Come up with a question of what you have learned from the attached PDFS. That question follows your response with resources backing it up.
Making Black Los Angeles
Marne L. Campbell
Published by The University of North Carolina Press
Campbell, Marne L.
Making Black Los Angeles: Class, Gender, and Community, 1850-1917.
The University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
Project MUSE.
For additional information about this book
[ Access provided at 24 Aug 2021 16:23 GMT from University of California @ Riverside ]
Myths and Origins
Racial Formation in Los Angeles
California supposedly derived its name from Calafia, a character in a
novel about an island of women, written by Garci Rodriguez De Mon-
talvo in the 1490s. Set on an island completely maintained by black
women, men were only permitted for the express purpose of procreation.
It was women who hunted, gathered, and guarded the island. According
to the story, “This island was inhabited by black women, and there were
no males among them, for their way of life was similar to that of the
Amazons.”1 Rodriguez depicted the leader of this society, the black Calafia,
as the most power ful female of her time.2
Calafia, in the imagination of Garci Rodriguez, was not only of Afri-
can origin, but was sexualized and eroticized. He described her followers
as having “energetic bodies and courageous, ardent hearts, and they were
strong.”3 The island presented a safe and euphoric space for women
within the community to exist almost completely without men. Garci
Rodriguez wrote, “On occasion, they kept the peace with their male
opponents, and the females and males mixed with each other in complete
safety, and they had carnal relations.”4 When any of them gave birth to a
male child, they killed him, but they kept and raised the female children.5
This story is only one of the many myths about how California was
named. The Calafia story represents the ways in which African Ameri-
cans, especially women, were treated by mainstream society in Califor-
nia, and Los Angeles in par tic u lar. Unlike that mythical island, the real
California was no utopia, especially not for people of African descent.
In the first book about the history of African Americans in California,
Delilah Beasley wrote in 1919, “The story of Los Angeles is like the
gold thread in paper money to ensure that it is genuine currency.”6
Depictions like these piqued mi grants’ curiosity about the city. Yet,
African Americans increasingly found themselves trapped on society’s
Race relations under Spanish and Mexican rule were complex. People
of African descent began their experience in Los Angeles, and in Cali-
fornia, as a marginalized group. Men of Spanish descent defined race in
Myths and Origins 15
order to divide themselves from every one considered “other.” This is also
evidenced by the ways in which whites treated indigenous people. By the
time Anglos settled in the region, a unique hierarchy of race relations
already existed.8
Racial Hierarchy in Colonial Mexico
The first non- indigenous settlers in Los Angeles included people of
diverse backgrounds. The settlers who founded Los Angeles in 1781 com-
prised three distinct groups: Native Mexicans, Africans, and Spaniards.
66  percent of Sinaloa, Mexico’s population was of biracial heritage.9
Twelve families, primarily from that region, responded to the Spanish
colonial officials’ call for settlers. This founding group consisted of forty-
six people, twenty- six of whom were of African descent. Many of these
people, and their descendants, rose to state and local prominence.10
Spanish conquests in the sixteenth century and afterward fundamen-
tally altered race relations in the indigenous areas they conquered. The
Spanish not only intermingled with those already there, they brought
with them African slaves who would also put down roots in Mexico. Per-
sonal, economic, and po liti cal intermingling became cause for concern
among the colonial authorities, solved by imposing a racial hierarchy.
Within fifty years of conquest, the Spanish in New Spain began using
race as a way of instilling economic and social control, thereby creating
a racial hierarchy that placed Spanish (white) at the top, and people of
African descent at the bottom. Between these levels were people of ra-
cially mixed backgrounds, whose identities were defined and redefined
by the sistema de castas. The ruling class quickly began utilizing the system
to control those of the lower classes. The system was a way to maintain
clear divisions between elite and lower class, no matter how complex the
racial mixing. The justification for this was to keep Spanish blood pure
(limpieza de sangre).11 This racial ordering had lasting implications
through the colonial and postcolonial periods, especially as slaves, for-
mer slaves, and their descendants fell squarely at the bottom of the so-
cial hierarchy throughout Mexico.12
After the first African slaves arrived in New Spain in 1519, the insti-
tution grew very rapidly. While working in a variety of domestic and
skilled labor in agriculture, mining, and other positions and while mak-
ing a community of their own, Africans became a part of an intricate
racial and economic hierarchy in the Spanish colony.13 By the middle
16 Chapter 1
of the seventeenth century, New Spain was home to a diverse African
population that was several generations in the making.
The combination of ladinos (acculturated Africans) and bozales (newly
arriving Africans) contributed to the growing black community that
would eventually equal that of the Spanish. The majority of black people’s
lives centered on the cities, which meant frequent socialization with
people of other racial backgrounds. This sometimes led to intermarriage,
and the creation of “mixed race” groups of people living in racially di-
verse communities. Yet as numerous slaves continued to be imported
from Africa through the middle of the seventeenth century, more and
more people of African descent chose marriage partners who were also
of African descent, making community formation pos si ble in Mexico.14
Since the Spanish population remained low compared to the indige-
nous population, the Catholic Church initially supported intermarriage.
