Understanding Genocide, Black People, and Capitalist Accumulation

June 30, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


The following paper was contributed by a reader of Revolution.

The Stop Mass Incarceration Network has a slogan: Mass Incarceration + Silence = Genocide.

This is not hyperbole—this is scientifically true, this reflects reality. And it is important that people see why this is happening and what it reveals about U.S. society to be able to understand what is the problem AND its solution.

So the purpose of this paper is to get into this question of why and how in fact there is a program of genocide against Black people in America today—and what this has to do with the nature of the capitalist system we live under.

What is Genocide?

The first question we need to ask is, what is genocide?

The basic description of what constitutes genocide is conveyed in two key documents. The first one, Raphael Lemkin’s book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, published in 1944, introduced the concept of (and the very word) genocide. One summary of this book said:

“Genocide was the coordinated and planned annihilation of a national, religious, or racial group by a variety of actions aimed at undermining the foundations essential to the survival of the group as a group. Lemkin conceived of genocide as a ‘composite of different acts of persecution or destruction.’ His definition included attacks on political and social institutions, culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of the group. Even non-lethal acts that undermined the liberty, dignity, and personal security of members of a group constituted genocide if they contributed to weakening of the viability of the group.” (See: A summary in Chalk and Jonassohn, The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992, pp. 8-9).

Here, the most important point is where it says “undermining the foundations essential to the survival of the group.” By “foundations” the authors are referring to the economic, social, and cultural institutions and activities that a people depend on in order to survive and thrive. This is what Lemkin in his original presentation described as “a composite of different acts of persecution or destruction...contribut[ing] to the weakening of the viability of the group.”

The second document that gives a good description of genocide is the United Nations' Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948. The description here, adopted by the UN, says: “Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such: a) Killing members of the group; b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Here the crux of the matter is the combination of acts and policies causing serious physical and mental harm to members of the group, and the deliberate imposition on the group of “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

POINT ONE: There IS a Genocidal Program in the U.S.

So now, looking at these descriptions of key elements of genocide, we can examine how these do in fact describe the thrust of a program organized and executed by the U.S. imperialist state and directed at Black people in the United States—a whole process that has led to a situation where today more than 2.2 million people are in prison in the U.S.—the majority Black and Latino.

This program has existed as part of the overall national oppression of Black people in the United States and it has reinforced and intensified this oppression. Point 2 of this article will explore the reasons behind this whole program and how it reflects the very nature and necessary workings of the capitalist system. But first, let’s look at how this program has in fact developed with a genocidal thrust and effect.

It began in the early 1970s and has pivoted on the war on drugs; the mass incarceration of Black and Latino youth; and police repression, brutality, and murder—which all developed and took leaps over the last several decades. For example, in 1980 about a half million people were in jail in the United States. By 2006, that number was 2.3 million with this explosion of mass incarceration having a particularly devastating effect on Black and Latino communities.

Michelle Alexander makes a very important point with regard to this in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She emphasizes that mass incarceration—and we shouldn’t lose sight of the mass dimensions of this—involves both the criminal justice system AND all that goes together with this: its laws, rules, policies, customs, etc. And all these things affect the “conditions of life” of those who are labeled criminals, felons, prisoners, etc.


In other words, it is not just that a huge population of Black men (and women) have and are serving a certain amount of time in prison. There is also the label of “criminal” that whole groupings of people are given. There has been the “criminalization of generations” of Black and Latino youth. And for those who have been to prison there is the added pariah status of “ex-con,” “ex-offender,” “someone who has a record.” One could accurately say that the way Black men who get out of prison are labeled and treated is a modern-day equivalent of the way the Nazis forced the Jews to wear the “yellow badge” as they, first, marked Jews off as a “dangerous” and “undesirable” section of the population, then, later, rounded them up, put them into concentration camps, and then exterminated them. If you are Black and “have a record,” you face incredible barriers and discrimination in employment, housing, etc. This targeting of Black people in society, especially the youth, is part of a whole “architecture,” a whole program of social control, discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt.

Think about this: A genocidal program needs to create broad public opinion to justify the attacks on the section of the population it is targeting. So, for example, getting middle class people as well as people in the Black community itself to think that the Black youth are “criminals who are hopeless and have no one to blame but themselves” has been an important ideological component of justifying the war on drugs and mass incarceration. And this also lays the basis for the system to get people in society to accept future and even more genocidal attacks against Black people, especially the youth.


