Marxist Exploitation Theory and Racial Inequality

Marxist exploitation theory is one which seeks to explain how people are mistreated within the production process and how workplace inequalities come to exist (Dymski, 1997). Ultimately, the goal of the theory is to not only point out the injustices which are taking place, but to also offer possible solutions for societal change. It claims that the differences in social hierarchies impact the economic status of businesses. Gary Dymski (1997), however, claims that Marxist exploitation theory is flawed because it does not consider racial differences or recognize workplace discrimination.

Before getting into the approaches within exploitation theory, Dymski (1997) defines the several types of discrimination that exist within the labor force. Price discrimination recognizes that there is a higher probability of minority workers being paid less than their white counterparts (Dymski, 1997). Application discrimination says that minority workers are less likely to be hired because of previous prejudices on their work ethic ability (Dymski, 1997). Lastly, performance distribution explains that once hired, minority workers are more likely than white workers to be fired or suspected of slacking on the job (Dymski, 1997).

The first method of analyzing exploitation is production-relations theory. This approach looks at the construction of social affinities through the lens of production and how the process of exchange influences relationships (Dymski, 1997). However, this work is problematic as it does not even begin to consider that there are several types of discrimination. It makes the assumption that workplace relations occur specifically between white workers and white bosses.  There have always been minorities within the work force, even if in the past they were not considered to be as vital or significant as other white laborers. To eliminate them from any discussion of social relations erases them from the history of the work force entirely, and casts aside the economic implications of the relationship between diverse workers and white bosses.

With this mislead thinking as the basis of understanding relations between workers and bosses it’s no wonder that minority workers often go unrecognized. People always praise the founding fathers for having constructed the legal and political basis of our society. But how often do you hear of the slaves who were forced to work in the construction of major buildings, including the White House? There have always been minority workers, even if they haven’t been recognized for their labors.

Figure 1 People often forget that Africans brought to America were involved in the construction of many of our
Nation’s iconic buildings, like the White House

Today, an example of a large minority labor force are the immigrants who come to America that, legal or not, find work in this country doing jobs such as harvesting and farming. They are treated terribly by their bosses and receive meager wagers for their hours spent doing hard, taxing labor. In the past there have been instances where migrant workers have gotten fed up with the horrible treatment from their bosses and have fought for better rights and protections.

Such was the case with the Delano Grape Strike and Boycott. “On September 8, 1965, Filipino American grape workers, members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, walked out on strike against Delano-area table and wine grape growers protesting years of poor pay and conditions.” (Kim, 2017). The strike proved to be successful, and in 1970 owners of vineyards signed union contracts and agreed to pay their workers better wages (Kim, 2017). This instance serves as proof that the relationship between white bosses and minority workers can directly impact the American economy.

Figure 2 Historical instances of minority workers striking against white employers show a direct correlation between boss/worker relationships and economic outcomes

Neo-Marxist theorists further divided racial difference from economic exploitation by constructing the rational-choice theory of exploitation. John Roemer, a key Neo-Marxist theorist, claimed that discrimination within the work force was not possible because all people have “racially neutral preferences” (Dymski, 1997, p. 340). Roemer claims that racism is a “false consciousness” (Dymski, 1997, p. 340), and that once assets have been distributed equally among all communities any previously existing inequalities will no longer persist.

However, there are a multitude of possible “assets,” not just those that are materialistically conceivable. There are other potential economic assets, such as degrees in professional fields and prerequisites taken for the preparation of jobs which make some people more likely to be hired than others. And, as with most things, the individuals with more money are the only ones who can afford such beneficial assets. Minority workers need degrees and job preparation to get good jobs, but they don’t have the money to afford such assets, particularly when they have been kept in systemic under-employment and under-compensation.

Despite this, the discrimination that existed during that time persists today, operating under different guises, and continuing to impact the success of racially diverse individuals (London et al., 2003). “African American and Latino students, and students from low socioeconomic statuses are often concentrated into remedial or low-achieving classes…this form of segregation limits their opportunity for learning and advancement” (London et al., 2003, p. 131). White workers are getting a head start because they have the finances needed to pursue higher education while minority workers are left behind. Claiming that racism does not exist and does not affect the economic structure of the labor force is an inefficient and racist way of examining the underlying problem of work inequalities, since most, if not all, inequalities are born out of racial separation and bigotry.

