Racism: From Slavery to Advanced Capitalism


Carter A. Wilson

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  • Sage Series on Race and Ethnic Relations

    Series Editor:


    University of California at Davis

    This series is designed for scholars working in creative theoretical areas related to race and ethnic relations. The series will publish books and collections of original articles that critically assess and expand upon race and ethnic relations issues from American and comparative points of view.


    • Robert Blauner
    • Ruth S. Hamilton
    • Rebecca Morales
    • Jomills H. Braddock II
    • Dell Hymes
    • Chester Pierce
    • Scott Cummings
    • James Jackson
    • Vicki L. Ruiz
    • Rulledge Dennis
    • Roy Bryce Laporte
    • Gary D. Sandefur
    • Leonard Dinnerstein
    • Paul Gordon Lauren
    • Diana Slaughter
    • Reynolds Farley
    • William Liu
    • C. Matthew Snipp
    • Joe Feagin
    • Stanford M. Lyman
    • John Stone
    • Barry Glassner
    • Gary Marx
    • Bruce Williams
    • Steven J. Gold
    • Robert Miles
    • Melvin D. Williams

    Volumes in this series include

    • Roger Waldinger, Howard Aldrich, Robin Ward, and Associates, ETHNIC ENTREPRENEURS: Immigrant Business in Industrial Societies
    • Philomena Essed, UNDERSTANDING EVERYDAY RACISM: An Interdisciplinary Theory
    • Samuel V. Duh, BLACKS AND AIDS: Causes and Origins
    • Steven J. Gold, REFUGEE COMMUNITIES: A Comparative Field Study
    • Mary E. Andereck, ETHNIC AWARENESS AND THE SCHOOL: An Ethnographic Study
    • Rebecca Morales and Frank Bonilla, LATINOS IN A CHANGING U.S. ECONOMY: Comparative Perspectives on Growing Inequality
    • Gerhard Schutte, WHAT RACISTS BELIEVE: Race Relations in South Africa and the United States
    • Stephen Burman, THE BLACK PROGRESS QUESTION: Explaining the African American Predicament
    • Bette J. Dickerson (Ed.), AFRICAN AMERICAN SINGLE MOTHERS: Understanding Their Lives and Families
    • Davia Stasiulis and Nira Yuval-Davis, UNSETTLING SETTLER SOCIETIES: Articulations of Gender, Race, Ethnicity and Class
    • Marcia Bayne-Smith (Ed.), RACE, GENDER, AND HEALTH
    • Richard W. Thomas, UNDERSTANDING INTERRACIAL UNITY: A Study of U.S. Race Relations
    • Carter A. Wilson, RACISM: From Slavery to Advanced Capitalism


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    Series Editor's Introduction

    Carter Wilson's book, Racism: From Slavery to Advanced Capitalism, is an important example of how much new ground must be broken in regard to the historical social scientific study of racism in the United States. This study certainly demonstrates how overly simplistic past historical groundings of social, political, and economic analyses of racism have been. This work is an excellent model for shaping future research in the underdeveloped area of the historical social scientific study of American racism.

    John H.Stanfield II, Series Editor


    I am grateful for the support that I received from both Denison University and the University of Toledo. The administration of these two institutions provided the resources in time and money that allowed me to complete this work. Faculty and students at both institutions gave me the encouragement that motivated me to complete this manuscript and the constructive criticism that led to improved versions of it. I am especially thankful to Dave Wilson, who read and critiqued my first drafts of Chapters 1 through 5 and urged me to complete the remaining chapters, and to John Stanfield, editor and scholar, who believed in my work.


    The literature on racism is voluminous. Books have been written on the psychological and cultural aspects of racism (Reich 1970; Kovel 1984; Katz and Taylor 1988); the individual and group dynamics of prejudice (Allport 1979; Katz and Taylor 1988); individual and institutional racism (Carmichael and Hamilton 1967; Knowles and Prewitt 1970; Feagin and Feagin 1986); the historical and socioeconomic features of racial oppression (Cox 1970; Blauner 1972; Steinberg 1989); and the political and ideological foundation of racism (Staples 1987; Omi and Winant 1990). Recent studies have analyzed changes in racism in different historical periods (Wilson 1980; Kovel 1984).

