Racial Capitalism

By Leong, Nancy | Harvard Law Review, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Racial Capitalism


Leong, Nancy, Harvard Law Review


B. Race as Marxian Capital

"[N]othing can be a value without being an object of utility." (163)

In the previous section, I used theories of social capital to explain the way that race acquires value through social interaction. This section builds on that analysis by using a Marxian conception of capital to understand how assigning value to race leads to the commodification and subsequent capitalization of race. (164) Marxian theory provides an imperfect analogy for this process, but it supplies a useful starting point for an analysis of the way that racial identity generally -- and nonwhiteness in particular -- functions as capital.

I use Marx's market rhetoric in my analysis of how race is commodified and capitalized. The result is jarring. But this is precisely my intent. By exposing the dissonance between market rhetoric and racial identity, I lay the preliminary groundwork for my critique of racial identity markets.

Marx begins with the concept of the commodity, which he defines as "an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind." (165) Commodities have both a use-value -- "the usefulness of a thing" -- and an exchange-value -- a value derived from the trade of the commodity for other commodities. (166) The amount of labor (167) that goes into a particular commodity establishes the rate of exchange. (168) Notably for present purposes, "[a] thing can be useful, and a product of human labor, without being a commodity" -- that is, someone who creates something and derives use from it, but does not exchange it, has not created a commodity. (169) To produce a commodity, a laborer must produce use-value for others and surrender that commodity to someone else in an exchange. (170)

The Marxian analysis thus provides a lens for examining the way that racial identity is produced, used, and exchanged in society. We can think of racial identity as a commodity that we all produce. (171) The process of racial identity production is complex and multifaceted. (172) To some degree, racial identity production is determined by what Camille Gear Rich calls "morphology-based ascription" -- the interpretation of another person's visible, physical features to correlate with a set of features identified with a particular race or ethnic group. (173) But as scholars such as Judith Butler and Kenji Yoshino have argued, perception of identity is also deeply influenced by the manner in which that identity is performed. (174) Indeed, as Rich says, "while certain physical traits may suggest a particular racial or ethnic identity or interfere with the performance of one's chosen identity category ... some people actively perform racial or ethnic identities in an attempt to cancel out the contrary symbolic effect of their morphology, and are successful in doing so." (175) Rich explains that perception of racial identity is influenced by both passive race/ethnicity performance -- traits such as one's accent -- and active race/ethnicity performance -- voluntary engagement in racially associated acts such as wearing particular clothing or speaking a non-English language. (176)

Moreover, perception of one's racial identity may also be shaped by traits that are not explicitly correlated with race. Devon Carbado and Mitu Gulati have used the term "working identity" (177) to describe the "process of negotiating and performing identity." (178) They emphasize that identity performance takes place against the backdrop of stereotypes and social preconceptions regarding race -- for example, a Korean American employee at a law firm may be both positively stereotyped as hardworking and negatively stereotyped as unassertive. (179) In his production of racial identity, that employee may need to do very little to communicate that he is hardworking, but he may need to go to great lengths to demonstrate the leaderships skills necessary to advance within the firm. (180) The extent to which the employee performs these characteristics successfully will in turn influence others' perception of his race. …

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