One theorist who finally brings race into the conversation of exploitation is Darity, an American researcher and economist. His Marx-Sraffa model recognizes the imbalanced equilibrium between white and minority workers (Dymski, 1997). He recognizes that segregation, and the separation of racially diverse populations into inner city areas, greatly inhibits their ability to be granted assets and successful work positions (Dymski, 1997). “A defining aspect of racial inequality is not only unequal racial wealth, but racial housing and labor-market segregation. Because it amplifies the effects of racial domination, segregation may contribute independently to the magnitude of exploitation” (Darity, 1997, p. 343).

The geographic location of minority workers only reinforces their exploitation, because a large demand for jobs means that individuals will do anything once they’ve found work (Darity, 1997). Segregation of minorities into smaller areas results in impoverished communities and means that there is a large amount of people looking for work in locations that do not have enough jobs or opportunities to go around.

Racial discrimination impacts minority workers as early as the application process. This is what Devah Pager and David Pedulla (2015) found in their article, “Race, Self-Selection, and the Job Search Process.” They wanted to know whether minority workers specifically selected job applications in which they would be most likely to avoid discrimination (Pager & Pedulla, 2015). They expected that black workers would be targeting specific jobs to apply for, but the results they got were entirely different (Pager and Pedulla, 2015). Instead, black workers are applying to a larger array of job types and in much larger quantities than white workers (Pager and Pedulla, 2015). Pager and Pedulla (2015) add, “we show that perceptions of discrimination are associated with increased search breadth, suggesting that broad search among African-Americans represents an adaptation to labor market discrimination” (Pager & Pedulla, 2015, p. 1005).

Figure 3 Minority workers are often segregated to busy cities where there is over-population and major competition for employment

The findings of these scholars exemplify the idea that minority laborers have to work harder than white laborers to find employment. They’re applying to a multitude of jobs in a wide range of positions in the hopes that they’ll receive a response from someone. This is likely due to discrimination they received during applications in the past, or as a result from what they’ve heard from friends and family. However, casting such a wide net to grasp at job opportunities can also be a hindrance, as employers may discriminate against those who have submitted an array of job applications to different locations (Pager and Pedula, 2015).

Marx’s idea of base and superstructure identifies the two different sides of production which influence and impact one another. The base is made up of the workers and owners, and identifies the amount of effort they put in. The superstructure represents the products of their labors, like culture, religion, politics, and society. When examining the unequal relationship between workers and their bosses, Marx only recognizes the “agents’ utility maximizing behavior” (Dymski, 1997, p. 336), which is broken into three parts: selling labor to others, buying the labor of other individuals, and working for the self (Dymski, 1997). This is a very general understanding, however, of the relationship between workers and employers, as it does not mention the impact of racial inequality and discrimination.

Though several methods of analyzing exploitation have been attempted, like the production-relations theory and the rational choice theory, they have failed to recognize that micro and macro prejudices in the work place impact the overall economics of the production industry. Marx’s exploitation theory, therefore, provides a useful jumping off point for discussing workplace inequalities as long as it is expanded to include racial biases to accurately represent the reality of the production and exchange industry.


Dymski, G. A. (1997). Racial Inequality and Capitalist Exploitation. In K. Neilson, K. & R. Ware (Eds)., Exploitation (335-347). New Jersey: Humanities Press.

Kim, I. (2017, March). The 1965-1970 Delano Grape Strike and Boycott. Retrieved from United Farm Workers website:

London, B., Ahlqvist, Sheana., Gonzalez, Angel., Glanton, K. V., Thompson, GA. (2014). The social and educational consequences of identity-based rejection. Social Issues and Policy, 8(1), 131-166.

Pager, D., & Pedulla, D.S. (2015) Race, self-selection, and the job search process. American Journal of Sociology, 120(4), 1005-1054.

Image Attribution: “The White House Washington DC” by dog97209 is licensed under CC BNC-ND 2.0 

Image Attribution: “WorkersStrike-4” by is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

Image Attribution: “New Montgomery St.” by caryelizabeth is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Written by Emily Kreider, 2019

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