Racism and Capitalism in St. Louis

By David RoedigerAugust 8, 2020

Racism and Capitalism in St. Louis

The Broken Heart of America by Walter Johnson

I FIGURED I KNEW St. Louis. I was born over in East St. Louis on the Illinois side of the river, became politically radicalized after seeing the structural injustice there, went on to contribute to the St. Louis Labor History Tour, and wrote about the city’s turbulent period of reconstruction after the Civil War. But I was humbled reading Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States, a study of St. Louis, its hinterlands, and its victims over centuries. The book represents a triumph in telling together the stories of settler violence and racism that had traditionally eluded historians. Johnson’s insistence on rooting today’s racism in yesterday’s conquest of indigenous people and enslavement of kidnapped people from Africa makes The Broken Heart of America a book for our times.

Johnson’s personal breakthrough to seeing the city for what it is came out of contemporary social movements. As a native of central Missouri and a professor of antebellum history at Harvard, he rediscovered his home state after the 2014 police murder of Michael Brown in the suburb of Ferguson. Johnson wanted to understand the indifference to violence, from lethal police violence to the everyday “mining” of fines from black motorists and pedestrians, resulting in countless residents being passed from jail to jail when unable to pay.

He soon discovered a hook for symbolizing what was wrong. In Ferguson, where Brown died, the extraction of such fines for petty offenses was rife, providing 20 percent of the suburb’s budget. At the same time, Emerson Electric, with its sprawling corporate “campus” about 400 yards from where Brown was shot and his corpse left for hours, remained an enterprise securely distanced from the tax collector. African American everyday life had become pathologized while the power structure remained unassailable. For white people in St. Louis, great wealth and petty wealth had learned to work together, especially around Jim Crow housing and home loans directed to whites. Emerson Electric also symbolizes St. Louis’s connections to militarism and empire. When the celebrated Democratic Party fixer Stuart Symington represented Missouri in the Senate he secured Cold War military spending for Emerson, a company he had headed in the ’30s and ’40s.

Empire and class power animate The Broken Heart of America. The internal US expansionist project drove indigenous people from the land in the 19th century. Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition to the Pacific Northwest, assaying the Louisiana Purchase, began near St. Louis, then little more than an “imperial outpost” of 1,200 people. Clark’s mapping served a particularly mercantilist purpose, anchored in shipping routes, commodities, indigenous knowledge, native allies, and labor. The fur economy dominated the US “gateway to the West.”

As settled agricultural commodity production expanded, so did the ruthlessness from St. Louis. The “side business in Indian removal” made the city and nearby Jefferson Barracks a center of outfitting the warriors on behalf of a “white man’s country,” first nearby and then further west. Lead mines in the surrounding countryside were dug out for buckshot as crops and lumber flowed to the metropole, making it the fourth largest city in the United States by 1870.

Indigenous people figured less as actors in the immediate hinterlands of St. Louis as removals proceeded. The bloody attacks on Sauks, Meskwakis, and Kickapoos in the Black Hawk War of 1832 proved instrumental not only in ethnically cleansing the area east of the Mississippi but also in culminating “the transformation of the U.S. Army into a force designed to fight Indians” with St. Louis at center stage in this transformation. Black Hawk suffered incarceration at Jefferson Barracks. The bloodshed described in Herman Melville’s brilliant passages on the “metaphysics of Indian-hating” in the 1857 novel The Confidence-Man took place about what is now an hour’s drive from St. Louis. The local ruling class became so confident about its role in expansion that the city had, as one historian puts it, a “foreign policy.”

Johnson’s prior stature as a historian rested on two important studies of slavery in Deep South. His knowledge in that regard helps make The Broken Heart of America a major contribution to African American studies, but in ways careful to take expansion and anti-Indian violence into account as well. Such practices went beyond slavery to a “western anti-Blackness” hostile to any sort of freedom for nonwhite citizens. This insight provides the framework for Johnson’s discussion of what may have been the “first lynching” in the United States, the 1836 mobbing and burning alive of black steamboat steward Francis McIntosh, and his account of the thwarting of the bids for legal freedom of Dred and Harriet Scott.

From the Civil War forward, the African American history of St. Louis becomes more central to the book as do interracial class struggles attending the growth of industry and transportation in the city. Johnson shows the hesitation of Abraham Lincoln in undertaking emancipation in a border state alongside the eagerness for freedom among migrants to the city who were leaving slavery behind. Racially egalitarian and class-conscious German American Marxists in positions of authority in the military served as important allies to the latter. Those forces contributed directly to the interracial 1877 industrial general strike in the city — arguably another US event first occurring in St. Louis. They later inspired radicals attempting to build militant, egalitarian and often black women–led industrial unionism in the city during the Great Depression and early Cold War.

Johnson writes with abiding hope that, as the saying goes, “Time is longer than rope.” This belief coexists with acknowledgment of the forces arrayed against black freedom. These include the terrible 1917 East St. Louis white labor and police riot; decades of liberal, craft union, and corporate commitment to redevelopment projects that delivered on promises to remove African American communities but not on pledges to relocate them to new and better places with access to jobs; and federally subsidized commitments to segregation by realtors and banks.

To explain both the distribution of misery and the ubiquity of resistance over time in St. Louis, Johnson names the system he describes as “racial capitalism,” a concept developed by John Saul and others in South Africa and especially by the late Cedric Robinson in the United States. The term serves the book well, as it reminds us that white supremacy and class oppression acted in concert. When we realize that the metaphysics of Indian-hating as well as antiblack racism have crucially animated white supremacy and violence, racial capitalism carries still more force.

Whites in St. Louis often demonstrated irrational commitments to whiteness and contributed to the city’s panic. They helped to end swimming in Fairground Park pool, the “largest open-air swimming pool in the world,” rioting against its integration in 1949. But the racism of the state assumed equally horrific proportions. The giant Pruitt-Igoe housing project, envisioned as a modernist experiment in publicly subsidized apartment living proved so ill-designed and underfunded that it only stood for two decades before its infamous demolition in a series of detonations. As its failure unfolded, the federal government released radiological agents from the roofs of the projects, testing the effects on populations for possible use in war — a striking illustration of the connections of militarism and racism.

As Johnson writes,

[R]acism and capitalism were not identical: one could not be reduced to the other. They were always in excess of one another — capitalism mobilizing and exploiting whites as well as Blacks, and white supremacy providing pleasure, even the filthy pleasures of racial disgust and collective violence, as well as profit.

Useful as it is, racial capitalism, as conventionally understood, nevertheless risks occluding our understanding of Johnson’s largest achievement here. Rightly or wrongly the term generally applies, in South Africa and the United States, to antiblack racism as practiced within the logic of capitalism but often without enough attention to dispossession of native people. Two uncomprehending early reviews of The Broken Heart of America — in The New Yorker and on David Horowitz’s lamentable Frontpage website — share the title “Is Capitalism Racist?” putting themselves at odds with Johnson’s better questions regarding how racism and capitalism cohabit. Both see the book as merely a round two of the debate over the alleged anti-Americanism of The New York Times’s 1619 Project. It is far more than that, not only in its attention to class inequality but also in its elucidation of the role of both settler violence and antiblackness in the racial history of the US urban violence.


David Roediger teaches American Studies at University of Kansas. His The Sinking Middle Class appears from OR Books in October.

LARB Contributor

David Roediger teaches American Studies at University of Kansas. His The Sinking Middle Class appears from OR Books in October.


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