Interview with Darrick Hamilton

During this semester’s course on Slavery, Race & Capitalism, taught by Professor Julia Ott , we have discussed the voracious nature of capitalism and the precarity it inflicts, disproportionately, upon subaltern groups. From assigned readings on historical and contemporary scholarship, as well as guest lectures, we have explored the ways in which capitalism may function, inherently or dynamically, to preserve racial hierarchies and perpetuate structural inequalities.

On March 27, 2017, Professor Darrick Hamilton , delivered an insightful guest lecture entitled, “Neoliberalism and the Paradox of Persistent Racial Disparity Even Amongst High Achieving Black Americans.” He used stratification economics, an emergent subfield in economics, to contextualize and discuss the persistent disparities in economic and health outcomes for communities of color. He focused on the policy prescriptions designed to perpetuate racial economic inequities and used his research to challenge historical narratives and the neoliberal discourse on wealth accumulation by individual effort. He further referenced the black economic paradigm, a framework he developed together with his colleagues, to contextualize the legacy of economic injustices and structural policies that have created socioeconomic barriers for Blacks and continue to preclude them from gaining access to more equitable futures.

After his presentation, I sat down with Professor Hamilton for a brief post-lecture Q&A. In the interview that follows, he discusses capitalism’s dichotomous nature and shares insights from his research on stratification economics. A transcript of our conversation has been edited for clarity.


Professor Darrick Hamilton is the Director of the doctoral program in Public and Urban Policy, and jointly appointed as an Associate Professor of Economics and Urban Policy at The Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy and the Department of Economics, The New School for Social Research at The New School in New York.

Narender Strong: Darrick, thanks for sitting down for a brief interview after tonight’s lecture.

Like many people of color, I grew up with an achievement expectation that education was the great economic equalizer for building transferable wealth, usually associated with the quintessential American Dream. However, your research on the black economic paradigm quantitatively substantiates that traditionally focused drivers of upward mobility—education, income or employment—do not problem solve for the racial wealth gap between black and white households. You have concluded that accumulated wealth by inheritance is the reason for a persistent group-based racial wealth inequality. Is this stubborn race gap and its accumulative power endemic to capitalism?

Professor Darrick Hamilton: That’s a good question. I don’t think it necessarily has to be, and I am not making a pro-capitalist statement or an anti-capitalist statement. But within a context of a capitalist system in America, the white asset-based middle class—coming out of policies from the Great Depression and post-war periods that provided them with access to an education without debt and down payments to purchase a home—have an asset appreciation over the life course that they have lived. The problem is that such policies were not extended in a race neutral manner. Blacks largely did not benefit from those policies of the broader economic system of capitalism and socialism. Without making value judgements as to which is better, there are things that we can do within both systems that would lead to greater race equity.

Narender: I have to ask as a follow up—do you believe that racism is the construct or the bi-product of capitalism?

Professor Hamilton: I think that racism can be exacerbated by capitalism, particularly the rhetoric around capitalism, because the focus on individual hard work, effort and merit absolves the public from responsibilities related to racial conditions. Something that is really relevant for your class is this neoliberal paradigm; it is an evolution. We started out with a system of slavery where we were explicit in the property rights of whiteness, literally. Over time, we have emergent new types of systems. But this neoliberal paradigm where we don’t pay as much attention to structural explanations for inequality, both within and across groups, becomes almost self-fulfilling into a stratified system of race and inequity. Capitalism helps fuel the rhetoric that avoids us having to address it and becomes reinforcing in our paradigm.

Narender: Going back to stratification economics, it seems to be a contemporary expansion of the Black Marxist tradition. It seems to challenge the peripheries of cultural essentialism or neoclassical orthodoxies and examines the institutional fingerprints on racial and ethnic disparities. How has the receptivity for discussions on race and class, particularly in your research discourse, shifted post-election? It seems that the hegemonic narrative is even more myopically focused on class, almost completely, and excludes race as a co-determinate relationship.

