Skip to content

A Process, not an ontology; a structure, not an event: Race, coloniality and property

‘Race, it cannot be stressed strongly enough, is a process, not an ontology, its varying modalities so many dialectical symptoms of the ever-shifting hegemonic balance between those with a will to colonize and those with a will to be free, severally racialised in relation to each other. Race registers the state of colonial hostilities. The common factor is whiteness’ (Wolfe 2016)

‘Settler colonizers come to stay. Invasion is a structure, not an event’ (Wolfe 2006: 338)

In her short paper, ‘”A Structure Not an Event”: Settler Colonialism and Enduring Indigeneity’, J. Kēhaulani Kauanui (2016) makes the point that Patrick Wolfe‘s work has often been reduced to the phrase, ‘Invasion is a Structure not an Event’, without much attempt to think deeply about its many meanings and implications. She cites a comment by Alyosha Goldstein who she paraphrases as saying that, ‘…when these refrains become extracted and circulated; they foreclose or bracket other formations – such as franchise colonialism and slavery – in ways that may sidestep how they are not only entangled but also are constituted’ (Kauanui 2016). She notes that this failure to see the entanglement of systems is added to by a second, allied, problem whereby a ‘binary of the settler and native’ is produced (ibid.). This has the additional implication, noted by Robert Warrior, that settler colonial studies comes to be seen in some circles as ‘an answer to the chronic need for more attention to be paid to and awareness of Native and Indigenous Studies.’ In a footnote, Kauanui notes the growing attention to this problem by scholars such as Rafeef Ziadah and Brenna Bhandar in relation to research on Palestine. In my view, and perhaps particularly in Australia, this problem is related to the tension between critical race and whiteness studies wherein the cementing of the two (not least in the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association which I currently lead) can sometimes lead to an elevation of a focus on whiteness and, in Australia the settler condition, over the enduring effects of race as theorized on the basis of Aboriginal experience and/or that of the racialised more broadly.

What the focus on settler colonialism over what Kauanui calls ‘enduring Indigeneity’ produces is an unhelpful reduction of Indigeneity to race based on a common misunderstanding of race as a completed project; as of the past. In the case of Native peoples, as  Kauanui notes, the idea of ‘dispossession’ as a fundamental outcome of racial domination in the Americas, can allow the idea that it is a ‘done deal’ to be cemented. This is also fundamental to the idea of ‘firsting and lasting’ that Jean O’Brien introduces in her book on how Native Americans have been written out of history. Wolfe’s proposal that invasion, and more generally the race project, is a structure that requires years and multiple techniques, processes and ideological formations to become embedded, challenges the idea that it is of the past. However, Kauanui cautions that the focus on the dogged work done by race as ‘a trace of history’, as Wolfe puts it, if not examined carefully and fully taken on board, runs the risk of being interpreted as having successfully eliminated Indigenous peoples and cultures.

Grandmothers Against Removals
Grandmothers Against Removals

In reality, as Wolfe himself makes abundantly clear, race ‘is an ongoing, ever shifting contest’ (Wolfe 2016). As such it needs to be constantly remade. By focusing on variegated processes of racialisation in  different locations – Australia, the US, Palestine and Brazil – Wolfe insists that it would be wrong to see race as a ‘discursive monolith’ and that, rather, it has very specific modalities in different places and times. In relation to Indigenous peoples, race is a project of replacement and elimination which was ultimately about the wresting of land away from its original inhabitants for the purposes of wealth creation for Europeans. In order to achieve this, European invaders had to construct Indigenous peoples as ‘maximally soluble, encouraging their disappearance into the settler mainstream’ (ibid.). We can see this logic at work to this day as Aboriginal people are simultaneously reprimanded  for being insufficiently Australian, unable ultimately to ever fully embody the ‘values’ of the nation, and imperfectly Indigenous – too assimilated to be recognized as culturally distinct. Wolfe’s historical account of how assimilation works in practice, principally through the theft of Aboriginal children from their parents – which is an ongoing practice – demonstrates how the very purpose was to cast Indigenous people and nationhood  as inherently unstable, as always intrinsically susceptible to take-over. But, he makes sure to insist,

‘the fact that settler discourse constructs Indigenous people as racially fragile does not mean that Indigeneity itself is fragile, as if the elimination of Indigenous people is an insubstantial matter compared to the exclusion of groups whose alterities are deemed immutable’ (ibid.)

