The Dominant Class and the Construction of Racial Oppression: A Neo-Marxist/Gramscian Approach to Race in the United States


Throughout the twentieth century, most progressive scholars have argued against the utility of a Marxist perspective in analyzing racial oppression in the United States. These scholars and critics reject the Marxist notions that racial oppression is undergirded by exploitative and oppressive economic arrangements, that the dominant class plays a major role in the construction of racial oppression, and that racial conflict in the United States is masked class conflict. Moreover, these critics of Marxism claim that historical materialism puts too much blame on the dominant class, adheres too naively to a form of economic determinism, and pays too little attention to human agency. They insist that the most fervent racists were not the capitalists or members of the dominant class, but the white working or lower class. They argue that racial conflicts cut across class lines. Scholars rejecting the utility of a Marxist approach include not just nationalists, but progressives such as W.E.B. Du Bois, C. Vann Woodward and William Julius Wilson. The views of these scholars have become the conventional wisdom.

In contrast, this paper reexamines the evidence and applies a neo-Marxist and Gramscian perspective. That is, it focuses on economic base and superstructure and the role of the dominant class. The base consists primarily of the prevailing mode of production and exploitative economic relations. The superstructure refers to the prevailing culture and political arrangements that maintain the economic base. The dominant class plays a direct and active role as it 1) participates in the formation of exploitative and oppressive economic relations, 2) captures the state and uses it to maintain these relations, and 3) constructs a dominant ideology and culture which legitimizes them.1

Without engaging in an extensive theoretical defense of Marx, this paper restates the conventional wisdom and reexamines the empirical evidence. We assume that racial oppression in the United States has never been fixed or constant, but has changed as the economic base and racist culture have changed.2 We then focus on the how the dominant class has implemented the three above-listed steps. The discussion is organized around four different forms of racism identified in the literature: dominative racism (1700-1885), associated with the institution of slavery; dominative-aversive racism (1885-1965), associated with the Southern Jim Crow system of racial segregation and the sharecropping economic system; aversive racism (1900-1975), associated with racially segregated markets; and meta-racism (1975-current), associated with mobile capital, surplus labor, and the growth of concentrated poverty in urban areas.

Each form of racism is distinguishable by a different set of economic arrangements and a different dominant racist culture. These forms of racism are derived from Joel Kovel, White Racism, A Psychohistory. Of course, Kovel limited his analysis to dominative, aversive and meta racism. Although he focused on the psychological aspects of racist culture, he recognized the need to examine the material base of racism and urged other scholars to do so. 3

The evidence presented here will show that in each of these four forms of racism, the dominant class, rather than the white working class or lower class, played the major role in the construction of exploitative and racially oppressive economic relations. This dominant class also controlled the state and used it to protect oppressive arrangements. Members of this class participated in the formation of a racist culture which operated to legitimize these same arrangements.

Dominative Racism: Slavery

Dominative racism was grounded in the Southern system of plantation slavery. This system was an integral part of the larger emerging capitalist system based on an insatiable and unrestrained drive to accumulate wealth. It was a well integrated, trans-Atlantic economic system including North American finance, trade and industry; West African slave trade; and Southern region agricultural production for world trade – cotton from the Deep South and sugar and rum from the Caribbean. As Marx put it:

As soon as peoples whose production still moves within the lower forms of slave-labour, the corvée, etc., are drawn into a world market dominated by the capitalist mode of production, whereby the sale of their products for export develops into their principal interest, the civilized horrors of over-work are grafted onto the barbaric horrors of slavery, serfdom, etc. Hence the Negro labour in the southern states of the American Union preserved a moderately patriarchal character as long as production was directed to the satisfaction of immediate local requirements. But in proportion as the export of cotton became of vital interest to these states, the over-working of the Negro, and sometimes the consumption of his life in seven years of labour, became a factor in a calculated and calculating system. It was no longer a question of obtaining from him a certain quantity of useful products, but rather of the production of surplus-value itself.4

The planter class of the Deep South in the United States established the plantation system of slavery. While slave owners might have as few as one or two slaves, members of the planter class typically owned more than 100 slaves and more than 1,000 acres of land. This class organized labor on the plantation to maximize the accumulation of wealth. It was a system of forced labor, with total control of the slave person, who was forced to do exhausting work from sun up to sun down for the purpose of maximizing profits. This organization also involved repression severe enough to preempt any possibility of rebellion. The planter class not only controlled labor on the plantation; its members dominated state governments and representation in the US Congress. The maintenance of this system required an intensely controlling, almost sadistic character type and an ideology and culture that depicted the slave as subhuman – biologically inferior, savage cannibals in Africa, needing to be controlled – and the masters as generous, genteel and paternalistic. Thus, dominative racism was based on direct, total and sadistic forms of control and a dominant culture which legitimized the control.

Dominative-Aversive Racism and the Jim Crow System of Segregation: Conventional Wisdom

Conventional wisdom maintains that after the Civil War, the Southern planter class – the former class of slave owners – disappeared and that the white working class and lower class emerged to disenfranchise African Americans and segregate the races. The distinguished historian and sociologist, W.E.B. Du Bois, promotes this thesis in his classic work, Black Reconstruction.5 First, he pronounces the planter class dead:

With the Civil War, the planters died as a class. We still talk as though the dominant social class in the South persisted after the war. But it did not. It disappeared.6

Second, he argues that poor whites constructed the Southern system of segregation. He suggests that working-class whites feared competition from blacks. He insists that this class gained social status by working to restrain the advancement of blacks. He adds:

The poor white was in a quandary with regard to emancipation. He had viewed slavery as the cause of his own degradation, but he now viewed the free Negro as a threat to his very existence.7

Du Bois coins the term “wages of whiteness” to explain why poor whites would align themselves with rich white landowners. Poor whites acquired a higher sense of their own worth by defining themselves as white and by oppressing blacks.

