Can There Be Capitalism Without Racism?

A program at UC-Davis looks at the relationship between capitalism and racism.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The website Campus Reform points to a multi-year academic program, Racial Capitalism, hosted at the UC-Davis Humanities Institute that explores the links between racism and capitalism (tip to Glenn Reynolds). Among the questions that were asked at the event launching the program are:

  1. "Which came first, capitalism or racism?"
  2. "Can there be capitalism without racism?"
  3. "Is capitalism always racial?"

IMO, the answers to these questions are fairly obvious:

  1. Racism came first. Every inhabited continent had slaves, and ethnic out-groups were among the most likely to be enslaved. It is the abolition of slavery that is particularly Western, as Orlando Patterson explains his books Freedom and Slavery and Social Death.
  2. (and 3.) If there can be any economic system without racism (I suppose it depends on how high one's standards are), then capitalism is not always racist and there can be capitalism without racism. Capitalism is easier to square with a reduction in racism than most ideologies because (a) it is individualistic, (b) it is not built on envy for despised groups, and (c) in the United States at least, pro-capitalists tend to be less racist personally than anti-capitalists.

Indeed, in the general public it is the opposition to capitalism and the desire for redistribution that are positively associated with racism and intolerance.

I explore this relationship in "Redistribution and Racism, Tolerance and Capitalism," which analyzes data from 20 nationally representative surveys of the general public.


In debates over the roles of law and government in promoting the equality of income or in redistributing the fruits of capitalism, widely different motives are attributed to those who favor or oppose capitalism or income redistribution. According to one view, largely accepted in the academic social psychology literature (Jost et al., 2003), opposition to income redistribution and support for capitalism reflect an orientation toward social dominance, a desire to dominate other groups. According to another view that goes back at least to the nineteenth century origins of Marxism, anti-capitalism and a support for greater legal efforts to redistribute income reflect envy for the property of others and a frustration with one's lot in a capitalist system.

In this paper I expand and test the first (social dominance) thesis using twenty nationally representative General Social Surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center between 1977 and 2010, involving over 21,000 respondents. I first show that respondents who express traditionally racist views (on segregation, interracial marriage, and inborn racial abilities) tend to support greater income redistribution. Traditional racists also express less positive views toward free-market capitalism and its consequences, tending to want the government to guarantee jobs for everyone and to fix prices, wages, and profits. Next, I report a similar pattern for those who express intolerance for unpopular groups on the fifteen Stouffer tolerance questions (regarding racists, homosexuals, communists, extreme militarists, and atheists). Those who express less tolerance for unpopular groups tend to favor income redistribution and to be less supportive of capitalism and its discontents. Using full latent variable structural equation modeling shows similar results. The data are broadly inconsistent with the standard belief in the social psychology literature that pro-capitalist and anti-redistributionist views are positively associated with racism and intolerance.

I then explore an alternative hypothesis, showing that, compared to anti-redistributionists, strong redistributionists have much higher odds of reporting anger, sadness, loneliness, outrage, and other negative emotions. Similarly, anti-redistributionists had much higher odds of reporting being happy or at ease. Last, both redistributionists and anti-capitalists expressed lower overall happiness, less happy marriages, and lower satisfaction with their financial situations and with their jobs or housework. Further, in several General Social Surveys anti-redistributionists were generally more likely to report altruistic behavior than those who favored a stronger policy of government redistribution of income.

In addition, in a 1996 survey:

Not only do redistributionists report more anger, but they report that their anger lasts longer. Further, when asked about the last time they were angry, strong redistributionists were more than twice as likely as strong opponents of leveling to admit that they responded to their anger by plotting revenge.

The more interesting question (than whether you can have capitalism without racism) is whether you can have socialism without racism. The answer is yes, but the reason is an enlightening one.

In the long run, a robust socialism (that dominates most of the economy) tends to lead to the scapegoating of demonized out-groups, because there must be someone to blame for economic failure. Thus, the Soviet Union began with hating the Kulaks and the ownership class more generally, but once these were destroyed, they needed someone else to blame. Though it took many decades, the Soviet Union went beyond targeting "counter-revolutionaries" to add Jews to the list. So the demonized out-groups under socialism don't have to be defined by race or ethnicity; they could instead be defined by economic class, religion, or nationality. Accordingly, socialism doesn't have to be racist, but when it dominates the economy almost inevitably there must be some group to despise.

It would be good if the academy in general–and the UC-Davis Racial Capitalism program in particular–were ideologically diverse enough to reflect some of the substantial evidence from the last few decades on the relationship of capitalism and racism in the views of the general public, evidence that tends to point to a negative association between racism and support for capitalism.