    This extensive literature has been contentious. Debates have raged over issues of whether racism is changing form (Pettigrew 1979; Willie 1979; Kovel 1984; Omi and Winant 1990) or declining (Wilson 1980). Economists have debated whether racism is endogenous to capitalism (Boggs and Boggs 1970; Reich 1981; Williams 1987; Cherry 1989) or whether competitive markets drive out racially discriminatory firms (Becker 1957; Sowell 1981). Sociologists have disputed whether racism is a class phenomenon (Cox 1970; Wilson 1980) or a caste phenomenon (Dollard 1949; Myrdal [1948] 1975). Political scientists have disagreed over whether racism is a type of political ideology (Omi and Winant 1990) or simply a function of working-class authoritarianism (Lipset 1963). Marxists have argued over whether racism benefits the ruling class at the expense of all workers (Baron and Sweezy 1968; Reich 1981) or whether white workers are the prime beneficiaries of racism (Bonacich 1976; Shulman 1989).

    Despite the numerous studies on single aspects of racism and despite the contentiousness of the literature, little has been done to integrate the literature or to resolve some of the more controversial issues. Few studies have attempted to connect the psychology of racism with the economics of racial oppression. Few have linked racial politics with the culture of racism. Multidimensional, historical studies of racism and racial oppression are rare.

    However, there are a few of these studies; most notably, William Julius Wilson's (1980) book, The Declining Significance of Race, and Joel Kovel's (1984) book, White Racism. Wilson examined the ideological, economic, and political dimensions of racial oppression in three historical periods: slavery, Jim Crow, and industrial capitalism. However, he said little about the cultural and psychological dimensions of racism. Kovel provided one of the most brilliant analyses of the cultural and psychological dimensions of white racism for the same three historical periods but said little about the economic and political processes that sustain racism.

    We attempt to integrate the literature—combining economic, political, and psychocultural dimensions—into a single model that explains racism in four historical periods. We try to illustrate the process by which racism is sustained throughout history. More specifically, we attempt to accomplish four tasks.

    First, we try to make a contribution toward resolving some of the debates over racism. We demonstrate that racism is changing form rather than disappearing; that it is not entirely reducible to class conflict; that its reproduction involves politics and ideology; that it does have an economic base; and that it benefits both the upper class and the white working class, depending on the historical context.

    Second, we attempt to demystify racism. That is, we try to define it, clarify it, explain it, and unveil its origin and modus operandi. We argue that racism is more than just a practice of exclusion, a form of discourse, or a system of ideas that denigrate the excluded. It certainly entails exclusion, discourse, and ideas; but it also involves economic structure, politics, and culture. It is sustained by oppressive economic structures; it is legitimized and supported by the state; and it is perpetuated by culture. Moreover, it is a historical phenomenon. That is, it originated in a definite stage of history, the postfeudal or modern era, and it is historically specific. It changes form from one period to the next.

    Third, our primary task is to understand how racial oppression is sustained in various periods of history. We argue that racial oppression is perpetuated within the context of an oppressive and exploitative economic structure. This structure shapes the development of personality types and cultural forms that support racially oppressive relations. The state, constrained by this structure, generally protects these relations. However, this state role is open to political challenge, and it fluctuates with the balance of political power. We construct a theoretical model that accounts for these dimensions of racism: economic, political, and psychocultural.

    Finally, we apply our model to four historical stages: slavery, Jim Crow, industrial capitalism, and advanced capitalism. We argue that racism takes a different form in each stage and that these differences can be explained by changes within the economic, political, and psychocultural dimensions of racism.


    In this study, we use an eclectic approach, set primarily within a historical materialist context. We use a variety of approaches because one method or framework may be appropriate for explaining one dimension of racism but inadequate for explaining others. We use a combination of methods to develop the strongest explanatory model.