Another distinguished historian, C. Vann Woodward, also subscribes to this conventional wisdom. Like Du Bois, he insists that the planter class disappeared after the Civil War and that the white worker was responsible for the segregation and disenfranchisement of blacks. Woodward suggests that as white workers acquired more political power in the South, they used that power against blacks. He states, “It is one of the paradoxes of Southern history that political democracy for the white man and racial discrimination for the black were often products of the same dynamics.”8 He adds, “As the Negroes invaded the new mining and industrial towns…, and as the two races were brought into rivalry for subsistence wages in the cotton fields, mines, and wharves, the lower-class white man’s demand for Jim Crow laws became more insistent.”9

A similar view is expressed by another progressive scholar, William Julius Wilson, who writes:

White working-class efforts to eliminate black competition generated an elaborate system of Jim Crow segregation that was reinforced by an ideology of biological racism… The white working class was aided not only by its numerical size but also by its increasing accumulation of political resources that accompanied changes in its relations to the means of production; in other words, it was aided by its gradual transformation of increasing labor power into increasing political power.10

Like Du Bois and Woodward, Wilson argues that the planter class dominated the South before the Civil War but not afterwards, because the war destroyed this class. He insists that the rise of industry stimulated the growth of the white working class, which ascended to dominate southern politics. According to Wilson, it was the white working class that secured the passage of Jim Crow and disenfranchising laws.

Dominative-Aversive Racism and the Jim Crow System of Segregation: The Neo-Marxist School

The problem with the conventional wisdom is that it was based more on speculation than on empirical evidence. Du Bois, Wilson, Woodward and others did not trace planter class families before and after the Civil War. Empirical studies of this class before and after the war contradict their view and support the Gramscian perspective. There had always been some vertical – up and down – class movement in the South, even before the Civil War. Nevertheless, most members of the southern aristocracy or planter class before the Civil War remained members of this class after the war.

In one empirical study, Michael Wayne examines select county data in Louisiana and Mississippi. He demonstrates that the planter class continued to dominate agricultural production in the black belt region after the Civil War. He notes that this class owned over 75% of the land in this region.11

Other studies support this point: the planter class not only survived but emerged to organize labor both on the land and in industries. Dwight Billings’ study of North Carolina county data provides a good demonstration of these two points.12 He identifies those families owning more than 1,188 acres of land before and after the Civil War. He demonstrates that members of this class, not Northern industrialists, invested heavily in the textile industry. According to his data, seven textile mills operated between 1865 and 1884. Out of the seven, two were owned by planters who owned more than 3,000 acres of land. Two were owned by relatives of planters. One mill was jointly owned by a planter and a non-planter. Billings could not identify the owner of one mill and another one went out of business. Out of all of textile mills that remained in business and whose owners were known, planters or their relatives owned 100% of them completely or jointly.

Another researcher, W. J. Cash, corroborated Billings’ findings. Cash insists that the emergence of industry in the South occurred within the plantation framework.13 The planter class not only survived, but dominated both agricultural and industrial production in the South. Through its dominant position, this class organized labor on the land and in the industries.

The planter class survived the Civil War, emerged as the dominant class, and organized labor in the South, exploiting black sharecroppers on the land and white workers in the factories. White workers were unorganized. They did not have the power to exclude blacks from textile industries. Moreover, the dominant class used any means necessary to suppress union organizing. It used both the state militia and direct, illegal violence. It was especially violent toward any effort to organize blacks and whites into the same union.

The violence against the Knights of Labor in the late 19th century illustrates this point. In South Carolina in May 1887, H.F. Hoover, a white union organizer who recruited blacks was assassinated. In the same year, the Knights of Labor attempted to organize sugar workers on plantations in Louisiana. When the workers went on strike the governor sent the militia to suppress the strike. Black and white union leaders were arrested. A white mob lynched the black leaders and a local militia unit massacred over 20 blacks.14 Violence against union organizers persisted throughout the early 20th century. The dominant class segregated the work force and violently suppressed labor unions, especially those that attempted to organize black and white workers in the same union. It captured state governments and used the state militia to suppress and murder union organizers.

The Planter Class Disenfranchised Blacks and Constructed Jim Crow

The planter class, not poor whites or white workers, disenfranchised blacks and imposed racial segregation on the South. Supporting this point, Morgan Kousner demonstrates that the leaders in state legislatures and the voters who supported disenfranchisement of blacks were not white workers, but members of the wealthy planter class: “almost all of [the leaders] were affluent and well educated, and they often bore striking resemblance to antebellum ‘patricians.’ Indeed, almost every one was the son or grandson of a large planter, and several of the older chiefs had been slaveholders before the war.”15 Kousner observes this same pattern in his study of voters. He notes a positive correlation between wealth and the vote in favor of disenfranchisement. The more wealthy the voting district, the greater the proportion of voters voting in favor of disenfranchisement.16

The disenfranchisement movement not only took away the vote from blacks. It took away the vote from poor whites as well. The movement was not a paradox of democracy for whites and disenfranchisement for blacks. There was no movement among the working class. The dominant class used bribery, threats and violence to destroy the Republican and Populist parties in the South, the parties of the common folk. The dominant class seized control of state governments, reinforced its power and legally disenfranchised blacks and poor whites. Democracy was for planters only.

Jack Bloom illustrates the point that the planter class disenfranchised poor whites along with blacks. His data indicated that voter participation in Louisiana declined between 1896 and 1900 from 127,000 registered voters to only 3,300. Almost all blacks lost the right to vote. Most poor whites and white workers lost the right to vote.17 The planter class dominated southern politics throughout the first half of the 20th century.

