Category: African American history
How U. S. Capitalism Opened the Door to Racial Oppression

How U. S. Capitalism Opened the Door to Racial Oppression


By W. T. Whitney Jr.


Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (, recently surveyed U. S. patterns of violent racial oppression following the end of slavery. Pointing to South Africa, Rwanda, and Germany as countries that, for the sake of healing, confronted their own histories of racial oppression, he called upon America to follow their examples: “We can’t change our past, but we can acknowledge it and better shape our future.” (1)


He adds that, “in America, we barely acknowledge the history and legacy of slavery, we have done nothing to recognize the era of lynching, and only in the last few years have a few monuments to the Confederacy been removed in the South.” Stevenson presumably is calling upon Americans both to remember their history of oppressing black people and to fight racism.


However, many white people who do acknowledge historical truths are silent as to the outcome and impact of racial oppression. They are the intellectual heirs of many southerners without slaves, northerners who tolerated slavery, and later Americans who went along with lynchings, judicial perversions, and Jim Crow. The question is: why have great numbers of whites in the United States never engaged on the side of justice for black people?


White people aspiring to fix racial injustice in the United States are on a rocky road. Woven into the fabric of their society are the mores and practices of capitalism. These bear on human relationships notable for competition, notions of the inevitability of losers, free rein for individual prerogatives, and the measuring stick of monetary worth. When it comes to solidarity with an underclass, a majority of white Americans have usually looked the other way. And white Americans, and maybe blacks, have been leery about challenging their society’s established order, which includes class divisions. They fear repercussions.


The idea here is that the association of racial oppression with capitalism led to its becoming a fixture within U. S. society. A survey of both the capitalist nature of slavery and capitalist modes of repression after the Civil War serves to document the use of racial oppression for preserving the capitalist status quo. In both eras, white people readily accepted the kinds of violent racial oppression cited by Mr. Stevenson. Recycling old justifications, later generations continued to abuse black people.


The Slavery System


A giant entrepreneurial machine was operating in the southwestern U. S. frontier of the early 1800s. Its bare- bones story is of land seized from Native Americans, cotton plantations multiplying, slaves producing cotton, cotton being processed in England, great wealth accumulating, and the wherewithal being created for U. S. industrialization.


In 1836 cotton production accounted for “almost half of the economic activity of the United States” and “More than half of all American exports between 1815 and 1860 consisted of cotton,” with almost 80 percent of it heading for Great Britain. (2) Between 1800 and 1860 cotton production increased by a factor of 130; “Planter entrepreneurs … became the richest class of white people in the United States.” (3)

Historian Edward Baptist also reports that, “two million slaves worth over $1 billion” represented “the biggest pool of collateral” in the United States, “20 percent of private U. S. wealth,” and “the most liquid part of that wealth.” Moreover, profits derived from slavery and cotton production were reinvested to create “the world’s second industrial revolution.” In fact, cotton enabled the United States to develop “the fastest growing economy in the world.” (4)


Walter Johnson tells how land “upriver” from New Orleans “was materially subservient to the caprice of speculators in distant markets,” such that, “The cords of credit and debt – of advance and obligation – that cinched the Atlantic economy together were anchored together with the mutually defining values of land and slave: without land and slaves, there was no credit, and without slaves, land itself was valueless.” (5)


Lending by the Bank of the United States (BUS) in the lower Mississippi Valley was 16 times greater in 1832 than was the case in 1824. The infusion of capital financed a “massive expansion of the internal slave trade.” The movement of slaves from coastal to southwestern states fueled the “boom times.” Baptist explains that, “The well-connected [Isaac] Franklin firm drew up to $40,000 at a time from the BUS to buy slaves in the East …[A]bout 5 percent of all the commercial credit handled by the BUS in 1831-35 passed through … this single slave partnership.” (6)


Modern and Worldwide


South Carolina’s senator John C. Calhoun was the lead ideologist for slavery and cotton interests. Baptist credits Calhoun’s theories as being “modern, tailored to a market economy.” Calhoun measured “people as factors of production” and “believed that entrepreneurs should be able to wield private property without restraint.” “Enslavers … saw themselves as … running a highly successful innovative sector of the world economy.” (7)


