Laura Pulido on Geographies of Race and Ethnicity

Pulido L. Geographies of race and ethnicity II: Environmental racism, racial capitalism and state-sanctioned violence. Progress in Human Geography . 2017;41(4):524-533.

I have one major takeaway and one question after reading Laura Pulido’s article.

Takeaway: I was pleased to read a critique of the state for its role in maintaining if not exacerbating issues of racial and environmental injustice. I agree with Pulido in that activists too commonly fall for the optimistic belief that the state will do right by its citizens over financial/corporate interests. It is convenient to believe that industry is the sole adversary and that the state is the agent to call upon to keep our economics in check. All we need to do is vote, and then we can be on our way. The reality, though, is that

What is needed is to begin seeing the state as an adversary that must be confronted in a manner similar to industry. (p. 530)

This is not to say that petitioning the state for a more just social infrastructure is not worthwhile, but that it is insufficient, which ties back to the conversation about participatory/direct/project-based democracy we had a couple of weeks ago.

Question: What is the value of characterizing capitalism as racial capitalism in this article that referring to it as simply “capitalism” does not offer? Pulido explains,

Dominant historical narratives of racism locate its origins in European colonization. Robinson (2000) challenges this notion by documenting its prior roots in Europe. This is key, because although he and others, such as Melamed (2015: 77), insist that, ‘capitalism is racial capitalism’, this historicization suggests that racism predates capitalism and therefore can be used by diverse economic systems, including colonization and slavery. (p. 527, bold emphasis mine)

I may be confusing this wording, but it sounds like Pulido is suggesting that claiming “capitalism is racial capitalism” is antithetical to accepting that racism predates capitalism. If I am not misrepresenting the text, I disagree with that claim. All of the arguments Pulido raises against racial capitalism are just arguments against… capitalism, albeit she does an excellent job to emphasize how non-white people face stronger (or in more severe systems and periods, exclusive) devaluation. I have no issue whatsoever with this emphasis; in fact, I agree with her completely.

The reason I am troubled with using the term “racial capitalism” is that, for me, it suggests there is an alternative capitalism, one in which people are not treated inequitably and that those injustices do not fall predominantly on the disenfranchised - in our social context, largely non-white people with a disproportionate eye for Black Americans. While we could digress into an argument about whether that’s true, I do not believe it is. Further, I am not inclined to believe that our author thinks it is, and so I wonder why the term “capitalism” does not suffice; using “racial capitalism” potentially leaves the reader with the idea that capitalism as it stands can be fixed through conventional activism and strong regulation (something she does not believe is possible through the state).

That said, does anyone have their own sense of the benefit provided by qualifying capitalism in this article?


Vince, I really appreciated your post here! As I read Pulido’s article I was also having a hard time with the term “racial capitalism”. I also felt that the points should just be a critique against “capitalism” without qualifiers. As you mentioned, I was also thinking, what are the other capitalisms? On page 526, Pulido mentions the work of others examining the relationship between “racism and capitalism”. I felt there was something missing at this point about getting to the term “racial capitalism”. Is it just creating a new phrase to draw attention to the fact that capitalism generates, perpetuates, exacerbates racism? I also appreciated the critique of the state with this article, especially reflecting on how to be successful in making positive sustained changes. However, what I was really looking for were the points and examples to show how capitalism can be overturned in favor of economic and political systems not built on the capitalist modes of consumption, production, exploitation of available resources and --in effect-- exacerbating social and political delineations between the advantaged and disadvantaged.


Hey Vince! Thanks for starting off this discussion. Your takeaway from the article reminds me of the VP debate last night. Senator Harris was asked if she and Biden have a plan in place for the possibility that Trump will not submit to a peaceful transition of power. Her response was effectively to go vote. Voting Trump out is the precondition for this scenario, so her answer was useless. Every day my understanding that voting isn’t enough is reinforced. We have to take matters into our own hands. As you say, we should continue petitioning the state, buy we must have an alternative strategy. This alternative strategy could include civil disobedience, like the protestors of the proposed Curtis Bay incinerator used.

