Race and Propertization

Race and Propertization

Sonderforschungsbereich/ Transregio SFB TRR 294 „Strukturwandel des Eigentums“, bzw. vom Projekt A02 "Eigentum am eigenen und am anderen Körper in den USA vom 18. bis zum 20. Jahrhundert."
Vom - Bis
18.11.2021 - 19.11.2021
Anna Möllers / Oliver Erdmann, Philosophische Fakultät, Universität Erfurt

The conference „Race and Propertization“ took place in the Kleine Synagoge in Erfurt and was organized by the SFB TRR 294 project A02, “Property in one’s own body and in the bodies of others in the United States between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.” The members of this project, HELEN GIBSON (Erfurt), M.J. PACKO (Erfurt), JÜRGEN MARTSCHUKAT (Erfurt), and FELIX KRÄMER (Erfurt), examine the history of slavery in the United States, questioning how humans became ‘objects’ of property.

SAMIRA SPATZEK’s (Berlin) presentation was titled “On Private Property, Liberal Self-Making, and the Ruse of Solidarity in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy,” (a riff on Frank Wilderson’s the ruse of analogy), and analyzed the potential for solidarity between the women on the Vaark farm in A Mercy (2008). Spatzek engaged the novel’s focus on slavery, racism and female companionship by asking how the institution of private property and the practice of liberal self-making take shape in the emerging identity of the novel’s protagonist, Rebekka, a white enslaver. The presentation focused on the relationship between Rebekka and Lina, an Indigenous woman who managed to survive as the only individual from her tribe and who works on the farm in a slave-like capacity. Rebekka, who inherits the farm after her husband’s death, is not capable of maintaining the friendship with Lina after she becomes the owner of the farm. Spatzek argued that Rebekka is a “mistress in the making” who ultimately fails to maintain her solidarity with the other women on the farm, including Lina, whose friendship initially allowed Rebekka to escape isolation. In the discussion following Spatzek’s presentation, participants discussed the relevance of the critical framework of Afropessimism for the conference’s trajectory.

CAMERON SEGLIAS (Berlin) shared part of his dissertation project, “Settling Debt: Antislavery and Colonial Crisis, 1676-1776”. Seglias presented a chapter draft entitled “Benjamin Lay’s Settler Commonwealth.” This chapter discusses the concept of anti-slavery practices in Lay’s 1738 work All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. Seglias argued that it is key to view Lay as an ambivalent person who rejected the idea of racial slavery but tried to legitimize forced labor as penalty. Methodologically, Seglias made use of Foucault’s concept of counter-conduct and analyzed how the antislavery program of Lay and other abolitionists in his era perpetuated the expropriation of Indigenous people. Furthermore, he argued that the colonial and capitalistic frame of Lay’s abolitionist perspective perpetuates oppressive mechanisms. Seglias’ chapter was discussed with the plenum after a short interview with M.J. PACKO. The discussion focused on practices of punishment in the eighteenth-century U.S. and the Foucauldian concept of counter-conduct.

The last presentation that day was the keynote by MIA BAY (Pennsylvania), who spoke on “Moving Property: Race on the Road in the Automotive Age.” In her most recent book, Traveling Black – A Story of Race and Resistance (2021), she examines how racist structures in the twentieth century related to different means and experiences of transportation. Police violence against Black motorists and the murder of Black pedestrians and drivers is an ongoing and relevant subject, but not a new phenomenon. Bay argued that the long history of violence against Black motorists emerged at (and before) the beginning of the automotive age and continues to affect the mobility of Black Americans and People of Color in the United States. She further demonstrated how the concept of whiteness was tied to the automobile industry through brand images, structurally racist corporate policies, and advertisements. Bay argued that mobility is a central component of the American way of life and an identity marker that is not available to many American citizens because of racist structures in all modes of transportation. This becomes most apparent, Bay argued, in moments of crisis. 2005’s Hurricane Katrina with its subsequent floods, for example, led to evacuations that were especially devastating for Black residents of New Orleans due to their limited access to mobility. Moreover, Bay spoke about the experience of Black motorists today as characterized by fear, precariousness and violence. The subsequent discussion explored the car as “chattel property” and policing and criminalization as modes of transforming (Black) bodies into property.

