Race & Slavery in America
Transcript for Student Voices
Seth Rockman/Rainbow Chen
You’re listening to Student Voices, a podcast featuring student-led interviews of Brown University faculty based on the Race & in America panel discussion series, curated by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America in partnership with the Office of the Provost.
Rainbow Chen: I'm Rainbow Chen. I am a senior undergraduate student [who] studies education studies and history, and I am delighted to be joining Professor Seth Rockman, Professor of History, [who] was recently featured in a panel discussion on Race & Slavery in America.
I have a couple of questions to ask you in regards to what you spoke about on the panel. I really enjoyed the panel and really appreciated your thoughtful response and a lot of the work that you've been doing. But I had a few follow-up questions in regards to history today, the world of capitalism in academia, and how that relates to perhaps where we are today.
My first question: racial capitalism is a growing topic in today's humanities, social sciences, and even daily conversations. Whereas racial capitalism has emerged as a framework to understand the relationship between exploitation by capitalism and race, where do you see the history of slavery and capitalism intersecting with racial capitalism and where does it not? Where do you draw the line?
Professor Seth Rockman: That's a great question, Rainbow, and thank you so much for being with me here today and for asking that. You're absolutely right that racial capitalism is being heard all around campus as an analytic framework for trying to understand the ways in which modern economic relations under capitalism are intertwined with racism and specifically the anti-Black racism that had been such a pressing concern within American political life over the last year.
The concept of racial capitalism in some ways has long been present -- or critical analysts of Marxism -- but its prominence within the recent discussion does owe to a particular kind of genealogy, a genealogy that emerges from Black studies or Africana studies that arguably runs through W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction published in 1935, or Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery from 1944. But the term 'racial capitalism' is most associated with the scholar Cedric Robinson who published a book in 1983 called Black Marxism, a book that was not widely read in the 1980s and 1990s, but republished in the year 2000 by the Professor of History at UCLA, Robin Kelley. The book began to circulate quite widely and extensively, and right now you can find Robinson's Black Marxism on graduate reading lists and in undergraduate courses virtually everywhere. It's a really exciting text that critiques sort of the standard Marxist accounts of capitalism's formation and argues for the presence of a Black radical tradition that is predicated on an anti-capitalist mode of liberation.
But at the heart of this entire discussion is this question of what role does difference play in capitalism? Because for libertarian advocates of markets -- right? -- the typical argument is that market freedom is a kind of solvent on racism; that left to their own devices, markets seek efficiency, racism is woefully inefficient, and so the more free markets we have, the less racism. And, of course, anyone who's paying attention to history would say, 'well, actually, no, we don't really have much evidence for that. That seems wishful thinking.' And in actuality, what we see time and again is that capitalism has found ways to mobilize race alongside other forms of socially constructed difference[s] -- whether those are understood as ethnicity, whether those are understood as gender, whether those are understood as virtually, you know, numerous other identities -- and to use those, to assure that not everyone enters into the marketplace on equal footing: that some people enter with certain privileges and opportunities, other people enter with certain disabilities or liabilities. And, thus, the ability or, I should say, the outcomes end up being quite skewed so that people with wealth generate more wealth for themselves, and others are left behind.
And I think this is absolutely right. One of the really important things about Robinson's version of racial capitalism though, is while it is very attentive to anti-Black racism as a particular form of racial capitalism, it is open to the idea that, in fact, this vast range of kinds of difference ha[s] also been useful to capitalism over time; and that we should be willing to see this term as a way of understanding the English colonization of Ireland, or the position of Jewish people in early modern Europe, or the mobilization of capitalism today, in which people by virtue of ethnic and citizenship status may have, again, different and more limited opportunities to exert themselves in the marketplace.
So I think 'racial capitalism' really does a lot of work. And it's really crucial to understand this, not as simply one variety of capitalism as a new book with a wonderful title Histories of Racial Capitalism makes clear. It's not, 'well, there's finance capitalism, there's industrial capitalism, there's merchant capitalism, and there's racial capitalism.' No, racial capitalism is, in fact, inherent to all these other forms of capitalism and that, as scholars, it's incumbent upon us to look for the ways in which difference has functioned to organize markets. And to that extent, I think this is a really productive move in the scholarship.
Rainbow Chen: Awesome. You kind of started talking about my next question, actually, because when we discuss capitalism and race, the ideology of class and wealth often comes into play. So when you discussed on the panel how mundane goods such as plantation tools, or even cloth, became racialized, I was curious about how that may have detracted from class association with certain goods and perhaps even the broader idea of capitalism at that time. How did low-quality cloth, which may have been associated with the working class or poor classes of America, somehow turn into this racialized cloth that was associated with slavery and Black folks? Do you think that this may have also played a role in detracting from class solidarity between working white people and Black slaves?
Professor Seth Rockman: That's also a really great question about the relationship of race and class in American history. And that relationship of race and class has been fairly fraught. Whether because some people have come to the conversation with the expectation that class solidarities, particularly among the marginal, should, in fact, trump other kinds of differences and that a working people's movement is just under the surface, ready to be there but for the way in which then, as the story typically goes, working-class white people are fed certain racist commitments that blind them to their shared solidarities with other exploited people. And, thus, you were prevented from, for instance, seeing an alliance between white mill workers in New England and black enslaved workers in the deep South whose lives were all determined by cotton production, but who couldn't see a common solidarity that would allow them to overthrow the systemic oppression that befell them both.