    In building our model, we draw from a number of different conceptual frameworks, including the Marxist, Weberian, and neo-Freudian frameworks. Where need be, we use the approach of cultural anthropologists and political scientists. We rely on those social theories that link the three dimensions of our model and that explain changes in different periods of history.

    Marxist Framework

    We use a Marxist framework, although this approach has been criticized for reducing racism to a simple matter of class conflict, for dismissing the culture of racism as a product of the economic base of society, for ignoring racial politics altogether, and for requiring activists to subordinate nationalism to the international struggle of the proletariat. In the past, with a few exceptions—most notably, Fromm, Marcus, Fanon, Sartre—Marxist scholars have offered little insight into the cultural, ideological, political, and psychological dimensions of racism. Recently, post-structuralist Marxists have moved beyond economic determinism. Some, having discovered Gramsci, have focused on the cultural and political dimensions of racism—Hall, Marable, Miles, Smith, Solomas, Wolpe, Omi and Winant. These dimensions play important roles in the reproduction of racially oppressive economic arrangements.

    In spite of the controversy surrounding a Marxist approach, three features of this framework are useful in an analysis of racism. First, Marx's social theory has a dualistic or dialectical aspect that best captures the dialectical or dualistic nature of racism. On the one hand, Marx maintained that culture, law, and politics are shaped by the economic structure of society. From this framework emerges the view that racist culture, laws, and politics are shaped by racially oppressive economic structures. On the other hand, Marx argued that human actions and decisions change circumstances and socioeconomic arrangements. For example, criticizing materialists for their belief that men are nothing more than the products of the material conditions of society, Marx ([1888] 1974, p. 121) said, “The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change circumstances.” Marx ([1852] 1959a, p. 320) contended that “Men make their own history,” but not “under circumstances chosen by themselves but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” This perspective provides the framework for understanding the role of social movements in assaulting racist ideologies and altering racially oppressive arrangements.

    Marx's dualistic framework captures both the voluntaristic role of human actions and the deterministic tendencies of economic structures (Gouldner 1982). This framework highlights those human actions designed to alter racially oppressive arrangements, to challenge racist culture and ideology, and to change racist laws and state policies. At the same time, it emphasizes the role of a racially oppressive economic structure in shaping the development of racist culture, personality types, and politics.

    Second, Marx and Engels provide a powerful critical theory of Western economies. This theory is useful for examining the particular types of economic arrangements that sustain racial oppression. It focuses on the process of accumulating wealth. It maintains that oppression is perpetuated in an economic structure with the following features: (a) private ownership of the means of production, (b) the concentration of this ownership in the hands of a few, (c) inequity in the distribution of wealth, and (d) exploitative relations of production.

    Third, Marx offers a philosophy of history most helpful in analyzing historical changes in forms of racism. This philosophy, historicalmaterialism, a term invented by Marxists after the death of Marx, extends Marx's dialectical materialist paradigm into a theory of history based on three major premises: One, ideas and consciousness arise from the material conditions of human existence. Two, history progresses in stages distinguishable by changes in modes of production, relations of production, and levels of technology. Three, rationality varies from one epoch to another; that is, what appears rational in one milieu may become irrational in another. Thus historical materialism directs our attention to the material conditions out of which racism arises, to stages in the history of racism, and to the relative rationality of racism.

    Historical materialism provides the umbrella framework for our eclectic analysis of racism in the United States. However, our approach remains eclectic as we include other frameworks under this umbrella.

    Weberian Framework

    Where appropriate, we use Weberian theory in our analysis. This framework is most useful for an examination of race in the areas of (a) social class, (b) bureaucracy and institutional practices, and (c) culture and economic base. Whereas some scholars see Weber's perspective as contradictory to Marx's, we see it as complementary.

    Marx defines class in terms of a group's relationship to production and distribution; Weber defines class in terms of a group's status, power, and prestige, hierarchically arranged in society. Where Marxists look for class conflict, Weberians anticipate caste arrangements. Weber's model directs our attention to racial caste, institutional discrimination, and the culture of racism. Marx's framework directs us to the economic structure out of which caste, institutions, and culture emerge.