Spanish men were encouraged to marry their Indian concubines until
larger numbers of Spanish women moved into the region in the middle
of the sixteenth century. The ofspring of these unions created a mestizo
(Spanish and Indian) population. There was also a significant mulatto
population throughout the region, and it was not uncommon for people
of African descent to marry Indians (pardo/a or lobo/a). Mexico City’s
traza (segregated neighborhood) contained numerous multiracial
house holds.15 By the middle of the seventeenth century, some mulattos
married Indian or Spanish people, which also resulted in new and more
complex racial classifications. This does not mean that people were ac-
tively trying to improve their social status by changing their race. Rather,
they honed a deeper sense of identity by belonging to a par tic u lar group
such as pardo/a or mulato/a, which was solidified within the context of
one’s family. In fact, the majority of the scholarship about race in Mex-
ico during this period indicates that most people married within their
social and ethnic groups.16
During the seventeenth and eigh teenth centuries, 87  percent of black
people chose spouses of African descent. The indigenous population
maintained high levels of endogamous marriage as well, such as in the
Toluca region. Some people even engaged in consanguineous marriages,
particularly when there was a shortage of pos si ble partners who were not
blood relatives. Between 1630 and 1640, the increase in the importation
of Africans to Mexico directly increased the likelihood of endogamous
marriages. When the Portuguese slave trade ended in 1639, however,
endogamous marriage opportunities began to decline for Africans.
Myths and Origins 17
Between 1646 and 1746, 52  percent of the black population married Indi-
ans in Mexico and Veracruz. Still, the larger black population who resided
in the urban areas overwhelmingly entered into endogamous marriages.17
Racial mixing was extremely impor tant for social climbers, who made
up a small but significant minority. Colonial governments and local elites
maintained this system socially and legally. Through the concept of pu-
rity of the blood, Spanish men married Indian women. Since Indians were
considered “weak” by way of their bloodline, it was believed Spanish
blood would “wash” and overpower the weaker blood. This, in turn,
served as a purification of mestizo blood. By placing people with black
blood squarely at the bottom of the colonial racial hierarchy, however,
the hierarchy did not ofer African Americans any opportunity to move
up the social ladder. There is no evidence that black people used misce-
genation as a way to improve their social status.18
The presence of those who tried to leverage the sistema de castas to
their own advantage only served to fortify Spanish ideas about white-
ness and superiority.19 Nonwhites who used exogamy to improve their
status were denigrated as social climbers. “But since most castas opted
for endogamous marriages,” according to Herman L. Bennett, “the con-
cerns expressed in the Pragmatic were white racial fantasies with little
basis in social real ity.”20 In other words, those who were racialized by
the system were far less concerned about its implications than the elite
who benefitted from maintaining it.21 A series of casta paintings cap-
tured Eu ro pean imaginations about interracial sexual unions and the
ofspring they produced, but emphasized notions of racial diference in
colonial Mexico.22
Meanwhile, the extremely wealthy castas took advantage of the sys-
tem. While the majority of people of color strug gled at the bottom, those
few elite castas reaped the benefits of whiteness, while helping deny those
of color basic freedom and rights. After the Mexican War of In de pen-
dence, these few would play an impor tant role in the racialization pro-
cess in California (figure 1.1) once it became part of the United States.23
A racial hierarchy that mimicked that of colonial Mexico was firmly
in place in California by the time the United States annexed it. Wealthy
Mexican landowners were considered “white” and they used the legal
system to maintain strict racial bound aries so Indians, Africans, or
anyone with one- fourth Indian blood was considered non- white by
1851. Afromestizos and other people of African descent were subjected
to the same laws that governed free black Americans in other states.
18 Chapter 1
Anthropologist Martha Menchaca notes, “ These laws remained in opera-
tion into the 20th century and were often used during the 1800s to deny
people of color citizenship.”24 This paved the way for white settlers
from Mexico and the United States alike to benefit from the physical
and racial landscape in California.
Race relations under Spanish colonial rule difered greatly in Mexico
than in the British mainland colonies. In the colonies, slaveholders rarely
acknowledged ethnic diferences among enslaved Africans. Their prin-
cipal goal was to prevent racial mixing of any kind, quickly establishing
miscegenation laws to that end. Latin Americans, on the other hand, rec-
ognized many more racial categories that included interracial unions,
and their ofspring. As a result, new racial classifications emerged in
Spanish Amer i ca, of which California was initially a part.25 By the end
of the eigh teenth century, as California became the home of many set-
tlers in addition to an established indigenous population, Los Angeles
Figure 1.1 California as an island, 1660. According to a novel by Garcí Rodriguez
de Mantalvo, California was an island inhabited by black women. Library of
Myths and Origins 19
developed into a diverse urban arena marked by people of vari ous racial
and ethnic backgrounds, creating a unique class and caste system.26
First Families in Los Angeles:
The Case of the Pico Family
The original group of settlers in Los Angeles arrived in 1781. Chosen for
their multiracial heritage, the majority of the families who first moved
to Los Angeles were racially “mixed,” lending diversity to the city from
its foundation. Most settlers came from Sinaloa, where two- thirds of the
population was mulatto.27 This group, therefore, constituted much of the
racial composition of Los Angeles during its early years.28
The majority of the first families of Los Angeles included parents of
diverse racial origins. Historian William Marvin Mason noted they had,
“far more Indian and negro blood than white, though all were part Span-
ish.”29 It was not uncommon, therefore, for a mestizo to marry a mulato, but
far fewer people mixed solely with Spanish and Indian blood. Historian
and anthropologist Jack D. Forbes also made note of this fluidity, stating
that “a small but significant portion of the population included people
of mixed Indian- Spanish ancestry, constituting 20% of the population.”30
Racial classifications soon became much more concrete, and most people,
especially those of multiracial heritage, had to make a decision about their
identity, often choosing to utilize their whiteness.31
A de cade after the original settlers arrived in Los Angeles, as the over-
all population grew to 141 residents, new racial identities were created.
