Plantation Capitalism in Louisville, Kentucky
Updated: Jun 22
The plantation has always occupied a central place in US iconography. In recent decades it has been described as a dead, yet still romanticized, aberration killed off by the inevitable march of human progress. Although the plantation tradition has been relegated to the dustbin of history by some social theorists, it continues to survive among those who celebrate its brutal legacy. It is also painfully alive among those still dominated by the economic and political dynasties of the South which preserved and reproduced themselves through diversification and through the numerous new mobilizations.” – Clyde Woods, Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta
The Root Cause Research Center stands with Black Lives Matter Louisville (BLML). We demand justice for Breonna Taylor and David McAtee, both of whom lost their lives to police violence in Louisville during the coronavirus pandemic. We give our unflinching support to BLML and ask that journalists and city leaders amplify their demands, which are listed at the end of this blog post. Furthermore, in response to the many national journalists who have reached out to us for comments, we hope this piece (along with our blog series) provides a material analysis and some historical context around what is happening in Louisville.
Louisville, Kentucky is one of many cities throughout the South that still celebrates the brutal legacy of plantation culture. From an economy dominated by the plantation dynasties of bourbon, horse racing and tobacco, to the centering of bourbon whiskey as a culturally significant economic development engine and tourist attraction. Even the city’s flagship event, the Kentucky Derby, contains elements of a memorial pageant to antebellum plantation regimes and their culture. We understand the concept of plantation capitalism to be a subset of racial capitalism that is unique to the South. We define plantation capitalism as a social and economic management system in Southern cities where the descendants of planter families maintain political and economic dynasties largely by keeping Black workers in extreme poverty, landless, and without political power through extractive policies and police terrorism. The Russell neighborhood in Louisville is currently experiencing massive investment through public and private funding. Our earlier blog posts explored what it means to invest public money in market rate housing in a predominantly Black neighborhood with an annual median household income of $15,000, where 80% of the households are renters and cannot afford the market rate housing being produced. We want to further document the historical and material forces of plantation dynasties that drive racial capitalism to create dispossession for Black residents and the roles of various actors such as government, philanthropy, the nonprofit industrial complex and the police in that process.
The first truth that we want to lift up is that police departments exist to defend private property. Citizenship in the United States means propertied citizenship. Those without property do not experience the same rights as citizens as those who own property (see zoning laws). "Spatial Illegalization" is the process of criminalizing and policing the rights (particularly the personal property rights) of citizens who are under threat of displacement and banishment. The processes of racial banishment and spatial illegalization ensure the denial of rights for those citizens. Black people make up 91% of the Russell neighborhood in Louisville, but our recent study on land ownership showed that only 18% of the land is owned by Russell residents. Since Black people have been denied land ownership through a legacy of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and racial capitalism, they have been denied basic rights as citizens, which puts Black people under constant threat of being murdered by the police with no mechanism for accountability or justice. As scholar Ananya Roy put it, "Displacement is where you have somewhere else to go. Banishment is where you have nowhere else to go... except jail or death."
Nancy Leong defines racial capitalism as “the process of deriving social and economic value from the racial identity of another person” (Leong, 2013). In the seminal book Black Marxism, Cedric Robinson said that “racial ideologies shape every aspect of capitalism” (Robinson, 1983). Robinson’s work is useful for understanding the concept of plantation capitalism since Robinson argued that social constructs about race predate the evolution of capitalist industrial development. As Robin Kelley writes, “Capitalism and racism, in other words, did not break from the old order but rather evolved from it to produce a modern system of racial capitalism dependent on slavery, violence and genocide” (Kelley, 2017). Our theory of plantation capitalism rests on this concept; that the present economies in the South did not break from the order of the plantation, but rather diversified through new economic mobilizations that employ various social management techniques of subjugation and extraction that have roots in plantation ideology and tradition. Plantation capitalism, then, is a subset of racial capitalism that is unique to the South where political power and wealth are hyper-concentrated among a few plantation dynasties (families) who employ mechanisms of hard and soft power to manufacture extreme poverty and deny Black people full rights as citizens.
The History of Enclosure in Russell
Following the Civil War, many high-ranking Confederate officers fled the Union occupied-South and migrated to Louisville, KY, where they formed a “Confederate Supremacy” and positioned themselves as the city’s elite political class. As historian George C. Wright notes, “Nearly all of Louisville’s journalists, lawyers, realtors, and merchants were former rebels.” These former Confederates quickly established a system of control that reproduced plantation management techniques in the industrial economy of the “New South.” In this setting, Black people would be allowed a certain level of paternalistic freedom in areas such as arts and culture while being completely denied political power and citizenship rights through land ownership. As Wright notes, “These white leaders did not fear Blacks because they remembered Blacks as being loyal and passive slaves. They were convinced that once they made the rules of their new order known the Blacks would do as commanded” (Wright, 1985).
