SOAPing American History: Matthew Desmond’s American Capitalism is Brutal; You Can Trace That To the Plantation

This week, I chose a piece from the 1619 Project: Matthew Desmond’s American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation. You can access the piece HERE for your reading pleasure. I encourage all of you to read this important text. This piece underscores just how deep our capitalist roots as a society go back — and how they go back to the enslavement of Africans. This piece contains a lot of important information in it; it was hard to pick just one thing to focus on, however, I’ll share an excerpt of the text that really caught my eye. I hope that you learn from this text and also that my SOAPing of this text provides you with an example of how to do it. If you’d like to share your SOAPing of this text with me, email me at I’d love to read it and converse with you. With that said, my SOAPing of the text.

SCRIPT – Excerpt from Matthew Desmond’s American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation 

Slavery did supplement white workers with what W.E.B. Du Bois called a “public and psychological wage,” which allowed them to roam freely and feel a sense of entitlement. But this, too, served the interests of money. Slavery pulled down all workers’ wages. Both in the cities and countryside, employers had access to a large and flexible labor pool made up of enslaved and free people. Just as in today’s gig economy, day laborers during slavery’s reign often lived under conditions of scarcity and uncertainty, and jobs meant to be worked for a few months were worked for lifetimes. Labor power had little chance when the bosses could choose between buying people, renting them, contracting indentured servants, taking on apprentices or hiring children and prisoners.This not only created a starkly uneven playing field, dividing workers from themselves; it also made “all nonslavery appear as freedom,” as the economic historian Stanley Engerman has written. Witnessing the horrors of slavery drilled into poor white workers that things could be worse. So they generally accepted their lot, and American freedom became broadly defined as the opposite of bondage. It was a freedom that understood what it was against but not what it was for; a malnourished and mean kind of freedom that kept you out of chains but did not provide bread or shelter. It was a freedom far too easily pleased.


  1. The Haitian revolution was fresh in the minds of the planter class. The Haitian revolution saw the defeat of a European power and the ascendancy of a Black democratic nation. The irony was that in the eyes of America, democracy was only for White people; clearly, enslaved Africans and their descendants were proof of that. But the threat of insurrection scared the planter class so much that they took measures to maintain their consolidated power – from brutal violence to accounting for tools to anticipate rebellion.
  2. Our capitalist system has doomed America to fail to learn from history in the name of greed. Desmond points out that the roots of the Panic of 1837 are enslavement. However, because cotton was “too big to fail,” forgave the debts of the planter class and banks; that sounds very similar to the crisis of 2008 whereby the car industry and others received bailouts funded by taxpayer dollars. Capitalism, specifically the potential of riches for the elite, override reason and regulation. I feel that so long as we have a system that fosters such greed, these “crises” will occur. The plutocrats have made so much money during the Coronavirus pandemic, meanwhile working people are on the verge of catastrophe. Sadly our nation is doomed to repeat history.
  3. Black bodies built white wealth. This is a point often made when discussing the wealth gap. However, when you consider how white people were able to leverage Black people to build wealth – generation transferring wealth – it is no wonder why power remains in the hand of a few. Not only did Black labor produce wealth, but also Black existence did the same. The planter class mortgaged Black bodies to access credit to build their “businesses.” 


  1. Recognize that the United States doesn’t have the monopoly on democracy. In fact, America isn’t a democracy… The United States is a republic, but I digress. Haiti was a true picture of democracy. We should learn of or re-familiarize ourselves with nations, peoples and movements (both past and present) engaged in protest and liberation movements rooted in democracy.
  2. Learn of and from America’s Past. Unlike the United States as an entity, we can learn of our past and from it. Capitalism has rendered our nation helpless to avoid the pitfalls that come about by the deregulation of greed. However, we can learn from our mistakes and pitfalls. What this looks like isn’t simply making good decisions in our own lives, but advocating for lives that don’t look like mine through the ballot box, how we spend our money or by challenging injustice wherever we see it.
  3. Advocate for the passage of H.R. 40 – Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. It is an unavoidable fact that Black bodies built white wealth. Reconciliation looks like atoning for such exploitation – when considering the historical condition of Black people. We cannot simply move forward without settling accounts from the past. At the very least, we must explore the accounts that are outstanding and why they must be repaid.

PARTICIPATION – Paragraph to the author:

Mr. Desmond, You piece on capitalism provides a good foundation for understanding how brutal capitalism can be and what that brutality meant for the planter class, the enslaved class and the white working class. I think you did a good job within the text to point out how the planter class used capitalism to drive a wedge between the proletariat groups. There are so many nuggets in this text with respect to teaching about managerial procedures, structural methodologies and making modern connections with past events. If I had one critique of your piece it would be the feeling that you omitted the role racism and white supremacist hierarchy played in capitalism’s function. The treatment of all others by the planter class wasn’t simply driven by greed. While I don’t think you skirt that point, I think additional clarity could be offered to show the connection of racism and capitalism; racism as the mindset and capitalism as the means to execute the mind set. Nevertheless, this is a good piece and a great teaching tool for students and teachers alike.


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