Over half of the families who initially identified themselves as mulato or
Indian, were now designated as coyote, (only 75  percent Indian), or mes-
tizo. They became less Indian and black or African, and more white.
Indeed, some of them were now recognized as white, and received the
greater social status that came along with whiteness.32
Much of the history of Los Angeles centers on these founding families
and their ancestors, and though historians have paid attention to their
racial and ethnic origins, they have tended to ignore the impact of the
decisions these families made in altering their racial status. These people
never fully divorced themselves from their racial and ethnic backgrounds,
yet they did just enough to take full advantage of new opportunities.
Subsequently, many succeeded in the civil and economic sectors of
their communities. Some even became prominent figures throughout
the city.33
20 Chapter 1
The Pico family, most notably, quickly rose in stature in Los Ange-
les. Like many early families, the Picos consisted of a hybrid of racial
and ethnic backgrounds. Santiago de la Cruz Pico, a mestizo from
Sinaloa, married a mulata from Sonora, Jacinta de la Bastida. Some of
their children and grandchildren were able to become white by marry-
ing other “mixed race” people. Menchaca notes, “Thus, the Pico family
was racially mixed, and their Black blood quantum difered.”34 Their
“whiteness” allowed them to take on vari ous forms of leadership roles.
For example, their son, Jose María Pico, overcame many social obstacles.
He served as the corporal for the San Luis Obispo Mission, managing
its soldiers in 1798.35 On 10 May 1789 he married María Estaquia Gutiér-
rez. They had eleven children. Between 1805 and 1818, Jose Maria was
One of José María’s brothers, José Dolores Pico, also took on an impor-
tant leadership role.36 Initially José Delores married a mulatto woman,
María Gertrudis Amezquita, on 17 June 1791. Her father, Juan Antonio
Amezquita, was a soldier at the Presidio in San Francisco. He also worked
as regidor, or counselor at San Jose in 1806. After Gertrudis died, José
Dolores married another woman of high social status on 5 May 1801,
María Isabel Acencion Cota, an española from an influential family. Her
mother was from Sinaloa and her father was born in Sonora. Isabel’s
father served in the military, was a trailblazer for Gaspar de Portolá and
Father Junípero Serra, and was sergeant of escolta (escort) at San Bue-
naventura between 1782 and 1787. By 1811, Jose Dolores had become ser-
geant. Not only were Santiago and Jacinta’s children successful, their
grandchildren enjoyed many accomplishments of their own, utilizing
their complex racial backgrounds to their advantage.37
Two of the most successful Pico grandchildren included Andrés and
Pío Pico. Pío, one of eleven children, was born 5 May 1801 at the San
Gabriel Mission.38 While one sister died in infancy, two of his brothers,
José Antonio and Andrés, both became high- ranking military and po-
liti cal officials, while his other sisters, Concepción, Tomasa, Casamira,
Isidora, Estefana, Jacinta, and Feliciana, married well. Both Estefana and
Jacinta Pico were married to Josef Antonio Ezquiel Carrillo, before he
married one of the Sepulvéda daughters. On 24  June 1823, he married
Estefana, and on 1  February 1842, he married Jacinta. Their sister,
María Concepción, married Domingo Antonio Ignacio Carillo on
14  October 1810. He was Josef Antonio’s brother. These marriage pat-
terns indicate that the Picos were very much interested in safeguarding
Myths and Origins 21
their family’s wealth and influence. All of the Pico grandchildren lived
amongst society’s upper echelon, which was almost exclusively white.39
In addition to his military ser vice, Pío had a distinguished po liti cal
career. In 1826, he worked as “clerk in trial” for San Diego. He joined
the Assembly in 1832, and became po liti cal chief that same year. Although
this appointment was short- lived, Pío served as an elector in 1836. In 1845,
he became the last governor of California under Mexican rule, and served
until 1846, when the United States took control of the region. During
the Mexican- American War, Pío escaped to Mexico until he acquired
enough money to sustain himself once again in California. This time,
he settled in Los Angeles, where he became a successful businessman.40
Pío married Maria Ignacio Alvarado in Los Angeles on 24 February 1834.
Her father was sargento encargado (in charge of) the Pueblo de Los Angeles
in 1800, and also served as comisionado of Los Angeles in 1805. Eventually,
he would retire as sergeant in Los Angeles.41
Pío Pico’s return to California guaranteed him a strong social posi-
tion. He opened a hotel near the Plaza, the “Pico House,” hosting people
from around the country, and even some international guests. An exami-
nation of the Pico House register indicates that the hotel was one of the
most popu lar in the city. From 1870 to 1872, the register listed guests from
local cities such as Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Anaheim, San Diego,
and San Gabriel. In addition, several visitors came from San Francisco
and Santa Clara. Out- of- state guests included people from as close as
Arizona and as far as Ohio. International guests, such as Henry Sneersolm
and his son, traveled from Jerusalem to the Pico House. Other guests in-
cluded prominent members of Pico’s family, such as Charles Sepúlveda
and Francisco Pico who stayed at the hotel on 26 April 1872.42 Since the
Pico House was located at the town’s Plaza, Pío Pico interacted with many
of the locale’s wealthiest people of vari ous racial and ethnic backgrounds.
