White Capital, Black Labour and the After Lives of the Race Problem in Modern America

By Paul R.D. Lawrie

Racism still remains to be a part of white Americans’ subconsciousness. This article discusses the history of racial politics, the persistence of the conception of blackness as a “problem”, and the issue of black labour in America.

“How does it feel to be a problem?” asked W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) his eloquent meditation on the racial politics of turn of the century America. Answering this question DuBois confessed “I seldom answer a word” evincing the deep sense of alienation or “double consciousness” felt by many blacks struggling with the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others”; of being a part, yet separate from the nation.1 This notion of the Negro as “problem” dominated fin de siècle America. Five years later Charlotte Perkins Gilman one of the era’s leading feminist reformers penned an essay entitled “A Suggestion on the Negro Problem” in the prestigious American Journal of Sociology. With a mixture of pity, resignation and no small dose of irritation befitting her status as a middle class white reformer she opined; “He (the Negro) is here; we can’t get rid of him; it is all our fault; he does not suit us as he is; what can we do to improve him?” With the velvet glove of materialism concealing the iron fist of state coercion Gilman disingenuously “suggested” that given the uneven civilisational development of the white and coloured races the state should conscript all those blacks who “fall below a certain grade of citizenship” into a peacetime industrial corps.2 Gilman like many amongst the chattering classes believed that freed from the seemingly protective embrace of slavery the naturally indolent Negro would expire in the brave new world of American industrial capitalism. Industrial conscription – simply slavery by another name – would prove the Negro’s salvation. Gilman’s solution to the so called Negro problem was significant not only for its chilling draconian nature but for its explicit attempt to read race through the era’s other pressing dilemma: the labour problem.

At its heart the labour problem was about the tension between capital and labour; free and unfree labour and the need to reconcile both with the nation’s democratic institutions.

Moreover prevailing notions of “industrial evolution” which posited industry – or lack thereof – as a function of race and civilisational fitness linked race, labour and the working body in the era’s labour economies. For many of the era’s myriad social observers the Labour and Negro (also known as the Race) problem were two sides of the same coin.

Over a century later Gilman’s question haunts us still: What is the role of African Americans in the nation’s past, present and future labour economy and the republican body politic writ large? What is the function of race and racial difference in an ostensibly post-racial neoliberal world? And most importantly what does it mean to continually frame these questions in a “problematic” framework? To conceive of peoples and complex social realities in qualitative and monolithic terms from “black criminals” to the elusive “white working class”: seemingly objective problems in need of ill-defined solutions. Yet asking “what is to be done with or about ___?” revels the vital role the production of difference has had in the making of American capitalism. From a racial perspective delineating which bodies can do which kinds of work has been especially key for modern labour economies predicated on standardisation, efficiency, mass production and the ideal working type. Historically notions of “fit” and “unfit” bodies have coalesced along racial lines with whites generally constituting the former and blacks the latter. From the early 20th century steel industry which consigned black workers to the hottest, dirtiest jobs due to their “tropical disposition”; to Chrysler’s efforts in the 1960s to subject “brutish and disposable” black auto workers to the punishing pace of “niggermation” (whereby one black worker did the work of four whites) to present day efforts to bridge the digital divide in the technology sector, racism has functioned as part of the capitalist labour process not merely as an ideology, but because it shapes the way work is organised and exploited in any given context. Paul Gilroy reminds us “there is no racism in general” only an ideological imperative born of a specific time, place and power structure(s).3 Race and racial identity are therefore best understood as historical imperatives. Though the “need for a Negro” has changed throughout American history the conception of blackness as a “problem”, as inimical or at best incidental to the nation’s labour economy persists.

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The long and fractious pairing of white capital and black labour reached a fever pitch in turn of the century America. The progressive era – so named for its belief in social progress through rational state sponsored reform – was a time of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation fuelled by mass migration. Masses of workers from southern, central and eastern Europe and waves of southern blacks fleeing Jim Crow all converged in the great industrial cities of the North. Heretofore the “negro problem” had been seen as a decidedly southern affair yet shifting global capitalisms conspired to turn the figure of the Negro into a national concern.

