Where Is Race in Law and Political Economy?

Angela Harris

In their first post on this blog, Amy, David, and Jed assert that “politics and the economy cannot be separated.” Nevertheless, as they also observe, the separation of the two – as, for example, in the idea that economic activity is determined by laws of supply and demand that lie outside the power of governments to influence, other than through misguided “intervention” – continues to influence law and policy. A similar separation runs through scholarship in several disciplines, including law, between the study of economics and the study of race. As the new field of “law and political economy” grows, one of its tasks must be to trouble this separation as well.

We know the separation most familiarly as the “race or class?” question (note the either/or framing). In the affirmative action debate, it manifests as this: Isn’t a poor white kid from Appalachia more deserving of the last spot in a freshman class than a black doctor’s kid? In academic discussions, here’s how it typically goes: All this stuff about race, or more broadly, all of this “identity politics,” is a distraction from the deeper and more fundamental realities of wealth and poverty, production and exchange. Sometimes race distracts because it is considered to be a matter of “culture,” which is “epiphenomenal” to material relations: It’s about exploitation, stupid! Other times, race is considered a distraction for pragmatic reasons, because its appearance is “divisive,” threatening the solidarity of labor, or the electorate, or progressive communities, or women. At still other times, especially within academia, the separation of race from economics looks something like a polite form of intellectual self-segregation: while all the black kids are sitting in the cafeteria together talking about critical race theory, the law and economics kids are at their own table, drawing supply and demand curves and talking about Pareto optimality. To each their own, and everybody’s happy.

But this story of race and racism as either irrelevant to or reducible to the story of production, exchange, and consumption is wrong. Black studies scholars have been saying so for quite some time. In 1935, W.E.B. Du Bois argued that what turned the tide of the Civil War was a mass withdrawal of slave labor, amounting to a “general strike.” In his view, the North’s victory was neither a race story nor a labor story, but a powerful demonstration of how the two were intertwined. Generations later, Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism provided a similar attempt to take race seriously within a materialist frame, arguing that the Eurocentric origins of Marxist theory left it unable to adequately account for black history.

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