Blog Post

The Significance of the African American Relationship to Capitalism

Nick Salvatore

Chair Steven Hahn (Univ. of Pennsylvania) opened session four, “Capitalism and the Unmaking and Unmaking of Black America” with the claim that the African American relationship to capitalism has been central to the system since its earliest stages of growth. Capitalism across the globe, he explained, literally lived off the bodies of enslaved Africans and their descendants, affecting black family structures, local labor markets, and the spread of prison labor. In the United States and elsewhere, at times, African slaves and their descendants could turn capitalism to their particular advantage but, as Hahn argued, considering the global system of enforced labor, beginning in slavery and reconstituting itself after freedom, sharply undermines the mythology of the free market so prevalent in American thinking. The American working class could not be understood without a full accounting of the African American work force, Hahn said.

Adrienne Monteith Petty (The City College of New York) spoke next, addressing the question of African American land ownership. The last two decades of scholarship has found a wider pattern of African American land ownership than previously thought. This reveals, Petty argued, that these landowning descendants of former slaves embraced the economic relations of capitalism in order to better protect themselves from the social relations—and their consequences—of that same racialized order. Women were central to this development, as they often ran the farms while male family members worked for white farmers as sharecroppers, did construction, or laid railroad tracks to obtain needed cash. Post-1945 technological developments in farming made these small farms obsolete, but not before the men and women on farms across the South played an important role in the Civil Rights movement.

Continuing with the theme of Black enterprise, Shane White (Univ. of Sydney) next discussed the role of African American business involvement in antebellum New York City. The subject has long been ignored, he suggested, and provided two salient examples. The short-lived Colored American Anti-Masonic Grocery Association, established in 1841, sought to become a mutual benefit association which sold membership shares at $5. Members of the association were drawn by the image of “respectability” associated with the Wall Street Stock Exchange. However short-lived, White stressed the importance of this effort to “participate in and profit from, financial capitalism.” His main example, however, was Jeremiah Hamilton, a millionaire who speculated in real estate and the stock market where he once went “head-to-head” with Cornelius Vanderbilt. White asserted that the general absence of either of these examples in the historiography suggests that American historians have “expected to find black economic failure and then gone into the archives and found it,” and urged attention to black business history, both legal and otherwise.

Eric Arnesen (George Washington Univ.) followed with a discussion of the economic dimension of the Civil Rights Movement, and how civil rights and labor rights had been “entwined” since the New Deal and the Second World War. Indeed, under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, efforts for civil rights, economic justice, and union membership intensified within the black community. While many white unionists proved resistant to such demands, some change did occur: by 1943, some 400,000 African American were union members. In the post-war decades, Randolph and others emphasized the prospect of automation and its effect on especially unskilled jobs, and stressed the need for job retraining in the lead up to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. While the major emphasis at that event pressed for civil and voting rights, Randolph and others in the movement continued their agitation on behalf of labor, and achieved important, incremental changes.

William Julius Wilson (Harvard Univ.) explored the inner city African American experience with American capitalism. He argued that the digital revolution, a transformation in manufacturing, and global competition, all have had a major role in creating the high jobless rate nationally. He focused his attention, however, on high joblessness among inner city black males in an economy increasingly centered on the consumer sector, where a premium is placed on interactions with the customer. Employers view prospective hires through a racial prism, and as Wilson argued, Black men are deemed dangerous, probably possess a prison record, and lack the “soft” skills necessary for the service economy. Black male applicants are also disadvantaged by what Wilson called “statistical discrimination”—they generally do not know anyone who knows the boss to put in a good word for them. The ensuing cycle is depressingly familiar: High unemployment, a resulting high incarceration rate, cycles of frustration and depression. Wilson advocated for an updated Works Program Administration program focused on rebuilding America’s infrastructure, and emphasized the importance of hiring those with prison records.

The discussion that followed was brief but lively. Among the topics that received attention were the role of labor unions in ending the “predatory practices” that had so long been obstacles to black employment; should African Americans be hostile to capitalism; the effect of the 2008 recession; and the extent of the growth in the standard of living over the past 75 years.  


Nick Salvatore is the Maurice and Hinda Neufeld Founders Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.


SESSION 4: Capitalism and the Making and Unmaking of Black America