Historian Sven Beckert describes a gala event in Manchester, England. The celebrating Chamber of commerce members had created “a global web of agriculture, commerce, and industrial production. Merchants brought raw cotton from around the world and took it to British factories, home to two thirds of the world’s cotton spindles. An army of workers spun than cotton into thread and wove it into finished fabrics; then dealers sent those wares out to the world’s markets.” (8)


Beckert’s book, Empire of Cotton, is about the “rise and fall of the European – dominated empire of cotton. But because of the centrality of cotton, its story is also the story of the making and remaking of global capitalism and with it if the modern world.” It “offers a history of capitalism in action.” (9)


He notes that, “enterprising entrepreneurs and powerful statesmen in Europe recast the world’s most significant manufacturing industry by combining imperial expansion and slave labor with new machines and wage workers.“ Actually, “cotton made possible both the birth of capitalism and its subsequent reinvention.” Beckert maintains that, “It was on the back of cotton, and thus on the back of slaves, that the US economy ascended in the world.” (10)


The modern historians were echoing Karl Marx, that most serious student of capitalism. “Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc.,” Marx wrote in 1846; “Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that has given the colonies their value; it is the colonies that have created world trade, and it is world trade that is the pre-condition of large-scale industry.”


Marx later remarked that “[T]he slave-holding states in the United States of North America . . . are associated with a world market based on capitalist production.” And, “The fact that we now not only call the plantation owners in America capitalists, but that they are capitalists, is based on their existence as anomalies within a world market based on free labor.” (11)


“Free” Blacks Kept in Check


As W. E. B. Dubois reported in his Black Reconstruction, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” (12) Southern landowners, eager to restore the cotton economy, reasserted control. They improvised, because now they had to cope with laborers seeking wages or land of their own to farm. The former Confederate elite worried that black workers might follow the path of white northern counterparts who were then agitating for better lives. During Reconstruction, formerly enslaved blacks had already asserted themselves politically.


White political leaders responded by inflaming racial prejudice in order to facilitate repression. Northern politicians, the media, and other opinion-shapers launched a virulent anti-black propaganda campaign in order to subjugate blacks and, not least, to ward off incipient black – white unity in labor struggles.


Studies show that racist attitudes can be turned off and on. Writing in 1948, sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox holds that U. S. race relations “are definitely not caste relations. They are labor – capital – profits relationships.” (13) For analyst Adolph Reed Jr., race is a “social category.” (14)


Reed cites the example of amicable relations between white indentured servants and the relatively few African slaves working in 18th century Virginia. Governmental rules differentiating the two groups were lacking, that is, until colonial authorities applied repressive regulations solely to African slaves. They did so because fewer indentured servants were arriving, plantations were requiring more labor, and poor whites were restive.


Later, as U. S. slavery peaked, slave-owners cut back on racist rhetoric and provocations; they already possessed ample power over their slaves, quite enough for forcing slaves to produce and for warding off rebellions. (15)


Cox explains the outburst of racism after slavery’s end: “[I]n the United States the race problem developed out of the need of the planter class, the ruling class, to keep the freed Negro exploitable. To do this, the ruling class had to do what every ruling class had to do; that is, develop mass support of the policy. Race prejudice was and is the convenient vehicle … Race prejudice in the United States is the socio-attitudinal matrix supporting a calculated and determined effort of a white ruling class to keep some people or peoples of color and their resources exploitable.” (16)


What Matters


Stevenson calls upon white people to acknowledge the truth about racial oppression and to act accordingly. But he may find few takers. Many white Americans, including political leaders, harbor underlying suspicions that actions taken to achieve real equality for black people may somehow be destabilizing. For them, such initiatives may contain the seeds of a resistance carrying the potential for shaking up the established, or capitalist, order of things.


And, Americans in great numbers, blacks and whites alike, identity with economic expansion, gratification of individual initiative, and possibilities for accumulation, all hallmarks of U. S. capitalism. Violent racial oppression may have gotten a pass from the fact that its tenure in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries coincided with the U. S. economic and political rise in the world.


