Cynthia Kaufman's Blog

Racism, Capitalism, and the Climate Crisis

By Cynthia Kaufman
Common Dreams
May 21st, 2021

As we tried to connect the dots between the murder of George Floyd and our work to end the burning of fossil fuels, the connecting thread, without our naming it explicitly, was clearly capitalism.

As we connect the dots between racism, capitalism, and the climate crisis, it is crucial that we understand our different positions in the social formation we live in. (Photo: Chris-Yakimov-via-Flickr)

As we connect the dots between racism, capitalism, and the climate crisis, it is crucial that we understand our different positions in the social formation we live in. (Photo: Chris-Yakimov-via-Flickr)

For the past few years, I have worked with Fossil Free California, a mostly white group, trying to get the gigantic California pension funds to divest from fossil fuels. Two years ago, we embarked on an internal process to look at how race and racism operate within our organization. 

We started to question how a narrow white perspective was framing our communications, our goals, and how we were structured. We looked at the ways that a lack of attention to relationships ended up centering white organizing styles. As a result, we shifted to slowing down and attending more to internal and external relationships. We listened to ways that environmental activists from communities of color framed climate related issues. As a result we have begun to talk more about the impacts the extraction and burning of fossil fuels have on communities of color. 

The forces that allow exploitation and dehumanization in the interests of profit are also what is driving the climate crisis.

Using the framings developed by people of color, it became clear to me that an economic system that can dehumanize people and subject whole communities to exposure to unhealthy conditions, is a core part of the climate crisis. It has become increasingly clear to me that a core part of the bridge between anti-racism and the climate crisis is capitalism. Seeing these connections can help us to understand our work as a profound act of solidarity, and not just as allyship to help in other people’s struggles.

When George Floyd was murdered by members of the Minneapolis Police Department, our group put out a statement that included the following language: “Police brutality is part of the same system that sees people and our planet only in terms of their usefulness for generating profits. When we break free from fossil fuels, we can grow beyond the system that supports their extraction and use, with all of their associated harms.” 

As we tried to connect the dots between the murder of George Floyd and our work to end the burning of fossil fuels, the connecting thread, without our naming it explicitly, was clearly capitalism. And yet how we understand capitalism is crucial for how we understand the ways these things are connected. 

I have been active in social justice movements for forty years. For most of that time I have felt pushed to put anti-racism, anti-capitalism, and environmentalism into separate boxes. I have done a lot of anti-racism work among white people. I have done anti-police work in communities of color. I have done environmentalism in mostly white spaces that didn’t take racism or capitalism very seriously. For me it is thrilling to see some of the walls between these movements, and how we understand what we are fighting against, come down.  

While I have had an anti-capitalist perspective since I first became active in social justice work, I have mostly kept that to myself. Until very recently, if you mentioned the word “capitalism,” you were likely to be dismissed, even in organizing spaces, as a sectarian extremist. There was an internalized McCarthyism that made it bad form to mention by name the economic system that dominated the society we were trying to change. That silence is beginning to break and people in the movement are slowly, and in some contexts, giving a name to those forces at the core of so much of what is wrong with our current society.

As we break that McCarthyite silence and begin to talk again about capitalism as a root cause of the challenges we face, we need to be mindful of the way we understand the nature of capitalism. One problem is that for many anti-capitalists you need to overthrow the system in order to improve society. That view doesn’t leave a lot of room for the real work that most of us do, challenging capitalist practices, one at a time, to build a better world.  

Another problem is that some older theories of capitalism minimize the importance of racism. On one widespread view, capitalism is seen as the core of exploitation and race is an add-on that was there to divide the working class. That means that if you were serious about talking about domination, you’d understand that class was more important than race. And while you should also be an anti-racist, your main goal would be to get people to see the underlying problem exploiting us all as capitalism.

Capitalism was defined as something that was about exploitation of labor and the pursuit of profits, and not in any fundamental way about race. This view is often called “class reductionism.” In order to avoid class reductionism, for many years people thinking about racism have wanted to see it as a semi-autonomous system only indirectly related to capitalism. And as a result, much anti-racist thinking didn’t take economic exploitation seriously enough.

When I hear people in the climate justice movement talking about capitalism and about racism, they don’t make those mistakes. They see our work as shifting the world away from capitalism a step at a time, and they see racism and capitalism as deeply intertwined. People in the climate justice movement are very clear about the ways that the pursuit of profit in a racist society means that communities of color will be disproportionately impacted by the extractive economy. They have been very clear that a society run on the basis of profits will put the needs of the businesses that dominate our political system over the needs of low income communities and communities of color.   

The dominant narrative among historians of capitalism on the left, until recently, was that slavery and colonialism were incidental to the development of capitalism. More recent work put slavery and colonialism at the core. Cedric Robinson referred to capitalism as racial capitalism to make this point, while also acknowledging that all capitalism is racial capitalism.

