5: The Whiteness of Communication Studies


Despite Adolph Reed’s accurate remarks that ‘the race/class debate has vexed American intellectual life […] for more than a century’ (2002, 265), the relationship between race, class and modernity tends to be relatively neglected in American communication theory. This neglect persists despite the consolidation of critical race theory in the 1980s and its subsequent impact in the wider academy. Race does not emerge as a topic in James Carey’s Communication as Culture. In Speaking Into the Air, John Durham Peters includes a chapter about communication with animals, but nothing on race. Nor does it appear in Robert Craig’s well-cited disciplinary-defining essay, ‘Communication Theory As a Field’.

From the critical wing of the discipline, in One Dimensional Man Herbert Marcuse puts considerable emphasis on the emerging New Left as an agent of social change. But in retrospect he misses the significance of the civil rights movement, the most powerful postwar American social movement. It would be a mistake to attribute this oversight to the movement’s pragmatic reformist tendencies eclipsing its more radical elements, a compromise that saw Malcolm X and the black Panthers break cause, but this revisionist concession masks a broader politics intending to domesticate the radical impulse found within the movement.

Despite Adolph Reed’s accurate remarks that ‘the race/class debate has vexed American intellectual life […] for more than a century’ (2002, 265), the relationship between race, class and modernity tends to be relatively neglected in American communication theory. This neglect persists despite the consolidation of critical race theory in the 1980s and its subsequent impact in the wider academy. Race does not emerge as a topic in James Carey’s Communication as Culture. In Speaking Into the Air, John Durham Peters includes a chapter about communication with animals, but nothing on race. Nor does it appear in Robert Craig’s well-cited disciplinary-defining essay, ‘Communication Theory As a Field’.

From the critical wing of the discipline, in One Dimensional Man Herbert Marcuse puts considerable emphasis on the emerging New Left as an agent of social change. But in retrospect he misses the significance of the civil rights movement, the most powerful postwar American social movement. It would be a mistake to attribute this oversight to the movement’s pragmatic reformist tendencies eclipsing its more radical elements, a compromise that saw Malcolm X and the black Panthers break cause, but this revisionist concession masks a broader politics intending to domesticate the radical impulse found within the movement. Herbert Schiller does better. His Mass Communications and American Empire covers racial disparities, primarily through the lens of third-world marginalization.

But these kinds of topics have disappeared from Dan Schiller’s Digital Capitalism, published when racial disparities in computer ownership and use presented a 15 percentage point gap in the US, a divide that remains the same nearly 20 years later in 2015 (Fairlie, 2017). Racial hierarchy is implicit in Christian Fuchs’ analysis of commodity chains and the international division of digital labour. Here he connects slave work in mineral extraction in Africa, electronic manufacturing in China and socially reproductive software labour in India with work undertaken in Silicon Valley (Fuchs, 2014). That said, when he and Nick Dyer-Witheford isolated 11 core concepts Marxists had contributed to communication studies none specifically related to race (Fuchs and Dyer-Witheford, 2013). Elsewhere, Claire Alexander observes how Stuart Hall’s evocative phrases – identities ‘without guarantees’, the ‘end of innocence’, ‘the process of becoming’ – ‘have become banal, even platitudinous, through repetition and dislocation from the wider texts and the broader context of Hall’s work, politics and ethics’ (2009, 473).

Lest one attribute these lamentable oversights and distortions to apparently justifiable narrow disciplinary constraints, Jeff Pooley reminds us that ‘the communication theory domain is expansive’ (2016, 3). From surveying the discipline, he found that ‘the line dividing influence from indifference, in other words, has remained strikingly arbitrary. The organization of media scholarship has always, if unevenly, reflected the media landscape itself.’ Pooley raises a good point, but it can be strengthened by noting how the Western media landscape is constructed around racial exclusion and exploitation (see González and Torres, 2011). So Pooley is right to note that ‘our field’s story of its past is notably unreflective – built atop invented traditions and pleasing illusions’ (2005, 200).