His brother, Andrés, also obtained a degree of success.43 Andrés Pico
served as military commander of the militia for Mexican California dur-
ing the battle of San Pasqual. In 1847, he attended the signing of the
Treaty of Cahuenga, which concluded the war with Mexico in that re-
gion. Andres’s most prominent role was in the po liti cal arena. He joined
the California state legislature during the middle of the nineteenth
Considering the family’s rising status, it is clear why the Picos, and
other families like theirs, may have wanted to remove themselves from
any African, and in many cases indigenous, heritage. Pío and Andrés Pico’s
22 Chapter 1
grandparents were multiracial, allowing them to categorize themselves,
as well as interact in mainstream society, as “more white” and “less Afri-
can.” Since in their case a mestizo married a mulata, according to the casta
system, a new racial classification emerged to define their ofspring. The
Pico children were one- quarter African, one- quarter indigenous, and
one- half Spanish, signifying they were mostly white. Using the Pico
family as an example, table 1.1 indicates the ways in which one moved
between racial categories.
Whether the Pico children actually considered themselves white
remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that they took advantage of
opportunities not aforded to their black and indigenous counter parts,
acquiring large amounts of property, serving in prominent military roles,
and obtaining po liti cal power. This generation of Picos also intermarried,
further complicating their collective racial classifications and the main-
stream social hierarchy. Both of Jose Dolores Pico’s marriages exemplify
the ways in which a person changed their social status via marriage and
denotes how the casta system worked within his family. If either of these
unions produced ofspring, their racial classification, according to the
sistema de castas, resulted in designations seen in tables 1.2 and 1.3.
These tables illustrate the complexity of racial classifications within
this society. The Pico family alone is in ter est ing because of the unique
and complicated structure that defined their racial background. Some
historians note that eventually the Pico family became “white,” and in
doing so, they explored opportunities and advantages available only for
whites. Eventually, these people, and others of similar backgrounds, iden-
tified with whites rather than blacks or other people of color.45
Some scholars, however, maintain that people of color did not so easily
escape the category of “black.” People whose racial heritage included
black, Spanish, and indigenous, for example, were considered mulato,
Table 1.1 Racial classifications: Pico family
Jasinta de
la Bastida
Santiago de
la Cruz Jose Maria Pico
Black 1/2 0 1/4
Indigenous 0 1/2 1/4
White 1/2 1/2 1/2
Racial Classification Mulatto Mestizo White
Source: Historic Notes from Pío Pico Mansion
Myths and Origins 23
disallowing their native heritage. A person who was half mulato and half
indigenous was considered mulato; and the child of a person who was half
mestizo and half mulato was also designated as mulato. Understanding racial
classifications in this way, therefore, obscures one’s exact racial heritage.
Some scholars have relied on the one- drop rule, often used to determine
race in the United States after emancipation. From these viewpoints, José
Dolores Pico’s ofspring fall into a dif er ent racial classification, seen in
tables 1.4 and 1.5.46
From both the casta and one- drop models, it becomes clear how one’s
mestizo or even indigenous heritage can dis appear. In the first set of
Table 1.2 Racial classifications: Pico family
Jose Delores Pico Jose’s Wife (1) Child
Black 1/4 1/2 3/8
Indigenous 1/4 0 1/8
White 1/2 1/2 1/2
Racial Classification White Mulatto White
Source: Historic Notes from Pío Pico Mansion
Table 1.3 Racial classifications: Pico family
Jose Delores Pico Jose’s Wife (2) Child
Black 1/4 0 1/8
Indigenous 1/4 0 1/8
White 1/2 1 3/4
Racial Classification White White White
Source: Historic Notes from Pío Pico Mansion
Table 1.4 Racial classifications: Pico family
Jose Delores Pico Jose’s Wife (1) Child
Black 1/4 1/2 3/8
Indigenous 1/4 0 1/8
White 1/2 1/2 1/2
Racial Classification Mulatto Mulatto Mulatto
Source: Historic Notes from Pío Pico Mansion
24 Chapter 1
examples, the Pico descendants’ racial classification became white, rather
than bi- or multiracial. The second model, the one- drop rule, neglects
racial heritage in another way, by proposing that they were black, regard-
less of the level of African or Spanish (thereby white) heritage traced
through their bloodline.47
The third conclusion one draws from considering these models in-
volves the local social hierarchy. Classifications of black or mulatto gen-
erally included some form of stigma. Both in the American colonies and
colonial Latin Amer i ca, people of African descent often found them-
selves at the bottom of the social order. Although people classified as
mulatto maintained a higher status than people who were black, they
faced similar difficulties within their respective communities. Regard-
less of which model one chooses to follow in tracing “race,” it is impor-
tant to note the positive results one may glean, particularly the fluidity
of the system.48
These conflicting understandings underscore the complexity of race
in Los Angeles as well as other cities with large populations of racially
mixed people such as New Orleans.49 Since many settlers included bira-
cial and even multiracial heritages, the first families created a space for
racial tolerance and for social mobility, at least partially, based on merit,
rather than solely on phenotype. Not surprisingly, Pío Pico’s own narra-
tive neglected any discussion of race. Pico discussed instead his military
accomplishments, his travels, and his relationship with his family. He
also seemed to have deliberately overlooked race when discussing the
many people with whom he interacted.50
While Pío and Andres Pico used their “whiteness” to establish eco-
nomic and po liti cal status, Pío Pico was never fully apart from the
African American community or other communities of color. A fire
insurance map of his hotel, The Pico House, shows that its location was
Table 1.5 Racial classifications: Pico family
Jose Delores Pico Jose’s Wife (2) Child
Black 1/4 0 1/8
Indigenous 1/4 0 1/8
White 1/2 1 3/4
Racial Classification Mulatto White Mulatto
Source: Historic Notes from Pío Pico Mansion
Myths and Origins 25
perpendicular to the area known as “Nigger Alley” and the Chinese
