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Racial Capitalism – ‘Because I’m Black All the Time’

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Knot of people protesting in front of steps leading into a civic building. A slim woman in a bright blue T-shirt is holding a bullhorn close to her mouth with one hand, pointing straight up with the other. People are masked, various skin hues from deep black to olive.

Understanding racial capitalism helps us go deeper than looking for “disparate impacts” on people of color, says Maurice BP-Weeks.

Maurice BP-Weeks is the co-executive director of Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE). He sits on the boards of several organizations, including Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity, National Institute for Money in Politics, and the National Black Workers Center. Before ACRE, he worked with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and the Center for Popular Democracy.

 ACRE partners with grassroots groups, assisting with campaign strategy, research, and communications. They also do independent research. Weeks and co-founder Saqib Bhatti started the organization because they weren’t satisfied with the way their corporate campaigning reckoned with racial capitalism. The “disparate impact” frame predominated – “here’s a problem, and it disproportionately impacts people of color.” They “wanted to have an organization that had a framework that explained why things are happening to particular groups, and organize and campaign with that analysis really forward,” Weeks said.

 Steven Pitts interviewed Weeks on Episode 10 of Organizing Upgrade’s Black Work Talk podcast. This is just a sample of their conversation, which began with Pitts asking Weeks why he had referred to Amazon as a symbol of racial capitalism.

“I take my cues on this framework from history. This is a Cedric Robinson concept, describing the ways that capitalism works as being based on extraction from particular groups of people. This brand of short-term American capitalism is based on this notion of extraction from Black and brown and Indigenous folks in particular.

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“So when you look at all the ways that Amazon is making their money and how they’re generating their value, you can trace it all back to exploitation of particular communities of color. That shows up in where they build different facilities and the environmental impact the company has on people. It shows up in their workforce. It’s one of the most dangerous places in America to work. . .

“The way that his [Jeff Bezos’] wealth is being created is all through workers. The people who are working in the warehouses, the smaller businesses that create the products he sells, and through my data, your data, and the data of everyone else on the face of the earth. The myth that people like Bezos like to push forward is that the reason they’re billionaires is that they worked really hard and created this set of ideas or created a good that is actually worth that amount of money. But the truth is that all of their wealth is an accumulation of lots of things pulled from lots of different places. That pulling is the wealth extraction.

“When you take a set of vulnerable workers like workers in Minneapolis who work at Amazon’s facilities, these are Black folks – some are Black immigrants – when you take that group of people and choose to not pay them a living wage for the area, and choose to work them so hard there are stories of people using the bathroom on themselves in the workplace, all that is just extracting as much money as you can from those people to pad the company’s pockets, to pad Jeff Bezos’ pockets at their expense.

“The most important thing about the concept of wealth extraction for me is intentionality.… In economics you talk about surplus value and it sounds like an afterthought, something that just happened. Wealth extraction is an intentional process…. This isn’t a market inefficiency. It’s a strategic choice made by a set of actors.”

Pitts: What are some of the implications for the Black freedom struggle when you look through the lens of racial capitalism?

“It causes a look back into history that’s really important. I’ve been in lots of organizing spaces where we’ve made the shift from just talking about systemic racism or capitalism to racial capitalism, and one of the things that will usually come up is slavery. . . .it really is important to realize how recent some of those struggles were, and the connection between what we’re dealing with right now and how the slave trade operated and how slavery operated in the U.S.

“And there has sometimes been this disconnect between things that are structurally racist, like police, and bad schools, and whatever, and capitalism on the other side, and that’s the worker stuff, the charge-too-much-money-for-things stuff. Part of what I’ve seen is a linking of those things a lot more when you’re talking about racial capitalism. Of course, you’re talking about things like police brutality, how schools are funded, etc., but you’re also talking about the grind, and being close to starvation, lack of health care – not splitting folks between their work and their other life. Because – I’m Black all the time. I don’t get to leave work and walk home and not be Black.”

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