This evidence provides strong support for the neo-Marxist/Gramscian perspective. Clearly, the planter class survived the Civil War, re-emerged and disenfranchised blacks and poor whites, constructed the system of racial segregation and developed the post war racist culture.

The Dominant Class and the Construction of Culture

The dominant planter class contributed to the formation of the racist culture, which legitimized racially oppressive arrangements. A good example of how this was accomplished is the case of Thomas Dixon. Dixon, born in 1864, was a member of a prominent North Carolina family. Before the Civil War his parents owned 32 slaves and his maternal grandparents owned a large plantation of over 1,000 acres of land and over 100 slaves. Moreover, his uncle was one of the founders and leaders of the Cleveland County, North Carolina Ku Klux Klan. Dixon was the author of The Clansman.18 This book was the basis of the movie, The Birth of a Nation. The book and movie produced vivid and powerful images and stories of childlike, ignorant blacks under white tutelage, and beast-like black males who, when unrestrained by whites, roamed the woods looking for white women to rape. The storyline depicted the Ku Klux Klan as being necessary to protect white women from black rapists and to restore the glory of the old South. It presented the view that when blacks acquire the right to vote, they elect illiterate, dirty, uncouth blacks who eat fried chicken in the chambers of the illustrious state legislature, drop chicken bones and trash on the floor, and pass irrational laws that bankrupt the state. The only rational thing to do – for the good of blacks and the South – was to disenfranchise blacks, segregate them from whites, and hang black rapists. These stories ennobled both the planter class and the Ku Klux Klan and legitimized racial oppression. The fact that the book was written and the movie co-produced by the grandson of a major plantation owner illustrates the connection between the dominant class and the initial construction of racist culture.

Aversive Racism and Industrial Capitalism: Conventional Wisdom

A number of scholars explain racial conflict during the period of industrial capitalism in the North in the first two-thirds of the 20th century in terms of conflict between black and white workers. These scholars focus on industrial labor and the skilled trades and, in particular, on two types of intra-class dynamics. First, white workers fight to prevent management from using black workers as strikebreakers. This view assumes that white hostility directed at blacks arises out of the fear and anger toward black strikebreakers. Second, white workers maintain status, prestige, and higher wages by pushing blacks down into lower paying and lower status jobs.19

Contemporary scholars explain the racially exclusionary behavior of white workers in terms of either the advantage of whiteness or the impact of racist culture. Roediger, in Wages of Whiteness, insists that white workers gain status and prestige in defining themselves as white.20 He argues that white working-class consciousness emerged as white labor was contrasted with black labor. White labor was free; black labor was enslaved. White labor had privileges and advantages; black labor had none. It is these advantages that constitute the wages of whiteness, an expression Roediger borrows from Du Bois.

Labor scholars insist that the greatest barrier to hiring blacks into the skilled trades had been white workers. These scholars present examples of white unions excluding black workers. Indeed, many white union constitutions contained language which explicitly excluded blacks.21 Other scholars blame uneducated, low-income whites for racism and racial violence. They see racial violence as operating on the fringe of society, executed by ignorant social misfits, alienated from the mainstream.22 In either case, scholars insist that white workers created the form of racism associated with industrial capitalism.

Aversive Racism and Industrial Capitalism: Neo-Marxism

Although white workers exhibited racism, the issue is where to locate the origin of racial oppression under industrial capitalism. There are a number of reasons to believe that responsibility lies with the dominant class of industrial capitalists, the bourgeois class.

One reason is suggested by the case of the Ford Motors company. During the 1920s and early 1930s Henry Ford recruited blacks into his plants – in some case, into skilled positions. Although there was resentment among white workers, they lacked the power to prevent this. By 1926, Ford employed 10,000 black workers in his River Rouge plant. Summarizing the role of Ford in hiring blacks, Meier and Rudwick observe:

…not only were many blacks on assembly lines, but others were employed in laboratories and drafting rooms; [as] bricklayers, crane operators, and mechanics; and in such highly skilled trades as electricians and tool-and-die makers.… Only at Ford were blacks admitted to apprentice schools; black and white Ford employees operated machinery…. Finally the company had more black foremen than the rest of the industry combined.…23

During this period, Ford had black supervisors over integrated work crews. In one case he had a black supervisor over a white, predominantly Polish American crew.

The racial hiring patterns in the automobile industry reflected the attitudes of the leaders of the companies, not the attitudes of white workers. Although Henry Ford subscribed to the racist beliefs of his time, he was paternalistic. He believed that whites were superior and blacks inferior and that blacks and whites should live in separate neighborhoods. However, he believed that the superior races had obligations to the inferior races to help them obtain decent neighborhoods and jobs.24 He also believed that blacks were passive, much like the happy slaves. He saw them as useful allies against labor unions.

Ford changed his policies in the early 1940s, just after blacks joined the United Auto Workers. Feeling betrayed and angered at this step, Ford became the most racially discriminatory automaker. Meier and Rudwick note, “Violating wartime regulations, Ford was actually recruiting white labor from other Michigan cities while turning away black applicants in Detroit”; they add, “…at the Rouge itself the management instituted segregation in the new steel and aluminum foundries, while sharply limiting transfers to other departments.”25

The point here is this: When Henry Ford decided to hire and promote blacks and integrate his work force even during the 1920s (when the Ku Klux Klan was active among Detroit auto workers), white workers were powerless to stop it. It was Ford, not the white workers, who segregated the work force.