Capitalism’s association with racial oppression says a lot about how to end it. Resistance informed by moral outrage, or dedication to human rights, has achieved much, but not enough; black people are still being exploited and oppressed. Such victimization will only end, it seems, when the basics of the exploitative capitalist system change.


To the point: let horror at the brutalities of an overarching system dedicated to greed be joined with horror at the slave’s suffering, at a police shooting of a black man, at the black defendant railroaded to prison. The time is now for carrying out the fight to end racial oppression within the framework of a larger struggle, the one to replace capitalism.


Addendum: How one family tolerated, and carried out, racial oppression


Putting out his call for acknowledging and taking responsibility, Bryan Stevenson could have been speaking directly to my own family. We are whites and most family members have neither spoken out against racial injustice nor dealt with ancestors’ leading roles in perpetrating the worst abuses of slavery.


The mother of my maternal grandfather was the great niece of the slave trader Isaac Franklin, mentioned above. She was the foster daughter of John Armfield, Franklin’s slave –trading partner.


When he died in 1846, Isaac Franklin, the South’s wealthiest man, owned six plantations in Louisiana (one would become Angola Prison); another in Gallatin, Tennessee; hundreds of slaves; and thousands of acres in Texas. According to Smithsonian Magazine, “Franklin & Armfield put more people on the market than anyone—perhaps 25,000—broke up the most families and made the most money. About half of those people boarded ships in Washington or Norfolk, bound for Louisiana, where Franklin sold them. The other half walked from the Chesapeake to the Mississippi River, 1,100 miles.” (17) The Franklin & Armfield firm maintained its headquarters and a “slave pen” in Alexandria, Virginia.


On his father’s side, my grandfather was the grandson of someone who migrated from Harford County, Maryland to Mississippi where, in the early 19th century, he became a planter, merchant, and land speculator. Other Harford County people, related by marriage to my own family, did likewise. They were joining in on the national project of making good in the Mississippi Valley.



  2. Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told, (Basic Books, NY, 2014), 322; Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton, (Vintage Books, NY, 2015), 119
  3. Baptiste, op. cit., 142-143
  4. Ibid., 245, 312, 113
  5. Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA and London, 2013), 2, 87
  6. Baptiste, op. cit., 238-239
  7. Ibid., 300 -301, 346
  8. Beckert, op. cit., ix
  9. Ibid., xi, xv
  10. Ibid., xi, xx,119
  11. The excerpts from Marx are taken from his The Poverty of Philosophy: A Reply to M. Proudhon’s Philosophy of Poverty, Grundrisse, and Theories of Surplus Value, Part III. They appear together at
  12. W. E. B. Dubois, Black Reconstruction in America, (The Free Press /Simon & Schuster, New York, 1998), 30
  13. Oliver Cromwell Cox, Race, a Study in Social Dynamics, (Monthly Review Press, NY, 2000), 21 (“published previously as the final section (Chapter 16 – 25) of the author’s “Caste, Class, and Race,” 1948)
  15. Cox, op. cit., 170
  16. Ibid., 170
New Orleans Removes Third Confederate Monument Amid Threats
P.G.T. Beauregard Statue

New Orleans Removes Third Confederate Monument Amid Threats

© AP Photo/ Gerald Herbert

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The city of New Orleans has taken down a third Confederate monument amid massive tensions and threats.

Shortly after 3 a.m. on Wednesday, city workers donning helmets and bulletproof vests removed a statue of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. Demonstrators, both for and against the monuments removal gathered at the scene.

“Today we take another step in defining our City not by our past but by our bright future,” Democratic New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in a statement. “While we must honor our history, we will not allow the Confederacy to be put on a pedestal in the heart of New Orleans.”Last week, a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was removed and placed in a warehouse with the other monuments until an appropriate home for them can be determined.

“After nearly two years of planning and court battles, City officials began the process today of removing the three remaining monuments that prominently celebrate the ‘Lost Cause of the Confederacy.’ The statues that are being removed were erected decades after the Civil War to celebrate the ‘Cult of the Lost Cause,’ a movement recognized across the South as celebrating and promoting white supremacy,” Landrieu’s office said in a statement as the workers were removing the Davis monument last Thursday.