One by-product of these ‘pleasing illusions’ is the general neglect of the systematic construction of civic ascription around race that emerged to suit the needs of a proto-capitalist political economy, which in turn was reinforced by science and law to supplement armed commercial expansion. As Charles Mills writes, ‘The political economy of racial domination required a corresponding cognitive economy that would systematically darken the light of factual and normative inquiry.’ ‘White Ignorance’, he writes ‘plays itself out in the complex interaction of Eurocentric perception and categorization, white normativity, social memory and social amnesia, the derogation of non-white testimony, racial group interests, and motivated irrationality’ (Mills, 2015, 217).

This ignorance can (and does) present itself in scholarship, in what Gurminder Bhambra (2017) terms ‘methodological whiteness’. This methodological fallacy downplays the role of race as a structuring force while simultaneously viewing whiteness as a neutral and natural normative frame of analysis, as the parameter within which knowledge is constructed and legitimated. Bhambra adds that because of this fallacy, progressive neoliberals tend to misconstrue class analysis as exclusively concerned with white experiences. This is especially pernicious because by refusing to see the multiple lived experiences of class, progressive neoliberals undermine the analysis of black social life thus leaving whiteness as an unstated norm.

Accordingly, a goal in this chapter is to critique the ‘cognitive economy of racial domination’ as it manifests in this broad area of scholarship. Conceptualizing the reverberations and continuations of this domination requires temporarily setting aside the general canonical literature in communication theory. Instead I directly and indirectly build upon those who have also critiqued previous iterations of this racial domination. This includes Stuart Hall, who theorized identity as indeterminate, laden with multiplicities that are always in a process of becoming, Paul Gilroy, who did much to show how identity was connected to the development of circuits of accumulation during the course of modernity, and Sut Jhally, whose longstanding analysis of race in American media culture is the benchmark for any meaningful critique of contemporary life. Still, these insights mean very little if it amounts to simply inviting these insights into pre-existing and unchanged spaces. The proper barometer is whether those included have a say and the resources to shape the structure of and relations in that space.

It is worth mentioning that Hall, Gilroy, Jhally and other likeminded scholars inspired a generation of academics, often in and from the minority but not exclusively, to explore the experience of marginalized communities, to find ways for these communities to carve out theoretical and empirical space for their academic projects. In the last two decades demographic shifts and hiring trends in the US and UK academic systems have, albeit far from being ideal and with much work to be done on these fronts, taken some of the sharpness from the whiteness of communication theory. However, this does not mean that marginalization does not continue. So yes, curriculums and faculty compliments do change, but they do under the long shadow of an Anglo-American colonial present where concurrently amnesia of and nostalgia for Pax Britannica justifies Pax Americana.

Lastly, issues of ‘ignorance’ are only one component of American life as so it would be ill-advised to discuss these without also undertaking a study of the considerable amount of violence required to maintain racial hierarchies, both in the United States and elsewhere in the world. So while this chapter addresses issues like misrecognition and ideology, Chapter 7 turns to the more kinetic means to subordinate bodies.

The conception of progress

To illustrate the ramifications of methodological whiteness and the colonial present, I want to contrast two recently published books that address the legacies of modernity. These are Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

Continuing some of the themes put forward in The Better Angels of Our Nature, in Enlightenment Now Pinker (2018) argues that contrary to the views offered by radical social critics, by most metrics global living conditions are improving. Life expectancy has greatly increased due to a massive reduction in poverty and improved healthcare; supposedly both are by-products of economic growth, science and technology. Pinker attributes these developments to the worldview inherited from the Enlightenment. In short, he says, ‘The Enlightenment has worked’ (2018, 19). To his mind, the greatest impediments to improving the quality of human life are religion and superstitious cultural practices, plus the intellectuals that treat the Enlightenment ideals ‘with indifference, scepticism, and sometimes contempt’ (2018, 19). Although he does not mention them, by his reasoning he would be talking about black radicals like C. L. R. James who do not treat Enlightenment ideals with contempt but do show how these were unevenly lived. To counter these supposed harms to progress, Pinker believes that the goal should be for scientific experts to rule through discrete nudging here and there, as they can best distribute and allocate public goods. In plain terms, he says, ‘to make public discourse more rational issues should be depoliticized as much as is feasible’ (2018, 407). Pinker’s conception of progress has an unshaken faith that reasonable, evidence-based deliberation inevitably leads to a democratic rights culture, one fully attendant to tolerance and fairness. The only difference is that this iteration proceeds with data.