The tension between framing the discussion around ‘enduring Indigeneity’ and centering a critique of race in writing on colonialism and Indigeneity is of great interest to me. What Patrick Wolfe brings to the table, due to his carefully historicised reading of race in different contexts, is to shed light on how race works ‘in whole and in part’, as he entitled his chapter on ‘The Racialisation of Indigenous People in Australia’.  In other words, by considering the different unfoldings of what he rightly calls ‘regimes’ of race in different places, we get insight both into the micro level workings of these regimes and into their globalizing logic. Wolfe’s opening argument is that tracing race through history, from its inception to its continuing operations, demonstrates the ways in which ‘colonized populations continue to be racialised in specific ways that mark out and reproduce the unequal relationships into which Europeans have coopted these populations’ (ibid. 2). The idea of race as a trace of history also speaks to my abiding concern that race be placed at the heart of our thought on the evolution of political, economic and social systems in modernity in general, rather than being thought of, as it usually is, as a side issue, a special interest topic.

One of the main differences between various forms of racialisation that Wolfe wants to draw out is the ways in which First Nations and Black people were racialised in the Americas. This is also a significant feature of Cheryl Harris‘ discussion of race in her seminal essay, ‘Whiteness As Property‘ which I discuss further below. As Wolfe puts its, in relation to how white people viewed enslaved Black and colonized Native peoples in North America, ‘the two societies, Native and enslaved, were of antithetical but complementary value to white society. Whereas Black people were valuable commodities, Indians obstructed the expansion of settlement’ (Wolfe 2016: 3). Tuck and Yang (2012) express this difference by emphasizing the ultimate importance of the possession of land as the aim of the racial-colonial project. The racialisation of Indigenous peoples proceeds by casting them as standing ‘in the way’ of that aim. In absolute contradistinction to Indigenous relationships to land which ‘comprise our/their epistemologies, ontologies, and cosmologies,’ ‘Indigenous peoples must be erased, must be made into ghosts’ in order to facilitate white recasting of land as property (Tuck and Yang 2012: 6). And, as Aileen Moreton-Robinson shows in her discussion of the gendered performance of the ‘colonial subject’ as a ‘body that matters on the beach’ (Moreton-Robinson 2015), in stark opposition to the image of white men – ‘the embodiment of universal humanness and national identity,’

Our Aboriginals. 6 May 1925. Cairns Post (Qld. : 1909 - 1954), p.4.
Our Aboriginals. 6 May 1925. Cairns Post (Qld: 1909 – 1954), p. 4.

‘the Indigenous body was represented as being terminal. The common phrase at the time to describe the containment of removal was as a benevolent act of “smoothing the dying pillow”.’

As Wolfe points out, it is not accidental that ‘the two most durable names that have been applied to the two colonized populations, Black (or Negro) and Indian, refer to a bodily characteristic and a territorial designation respectively’ (Wolfe 2016: 4). While Indigenous people were in the way of the coveted land, and thus had to be eliminated through a variety of tactics including being blended into and ultimately lost among the white population through forced assimilation, enslaved Black people could never be amalgamated: ‘miscegenation’ could never affect an enslaved person’s destiny, not only to be a slave him/herself, but to reproduce future slaves. As Wolfe puts it bluntly, ‘the founding logic of this calculus is brutally obvious: it maximized the reproduction of slaves’ (ibid.). This is the point being made also by Cheryl Harris (1993) and taken up by several scholars, such as for example Alys Weinbaum, who tightly girds race as property to reproduction. The maternal body becomes the literal site where race is reproduced: someone born to an enslaved woman automatically becomes enslaved themselves (Weinbaum 2004). Hence, unlike in the case of the Indigenous peoples who had to be ushered out to clear the land, the Black body has to be continually reproduced to ensure a constant, intergenerational supply of bodies for labour.