Another reason for locating the origin of racial oppression within the capitalist class is that in many of the cases in which white workers’ anti-black strikes were successful, there was little opposition from industry, as management already shared the views of the white workers. A good example of this occurred during World War II. The white workers initiated an anti-black sit-down strike at the Packard Automobile Company’s tank factory, in protest of two black workers being transferred into a metal polishing job. The federal government had ordered the transfer. A spokesperson for Packard defended the strike, saying that metal polishing was a “white man’s job.”26 However, threatened with the loss of a major defense contract, the company conceded. The sit-down strike collapsed. The two blacks remained on the job. White workers clearly did not have the power to keep the workplace racially segregated

Studies of racial oppression in the steel industry demonstrate that hiring patterns tend to reflect the attitudes of the owners and managers of the company. Company leaders saw blacks as suitable for the dirtier, hotter, more dangerous jobs and consequently hired them into these job areas, while excluding them from skilled jobs. Labor historian Foner quotes a factory manager saying in 1919, “Negroes do work white men won’t do, such as common labor; heavy, hot, and dirty work; pouring crucibles; work in the grinding room; and so on.”27 A foreman in a Pennsylvania steel mill said, “They [blacks] are well fitted for this hot work, and we keep them because we appreciate this ability in them… The door machines and the jam cutting are the most undesirable; it is hard to get white men to do this kind of work.”28

As we see once again, it is the owners and managers of industrial corporations who are primarily responsible for how labor is organized in production. These capitalist leaders create the labor hierarchies. They are initially responsible for privileging white labor. Once having acquired this privilege, white labor operates to protect it. As a privileged stratum, white workers felt that they had an interest in promoting segregation.

This principle is reflected in the difference between skilled trade unions and industrial unions. Skilled trade unions have the worst history of racial exclusion. Industrial unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World, Knights of Labor, the United Auto Workers, and the United Mine Workers of America have a strong record of commitment to racial integration and labor solidarity across racial lines.

Meta-Racism: Conventional Wisdom

Conventional wisdom insists that racial oppression is now a thing of the past. Indeed, there is no way of overstating the progress that has occurred during the last few decades of the 20th century. Within the past decade, African Americans have at one time or another served in most cabinet positions. Under George W. Bush’s administration the Secretary of State position was held first by an African American male, Colin Powell, and then by an African American female, Condoleezza Rice. Today, the president of the United States and the chair of the National Republican Party are black.

William Julius Wilson had pronounced the declining significance of race over thirty years ago.29 In The Truly Disadvantaged, he argued that affirmative action had contributed to the substantial advancement of the black middle class. As members of this class attained high levels of education and professional jobs, they moved out of the inner cities and left the black poor isolated and concentrated. Lacking education and middle-class values, the black underclass could not qualify for the knowledge-intensive jobs of the post-industrial, global era.30 Wilson’s perspective represents part of the new conventional wisdom.

Another part of the new conventional wisdom explains the rise of right-wing politics among the white working class. Thomas Frank in his book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, claims that white workers and poor whites are part of the religious right and that the powers of the new conservatives arise out of the alliance between the corporate sector and the religious right.31

Meta-Racism: Neo-Marxist Perspective

Within the neo-Marxist framework, the current period is no different from the previous eras. Racial oppression persists today. Although there are signs of dramatic progress in some areas, there is severe regression in others. Racism has not declined; it has simply changed form. Today, racial oppression overlaps with class oppression more than ever before. Whereas dominative-aversive racism, the old Jim Crow system, excluded all blacks of all social classes, meta-racism impacts low-income blacks most severely, particularly those living in concentrated poverty areas of inner cities. New racial stereotypes focus on the urban poor or urban underclass. New economic arrangements correspond with the new form of racial oppression.

The new economic arrangements can best be classified Gramscian terms as post-Fordism. These arrangements have produced enormous surplus labor and substantial inequalities. The new racial oppression is characterized by concentrated urban poverty, by the warehousing of black males in the criminal justice system, by high infant mortality rates, and by diminishing political power.

From Fordism to Post-Fordism to Meta-racism

Gramsci coined the term Fordism to define an era named after Henry Ford, who had envisioned his assembly-line workers earning enough money to purchase an automobile. Thus, Fordism was an era in which corporations accepted a well-paid work force, protected by strong unions; promoted Keynesian economic policy; and invested in local communities. Capital (production facilities) was fixed. That is, it was unfeasible to move factories because of their mammoth size (with often close to 20,000 workers), the enormous initial investment in them, and their dependence on established railroad lines.

Fordism ended during the middle 1970s, as a result of technological changes and of conscious decisions by corporate leaders. Technological changes led to the rise of mobile capital, the ability of corporations to easily close down a production facility in one area and relocate in another. These changes included the rise of the trucking industry, which freed production facilities from dependence on railroads; the telecommunications revolution, which allowed corporate headquarters to engage in instant audio and visual communications anywhere in the world; and the development of smaller, more automated production facilities, which made it easier to close down a facility in one region and relocate to another.

Corporate leaders made three conscious decisions that spelled the end of Fordism. They deliberately engaged in economic strategies to weaken labor and reduce wages. They decided to become more politically active in order seize the state and promote neoliberal public policies designed to trash protective regulations, shred the social safety net, and further weaken labor and reduce wages. And they decided to pour huge sums of resources into think tanks for the dissemination of neoliberalism and the construction and promotion of a new racist ideology. These decisions had their most devastating impact on inner-city blacks and contributed to the rise of meta-racism

From the mid-1970s, corporations slashed wages and eviscerated unions by closing down production facilities in high-wage, unionized, old industrial cities and moving to low-wage, anti-union areas in other parts of the country and the world; by outsourcing to non-union, low-wage firms; and by relying on part-time, temporary workers. This process had its most severe impact on declining industrial cities with large populations of African Americans. It contributed directly to a rise in surplus labor, an increase in people without jobs. It produced substantially high poverty rates in industrial cities. Older industrial cities suffered catastrophic losses of industrial jobs. Between 1972 and 1982, Detroit lost 69,300 industrial sector jobs, 24,900 jobs in retail and 17,000 jobs in wholesale.32

There was some job growth in the service sector, but this was in the areas of security guards, nurses’ aides, janitorial services, and other low-paying occupations. Professional jobs tended to be in areas such as social work and teaching. The rise of poverty was associated with the city’s hemorrhaging of decent-paying industrial jobs in the automobile industry.