I agree with the points you pose in your question. I might have a take that could explain the need for the term “racial capitalism.” Capitalism requires the exploitation of land and labor, as Pulido describes. In our reality, capitalism has exploited classes and races. It thrived off of racial constructions. After all, if certain races are less-than-human are they really being exploited (an argument a racist capitalist would pose and has posed). However, capitalism did not need to exploit labor along racial lines. It could have been framed to exploit based on any number of things. Maybe people with large hands are the exploited laborers, or tall people, people that can only speak one language, people that live in rural areas rather than urban centers. Various social constructions around any of these groups could be used to justify their exploitation under capitalism. Race is a construct as well. There is nothing inherent about race that makes it a good tool for exploitation. It was simply the tool that white people used, and it hasn’t disappeared.

I don’t know if this is what Pulido means, but it’s the way I see the designation of capitalism as racial.


Ally, definitely in agreement that the vote is insufficient. I think this week’s reading on “creating an event from nothing” talks well to the broad categories of possibilities for combatting opressive systems, the enduring symptoms thereof, and explicit acts of injustice they bring about.

I appreciate your take on the purpose of qualifying capitalism as racial in this article. I think it sits well with me now that the author is trying to distinguish racism as a phenomenon not unique to capitalism but rather a societal ill that fueled a specific manifestation of oppression. Capitalism inherently generates haves and have-nots, but in an imagined theoretical world, it need not be that the have-nots equate with a race deemed undesirable by the political/economic elite. I am still concerned that calling it “racial capitalism” suggests to the reader that an alternative, equitable capitalism is possible, which I think may be counter-productive to the author’s claim; I am not convinced she believes capitalism just needs some tweaks. I’d just hope that for the average reader that the purpose of the “racial” label comes across as what the author seems to intend without creating fanciful ideas that fly in the face of the argument she’s laying out.


Veronica, thanks for the reply. If you read my response to Ally, I’m inclined to believe Pulido intends “racial capitalism” to highlight that racism is its own, independent phenomenon not needing to have been born of capitalism. I do agree, though, that it still invites concern of whether the term potentially undermines her objective in writing by planting false ideas of anti-racist and socially/environmentally just capitalism in the reader’s head.

I also think it’d be nice to hear some ideas of how to move onto the next stage, so to speak. While I do think offering some anecdotes would have helped bolster Pulido’s argument, I’m not sure whether she needed to delve into “implementation” to support the theory. From my reading, she definitely sounds amicable to the notions of participatory or direct democracy. Her critique of the state’s inability to act leads me to believe she leans more towards the ideas purported by (anarcho-)syndicalist or (anarcho-)communist folks, but I wouldn’t worry myself too much about being specific there. A common thread between our author and other critics of the states’ role in maintaining social injustices would likely be bolstering local autonomy, creating a community infrastructure for individuals to both contribute to and rely upon (Manzini’s term “enabling ecosystem” comes to mind) independent of the greater economic/political establishment. While I’m sure some rules of thumb could be established, what exactly that looks like definitely depends on the community (the confluence of people and location) in question.


Hi Vince, you raise a very interesting question!

In my reading, Pulido simply wants to emphasize that capitalism as it exists today is racial capitalism, because it uses the creation of difference in order to create value. So racism is a constitutive element of capitalism as it exists today. Simply calling it capitalism would obscure the centrality of race to the current system. In the end, I don’t think Pulido is concerned with a philosophical discussion about whether a non-racist capitalism is possible. Rather, she is making a practical argument aimed at making the EJ movement more impactful. We have to understand that racism is constitutive of the state and the system; therefore, we cannot take the state as a neutral actor when combatting particular manifestations of racism (in this case, environmental racism).


Hey Douwe, thanks for hopping in. I agree with your take completely. I think my initial concern about the theoretical “alternative capitalism” that could crop up in the reader’s mind when told about “racial capitalism” is more a concern about the reader’s interpretation rather than our writer’s intention. The type of activist she’s writing for (or at least referencing) is one that believes appealing to the state to address issues in industry is more effective than it really can be; I would hope for the reader the message doesn’t get muffled. Pulido is definitely saying something very important about the state’s complicity that I would hope does not go misconstrued. All that said, I hope my digression into a very specific question of lexicon doesn’t suggest that I disagree with her assessment. This article is a fantastic portrayal of a massive issue - especially relative to its brevity.

Per Anand’s suggestion, I’m sharing access to this article:

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Thanks Vince, I think we both agree with each other. Perhaps, then, a possible critique of the article is that it engages too little with theories of capitalism. To be sure, the article is not supposed to be about theory–it’s about EJ strategies–but any discussion of practice will have theoretical implications that need attending to.

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