Late last month, workers removing the first statue also donned helmets, masks and bulletproof vests, as they had reportedly received death threats.The statue was erected in 1891 to honor the failed rebellion of the Crescent City White League militia, which sought to topple the biracial government after the Civil War.Landrieu began his quest to remove the offending statutes two years ago, but faced legal hurdles and challenges by opponents. Those who wanted the monuments to stay cited historical relevance and context.

There is now one more monument that the city has set for removal, that of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, which will surely be the most contentious removal.

Confederate monuments: Washington and Lee University not interested in New Orleans statues

With the monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee the final of four expected to be taken down in New Orleans, there’s one place to cross off the list as its possible destination: Washington and Lee University.

In a May 10 email to | The Times-Picayune, a spokeswoman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office wrote that “Landrieu and members of his staff have spoken with individuals affiliated with a number of different organizations — including Washington and Lee University, Beauvoir and the Smithsonian Museum — to gauge interest” in acquiring the city’s four Confederate monuments slated for removal.

However, a spokeswoman for Washington and Lee subsequently reached out to to deny that any such conversation had taken place, saying she was “not aware of anyone from the city of New Orleans contacting Washington and Lee about the statues.”

A spokesman for Landrieu has since clarified the original statement.

“An alum of Washington and Lee mentioned that university as a possibility,” said Landrieu’s communications director, Tyronne Walker. “Since that time, we have received communication officially saying to us that in fact Washington and Lee is not a good option from their perspective because the statue that exists in New Orleans is about his time as a soldier, and their university focuses on any work he did around education post the war. … That’s the extent of our exploration of that option.”

Landrieu and his office have consistently said the four Confederate monuments — which, in addition to Lee, include statues of Jefferson Davis and P.G.T Beauregard and an obelisk commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place — should be placed somewhere in their “proper context,” but there has yet to be consensus as to what that will be once all four are removed. Until those determinations are made, the monuments are being housed in an undisclosed city warehouse.

In an interview last week, Thomas Payne, executive director at Beauvoir, the Biloxi, Mississippi, home housing Jefferson Davis’ presidential library, confirmed his team would appreciate any of the Confederate monuments.

Walker didn’t know which specific museum within the Smithsonian Institution might be interested in the monuments, but noted it’s possible the four statues could be sent in different directions.

“Our focus has primarily been on the removal process. … The truth is (where they end up) is not determined yet,” he said. “We’re open to ideas from institutions and museums who may be interested in the monuments once we have some viable options.”

Green Party of New Orleans statement on monuments

The Green Party of New Orleans enthusiastically supports the City’s efforts to remove monuments to white supremacy from the streets of New Orleans, and we wholeheartedly endorse the efforts of Take Em Down NOLA in pressing the demands of this cause.

Jefferson Davis, Slave Owner

As students of history, we know that these monuments were not erected as memorials to the Civil War so much as symbols aiming to reinforce the dominant ideology of white supremacy. The Confederacy, after all, lost the war, and slavery was outlawed; the monuments were designed to say, “Yet still, we rule.” They were designed to maintain and reproduce a harsh and rigid racial caste system.

It is time to unequivocally repudiate this oppressive system. Removing these monuments is symbolic of that ongoing effort.

We understand the value of historical artifacts. We call on the City administration to take great care with the monuments, once removed, to ensure that they are placed in a proper educational context, where they can be studied and remembered for what they are.

We are proud of the leading role that liberatory activists in our city have played in the long struggle for justice. At the same time, we recognize that this work is far from complete. As the struggle continues, we aim to work with those who organize and fight for justice and liberty.

[Revised 13 May 2017]

Lee Harvey Oswald’s Phone Call Before Assassination

African-Americans more likely to be wrongfully convicted than whites, study finds

African-Americans more likely to be wrongfully convicted than whites, study finds
African-Americans are more likely to be wrongfully convicted of crimes including murder, sexual assault, and illegal drug activities than whites, according to a new study. The research blamed a number of factors, including racial bias and official misconduct.