block. If one were to consider the physical characteristics of the Pico
family, one would quickly identify the family’s African heritage. Pío Pico
was of dark complexion. Judging by his skin color alone, one might con-
clude that he was black, overlooking both his Spanish and indigenous
heritages. The Pico family served as a model of opportunity for all who
came to Los Angeles as immigrants for the next several de cades. It was,
however, easier for someone like Pío Pico to ascend the socio- political
ranks while Los Angeles was under Mexican rule, than after California
became a part of the United States and American racial ideologies super-
seded those left over from the Spanish and Mexican periods.51
Both Pío and Andrés Pico, along with the wider Pico family, exem-
plify the accomplishments and contributions people of color made to the
foundation of Los Angeles and to California as a whole. They joined
other prominent figures that shared similar racial and ethnic origins and
social and po liti cal accomplishments. Francisco Reyes, for example,
served as mayor of Los Angeles from 1793 until 1795. Migrating from
Pueblo of Zapotlán in central Mexico, Reyes was a mulato who married
María del Carmen Domínguez, a woman of both Spanish and Indian
heritage. The couple had three children.52
In addition to po liti cal achievements, many of the early bi- and mul-
tiracial settlers in Los Angeles acquired a significant amount of land,
which contributed to their social as well as economic success. Manuel
Nieto, whose parents were African and Spanish, for example, became a
wealthy landowner after 1821, acquiring over 167,000 acres of land in
the areas surrounding southeast and eastern Los Angeles. José Bartolomé
Tapia, an octoroon, owned a stretch of land along the Pacific Coast in
Malibu. Although this group represents a select few, they realized these
accomplishments in spite of the old world racial and ethnic hierarchy.53
After 1821, Los Angeles underwent a significant population increase
as new generations of people were both born in, and migrated to, the
city. The Mexican victory over Spain heightened opportunity for black
people. New po liti cal ideologies, including republicanism, contributed
to the breakdown of the old mission system in California, creating op-
portunities for people of African descent to secure land grants and sub-
sequent wealth, and play significant roles in the military.54 This meant
that all people, including those of African descent, adopted newer …
Racial Capitalism
Author(s): Jodi Melamed
Source: Critical Ethnic Studies , Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 2015), pp. 76-85
Published by: University of Minnesota Press
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Racial Capitalism
This contribution to the inaugural volume of the Critical Ethnic Studies seeks to strengthen the activist hermeneutic “racial capitalism” to re-
spond to three conditions with which critical ethnic studies must reckon
in the present. The first is that so-called primitive accumulation—where
capital is accrued through transparently violent means (war, land-grabbing,
dispossession, neo/colonialism)—has become everywhere interlinked and
continuous with accumulation through expanded reproduction, which we
used to think of as requiring only “the silent compulsion of economic rela-
tions.”1 With the top 10 percent taking 50 percent of total U.S. income in
2012, and the top 1 percent taking a striking 95 percent of all post-Recession
income gains, it has become increasingly plain that accumulation for finan-
cial asset owning classes requires violence toward others and seeks to expro-
priate for capital the entire field of social provision (land, work, education,
health).2 The second condition is the degree to which ideologies of indi-
vidualism, liberalism, and democracy, shaped by and shaping market econ-
omies and capitalist rationality from their mutual inception, monopolize
the terms of sociality, despite their increasing hollowness in the face of neo-
liberalism’s predations. The third condition is the emergence of new hori-
zons of activism that challenge the interpretative limits of ethnic studies in
that they exceed the antimonies of political/economic activism, bust up old
terms and geographies of solidarity, and are often Indigenous-led, requiring
a rethinking of activist scholarship in light of the importance of Indigenous
activism and critical theory.
Our dominant critical understanding of the term racial capitalism stays
close to the usage of its originator, Cedric Robinson, in his seminal Black
Marxism: The Making of a Black Radical Tradition.3 Robinson develops
the term to correct the developmentalism and racism that led Marx and
Engels to believe mistakenly that European bourgeois society would ratio-
nalize social relations. Instead, Robinson explains, the obverse occurred:
CES1.indd 76 02/04/2015 8:18:26 AM
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P Racial Capitalism • 7 7 O
“The development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society pur-
sued essentially racial directions, so too did social ideology. As a material
force . . . racialism would inevitably permeate the social structures emer-
gent from capitalism. I have used the term ‘racial capitalism’ to refer . . .
to the subsequent structure as a historical agency.”4 Thus the term “racial
capitalism” requires its users to recognize that capitalism is racial capital-
ism. Capital can only be capital when it is accumulating, and it can only
accumulate by producing and moving through relations of severe inequality
among human groups—capitalists with the means of production/workers
without the means of subsistence, creditors/debtors, conquerors of land made
property/the dispossessed and removed. These antinomies of accumu lation
require loss, disposability, and the unequal differentiation of human value,
and racism enshrines the inequalities that capitalism requires. Most obvi-
ously, it does this by displacing the uneven life chances that are inescapably
part of capitalist social relations onto fictions of differing human capacities,
historically race. We often associate racial capitalism with the central features
of white supremacist capitalist development, including slavery, colonialism,
genocide, incarceration regimes, migrant exploitation, and contemporary
racial warfare. Yet we also increasingly recognize that contemporary racial
capitalism deploys liberal and multicultural terms of inclusion to value and
devalue forms of humanity differentially to fit the needs of reigning state-
capital orders.
