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Africana Philosophy: The Development of the Discipline in the United States (May 2017): Understanding Racism: White Supremacy, Capitalism, and Sexual Violence

By Tommy J. Curry

Understanding Racism: White Supremacy, Capitalism, and Sexual Violence

Formulations of racism and white supremacy as parts of the global structure have been a conceptual and geopolitical reality since the early decades of the twentieth century. Published in 1920, W. E. B. Du Bois’s Darkwater: Voice from within the Veil was one of the first texts to study whiteness as a global phenomenon. Du Bois’s insight was central to dislocating the presumption of the white man’s burden—the idea that white racial superiority entailed the transportation of civilization to the world at large. Du Bois’s work showed that Western imperialism was driven by an orientation that that viewed those of the non-Western world as savages and expendable laborers. In Du Bois’s view, whiteness was a mythology that denied the humanity of non-whites by asserting the implausible “truth” that if everything in the world was white, then the world would exist at the pinnacle of civilization. Du Bois’s expansion of this contention into an account of Africa’s vitiation by the United States and Western European countries explained that the myth of racial inferiority served economic goals. Du Bois understood that efforts to dehumanize Africans correlated with the economic need of the West to take resources and exploit human beings for labor. Africa and parts of Asia were depicted as dark, without civilization, to eliminate any obligations civilized societies would have to the humanity of savage peoples. In The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History, Du Bois argued that the much-celebrated notion of the equality of blacks in the US was a domestic strategy aimed at quieting the dissent surrounding civil rights demanded by black Americans. It was a stratagem intent on distracting blacks in the US from the exploitation of Africans as cheap labor and free raw resources. This global perspective was not very different from the argument Du Bois had made earlier, in Black Reconstruction, regarding the economic policies and shift is societal stratifications in the American South during Reconstruction.1

Ironically, the economic analysis Du Bois undertook in his studies of the American South resonated much more with Caribbean theorists than with black American theorists in the mid-twentieth century. Earlier texts like C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Overture and the San Domingo Revolution and Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery most directly connected to the position taken up by these Caribbean thinkers. As Carole Boyce Davies shows in her edition of Claudia Jones’s Claudia Jones: Beyond Containment: Autobiographical Reflections, Essays, and Poems (which includes an afterword by Alrick X. Cambridge), this analysis was wed not simply to the dialectics of history, but also to the activism and public intellectual culture of the time in anti-racist and pro-womanist writings and politics by the likes of Jones, a Trinidadian journalist and activist. The economic analysis that gave some account of the rise of racism in the West was the dominant intellectual tradition of the Caribbean well into the late decades of the twentieth century. For example, in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa Guyanese scholar Walter Rodney showed that racism and economic motivations converged to make colonialism an operating tool of modernity. Rodney explains that imperialism was primarily an economic feature of Western capitalism and was not necessarily connected to colonialism. Colonization, however, served as a means to dehumanize the African population and to rationalize and crudely justify the disposability of that population in the rising global market. This is the intellectual culture and milieu that influenced the work of many contemporary black philosophers in the US and the Caribbean.

Charles Mills is best known for his widely read and influential work The Racial Contract, in which he argues that social contractarian thought is woefully inadequate to deal with the realities of white supremacy and racism in the United States. Mills writes that the United States was formed based on a racial contract that allocates resources, life chances, and personhood based on whiteness. In his more recent books—for example, From Class to Race: Essays in White Marxism and Black Radicalism (2003) and Radical Theory, Caribbean Reality: Race, Class, and Social Domination (2010)—Mills argues for a racialized theory of black radicalism, a theory that indicts many of the presuppositions Eric Williams argued for in the 1940s. For Mills, slavery made race and class coterminous. One’s racial position determined one’s social and economic stratification. Thus, white supremacy is not simply the byproduct of a set of economic relations transferred to ideology; rather, claims Mills, white supremacy is an overarching theoretical concept that can allow one to see how class operates with racism at its base. The concept of white supremacy requires new theories and systems designed to tackle its peculiar analytic complexities. Previous theory cannot simply be extended to take white supremacy into account; theory itself must be formulated with the problems, histories, and political nature of white supremacy as its foundation. Though these two later books are cited less frequently than is The Racial Contract, they articulate a Caribbean race theory of economics that go beyond the contractarian critiques leveled by the earlier book.

As is often the case in the discipline, some philosophers disagreed with Mills’s assumptions. In C. L. R. James’s Notes on Dialectics: Left Hegelianism or Marxism-Leninism?John McClendon contends that class/historical dialectics could explain the dynamics of racism. As a thorough materialist, McClendon takes the position that Mills’s claim for a conceptual apparatus above historical (dialectical) materialism is merely a masked idealism that obscures the true function of dialectic thought. Similarly, in Philosophy of African American Studies: Nothing Left of Blackness, Stephen Ferguson argues that race-based paradigms often depend on an idealistic formulation of black experience or culture, a formulation that overlooks the centrality of classism in determining racial stratifications and historical racial formations. Ferguson contends that Africana studies, and to a large extent Africana philosophy, erase class distinctions within blackness and retreat into a dangerous class ethos that substitutes for philosophical thought.

In analyzing capitalism, black philosophers have produced substantive accounts of the prison-industrial complex and criminality. Angela Davis’s Women, Race and Class is a major intervention into gendered discourses of racism and criminality. Davis sought to give a complex account of sex roles of blacks, from slavery to the late 1970s, including rape of slave women. Davis’s primary focus is the history and presence of black women—their racial and economic distance from white suffrage and the ways in which their economic position accounts for their radically different political stances next to white women. Davis has become the subject of much study, given her work on prison abolition, sexual violence, and political economics. The work collected in The Angela Y. Davis Reader, edited by Joy James, reveals her as a pivotal thinker for her contributions in these areas. Joy James’s own work closely parallels that of Davis. In Resisting State Violence: Radicalism, Gender, and Race in U.S. Culture (which includes a foreword by Davis), James takes up the problems of racist violence by the state and the ways in which gender, poverty, and violence are exacerbated intraracially. James develops this theme further in Shadowboxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics, in which she creates an intellectual genealogy through black female activists and thinkers regarding state violence and political marginalization. And she continues this intervention in her edited volume Warfare in the American Homeland: Policing and Prison in a Penal Democracy by exploring poverty, death, and resistance strategies against America’s domestic warfare program.

Africana philosophy often takes up multiple questions and literatures in its attempts to develop theories and accounts of societal inequality and violence. Nowhere is this clearer than in accounts of gender and sexual inequality. In Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Patricia Hill Collins elaborates on theories like “intersectionality “—i.e., the intersection of various social identities—developed to understand black female oppression and marginalization in society.  Such theories have become the dominant paradigm for how scholars investigate race, class, and gender. There have also been numerous works highlighting the particular dangers and discrimination black males face in the United States. The most authoritative of these is Anthony Lemelle Jr.’s Black Masculinity and Sexual Politics. This writer joined the conversation with The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood, a genre study of black male death and dying, which addresses black maleness as a vulnerable position.


1. The title Black Reconstruction was subsequently expanded to Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880).

Works Cited