  • The pervasive “policing of public space” in the communities of those targeted is another element of a genocidal program and this is clearly going on.
  • There are many “pipelines” that help to deliver Black people into prison. There are the schools in Black communities that give kids more repression than education; police are stationed inside the schools; youth are sent to juvenile detention centers for minor things like cutting school or graffiti. Black students are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students, with disciplinary measures starting with 4-year-olds (see “School Data Finds Pattern of Inequality Along Racial Lines,” New York Times, March 21, 2014).
  • The program of mass incarceration is leading to the long-term erosion of employment prospects for young Black males. By the mid-2000s, 1 of 9 young Black men was in prison. Mass incarceration has “transformed the institutional landscape traveled by poor Black males as they grew out of childhood and became young adults” (Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America [New York: Russell Sage, 2006], p. 12).

Social Control and Destruction

This program of the “war on drugs,” mass incarceration, and the devastation/decimation of communities is linked to the larger dynamics of accumulation (more about this in Point 2). It has developed through and been presided over by every U.S. president starting with Nixon, including Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama. It is the result of a conscious policy on the part of the U.S. ruling class, with very conscious aims.

This has been and is a program that is not just making life difficult for Black people. It IS the continuation and the intensification of the savage oppression of Black people. But it is not just this. This is a qualitative development in the oppression of Black people. It is a program to both control Black people, especially the youth, AND to prevent any resistance— or indeed the emergence of a movement for revolution among them.

There is a machinery of social control and an economic dynamic that, taken together, are destroying life chances and the viable survival of a people.

So, to go back to the substantive meaning of the term genocide: the capitalist-imperialist state is inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the destruction of a people in whole or in part. This genocidal program is not at this stage taking the form of mass extermination—as when Nazi Germany murdered six million Jews in the early 1940s, or when the Ottoman-Turkish empire set out to kill off the Armenian population in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But:

1) There is a program of social control and an economic dynamic that together, right now are undermining the conditions of viable survival of Black people, and

2) This program can go in the direction of extermination. An important talk from the Revolutionary Communist Party, “Where We Are in the Revolution,” identifies three stages of genocide historically: demonization, containment, and extermination. The first two of these stages are fully in effect in the U.S. And to restate and reemphasize: the U.S. imperialist state, under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, has organized and has been carrying out this program. There is the real potential for extermination: in relation to further developments in society and the world, and also in relation to moves by Christian fascist elements, including and especially right inside the government. (For more on the Christian fascist program, see BA Speaks: REVOLUTION—NOTHING LESS!)

POINT TWO: The Accumulation of Capital and the Creation of a “Surplus” Population

So, now that we’ve explored the question of WHY it is true and scientific to say there’s a genocidal program aimed at Black people in the United States, let’s step back and look at what’s behind this program—WHY it came about and what it has to do with the very nature and workings of the capitalist system.

Black people have increasingly become a “surplus” population in relation to the profitable functioning of U.S. capitalism-imperialism.

Just look at Detroit, a city with a largely Black population. For decades this was a place where tens of thousands of Black people had relatively stable, decent-paying jobs—even if they still faced systematic and intense discrimination, not just on the job but in every other facet of life. But almost all of the big auto plants in Detroit eventually closed because it was more profitable to move these factories—first to non-urban areas in the U.S., then across the border to Mexico, and then overseas to countries in Asia where wages are far lower than in the United States. These are the dynamics of capitalism, where different capitalists are locked in rivalry and competition with each other—always searching for the highest profit and therefore looking for cheaper sources of labor, cheaper ways of producing profit. In 2009 the unemployment rate in Detroit peaked at close to 25 percent. Today it's close to 18 percent. For the youth, it's more than 50 percent. (See "The System Killing Detroit" at revcom.us.)

This de-industrialization in America has happened all over the U.S., leading to a situation where Black people are no longer needed in the same way as they had been in the past in relation to the requirements of U.S. capitalism-imperialism.

The fact is: this system of capitalism-imperialism has NO FUTURE for Black youth, and this situation is becoming even more intense through the further workings of the system itself.

A vicious fairy tale is promoted by this system that capitalism is the best of all possible worlds and that the more it develops, the stronger it gets, the more money it generates, the more technology it develops—that all the people will benefit from this. But the situation of Black people in America underscores just how much this is a vicious lie.

