Arguments for and Against Capitalism in the Black Intellectual Tradition

In the 20th century, there were Black thinkers who fully embraced the market economy as the most plausible institution for Black progress.

There is a popular view arguing that racial repression and other American institutions are so enmeshed with each other that it is impossible to separate them. Our politics, our economy—everything—is complicit in perpetuating the subjugation of African Americans. In the popular media, this view was best expressed in Ibram Kendi’s bestseller How to Be an Antiracist, which bluntly stated that anti-racism and anti-capitalism are really the same thing. On page 161, Kendi writes, “To love capitalism is to love racism.” Among academic writers, this view is often associated with intersectional theorists, who often argue that racial inequality is “co-constituted” with economic inequality and capitalist repression.

There is a different tradition within Black thought that frames Black participation in the market economy as something to be reformed, not rejected. A good place to start is with the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. Throughout his life, Douglass had a complicated, and often contradictory, approach to the market economy. At times, he would take on a populist tone, decrying capitalists and calling for their downfall. However, Douglass seemed to eventually settle on the view that being part of industrial society was the path for African Americans and adopted a reformist tone. The progressive historian Waldo E. Martin, Jr. notes this tendency in The Mind of Frederick Douglass, one of the most extensive overviews of Douglass’ writings. Martin states that Douglass “insinuated that regardless of race, the capitalist, not the Negro was the class enemy of laborers.” Martin does concede that Douglass thought that racism and capitalism were “separable” and “amenable to reform.”

Pro-capitalist Black thinkers like Douglass and Williams see wealth as a fundamental factor in human flourishing.

Furthermore, Douglass appeared to have rejected the socialist vision that was emerging in 19th America and Europe. For example, when a speaker at one of Douglass’ speeches compared wage labor to chattel slavery, Douglass simply said, “nonsense” and then argued that it is the duty of people to work so they can support themselves in the future. While Douglass thought that capitalists did exploit workers, Black and White, he was not willing to abolish the market economy in favor of a centralized command economy. Industrial society needed reform, not revolution.

In the 20th century, there were Black thinkers who went beyond Douglass’ reform position and fully embraced the market economy as the most plausible institution for Black progress. One such writer is the late economist Walter Williams (1936-2020). He saw things in a different light than Douglass. Rather than see the relationship between capitalists and workers as something in need of reform, he frequently focused on how state regulations might hinder the accumulation of Black wealth. He critiqued the various regulations that made it difficult for Blacks to participate in jobs that would provide them with a stable income.

In his 1982 book, The State Against Blacks, Williams reviewed the regulations that make it quite challenging for Blacks, and other minorities, to drive a taxi, work at a railroad, or get a plumbing license. The chapter on taxi regulations in New York City is damning. In the early 1980s, he notes, the funds needed to obtain a car, pay for insurance, and other costs was about $5,000, which corresponds to about $13,000 today. Not a trivial cost, but neither is it prohibitive. However, New York taxi drivers must obtain a “medallion” that allows them to legally give rides. These medallions can be prohibitively expensive. In 2014, the market value of a taxi medallion rose to an all-time high of about $1.4 million, and various efforts have been made, unsuccessfully, to reform this system. Not surprisingly, few African Americans own a New York taxi medallion.

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Williams then reviews how the unintended consequences of the medallion system are often shouldered by minorities. Those who can’t afford a medallion often resort to an underground economy. Because they are not in the legal economy, minority taxi drivers are often subject to robbery. Williams cites a study that estimates that approximately 70 percent of taxi robberies occur in Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods in New York. According to Williams, not only does the medallion system de facto prohibit many low income African Americans from owning their own transportation business, the illegality of their work makes them easy targets for criminals. Taxi cab drivers without medallions will be hesitant to seek police protection. 

What is the difference between sympathetic capitalist Black writers like Douglass and Williams and anti-capitalists like Kendi? It can’t be the fact that Douglass and Williams were not aware of racial discrimination or the destructive legacy of slavery. Rather, they have a fundamentally different view of wealth and well-being. Pro-capitalist Black thinkers like Douglass and Williams see wealth as a fundamental factor in human flourishing. For them, “wealth” is just the term we use to describe the material things that make our life better, from food, to medicine, to entertainment. Market economies are good at producing those things. Thus, the problem is that African Americans have been excluded from economic institutions that benefit Whites. African Americans need to be in the market, not avoid it. In contrast, critics like Kendi see material wealth as something tainted, or delegitimized, by racial repression. 

Another large difference is that both Douglass and Williams have a very negative view of the socialist alternative. Douglass was quite aware of the socialist movement that was gaining popularity in Europe and elsewhere and he did not have kind words to say about this political development. Williams had the benefit of living in a time when the failures of socialism were apparent. Not only did socialist economies fail to deliver material goods, these states were extremely repressive toward ethnic minorities. The Soviets starved the Ukraine, the Chinese state continues to repress the Uighur minority, and Cuba has a long history of repressing its LGBT citizens and persistent Black-White inequality. 

This long and bloody history of socialist repression of minorities is barely mentioned in How to Be an Antiracist. The Soviet Union is never mentioned, nor is the Chinese state’s repression of Muslim groups. A single page (p. 159) notes that Afro-Cubans are unequal with White Cubans, which Kendi sees as the need for another call for antiracism: “Antiracist policies cannot eliminate class racism without antiracism. Case in point is the persistent racism Afro-Cubans faced in socialist Cuba after revolutionaries eliminated capitalism there in 1959, as chronicled by historian Devyn Spence Benson. Revolutionaries demanded Afro-Cubans assimilate into an imagined post-racial Cuba—‘Not Blacks, but Cubans’—built on White Cuban social norms and racist ideas after a three-year campaign against racism abruptly ended in 1961.” He does not draw the conclusion that might appear obvious to others. If a society literally abolishes capitalism and most private property, but remains repressive, perhaps market economies are not the primary, or sole, institution generating and enforcing racial and ethnic repression.

Juxtaposing Kendi, Douglass, and Williams reveals a genuine conflict of vision. On the one hand, Kendi, and others who write in an intersectional vein, see modernity as a battlefield, a zero-sum game where one group uses all its might to relentlessly extract all value from others. Economic production is simply one arena of the conflict. In contrast, other thinkers, like Douglass and Williams, see economic production as an incredibly important tool, and perhaps the only tool, for avoiding massive poverty and making human life more bearable. Then, the point is not to undermine markets, but to make sure that African Americans can be part of the process.

Fabio Rojas is a Professor of Sociology at Indiana University Bloomington and Editor of Contexts Magazine.

This article was originally published on Heterodox Academy, and is reprinted with permission.