The Russell neighborhood in Louisville, KY was the destination for Black settlement in the late 1800s. Between the years 1880 and 1920, roughly 30,000 Black people moved to Louisville from the rural south, and many of them found a home in Russell. By the 1930s, Russell became the epicenter of Black cultural and economic achievement in Louisville. The neighborhood was home to Louisville’s Black middle class as well as the Black business district that existed along Walnut Street (now Muhammad Ali Boulevard)(Hudson, et al, 2011).
In 1932, as part of the city’s first Comprehensive Plan, Louisville real estate interests commissioned famed city planner Harlan Bartholomew to complete a study of what they called, "The Negro Housing Problem in Louisville," where he concluded that: “There are a number of obstacles that are fundamental to any scheme for improving housing conditions among Negroes. [These include] A lack of desire among a large portion of the population for something better than they are accustomed to...If it were possible to create among the Negro masses a real desire for decent accommodations, the slums would automatically eliminate themselves.” As part of the report, Bartholomew recommended that large sections of the Black business district in Russell be demolished and be replaced with an institutional housing design (Bartholomew, 1932). A year after this document was published, the city began the process of demolishing parts of the Russell neighborhood to facilitate construction of the Beecher Terrace public housing complex.
In Louisville’s 1938 Residential Securities Maps, produced by the Federal Government in partnership with local real estate and banking interests, the eastern section of Russell was characterized as the “worst area of the city,” with a “low type property and inhabitants (Poe, 2015). In 1951 the City of Louisville released a study titled: Public Services and Blighted Areas – A Study of Two Areas in Louisville, KY, which found that, even though over 60% of the housing in this area was not dilapidated enough to justify demolition, the social status of the residents would form the justificationfor complete demolition of large sections of the neighborhood (Louisville Planning Commission, 1951). These social characteristics were largely based on interviews with the police department and centered around the idea that the area was a negative externality for municipal budgets due to the high rates of crime and poor public health. This study was later used as the fundamental evidence for the wholesale destruction of the entire eastern portion of the Russell neighborhood. Thus, the determination of “blight” in urban renewal projects was based more on qualitative determinations about race and poverty from police observations than it was about the physical condition of dwellings. Former Louisville Mayor Charles Farnsley later admitted that these urban renewal projects were designed to “drive the Negro back from the central [business district],” demonstrating how urban policies of the 20th century were rooted in racial banishment and enclosure in response to Black liberation and resistance (Shands, 1975).
Plantation Capitalism as a Competitive City
According to the logic of plantation capitalism, local government has two jobs: 1) to attract as much capital to the city as possible and 2) to make sure residents (workers) are completely obedient and subservient to that capital. The subservience and obedience are maintained by media and nonprofits through perception control, optics management, and corralling dissent. Plantation capitalists craft dominant narratives that co-opt progressive language to appear beneficial but actually reproduce predatory extraction and inequality. One of the contradictions of this system is that maintaining that type of severe poverty and hyper-enclosure is a detriment in attracting outside capital to the city, particularly in the post 2008-era of renewed development in the urban core and Smart City movement.
Since wealth is hyper-concentracted in plantation capitialist regimes, investment is mostly recycled, with very little capital coming into the city from outside the region. Plantation capitalists primarily leverage taxpayer dollars to fund their projects. In the past, the city's low wages have used to attract businesses. However, in order to be competitive with booming cities like Nashville, Louisville is more and more desperate for investment from outside sources, and marketing the city to companies like Microsoft and Amazon has become an obsession for local government. Although Breonna Taylor was murdered in March, city officials and local media in Louisville did not comment on it until two months later, and only after it received national attention by being amplified by grassroots organizers. Her murder did not merit attention for the Louisville managerial class until it started to impact the city's "brand."
Over half the Black population in Louisville lives on less than five percent of the land, and the map below shows this level of enclosure. The blue areas below are census tracts with a white population of over 80% and the red areas are tracts with a Black population over 80% (ACS 2018 3- Year Esimtates, 2018). With an unprecedented increase in police surveillance and with rapid technological advancement on the horizon by way of Louisville Metro Government and Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence partnership (announced in November of 2019), there is a very real threat to the people of Louisville, as the LMPD will employ more aggressive techniques to remove Black residents from areas of investment.