Let’s look at some of the ways the very workings of capitalism/imperialism have led and continue to lead to a situation where Black people, especially the youth, have become for the system a “surplus population,”—left with no jobs, no social services, the worst education and health care, as they are subjected to a genocidal program.

1. Globalization. More and more, U.S. capitalism-imperialism involves capital investments overseas and the outsourcing of production to other countries, like capitalist China, where the costs of production, especially wages, are extremely low. Trade and finance have also become more and more global. Just think about all the big companies that produce your clothes, your phones, computers, cars, etc.—there’s a good chance they are very “international”—in terms of where their products are produced, as well as where they have their financial offices and operations.

This globalization is driven by the competitive quest for profitability. It is much more profitable, for example, to set up a garment sweatshop in a country where there is child labor, or in a country like Bangladesh where you can pay workers 21 cents an hour.

This globalization has resulted in widespread deindustrialization in major metropolitan areas of the U.S. (as we looked at with Detroit). As late as 1970, 60-70 percent of Blacks employed in metropolitan areas were working in blue-collar jobs. But for the most part, these jobs no longer exist.

2. The suburbanization of industrial production. Some industry has relocated to the suburbs. But these jobs are generally not within access to public transportation, locking out many Black and poor people.

3. The “high-tech” economy.

  • There have been technological developments in industry—for example, more sophisticated mechanization, computerization, the use of robots in production, etc. This has led to fewer low-skilled, entry-level industrial jobs—“entry-level” meaning jobs where someone could possibly begin to “work their way up” to a more skilled and better-paying position.
  • The new “high-tech economy” of computer programming, information analysis, etc., has not been generating jobs on a scale that is in any way equal to the massive number of jobs that are being lost in other sectors of the economy.
  • There is racism when it comes to “high tech.” If you look at much of the cutting-edge, “high-tech” economy what you’ll see is white, male privilege. For example, take Google, a company on the high-tech frontier. A recent study reveals that only 2 percent of Google’s employees are African-American! (See “Google Discloses Its (Lack) of Diversity,” USA Today, May 29, 2014.)

4. Imperialism producing and feasting on migrant labor.

  • Huge waves of immigrants have been driven to the U.S. by the workings of imperialism. There have been transformations in the rural areas of the Third World due to the imperialist-led development of agribusiness. There is the destruction of subsistence agriculture—where peasants grow food on their own land to meet the needs of their families. And so you have people streaming into the cities and shantytowns in these countries. There are local conflicts and civil wars that have been fueled or taken advantage of by imperialism, and this leads to people desperately trying to leave their country. There are also environmental stresses, like weather-related disasters, and contamination of soil and water, that also drive people out of their countries.
  • While people are being driven out of their countries, huge numbers of people are also being drawn to the United States, looking for a way to survive. And for the capitalists, these people, especially those who are undocumented, represent highly exploitable labor who can be drawn into unstable employment at the bottom rungs of the labor force—the lowest-paying, dirtiest, most back-breaking work.

This increases the size and adds to pressures on the total number of people in the U.S. who are going in and out of having jobs (what Marx called the “reserve army of labor”).

What this means is that there are more and more people competing for the lower-end, low-paying jobs. And this contributes to a situation where more young Black men are suffering long-term employment, sometimes dropping out of even looking for a job.

5. The savage assault on social spending. The 1980s and 1990s saw massive cutbacks in welfare, cutbacks in spending on public education and urban social programs, etc. Reagan callously decreed social cuts. Bill Clinton triumphantly proclaimed “ending welfare as we know it.”

As globalization has deepened and accelerated, competition has intensified among the capitalist-imperialist countries in the world economy. This has led to a “leaner and meaner” capitalism, with severe controls on and cuts in social spending, especially in the cities—schools closing down, fewer health clinics, social services cut, etc.

This has had massive effects on the Black community: More stresses on families scraping to survive, more people being driven into the “illegal economy,” more poverty and homelessness.

As this is being written in late June 2014, households in Detroit that are more than $150 behind in their water bills (overwhelmingly Black households) are being threatened with cut-off of water! This is austerity taken to a new level—the denial of the basic human right to water. It is part of and accelerating a larger genocidal program.

