Class and Race

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There is considerable debate in the sociology of race relations over how social inequality based on class and that based on race intertwine or intersect. Are these separate dimensions of inequality that simply coexist? Or are they part of the same reality?

Efforts to develop an understanding of the relationship between class and race have a long history in sociology. In the 1930s and 1940s it was common to conceptualize the issue as "caste and class" (Davis, Gardner, and Gardner 1941). Studies were conducted in southern towns of the United States, and a parallel was drawn between the southern racial order and the Indian caste system. Class differentiation was observed within each of the two racial "castes," but a caste line divided them, severely limiting the social status of upper-class African Americans. This view, while descriptively illuminating, was challenged by Cox (1948), who saw U.S. race relations as only superficially similar to caste and based on a very different dynamic.

The relationship between class and race remains hotly debated today. Wilson (1980, 1987) has argued that class has superceded race as a factor in the continuing disadvantage of black inner-city communities. Wilson argues that economic forces, including the exodus of major industries, have more to do with the social problems of the inner city than do race-based feelings and actions. On the other hand, Omi and Winant (1986) assert the independence of race from class and resist the reduction of race to class forces. They claim that the United States is organized along racial lines from top to bottom and that race is a more primary category than class.

For most Marxist sociologists of race relations, class and race cannot be treated as separate dimensions of inequality that somehow intersect. Rather, they argue that race and class are both part of the same system and need to be understood through an analysis of the system as a whole. Modern race relations are seen as distinctive products of the development of world capitalism. Both racism and capitalism developed together reinforcing one another in a single, exploitative system. The central question then becomes: How has capitalism, as a system based on class exploitation, shaped the phenomena of race and racism?


Conventional thinking tends to follow the line that the development of capitalism should eliminate racism. People holding this position argue that racism is an unfortunate leftover from more traditional social systems. Capitalism, based on rational criteria such as efficiency, should gradually eliminate the irrational features of the past. The market is "colorblind," it should only select on the basis of merit. For example, in the area of job allocation, selecting on the basis of such irrelevant criteria as skin color or the race of one's great grandparents, would lead those firms that so choose to perform less well than those that select purely on the basis of ability, and they would go out of business. Only the rational, colorblind firms would survive and racism would disappear in the labor market.

Unfortunately, this idealized theoretical model of the way capitalism works has not proved true in practice. We continue to live in a highly segregated society, with a continuing racial division of labor, and with a high degree of racial inequality on every social and economic dimension. White families, on average, control much higher levels of wealth than African-American families, for example (Oliver and Shapiro 1995). The continuation of racism within advanced capitalist societies requires further explanation.

Whereas cultural differences have served as a basis for intergroup conflicts for the entire history of humanity, the expansion of Europe, starting in the sixteenth century, set the stage for a new form of intergroup relations. Never before was conquest so widespread and thorough. Nor was it ever associated with such a total ideology of biological and cultural inferiority. Modern racism, with its peudoscientific claims of inferiority, is a unique phenomenon.

An understanding of European expansion, and its impact on people of color, begins with an analysis of capitalism as it developed in Europe. Capitalism is a system that depends on the private ownership of productive property. In order to earn profits on property, the owners depend on the existence of a nonowning class that has no alternative but to sell its labor-power to the owners. The owners accumulate wealth through profit, that is, the surplus they extract from labor. Hence, a class struggle develops between capitalists and workers over the rights of capitalists to the surplus.

In Europe, labor came to be "free," that is, people were no longer bound by serfdom or other forms of servitude but were free to sell their labor-power on an open market to the highest bidder. Being free in this sense gave European workers a certain political capacity, even though they were often driven to conditions of poverty and misery.

Capitalism is an expansionary system. Not only does it unleash great economic growth, but it also tends to move beyond national boundaries. The expansionist tendencies lie in a need for new markets and raw materials, a search for investment opportunities, and a pursuit of cheaper labor in the face of political advances by national labor forces. European capitalism thus developed into an imperialistic system (Lenin 1939).

European imperialism led to a virtually total conquest of the globe. Europe carved up the entire world into spheres of influence and colonial domination. The idea and ideology of race and racism emerged from this cauldron. Europeans constructed a kind of folk-scientific view of human differences, dividing the world's human population into semi-species or "races." Of course, this division has no basis in fact, and racial categorization has been completely discredited. Nevertheless, the idea of race, and its use in structuring societies along hierarchical lines, remains exceedingly robust. In sum, race is strictly a social construction, but one with profound implications for the way society is organized.

