Capitalism & Racism: The Diseases of Western Civilization

Bessel van der Kolk wrote a book called, The Body Keeps the Score. Resmaa Menakem wrote a book called My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies. Alicia Galvez wrote a book called Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico. One thing that these books have in common is an argument about how social conditions shape our embodiment: the traumas of our social lives, of our social conditions, of our society, can be explored through our blood pressure, our auto-immune diseases, our emotions.

Michael Pollan (though rightfully critiqued for a focus on the “right” kind of body) made the case that heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, to name a few, are the “diseases of Western civilization.” By making this claim, he was arguing that what happens to/in the body isn’t specific to humanity in general, but to humanity in a particular time and place. That said, his argument still places disease in the body.

I’d like to shift the focus sociologically. Society is an organized collective bound by a particular time (history) and a particular place (geography). Thus, as sociologists study society and the people in those societies, what we are really exploring is how we are organized and how context shapes the particular way a particular place is organized. This is why we focus on social institutions, and how those institutions shape the lives of the people who live inside of them. Thus, if there is a social problem, we situate the problem within the system of social organization, within social institutions.

So, here’s the shift: the “diseases of Western civilization” aren’t diseases of the body, but diseases of social organization, of which our bodies suffer the consequences. To heal these diseases, we can’t just heal our bodies (though we absolutely should do that), we have to heal our social institutions.

It is now understood that the 1918 Flu pandemic was most impactful in the places that were slow to institute preventative measures (e.g. shutting down schools, social distancing, mask wearing); which is to say, the localities that recorded greater human losses were the same localities that hadn’t implemented pandemic protocols soon enough (Lewis, 2021). There has been reporting recently, in regards to the COVID pandemic, that highlights how politics are shaping vaccination rates, and thus, the loss of life: “red” counties are losing more of their loved ones to COVID than “blue” counties. This is partially about personal choice, but it isn’t only about personal choice: vaccine mandates, vaccine access, and vaccine information are all informed by the social institutions that shape our lives. Thus, if our local government officials, our employers, our personalized algorithmic social media feeds and our television news anchors are telling us to be hesitant of vaccines (in varying ways), then that institutional context shapes the kinds of personal choices we (think of to) make.

When talking about food and health, Laura Minkoff-Zern warns against an educate-the-individual approach. Why? Because most of us already know that broccoli is better for us than ice cream, but some of us live in food deserts and/or food swamps and thus, have more access to ice cream than broccoli. Never mind the costs of organic fruits and vegetables. As Minkoff-Zern points out, social class shapes our access to resources and two of the key resources needed for “healthy eating” are money and time. Thus, increasing nutritional education for individuals to “make better food choices” isn’t going to impact what we really need: more money and more time. In the same way, leaving it up to the individuals to make their own choices around COVID isn’t going to save lives; governmental and employer backed vaccine mandates and mask policies, informed by evidence-based research and reporting will.

As we learn more about the climate crisis, and the environmental racism that is embedded in the climate crisis, we’ve explored how the “treadmill of production’’ and the “treadmill of destruction” (Hooks and Smith) are key aspects of our social structure that facilitate these harms. As Hooks and Smith explain it:

“The treadmill of production identifies an “economic growth coalition” including business, labor, and government. This coalition promotes economic expansion that results in undesirable environmental outcomes: natural resource withdrawals and waste additions” (p. 559).

So while asthma is a disease of the body, it is also a disease of both capitalism and racism. The need for perpetual growth in profit comes at the expense of our bodies, as the treadmill of production increases each of the 5 stages of the materials economy, and thus perpetually increases our exposures to toxins. This in turn shapes the conditions in which we live and work — itself shaped by the history of racist housing policy (Coates) — exposing some of us to greater harms than others. In the United States, racism has been one of the primary tools of organizing this particular capitalist outcome.

Asthma is one of the pre-existing conditions that increases a person’s risk in relation to COVID-19; couple that with working conditions, such as those of the farm workers that Yvonne Yen Lui wrote about, and that means how the U.S. organizes — producing inequalities of race and class — is a central aspect of the “disease” of COVID.

Let me clarify the sociological shift: COVID and high blood pressure aren’t the “diseases of Western civilization” (Pollan). Rather, capitalism — and in particular the treadmill of production — and racism are the diseases. Which is to say, as sociologists, our focus isn’t to look for embodied origins but social origins.

Can any one factor explain everything? No. Does the body matter in shaping our experiences with illness. Yes. Can we look only to the body to understand health and illness? No.

We must also explore social conditions, social policy, and social practices. As Julie Guthman writes, we need to

“pay attention to the role of corporate behavior, state regulation, and the political economy more generally in producing or allowing pollution, degraded food, and problematic built environments, irrespective of the ‘choices’ people make” (p.9).

Making this shift — away from the individual and towards the institutional — is a key component of developing a “sociological imagination,” as it pushes us away from the realm of “personal troubles” and takes us deeper into our understanding of how the personal is shaped by the orbit of “public issues” (Mills, 1959).

Now that I have delved into the sociological explanations, let me conclude here with a reminder — taking care of yourself, healing yourself, is a personal as well as a sociological (and thus political) action. Either way, you deserve it.

Take good care of yourselves, and each other.

Dr. Monica




I am a Sociology teacher at a Community College, writing these posts for my students, for my sanity, for anyone willing to think towards something better.

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Monica Edwards, PhD

Monica Edwards, PhD

I am a Sociology teacher at a Community College, writing these posts for my students, for my sanity, for anyone willing to think towards something better.

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