Can We Have Capitalism Without Racism? The Invisible Chains of Debt and the Catastrophic Loss of African American Wealth
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The official version of this article is published here in the Fall 2013 edition of South Atlantic Quarterly.
Years after Thomas Jefferson’s famous words “all men are created equal” began to ring as a call to conscience, he himself must have felt every bit of their hollowness. Polish Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko bequeathed Jefferson enough money to free his slaves, as well as to set them off with land and farming equipment of their own, but Jefferson refused this gift. Instead, he died with a debt hanging over Monticello – a kind of debt that he was the first to incur through monetizing his slaves for use as collateral for the loan to build his estate (Weincek 2012: 96). The slave families, who resided on Jefferson’s estate as intact families, were separated and sold to pay the outstanding debt such that the estate could be passed down to its rightful heir. In spite of words we have no reason not to believe were heartfelt, and in spite of fathering six black children, Jefferson was not able to rise to the call of his words in the end, leaving as mixed a legacy as the American history that has followed. And in spite of generations of black descendants, no reparation has ever been paid to them; they remain a forgotten part of this legacy. As the story is most commonly told, there is only mention made to a legitimate debt paid with the bodies, blood and breath of Jefferson slaves, but no mention of any owing to them. Unfortunately, this telling of Jefferson’s story not only exposes the power dynamics of the past, but also discloses a fundamental understanding of the world that continues to rear its ugly head today.
During Jefferson’s life, Wall Street was already expanding on and experimenting with the monetization of human life through debt. In 1804, well before the battle for abolition was won here in America, but only after a bloody 13-year struggle, Haitian slaves liberated themselves by successfully defeating Napoleon. President Jefferson was the first to refuse to recognize their independence from France. As a result, over twenty years later, the French reminded the Haitians that they, themselves, constituted a debt. The Haitians did the only thing they could to retain their physical freedom and borrowed the equivalent of $150 million (almost double the cost of Louisiana) from Wall Street to pay “reparations” to the French. Of course, this original predatory debt reaped enormous rewards and in the end they paid the equivalent of $20 billion dollars for their freedom – something that never should have been for sale. And all the way up until 1947, 80% of Haiti’s economy went to pay off this debt to National City Bank – known today as Citibank. Of course, the price of freedom was unrelenting poverty, the permanent loss of opportunity to develop infrastructure, and the seemingly never-ending suffering in enslavement of another form.
Yet, when we talk about debt, mostly we talk about it as a thing – as the kind of thing that hangs from the body like a ball and chain or from our necks like an albatross. We talk a lot about how debt makes us feel: atomized, isolated, alone. But, we don’t often talk about how the neoliberal construct of perpetual indebtedness to non-human financial entities has created a populace so focused on debts “owed” to Wall Street that we have no collective memory of any other kinds of debts. But, once we open Pandora’s box to take a look at the intersections of debt and race, we are forced to ask ourselves how it is that we have forgotten so much. Could it be that alongside the rise of the neoliberal social order characterized by the isolation of the invisible chains of debt, a parallel practice of “colorblindness” arose that produces the invisibility of race? And if Malcolm X was correct that we “cannot have capitalism without racism,” we have to ask ourselves whether racism has really declined with colorblindness, or whether colorblindness might be neoliberalism’s corollary. It has been under a gray monotone cloud that a predatory debt system has been advanced, one that stripped African Americans of all economic gains subsequent to Civil Rights, and that spread throughout the rest of the economy, impacting generations to come.