Slave ships traversing the Middle Passage
Slave ships traversing the Middle Passage

Crucially, this continues after the formal end of slavery because whiteness is successfully tied to owning property, while Blackness is equated with being property. As Harris notes, slavery in the United States fuses together race and economic domination, but contrary to the commonsense view, it was not that race was already cemented in the early colonial US context. Indeed, ‘racial lines were neither consistently nor sharply delineated among or within all social groups’ (Harris 1993: 1716). Africans who were brought by force on the ships of the brutal Middle Passage were obviously understood as different to ‘the population of indentured or bond servants – “unfree” white labour’ (such as the Irish), but all Africans were not automatically identified as enslaved, with this being understood as their only destiny. This comes later. The cementing of the link between African people and slavery as natural destiny comes only once white indentured workers have the terms of their service reduced and there is a consequent need for more labour force to power the growing economy: ‘simultaneously, the demand for labour intensified, resulting in a greater reliance on African labour and a rapid increase in the number of Africans imported into the colonies’ (ibid. 1717).

What Harris explains brilliantly is not only how African people came to be racialised as enslaved, but how whiteness as an identity evolves as a result. This is crucial given that, save whiteness studies, there is very little attention paid to how whiteness as the dominant racial category comes into being. Because whiteness is construed as universal, as I showed in my discussion of Race and the Human, and consequently as the neutral standard bearer around which all other categorizations and consequent identifications are to be organized, there is very little thought that goes into thinking how this came to be the case. For Harris then, white identity in the United States emerges out of the ‘evolution and expansion of the system of chattel slavery’ (ibid.). This is because over time,

‘the dominant paradigm of social relations… was that, although not all Africans were slaves, virtually all slaves were not white. It was their racial otherness that came to justify the subordinated status of Blacks’ (ibid.).

Slavery Code of the District of Columbia (Illustration) American History African American History Ethics
Slavery Code of the District of Columbia

Categorisation flows on as a result. A new category of ‘Negro’ is created to justify the extant situation by which most Africans were slaves, and to distinguish them from the freedom that now only whites could be accorded. Now, ‘membership in the new social category of “Negro” became itself sufficient justification for enslaveability’ (ibid.). The next stage was for this to become written into law, which we see in the US by the 1660s with the first appearance of the ‘slave codes’. Newly enshrined in law then,

“‘Black’ racial identity marked who was subjected to enslavement; ‘white’ racial identity marked who was ‘free’” (Harris 1993: 1718).

The codes then detailed the myriad ways in which Black unfreedom was ensured and maintained. For example, ‘Blacks were not permitted to travel without permits, to own property, to assemble publicly, or to own weapons; nor were they to be educated’ (ibid.).  In her brilliant book, Dark Matters, which I wrote about here, Simone Browne discusses the various techniques used to enforce these laws. Having recourse to Frantz Fanon‘s discussion of epidermilisation as a key technique of racial rule, Browne discusses the role played by branding. Branding was used, not only to account for individuals, but as a ‘”massifying” practice that constituted a new category of subject, blackness as a salable commodity in the Western Hemisphere’ (Browne 2015: 42). Branding ties racial identity to a ‘system of exploitation’ (ibid. 94) and categorises people into groups of fit and unfit workers.

Black women were construed in terms of their fertility and, thus their ability to produce future workers to yield profitability. Browne shows that the encoding of every aspect of enslaved people’s existence, including as she exposes at length, their illumination at night under the New York ‘lantern laws’, signifies the constant need to remake race. The need to constantly submit Black people to disciplinary control exposes the intrinsic instability of the very idea of race, which purports that each ‘racial’ group coalesces around a ‘natural’ place in the world. However, were that true in actual fact, arguably there would be no need for such disciplinary violence in the form of the lash, the prison, or the constant tracking of Black life.

This fundamental instability is at the core of race. As Browne puts it, Blackness is both ‘identity and culture, history and present, signifier and signified, but never fixed’ (Browne 2015: 8). Wolfe’s careful contrasting of how race works in the various locations he examines gives this further weight. For example, while both enslaved African people in the US or the Caribbean and Aboriginal people in Australia came to be known as Black, they were differentially racialised as enslaved and Indigenous people respectively. Wolfe remarks:

‘there is nothing stable or essential to being Black, since Black people in Australia were targeted for biocultural elimination in a manner antithetical to the racial targeting of Black people in the USA… What matters, then, is not phenotypical endowment. It is  not as if social processes come to operate on a naturally present set of bodily attributes that are already given in history. Rather, racial identities are constructed in and through the very process of their enactment’ (Wolfe 2016: 5).

