New research gives a clearer picture of racial capitalism in California’s Inland Empire region

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The growth of Amazon, Walmart and other large companies dependent on sophisticated logistics has also led to the rise of US regions and local employment dominated by warehouses. In new research Paul Apostolidis explores racial capitalism and the impact of the warehouse industry among Latinx communities in California’s Inland Empire region. He writes that among Latinx workers and communities, racial capitalism not only entails insecurity, low wages, and risk of workplace injury in warehouse employment, it also deprives residents of a safe, hygienic and dynamic family life, undermining the essential basis of their life to thrive. and grow through the generations.

What does “racial capitalism” mean? Where do we see it manifest in American politics and society? The idea of ​​“racial capitalism” has recently gained visibility in academic circles and public debate. Beginning in 2020, protests led by Black Lives Matter in response to the murder of George Floyd, at a time of disproportionate exposure of black workers and other global majority workers to COVID-19 during the deadliest phase of the pandemic, have brought new urgency to America’s ongoing struggles with race. Yet the term “racial capitalism” signals something structural and enduring rather than something that can be brought under control in a brief episode of crisis. And given the complexity of racial experience and oppression in the United States, understanding racial capitalism there requires looking both within and beyond black communities.

My research with collaborators in Southern California will strengthen our understanding of how racial capitalism works and how, and why, it should be challenged. Our work takes a focused look at Latinx communities in a political and economic landscape shaped by the powerful warehouse industry. This reveals a form of racial capitalism that is partly based on the exploitation of labor, but which also involves the precariousness of Latin “social reproduction”: the constant diminution of the ecological, domestic, educational and relational capacities that people need to flourish.

The Latinx Futures Project and Work in California’s Inland Empire

The Latinx future The project, based at the University of California Riverside and supported by the Mellon Foundation, draws attention to an under-analyzed region that has become a hub of the global economy. The Inland Empire (IE) is a large area east of Los Angeles, including the cities of Riverside and San Bernardino as well as the rural eastern Coachella Valley and stretching to the Mexican border. Earlier eras saw IE successively blanketed in cattle ranches, citrus orchards, and housing estates for white intra-American migrants yearning for the Californian dream lifestyle of health and material abundance. They arrived in places long inhabited by Mexicans and Mexican Americans whose subordinate social positions date back to Spanish colonialism and persist even as the regional economy has changed dramatically.

In recent decades, EI has gained new importance as the ground zero of the global logistics industry. Amazon, Walmart and other mega-corporations have led the massive and ever-expanding development of warehouses in the region: there are stretches of freeway where warehouses fill the entire view. One way to understand racial capitalism is to look at the terms of employment of those who work in warehouses. At Amazon’s warehouses in the western United States, a mostly Latin workforce spends their hours unloading containers and repackaging goods for transport to outlets through “just-in-time” distribution systems. on time”. Thus, we could see “racial capitalism” as how logistics operations and the companies that launched them became key drivers of the 21st capitalist growth and profitability of the century, and how the labor processes upon which such expansion depends present working conditions for Latinx and other global majority workers that are not only unequal to those of whites, but deeply damaging and demoralizing.

Photo credit: Paul Apostolidis.

Seen in this light, racial capitalism shows its face in the insecurity, meager wages, unworthiness and dangerousness of warehouse employment. Most people access these jobs through temp agencies, and temp jobs pay poorly (usually below a living wage) and don’t come with health insurance or retirement benefits. Basic disrespect is another problem. Warehouses are so large that you may need a car to get from one end to the other, and bathrooms are often located so far from workstations that workers tend to urinate in bottles. Occupational safety and health (OSH) risks, such as repetitive strain injuries and mental health issues, have also proliferated as companies deploy digital monitoring technologies to measure compliance with quotas. and “stainless absences,” as Amazon’s antiseptic jargon puts it. Backed by threats of discipline and dismissal, these methods have dramatically increased workplace safety incidents at Amazon, which monitors its warehouse workers like no other company and sets a gruesome industry standard.

How Racial Capitalism Harms Workers Outside the Workplace

Undoubtedly, we need to look at labor processes in warehouses to understand racial capitalism in EI and elsewhere. Yet, as feminist theorists of “social reproduction” argue, the valorization of capital depends – structurally – not only on the exploitation of wage labor, but also on the “reproduction” of people and communities of the class. factory Girl. Here we must understand “reproduction” in a broad sense which includes physical rest, rejuvenation and care; emotional support relationships; education and intellectual culture; and ecological environment conducive to good health. When we examine how the warehouse industry weakens this essential scaffolding for human and social life among working-class Latinx IEs, other key dimensions of racial capitalism emerge.

Relentlessly revving truck engines as drivers wait for warehouse pickups and clog highways have caused exceptional levels of air pollution globally in the Inland Empire. The grim statistics of respiratory disease reflect this general state of perpetual toxic exposure for the people of this heavily Latino-dominated region. It’s racial capitalism at work, even outside the workplace.

Social reproduction also requires a safe, hygienic, and vibrant home life, but warehouses are making that impossible for more and more working-class Latinx families. Warehouse developers are hungry for more land and pressure homeowners to sell their homes, in neighborhoods that already have giant warehouses on their doorstep. It’s not just about costing and making deals. It erodes a distinctive local’ranchero’ culture through which families of Mexican descent create togetherness and community on small patches of desert land far from expensive in Los Angeles but big enough for the weekend barbacoas and some farm animals. ranchero life recedes, racial capitalism advances.

Then there’s Amazon’s new “school-to-“warehouse pipeline,” built by recruiting workers from high schools and universities. Callously tempting students and families discouraged by the astronomical costs of higher education, this program includes yet another hallmark of racial capitalism in ISIS. Again, it’s not just about funneling brown and black bodies into low-paying, dangerous jobs. Racial capitalism, moreover, means a collapse of time horizons as future aspirations give way to a treadmill of present needs and demands. It also means depriving young people of intellectual development for its own sake – learning and critical thinking as part of what makes us human.

The Latinx future The project investigates those fundamental aspects of racial capitalism that make Latinx working-class social reproduction more precarious. Notably, we do this through partnerships with “Latin civil society” organizations: groups engaged in grassroots struggles for environmental justice, housing rights and educational equality. Through “popular education” workshops open to the wider community, we aim to develop a more accurate understanding of racial capitalism in collaboration with those who experience its worst impacts. Watch this space for updates.

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Note: This article gives the point of view of the authors, and not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the Author

Paul ApostolidisLSE Government
Paul Apostolidis is the author of Breaks in the Chain: What Immigrant Workers Can Teach America About Democracy (University of Minnesota Press 2010) and The struggle for time: migrant day laborers and the politics of precariousness (Oxford University Press 2019). He is a senior lecturer in the government department of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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