However, in Pinker’s telling there is no space in the grand narrative for socio-material struggles. Contentious social movements never receive a mention in Enlightenment Now nor how industrial strikes for workplace protections and increased wages raised living standards. Similarly, the problems of rising wealth inequality are subordinated to poverty alleviation, as if the (lack of) distribution of basic provisions and comforts can be disconnected from wealth concentration. Also absent is even the suspicion that minor poverty alleviation is a technique to stall working-class rebellions, the very things that brought about the improvements in living standards that Pinker otherwise attributes to technological invention. He forgets that someone must build these things.

‘A very great deal of good, undoubtedly, was done’, is how Isaiah Berlin concludes his introduction in The Age of Enlightenment. ‘Suffering mitigated, injustice avoided or prevented, ignorance exposed by the conscientious attempt to apply scientific methods to the regulation of human affairs’ (2017, 17). On quick viewing, it might seem as if the weight of Berlin’s scholarship supports Pinker’s interpretation. But such a claim misses that just a few pages earlier in the text, Berlin is clear that Enlightenment thought was a response to the mathematization of philosophy:

The unprecedented success of the mathematical method in the seventeenth century left a mark on philosophy, not merely because mathematics had not been discriminated from philosophy at the time, but because mathematical techniques – deduction from ‘self-evident’ axioms according to fixed rules, tests of internal consistency, a priori methods, standards of clarity and rigour proper to mathematics – were applied to philosophy also; with the result that this particular model dominates the philosophy as well as the natural science of the period. (2017, 3–4)

But in a passage worth separating for emphasis, Berlin adds: ‘This led to notable successes and equally notable failures, as the over enthusiastic and fanatical application of technique rich in one, when mechanically applied to another, not necessarily similar to the first, commonalty does’ (2017, 3–4). While certainly some of this ‘mood persists into the eighteenth century’ through the debates between rationalism and empiricism, the mood was superseded by Kant’s ‘great break’ (2017, 4, 13).

Berlin’s synopsis of this movement of thought culminates in Kant’s attention to the difference between judgement and truth. As Berlin (2017) explains, showing a doubter of Pythagorean geometry more right-angle triangles does little to convince them that suitable evidence exists. Reiterating that the problem with the early portion of 18th-century thought is the ‘identification of philosophy with science’, Berlin describes it as ‘the major fallacy which vitiates it’. Still, Berlin notes, mature Enlightenment thought reached another conclusion, this being that ‘the central dream, the demonstration that everything in the world moved by mechanical means, that all evils could be cured by technological steps, that there could exist engineers both of human souls and of human bodies, proved delusive’ (Berlin, 2017, 15, 17).

With Berlin’s remarks in mind, effectively Pinker’s conception of the Enlightenment commits all the errors Berlin warns about. It is predicated upon gross simplifications and technocratic prescriptions that betray a complete failure to understand intellectual politics and material history in and of the various strands of European modernity. Pinker’s views are closer to those ‘notable failures’ that came from rigorous axiomatic reasoning that mature Enlightenment thought sought to rebuke and overturn. Moreover, his disregard of social movements betrays a robust endorsement of technocratic progressive neoliberalism enthralled with free markets, while his insistence on the one-dimensional view of the Enlightenment is dogma in another form. Indeed, this endorsement of bureaucracy over democracy is an odd summary conception of the Enlightenment, as Berlin outlines. Contrary to the complexity of the Enlightenment, Pinker’s view of the project is flat and false, a whispered vestige of a mythological rendering so unlike the inheritance he claims.

Perhaps Pinker’s account, while erroneous, will be quickly forgotten. Many books are. But given the prevalence of ‘white ignorance’, Pinker’s account is probably closer to lay accounts than the revisionist material produced by scholars in the ‘imperial turn’ over the last two decades, books far more deserving of being reviewed in the New York Times. These scholars warn against reductionist accounts like those offered by Pinker. Indeed, they argue that there is no single, monolithic Enlightenment. Indeed, generalizations about these processes are only undertaken with great caution and with many caveats. In short, scholarship emanating from the imperial turn well demonstrates that the ‘universal rights culture’ that emerged from the Enlightenment is one component of the encumbered contradictions that came along with colonial practices. While others have also made the point well, altogether I find Susan Buck-Morss has the single best paragraph on the topic:

By the Eighteenth Century, slavery had become the root metaphor of Western political philosophy, connoting everything that was evil about power relations. Freedom, its conceptual antithesis, was considered by Enlightenment thinkers as the highest and universal political value. Yet this political metaphor began to take root at precisely the time that the economic enslavement of non-Europeans as a labor force in the colonies – was increasing quantitatively and intensifying qualitatively to the point that by the mid-eighteenth century it came to underwrite the global spread of the very Enlightenment ideals that were in such fundamental contradiction to it. (Buck-Morss, 2009, 21)

The disjuncture between universal rights but massive exclusion from those rights is the reason that Charles Mills says that the Enlightenment was ‘compromised from the start’ (2015, 217). While Mills’ conclusion has much merit, it is equally important to note that anti-racism developed out of this history too, with its accompanying claim to universal freedom rejecting that ‘the measure of mankind was the European’, as Cedric Robinson wrote (2000, 99; also see Gopal, 2019). Of course, far better to not to have had racial subordination to oppose in the first place.

Race in America

As an example of the role and consequences of bonded labour in capitalist modernity (and to counter Pinker’s improvised understanding of the Enlightenment) I want to discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates’ theorization of race in America. He offers an especially strong account of the enduring inequalities of ongoing accumulation by dispossession, exploitation and hierarchical civic status, all preserved by state-sanctioned violence. He couples this with various ‘moves of innocence’ that permit an historical amnesia about how the right to take black life has been systematically embedded and remains a core component of capitalism in the Americas.

Coates’ argument unfolds as an immanent critique of American exceptionalism, contrasting prevailing divine and ideological beliefs with the standpoint and lived experience of urban social life. This argument is also historical insofar that Coates frames the American people as a ‘modern invention’, arising at the same time as American democracy, these two things being intimately connected with the violence of the state formation process. He explains:

The process of washing desperate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tasting and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life liberty labor and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of family; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies. (Coates, 2015, 8)

He correctly identifies and especially well describes how through claiming the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence the US state uses that monopoly to subordinate and exclude blacks from the demos, thus marking black as persons who do not warrant state services.

In short, blacks are produced by state-sanctioned violence, recent versions being stand-your-ground laws and militarized police enforcing expansive drugs laws. It is a contradiction insofar as blacks are moral agents, yet these full rights are denied to them. One of the consequences of this contradiction is that the police and other state agencies have a licence to destroy black bodies without the perpetrators being held accountable for their violence. ‘It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originated in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy’ (Coates, 2015, 7, 8, 9). The police serve the people. And blacks are not ‘the people’. Marked by birth, they are excluded from this right. This systematic misrecognition leads to social death and physical death.

To elaborate, Coates suggests that the concepts Americans use to talk about race can sometimes ‘obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscles, extract organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth’ (Coates, 2015, 10). Racism is materially rooted, ideologically embedded and bodily experienced. Similarly, he dislikes the impoverished version of black history where it chronicles firsts as if it is little more than answers to Trivial Pursuit questions. Or removes the violence and oppression in Africa prior to European colonialism. Still, as a social construct race has less to do with shared histories, cultures or beliefs directly, and more to do with subordination based upon position and identification. Certainly, as Sidney Mintz and Richard Price (1976) document in The Birth of African American Culture, there are remarkable differences in language and diet, lifestyle and family structure in black communities in the Americas. Even so, black culture is a useful term that reflects how during modernity these bodies were positioned relative to white supremacy. In line with Mintz and Price, Coates concludes that ‘there was nothing holy or particular in my skin; I was black because of history and heritage. There was no nobility in falling, in being bound in living oppressed, and there was no inherent meaning in black blood. Black blood wasn’t black; black skin wasn’t even black’ (Coates, 2015, 43, 55, 98).

Less interested in accumulated disadvantage, Coates’ theorization is predicated upon how violence positions and subjugates the black body. Through eloquently rejecting a biological or essentialist understanding of race, he shows how legal contestation, political entrepreneurship and even scholarly intellectual production intersect to set the parameters of racial dynamics. In contrast with Pinker, Coates offers a comparative historical sociological analysis of how stratification and inequality are maintained and thus come to shape social organization, great tranches of lived experience, and therefore social identities. Granted, American racial taxonomies themselves are not universal either, but historical and sociological inquiry has produced a body of theory such that Coates and others are well able to describe and analyse this moment.

