Racism and Capitalism: Systems of Exploitation in a “Broken” Food System

Report on discussions at Project New Village's recent event, “Seeking and Securing Food Justice: Uprooting Racism and Rebuilding Community” 

 Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor in the Department of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach  (Image borrowed from the LA County African American Employees Association)

Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor in the Department of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach  (Image borrowed from the LA County African American Employees Association)

We hear about it all the time-- “the U.S. food system is broken.” Government-subsidized industrially grown and processed foods are wreaking havoc on our health as a nation. Low-income people of color are disproportionately affected by diet-related illnesses and food insecurity. These disconcerting facts beg the question: why are racial inequities and power disparities endemic to our food system? And what can we do to change this?

As part of its Food Justice Legacy Lecture Series, Project New Village recently hosted a talk titled “Seeking and Securing Food Justice: Uprooting Racism and Rebuilding Community.” Dr. Maulana Karenga, Professor and Chair, Department of Africana Studies at Cal State Long Beach, delivered the keynote address. An activist scholar and key contributor in the Black Power Movement, Dr. Karenga is the creator of the Nguzo Saba and Kwanzaa. “Kwanzaa is as old as agriculture,” he says. “It is intimately concerned with the production, harvesting, and especially the sharing of food. It is about giving thanks for the harvest and recommitting to protecting and caring for the Earth.”

 A Kwanzaa table arrangement includes fruits and vegetables, ears of corn, a mat, the unity cup, gifts, candles, and a kinara (Image borrowed from the Official Kwanzaa Website)

A Kwanzaa table arrangement includes fruits and vegetables, ears of corn, a mat, the unity cup, gifts, candles, and a kinara (Image borrowed from the Official Kwanzaa Website)

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa has seven core principles, the first of which is Umoja, the Swahili word for unity. The other six principles include Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).  The kinara, or candleholder, contains 7 candles to represent the Seven Principals.

Forms of Systemic Subjugation

These fundamental principles are in direct opposition to what Dr. Karenga recognizes as two overarching systems of domination in our society-- capitalism and racism. Capitalism is based on private ownership of the means of production and the pursuit of profit. Racism is the institutionalization of prejudice and hostility directed towards an ethnic group; according to Dr. Karenga, it is a form of “socially and legally sanctioned hatred.” Race was first conceived at the dawn of the colonial era, used as a social biological category to assign human worth and social status, with whiteness serving as a model.

Historically, racism has been used by people of European descent to justify their mistreatment of non-white skinned peoples. When Europeans arrived to the Americas, they decimated the Native Americans whom they considered to be primitives. Likewise, when the North Atlantic slave trade began in the 16th century, pseudo-scientific claims emerged that classified Africans as subhuman. In both circumstances, land and labor were central to the socially constructed concept of “race.” 

Racism and capitalism are both systems that rely on oppression, exploitation, and degradation to function. Exploited migrant workers are a primary example of this intersection. It is the nature of capitalism to prey on vulnerable labor in order to reduce costs. This issue is exacerbated by policies and practices that undervalue the lives of immigrants and people of color. 

Public Policy and Food Justice 

As food justice advocates, we need to be aware of the interlinkages between racism and capitalism and scrutinize policies that prioritize profits over people. Often those most negatively affected by U.S. food policy are dark skinned people abroad. For example, U.S. corn exports to the south of Mexico have created strife among peoples that have cultivated native varieties of maíz for thousands of years. Haiti, a long-standing food insecure nation, is one of the largest markets for United States-grown rice. Neoliberal policies have systematically reshaped cultural and economic landscapes, sacrificing traditional livelihoods for the economic gain of those in power.  

 project new village's Good Food District inspires collective agency and promotes food security at a neighborhood level. Urban agriculture in the Southeast San Diego community of Mt. Hope is helping increase access to healthy food.

project new village's Good Food District inspires collective agency and promotes food security at a neighborhood level. Urban agriculture in the Southeast San Diego community of Mt. Hope is helping increase access to healthy food.

It is critical that we unveil the roles that capitalism and racism have played and continue to play in our food system, so that we can pursue solutions that depart from these paradigms. In his book A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism, author Eric Holt-Giménez puts it this way: “Calls to ‘fix a broken food system’ assume that the capitalist food system used to work well. This assumption ignores the food system’s long, racialized history of mistreatment of people of color. The food system is unjust and unsustainable, but it is not broken. It functions precisely as the capitalist food system has always worked, concentrating power in the hands of the privileged minority and passing off the social and environmental ‘externalities’ disproportionately to racially stigmatized groups” (160).
 
Poverty is intimately correlated with food insecurity. African Americans and latinos living in the United States are more than twice as likely as caucasians to be food insecure. Furthermore, of farmworkers and food workers in the U.S., an overwhelming majority are people of color receiving poverty wages. In order to remediate these glaring inequities, we must first address their root cause: embedded racism and a capitalist food system.

Dr. Karenga gives us some suggestions for how to confront this system. “There is no substitute for an aware, organized, and engaged people constantly involved in a multiplicity of activities to define, defend, and advance their interests,” he says. Social justice activists must identify a  framework for their resistance. Effective resistance movements share the following attributes: a clear ideology, a structure (flexible, democratic, and respectful), communication among participants, and access to resources. 

Ultimately, Dr. Karenga calls us to embody the first principal of Kwanzaa-- Umoja, or unity. There is power in numbers, and there is wisdom in perspectives. People of color, regardless of ethnic or national background, must stand united as agents for change. And together, people of color and caucasians must collaborate to combat systemic inequities and to establish non-exploitative and life-affirming foodways.
 

By Livvy Stanforth, Intern