The Demand for Black Labor: Historical Notes on the Political Economy of Racism (Harold M. Baron, 1978)

Synopsis by Kurtis Kelley

In The Demand for Black Labor, Baron expertly guides the reader through a historical narrative of Black Americans’ relationship with the ‘economic base of racism’ to provide insight into their oppression within the modern capitalist system. For Baron, the position of Black workers and trajectory of Black labor is governed by two major forces: ‘the laws of capitalist development, and the laws of national liberation’. While Baron focuses his analysis on capitalist development and its effect on the historical demand for Black labor, his acknowledgment of the saliency of Black Nationalist politics and liberation is a vital thread of Baron’s essay. From slavery into the present, the demands on Black labor by capital have brought about momentous shifts in U.S. culture and policy, the economic power of the US elite, and the autonomy of Black Americans.

To provide the ideological legitimacy needed to sustain such a system, Baron displays how a culture of control fermented within U.S. and beyond. This cultural system was fostered by white elites to both maintain dominance over enslaved Africans and to keep the white population that did not hold slaves from rebelling against a system they could not control. Unique to the United States, compared to other places within the Americas, was the creation of “rationale regarding the degradation of all blacks”, which Baron argues was vital for the continued enslavement of “some” of the US Black population. For Baron, these attributes of Black chattel slavery set it apart from other forms of slavery and indeed constituted a “new type of social formation,” entirely.

Shifts in the demand for Black labor during slavery brought about a more “self-contained operation” as capitalism matured and the international slave trade slowed. Baron notes that after Independence from Britain, cotton came to dominate the aims of the southern planter class and slave owners in the Upper North were more than willing to sell their slaves southward given their increased value as new imports of Africans were nearly halted. The North supported slavery as well, by sponsoring European immigration despite the presence of Black workers and the enforcement of federal slave laws.

According to Baron, the position of the “quasi-free Negro” provides readers with vital insight for future transformations in the demand for Black labor. Still victims of a vicious anti-black society, non-slave Blacks were subject to many of the same systems of control that the enslaved were, albeit from a different position. These oppressions combined to restrict Black people from securing a stable position within society.   Just before the Civil War, Baron notes that around 89% of Black people were enslaved within the US. Thus, quasi-free Negroes had their position “ascribed from that of the mass of their brothers in bondage.” According to Baron, as economic competition increased in urban areas with the maturation of capitalism, many non-slave Blacks lost what skilled positions they had and left large cities altogether.

Baron concludes the section on the slave period by stating simply that there was not a significant demand for non-slave Black labor. The theft of Black labor within the South that took place outside of the plantation system simply augmented the system of slavery to fit the desired setting. Furthermore, the racist, anti-black logic that produced these oppressions would carry over within American culture and politics long after slavery ended with the defeat of the Confederacy and their gradual federal re-integration that followed.

The Reconstruction era, which heralded massive advances in the lives of formerly enslaved Africans (now US citizens), was short-lived and its conclusion ushered the white Southern elites back into power after their defeat during the Civil War. With this power, they once again sought to maintain control over Black labor through political pressure and outright physical violence. The agrarian system that was established in the post-Reconstruction South created a class of Black workers that had less power and autonomy than any group of white workers, whom they came into increasing competition with during this period.   According to Baron, the “abolition of slavery did not mean substantive freedom to the black worker”, which was demonstrated by the fact in both eras the Black peasantry only received only enough to subsist on. This low position, combined with a viciously anti-black American culture, created conditions in which the Black worker was increasingly tied to the bottom rungs of the white-controlled US agrarian economy.

The increasing competition between Black and White workers during post-Reconstruction era brought about several important shifts for the demand for Black labor. Much of this competition was centered on land rivalries, with emancipated Black families seeking to secure land having to confront an overtly racist system of Southern politics. With the increasing numbers of poor white farmers in the south, the Southern political elite sought to further cement their hegemonic control over both Black and White workers through shoring up gaps within their “color-caste distinctions”. Baron also notes that massive shifts were also taking place within the Southern ruling class, which saw much land trade hands away from former slave masters into the possession of merchants and lawyers. This transformation saw decision-making amongst the Southern elite shift from a more paternalistic approach to “land-owners’ making their decisions more nakedly, on the basis of pure entrepreneurial calculations.” In such a position, Black workers faced oppression from both the Southern elites’ decision making and the competition from landless whites.

During the Reconstruction era, the Black workers desire for land was inseparable from their quest for self-sufficiency and autonomy. With the temporary defeat of this quest by the forces that conspired to end Reconstruction, this momentum faced a massive setback. While movements for Black national liberation wouldn’t renew themselves until more northward migrations brought Black workers into urban centers in higher numbers, the “embryonic nationalism” and quest for racial unity held by these workers were captured in the movements surrounding Booker T. Washington and other smaller “exodus groups” which set up independent Black settlements throughout the lower-Midwest and southwest in particular.

With the oncoming of the World War I, the position of Black workers again faced major transformations. With the precarious relationship between the US and European nations, immigration from Europe was curtailed—opening up sectors of the labor market to Black workers at unprecedented levels. Baron identifies three key developments that arose from these events: First, the outmigration of millions of African Americans from the South to urban centers in the North; Second, the development of a Black proletariat in these urban centers; and third, the shift away from tenancy farming in the South. According to Baron, while World War I started many of these societal shifts, “World War II was to repeat the process in a magnified form and to place the stamp of irreversibility upon it”.

In these urban centers, Black workers remained more vulnerable to unemployment and the racist white working class, with help from city and state institutions, carried out violent campaigns of “race riots” throughout urban Black communities in the North. Often, white management would utilize the inclusion of Black workers to divide the work force—causing white workers to draw focus away from inter-class conflicts to confront the Black worker menace they were becoming more confronted with. Furthermore, Black workers were nearly always kept from skilled positions or managements positions. These issues were exacerbated by the tactic of white company owners attracting the subservience of a Black managerial class, made up of Republican anti-union “leaders”, to gain influence in the Black community. In the south, Black workers had little opportunities in southern Industries like mining & lumber, and remain largely restricted to agrarian work throughout the inter-war period.

By the 1970’s, only one-fifth of Black people lived in the South, and the percentage of Black agrarian workers fell to 4% of the Black labor force. The increasing urbanization of Black people brought, among other things, massive changes for the superstructure of racism within the US. For Baron, “it meant the disappearance of the economic foundation on which the elaborate superstructure of legal Jim Crow and segregation had originally been erected.” As monopoly state capitalism matures, economic shifts have caused Black workers in the US, like “non-citizens” from Southern Europe and Northern Africa that fill up the gaps of Western Europe’s labor market, to maintain a marginal status due to their race.

According to Baron, the endemic subordinate status of Black workers amounted to a “system analogous to colonial forms of rule”. Unmoved by the potency of Civil Rights Era protest to alter the demand for Black labor, Baron suggests that the racist institutions of this country can only be altered by a “earthquake in the heartland.” Unable to de-colonize the Black community due to its attachment with major urban centers, the American capitalist relies on the hegemonic control of Black labor to retain its hegemonic position.