European domination took multiple forms, from unequal treaties, unfair trade relations, conquest, and the establishment of alien rule to annihilation and white settlement in places where once other peoples had thrived. Imperialism received ideological justification in beliefs that non-European cultures were primitive, uncivilized, barbaric, and savage, and their religions were pagan and superstitious. Europeans were convinced that they had the true religion in Christianity and that all other peoples needed to be "saved." The denigration of other cultures was accompanied by beliefs in natural, biological inferiority. Dark skin color was a mark of such inferiority, while white skin was viewed as more highly evolved. Africans, in particular, were seen as closer to the apes. These kinds of ideas received pseudoscientific support in the form of studies of cranial capacity and culturally biased intelligence tests (Gould 1981). The totalizing oppression and dehumanization of colonial domination is well captured in Memmi's The Colonizer and the Colonized (1967).

European economic domination had many aspects, but a major feature was the exploitation of colonized workers. Unlike white labor, which was free (in the sense of unbound), colonial labor was typically subjected to various forms of coercion. As conquered peoples, colonized nations could be denied any political rights and were treated openly as beings whose sole purpose was to enhance white wealth. Throughout the colonial world, various forms of slavery, serfdom, forced migrant labor, indentured servitude, and contract labor were common.

Not only did European imperialists exploit colonized workers in their homelands, but they also moved many people around to other areas of the colonial world where they were needed. The most notorious instance was the African slave trade, under which Africans were brought in bondage to the Caribbean area and sections of North and South America. However, other examples include the movement of contract workers from China and India all over the colonial world. Britain, as the chief imperialist power, moved Indians to southern Africa, Fiji, Trinidad, Mauritius, and other places to serve as laborers in remote areas of the British Empire. These movements created "internal colonies" (Blauner 1972), where workers of color were again subject to special coercion.

Even seemingly free immigrants of color have been subject to special constraints. For example, Chinese immigrants to the United States in the late nineteenth century were denied naturalization rights, in contrast to European immigrants, and as a result, were subjected to special legal disabilities. In the United States, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere, Chinese were singled out for "exclusion" legislation, limiting their access as free immigrants.

African slavery had the most profound effects on the shaping of racial thought and racial oppression. Even though slavery contradicted the basic premise of capitalism as based on a free labor market, it nevertheless flourished within world capitalism, and was an essential feature of it. In a seminal book, Williams (1944; 1966) argued that capitalism could not have developed without slavery, a position elaborated upon by Blackburn (1997). The coerced labor of African slaves enabled the western European nations to accumulate capital and import cheap raw materials that served as a basis for industrialization.


Within the United States, the coexistence of free labor in the North and slavery in the South, proved to be disastrous, drawing an especially harsh race line between blacks and whites. The very concept of whiteness became associated with the notion of freedom and free labor, while blacks were seen as naturally servile (Roediger 1991). White workers divided themselves from blacks (and other racially defined workers), believing that capitalists could use coerced and politically disabled workers to undermine their interests. Thus a deep division emerged in the working class, along racial lines. The racism of the white working class can be seen as a secondary phenomenon, arising from the ability of capitalists to engage in the super-exploitation of workers of color.

The sections of the world with the worst racial conflicts are the "white settler colonies." In the British Empire, these include the United States, South Africa, Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. These societies established large white working classes that came into conflict with colonial capitalists over the use of coerced labor (Harris 1964).

From the point of view of workers of color, the distinction between white property owners and white workers seems minimal. Although class conflict raged within the white community, people of color experienced the effects as a uniform system of white domination. All whites appeared to benefit from racism, and all whites appeared to collude in maintaining segregation, job discrimination, and the disenfranchisement of people of color. In this sense, race appears to override class. Nevertheless, it should be recognized that people of color were and are exploited as labor, in order to enhance capitalist profits. Thus their relationship to capital includes both race and class elements. Racial oppression intensifies their class oppression as workers.


