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Capitalism, Slavery, and Economic White Supremacy

On the racial wealth gap.

For both free and enslaved African-descended Americans, an economic system founded on the theft of Black work product and Black wealth never gave up stealing. There is a deep historical literature on the process by scholars such as Alejandro de la Fuente and Ariela J. Gross, Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross, and many others including Cedric Robinson. Even in places in which slavery was marginal or abolished in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, racism and denial of Black economic opportunity didn’t un-follow slavery.

Two centuries after the Witte Paard captives arrived in Virginia, the complex that became the American South was reliant on expropriating value from enslaved workers. From the perspective of enslaved people, that theft was relentless. Over the last forty years, scholars from Roger L. Ransom and Richard Sutch, Larry Neal, James Marketti to Mary Frances Berry and Thomas Creamer have attempted to understand and estimate the value of stolen labor value of United States slavery, ranging from $5.9 trillion ($2009) to $19 trillion—and some estimates are higher.

Yet those estimates and their significance have not generally been integrated into analyses of slavery’s capitalism. What would it mean if we focused on lost income and wealth in econometric debates such as those featuring Alan Olmstead, Paul Rhode, and Edward E. Baptist? What is owed to the descendants of those tortured and robbed of their labor value?

Whatever the answer, it seems that capitalism and slavery grew together and grew apart. Varieties of capitalism aren’t always apparent in the view from above or below. Those who investigate connections among capitalist development and the history of racial slavery in North American contexts might well take a page from scholars of religious pluralism. Pluralism goes beyond a recognition of diversity of religious traditions to comprehend commonalities. The Pluralism Project, for instance, is an interfaith effort to understand and engage across exoteric traditions.

If we attempt a similar exercise with historical capitalism, we might glimpse continuities that show disagreements more in terms of perspectives than incommensurable paradigms. Subregions of the South had interlocking but differing economies. Capitalism on the ground looks different than capitalism as an economic system. Treat capitalism as a sectarian process with a clear orthodoxy, and the church of capitalism has few members. Treat it as a sprawling tent, and it may be so broad as to include everything in a marketplace.