Yakima Reservation Boundary
Yakima Reservation Boundary

These enactments then have to be understood in terms of their functionality. Wolfe’s careful reconstruction of the chronology of racialisation of Aboriginal people in Australia demonstrates the responsiveness of race, at each turn rising to meet a new challenge placed in the way of full white ownership of the coveted land. Blood quantum, that measure that was said to quantify the degree of Indigeneity in the aim of breeding it out of existence, was ushered in at the ‘end of the US frontier’, during the ‘Dawes-era allotting of reservation land’ (Wolfe 2016). In Australia, assimilation through the the proposition of continually soluble Aboriginal ‘blood’, was first mooted after it was realized that complete annihilation of Aboriginal people themselves, and of their claim to land were impossible. As Wolfe explains, it becomes increasingly necessary for Australian settlers to ‘deal with autonomous systems of ownership that are not susceptible to forcible seizure’ (ibid.). The settler society, to establish itself, needs to begin setting up ‘a rule of law with sufficient legitimacy to secure a viable level of consent to a recently promulgated set of social norms’ in a growing and diverse society (ibid.). So Aboriginal sovereignties are ‘neutralized’, as Wolfe puts it, in the interests of settler society. It becomes increasingly less possible to simply liquidate the native population because to do so would conflict ‘with the emergent settler social order’s requirement for the manifestation of due process’ (ibid.). The more permanent tactic chosen in the Australian case, but also in Canada and the US, was to eliminate Indigeneity through forced assimilation. This, he says, ‘is a more effective antidote to Native sovereignty than simple denial’ because it had proven impossible to entirely replace Native society. The problem posed by native ownership claims is thus removed by severing people from their land by moving them onto missions and reserves far away from their original countries, physically whitening the population by forced ‘miscegenation’ and, as a rule of both, weakening knowledges of cultures and traditions to the point of near extinction in many cases.

To return to a point made at the beginning of this post, this is the real outrage of persistent settler domination in Australia, because white society assesses claims to Aboriginal legitimacy by holding them up to a standard of authenticity which colonial rule itself ruptured and destroyed. In her book, The Cunning of Recognition, Elizabeth Povinelli examines the tension between the post-White Australia introduction of multicultural policy and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights claims. Recognition of Aboriginal people under multicultural policy could not take the same form as recognising the cultures of those of migrant origin, because for the state and society to recognise Indigenous people in full would mean land rights and the actual redressing of past injustices.

As Povinelli explains, while the 1967 referendum first gave Indigenous people the right to vote, it had no meaning in practice until 1976 when the Australian federal parliament passed the Aboriginal Land Rights Act which allowed Aboriginal groups to claim vacant Crown land in the Northern Territory. Only in the early 1990s were these rights extended to the whole of Australia with the 1993 passage of the Federal Native Title Act , According to Povinelli, this act brought home the economic costs of justice and what she calls the ‘potential social costs of multiculturalism.’ It was in this context that Aboriginal people began to be  portrayed in the media as greedy, and ‘bleeding tax payers dry’ and doubts were cast on people’s Aboriginality, in particular those living in urban areas or those not seen as culturally authentic enough. In 1998, the governing Liberal party feared that the general election would be played out over race issues, and so amended the Native Title Act to restrict native title on pastoral lands and seas. The Aboriginal Affairs minister, John Herron, attacked the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission for gross misuse of funds.

The problem with inserting Aboriginal peoples into a multiculturalist framework, according to Povinelli, is that there is no simple route back to a pure, unmitigated Indigenous identity after colonization. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are ‘scarred by temporal and social differences’ that differentiate between Indigenous people themselves, living in a contemporary context, and Indigenous identity as conjured up in the nationalist imagination; untainted by over two hundred years of cultural genocide. It is quite simply the fact, as Povinelli puts it, that no Aboriginal person today can be as Aboriginal people were  before invasion because both the geographical and the social space of Aboriginality has been wiped out.  Therefore, Aboriginal people cannot live their identity outside of their current existence within the constraints of the Australian nation-state. This fact produces feelings of ambiguity among the rest of the population and questions about cultural authenticity which pit so-called ‘real’ Aboriginal people (those in rural and remote communities, and often physically more black) against ‘imposters’, who may be urban living and, at times, less phenotypically distinguishable from the white population due to the history of forced assimilation.

