Robin D. G. Kelley-What is Racial Capitalism and Why Does it Matter?

What made North America unique as a settler society were slaves, the vast importation of African slaves, also the enslavement of Indigenous people, many of whom were exported to the Caribbean. There are three problems that settlers faced. Two of which were the dispossessing indigenous people and managing coerced African labor, who were stolen, prisoners, incarcerated. Racial slavery began at the point of capture it didn’t begin in America. The third aspect of management they faced was how to manage an unruly white working class, the rural poor, the people who were themselves dispossessed and colonized out of Ireland and brought over on a boat and ended up as indentured servants. Managing the white poor and the enslaved meant inclosure. Inclosure was easier in England rather than North America because there were no boundaries. There was a battle taking place in England over the commons. There was a real fear among colonial rulers that landless white people and the indentured servants would start to escape with the enslaved africans, and they started doing that. They started running away with Africans, they begin to join Maroon societies, they joined with native peoples. It was dangerous because suddenly white folks, who didn’t see any future for themselves as bonded labor, suddenly saw a future with Native peoples and Africans, an alternative to capitalist notions of production and class rule. The white rulers decided they had to do something about this. (Look out founding fathers, here you go Thomas Jefferson.) So, they developed certain discourses, like Indians were idol. It became a capitol crime for English to live with Indians. By the late 18th century, there were 1000’s of colonists, former indentured servants, who had ran away and became “new made” Indians meaning they became hunters, fishers, gatherers, etc. The ruling class got around the problem by extending land grants to white people effectively ending forms of white bondage. White bondage would have probably continued had it not been for this pressure.

This “freeing” of forms of white bondage, the creation of a settler class, turning them into citizens and property owners was key to making them “white”, free and settlers, which allowed them to identify with the ruling regimes. They didn’t see themselves as capitalists at this time. They came to see non-white labor as inferior and subordinate, whose interests were not linked to theirs. They also saw non-white labor as an obstacle to their revolution as a proletariat. Eventually by identifying as settlers, they saw them selves as future capitalists, future slave holders, and future captains of industry.


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