Slavery, capitalism, and imperialism in American history are central to the work of Walter Johnson, the Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. In a new book, “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States,” the Missouri native shows how those themes — and a spirit of rebellion — come together in the story of the Gateway City. The Gazette recently spoke to Johnson about his inspiration for the book and St. Louis’ importance in American history.
GAZETTE: St. Louis today often is overshadowed by other large cities, but you see its story as central to the American experience. How so?
JOHNSON: I see St. Louis as a place that has produced a lot of the history, including enduring traditions of both racism and resistance, that we think of as American history. I’m talking about things like the Missouri Compromise, or the Dred Scott decision, or the first general emancipation in the history of the United States, the first truly successful general strike, the sit-in movement, all of these are things that originated in St. Louis, and things we think about as American history. So part of what first drew me to the history of St. Louis was just recognizing the kind of pattern of events there and the way people had thought about these as American history without really trying to place them in the specific context of St. Louis.
GAZETTE: How do you define “racial capitalism” — a term you use in your book — and why do you think it is so crucial to understanding the story of American race relations?
JOHNSON: The way that I think about racial capitalism is in dialogue with a tradition of thought dating back to W.E.B. Du Bois. The idea is that there is a dialectical relationship between capitalist exploitation and racial domination, that the two things have been intertwined since 1492, or since the era of Atlantic empires, that the exploitation has been justified by notions of proto-racial and racial difference, and that the relationship has then created novel notions of difference. So what I try to chart in the book is a series of those kinds of racial capitalist formations, the way exploitation is justified and shaped by notions of difference, and how those patterns of exploitation then lead to the ossification and the deeper sedimentation, the materialization of differences between differently racialized groups.
As an example, a housing-segregation ordinance profits landlords by creating a market where white people pay extra to live on one side of a line, and black people are increasingly confined to an ever-shrinking patch of ground, and thus have to pay more and more in rent. So profits are wrung out of people through racialization. But then there is a kind of second-order racialization where those on the white side begin to feel superior because the objective conditions of their lives are more comfortable. To understand that, they begin to associate blackness with a kind of social precarity, and a kind of a degraded condition of life — beat-up houses, outside toilets. So there’s both a pattern of exploitation feeding off notions of difference and then the history of exploitation shaping people’s lives, getting sedimented into social lives, even into people’s bodies as a shortened life expectancy.
GAZETTE: How was the racism that became endemic in St. Louis in the 19th century different from how it functioned in the South?
JOHNSON: There is a particularly Western form of anti-blackness that emerges out of the imperial crucible of St. Louis. From the era of Indian removal, a large portion of the white population of St. Louis and large parts of the Midwest were non-slaveholding whites. These white families were immigrants from places like Virginia where they had felt politically and economically exploited by the slaveholding class. So they migrated west, aspiring to getting out from under the white slaveholding class. And the way they conceptualized their pathway forward was finding the freedom of a white man’s country, a place without black people — without enslaved people, whom they viewed as the cause of inequality between whites, but also without free people of color, whom they viewed as labor competition. What I try to chart in the book is how the notion of an ethnically cleansed West was transferred from the project of Indian removal into different forms of the control and removal of free black people, in particular in St. Louis.