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Racial Capitalism in America and the Systemic Implications for African Americans

08 Sep 2023
By Ayondela McDole
Shreveport courthouse with Confederate flag. Source: Dtobias /

Systemic racism utilizes various modes of segregation to discriminate and exploit African Americans in order to reinforce a racially hierarchical political economy in the United States of America. Ending institutional racism should be at the top of the agenda for the government. 

Systemic racism is racist ideologies working across institutions to exploit and deny the rights of a people on the basis of race. Birthed from slavery, the United States of America has cultivated a racially hierarchical political economy where African Americans’ relationship to the capitalist mode of production has been contentious. Historically, systemic racism has acted within laws and behind racial terror to not only intimidate African Americans but to ensure they remain at the bottom of the labour hierarchy and this structural positioning has permeated through all aspects of African American life, including politics, education, health, voting rights, and housing.

After slavery, Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in the American South that allowed for discrimination against African Americans in education, politics, and employment. Jim Crow laws also justified and upheld violence and racial terror against African Americans for over 100 years thereafter. Racial terror such as lynchings, rape, and burning homes was used to not only kill and exile African Americans, it was also used to strip African Americans of land, business, and political power. Rosewood, Tulsa, and Memphis were such communities that killed and displaced thriving African Americans while also transferring the political and economic power from enterprising African Americans to white Americans. Moreover, racist practices such as redlining and restrictive covenants were enforced to manipulate housing markets and restrict where African Americans were allowed to live. Today, lenders use racist practices to devalue homes owned by African Americans, diminishing their wealth and buying power.

African Americans’ political power has been substantially diminished as well over the years. Voter suppression has been used to deny African Americans their voting rights. Tactics such as casing polling places with visible guns, threatening African Americans who want to vote, and marching through communities on voting day to intimidate people to make them stay home are still going on today. Recently, laws were passed to prevent volunteers from giving water and food to voters waiting in long lines. And laws were passed to prevent giving rides to senior citizens who had no way of getting to the polls. More recently, the African American vote has been weakened due to gerrymandering (the redistricting of majority African American neighbourhoods to fracture vote).

More rights, still, have been historically denied African Americans in regards to education, housing, and employment that lend themselves to building generational wealth. Where the GI bill, for example, allowed for WWII veterans to purchase homes, seek out higher education, and training programs with little to no cost, these benefits were denied to African American veterans across the board. Social Security, as well, unequivocally left out African Americans as the country aimed to re-build a thriving middle class. 60 years since the Civil Rights Act was passed and racial disparities still exist for African Americans. In addition to housing and voting rights, there is no greater example of the racial disparity in the United States than the criminal justice system.

When slavery was abolished the 13th Amendment declared, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This exception outlawed enslavement except for circumstances of imprisonment. Today, African Americans make up a 1/3 of the US prison population while accounting for only 12 percent of the country’s overall population. By contrast, white Americans also make up 1/3 of the prison population, but account for up to 64 percent of the population.

Additionally, African Americans face longer sentences for the same crimes as whites and suffer a greater chance of being killed when encountering police. Approximately 1 in every 1,000 African Americans is killed by police, and those African Americans that survive the American criminal justice system are less likely to find employment compared to their white counterparts. A Black man with no convictions is still less likely to be hired than a white convicted felon, and education for African Americans does little to change the African American experience. An African American woman with a college degree is three times more likely to die in childbirth than a white woman with a high school diploma. So, despite African American women being one of the most educated groups, it does little to affect patient advocacy in the healthcare system.

Systemic racism has systematically and pervasively permeated African American life, and despite that, African Americans manage to thrive. But we must recognise that the work to undo racist policies, laws, and practices is ongoing and to mitigate it we should do more to acknowledge how it is serving the greater society today.

Ayondela McDole is a doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies at George Mason University and instructor in Women and Gender Studies and African/African American Studies. Her other projects include the politics of Black representations in film and the effects of racial capitalism in modern society. Her theoretical lens is focused on contributing to emancipatory knowledge.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.