A thread of emergent critical understanding, proceeding from the recog-
nition that procedures of racialization and capitalism are ultimately never
separable from each other, seeks to comprehend the complex recursivity
between material and epistemic forms of racialized violence, which are
executed in and by core capitalist states with seemingly infinite creativity
(beyond phenotype and in assemblages). Importantly, this approach under-
stands the state and concomitant rights and freedoms to be fully saturated
by racialized violence. Chandan Reddy, for example, demonstrates how
the U.S. state in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has exercised its
monopoly on legitimate violence both in response to “race”—the nation-
state’s operational code for that irrationality and threat that freedom must
exterminate—and as racial cruelty.5 The term “racial cruelty” signifies the
extreme or surplus violence alongside and within state practices of suppos-
edly rational violence (military, security, and legal), through which the state
establishes itself as at once the protector of freedom and an effective, because
excessive, counterviolence to the violence of race. Thus political emancipa-
tion is fatally coupled to both ordinary and excessively cruel racialized state
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violence. We can combine Reddy’s insights with David Harvey’s description
of a “state-finance nexus” to posit a “state-finance-racial violence nexus.”6
Harvey’s term refers to the “central nervous system of accumulation,” where
structures of governance whose relays cannot be separated out as either
“political” or “economic” syncopate state management of the circulation
of capital and circulate capital in a manner that conditions state functions,
which become increasingly monetized, privatized, and commodified.7 The
“state-finance-racial violence nexus” names the inseparable confluence of
political/economic governance with racial violence, which enables ongoing
accumulation through dispossession by calling forth the specter of race (as
threat) to legitimate state counterviolence in the interest of financial asset
owning classes that would otherwise appear to violate social rationality,
from the police-killing of immigrants and African American youth (in the
name of safety for the white and prosperous), to the letting die of the racial-
ized poor, to the social deaths transited through the precedent of Indige-
nous dispossession for profit.8
Accumulation under capitalism is necessarily expropriation of labor, land,
and resources. But it is also something else: we need a more apposite lan-
guage and a better way to think about capital as a system of expropriating
violence on collective life itself.9 To this end, one way to strengthen racial
capitalism as an activist hermeneutic is to use it to name and analyze the
production of social separateness—the disjoining or deactiving of relations
between human beings (and humans and nature)—needed for capitalist ex-
propriation to work. Ruth Wilson Gilmore suggests a similar understand-
ing of racial capitalism as a technology of antirelationality (a technology for
reducing collective life to the relations that sustain neoliberal democratic
capitalism) in her seminal definition of racism. Following Gilmore, “Racism
is the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of
group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death, in distinct yet densely
interconnected political geographies.”10 This last part of Gilmore’s definition
is seldom quoted, yet crucially it identifies a dialectic in which forms of
humanity are separated (made “distinct”) so that they may be “intercon-
nected” in terms that feed capital. Gilmore elsewhere names this process
“partition” and identifies it as the base algorithm for capitalism, which only
exists and develops according to its capacity “to control who can relate and
under what terms.”11
Although at first glance, dense interconnections seem antithetical to am-
pu tated social relations, it is capitalism’s particular feat to accomplish dif-
ferentiation as dense networks and nodes of social separateness.12 Processes
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P Racial Capitalism • 7 9 O
of differentiation and dominant comparative logics create “certainties” of
discreteness, distinctness, and discontinuity—of discrete identities, distinct
territorializations and sovereignties, and discontinuities between the politi-
cal and the economic, the internal and the external, and the valued and the
devalued.13 In the drawing of the line that constitutes discrete entities and
distinguishes between the valued and the devalued, people and situations are
made incommensurable to one another as a disavowed condition of pos-
sibility for world-systems of profit and governance. Currently, ideologies of
democracy, nationalism, and multiculturalism are key to racial capitalist
processes of spatial and social differentiation that truncate relationality for
capital accumulation. The first and second differentiate people into individ-
uals and citizens whose collective existence is reduced officially to a narrow
domain of the political beset by an economic sovereignty that increasingly
restructures the domain of “democratic participation” according to neolib-
eral logics of privatization, transactability, and profit. The third minoritizes,
homogenizes, and constitutes groups as separate through single (or serial)
axes of recognition (or oppression), repels accountability to ongoing set-
tler colonialism, and uses identitarianism to obscure shifting differentials
of power and unstable social relations. All three impose a forgetting of
interconnections, of viable relations, and of performances of collectivity
that might nurture greater social wholeness, but are deactivitated for capital
accumulation and state management.
