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Diagnosing Racial Capitalism

“I AM CONVINCED,” Martin Luther King, Jr., said in 1967, “that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” This is one of the more resounding lines from King’s corpus and one of the most frequently cited. It is often taken to capture the essence of King’s later radicalism, a sense of the political commitment and moral urgency that he ascribed to a second, more “substantive” phase of his life’s work: to organize an assault on the “evil triplets,” the racism, violence, and cycles of impoverishment that, like a kind of organic compound, had conspired to give life force to the only U.S. society the world had yet known.

It is no secret that King became increasingly outspoken in his dissatisfaction with capitalism, especially the ways in which racism and violence had been interwoven into the structural workings of the U.S. economy. But if, as Brandon Terry suggests, King can still help us to “radically challenge” the United States’ congenital deformities, and if, as King himself has suggested, any political prescription “rests with the accurate diagnosis of the disease,” then we might reflect a bit more on the nature, and legacy, of King’s mature critique of capitalism. How is King’s call for a “revolution of values” affected by the production and circulation of value in capitalist society?

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