So far we have talked only of the relations between white capital, white labor, and colonized labor. The colonial world was, of course, more complex than this. Not only did colonized people have their own middle or upper classes, but sometimes outside peoples immigrated or were brought in and served as indirect rulers of the colonized.

Middle strata from among the colonized peoples can play a dualistic role in the system. On the one hand, they can help the imperialists exploit more effectively. Examples include labor contractors, police, or small business owners who make use of ethnic ties to exploit members of their own group. In these types of situations, the dominant white group can benefit by having members of the colonized population help to control the workers primarily for the dominant whites while taking a cut of the surplus for themselves. On the other hand, middle strata can also be the leaders of nationalist movements to rid their people of the colonial yoke.

Outside middle strata, sometimes known as middleman minorities, can be invaluable to the colonial ruling class. As strangers to the colonized, they have no ambivalence about the aspirations of the colonized for self-determination. They take their cut of profits while not seriously threatening to take over from the Europeans. Because middleman groups tend to serve as the chief interactors with the colonized, they often become a major butt of hostility, deflecting the hostility that would otherwise be directed at the colonial elite. Thus the class and race relations resulting from the development of European capitalism and imperialism have been complex and world-shaping.


Even though formal colonialism as outright political domination has been successfully challenged by national liberation movements, and even though the most oppressive forms of coerced labor have been legally banned in most of the world, neocolonialism and racial oppression continue in various guises.

For example, African Americans in the United States remain a relatively disenfranchised and impoverished population. Although illegal, racial discrimination persists in everyday practice, and racist ideology and attitudes pervade the society. Many whites continue to believe that blacks are innately inferior and object to social integration in the schools or through intermarriage. African Americans are almost totally absent from positions of power in any of the major political, economic, and social institutions of the society. Meanwhile, they suffer from every imaginable social deprivation in such areas as housing, health care, and education.

The capitalist system maintains racism in part because racially oppressed populations are profitable. Racial oppression is a mechanism for obtaining cheap labor. It allows private owners of capital to reduce labor costs and increase their share of the surplus derived from social production. This is very evident in Southern California today, where the large, immigrant Latino population provides virtually all the hard labor at exceptionally low wages. Their political status as noncitizens, a typical feature of racist social systems, makes them especially vulnerable to the dehumanization of sweatshops and other forms of super-exploitation.

With an increasingly globalized world capitalism, these processes have taken an international dimension. Not only do capitalists take advantage of oppressed groups in their own nation-states, but they seek them out wherever in the world they can be found. Such people are, once again, of color. Of course, the rise of Japan as a major capitalist power has changed the complexion of the ruling capitalist elite, but the oppressed remain primarily African, Latin American, and Asian.

It is common today for people to assume that racism goes both ways and that everyone is equally racist, that African Americans have just as much animosity toward whites as whites have toward blacks. According to this thinking, whites should not be singled out for special blame because racism against those who are different is a universal human trait: We are all equally guilty of racism. This view denies the importance of the history described above. To the extent that peoples of color are antiwhite, it is a reaction to a long history of abuse. Claiming that the antiwhite sentiments of blacks are equally racist and on the same level as white racism is an attempt to negate the responsibility of Europeans and their descendents for a system of domination that has tried to crush many peoples.

At the foundation of the problem of race and class lies the value system of capitalism, which asserts that pursuit of self-interest in a competitive marketplace will lead to social enhancement for all and that therefore the social welfare need not be attended to directly. This assumption is patently untrue. The United States, perhaps the worst offender, has let this social philosophy run amok, resulting in the creation of a vast chasm between excessive wealth and grinding poverty, both heavily correlated with color. Without severe intervention in "free market" processes, the United States is heading toward increased racial polarization and even possible violence.

Movements for social change need to address racial oppression and disadvantage directly. Changing the system of capitalist exploitation will not eliminate racism, since the power and resources available to white workers are so much greater than those of workers of color. The whole system of inequality based on appropriation of surplus wealth by a few, mainly white, private property owners needs to be challenged, along with its racial aspects. Major redistribution, based on racial disadvantage, would be required. Neither class-based nor racial inequality can be attacked alone. They are linked with each other and must be overthrown together.


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Oliver, Melvin L., and Thomas M. Shapiro 1985 Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality. New York: Routledge.

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Wilson, William J. 1987 The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

——1980 The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Edna Bonacich