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  • Constellations:Capitalism, Antiblackness, Afro-Pessimism, and Black Optimism
  • William David Hart (bio)

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.1

Karl Marx

"In the antiblack world there is but one race, and that race is black. Thus, to be racialized is to be pushed 'down,' toward blackness, and to be deracialized is to be pushed 'up' toward whiteness." This does not mean, of course, that there are only blacks and whites in some anthropological sense. It does not mean that political reality with regard to race simply reduces to two positions, two histories, or two struggles. Rather, it says that the vectors of the international racial hierarchy)—with its black and white extremities—can and should be brought to bear on every discussion.2

Jared Sexton and Huey Copeland

There are two principles that emerge in an antiblack society. They are "be white!" and avoid blackness!3

Lewis Gordon

I. Introduction

This article purses a set of complex questions about the nature of antiblack racism. The scope of these questions is much broader than the intellectual traditions that define the Institute for American Religious [End Page 5] and Philosophy and Philosophical Thought (IARPT). But the relevance of those traditions to the problem of antiblackness partly motivates this article. Do the radical empiricist, pragmatist, and process traditions of IARPT have the resources to address the deeply American (and global) problem of antiblackness? Though my construction of the question has implications for how it might be answered, I will not provide a direct answer. Rather, I present this question as a challenge that members of IARPT should endeavor to meet. My own effort to illuminate this challenge takes me outside the traditions that define the intellectual history of IARPT.

Specifically, I will engage a distinctive trajectory in the theoretical discourse of black studies. Along the way, I explore a constellation of overlapping and discrepant issues: the debate around the relationship between racism and capitalism and the dueling concepts of afro-pessimism and black optimism. The questions I pose are the following: What is the causal relation between race and racism? Is racism a capitalist or precapitalist formation? How do we account for the perdurance of antiblack racism; is antiblackness an artifact of capitalism or a feature of Western metaphysis? Is antiblack racism a consequent or an antecedent reality, a historical artifact or a product of a white "transcendental imagination?" Whether consequent or antecedent reality, doesn't antiblack racism represent the social, political, and ethical ontology of contemporary American life? This inquiry grows from the conviction that racism is the parent of race; that racist behaviors and ideas produce race as an enduring set of habits—habits of perception, evaluation, and comportment. This approach inverts the commonsense view that racism distorts or otherwise grows from a preexisting, normatively neutral, and nonhierarchical reality called race. On this view, the question of race, ubiquitous in our discourse, displaces the real question of racism. This inquiry further specifies its subject as antiblack racism: or, antiblackness, for short. This specific focus makes evasion of the questions I pose more difficult. Our focus is the specificity of the black/white binary. My hope is that we will look at it and not look away. False universalities, cowardly generalities, dubious analogies, and multiculturalism are ways of looking away. Recourse to the category, "people of color," is a way of averting our gaze, of denying the specificity of antiblackness.4 Functionally speaking, these evasive concepts are part of the language of diversity that is ubiquitous on college campuses and in the corporate world. In both venues, diversity becomes the privileged tool for homogenizing difference and evading the specificity of antiblackness. [End Page 6]

II. Slavery and Capitalism

Cedric Robinson, author of Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, describes black studies as the critique of Western Civilization. W. E. B. Du Bois, the great scholar of American history, founder of American...


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