44 Adaner Usmani: Racism as idea, Racism as power relation (EF, JP)

racism, mass incarceration, Southern plantation economy, and W.E.B. Du Bois

Do we understand racism as the primary driving engine of American inequality? Or do we focus instead on the indirect ways that frequently hard-to-discern class inequality and inegalitarian power relations can produce racially differentiated outcomes? Adaner Usmani, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Social Studies at Harvard and on the editorial board at Catalyst joins Elizabeth and John to wrestle with the subtle and complex genealogy of Southern plantation economy and its racist legacy.

Adaner offers a complex genealogy of violence, mass incarceration and their roots in the social inequity (and iniquity) of antebellum economic relations. He emphasizes a frequently overlooked fact that a century ago Du Bois had already identified a key issue: the belatedness of African-American access to the social mobility offered by the North’s industrialization, thanks to structures of a racist Southern agricultural economy that kept African-American workers away from those high-wage jobs. The result? An explanation for racial injustice that hinges on ossified class imbalances–contingent advantages for certain groups that end up producing (rather than being produced by) bigotry and prejudice.

Adaner Usmani and John Clegg, “The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration” (Catalyst 3:3, 2019)

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010)

Robin Einhorn, American Taxation, American Slavery (2006)

Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law (2017)

Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier (1987)

Barbara and Karen Fields, Racecraft (2014) makes the point that racism is the kind of thing that social scientists should try to explain rather than invoke as explanation.

Ira Katznelson et. al., Southern Nation (2018; the story of the Southern plantation elite’s successful effort to smother American economic development)

Bayard Rustin’s Time on Two Crosses, where Rustin asks how you build a civil-rights movement that is more than just symbolic in a country where white racism is an enormous obstacle.

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Author: plotznik

I teach English (mainly the novel and Victorian literature) at Brandeis University, and live in Brookline.

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