The 1619 Project Read Along invites a broad readership to engage with the book in a “classroom without walls.” This month, we are studying sociologist Matthew Desmond’s chapter, “Capitalism.” In his essay, Desmond explores how the institution of enslavement impacted the development of American capitalism.
One of the Read Along questions from this chapter asks readers to contemplate how the Civil War impacted America’s economic and political systems—and where that leaves Black Americans today. American capitalism was born out of an institution of exploitation so vile that its survival necessitated the devaluation of human life, law, and morality. Thus, it is no shock that the economic systems that took shape after the Civil War would be similarly horrific.
Desmond contends that in the wake of the Civil War, the legal provisions designed to protect slavery were utilized to “strengthen corporate interests and promote laissez-faire capitalism.” He also argues that after the Civil War, there was a continuing trend of American political institutions valuing the interests of white owners over Black life. He references a 1912 study that found that the Supreme Court evoked the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted Black Americans equal protection under the law, more often to protect the power of corporations than the civil rights of Black citizens.
Desmond echoes the words of many scholars on this topic, including Panamanian-American labor leader, educator, and scholar Ewart Guinier. In the early 1950s, Guinier delivered a notable speech, “A New Wind Is Blowing,” in which he stated, “...Far from receiving equal rights, Negroes are cruelly subjected to a genocidal terror [...] This genocidal terror keeps Negro workers at the lowest rung of the ladder in industry in wretchedly low-paid jobs.”
Guinier asserted that this ‘genocidal terror’ impacted all areas of Black American life. On the economic front, it manifested in higher rates of Black unemployment, exclusion of Black workers from skilled jobs, and the limiting of Black workers to the lowest-paid positions. It reared its ugly head in the pay gaps between white and Black Americans. According to Guinier, in 1949, the median income for Black families was $1,364, half that of white families. To put this into perspective, in this same year, the government calculated that the minimum income needed for a family of four to live decently was $4,040.
In June of 2021, 70 years after Guinier detailed the dismal state of Black life in the mid-20th century, and two years after the publication of the original 1619 Project magazine issue, the McKinsey Global Institute published a report titled “The Economic State of Black America: What Is and What Could Be.” The report found that the median wage for Black workers is 30% lower than that of white workers. Additionally, Black workers are disproportionately represented in low-wage occupations and underrepresented in higher-wage professions.
Based on the data presented, it seems that the same ‘genocidal terror’ Guinier discerned in 1951 is still wreaking havoc on the Black American community. However, racist systems and structures do not only impact Black Americans. They stymie progress for all Americans. For instance, the nation has yet to see the development of a strong labor movement, which would surely benefit workers across racial lines.
In "Capitalism," Desmond notes that the racism engendered by enslavement prevented the emergence of a formidable labor movement where Black and white workers could forge bonds of solidarity. Not only does racism serve as a barrier, but so does the law. Although we have seen an uptick in worker protests, the number of workers who are part of unions is steadily declining in the private sector. In the same way that the Constitution and subsequent laws were developed to protect the interest of white owners, today's labor laws favor employers. In addition to finding favor with the law, employers do their share to undermine unionization efforts.
The same ethos of profit at any cost that drove the economy of enslavement still thrives. Corporations continue to flourish at the expense of workers. Without much regulation in privatized industries, exploitative and unsafe labor conditions persist. In an investigation of Tyson Foods, Pulitzer Center grantee Alice Driver found that immigrant and refugee workers face inhumane conditions that have left them "injured, disabled, or dead."
While Black Americans undoubtedly made progress between 1861 and 1951, and from 1951 to 2021, systemic inequities persist. Because of the deadly consequences of inequities, there is a need for an uncompromising struggle for equity.
Desmond and other 1619 Project contributors show that disparities are not evidence of systemic failures. Instead they indicate that American economic and political institutions are working precisely how they were intended to. This sobering fact should galvanize us to work to create an America that lives up to the fullness of its professed democratic values—and where true freedom will be a reality for all.
“Capitalism” by Matthew Desmond is an essay that resonates with many teachers and students working together to explore the economic ramifications of slavery. Three units created by members of The 1619 Project Education Network offer a look into how teachers have utilized the essay in the classroom:
- American Institutions: A high school history unit that analyzes how the American Revolution, Civil War, and Reconstruction periods re-centered debates about American democracy by analyzing the perspectives of marginalized communities and the legacy of slavery as an American institution.
- Redlining and Wealth Accumulation: A high school history unit that examines the historical practices and legal policies that helped establish the current economic inequities among racial and ethnic minorities in students' local communities and throughout the United States.
- Understanding the Racial Wealth Gap: A high school African American Studies unit exploring resources about the wealth theft from Black Americans that has repeatedly occurred from 1619 to the present in order to research and propose a comprehensive solution.
These units, and others in our 1619 Project Education Materials Collection, offer tools for everyone to better understand the themes in The 1619 Project and expand their learning by engaging with supplemental materials that further explore the questions the project poses.