Yet the need of racial capitalism to invalidate terms of relationality—to
separate forms of humanity so that they may be connected in terms that
feed capital—might reveal its weakness as much as its strength; for the acts
of racialized violence that would partition people from other senses and
practices of social being (noncapitalist, nonstate) are as futile as they are
constant. Since its inception, one of the critical tasks of ethnic studies has
been to reckon with lived practices and living alternatives to U.S. norms
that are collective and that have a “definitional power” over what makes
life meaningful.14 An apposite example is Black Marxism itself: in addition
to theorizing capitalism as racial capitalism, Robinson’s larger concern is to
make legible the past, present, and future existence of the Black radical tra-
dition. This begins as the response of African people to being ripped out of
webs of Indigenous social relations and denied life-sustaining connected-
ness in the societies that enslaved and transported them. For Robinson, the
Black radical tradition emerges out of the imperative for people of African
origins and descent to “re-create their lives” and reassemble social bonds:
“From a shared philosophy developed in the African past and transmitted
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as culture . . . a revolutionary [Black radical] consciousness was realized and
the ideology of struggle formed.”15 At the center of the Black radical tra-
dition is “the shared sense of obligation to preserve the collective being,
the ontological totality.”16 In the hundreds of acts of resistance Robinson
recounts, from seventeenth-century maroon communities in the Americas
to twentieth-century national liberation struggles, collective resistance takes
the form of (re)constituting collectives. Defying racial capitalist modes of
differentiation that would undermine conditions for peoplehood, the Black
radical tradition is antiracist, anticapitalist, and collective-making because
it is a name for struggles that arrange social forces for Black survival over
and against capital accumulation.
To think about how racial capitalist procedures constantly truncate
forms of appearance of the social to disestablish possible relations between
people that are not conducive for capital, it is instructive to return to the
text of Marx (which we must supplement with the understanding that
the capitalism that was his purview was always already racial capitalism).
The chapters on “So-Called Primitive Accumulation” in Capital yield a par-
ticularly rich analysis of the violence of transformative processes that extract
people and things from previously sustaining social relations and insert
them into the capital-relation (Kapitalverhaltnis) that makes accumulation
possible. One example is in Marx’s rendition of the “nursery tale” bourgeoi-
sie political economists use to explain the origin of capitalist wealth. The
tale involves two kinds of people who lived long, long ago: “one the diligent,
intelligent and above all frugal elites,” who accumulate wealth so their prog-
eny can become capitalists; “the other, lazy rascals” who “spend their sus-
tenance, and more in riotous living,” so that the masses of people, who are
their heirs, are left with “nothing to sell except their own skins.”17 This story
of capitalism’s original diversity (versions of which are still told everyday)
substitutes for the “notorious fact” that, in acquiring the wealth of Euro-
pean modernity, “conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force,
play the greatest part,” not “effort” or “right.”18 The division of humanity
into “worthy” and “unworthy” forms is the trace of the violence that forces
apart established social bonds and enforces new conditions for expropria-
tive accumulation.
A second example is Marx’s analysis of “bloody legislation” producing
the criminalized status of the “vagabond” in England from the fifteenth to
the seventeenth century.19 During this period of transition from feudalism
to capitalism, an emerging capitalist class of aristocrats and bankers deployed
every kind of force available (burning villages, imposing taxes) to drive the
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P Racial Capitalism • 8 1 O
agricultural population off the land and to usurp the commons. This dis-
possessed agricultural population—the majority of people—through the
breaking up of the bonds that connected them to their lands, each other,
and structures of governance (now in transition), were “dragged from their
accustomed way of life” and forcibly made to occupy the role of a proto-
proletariat, which “could not possibly be absorbed into the nascent manu-
factures as fast as it was thrown upon the world.”20 Workless members of
the emerging working class were “chastised for their enforced transforma-
tion into beggars and paupers” and treated as “‘voluntary’ criminals,” as if
“it was entirely within their powers to go on working under the old condi-
tions which in fact no longer existed.”21 First, the racial capitalist work of the
“bloody” legislation against vagabonds makes it impermissible to recognize
people without work as having (lost) the claim to land and their former
social being. Second, it disqualifies them as relational beings in the present
because the capital relation that now dominantly binds them to the social
also separates them out as useless, immoral, and disposable. Out of the sever-
ing of relations necessary for capital accumulations, the vagabond emerges
as a racialized status whose members can be blamed for their own past
expropriability and present precarity. Marx vividly summarizes the proto-
racializing work that vagabondage laws do to mark the body of wageless
people as different and criminal, forcing “idlers” to work with whips and
chains, branding the forehead or ears with the letter “S” for slave, and “exe-
cuting” runaways or those who remain idle “without mercy as felons.”22
Perhaps the best example of manufacturing densely connected social
separateness, which is racial capitalism’s hallmark, is Marx’s discussion of
the twinned and symbiotic development of colonialism and the credit sys-
tem (fledgling finance capitalism). Marx describes this development as a
dual system of whitewashing, where the capital gained through expropria-
tion in one system—colonialism or credit-baiting—enters into the other
system, appearing neutral, clean, and earned through right. Thus “the trea-
sures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement, and
murder flowed back to the mother-country and were turned into capital
there,” while “a great deal of [investment] capital, which appears today in
the United States without any birth certificate, was yesterday in England,
the capitalized blood of children.”23 Capital partitions, divides, and sepa-
rates groups between political geographies and is the dominant relation to
flow between and bind them. What is stripped out are other (and other
possible) relations to land, resources, activity, community, and other pos-
sible social wholes that have been broken up for capital. Where capital
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accrual exists, the diminishment of social well-being through partition,
dispossession, and appropriation has already happened, thus Marx writes
“capital comes into the world dripping from head to toe, from every pore,
with blood.”24
When we read racial capitalism into Marx’s analysis of so-called primi-
tive accumulation and discern his preoccupation with processes that forci-
bly partition humanity for the expropriation accumulation requires, we can
also see consistent efforts throughout his writings to conceive the opposite:
how to know and nurture social being in total (which is more than human)
through material activity (living). In his early work, “species-being” and
“nature [as humankind’s] inorganic body” are the key tropes Marx uses to
meditate on the capacity for unestranged, noncapitalist labor to bind each
person with each other, with nature, and with humanity as collective being
(menschliches Wesen).25 In both cases, vital expression—the doing that pro-
duces life force (not a wage)—reveals a unified complex of dense interrela-
tions that disprove a meaningful division between the individual and society
and humans and nature, with, for example, people “living from nature” so
completely, so densely, and so metabolically that “nature is [the human]
body.” In another vein, Marx in “On the Jewish Question” lambasts the
democratic capitalist state as one in which it is not possible for individual
activity to be directed toward the material well-being of society as a whole.