Forging a Laboring Race charts the history of an idea –  the black working body in the progressive imagination – to analyse how ideas of race, work, and the “fit” or ”unfit” body informed the development of the modern industrial state.

Specifically how a collection of thinkers from across the natural and social sciences sought to make sense of these dramatic demographic and socio-economic shifts via a biological lens. Drawing on recent work in African-American, Labour and Disability history this book charts the development of these new “bodies of knowledge” from turn of the century actuarial science which defined African Americans as a degenerate and dying race through the standardised mental and physical testing developed by the US army and eugenicists during World War I. The war was a key moment in racial labour division, mobilising African Americans for the work of war and organising social scientists to create new means of quantifying and measuring working bodies such as the draft and vocational rehabilitation. Many army medical officials debated whether it was even possible or desirable to remake black bodies seen as defective by definition. Evolutionary theory and industrial management combined to link certain peoples to certain forms of work and reconfigured the story of races into one of development and decline, efficiency and inefficiency and the tension between civilisation and savagery. But these new cultures of racial management were challenged by the exigencies of industrialisation, migration, war and blacks themselves in ways that eventually helped sever race from biology. Though these new forms of racial expertise represented little more than an imagination of control on the part of managerial elites, it was an imagination powerfully believed in and acted upon in attempting to reconcile and naturalise the contradictions and inequalities of American capitalism. The Negro working “type” of the progressive imagination was born in the era’s photography studios, corporate boardrooms, universities, factory floors, draft boards, battlefields and hospitals. Positing the working black body as a site of inquiry, discipline and knowledge production progressive thinkers reaffirmed race as an organising principle of American labour economy. Wartime testing exacerbated and refined the progressive commitment – itself a mere extension of Enlightenment qualitative principles – to the discipline and punishment of the body. Rather than representing a breakdown of western civilisation, the war laid bare its governing racial epistemologies in distinctly corporal terms. New taxonomies of labour fitness linked racial form to function: a Negro did as a Negro was inexorably linking labour fitness to colour and the body. Embedded in the sediment of progressive era thought these policies and practices provide a fossil record of how capitalism, war and the nation state worked to produce and naturalise racial and labour hierarchies across the colour line.

Though the language has changed (“Negro”, “coloured”, “black”, “African American”) the notion of black peoples as “problem” prevails.

The author Richard Wright described the Negro as “America’s metaphor” intimately related to the legacy of slavery but one that ultimately corresponded to no fixed cultural or biological attributes.4 In his landmark study of American race relations, An American Dilemma, (1944) the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal remarked that “the Negro has to be defined according to social and economic usage and his African ancestry and physical characteristics are fixed to his person much more ineffaceably then the yellow star is fixed to the Jew”.5 Herein lay the conundrum of “the Negro” as a decidedly physical presence yet ever shifting social construct: a “changing same” of racial identity and economic imperatives.6 Perhaps the persistence of race and racial difference as metaphor and technologies of social control can be attributed to its infinitely malleable nature.7 For the scholar Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, “racial capitalism has been undying and constantly changing, shedding its old skin… reappearing in ever newer forms: slavery, sharecropping, proletarianisation through the labor marginalisation” of today.8 Racial capitalism will inevitably mutate to accommodate shifting demographic trends and the transition to a minority majority nation. Notwithstanding pretentions to a “post racial” present race still functions as a concrete means to create, define and rationalise social inequality. Despite the growth of a black middle class, greater representation in corporate and political America and the elections of President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, black and white Americans continue to be separated by vastly unequal access to jobs, education, capital and health care. This inequality is most glaring in the criminal justice system. Though blacks account for only approximately 13% of the national population, they comprise almost 60% of the nation’s prison’s population and are three times more likely to be imprisoned then Latino men and seven times more likely than whites. Shockingly there are more African Americans incarcerated on probation or parole than were enslaved in the United States in 1850.9 Millions of blacks residing in the nation’s impoverished inner cities are effectively cut off from the mainstream labour economy, toiling in menial service industry jobs or the violent drug trade. Neo-liberal economic trade policies have only increased the mobility of capital leading to rampant outsourcing and deindustrialisation the burden of which has fallen disproportionately on workers of colour.