And a lot of this analysis does go back to Du Bois in Black Reconstruction, who began to talk about a 'wage of whiteness,' and the ways in which working-class white people were, in fact, compensated for their labor, not merely in a weekly paycheck, but by membership in a dominant race with all the privileges that came from that and with the liberties to beat up on those below them, particularly people of color and Black Americans specifically. And that line of scholarship was revitalized in the 1990s with a book called The Wages of Whiteness by David Roediger that became one of the most read books in the period when I was in graduate school in the 1990s.
Going back to your question, what work did material goods play in all of this? It's really interesting to think--if, in fact, we take the point that this is a kind of a bottom-up thing--if a white factory worker in the 1840s is wearing a pair of pants that are functionally indistinguishable from the pants that you'd find on the legs of an enslaved Black field worker in Mississippi, what is the process by which that shared experience does not generate solidarity, but, in fact, accelerates the need for differentiation: [i.e], for that white worker in the North to be able to say, 'I may be wearing these pants, but I am not a slave! I am not Black!' And those investments that scholars have suggested took place in other kinds of venues. And white popular culture, particularly white working class popular culture, was punctuated with 'We are not slaves! We are not Black!' [which] becomes a very telling piece of evidence for seeing the ways in which people who could not, in fact, differentiate their lives necessarily through a different kind of material base, nonetheless then had to work extra hard to differentiate themselves in other ways.
Rainbow Chen: This is a perfect follow through into my last question. I grew up in Vermont, nearly the whitest state in the country. Yet it's also the same state that abolished slavery, probably the earliest in the continental U.S. I can certainly see the work that you and similar scholars are doing to analyze how this supposedly free North and white workers have come to conceptualize and racialize Black people. What do you think are some other ways and methods that produce anti-Black racism in New England? You mentioned bar music and you mentioned songs. Are those researched enough?
Professor Seth Rockman: This is another great question, Rainbow, so thank you. I think that the real energy in the coming generation of scholarship is going to bring the colonial encounter with Native Americans and the kinds of racist tropes about 'vanishing Indians' and 'noble savages' that [were] such a part of 19th-century New England culture in conversation with the kinds of stories that white New Englanders told not only about Black people as different, but about themselves as always anti-slavery and always free of any association with that abominable institution.
This is a place where, if you can say within the scholarship, there's been one conversation around settler colonialism from the beginning of New England settlement all the way through the 19th century, and there's been another conversation about racial capitalism and about race-making under capitalism, bringing those two conversations together, I think, is where things are going. And I'm very happy that the Brown Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice is poised to lead this actually with a new grant that they've recently received that will allow them to bring together the histories of slavery and colonialism under one umbrella.
But I think looking for the kinds of commonalities of those discussions, of those racist tropes, of those mythologies, will be very helpful, especially trying to find the kind of common erasures and the efforts towards erasure that white New Englanders have been particularly proud of over the course of the 19th century. My colleague Joanne Melish wrote a wonderful book about slavery and anti-slavery in New England called Disowning Slavery, which is functionally about the ways in which, as the New England States enacted emancipation over the course of the early part of the 19th century, the rest of the time up to the Civil War was all about constructing these narratives, 'oh, well, we never had slavery here, wasn't that serious, not a big deal.' And by the time, of course, the Civil War happened, they could claim to have always been abolitionists, when, in fact, this was rarely the case. And I think there's probably a similar story in the ways in which New England philanthropy regarding Native American people who are not necessarily in New England, but, say, their philanthropy towards the Cherokees in Georgia in the 1830s...the ways in which New Englanders, you might say, exculpated a lot of their maybe racial guilt around the treatment of Native Americans by virtue of pouring their philanthropic energies into 'saving the Cherokees.' Thinking about that dynamic alongside the disowning slavery dynamic could be the way to go and could help bring in additional complexity to the history of a state like Vermont, where you're from.
Rainbow Chen: Yeah. I guess a quick sub-question: Since we are at Brown University, do you think Brown played a role in some of that erasure or that disowning slavery concept in New England?
Professor Seth Rockman: Yeah, and this is something that, to a limited extent, the University’s Slavery and Justice Report tried to look into. It, of course, took note of the fact that Brown did not enroll any Black students until the 1870s, even as other institutions in other parts of the country, such as Oberlin College, were doing so some 40 years earlier. And the Slavery and Justice Report also drew attention to the long presidency of Francis Wayland from the end of the 1820s into the middle of the 1850s, and the way in which Wayland at that time managed to hold a position in favor of open debate, but which at the same time displayed an equal condemnation to slaveholding and to organized abolitionism, calling both of them curses on American society. And so Wayland, who really believed in the power of reason and the capacity of people to be swayed through argumentation, did try to create a space at Brown in which you could have open debate around the legitimacy of slavery or the legitimacy of abolitionism. The fact of the matter is that kind of position -- 'well, you can be for slavery or you can be against slavery and let's just talk it out' -- obviously is very, very dangerous because if someone's humanity is, in fact, a subject for debate, this can never be a good thing. So this is one of, I think, the mixed legacies of the Wayland presidency. And as the Slavery and Justice [Report] ultimately concluded, a number of Brown students fought for the Union, but a handful of Brown students fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. And that's the legacy that I think we also need to continue to acknowledge and ultimately own for our University.
Rainbow Chen: Wow. There's so much to unpack about all this work, but thank you so much for answering all the questions so far in terms of where we are right now, and where it's been, and hopes for moving forward. So this is amazing. And thank you so much, Professor Rockman.
Professor Seth Rockman: Thank you, Rainbow. It's a pleasure to chat with you today.
Student Voices is a feature of the Race & in America digital publication series developed by the Brown University Library. Our theme music is “see the unseen” by Butter. Explore the series at DigitalPublications.Brown.edu