These losses impacted the city’s poverty rate. Poverty in Detroit rose from 14.9% to 21.9% between 1970 and 1980.33 In 1980, a city poverty rate of over 20% was extreme. Today, most of the older industrial cities have poverty rates well above 20%. By 2008 Detroit’s poverty rate was 33.1%. Today, most of the older industrial cities suffer extremely high poverty rates: Flint, Michigan has a rate of 34.4%; Youngstown, Ohio, 32.6%; Buffalo, New York, 29.9%; Cleveland, Ohio, 28.9%; Cincinnati, Ohio, 25.7%; Newark, New Jersey, 24.7%.

The rise of severe poverty in these industrial cities has had other consequences, notably, high infant mortality. Infant mortality rates vary widely throughout the world. Countries like Japan, Sweden, and Norway have rates lower than 3.5 per every 1,000 live birth. Canada, the United Kingdom and France have rates below 5 per 1,000 live births. Cuba, Costa Rica, Argentina have rates of 5.82, 8.77 and 11.44 respectively. The infant mortality rate of the US is 6.26 deaths per 1,000 live births The infant mortality rates in select older industrial cities is above 12 per 1,000 births. Among blacks in these cities the rate is over 14.8 per 1,000. The rates for Buffalo, Detroit Cincinnati, Newark and Philadelphia are 17.6, 16.0, 17.8, 15.6 and 16.6 respectively.34

Warehousing and Surplus Populations

Another severe impact of the Post-Fordist period, particularly on blacks, is the warehousing of surplus populations. Four trends reflect the severe racial repression associated with Post-Fordism. First, incarceration rates in the US have increased exponentially since 1980. In 1980 about 1.8 million people were in the system (jail, prison, probation or parole). About 400,000 were in jail or prison. By 2007, there were over 7.3 million in the system and over 2.3 million incarcerated.35 The United States incarcerates more people than ever before in its history and more people than any other nation in the world. Whereas the US only has 5% of the world population, it holds 25% of the world’s prisoners.36

Second, the increase in the prison population has been tied directly into surplus populations, the populations of the poor and unemployed. The overwhelming majority of those incarcerated are poor people and people of color:

Across all racial groups, prisoners are drawn from the poorest sectors of society. A large percentage (of prisoners) are unemployed at the time of their arrest or have only sporadic employment. Of those with jobs, many have incomes near or below the poverty level. Seventy-two percent of prison inmates and 60 percent of jail inmates have not completed high school; many are illiterate….

The statistical link between unemployment or underemployment and imprisonment is borne out in the demographic characteristics of prison populations. In 1990, 58.2 percent of all those jailed (about 561,700 people) were unemployed at the time of their arrest. Roughly 68 percent earned less than $15,000 a year. State prison populations reveal a similar link. In Florida, for example, of nearly 30,000 people imprisoned in 1986, barely half (52 percent) were employed full-time at the time of their arrest. Nearly half earned less than $500 a month.37

Third, not only does the US have the highest incarceration rate in the world, it incarcerates a higher percentage of its minority population than any other country. The US incarceration rate is 702 per 100,000. The nearest competitor is Russia with a rate of 628. US incarceration rates are much higher for male populations. The white male incarceration rate is 736 per 100,000. This high rate is indicative of a class repressive society. The black male incarceration rate is an alarming 4,789 per 100,000. This rate is indicative of an extreme racially repressive society.38 In 2006 there were about 836,800 black males in jail or prison out of a population of about 18,262,000 black males.39 That is, about 4.58% of the total black male population. The percentage is much higher when the age group of 20 to 29 is considered, close to 10%.40

Fourth, the repressive level of incarceration rates of blacks is a function of racial stereotypes and racial targeting of black populations. Conventional wisdom suggests that more black males are arrested for using and selling crack cocaine because this drug is more popular in the inner city and black dealers sell it openly in public places, thus making themselves targets. However, Michelle Anderson points out in her research that suburban whites buy their drugs – cocaine, ecstasy, crack – from a local white dealer who also sells in public. Police agencies target the black inner city drug dealers, but ignore the white suburban dealers.41 Moreover, research indicates that the overwhelming majority of drug users are white. Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project says, “Thus, SAMHSA  data indicates that whites represent 77 percent of current drug users, African Americans constitute 15 percent and Hispanic 8 percent”; he adds that black crack cocaine use is 0.6% of the population compared to a white use of 0.2%.42 However, given their much greater proportion of the population, the white user rate translates into whites representing 54% of current crack cocaine users, blacks 34% and Hispanics 12%. Nevertheless, blacks constitute close to 90% of those arrested for crack cocaine use.43

A further indicator of a racially repressive society is the increase of draconian laws used in a racially discriminatory way to target African Americans. A good example of this is the mandatory sentences of five years for possession of five grams of crack cocaine, a law used to target African American users and dealers. Another example is the establishment of mandatory life sentences for three or more felonies. In the Ewing v California decision the US Supreme Court allowed a mandatory life sentence for the theft of three golf clubs.44 A further example is the imposition of life sentences for two felony drug offenses. In Georgia, over 98% of those sentenced to life for two or more drug offenses are black.45

The targeting of African Americans is not limited to adults. Recently, Human Rights Watch cited the United States for human rights violations for sentencing youth offenders to life imprisonment without any chance of parole and for racial biases in the sentencing. The report reads:

Our data reveal that blacks constitute 60 percent of the youth offenders serving life without parole nationwide and whites constitute 29 percent…. However, research studies have found that minority youths receive harsher treatment than similarly situated white youths at every stage of the criminal justice system from the point of arrest to sentencing.46

The incarceration rate is so high and sentences so severe that some critics refer to the United States as “the warehouse society,” warehousing a significant proportion of its poor and minorities. They refer to the explosive growth of the prison population as “correctional Keynesianism.” Regardless of these titles, large numbers of the poor and unemployed from industrial cities are warehoused in prisons, thus artificially reducing the unemployment and poverty rates.

