Racial Capitalism and COVID-19

How racial capitalism, and not just capitalism,

shapes exploitation and solidarities


Zophia Edwards

In June 2020, while the Americas were deep in the throes of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, 116 farmworkers left Jamaica for the United States under a seasonal work program. They were destined for Gebbers Farm in Washington, where they would be reaping apples. The Jamaican Minister of Labor and Social Security praised the program as an excellent example of the strength of the U.S.-Jamaica bond and a lifeline for both Jamaican workers and the national economy. The U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica said the program was a win-win for everyone, a powerful partnership. In an interview with one of the departing farmers, a journalist for Loop Jamaica asked, “How does your family feel about you leaving them at this time?” The farmer replied, “If I stay in Jamaica, probably they wouldn’t get a school book in September to go back to high school, so I talk to them and the risk factor is there but I still have to take a chance.”

In the midst of this global pandemic, hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, South Africans, and other people from colonised and formerly colonised countries in the global periphery are labouring on farms across North America and Europe to keep food on the grocery shelves. Long before COVID-19, they were forced to live in unsanitary, overcrowded, and unsafe conditions. On top of not receiving sufficient personal protective equipment, workers’ conditions further exacerbate the spread of the virus.3 In Canada, at least six hundred migrant farmworkers have contracted the virus since they arrived in the country and at least two have died, both from Mexico. These Black and Latinx workers, as well as other nonwhite racialised workers, have now been deemed essential, so they still have to report to work despite stay-at-home orders. While viewed as essential, they are also treated as expendable, as many do not get paid sick leave or have access to health care or health insurance, and those who are undocumented still face the threat of deportation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp relief the deep structural problems affecting nonwhite racialised workers in the core and periphery. Yet, many social scientific analyses of the global political economy, at least in the pre-COVID era, are race neutral or wilfully indifferent to the persistent racial pattern of global inequalities. Even if they do address the legacies of colonialism, they ignore the ongoing racial logics of oppression embedded therein. How can we understand the unremitting superexploitation of Black and other nonwhite racialised labour in the core and the periphery? Dominant approaches to capitalism are not enough. It is urgent that we anchor our analyses in the concept of racial capitalism, which helps us better understand the forces driving the global political economy.


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