This webinar was moderated by Davis Erin Anderson, Assistant Director for Programs and Partnerships at New York Metropolitan Library Council. The panelists were Emily Drabinski, Interim Chief Librarian at CUNY Graduate Center, April Hathcock, Director of Scholarly Communications & Information Policy at NYU, and Dave Ghamandi, Open Publishing Librarian at University of Virginia and Managing Editor at Aperio.

Capitalism requires inequality. Racism enshrines it. -Ruthie Gilmore

At the beginning of the conversation, April Hathcock, Dave Ghamandi, and Emily Drabinski explained how racist white supremacist culture has affected their working and personal life. Whether they are a product of this system and/or have experienced it’s disadvantages firsthand, as with everyone living in America, this system has impacted them in some way or another. What unites our panelists is a spirit and fervor to actively question and fight against it.

My approach to librarianship is rooted in a refusal to leave my people behind. When I come on campus, I’m not leaving my people off-campus. They’re coming with me.  -Dave Ghamandi

Per our panelists, one of the first steps to coming to understand our capitalistic system is defining it and recognizing that it is an economic system of production. Using an intersectional lens, we can begin to understand how capitalism shapes and influences all of society. Ghamandi describes the system in which we live as “private ownership of property that’s used to make goods and services… All of the value we create in the work day, only some of it comes back to us in the form of a wage. That difference is what gets kept by the owners and capitalist class as profit to accumulate and control over time.” Capitalism as a system aims to push political agendas by valuing the capitalist class and privatizing goods and services. It also promotes a sense of individualism while denouncing (overtly or subconsciously) any sense of community, collective action, or social solidarity.

A second layer to this is understanding that capitalism and racism are inextricably linked, especially in the United States. “Capital relies on the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few. The original act that accumulated that capital is the enslavement of African Americans by white people,” Drabinski said. Genocide committed against the Native Americans and the extraction of land is also essential to understanding the ways in which capitalism and race are inextricable. Hathcock echoes this: “[In terms of] racism, capitalism and settler colonialism, you can’t think about dismantling one without addressing the other. They rely on each other so heavily and closely.” 

“Why does capitalism need racism? With slavery, simulatneaously capitalism created an international racial heierachy that’s still entrenched centuries later. The racial hierarchy divides the working class and is based on skin color. Capitalism has to have this working class divided in order for it to survive,” Ghamandi says. He went on to explain how this keeps working class people of all ethnicities apart;  we as a society have been told a false narrative that keeps us fearful. We see this in the narrative in which working class white people are encouraged to see immigrants as threats to their livelihoods. This thinking perpetuates capitalistic systems on an international scale.

The third layer of this conversation interweaves libraries. Many libraries are (at least partially) funded by and part of a government system that is capitalist at heart. Some of the major issues brought about by  racism and capitalism within libraries include low wages, artificial salary caps (also known as market ranges), outsourcing, monopolistic vendors, and public/private partnerships. As we’ve seen during this pandemic, making big decisions such as determining which staff will be onsite and who will not is an extension of the relationship between capitalism and racism. Typically, the most precarious or low paying positions are the most at-risk and exploited. 

“There’s a built-in inequality in our workplace that is systemic and reproduced everyday. Addressing that structural economic inequality inside of our organizations would have a significant impact on redistribution of wealth,” Drabinski says. Hathcock agreed. “It comes down to the fact that capitalism is more concerned with product than people” she says. 

Anderson concluded the panel with the question we’re all wondering: what can be done within libraries to reduce the harm presented by this toxic mix of racism and capitalism? As our panelists can attest, there are no simple solutions to this question. Our panelists discussed dissolving any notions of a professional and activist divide, truth telling, asking critical questions, sharing histories and inviting others to do the same, developing a new vocabulary to fight these systems, nurturing solidarity, continuing to have important conversations, understanding when you have to grapple with things, and organizing together. It’s up to us to implement the change we want to see, even if that includes a shift in perspective and mindset or the small things we can do in our daily lives. 

We thank our panelists for their time, wisdom and insight. Here are a few reading suggestions made by our panelists and attendees.

Reading List

Black Marxism by Cedric J. Robinson

Settler Colonialism, Race and The Law: Why Structural Racism Persists by Natsu Taylor Saito

Whiteness as Property by Cheryl I. Harris

Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe by Antony Loewenstein

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein  

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