The first panel on Friday morning broadened the topics analyzed by Mia Bay. HELEN GIBSON (Erfurt) gave a talk based on a chapter of her recently defended dissertation, “Joyriding across the Color Line: Automotivity and Citizenship in the United States, 1895 to 1939,” which examines the relationship between racism and mobility. In her presentation, Gibson focused on the advent of the practice of “redlining” in automotive insurance issuance in the 1930s. An important subject within this discourse is the assumed link between blackness and infamy, through which Black drivers were arrested and charged following accidents regardless of a lack of fault. Gibson showed how the practice of “redlining” excluded Black people from accessing mandatory automobile insurance and how employees of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) tried to help Black motorists with the long and difficult process of obtaining automobile insurance. The term “redlining” refers to the common practice of marking the territories on a map where many Black people lived and depicting them explicitly as areas of risk rather than of mutuality. The systematic exclusion of Black people from automotive insurance had many consequences: without proper access to a car or other safe means of transportation, it was difficult for many Black persons or People of Color to sustain their livelihoods. Black drivers were rendered fugitives without legal access to insurance. The plenum discussed Gibson’s reading of redlining as a form of what Calvin Warren terms ontological terror, and her conceptualization of joyriding as what Fred Moten calls a paraontological glimpse of freedom, as well as the NAACP’s advocacy of the freedom to consume as a form of undercommons sociality.

The second presentation that day was held by SIMONE KNEWITZ (Bonn). She spoke about one chapter of her recently published book The Politics of Private Property: Contested Claims to Ownership in U.S. Cultural Discourse (2021), which analyzes property debates in the U.S. and how these contribute to the perpetuation of economic and social structures of exclusion. Knewitz showed how the Black Power movement in the 1960s became conflated with Black capitalism. She explained how Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential election campaign appropriated the term “black capitalism” and equated it with “black pride.” In narrating part of the history of the Black Panther Party, Knewitz showed how aspects of the Black Power movement were coopted by structures of white, hegemonic capitalism that had been the objects of the movement’s critique. Knewitz argued that Floyd McKissick, who was the leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) from 1966 until 1968, illustrates some of the continuities between Black radical activism and conservatism. The presentation stressed the shift towards a partial embrace of capitalism that the Black Power movement underwent as a reaction to the mounting economic pressure and the force of capitalist structures in the 1970s. The plenum’s discussion honed in on debt in the face of continuous propertization, on the significance of gender, and on the potential for the revival of Black economic projects such as “Soul City” as a response to the ecological crisis.

The last panel on Friday and the closure of the conference was a talk by M.J. PACKO (Erfurt). In her presentation, Packo discussed contemporary discussions over reparations for the legacy of slavery in the United States. Despite the formal abolition of slavery in 1865, she argued, the racist and repressive structures in the United States developed in the context of slavery have remained in many ways the same. These continuities that are still evident today are the reason why we need to discuss the possibility of meaningful reparations. Packo spoke about the necessity to comprehend reparations in a broader way: reparations in form of money are valid and needed, but not enough. In line with writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and William A. Darity, she argued that in addition to financial reparations for the descendants of the enslaved, there must be systemic reform of the economic and social structures of racial capitalism and practices of propertization. However, she pointed out that contemporary reparations scholars rarely give enough relevance to the role of civil society in shaping redress, especially in preserving collective memory. Packo came full circle to Spatzek’s presentation in positing the impossibility of analogy between Black American and other subject positions. The final discussion explored the significance of positionality in discussions of reparations and redress and the viability of jubilees as a form of resolving debt. The shape of potential redress for colonialism and climate change was also considered.

The conference showed many different aspects of “Race and Propertization” and has drawn attention to the fact that it is a current topic that elucidates many under-examined aspects of propertization. With her last input, M.J. Packo addressed reparations as a complicated but concrete form of redress that may provide a viable means of addressing continuous racial propertization.

Conference Overview:

Samira Spatzek (John F. Kennedy Institute, FU Berlin): On Private Property, Liberal Self-Making, and the Ruse of Solidarity in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy.

Cameron Seglias (John F. Kennedy Institute, FU Berlin): Benjamin Lay’s Settler Commonwealth.

Mia Bay (University Pennsylvania): Moving Property: Race on the Road in the Automotive Age.

Helen Gibson (SFB TRR 294, University Erfurt): Fugitive Driving: Redlining in Mandatory Auto Insurance Issuance.

Simone Knewitz (University Bonn) - Black Power, Black Capitalism? Debates on Property Regimes in the 1960s.

Moana Jean Packo (SFB TRR 294; University Erfurt) - Thinking Redress and Reparations beyond the Nation State

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