Through focusing on intergenerational violence, interpersonal violence and pre-emptive violence as mechanisms capitalism uses to enforce blackness, Coates maps how these processes come to shape the lived experience of African Americans. ‘Either I can beat him, or the police’, a refrain from his father, and a reoccurring motif Coates uses to discuss how black families attempt to keep children safe from state violence. As a result, ‘we were afraid of those who loved us most’. These processes also have a public component. To take the case of masculinity, there is a price and dilemma that involves institutions and norms too. ‘Fail to comprehend the street and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later’, Coates conveys. Young black men risk being beaten for not being tough while they are also at risk of being beaten for being threatening. Describing these as bleak choices does not convey how little choice is really involved, for each route results in a blackness marked by anxiety over their bodily integrity being wounded on all sides. Accordingly, ‘the lesson a black child learns early is that their bodies are in constant jeopardy’. Attributing this fear to the pathologies of blackness absconds from undertaking an analysis into the longstanding policies and politics that were set in motion during the American experience of modernity.

The social grammar of blackness Coates describes traverses class positions. While some class positions may reduce exposure to violence, it does not mitigate it entirely. He relays a story of a young man within his social group who had the manner, achievements and social attributes associated with promise but who, during a routine traffic stop, was nevertheless killed by the police. Coates reasons that if a young black man who exceeded the criteria set up by white American social life could be indiscriminately killed without cause then all others were greatly susceptible to state violence. All black men risk being ‘killed in the streets America made’ (Coates, 2015, 16, 17, 25, 82).

For Pinker, soon these streets will be made ‘with data’.

Misrecognition and modernity

Through Pinker’s inattention to the salient issue of race and colonial formations his white ignorance is indicative of spectres that haunt certain scholarly tracks. It is also an example of how simplified thinking limits our ability to see the various mechanisms of class rule in action. For example, in contradistinction to Pinker’s flawed invocation of the Enlightenment, when Coates argues that the ‘American people’ are white what he means is that the boundaries of American democracy are congruent with the boundaries of whiteness to which it is set to serve.

To elaborate, forming throughout the 16th to 19th centuries, race is a modern civic ascription. It has several other premises, for example the socially acceptable stigma and licenced prejudice to those that do not conform to ‘white universalism’. A construction of differences – which while shifting assemblages and articulations seeks to mute pluralities – are claimed to be embodied, all the while being ‘fixed’ by ‘common sense’. These shifting constructions of difference are enrolled to naturalize social hierarchy. And as Coates relays, state- and market-sanctioned violence is used to proactively preserve the hierarchy.

All of these features are present in Reed’s account of race and class. He points to American plantations in the 19th century when whites petitioned for improved living conditions lest they become degraded to the status of blacks, or where they lobbied for racial exclusions to the franchise. Reed writes that ‘Planters’ commitment to black subordination, though certainly buttressed by beliefs in black inferiority, stemmed from their more practical concerns to compose a labor regime that would approximate as nearly as possible a restoration of slavery’ (2002, 267). Planters and their allies fought reconstruction efforts, labour protections and redistribution to undermine the ‘possibility that blacks and non-elite whites would form a durable alliance that could effectively challenge for power or disrupt, and perhaps radically alter, prevailing economic and class relations’ (2002, 268). This civic ascription became encoded into the American legal regime. For example, the US Naturalization Act of 1790 granted citizenship to ‘free White persons of good character’. This code was maintained in subsequent laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Asiatic Barred Zone of 1917 which barred Chinese workers and most Asians from acquiring citizenship. It is for this reason that Michael Omi and Howard Winant write that ‘race establishes the identity of human subjects, it structures social conflict and social cohesion, and it is deeply woven into other aspects of existence’ (1986, 56). Elsewhere they add that ‘every state institution is a racial institution’ (Omi and Winant, 1986, 78; also see Ignatin and Allen, 1976). Effectively, in the US, state formation is racial formation.

