Colonial legacies of race and white supremacy

White supremacy is not a fun thing to talk about. But talk about it we must, since it is alive: simultaneously hidden to some while abundantly obvious to others. Race is present in the food system as a historical legacy—a concept and reality invented through the period of white-led colonization—and an ongoing process that reproduces itself.

Surely “racism” as a personal prejudice plays a role in this process, but the persistence of racial hierarchies and unequal racially-based outcomes do not rely exclusively on overt forms of racism: they are also the result of racist structures that reproduce themselves regardless of what those within them consciously think. This “structural racism” is extremely important.

Colonialism emerged at a period when global trade (including the slave trade) aided the growth of capitalism and industrialism. As Blain Snipstal describes it:

The plantation system was the first major system used by the colonial forces in their violent transformation of the Earth into land, people into property, and nature into a commodity – all to be sold on the “fair” market. This transformation was long, crafted and violent, and supported by the state. Land was stolen from the Indigenous and people were stolen from Africa. Race and White Supremacy were then created to give the cultural and psychological basis to support the rationale, organization and logic of capital. The church was implicated in deepening the rationale of slavery. Violence against women and gender-based violence further drove the normalization of servitude home. This was all woven into the fabric of the plantation system of agriculture in the South, during its development from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

The racialized basis for food systems thus was made structural during this period, created by and reinforced through violence against people of color. While the above description is in some ways specific to the U.S. settler colonial context, disruption of traditional forms of land management and tenure has led to unjust distributions of land use rights and ownership in both Minority and Majority world. Often this was sparked by colonial and post-colonial shake ups in power and economy, as when newly imposed “national” borders, new states/governments, and new forms of capitalist development (like plantation agriculture) majorly altered existing social relationships.

In the settler colonies of the “new world”, indigenous peoples were driven off their ancestral land, and to this day land remains under mostly white ownership (for example in the USA, 97% is owned by whites). Indigenous people lack sovereignty over most of their traditional lands, even those supposedly ceded back to them through treaties. At the same time, slaves (mostly African) were brought to provide the cheap labor that a decimated indigenous population could no longer provide. This history created a structure of unequal access to the benefits of land that was built on overt racial ideas of white supremacy, but is now reproducible through existing property law, conventions, and the implied threat of a police-backed legal system. Ever since the colonial era, racialized structures have continued producing racialized outcomes biased in favor of whites and against darker skinned people, in the food system as well as outside of it.

Racialized unjust circumstances are found in spheres of production to consumption. Non-whites continue to be exploited on farms as labor and compose a large proportion of workers in low-pay, high-stress slaughterhouse and processing facility jobs. Those at the head of profit-generating multinational corporations are overwhelmingly white and male. In much of Latin America, the whiter mestizo population, descendants of conquistadors, tend to be the larger landowners, while the darker-skinned work on the larges-scale plantations found on these lands.

In the sphere of consumption, racialized differences in incomes reinforce an “eco-apartheid”, wherein those with more money to buy “good food” tend to be white(r). This is certainly the case in my home town of San Francisco, where gentrification plus an active “local food movement” has led to a clear bifurcation in food types and prices—cheap taquerias or expensive “farm to table” restaurants that cater to the newer, richer, whiter populations. We should consider this differential access issue globally as well, in that average access to sufficient food is greater in whiter regions like settler colonies in North America and Australia, and OG colonizer Europe, than in colonized Africa, Asia and Latin America. Of course, there is still poverty in the former places (concentrated amongst people of color) and increases in the “gentrification of food” (e.g. the appearance and spread of organic farmers markets and high-end farm to table restaurants) in the latter.

Racialized food systems are also at play in the Majority world, including places where multiple non-white ethnicities conflict. Examples of the latter include Arab States’ exploitation of South Asian migrants, the Hindu-Sihk conflicts in India, the marginalization of pastoralist ethic groups in Kenya, and land reform conflicts in Zimbabwe. Many of these struggles are less straightforwardly “black and white” than those in settler colonial contexts, yet they are often still linked to colonial histories that have previously engendered major social and economic inequality and helped to perpetuate these dynamics.

Some have even termed these “neo-colonial” relations. The concentration of land ownership among colonizer family lineages remains common in once-colonized countries (for example, Hawaii or Brazil). Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) have been a mode of keeping unequal between-country trade relations unequal, reinforcing racial disparities. A prime example is how the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) caused the massive dumping of cheap corn grown in the USA and Canada into Mexico. This low-priced corn for masa factories (making the corn flour used in tortillas, a main food staple) caused economic expulsion of many Mexican campesinos from their land, as their main crop for market was no longer able to make them a living.

What’s a Mexican farmer to do without a means to a livelihood in their hometown? Besides moving to a large city like Mexico City to search for non-farm work, a main choice is to seek farm-related work in the United States. Hence, NAFTA did a good job of ensuring a continued supply of desperate, experienced non-white farm workers who are structurally less likely to fight for their rights or be able to achieve them in a judicial and legal system stacked against them based both on their racial and immigrant positions.[1]

Every country or society experiences and reproduces racial inequality and injustice differently (historical/contextual differences and “friction” makes it so). Still, the fact of racial injustice in the food system means that we cannot imagine fundamentally transforming the broken nature of the industrial capitalist food system without also undermining and overturning racist ideologies and social structures. This includes working through difficult-to-imagine processes of “decolonization”—of everything from land rights to our ways of thinking, learning, and relating. A tall order, perhaps, but to truly reverse centuries of white supremacy—and thus to right many wrongs in the food system—requires us at least to try.

[1] In the USA, federal labor law requirements for overtime pay do not include farm workers (another heavily racialized sector of workers, domestic workers, were also exempted until recently).