Several factors explain this extreme racial repression: anti-crime hysteria, the rise of neoliberalism and neoliberal public policies, and the war on drugs. However, the most critical factor is the emergence of a new dominant racist culture arising out of corporate sponsored think-thanks.

Corporate Construction of the New Racist Culture

Corporations are directly connected to the process of generating the new racist culture. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the emergence of new conservative think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Olin Foundation, the Pioneer Institute, the Cato Institute.

The American Enterprise Institute’s budget rose from one million in 1970 to over ten million by 1978.47 This organization’s sponsors include “the largest banks and corporations in America: AT&T contributed $125,000, Chase Manhattan Bank gave $171,000, Chevron donated $95,000, CitiCorp $100,000, Exxon $130,000, General Electric $65,000, General Motors $100,000, and Procter & Gamble $165,000.48

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) played a major role in constructing and perpetuating contemporary racist culture and ideology, most notably by marketing The Bell Curve and giving it an air of legitimacy. The Bell Curve exhumes the decomposed body of biological racism, as this quote indicates:

Ruston argues that the differences in the average intelligence test scores among East Asians, blacks, and whites are not only primarily genetic but part of a complex of racial differences that includes such variables as brain size, genital size, rate of sexual maturation, length of the menstrual cycle, frequency of sexual intercourse, gamete production, sexual hormone levels, the tendency to produce dizygotic twins, marital stability, infant mortality, altruism, law abidingness, and mental health.49

In other words, what Murray and Herrnstein are saying through Ruston is that black men tend to have small brains and large penises, tend to have unstable relationships and are prone to criminal activities. The book combines the old biologically based racism with the new culturally based racism.

Think tanks have contributed directly to an ideology that legitimizes police repression. For example, in an earlier book, Losing Ground, supported by AEI, Murray insists that overly lenient criminal justice policies developed during the 1960s encouraged the rise of violent street crime by making such crime less risky and more profitable. The rational response is to increase police powers and imprison more people for longer times.50 Some cities have instituted zero tolerance policies, particularly in inner city schools, arresting juveniles for the most trivial offenses.

The emerging literature of the urban underclass also contributed to the new racism. This literature constructed and promoted images of predatory black males prowling around inner city streets. In fact the urban underclass was defined as a criminal class, as for example by Ken Auletta:

Although individuals often defy categories, in general members of the underclass seem to fall into four distinct groups. First are the hostile street and career criminals who openly reject society’s dominant values, a surprisingly small number of whom are responsible for the majority of crimes in most cities. The second group consists of the hustlers, those who out of choice or necessity operate in the underground economy, peddling hot goods, reefers, or hard drugs, gambling, and pimping…. Third are the passive, those who have become dependent over the years on welfare and government support. The fourth group is made up of the traumatized – those whose minds have snapped and who have turned to drink and drugs or roam city streets as helpless shopping bag ladies, derelicts – or sadistic slashers.51

In short, the underclass is made up of street criminals, violent predators, stick-up artists, robbers, burglars, merchants of stolen goods, drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, welfare dependents, and psychotics. This definition depicts the black urban poor as a dangerous predatory class, a class needing to be repressed.

The Hoover Institution, another corporate-sponsored think tank (founded in 1959), published reports recommending that street criminals be targeted and incarcerated for life. A study by Williamson Evers of the Hoover Institution insists that rehabilitation programs do not work and that criminal justice policy should target career criminals and remove them from the streets permanently.52

A torrent of literature rushed out of these think tanks into the academic world and the rest of society, contributing to the rise of a new racism, one that deemphasized biology, but touted the existence of an underclass subculture that rejected white middle-class values. The new corporate-sponsored racist culture influenced the views of members of all classes and races, convincing them that the black poor are responsible for their own poverty.

Unlike think tanks of the past, the new corporatist think tanks had a direct pipeline to the mass media. A good example is the case of Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation, of which he is the major shareholder. The subsidiaries of News Corp include 20th Century Fox, the New York Post, London Times, T.V. Guide, HarperCollins, Fox News, Fox News Family Channel, National Geographic Channel, and several sports teams. In his book, The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy, David Brock says this of Murdoch’s connections:

Beginning in the Reagan years, many of Murdoch’s speeches were quietly written by his close adviser, Irwin Stelzer, an economist who linked Murdoch’s media world to the world of the right-wing think tank network, which would come to supply a good deal of the content for his print and TV “news” divisions. Stelzer had been the “director of regulation” at AEI before joining the Hudson Institute.… Stelzer was published widely throughout the world in Murdoch publications, including in The Weekly Standard, William Kristol’s neocon sinkhole. Stelzer arranged lucrative writing assignments for other think tank denizens, including Charles Murray, whose theories liking intelligence to genetics Stelzer supported. Murray called Stelzer “the Godfather.”53

The material from conservative think tanks is piped into Fox News. Brock insists that Fox broadcasts in an echo chamber. That is, when Fox News reports on a study from the Hoover Institution, other networks like CNN, ABC and MSNBC uncritically repeat the same story. None of the networks have challenged the study.


