Connecting the Dots on Racial Political Economy

Recent debates about Critical Race Theory have taken a dangerous and well-trod path of misinformation and racial resentment.  For whatever reason, White Americans have a very difficult time with the racial reality of American history.  Clearly, a large number of White Americans prefer the mythology of the American experiment, where America is an exceptional (and successful) experiment in equal opportunity, limited regulation, and the prosperity and power of market capitalism.  This, we are told, is the goal that America set for itself from the very beginning. Anything that departed from this is made a temporary aberration as America continues to “perfect itself” by making these fundamental values more of a reality over time.  Ultimately, this story serves as a rallying point for American patriotism, an appeal to shared values that created and sustained a hegemonic force of this republic.  Unfortunately, it is not true.

The racial dimensions of American political economy started before America was America—they were in place when colonial Virginia designated the “children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman” would have the status of the mother in 1662.  By the founding of the nation more than a century later, America was quite familiar with racialized political economy, typified in racial enslavement.  What is more interesting about  this political economy is how racial distinctions were welded to the American code and subsequently covered by a rhetoric which spoke about freedom, liberty, and opportunity.  While may people claim that these are “imperfections” of the American experiment, they are more accurately described as necessary ingredients in American political economy.  America’s liberty and opportunity have always been selective, and American democracy is actually quite young—less than 60 years old.  And in the matter of economic opportunity, race has been a key distinction in setting aside classes for American abundance and American exclusion.

Many Americans today want to overcome race by obviating it.  The rise of “color-blindness” as a path forward and attacks on race-conscious scholarship and policy are only one case in point.  What is so odd about the reactionary take to “stop talking about race” is that (1) it is a rhetorical trick to label those who do want to discuss race as racist, since race is inherently invoked in such discussions, and (2) it requires an ahistorical approach to American history.  The irony to now want the use of race abolished from policy is actually un-American.  Decisions such as Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) and Plessey v. Ferguson (1896) were explicit that race could be used by the state to discriminate against Black Americans.  Indeed, the Dred Scott and Plessey decisions both hinged upon the special status of Black Americans owning to their enslaved status until the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments.  Even more, the free status of some Black Americans did not prevent them from being assigned to a legal purgatory that was directly linked to enslavement.  Moreover, this mindset instituted race-conscious discriminatory policies for generations after enslavement ended.  That is, the economic system of enslavement continued to define the legal and social position and economic opportunities of Black people well after Emancipation.  That is, American political economy was directly related and required racial classification and hierarchies.

How and why do we fail to connect these dots?  Part of this is due to a reluctance to admit that race has been particularly salient in American history. Another is to insist that racial inequality today is not a feature of American policy, but rather the consequence of some cultural or social deficit that Black Americans have in reaping the rewards that America provides equally to all of its citizens.  Here, again, history fails in making those claims empirically true.  If anything, America is a shining example of thwarting Black American attempts to succeed on America’s terms.

When we tell the story of post-Emancipation race relations, stories typically highlight the violent capture of Black capital, such as the case of the Tulsa Massacre in 1921.  But the more typical story of the destruction of Black capital, and the message of racial economic exclusion, is better typified by the forgotten story of Allensworth, California.  Allensworth was an all-Black town started in central California by Colonel Allen Allensworth, an Army chaplain, educator, and orator, in 1908 to establish a place “where African Americans would settle upon the bare desert and cause it to blossom as a rose.” Leveraging the local train depot which carried passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Allensworth became an example of Black self-sufficiency.  Providing goods and services to travelers allowed the town to grow and prosper, and in only a few years several hundred acres were put into production, making Allenswoth a net exporter in less than a decade. While observers often preach about “self-help” among Black people, prosperity such as Allensworth’s are quickly converted to liabilities.

Colonel Allen Allensworth (courtesy of Colonel Allensworth State Historical Park)

Within only a few years, White-owned businesses targeted Allensworth for destruction.  First, the Pacific Farming Company prohibited land sales to Black Americans (an explicitly race-conscious policy). Next, the Pacific Water Company reneged on a promise to build a sufficient number of wells and to build them deep enough for the town to be sustained.  They built only four wells, while other nearby towns had more than twice as many. Without access to water, Allensworth’s agricultural economy stagnated, and eventually the entire town suffered due to lack of sufficient infrastructure for irrigation.  The final blow came from literally displacing one of Allensworth’s initial advantages.  In 1914, the Santa Fe Railroad Company changed its route and trains ceased to stop in Allensworth, instead they used the town of Alpaugh.  Allensworth had to be abandoned as it became uninhabitable, another example of Black wealth destroyed.  To this day, the town stands, not crushed by a violent mob, but vanquished nonetheless.

How is Allensworth related to Virgina colonial policy in the seventeenth century?  They both follow the American racial arc—singling out Black Americans for reasons that are best explained by preventing the free market from operating and/or deliberately preventing Black Americans from achieving economic success.  What is more important is that neither of these two pieces are well covered in American history as we teach it.  This is the problem—American mythology only makes sense if American history is sacrificed in the process.  The covering up (or, more accurately, the sidestepping) of this history is what allows the mythology to pass as fact.  Perhaps it is not a discussion of race that is so much the issue, but a desire to cling to a mythology that does not stand up to any empirical historical investigation.


  • I am the the Hazel C. Youngberg Trustees Distinguished Professor in the Department of Economics at The Ohio State University. I am also a a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and an affiliate of the Initiative in Population Research, the Center for Human Resource Research, the Food Innovation Center, and the Criminal Justice Research Center at Ohio State. I currently serve on the editorial boards of Explorations in Economic History, Historical Methods and Demographic Research.

Leave a Reply