Professor Hamilton: That’s a deep question [chuckles]. It is a question that requires some thought. I would say my knee-jerk reaction is that Black Marxism is almost an oxymoron because there are a lot of things we obviously learned from Marxism that are useful to explaining our current paradigm. But one particular critique of Marxism might be its over emphasis of class without a better explanation of other identities that relate to stratification as well. I think that is why stratification economics could not be grouped in with a Marxist frame completely. There are obviously some aspects that are learned from Marxism, as well as some aspects that are learned from orthodox or neoclassical economics. For example, individuals are strategic in their behavior; individuals are self-interested in being strategic in trying to accumulate resources. I do not think stratification economics disagrees with it. We just argue that there are roles for identity as well. And, identity itself has productive capacities, and individuals will invest in that identity when the rewards are structured in a way that give a return to that identity.

I am being abstract and a little bit vague, but if I want to be more explicit, I would say that there are material gains associated with investing in a white identity for white individuals. And to the extent that Black individuals can access those material gains, they will try. But on the other hand, to the extent that white individuals can extract more resources, barriers might be created to prevent Blacks from having access to those economic returns associated with white identity. Stratification economics brings to bear the role of identity in both determining economic outcomes, investing in identity to determine those economic outcomes, and erecting barriers to prevent individuals from accessing relative class privilege.

Narender: Race becomes an appreciating asset, if viewed in the context of white privilege. As a stratification economist, you write about investing in racial identity as a form of group or individual property. But you have also discussed how people invest or divest in their identity based on economic returns. Can you talk about this dynamic, specifically in more contemporary terms, in Black or Latino populations?

Professor Hamilton: Context matters as to whether a racial identity becomes more or less paramount. For instance, we can have public intervention to make the returns of an identity less pronounced. For example, anti-discrimination policies where there are penalties attached to discrimination leads to a divestment in white identity, because the costs become high. It is not a presumed fact, nor does it become something for which society cannot address to lead to better outcomes. We do not end up with something that is immutable that we cannot change. There are actual structures and events that can change the context in which race, gender or any identity becomes more or less valued. I think we need to move towards a society that uses policy to make investments in identity less rewarding, so that we can have a fair and more inclusive society.

Narender: I think it makes complete sense. However, if we are talking about policy, I think race is embedded in how we structure policy. If we go back in history, as an example even within the constitution, the construction of most policies are structured to benefit this white privilege or white identity. How do we apply policy or reconstruct policies differently that have been and continue to be structured to benefit an inherent whiteness?

Professor Hamilton: Well, you are presenting the tension. You are right that we have used policy to structure in hierarchies, which lead to some of these disparities. But, I am making a case that it does not have to be. The key question you are raising is what incentive do we have to do anything otherwise? And how do we disincentivize investments in whiteness?

Narender: Yes, exactly, especially when the market benefits from a neoliberal economy. How do we remove the incentive of race when it is market-driven?

Professor Hamilton: I think there are a couple of things. First, we need to redefine what we mean by economic health and well-being. We need to move away from these narratives that talk about hard work and individual efforts as the sole determinant of somebody’s well-being. We need to think about coming up with structures and policies that enable people to reach their full human capacity. We need to move to a society where we recognize the commonality in mankind, frankly. Where we don’t think about productivity as our sole economic determinant, but think about fairness, inclusion and having a moral economy. Morality needs to get back into our conception of what we believe is a normal, healthy working economy. But there is that tension that you raised and that tension can be presented as a question. Some people discuss equity as a superior economic growth model—how having equity is a benefit for productivity, and how our economy produces goods and services and overall income and growth. I do not agree with that framework. I think it should be different and instead, how equity is the right thing to do. It is the moral and just thing to do. We need to move towards that evolution in thinking. How do we get there? I am not exactly sure.

