During a recent visit to New Orleans, I discovered that the city has a fascinating economic history. The city was ruled first by the French, the Spanish, and then the United States. Regardless of the rulers, or the white owners of property, the city’s early economy depended on enslaved and free people of color. After the Civil War, the economy depended on the labor of sharecroppers and others living in debt slavery. The economic story of New Orleans is a multicolored story from enslaved Africans building the first levees to the on-going work of rebuilding the Ninth Ward. If you know New Orleans, then you know a multicolored economy. Most economic thinking, however, has split off from consciousness the contributions and the sufferings of people of color and has practiced a white economics.
White economics is thinking about economics as though people of color do not exist. It’s Europeans thinking about economics as though Africa didn’t exist. It’s white Americans thinking about economics as though American wealth was not dependent on the contributions of Africans, Hispanics, and Asians. You can find it in much of the current thinking about a “new economy” as well as most mainstream economic thinking, especially in economic departments.
This type of thinking has a long history that is best illustrated by Adam Smith’s exclusion of the role of slavery in his story of wealth creation. In one section of The Wealth of Nations, Smith writes about the reasons for the prosperity of the American colonies. He mentions land and management, but not labor, even though he believed that labor was the only real source of wealth creation. In this case, it was the labor of enslaved Africans that made the tobacco lords of Glasgow some of the wealthiest individuals in Europe. Smith met with these tobacco traders for years, but never shared his knowledge of the Atlantic slave-based economy. He tells a lie about an invisible hand instead of the truth about the white hands of plantation owners.
White economists are not very interested in the history of either the Atlantic or the Caribbean economies. In fact, white economists assume there is no need to repair the harm that has been done to people of color. Furthermore, and this is not unimportant, white economists do not see any need to examine the assumptions of white supremacy. This blindness has not only prevented people of color from receiving compensation for their contributions to our wealth; it has also prevented white economists from taking an appropriate stance toward the past and the future.
The appropriate stance for white economists is one of humility. Humility would allow us to learn how to repair the past and re-think the future. If we open our eyes to current economic trends, this white dominated economy is humiliating. Shameful. Some might say that White Americans are not a humble people. That may be the problem.