    We maintain that race, class, and caste are interrelated in the United States in ways that cannot be adequately explained solely within either a Weberian or a Marxist framework. Both frameworks are required to decode this interrelationship.

    Other Approaches

    We use other approaches to analyze the various dimensions of racism. For example, we use the psychoanalytical approach for studying the psychological dimension of racism. We draw from the works of Adorno, Fromm, Kovel, Homey, Lasch, and others. We employ this approach because it provides a framework for understanding the psychocultural pathology of racism. It directs our attention to the irrational drives, repressed in the unconscious mind. It complements the Marxist and Weberian models. Whereas Marx and Weber direct our attention to economic and institutional arrangements and the social aspects of oppression, neo-Freudian theorists point to the psychological dynamics of culture and the mental aspects of repression.

    We use contemporary political and neo-Marxist theories to examine the role of the state and politics in maintaining racially oppressive arrangements. We see this political dimension as important because it is the most indeterminate. Hence, we reject the classical Marxist perspective that trivializes this dimension by depicting the state as nothing more than the executive committee of the ruling class and by describing the political arena as a mask for class conflict. This is the most critical flaw of Marx's and Engel's writings, their neglect of the role of politics and the state. Politics involves more than just class conflict, and the state does more than just legitimize oppressive arrangements. Understanding race politics and the changing role of the state requires an investigation of the state and politics, quite apart from a study of the economy.

    Organization of the Book

    We divide our discussion of racism into two parts. In the first part, we review the relevant literature, develop our model, and trace the evolution of racism. In Chapter 1, we examine theories of racism and race relations. We locate our model in the context of this literature. That is, we compare and contrast our model with others, noting areas of agreement and disagreement. We attempt to make a contribution to the resolution of some of the debates in the literature.

    We develop our model of racism in Chapter 2. We examine each dimension separately and discuss how each one is related to the others.

    In Chapter 3, we discuss the historical formation of racism. We locate the origins of racism in fundamental changes in the structure of the economy of Western Europe and subsequent changes in Western culture. These changes gave rise to an intense and dehumanizing drive to accumulate wealth. This drive was behind the Atlantic slave trade and the genocide of Native Americans. It undergirded modern racism.

    In the second part of this book, we examine the historical development of racism and racial oppression in the United States. In Chapters 4 through 7, we apply our model to four historical stages corresponding to different modes of production and forms of racism: The plantation slavery mode of production corresponds to dominative racism; sharecropping, to dominative aversive racism; industrial capitalism, to aversive racism; and advanced capitalism, to meta-racism. Using historical data, primarily from secondary sources, we demonstrate the applicability of our model in explaining different forms of racism and in understanding the process through which racial oppression has been sustained throughout U.S. history.

    In Chapter 4, we investigate the development of racism in North America. We underscore the connection between dehumanizing treatment of others and debasing views of them. We illustrate the association between plantation slavery and the formation of racism. Chapter 5 focuses on the post-Civil War era (after 1865) in the South until the civil rights era (before 1965). In this chapter, we demonstrate a relationship between the structure of the southern economy and the reformation of racist culture and ideology. Chapter 6 covers the period of industrial capitalism. This more intricate mode of production generated more complicated dynamics of racism. These dynamics involved labor movements, the interaction of race and class, and the formation of white identity among the white working class. Chapter 7 examines the post-civil rights era and advanced capitalism, the shift from Fordism to post-Fordism, and the emergence of meta-racism.

    In every era, we focus on the connection between particular modes of production and particular forms of racism. Moreover, we pay careful attention to the role of the dominant class in developing a politics and culture of racial oppression.


    In memory of Raya Dunayevskaya, whose passion for human liberation lives on.

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    About the Author

    Carter A. Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Toledo. He specializes in the areas of urban political economy, public policy and administration, and race and public policy. He has published articles in Urban Affairs Quarterly, Administration & Society, and The Black Scholar. He did much of the research for this volume at Denison University, where he lectured as a visiting scholar.

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