Editorial to ISRF Bulletin 23: Race and Markets

The editorial foreword to issue 23 of the ISRF Bulletin, on the theme of ‘Race and Markets.’


ISRF Academic Editor

Main image by Chris Manson, commissioned for this Bulletin.

It is a great pleasure to open this special issue of the ISRF Bulletin, which has been guest edited by Francesca Sobande, Alice Schoonejans, Guillaume D. Johnson, Kevin D. Thomas, Anthony Kwame Harrison, and Sonya A. Grier. Structured around the theme of ‘Race and Markets,’ the content of this issue comes in part out of a workshop held in Paris in 2019, which was supported by the ISRF, but it also draws nourishment from a broader international research network called ‘Race in the Marketplace’ (RIM).[1] Bringing together scholars, artists, activists, and practitioners, RIM invites us to trace and question the manifold ways in which markets and racial identities are mutually constitutive.[2]

In taking this approach, RIM explicitly distances itself from the widespread myth that the marketplace is ‘colourblind.’ Developed and popularised by neoliberal economists like Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell (who was Friedman’s student and friend), this myth has it that in a truly competitive market, issues of race are irrelevant. It claims that in a system based solely on competitive exchange, where supply and demand rather than identity determine economic success, racial belonging is, formally speaking, trivial. For Friedman and Sowell, what matters to your customers is not the colour of your skin, your dietary practices, or your ancestors’ nationality, but your ability to provide the commodity they want as cheaply and efficiently as possible. “Where there is free competition,” as Friedman put it, “only performance counts. The market is colorblind.”[3]

It almost goes without saying that this argument rests on a profoundly jejune understanding of discrimination, racism, and indeed markets themselves. Not only does it present a superficial account of racial belonging, but it also conveniently papers over the fact that there exist ample markets for discrimination. If acts of discrimination incur costs or dampen profit, then what are we to make of the prevalence today (and always) of endless racist paraphernalia, which have no doubt made some entrepreneurs very wealthy, or indeed the highly profitable industries of racialised exclusion and policing, bordering and discipline, on which the day-to-day existence of racial capitalism relies? Contrary to that stubborn neoliberal shibboleth, then, free markets work not to diminish racial othering but to render it profitable, exploitable, just another commodity.

What has always fascinated me about the trope of the colourblind marketplace is that the very economists who most enthusiastically supported it tended themselves to believe that racial belonging bears heavily on one’s capacity for economic performance. Friedman, for example, claimed controversially that their religious and ethnic heritage rendered Jewish people more suitable for jobs in banking, accountancy, or law.[4] Sowell, for his part, loudly celebrated the colourblindness of the free market whilst arguing, practically in the same breath, that a person’s racial background determines their cultural attitudes, which in turn impacts their ability (or inability) to thrive in the free market.[5]

Yet by claiming that racial heritage conditions economic ability, neoliberal economics committed itself to the view that it had to study the former if it was to understand the latter. To its most fervent ideological champions, the free market may be colourblind, but the economist cannot afford to be. Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that many of the works of these economists are awash with racialised tropes and stereotypes, such as the claim that persistent poverty is above all a result of idleness, spendthrift, broken families, or indifference to formal education.

What is so pernicious about the neoliberal myth of the colourblind marketplace is that it forcibly separates the study of (what it takes to be) racial heritage from the study of ‘free’ markets. It is calculated to foreclose any scholarly agendas that would see markets as sites that are deeply entwined with myriad forms of racial signification and formation, exclusion and resistance, othering and solidarity. It deliberately muddies the waters of any thorough analysis either of the racialised nature of markets or of the persistent marketisation of race under conditions of racial capitalism.

Against this ideological background, which still looms large over much of what passes for orthodox economics, the intervention the RIM network is making is not only refreshing but positively necessary. It presents an understanding of race’s relation to the market that is not just an alternative to the neoliberal paradigm but its polar opposite: instead of seeing markets as ‘colourblind,’ it holds out that markets are inherently raced; instead of placing racial identity outside of market relations, it situates the racial at their centre; instead of reproducing racial (and racist) stereotypes, it advances a resolutely anti-racist praxis.

To ask what such an anti-racist praxis ought to look like, or by what method it proceeds, is to miss the point. As the pieces of this issue show wonderfully, there is not one unitary method or voice at work here. There are multiple methods, multiple voices, which do not sound the same but which do sing in harmony. This is scholarship as an invitation, scholarship which opens up rather than closes down and which makes of poetic uncertainty an analytical virtue rather than a vice.

Consider the first article in this line-up, by Francesca Sobande, Alice Schoonejans, Guillaume D. Johnson, Kevin D. Thomas, and Anthony Kwame Harrison, which offers us a peek behind the curtain of co-authorship in the form of an email chain in which the authors discuss a manuscript they are preparing for print. Which discussions go into co-produced scholarship? How do snippets of knowledge and freshly remembered references get shared and enjoyed amongst friends and colleagues? Too often, such moments are rendered invisible by the very nature of academic publishing, hidden behind the façade of academic authority and certainty we are all encouraged to adopt. What is lost along the way is the very blending of voices to which all knowledge owes a debt.

This blending of voices is also centred and indeed practiced by other contributors. In their wonderful piece, Zuleka Randell Woods and Anthony Kwame Harrison invite us to reflect on a photograph of a little girl standing in a street in Uganda. They unpack and question the photographer’s gaze, but before long, his gaze is abandoned in favour of the little girl’s. As we start to see things from her perspective, the authors’ voice and the girl’s slip into each other and become impossible to tease apart.