The newest 'Dreamliner' fleet of Qantas aircraft.
The newest ‘Dreamliner’ fleet of Qantas aircraft.

Corporate Australia too uses Aboriginal culture and art to carve out a unique Australian national identity, yet Aboriginal autonomy over artistic production, for example, is still an area that is heavily contested and readily exploited by white interests. But, in reality, Povinelli argues, most Australians know nothing about Indigenous traditions; neither do they do not know the contents of Native Title legislation. The 1976 Native Title Act defines Aboriginal traditions as

‘the body of traditions, observances, customs and beliefs of Aboriginals or of a community or group of Aboriginals, and includes those traditions, observances, customs, and beliefs as applied in relation to particular persons, sites, areas of land, things or relationships.’

To be successful in a land claim act, people have to provide evidence of the ‘degree of attachment’ to ancient lands and traditions. They also have to prove that they continue to practice Aboriginal customs, but these customs are undefined  by the law, making it extremely onerous to make a successful claim. Povinelli argues that the focus on authentic culture ignores the social conditions that most Aboriginal  and Torres Strait Islander people live in. By focusing on the ability to prove embodiment of ancient traditions, the law denies the significance of justice, retribution and reparations. Povinelli argues that the Australian public, while keen to celebrate and recognise Aboriginal culture and law in an abstract sense, does not equate this culture and law with actual Aboriginal people who fail to perfectly embody these traditions. Povinelli suggests that the Australian approach to recognition has the effect of making Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience the ‘failure of cultural identity as their own personal failure’.

Race, coloniality and property

The thread tying much of the above discussion together is the role played by capitalism in the generation of the conditions for racial formation. In saying this, we must avoid the oversimplification common on the left whereby racism, understood as an ideology, is reduced to a foil for capitalist expansion. As Robin D.G. Kelley puts it in relation to the work of Cedric Robinson on racial capitalism in Black Marxism,

‘Capitalism was “racial” not because of some conspiracy to divide workers or justify slavery and dispossession, but because racialism had already permeated Western feudal society. The first European proletarians were racial subjects (Irish, Jews, Roma or Gypsies, Slavs, etc.) and they were victims of dispossession (enclosure), colonialism, and slavery within Europe. Indeed, Robinson suggested that racialization within Europe was very much a colonial process involving invasion, settlement, expropriation, and racial hierarchy.’

In other words, as Brenna Bhandar explains in The Colonial Lives of Property, and echoing much of the discussion engaged in in earlier posts, for example on the social construction of race, it is really insufficient to merely say that race is invented. Rather, we should ask, similarly to Wolfe, what are the conditions for that invention, or, as Cedric Robinson put it, what are the ‘”coincidences of different relations of power” that might collide, interfere with or even “generate resistance”‘ (Bhandar 2018). So, what is of interest to Robinson, which Bhandar and others build on, is ‘how a racial regime is produced at a historical moment of uncertainty and flux’ (ibid.). As Bhandar puts it, also echoing Kauanui’s points about enduring indigeneity, we see how race as a form of domination works also while observing the resistance to it. Racial regimes are ‘makeshift patchworks masquerading as memory and the immutable’ (Robinson 2007, cited in Bhandar 2018), but they have a history which has to be exposed, reconstructed and understood. As Bhandar explains, Cedric Robinson’s work is so significant because he read ‘across archives’ that reveal how ‘race as produced by regimes of disciplinary power and capitalist modes of production and accumulation […] are, in turn, composed of individual acts and collective agency, rebellion and rupture, across domains of science, economy, philosophy, and culture’ (Bhandar 2018). But, throughout what Bhandar describes as the mutability and ‘mercurial’ nature of race – ever changeable – is the constancy of white supremacy as the ‘persistent factor characterizing the modern racial regime’ (ibid.).

In this fascinating lecture, Harris explores the work of Cameron Rowland, a US-based artist whose 2016 work, Disgorgement, reproduces the insurance policies that were taken out by slave masters on the lives of slaves, and provided partial payments for damage to the slave and full payment for the death of the slave.