6. A horrible mix: mass incarceration and welfare cuts.

On the one hand, there have been the cuts in welfare and the establishment of “workfare”—which means more people, especially women, have to work in demeaning, low-paying shit jobs in order to get financial assistance. On the other hand, there is an increasingly huge and desperate population of ex-prisoners stigmatized as “people with a record” who face extreme caste-like discrimination and can’t get jobs or only the lowest paying jobs.

By 2000, 1 of out of every 3 young Black men without work was in prison or jail. This is the vicious cycle produced by the capitalist-imperialist system.

An academic study of Black communities in Chicago provides an important look at the effects of mass incarceration on employment at a time of increasing cutbacks in social spending1. It found that:

  • There is the “production of systemic unemployability” of a criminalized class of African-American males. In other words, it is not just that ex-prisoners have a hard time getting a job. This system has economically disenfranchised and economically marginalized young Black men, refused to train and educate them, and has stigmatized them.
  • The ghettos and barrios that ex-prisoners are returning to have become more impoverished, and have fewer jobs that provide people with enough money to survive.
  • Conditions of jobs in the “contingent” and “informal” economy are growing more and more desperate—like day laborers getting cheated out of their pay or street vendors getting harassed by the police. The “contingent” labor market is made up of people who work on a more part-time and temporary basis. The “informal” economy involves “off-the-books” employment that is unregulated—from house cleaners and babysitters to storefront mechanics and drug-dealers.
  • For those with a record, there is a hardening of racial segregation in jobs and housing.
  • Ex-prisoners are more vulnerable to ending up back in prison.

7. The “Great Recession of 2008-2009.”

  • This crisis, which was the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, led to further disruption and big shifts and changes in the make-up of the labor force. Its effects are still being felt, and its effects on Black employment, especially on prospects for young African-American males, have been terrible.

    When you go to stores like Wal-Mart or Target, it might seem like there are more older and more white workers than there were, let’s say 10 years ago. Well, the fact is, before the 2008-2009 recession, some parts of the service economy, like Wal-Mart, had provided more limited and entry-level jobs to Black youth. But since the economic crisis of 2008-09, these opportunities for Black youth have been drying up. And one reason for this is that these jobs are being given to more experienced white workers who have lost jobs and are now being “recycled downward” in the economy. Formerly retired workers are also taking some of these jobs, displacing younger Black and Latino workers.

    So for large numbers of Black people, especially among the young, there is higher unemployment, further social isolation (in the ghettos), shrinking opportunity, and greater pressures towards going into the “illegal” economy.

  • The sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2007-09 led to unprecedented destruction of Black family wealth. Overall, “half the collective wealth of African-American families was stripped away during the Great Recession due to the dominant role of home equity [owning your home] in their wealth portfolios and the prevalence of predatory high-risk loans [sub-prime] in communities of color.” Now most of the families facing foreclosure since the beginning of this crisis are white. But for Black and Latino families who had borrowed to pay for homes that eventually went into foreclosure—these families were more than twice as likely to lose their homes as were white families.2


The exploitation of the African-American people—first as slaves, then as sharecroppers, and in the 20th century as a section of super-exploited workers—has been essential to the establishment, functioning, and development of U.S. capitalism-imperialism. But major changes have taken place.

Black people are no longer serving the needs and profitable functioning of capital in the same way as before. They are no longer inserted into the larger economic structures in the same way as before. The system has increasingly turned African-Americans into a “surplus” population.

This was not the product of a grand plan. It is the product of the expand-or-die workings of capital in the U.S. and on a world scale—this anarchic, competitive drive of capital interacting with the historical and continuing oppression of Black people in the U.S. And there have been conscious policies with very conscious aims on the part of the U.S. ruling class which have enforced and deepened this oppression.

But this “surplus” population is a population that the U.S. ruling class recognizes as a potentially explosive and revolutionary one. From the standpoint of the ruling class, it is a population to be policed, criminalized, and broken. Which brings us back to the discussion of genocide and Black people: a machinery of social control and an economic dynamic that, taken together, are destroying life chances and the viable survival of a people.


1. Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore, “Carceral Chicago: Making the Ex-offender Employability Crisis,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, June 2008 [back]

2. Thomas Shapiro, The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap: Explaining the Black-White Economic Divide, (Waltham, Mass.: Institute on Assets and Social Policy, 2013). [back]

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