Capitalism and Racism

From the Volokh Conspiracy:

A program at UC-Davis looks at the relationship between capitalism and racism.

The website Campus Reform points to a multi-year academic program, Racial Capitalism, hosted at the UC-Davis Humanities Institute that explores the links between racism and capitalism (tip to Glenn Reynolds). Among the questions that were asked at the event launching the program are:

    • “Which came first, capitalism or racism?”

“Can there be capitalism without racism?”

“Is capitalism always racial?”

IMO, the answers to these questions are fairly obvious:

1. Racism came first. Every inhabited continent had slaves, and ethnic out-groups were among the most likely to be enslaved. It is the abolition of slavery that is particularly Western, as Orlando Patterson explains his books Freedom and Slavery and Social Death.

2 (and 3.) If there can be any economic system without racism (I suppose it depends on how high one’s standards are), then capitalism is not always racist and there can be capitalism without racism. Capitalism is easier to square with a reduction in racism than most ideologies because (a) it is individualistic, (b) it is not built on envy for despised groups, and (c) in the United States at least, pro-capitalists tend to be less racist personally than anti-capitalists.
Indeed, in the general public it is the opposition to capitalism and the desire for redistribution that are positively associated with racism and intolerance.

I explore this relationship in “Redistribution and Racism, Tolerance and Capitalism,” which analyzes data from 20 nationally representative surveys of the general public.


The more interesting question (than whether you can have capitalism without racism) is whether you can have socialism without racism. The answer is yes, but the reason is an enlightening one.

In the long run, a robust socialism (that dominates most of the economy) tends to lead to the scapegoating of demonized out-groups, because there must be someone to blame for economic failure. Thus, the Soviet Union began with hating the Kulaks and the ownership class more generally, but once these were destroyed, they needed someone else to blame. Though it took many decades, the Soviet Union went beyond targeting “counter-revolutionaries” to add Jews to the list. So the demonized out-groups under socialism don’t have to be defined by race or ethnicity; they could instead be defined by economic class, religion, or nationality. Accordingly, socialism doesn’t have to be racist, but when it dominates the economy almost inevitably there must be some group to despise.

It would be good if the academy in general–and the UC-Davis Racial Capitalism program in particular–were ideologically diverse enough to reflect some of the substantial evidence from the last few decades on the relationship of capitalism and racism in the views of the general public, evidence that tends to point to a negative association between racism and support for capitalism.