Guillaume D. Johnson’s piece riffs on similar themes, likewise centring the question of the photographic gaze and bringing together multiple voices. Here, we are treated to fragments of a conversation between him, his father, and two merchants selling used clothes in a Togolese market, which was originally sparked by Johnson taking a picture. The ensuing exchange addresses the European gaze and the afterlives of colonialism, which one of the merchants finely teases apart, and draws out attention to the ways market relations, as well as their racial dynamics, stretch across and between continents.

From the question of photography the issue segues into a new thematic area: what can urban sites, and storefronts in particular, tell us about the ways markets are raced? In their respective pieces, both Naa Oyo A. Kwate and Sonya A. Grier ask what (the remains of) local businesses can tell us about the wider socio-economic dynamics of which they are a part. Focusing on a 1981 picture of a derelict McDonald’s in Compton, California, Kwate deftly weaves the visual markers of a shuttered franchise into broader processes of White flight, deindustrialisation, and racialised stereotyping. Grier’s contribution similarly locates the fortunes of a Black-owned cannabis store based in Washington, D.C. in the broader political, economic, and cultural landscape in which it sits, using it to reflect on the racialised tropes and policing that surround drug use in the United States. The businesses centred in both these short pieces are less synecdoches for a kind of nebulous ‘spirit of the age’ than they are complex sites that offer a glimpse of the myriad ways the racial and the economic have intersected in recent U.S. history.

Ernesto Castañeda’s contribution draws our attention to the means by which racial identity sometimes comes to be marketised. In a detailed analysis of remittance agencies, where immigrant populations can turn to send money to their families back home, he reflects on the way such agencies profile themselves in their effort to attract custom. He finds that key to their advertising is a certain language of belonging and heritage, using complexly layered imagery to market themselves. Consisting of flags, headshots of people of colour, or more metaphorical depictions of their clientele, this imagery seeks to navigate a raced market by itself adopting, precisely, the grammar of race.

In their contribution, Bel Parnell-Berry and Noémi Michel invite us into the realm of lived experience. At the heart of their piece sit two anecdotes, personal encounters with racist representation, which highlight not only the pervasiveness but also the stubbornness of contemporary forms of racism. In the face of this racism, Parnell-Berry and Michel advocate a form of anti-racist work that pivots on the practice of bearing witness; of, as they put it, “accounting for, connecting and transmitting” stories. For this practice to be effective, however, suitable spaces first need to be carved out and curated, spaces where it is possible to open oneself up, vulnerably, to others. This, they say, is where anti-racist editing comes in.

Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder’s piece looks at the covers of midcentury dance records in the United States, asking how they narrate the complex histories of the dance styles they represent. Crucially, Borgerson and Schroeder draw our attention to the many clues these covers contain about midcentury attitudes towards race and ethnicity. They hold out that deciphering these more or less coded clues helps us see that the dance floor was always a fiercely contested and indeed markedly racialised cultural space.

Closing this issue, Hilary Downey treats us to a splendid poetic inquiry into African American women’s experiences of incarceration. Like some of the earlier pieces, hers proceeds by weaving several voices together, letting prisoner, citizen, and poet speak in turn. Marrying this multivocal layering with other themes that run through the issue, such as the racialised gaze, the violence of stereotypes, and the question of poetic reflexivity, Downey’s contribution makes for a very fitting conclusion to this short volume.

Taken together, the pieces collected here make for an issue that is equal parts inspiring, moving, and exciting. It has been a true pleasure to help make this issue possible and I want to close by thanking the guest editors for their time and effort and each of the authors for their wonderful contributions.


[1] See https://www.rimnetwork.net/. For a clearer discussion of the relation between RIM, the 2019 workshop, and this issue, see the editors’ Introduction.

[2] For a more detailed discussion of the theoretical foundations of this approach, see for instance Guillaume D. Johnson, Kevin D. Thomas, Anthony Kwame Harrison & Sonya A. Grier (eds.), Race in the Marketplace: Crossing Critical Boundaries (Cham 2019: Palgrave Macmillan) or Sonja Martin Poole, Sonya A. Grier, Kevin D. Thomas, Francesca Sobande, Akon E. Ekpo, Lez Trujillo Torres, Lynn A. Addington, Melinda Weekes-Laidlow & Geraldine Rosa Henderson, “Operationalizing Critical Race Theory in the Marketplace,” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 40, no. 2 (2021): 126–142 (https://doi.org/10.1177/0743915620964114).

[3] Milton Friedman, “Capitalism and the Jews” (1972), online at https://fee.org/articles/capitalism-and-the-jews/. The idea that capitalism can is able to end racial inequality is of course not exclusive to economists or intellectuals. One interesting tradition to come out of the United States pivots on the notion of ‘Black capitalism,’ or the idea that by embracing free-market capitalism, minority communities can overcome these disparities. On this topic see also Sonya A. Grier’s contribution to this issue.

[4] See again Friedman, “Capitalism and the Jews.”

[5] For stark examples of this dynamic, read Thomas Sowell’s The Economics and Politics of Race: An International Perspective (New York 1983: William Morrow) or his Ethnic America: A History (New York 1981: Basic Books) alongside his Markets and Minorities (Oxford 1981: Basil Blackwell).

Lars Cornelissen

Dr. Lars Cornelissen is the Academic Editor for the Independent Social Research Foundation. His research is on the history of neoliberal thought and he is trying to write a book about race and neoliberalism.