It is from this vantage that resurgent discussions of the political experience of race, class, and communication can best be understood. At it most basic level there is a debate over whether race is essential to the reproduction of American capitalism, or merely a prominent but incidental feature. Upfront, Adolf Reed notes that ‘few people are prepared now, on either intellectual or moral grounds, to characterize racial injustice as a simple by-product, or “epiphenomenon”, of capitalist class relations’ (Reed, 2002, 265). So almost all participants in the debate agree with the conceptualization of race as a non-reductive, contradictory and political manner. Consolidating critical scholarship on the topic, Omi and Winant note that race is ‘an unstable and “de-centred” complex of social meanings constantly being transformed by political struggle’ (1986, 68). This ‘autonomous field of social conflict’ is maintained at through social relations and social structures, with floating signifiers used to mark identity (Omi and Winant, 1986, 52). In line with Hall, Gilroy and Jhally, this conception of race acknowledges it as a separate axis of domination and inequality.

Still – and his choice of words show how his point of entry into this debate is related to his longstanding disagreements with William Wilson’s work – Reed writes that there remain questions about ‘whether race has declined in significance as a factor in shaping life-chances, particularly among black Americans’ (2002, 265). To this end, Reed suggests that ‘reformulation of the debate has both subtly disconnected it from its radical roots in structural critique of American capitalism and established it on a polysemous foundation that gives it broader resonance, though at the price of lack of clarity’ (2002, 265). For him, the problem is that the ‘familiar juxtaposition’ between these concepts led to these things being ‘fundamentally distinguishable’. From his perspective this is a misstep. Rather, Reed proposes that ‘both are more effectively, and more accurately, seen as equivalent and overlapping elements within a singular system of social power and stratification rooted in capitalist labor relations’ (Reed, 2002, 266). This last sentence is telling. To use David Harvey’s terminology, for Reed race and class relations are different means to realize the extraction of surplus value.

Through appealing to the American historical record, Reed suggests that ‘hierarchies of civic status mediate and manage this stratification system by defining populations and assigning them ascriptively to what come to be understood as appropriate niches of civic worth and entitlement’. And so ‘race appears as a social category’, becoming and denoting an ‘especially durable kind of ascriptive civic status in the context of American capitalism and the political and ideological structures through which it is reproduced as a social order’. This ‘confluence of race and class’ is enacted by laws, norms, instructions, habits and bias which then come to create ‘absolute, unbreachable distinctions’ (2002, 266) between races, even while whites and blacks work in the same fields and factories (2002, 266).

By contrast, Ellen Meiksins Wood’s political Marxism foregrounds the value struggles within wage labour regimes, which are set in motion through the separation of people from means of independent subsistence to complete the commodification of labour power thereby aiding the accumulation of abstract wealth. Herein, race is ‘a major “extra-economic” mechanism of class reproduction in US capitalism’ (Wood, 2002, 276). She means that capital is opportunistic and selective in using race and other kinds of civil hierarchies to divide the workforce, a view shared by W. E. B. Du Bois and Noel Ignatiev among others. Accordingly, for Wood the relative presence or absence of racism turns upon whether in that moment it serves the capitalist ruling class’s interests. From this vantage racial formations are modulated by capitalist class relations and strategies of accumulation. She adds that even if racial injustice evaporated, capitalism would persist. Put concisely, Wood argues that ‘capitalism is conceivable without racial divisions, but not, by definition, without class’ (2002, 276). Du Bois’ analysis of the ‘psychological wage’ proletariat whites receive is a good example of the kind of techniques of racial division used to prop up capital accumulation that Wood has in mind. This ‘wage’ is a civic ascription that gives white people relatively more status than black people. This ‘wage’ could be redescribed as a ‘loyalty rent’, one benefit of which is ‘white privilege’. As Theodore Allen (1994) used the term, white privilege refers to the relative credence given to the claims made by members of a racially segmented class-stratified society. These enduring and predictable stratifications are legitimated by ideologies that appeal to ascriptive essentialism. Yet, the relative privilege that white workers may gain still costs less to capitalists than the costs if all workers stood in solidarity and organized for higher wages for all.