By partitioning off where people see and act as collective (as abstract citi-
zens of the state) from where they see and act as individuals (in their every-
day participation in economic and civil life), capitalist political democracy
divides people from their social forces and leads “each man to see in other
men not the realization but the limitation of his own freedom.”26 In Capital
itself, Marx writes about the alienation of social forces as a done deal: rela-
tions among people appear as relations between things (commodity fetish-
ism), and European geopolitical domination imposes the liberal rationality
(the division of the individual from society) that capitalism requires. Yet
Marx finds value itself to be a pharmekon: it is a poison because it is a mea-
sure of how much human labor has been estranged and commodified by
capital, yet it is also a medicine because it provides a way to grasp individ-
ual human efforts as alienated social forces, which revolutionary struggles
can turn toward collective ends. Sadly, the desire to have a materialist form
of appearance (“value”) for social forces as a whole everywhere motivates
much of the rationalism, Eurocentrism, reductive materialism, and devel-
opmentalism, which limits Marxism’s usefulness for decolonizing and anti-
racist activism—and for critical ethnic studies scholarship.
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This failure in the text of Marx brings us to the present importance of
Indigenous activism and Indigenous critical theory for the task of strength-
ening terms of relationality that defend collective existence from racial capi-
talism’s systematic expropriation. Neoliberalism has given us an interesting
conjuncture: its rapacity for natural resources—for oil, gas, minerals, water,
agricultural commodities, lumber—has required the current structure of
domination to bring indigeneity into representation, because so much of the
natural resources that still exist in the world are to be found on lands tra-
ditionally occupied, owned, belonging with, or stewarded by Indigenous
people (up to 50 percent according to the International Forum on Global-
ization).27 This, in turn, has given Indigenous worldings a rupturous poten-
tial. Especially since the implementation of austerity regimes in the wake of
the financial crisis of 2008, the dispossessions of Indigenous people have be-
come visible as the means of transit (the origin, exemplification, and medium)
for accelerated primitive accumulation for everyone. Using the imperative
to pay off public debt as a rationale to govern ever more in the interest of
financial capitalism, new seizures of lands and waters in settler colonial
democracies of the United States and Canada have violated Indigenous treaty
rights and environmental protection laws alike; corporate entities are given
the “right” to exploit Indigenous lands, public lands and private small-
holdings; in order to accelerate such dispossessions, new strategies have to
undermine the health and capacities of Indigenous people and all people
who get in the way.
With liberal rights and concepts of democratic participation increasingly
being structured by economic rationalities and thus offering little resistance
to the damages of financialization, Indigenous decolonization movements
have come to be seen as capacitating multiple struggles against disposses-
sion. In the United States and Canada, modern decolonization movements
offer compelling frameworks of difference, based in rapport with land, col-
lective responsibility, and countersovereignty, which have been strengthened
by decades of resistance to liberal multicultural terms of inclusion, increas-
ing their oppositional force. A prominent movement is Idle No More, which
began in 2012 as a show of resistance to Canada’s Bill C-45, which derogates
treaty rights by removing almost all waterways and more than thirty thou-
sand lakes from treaty protection transparently in order to build controversial
pipelines and dams. Crucially, Idle No More organizes diverse social forces
around a thinking of land and relating to land that lies outside the permis-
sible rationality of racial capitalist settler coloniality. It draws on a general-
ized North American inscription of responsibility to land as a nonhuman
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being and part of collective existence. Moreover, it nurtures thinking and
acting according to the conceptual framework of “all my relations,” a praxis-
organizing intention to work for the well-being of the widest conceivable
collective (including nonhuman beings in addition to land) interconnected
through nonlinear time and space. We might conceive of this as a principle
completely antagonistic to, and capable of superseding, the differentiations
racial capitalism requires between people, of territories, and in value. The
new affinities coalescing around Idle No More necessitate caution from the
point of view of Indigenous decolonization, for resistance to racial capital-
ism can shore up settler colonialism despite the fact that both rely on the
violences of primitive accumulation. Yet the merging of interests may point
to something emergent and unifying, a generalized interest in the integra-
tive potential of Indigenous worldings to point the way to new relations for
nurturing total social being (which is more than human) through the mate-
rial activities of living.
J O D I M E L A M E D is associate professor of English and Africana studies at
Marquette University. She is the …

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