Professor Hamilton: But let me come back to this tension you raised. Is it the case that if we had black individuals and other individuals from subaltern groups unifying with the white working class that everybody would be better off? Well, what do we know about racial stratification? In this current system of racial stratification, clearly the capitalist class benefits. They are overwhelmingly better off, and they are made better off from this stratification that allows them to extract from both black and working class individuals. We also know what is unambiguous is that black individuals are made worse off. By the way, the capitalist class is overwhelmingly white. There might be some Blacks that are able to get into it, but it is predominately white. What becomes ambiguous? This is the key question for which empirically I don’t know the answer to. I can imagine that empirically the answer to this might change depending on the social context. Are the white working class individuals made better or worse off from forming a coalition with other subaltern groups to address the capitalist structure, which leads to them not reaping the full rewards for their labor and efforts? I think that’s an ambiguous question. And what makes it ambiguous? The property rights in whiteness—the fact that there are economic material returns and psychological returns associated with racial stratification for that white working class. Again, it might be the case that if they were to address their labor market condition in general, by increasing their bargaining power through a coalition, that they could improve their relative status. Will their economic position associated with that type of coalition be greater than the gains that they benefit from with the stratification of race or associated with the property rights in whiteness? I think that is an open question.

Narender: Stratification economics, as I understand it, has a broad span including race, class, social and place stratas? Am I understanding this correctly?

Professor Hamilton: Yeah, I think we should be cognizant of multiple strata and the ways it interacts or intersects in influencing people’s life outcomes. One could certainly talk about place as a stratification that influences economic outcomes. With regards to immigration, we see it happening right now. The status of whether you were born in the U.S. or not, and not only that, the descendancy from which you come. It is not even just whether you are an immigrant or not. If you are an immigrant from a specific geographical context, it has bearing on your economic positioning as well.

Narender: My final question is about race and gender intersectionality. According to research on race and gender discrimination in employment by Marlene Kim, a professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Boston, as an African American woman I am penalized in earnings for my gender, race and the intersectionality of the two. Her research says I suffer a gender penalty of 15%, an additional 9% penalty for my race, and an intersectional component of 3% in lowered earnings because of my race and gender. In fact, I find that statistics on advancing wages for women often overlook the intersectionality that exists for racial and ethnic female minorities. As a result, the gender parity research can offer a biased narrative, in my opinion, for white women while not accounting for this triple discrimination. I think this is where stratification economics would provide the needed analysis. It would take into account the outcome of socio-economic stratification across gender and race. Do you agree, and if so, can you elaborate?

Professor Hamilton: Identities are multifaceted, and they intersect in complex ways that we cannot so easily disaggregate into components. I think Marlene Kim does excellent work, but I would question the ways in which she disaggregates the various components of 15%, 9% and 3%. I think it becomes empirically difficult to disaggregate those numbers into quantifiable terms. But for the main point that you just elaborated on, I completely agree with it. To think about black women and white women as homogenous groups without accounting for the ways in which race and gender interact in addressing black women’s economic positioning would be naïve. We should be cognizant of it, and I think it is important to recognize, as I said earlier, that identities are multifaceted. People have agency with regard to their identity. This is a key component of stratification economics. There are attributes within constraints that you can put forth that can emphasize various aspects of your identity. And you will do so to the extent that you have agency, in part depending on the rewards structure attached to them. This is a component of stratification economics. Yet, we should be careful with our rhetoric not to go too far and talk about multiple identities in a way where identities themselves lose agency or lose salience or meaning. We know that some identities have more prevalence in certain scenarios than others, meanwhile some individuals have greater affect in their identities in certain contexts than in other contexts. We have to be careful with what some people have labeled multicultural liberalism. If we think about the fact that every individual is faced with some structural penalties, and to reference Barack Obama’s famous Philadelphia “A more perfect union” speech, where black people need to bind their grievances with that of all Americans, and then he goes on and talks about the white woman struggling, the white man struggling, etc. Well that has the potential of distracting from the point of race and the role of race in influencing identities by basically making the claim, or alluding to the claim, that we all face structural barriers, and there is nothing special or unique about your identity.

Narender: Thank you Professor Hamilton, this interview has been very informative. We look forward to reading more of your scholarship on stratification economics.

Professor Hamilton: Thank you very much Narender. This has been an interview with great questions.

Narender Strong is a cultural historian and graduate student in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program offered jointly by Parsons The New School for Design and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian National Design Museum. She is a multidisciplinary scholar and emerging public intellectual, who writes about race and identity, critical design, and other contemporary topics that intersect with Black and African diasporic culture.

Narender Strong

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