According to David Roediger, Wood’s interpretation ‘remains broadly the dominant interpretation’ in the academy (Roediger, 2017, 25). Perhaps Roediger’s testimony comes from his experience of having worked within the American academic system and his encounters with the kind of methodological whiteness I have already described in this chapter. Nevertheless, Roediger relays how civic hierarchies facilitate the fragmentation of solidarity in the working class, allowing much of the social reproduction of that class to be pushed on to designated populations who in turn are not well placed in the political structure to fight against it. These themes traverse Roediger’s academic project, from How Race Survived US History where he argues that race is a key organizing principle of American capitalism, to The Production of Difference where he and Elizabeth Esch note that difference facilitates the extraction of surplus value; indeed, distinction-making is essential to a capitalist labour regime as shifting the construction of difference allow for the parameters for ruling class affiliations to be reset as needed. In sum, his stance is that a historical materialist method is predicated upon inquiry into these ‘extra-economic’ mechanisms that are at play in capitalist ‘laws of motion’. Effectively, he intimates that Wood has not applied Marxist methods to the totality of capitalist social relations.

Returning to the main point, Reed proposes that the reason his empirical view is not widely shared – why there is even a debate about the relationship between race and class in the first place – is because progressive analysts are overly invested in formal definitions, they ‘proceed from a notion of capitalism as an ideal-typical system defined by generic economic categories’ (2002, 266). This formalism cannot fully account for actually existing capitalisms, each one an historically encumbered polity. To reframe the argument, capitalism does not strictly need racism in the same way that it does not strictly need railways or computers. These are contingent extra-economic historical developments, but they have all become readily enrolled as core elements in economically compelled exploitative relations to the point where in actually existing capitalism accumulation is less efficient without them. For Reed, the label ‘capitalism’ is little more than a summary of the outcomes by individuals and groups ‘pursu[ing] concrete material interests’ using ‘improvis[ed] institutional frameworks’ (2002, 268). While he grants that theoretical models can have ‘heuristic value’, this is only to the extent to which they do not hinder an analysis of the pursuit of concrete and specific material developments. Anything else is simply to reify capitalism, succumbing to the same kinds of epistemic errors capitalist ideology encourages.

Capitalism’s extra-economic dimensions

While playing out through stances on the utility of definitions of capitalism and empirical developments, the debate about race turns upon the extra-economic dimensions of capitalism, for example the role of the state’s force to back civic ascriptive categories that help markets reproduce themselves in ways that heavily favour capitalist accumulation. Reed and Roediger suggest that capitalism is more than a sphere of production and exchange, that markets are formed by legal regimes and cultures. Moreover, markets do not have distinctive boundaries; the labour process of the social reproduction of workers shows this. So markets very much depend upon the state, cultures and other kinds of extra-economic forces, like racism and sexism, to reproduce themselves. As capitalist social relations were instituted by the state, so prejudice and bigotry was co-opted in the form of civic hierarchies and enhanced to create racial formations that very much suited the prevailing interest in ruthlessly accumulating value. It is plainly true that capitalism is a system of rule which has economic and extra-economic ‘rules of reproduction’. As such, class intersects with the shifting construction of racial, religious and gendered differences to create a variety of conditions in which the logic of capital can be reproduced, a process primarily undertaken through commodity markets. In summary, capital structures social relations, which is the main point.

In this respect, whiteness is a ruling class social control formation; one which uses shifting implicit and explicit explanations to govern, deploying ideological justifications for discrimination based on ontological claims about the existence of those distinctively (in)capable of self-government. Recalling the passage from Susan Buck-Morss, whiteness advocates for unmarked universalism but is bundled with overt racist assertions of the innate superiority of the ruling class and the innate inferiority of others. So while white supremacy may well appeal to ‘biological characteristics’ it is ultimately about socio-economic relations and the control of capital that matters most. It is because of these differences that American whites get a social safety net and have ancestral wealth at their disposal, whereas, as Coates describes, blacks have criminal justice and penal warehousing. Indeed, a capitalist polity is absolutely and necessarily committed to sexism and racism because the system must mystify, externalize and justify the innate contradictions in its social relations. In short, whiteness and blackness are born from modernity. While both are social constructs – and so are malleable and contingent – they signify a relationship to authority, and by implication to capital. For this reason it would be helpful for more communication and technology scholars to study the ‘cognitive economy of racial domination’.

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