Resistance as Theory of Change
Both advocacy & electoral politics have been ineffective arenas for challenging the financial and political forces of plantation capitalism. With local media, elections and nonprofits tightly controlled by plantation dynasties, residents are forced to look to local organizing efforts to confront state power. We believe that only through massive resistance, tenant organizing, and radical collective power can Black and poor communities in the South combat the massive control plantation dynasties exert over their lives.
We ask the local and national media to view the current resistance movement in Louisville through the lens of a material analysis rather than an individual or psychological lens. Meaning we ask that you focus on power dynamics, resource allocation, land development, power and wealth, rather than liberal platitudes. National journalist and Louisville native Perry Bacon provides a smart explanation of what we mean here. We also ask that you examine the state sanctioned violence that has occurred against peaceful demonstrators over the past week.
We ask that Louisville leaders condemn the state sanctioned violence against peaceful protesters. Your silence emboldens the police. Your neutrality is violent.
We know that people want to help. But either move in solidarity w/ organizers on the ground or don’t move. Good intentions will not make up for blind spots, systemic & institutionalized bias, political pressures, & band-aid solutions.
Over ALL Demands:
We demand the following:
1. Louisville Mayor, Greg Fischer, and the City Council address the use of force by Louisville Metro Police Department.
a. Police shootings are gun violence.
2. Immediately fire and revoke the pensions of the officers that murdered Breonna. Arrest, charge, and convict them for this crime. Ensure the newly requested special prosecutor, State AG Daniel Cameron, seeks full transparency and accountability.
3. All necessary information be provided to a local, independent civilian community police accountability council #CPAC.
4. The creation of policy to ensure transparent investigation processes
5. Permanent elimination of no-knocks warrants
We Demand Local Schools, Colleges, Universities and All Public Institutions Cut Ties with the Police: We demand police free schools across the country and an end to the use of police officers in public universities. All public Institutions designed to serve the people, must cut ties with the police in the interest of public safety. (Policy: Community Control)
We Demand Relief for Our Communities: We demand the federal government provide direct cash payments, rent cancellation, mortgage cancellation, a moratorium on utility and water shutoffs and a cancellation of student, medical and other forms of debt. We demand long-term economic solutions like a Universal Basic Income, in order to address the immediate crisis and pave the way for a just recovery that doesn’t prioritize corporations and leave our communities behind. (Policy: Ending War on Black People)
We Demand Economic Justice for All Our People: From Minneapolis to Louisville our people continue to be exploited by this economy from generation to generation. At this moment of economic crisis, we need to seize the opportunity to rethink the economy and move it towards one that serves the needs of people and the planet, not corporations and the wealthy. (Policy: Economic Justice)
We Demand the Rights of Protestors Be Respected: We demand that no harm come to protestors. Violations of property should never be equated with the violation of human life. We demand that local and state officials ensure that there is no abuse of powers, no use of lethal force on protestors. (Policy: Political Power)
ACS 2018 3- Year Esimtates. (2018). American Fact Finder. Retrieved from https://catalog.data.gov/dataset/american-factfinder-ii
Bacon, Perry, (2020). Racist Policies and Racist Systems, Bluegrass Beat https://bluegrassbeat.substack.com/p/racist-policies-and-racist-systems
Bartholomew, H. (1932). The Negro Housing Problem in Louisville.Louisville, KY: City Planning and Zoning Comission.
Hudson, J. B., Aubespin, M., & Clay, K. (2011). Two Centuries of Black Louisville: A Photographic History. Butler Books.
Kelley, R. (2017, January 12). What Did Cedric Robinson Mean by Racial Capitalsim? Boston Review.
Leong, N. (2013). Racial Capitalism. Harvard Law Review.
Louisville Planning Commission. (1951). Public Services and Blighted Areas.
Poe, J. (2015). Redlining Louisville: Racial Capitalism and Real Estate. Retrieved from https://www.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html
Robinson, C. (1983). Black Marxism.University of North Carolina Press.
Shands, A. (Director). (1975). Kentucky Time Capsule: In the Name of Progress [Motion Picture].
Woods, C. (1998). Development Arrested: the Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta. Verso.
Wright, G. C. (1985). Life Behind A Veil: Blacks in Louisville, Kentucky, 1865 - 1930. Louisianan State University Press.