In every era, racial oppression was undergirded by exploitative and oppressive economic arrangements. The dominant class played a major role in the initial formation of these arrangements and in the construction of a racist culture, which operated to legitimize the oppression. Moreover, racism changed as economic arrangements and the dominant culture changed.

The Jim Crow system of segregation in the South was not established by the white working class. It was established by the landed aristocracy or planter class. This class had substantial economic power. It controlled the organization of production both on the land and in the production facilities. It disenfranchised both blacks and the white working class. The planter class dominated Southern politics and contributed to the formation of racist culture.

The system of segregated labor was established, not by the white working class, but by the owners of industry, the bourgeois class. This class, not the white workers, had the power to organize industrial production. Where white skilled laborers played a role in excluding blacks from the skilled trades, it was with the support and encouragement of the dominant class.

Despite enormous progress, racial oppression has not declined. It has changed form. It is even more severe today than it was forty years ago. It overlaps with class oppression. It arises out of advanced capitalist production, post-Fordism. As with previous eras, the dominant class contributed to the formation of contemporary patterns of oppression. Moreover this class supported the construction of the current form of racist culture.

The Urban Underclass: Surplus Labor54

In the final analysis, several additional points need to be made about a neo-Marxist analysis of contemporary racial oppression and racist culture. First, the urban underclass is the product of advanced capitalism, post-Fordism. Marx referred to a reserve army of labor and a surplus population arising out of the accumulation process:

The greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and, therefore, also the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productiveness of its labour, the greater is the industrial reserve army. The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital, develop also the labour-power at its disposal…The more extensive, finally, the lazarus-layers of the working class, and the industrial reserve army, the greater is official pauperism. This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation….55

Capital accumulation thus produces the reserve army of labor or surplus populations. Today’s counterpart to this reserve army is the so-called urban underclass. Marx adds:

The law by which a constantly increasing quantity of means of production, thanks to the advance in the productiveness of social labour, may be set in movement by a progressively diminishing expenditure of human power, this law in a capitalist society – where the labourer does not employ the means of production, but the means of production employ the labourer – undergoes a complete inversion and is expressed thus: the higher the productiveness of labour, the greater is the pressure of the labourers on the means of employment, the more precarious, therefore, becomes their condition of existence, viz., the sale of their own labour-power for the increasing of another’s wealth, or for the self-expansion of capital.56

Second, the urban underclass is the victim. Marx refers to the surplus population or reserve army of labor as victims of industry: “… the demoralized and ragged, and those unable to work, chiefly people who succumb to their incapacity for adaptation, due to the division of labour; people who have passed the normal age of the labourer; the victims of industry, whose number increases with the increase of dangerous machinery…”57

Third, the immorality of capitalism comes not from the bottom but from the top. This point is more clearly expressed in the early writings of Marx, particularly in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Charles Derber expands on this idea in a chapter entitled “A Fish Rots from the Head First,” in his book The Wilding of America. The book responds to the racist stereotype of poor inner city black males as engaging in wildings, having no regard for human life, taking pride in gang culture, and preying on the weak and helpless.58

The concept of wildings came from the arrest of five black juveniles in the summer of 1989 on charges of brutally assaulting and raping a 28-year-old jogger and investment broker. The jogger was so severely beaten that she was not expected to live. Her face was disfigured, her skull fractured and her eye destroyed. For years the case exemplified the pathology of the urban underclass and the need for police repression of inner city black males. Twelve years later, DNA tests proved the five black males innocent. A serial rapist was then arrested. But the stereotypical image of young black male predators remained a part of the dominant racist culture.

Derber’s point is that the worst values found in the underclass – the violence, the greed, the frenzy to acquire material wealth, the disregard for the welfare of others, the predatory spirit – were values that did not originate at the bottom. Where these values exist among a few members of the urban underclass, they originated from the top. They are the same values found among members of the dominant class; they are just imitated by members of the underclass. These values were exhibited when Ford Motors released the Pinto knowing that it would explode on contact, when the tobacco industry increased the nicotine content in cigarettes knowing that it was addictive and lethal, when the mining industry released arsenic into rivers and streams, when Enron executives joked openly about the shock the elderly would experience with the doubling of their electric bills, when the US apparel industry and retail companies relocated abroad to exploit child labor, when the deregulated savings and loans industry in the 1980s and the deregulated finance industry in the first decade of the 21st century reaped billions in profit before going bust. All of these industries were engaging in wildings. The gangterism and disregard for human life exhibited by members of the dominant class is far more destructive and pernicious than anything conceivable among drug dealers or street criminals in any inner city. Derber adds:

In capitalism, as Marx conceives it, wilding is less a failure of socialization than an expression of society’s central norms. To turn a profit, even the most humane capitalist employer commodifies and exploits employees, playing by the market rules of competition and profit-maximization to buy and sell their labor power as cheaply as possible.59

The point here is that the characterization of the urban underclass as criminal, irrational, greedy, overly materialistic, devoid of any regard for human life is part of the new racism. It shifts attention from the immoral behavior of those at the top to the victims at the bottom. This new racism not only alienates poor blacks from the larger society. It dehumanizes them. It desensitizes the larger society to the suffering and victimization of the poor inner city blacks, just as earlier forms of racist culture rationalized slavery and segregation. Moreover, this racist culture provokes contempt and hostility toward them. It encourages and legitimizes the warehousing of black males in the prison system.60

A Marxist approach shifts the focus to the capitalist system and to the dominant class. It interrogates the dominant ideology that dehumanizes and demonizes the lower classes. This approach offers a deeper and richer analysis of contemporary racism. Notes 1. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971). Because of its main focus on the dominant or ruling class, this paper oversimplifies Gramsci’s view. Gramsci witnessed the destruction of a revolutionary workers’ movement in Italy, as many of the workers joined the fascist movement. He understood the role of the ruling class in striving to control the economy and the state and to construct a dominant ideology that “not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules” (244). See also Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969), and Nicos Poulantzas, Political Power and Social Classes (London: New Left Books, 1974).