The poor, elderly and disabled peoples of colour entrapped in the nation’s decaying inner cities have found themselves reduced to mere objects of pity, scorn and or policy.

For many observers across the political spectrum the very presence of black peoples within the body politic ensures the persistence of race and racism which has long been seen as solely a “black problem”.10

From the auction block to the cell block the devaluation, discipline and destruction of black bodies has coloured the nation’s political and labour economies. Recent efforts to defend the autonomy and worth of black minds and bodies evinced in movements such as #BlackLivesMatter struggle against the simple truth that black lives have not, do not and cannot matter in the calculus of American capitalism as currently conceived.11 Racial hierarchies are constitutive of American capitalism. Writing a little over a century ago Kelly Miller – a contemporary of Gilman – enjoined his fellow African Americans not to fall victim to prevailing “expert” opinion regarding the Negro’s inherent inferiority in impressively prescient terms; “He (the Negro) does not labour under a destiny of death from which there is no escape. It is a condition and not a theory that confronts him” (my emphasis).12 Reimagining race and racial difference as needs rather than facts divests them of their seemingly natural, inevitable character. Yet maintaining a corporeal perspective, one which sees bodies as texts, as social constructs, allows us to better understand how these racial categories and identities get made and naturalised in the most visceral everyday terms. How peoples have come to distinguish between “white man’s” and “coloured peoples” work. Dismantling the racial inequities of present and future capitalisms’ does not mean accepting the latter’s pretentions to rational or random disinterest (the invisible hand is always visible and historically pale) nor does it mean dismissing its explicitly racialist expressions (such as racial slavery) as mere aberrations. Rather it means claiming a special place for anti-racist thought within these policies and practices to interrogate capital’s implicit racial subtexts and methodologies that impoverish us all.

Featured image: 1 Black & 1 White protestor with signs that say: Is His Life Worth Less Than Mine; Is His Life Worth more than mine Photo Courtesy: Etan Thomas


About the Author

Paul R.D. Lawrie received his PhD from the University of Toronto and is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Winnipeg. His first book Forging a Laboring Race: The African American Worker in the Progressive Imagination was published by NYU Press in 2016.


1. W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903) in Three Negro Classics (NY: Avon Books, 1965), 213.
2. Gilman, “A Suggestion on the Negro Problem” American Journal of Sociology, July 1908, 80.
3. Gilroy, “One nation Under a Groove” in The Anatomy of Racism ,265
4. Richard Wright, White Man Listen! (NY: Anchor Books, 1964), 72, 80.
5. Myrdal quoted in Guterl, The Color of Race, 184.
6. Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, ‘The Changing Same’ in Koditschek, ed. Race Struggles: x.; 38.
7. Roediger, “White Without End? The Abolition of Whiteness; or the Rearticulation of Race’, Race Struggles: 98; Cornell West, Jorge Klor de Alva, ‘On Black Brown Relations’, The Cornel West Reader (NY: Basic Books, 1999), 499-514.
8. Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, Race Struggles: x., 38.
9. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colour blindness (NY: New Press, 2012), etc. 4-8. Alexander also notes that the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa at the height of apartheid.
10. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America Third Edition (NY: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2009).
11. Charles Blow, “Beyond ‘Black Lives Matter’”, New York Times, Feb, 9, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/09/opinion/charles-blow-beyond-black-lives-matter.html
12. Miller, “Review of Race Traits”(1897).

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.


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