Conference Theme, Unlocking Race & Class For Just Transitions
The Civil Rights Era of the mid-20th century brought about some reforms, but it did not achieve substantive equality for people of color, and in particular for African American, Latinx and Native American communities. The wealth and income of these communities are far below that of whites, their poverty and unemployment rates are far above the national average, and they are far underrepresented among college graduates and in professions requiring higher education. There is still widespread de facto racial and ethnic segregation in schools and residential living patterns. And people of color are often harassed and brutalized by police and private citizens while engaged in normal human activities.
For several decades, scholarship in Critical Race Theory and LatCrit Theory has examined the role of ongoing racial discrimination in perpetuating persistent injustices and inequalities against African Americans and other people of color. A somewhat different perspective is found in the literature on “racial capitalism.” Inspired by scholars in the Black radical tradition such as W.E.B. DuBois, Cedric Robinson, and Sylvia Wynter, historians and theorists of capitalism have begun to trace the relationship between global capitalism and white supremacy. From the dispossession of indigenous people in the “New World” to the establishment of Atlantic slavery, through the construction of empires of cotton, sugar, bananas, and other commodities that pulled colonized and racialized peoples around the globe into new supply chains designed to serve the European metropoles, the cheap land and labor produced by white supremacy has been central to the emergence of capitalism.
The climate crisis, which currently threatens the well-being of the entire world and of which people of color and other marginalized communities bear the brunt, is an outcome of a globalized economic system based on extraction from and exploitation of these communities and of the planet at large. Indeed, new historical research suggests that capitalist tools and mechanisms—from accounting and management practices to mortgages, the corporate form, and private property itself—are the products of a mindset that has distributed the privileges of “humanity” unequally. This account refuses the conventional question of “Is it race or class?” and suggests that the two are intimately intertwined.
This backdrop poses several questions. Is it possible to overcome white supremacy with the existing tools of American law? Can white supremacy and capitalism be disentangled? Is it possible, given what DuBois called the “wages of whiteness,” to build a more egalitarian society with minimal wealth and income disparities, high quality education and guaranteed employment for all, and comparable opportunities to seek fulfillment in life? Despite the enormous power of the moneyed elite, is it possible and what would it take to transform our society from one based on competition, profit, and individual satisfaction to one whose core values are working cooperatively, meeting people’s needs, and fairly sharing what society collectively produces among all its members? What might this “Just Transition” look like? And how do we equip lawyers to facilitate the transition?