2. Joel Kovel, White Racism: A Psychohistory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984); Carter Wilson, Racism from Slavery to Advanced Capitalism (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996).
3. Ibid. Four points need to be made about Kovel’s psychohistorical approach. 1. Kovel identified only three forms of racism: dominative, associated, with slavery; aversive, associated with Southern segregation; and meta-racism, the contemporary form. I associate aversive racism with the racial segregation of labor markets in the industrial North, occurring at the same time as the Southern system of segregation. I define the Southern system of segregation as dominative-aversive because it had some of the same elements as the slave system of direct control. 2. Kovel’s use of psychoanalytical theory is not unique among Marxists. It was common among the Marxists of the Frankfurt School, e.g. Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New, York: Holt, 1994), Theodor Adorno et al, The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper, 1950), and Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (London: Routledge, 1987). 3. Recent developments in neuroscience, psychometrics and clinical psychology have refuted parts of Freudian theory (particularly the Oedipus complex and theories of sexuality) while at the same time validating theories of subconscious emotional memories and anxiety-based drives. See Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (New York: Touchstone, 1998); Bob Altemeyer, The Authoritarian Specter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), and Karen Stenner, The Authoritarian Dynamic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). 4. The focus here is on the association between the organization of labor in production and the emergence of a dominant culture, ideology and character type.
4. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 345.
5. W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Atheneum, 1969).
6. Ibid., 54.
7. Ibid., 349.
8. C. Vann Woodward, The Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press), 211.
9. Ibid.
10. William J. Wilson, The Declining Significance of Race (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980), 61.
11. Michael Wayne, The Reshaping of Plantation Society: The Natchez District, 1860-1880 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983).
12. Dwight Billings, Planters and the Making of a “New South”: Class, Politics, and Development in North Carolina, 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979).
13. W.J. Cash, The Mind of the South (New York: Random House, 1941).
14. Philip Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619-1981 (New York: International Publishers, 1981).
15. Morgan Kousner, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restrictions and the Establishment of the One-party South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 247.
16. Ibid.
17. Jack Bloom, Class, Race, and the Civil Rights Movement (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).
18. Joel Williamson, A Rage for Order: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
19. Edna Bonacich, “A Theory of Ethnic Antagonism: The Split Labor Market.” American Sociological Review, vol. 37 (October 1972), 547-559; Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker; Daniel Fusfeld and Timothy Bates. The Political Economy of the Urban Ghetto. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984).
20. David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1999).
21. Herbert Hill, Black Labor and the American Legal System: Race, Work, and the Law (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985); see also Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker.
22. Seymour M. Lipset and Earl Raab, The Politics of Unreason: Right Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970 (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).
23. August  Meier and Elliott Rudwick, Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970),  9.
24. Ibid., 12-13.
25. Ibid., 155.
26. Ibid., 129.
27. Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 133.
28. Ibid.
29. Wilson, The Declining Significance of Race.
30. William J. Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
31. Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004).
32. Ibid., 188.
33. Ibid.
34. CIA World Fact Book. 2009.
35. U.S. Department of Commerce. Statistical Abstracts, 2009.
36. James Logan, Good Punishment? Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008).
37. Alexander Lichtenstein and Michael Kroll, “The Fortress Economy: The Economic Role of the U.S. Prison System,” in Criminal Injustice: Confronting the Prison Crisis, ed. Elihu Rosenblatt (Boston: South End Press, 1996), 22.
38. Figures compiled from Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin. Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2006. June 2007, National Criminal Justice 2171675.
39. U.S. Department of Commerce. Statistical Abstracts, 2009.
40. Marc Mauer, “The Crisis of the Young African American Male and the Criminal Justice System,” (Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project, 1985).
41. Michelle Anderson, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press), 124-25.
42. Ibid. SAMSHA = Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).
43. Ibid.
44. Ewing v California 538 U.S. 11, 2003.
45. Ibid., 111.
46. Human Rights Watch (HRW), The Rest of Their Lives: Life Without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States. (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2005), 39-40.
47. David Ricci, The Transformation of American Politics: The New Washington and the Rise of Think Tank Politics. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 160.
48. William Greider, Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy (New York: Touchstone, 1993), 48.
49. Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York: Free Press, 1994), 642.
50. Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (New York: Basic Books).
51. Ken Auletta, The Underclass (New York: Vintage Books, 1983).
52. Williamson Evers, Victims Rights, Restitution and Retribution (Oakland: An Independent Institute, 1996).
53. David Brock, The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy (New York: Crown Publishers, 2004), 174.
54. The urban underclass is not the lumpenproletariat. The lumpenproletariat, mentioned in The German Ideology and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, is a counterrevolutionary class, arising out of the disintegration of the class of craftsmen, peasants, and artisans displaced by the rise of industrial capitalism. Marx adds (in The Eighteenth Brumaire), “But, above all, Bonaparte looks on himself as the chief of the Society of December 10, as the representative of the lumpenproletariat, to which he himself, his entourage, his government, and his army belong…” Marx, Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, ed. Lewis S. Feuer (New York: Anchor Books, 1959), 345-46.
55. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 644.
56. Ibid. p 644-45.
57. Ibid.  644.
58. Charles Derber, The Wilding of America: How Greed and Violence Are Eroding Our Nation’s Character (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996).
59. Ibid., 16.