Much work done on racial regimes in a way that sutures coloniality and Indigenous dispossession to the exploitation of African enslavement and the consequent development of racial meanings through ‘science, economy, philosophy, and culture’ has built upon Cheryl Harris’ analysis of ‘whiteness as property’ in the US context. Brenna Bhandar states that her book is indebted to and inspired by Harris, and Aileen Moreton-Robinson has laid bare the parallels between property and white possession in her work. As Moreton-Robinson argues in The White Possessive, Cheryl Harris is one of the rare scholars in what she terms ‘African American whiteness studies’ to show how white supremacy requires ‘the possession of Indigenous lands as its proprietary anchor within capitalist economies such as the United States’ (Moreton-Robinson 2015).

Brenna Bhandar argues that, ‘if the possession of land was (and remains) the ultimate objective of colonial power, then property law is the primary means of realizing this desire (Bhandar 2018). Cheryl Harris shows how the ‘origins of property rights in the United States are rooted in racial domination’ (Harris 1993: 1716). These histories are important because, as Bhandar discusses in the video below, contemporary forms of racial injustice playing out within rapidly gentrifying inner-cities for example, are testimony to the entrenchment of the idea that private property ownership has come to be defined as a virtue by which individual citizens are judged as more or less ‘useful’ members of society. This is not a new phenomenon, although it certainly intensifies under neoliberalism, as argued for example by David Goldberg in his discussion of ‘racial neoliberalism‘; rather it is is to be found at the inception of modern colonial-racial regimes, in the US, Canada and Australia. This is analyzed in great detail by Bhandar in her discussion of the ideology of improvement that determined ‘the types of use and possession of land that justified ownership’ (Bhandar 2018).

Both Bhandar and Harris are particularly focused on the operations of law in ways that may be unfamiliar to those of us, like myself, who are coming at the topic from a more culturally or sociologically informed perspective, than a legal one. Nevertheless, there are vital elements of these discussions which deserve careful engagement if we are to begin to understand the extent of the complexities of race. Harris’ work helps us to show how the very concept of property ownership is predicated on the idea of racial identity. Quite simply, who could own property and who could not was determined by where one was categorized racially; but not only that, race also determines whether one was property or could transfer property. Her main argument is that, through the dual ‘seizure of Native American land’ and the establishment of ‘slavery as a system of property’, whiteness became property (Harris 1993 1721). What does this mean?

Tribal Nations Map

The invasion and settlement of Turtle Island  (contemporary USA), was predicated on dispossessing Indigenous peoples, not only of the land itself, but of their right to the land. Similarly to Australia, where the right to own land was tethered to European notions about ideal land use (as Bhandar discusses in Chapter 2 of her book), British settlers in the US discounted Indigenous people’s right to the land, thus justifying conquest. As Bhandar explains, in ‘common law jurisdictions, use that would justify an ownership right was defined by cultivation, and cultivation was understood within then relatively narrow parameters of English agrarian capitalism’ (Bhandar 2018). So, if Indigenous people did not cultivate the land in the way settlers expected them to, maximizing its use for profit rather than pure subsistence, it was considered free for the taking. So, as Harris puts it, the original denial of Indigenous property rights embeds ‘the fact of white privilege into the very definition of property… possession  – the act necessary to lay the basis for rights in property – was defined to include only the cultural practices of whites’ (Harris 1993: 1721). It is this idea, she claims, which lays the basis for ‘the idea that whiteness – that which whites alone possess – is valuable and property’ (ibid.). Indigenous claims to the land were delegitimised on the basis of their perceived failure to use the land in ways understandable to Europeans, thus paving the way for ‘only particular forms of possession – those that were characteristic of white settlement’ to be ‘recognized and legitimated’ (ibid. 1722).