The study from the National Registry of Exonerations examined cases from 1989 to October 2016, finding that 47 percent of the 1,900 defendants convicted of crimes and later exonerated were African-Americans – a figure which is three times their representation in the population.

The research also found that African-Americans were about seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than whites.

“African Americans imprisoned for murder are more likely to be innocent if they were convicted of killing white victims,” the study noted.

Study author Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan Law School professor, noted that official misconduct was rampant in homicide cases involving African-Americans.

“In the murder cases we examined, the rate of official misconduct is considerably higher in cases where the defendant is African-American compared to cases where the defendant is white,” Gross said, as quoted by Reuters.

He went on to state that unconscious bias, institutional discrimination, and explicit racism were also factors in some of the wrongful convictions.

The study noted that most wrongful convictions are never discovered, but that “judging from exonerations, half of those innocent murder defendants are African-Americans.”

When it comes to sexual assaults, the study found that 59 percent of exonerees were African-Americans – representing four-and-a-half times their proportion in the population.

“In half of all sexual assault exonerations with eyewitness misidentifications, black men were convicted of raping white women, a racial combination that appears in less than 11 percent of sexual assaults in the United States,” the study noted.

It went on to state that black defendants convicted of raping white women are about eight times more likely to be innocent than white men convicted of raping their own race.

African-Americans were also found to be about 12 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted in drug crimes than innocent white people.

The study comes as the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign continues throughout the US, following numerous protests last year and allegations of police brutality towards African-Americans.

New Orleans can remove Confederate monuments, court rules

New Orleans can remove Confederate monuments, court rules
Authorities in New Orleans have every right to take down monuments to Confederate leaders, a federal court has ruled, dismissing claims by historic preservation societies. The push to remove the monuments followed the 2015 Charleston church shooting.

Sons of Confederate Veterans, Monumental Task Committee, Louisiana Landmarks Society and the Foundation for Historical Louisiana argued that removing the monuments would cause irreparable harm and that the land they were located on may not be city property.

The three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit US Court of Appeals ruled on Monday that both claims “wholly lack legal viability or support,” according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

The groups “have also failed to show that any irreparable harm to the monuments – even assuming such evidence – would constitute harm,” the court said.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu pushed for the removal of the monuments in 2015, dubbing them “nuisances” in the aftermath of the racially-inspired mass shooting at the Charleston Emanuel AME church.

The city is now free to request bids for removal of the monuments to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard. Another monument, commemorating a white uprising against the Reconstruction government, will remain standing pending unrelated litigation. The Battle of Liberty Place monument was previously moved as part of a federal transportation project.

“This win today will allow us to begin to turn a page on our divisive past and chart the course for a more inclusive future,” Landrieu said. “Moving the location of these monuments – from prominent public places in our city where they are revered to a place where they can be remembered – changes only their geography, not our history.”

The mayor hailed the court’s ruling as affirming “the city’s ability to control its property” and said the monuments will be preserved at a city warehouse until an appropriate place for them can be found.

Activists pushing for the monuments’ removal were likewise pleased with the verdict.

“This is a huge teachable moment for the nation to learn about the dangers of white supremacy,” Michael Quess Moore, founding member of Take Em Down NOLA, told AP.

The Monumental Task Committee and the Louisiana Landmarks Commission said they were considering requesting an en banc hearing from the 5th Circuit, in which all 14 judges would be asked to reconsider the panel’s verdict.

“Despite this setback, the non-profit organizations that filed the original suit will continue to argue that all the City’s historic monuments and cultural sites should be preserved and protected, and that a more appropriate response to calls for the monuments’ removal is a program to include explanatory plaques and markers to present these individuals in the context of their time,” the organizations said in a statement, quoted by the Times-Picayune.

Louisiana was one of the 11 states that seceded in 1861, protesting the election of Abraham Lincoln and vowing to preserve the institution of slavery in the Confederate States of America. New Orleans, the Confederacy’s second-largest city, was captured by Union troops in 1862 and remained under military occupation until the war’s end in 1865.

While Beauregard was born in New Orleans, Lee never visited the city. Jefferson Davis, the first – and last – president of the Confederacy, died in New Orleans in 1889.