Racial capitalism

Michael Ralph, Maya Singhal

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    “Racial capitalism” has surfaced during the past few decades in projects that highlight the production of difference in tandem with the production of capital—usually through violence. Scholars in this tradition typically draw their inspiration—and framework—from Cedric Robinson’s influential 1983 text, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. This article uses the work of Orlando Patterson to highlight some limits of “racial capitalism” as a theoretical project. First, the “racial capitalism” literature rarely clarifies what scholars mean by “race” or “capitalism.” Second, some scholars using this conceptual language treat black subjectivity as a debilitated condition. An alleged byproduct of the Transatlantic slave trade, this debilitated form of black subjectivity derives from an African American exceptionalism that treats slavery as a form of abject status particular to capitalism without providing adequate theoretical justification or historical explanation. By contrast, we demonstrate how Patterson’s insights about property, status, and capital offer an analysis of slavery more attentive to race, gender, sexuality, age, and ability. We close by using the “forensics of capital” to explore the notions of causality and protocols for determining who owes what to whom implicit in Patterson’s concept of “social death.”.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)851-881
    Number of pages31
    JournalTheory and Society
    Issue number6
    StatePublished - Dec 1 2019


    • Forensics of capital
    • Racial capitalism
    • Slavery
    • Social death

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • History
    • Sociology and Political Science


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