Racial Capitalism, Legacies of Slavery, and Social Movements

BLM (Aaron Fulkerson/Flickr)

On Friday, June 5, 2020, the Fox News cable news network aired a graphic depicting stock market performance during periods of civil unrest following high-profile killings of Black men in the United States. The graphic showed increases to the S&P 500 in the midst of racial and economic crises. It insinuated that despite social upheaval, the death of Black men was beneficial for the stock market. As the graphic quickly displayed across the television screen, anchor Susan Li reported: “Market highs despite the nationwide protests this week, historically there has been a disconnect between what investors focus on and what happens across the rest of the country. For instance, in 1968, the week after the tragedy of Martin Luther King, the S&P 500 rose over two percent, also up the week after the Rodney King ruling and Wall Street trading on the reopening instead this year in 2020.”

The Fox News network is well-known for propagating conservative, right-wing ideals and misrepresenting truths to an extent that exceeds the incredulous. Even with their regular pattern of untruths and racially inflammatory broadcasts, viewers were shocked by the S&P 500 graphic. The network has since apologized for the insensitivity of the graphic and seem to have removed the segment video from the internet, but they did not recant the Dow Jones market data that Li reported.

The graphic, and its explanation, imply that Black death is good for the economy. Are Black people worth more dead than alive? What can we learn about this data point and the way in which the logic of racial capitalism continues to operate?

Further thought about the meaning behind this graphic, and the motivation for composing it, harkens back to the long history of commodifying Black bodies. In Saltwater Slavery, Stephanie Smallwood examined the moments captive Africans’ lives were reduced to units of exchange at coastal African slave castles and on slave ships as enslavers aimed to maximize profit at each stage of the Middle Passage. Daina Ramey Berry’s The Price for Their Pound of Flesh also traces the process by which enslavers, traders, and doctors placed monetary value on enslaved African Americans throughout the life cycle, beginning with preconception and ending with the trade of enslaved people’s cadavers. Amy Bride’s “Dead or Alive: Racial Finance and the Corpse-Value of the African American Slave Body” similarly argues that the rise of finance markets signaled a historical change in which Black bodies became more valuable dead than alive.

My own research on colonial Haiti revealed a four-fold increase of captive Africans’ purchase prices between the West Central African Loango coast and the prices of sale at ports like Cap-Français (Cap-Haïtien) in the 1780s. While sugar and coffee prices climbed throughout the late eighteenth century, the price values assigned to the enslaved grew at a much slower place – representing a decline in slave values in absolute terms compared to values of the popular crops.1

The ratios of slave prices and crop prices is not only a convenient statistic, it had real life implications – especially considering the reputation of colonial Haiti as one of the deadliest slave colonies in the Americas due to excesses of labor and violence. Increased crop prices incentivized working the enslaved to death, extracting as much energy as possible before they were discarded and replaced with another cohort of captives from Africa. Enslaved people were fetishized and commodified as property that was valued less than commodities.

It is frightening to wonder: was the data presented in the S&P 500 graphic accurate, and if so, why? What can help account for the stock market’s apparent profiteering from Black death? According to research by The Action Center on Race & the Economy, “police brutality bonds” are one avenue by which wealth is transferred “from communities – especially over-policed communities of color – to Wall Street and wealthy investors” in the wake of egregious police misconduct cases. Cities often face a fiscal crisis when they are held liable for acts of police violence and are mandated to pay out sizeable settlements and judgement costs. To borrow funds to cover these costs, cities issue municipal bonds, or what the Action Center calls “police brutality bonds,” in exchange for large amounts of money to meet their budget needs. Money market funds and other institutions or individuals purchase the bonds and loan money to the cities, and banks underwrite the bonds and gain interest and fees. The Action Center has identified several cities and counties across the United States that issue municipal bonds to cover the growing costs of police brutality settlements at the expense of taxpayers, while banks and other financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America benefit from interest and fees. Combined case study data from Chicago, Cleveland, Lake County, Indiana, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee from 2010 to 2017 showed that showed that $837.8 million in police brutality bonds were issued with banks profiting as much as an additional $891 million, costing taxpayers a total of $1.7 billion.

The emotional toll of death in Black communities is only compounded when municipalities compensate the victims of police violence with funds that allow the financial sector to accumulate wealth from those very communities. As the Action Center argues, these extractive practices only exacerbate the economic hardships that poor Black communities and government entities have already faced, especially since the 2008 global financial crisis, and serve to solidify existing structures of power and racial inequality. The financialization of public funds and our everyday lives results in anti-Black outcomes and is based on historically-informed logics of global capitalism that commodifies Black bodies and extracts wealth from Black communities through failed policing, resource expropriation, and gentrification in the housing sector. The violent effects of anti-Blackness combined with capital accumulation have global implications but are most immediately felt within local communities.

Most recently, lawyers representing the family of Breonna Taylor, a young Black woman killed in her home by Louisville police on March 13, 2020, allege that the “no-knock” warrant the Place Based Investigations crime unit and Louisville Metro Police Department executed was only one part of a larger gentrification project. The lawyers claim Louisville mayor Greg Fischer has championed a project called Vision Russell that entails clearing out residents of the west-side neighborhood where Breonna lived to develop “modern, futuristic looking homes, a café, an amphitheater, a state-of-the-art fitness center and more.” No arrests have been made in connection with Breonna Taylor’s death, though the FBI has recently opened an investigation into the likely civil rights violations committed by the police who killed her.

The ongoing Black Lives Matter movement is now the largest protest movement in United States history. But early “Black Spring” protests also included incidents of so-called “looting” and “rioting” in major cities across the country where Black, white, and Latinx youth (as well as anarchists and provocateurs) expropriated goods and destroyed property. While many see these actions as a detriment to the credibility of peace protest movements, a more critical analysis of the variety of actions that shape insurgency through the lens of racial capitalism reveals deeper motivations and critiques of societal inequalities. Property damage may be considered a repudiation of the fundamental principle of racial capitalism that values property over Black people. These actions, in the context of an unprecedented wealth gap, mass incarceration, and environmental, political, and health crises, urge us to demystify the myriad of ways global capitalism has “looted” Black people and Black communities, and to imagine a world free from the deadly implications of commodifying Black life and valuing property over people.

  1. Mémoire de Assemblée Nationale 18 Juin 1790: 70, No. 4 Nouvelles de Saint Domingue: Extrait du no. 66 des Affiches américaines du 19 août 1790, John Carter Brown Library. “Tableu de comparaison des Négres, depuis 1730, jusqu’a 1786, dans la Colonie de Saint-Domingue,” Les Affiches américaines, November 8, 1787. Guillet, Bertrand. La Marie-Séraphique, Navire Négrier. Nantes: Musée d’histoire de Nantes (2009), see esp. p. 178.
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Crystal Eddins

Crystal Eddins is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the 2018-2019 Ruth J. Simmons Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice at Brown University. She holds a Dual Major PhD in African American & African Studies and Sociology from Michigan State University. Eddins’ areas of research are the African Diaspora, Historical Sociology, Social Movements, the Digital Humanities, and 18th century Haiti (Saint Domingue). Follow her on Twitter @CrystalNEddins.

Comments on “Racial Capitalism, Legacies of Slavery, and Social Movements

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    Brilliant analysis! I admire you and wish you well.

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