louis kept on somehow believing that the city belonged to them rather than their corporate overlords,” Johnson writes. “They believed it with such force and passion, such a sense of beleaguered entitlement, that when the time came, they would prove more than willing to kill for it.” And this massacre, Johnson says, “forecast” a series of violent post-First World War incidents in other American cities.

Indeed, as Johnson moves through the twentieth century, he consistently treats what are often taken to be national trends as toxic gifts from St. Louis. In the early years of the century, St. Louis voters passed one of the country’s first public referendums to institute residential segregation. Later, the city made copious use of restrictive covenants that barred black home buyers from white neighborhoods; the 1948 Supreme Court opinion that declared restrictive covenants legally unenforceable—a decision that was widely ignored—originated in St. Louis. Harland Bartholomew, the St. Louis version of mid-century urban master planners like Robert Moses, used his “malign genius” to become “the segregation and suburbanization czar of the United States.” The bulldozing of black neighborhoods that looked to whites like slums (such as the one where the Gateway Arch now stands) and their partial replacement by high-rise public-housing projects, aggressive policing, mass incarceration, and the use of business-friendly, community-unfriendly tax abatements to revitalize older cities—all this, in Johnson’s telling, was pioneered in St Louis.

Racial capitalists conquered the West; racial capitalists waged the Civil War; racial capitalists industrialized St. Louis, and then deindustrialized it, at every step exploiting black people just as brutally as slaveholders did. It’s a big, all-explanatory theory that is serviced by the tone of Johnson’s account, which is forcefully didactic at every moment. “The Broken Heart of America” is a history populated by good guys and bad guys—many more of the latter. Johnson doesn’t hesitate to use terms that didn’t exist at the time to describe the motivations of historical actors: “genocide,” “settler colonialism,” “ethnic cleansing”—terms given a honed edge by being relieved of historical specificity. Even one of the few entities he approves of, an “urban guerrilla” organization called ACTION, which staged public demonstrations to protest, for example, the lack of black construction workers hired to build the Gateway Arch, in the mid-nineteen-sixties, is reprimanded for being “racist, sexist, and heteronormative” in its embrace of the view “that a male breadwinner was the keystone figure of healthy Black family life.”

Johnson’s propensity for pasting condemnatory labels on his characters displays a concern that, without his firm guidance, readers may not draw the proper conclusions from the material he is presenting. He is disinclined to describe any situation as ambiguous. In the case of Michael Brown, Johnson doesn’t hesitate to call it a murder. Darren Wilson, he suggests, stopped Brown for jaywalking, and then, “after a short scuffle in the street, Brown ran away. When Wilson shot him, several witnesses later asserted, Brown had his hands raised in the air.” Johnson is polite about the Obama Justice Department’s 2015 report on the Ferguson police department’s systemic racial bias, but only in the endnotes does he mention the Justice Department’s second, simultaneously issued report, on the incident itself, which concluded that the facts of the case didn’t warrant federal prosecution. Giving particular weight to witnesses whose testimony was consistent with the forensic evidence, investigators concluded that Wilson heard of a robbery at a local market, that Brown reached into Wilson’s car and tussled with him, and that Brown was approaching Wilson when he was fatally shot. (Many of these points are intensely in dispute.) Without addressing the specifics, Johnson writes that the report “is, at best, a legalistic restatement of the extraordinary latitude provided police officers who shoot unarmed people in the United States and, at worst, a complete misunderstanding of the full circumstances surrounding the shooting.”

In the craft of history, tendentiousness is an ever-present temptation; Johnson is as insistently moralizing in his way as previous generations of romantic, heroic historians of the West were in theirs. A story centered on a transhistorical force of oppression—spotlighting St. Louis as the capital of racial capitalism—offers an all-encompassing explanation but doesn’t leave much room for racism untethered from capitalism or capitalism untethered from racism. Other scholars have found different ways of explaining the same parlous present-day conditions in distressed black neighborhoods. James Forman, Jr., in “Locking Up Our Own” (2017), showed how a series of late-twentieth-century policing and sentencing techniques, widely endorsed by tough-on-crime public officials, black and white, wound up putting many more black people in prison and making things worse in black communities. In “The Origins of the Urban Crisis” (1996), a work centered on postwar Detroit, the historian Thomas Sugrue insisted on an approach to urban history that took into account a range of factors, including not obviously racial ones like deindustrialization; in its introduction, he wrote, “The coincidence and mutual reinforcement of race, economics, and politics in a particular historical moment, the period from the 1940s to the 1960s, set the stage for the fiscal, social, and economic crises that confront urban America.” The implication of these books is that significant policy changes would help black communities. They have that in common with many previous books about urban black America in the twentieth century, including the greatest of them all, St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s “Black Metropolis,” from 1945. Johnson, impatient with such particularity, always goes both smaller, in the sense of depicting St. Louis as a fulcrum of history, and bigger, in the sense of making racial capitalism an eternal, all-powerful force, floating free of any specific time or place.

The idea that racism can be connected to capitalism has been around for a long time; the question is how the connection works, and whether the two are inextricable. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his great speech on the steps of the Alabama statehouse at the conclusion of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, in 1965, said, “The segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land.” King was at that moment pushing for the passage of the Voting Rights Act and other civil-rights legislation, so he had a reason to locate the nexus of race and capitalism specifically in the Southern Jim Crow system. Within a year, he was leading demonstrations against slumlords in hyper-segregated Chicago, and advocating new forms of national legislation, like the Fair Housing Act. In 2018, more than ninety per cent of African-American voters in Missouri cast their ballots against Josh Hawley, the victorious Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate; Hawley now presents himself as a critic of global capitalism without ever mentioning race. It’s possible to be anti-capitalist without being anti-racist, and anti-racist without being anti-capitalist. Johnson might say that both positions are deluded, but they have appeared regularly in our country’s history.


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