In Racial Formation in the United States, Michael Omi and Howard Wynant show that modern racism developed to allow for the hyper-exploitation that was at the core of the beginning of capitalism. 

The “discovery” signaled a break from previous proto-racial awareness by which Europe contemplated its “others” in a relatively disorganized fashion. The “conquest of America” was not simply an epochal historical event—however unparalleled in importance. It was also the advent of a consolidated social structure of exploitation, appropriation, domination, and signification. Its representation, first in religious terms, later in scientific and political ones, initiated modern racial awareness. It was the inauguration of racialization on a world-historical scale.

Sylvia Wynter shows that a deep dehumanization of Black people and a narrow view of what it means to be human are at the core of our present systems of exploitation and extraction. 

The large-scale accumulation of unpaid land, unpaid labor, and overall wealth expropriated by Western Europe from non-European peoples, which was to lay the basis of its global expansion from the fifteenth century onwards, was carried out within the order of truth and the self-evident order of consciousness, of a creed-specific conception of what it was to be human….In the context of the secular human, black subjects, along with indigenous populations, the colonized, the insane, the poor, the disabled, and so on, serve as limit cases by which Man can demarcate himself as the universal human. 

The systems of racial and economic exploitation we live under hurt us all, even as they hurt people of color much more than they hurt whites. They use violence to control people of color. They use white supremacy to recruit white people to uphold it. When I fight against that system as a white person, I am not just acting as an ally in the liberation of people of color. Rather, I am also acting in my own interest to create a world without exploitation. 

In the Sum of Us, Heather McGee tells the story of communities all around the US which closed their public swimming pools in the 1960s when forced to integrate them. Many white people preferred not having a public pool to sharing one. The zero-sum game of “I feel good about myself because I am better than you” leads people to not work for the things that are in all of our interests. Many white people vote for politicians who don’t give them access to Medicare because they prefer that to having Medicare go to Black people. That choice doesn’t grow organically out of people’s lived experience. Rather, ever since Bacon’s Rebellion in 1675, elite interests have found that the way to protect their position has been to bring lower class whites along by giving them the “wages of whiteness.”

The forces that allow exploitation and dehumanization in the interests of profit are also what is driving the climate crisis. The engineers and scientists have done enough good work to enable us to transition rapidly to a sustainable society in the time frame needed to avoid the worst outcomes of the climate crisis. The only reason solutions aren’t being rolled out at the breakneck speed we need is because of the ways our social and political systems are dominated by pro-capitalist forces.  And those pro-capitalist forces are given political power by politicians who get elected by playing on the racism of white voters. 

Last week, along with others from Fossil Free California, I was part of an international day of action for the climate. In San Francisco that involved blockading the doors to CitiBank, Chase, and Wells Fargo, three of the funders of the Line 3 oil pipeline in northern Minnesota.

At the action and on the stage was a group of mostly Black young children leading chants, having fun, and generally energizing the crowd. Two of the happiest moments of the action for me were when the children led a chant “tell me what solidarity looks like” And then pointing at those risking arrest saying “this is what solidarity looks like.” For those children, we were all acting in solidarity to build a livable world. Another chant of theirs was: “Up, Up with Mother Earth, Down, Down with Capitalism.”

Also, at that action were several indigenous leaders who spoke of the need to stop a way of living that extracts resources from the earth in damaging ways, that treats people as expendable, and that doesn’t build interconnections between people and the Earth. Their call for a way of life that could sustain us all is neither backward looking, nor just for some of us. Rather, it is a call to a future where we all have a place. For those of who are white it is a call to listen to the ways that people from the communities most impacted by these crises understand the problems and understand the solutions. 

As we connect the dots between racism, capitalism, and the climate crisis, it is crucial that we understand our different positions in the social formation we live in. For those of us who are white, we need to constantly look around and see the ways we are being recruited to uphold the system of white supremacy, which itself upholds the systems of domination that are driving the decimation of the climate. We need to understand the nature of the social processes we are up against, be clear about the ways that racism is at the core of the system driving the planet to the brink, listen to those most impacted, and recognize the crucial importance of challenging the systems that dehumanize and perpetrate violence against people of color, even as they deprive all of us of a livable future.

Cynthia Kaufman is the author of  “The Sea is Rising and So Are We, “Challenging Power: Democracy and Accountability in a Fractured World” (2020),  “Getting Past Capitalism: History, Vision, Hope” (2012), and “Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change” (2016). She is the director of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action at De Anza College. She blogs at

Cynthia Kaufman is the director of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action, where she also teaches community organizing and philosophy. The author of Getting Past Capitalism: History, Vision, Hope (Lexington Books, 2012), she is a lifelong social change activist, having worked on issues such as tenants’ rights, police abuse, union organizing, international politics, and most recently climate change. Her books include Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change, 2nd Ed, Challenging Power: Democracy and Accountability in a Fractured World, and The Sea is Rising and So Are We: A Cliamte Justice Handbook forthcoming PM Press 2021.

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The Sea Is Rising and So Are We: A Climate Justice Handbook