M. H. Kimball portrait of Isaac White and Rosina Downs, two New Orleans slave children, c. 1863. (Library of Congress). Backstory

But, as Harris insists, it is not that Europeans just misunderstood Indigenous claims to land based on ‘(mis)informed… racist and ethnocentric themes’ (ibid. 1724). Rather, ‘the law has established and protected an actual property interest in whiteness itself’ (ibid.). She explains that the fact that whiteness is not in itself a ‘thing’ does not preclude it from being property, because the law extends beyond the tangible. But whiteness is not just what she terms, ‘a legally recognised property interest’ (ibid. 1725), its is also a form of self-identity whereby people understand themselves as possessing something of value in being white, in terms for example of personal reputation. Hence, in the United States during and after slavery, it was vital for whites not to be misrecognised as Black, and conversely, as she discusses in the opening of the essay for Blacks who could pass as white to do so in order to accrue personal value. Quite simply, under  slavery, whiteness defined one’s status as free as opposed to being a slave, an identity that was enshrined and codified, as earlier discussed, in law. As Harris writes,

‘Whiteness – the right to white identity as embraced by the law – is property if by property one means all of a person’s legal rights’ (ibid. 1726).

The consequences of this for the evolution of racial regimes, such as the United States, but also as discussed earlier in relation to Native Title claims in Australia, are to be found in the interpretation of white privileges as expectations. Although whiteness in itself is obviously unstable and its boundaries are ever expanding and contracting, as we can witness through the whitening of previously non-white populations such as the Irish and Jews, it nonetheless takes on the character of an immutable property.

Protests against school desegregation
Protests against school desegregation

So, as Harris notes, citing Margaret Radin, maintaining whiteness as ‘an object over which continued control was – and is expected’ is fundamental (ibid. 1730). It becomes imperative for whites to continually reassert their whiteness by contradistinction to Black and Native peoples in order to ensure that the life one expects to lead on the basis of being white in fact materializes. This explains so much of the reaction to contemporary discussions of ‘white privilege’ wherein white people object to the growing diversification of, for example, universities or workplaces because they have come to expect not to meet competition from those who were previously absent. White spaces were kept white on the basis of the myth that only white people were competent enough to access them, rather than because there was active discrimination that kept racialised minorities out. As a consequence, once non-white people gain access to these spaces, growing competition for jobs, university spots and so on are perceived by white people as the loss of what is rightfully theirs. What is interesting about this is that, although much of this takes the form of argumentation against affirmative action policies posited on the idea of meritocracy, according to which each individual is fairly assessed on their merits, expectations that are based on white identity are themselves anti-meritocratic. However, as Harris lays bare, it is the enshrinement of whiteness as property in law within a context in which Black people were, not only enslaved, but racially constructed as occupying their natural role, that embeds these beliefs deep into the political culture and societal psyche.

Affirmative Action is keeping me down!  by Lalo Alcaraz on JULY 2, 2015
‘Affirmative Action is keeping me down!’
by Lalo Alcaraz on JULY 2, 2015

In fact, Harris discusses the implications of whiteness as property by examining how race is re-encoded through the US courts’ ‘hostility to affirmative action’ (ibid. 1778). To be upheld by the law when challenged, for example when white students have claimed that they have been denied a university place because of the implementation of affirmative action policies, underlying inequality must be exposed. This would conflict with the ‘illusion that the original or current distribution of power, property, and resources is the result of “right” and “merit”‘ (ibid.). As Harris puts it, the reason why affirmative action has been faced with such entrenched challenge, a challenge that has been redoubled under Trump, is because it ‘undermines the property interest in whiteness’ (ibid. 1779). It is not merely that affirmative action policies seek to include more of those who have been traditionally excluded from whiteness as a property transferred over generations ands accruing in an unequal society, but that they have the ability to equalize ‘treatment among the groups that have been illegitimately privileged or unfairly subordinated by racial stratification’ (ibid. 1780). In other words, in the quest of equality, affirmative action must not only bring racialised minorities ‘up’, but bring whites, who have gained privileges on the sole basis of their whiteness, ‘down’. Obviously, Harris includes the proviso that other factors, such as class (and I would add gender) would also have to be taken into account in such fictional equalizing measures, but she argues, the true function of affirmative action if actually implemented to the full extent of its logic, would be to expose ‘the critical core of whiteness as property as the unconstrained right to exclude’ (ibid.).

In actuality, however, affirmative action policies such as they are have not created a re-equalisation along race and class lines nor have they exposed the workings of whiteness in the way Harris suggests they at least have the potential to do. Instead, they involve ‘limited concessions offered in official response to demands for justice pressed by Black constituencies’ (ibid. 1787). The implementation of affirmative action policies as they were designed did nothing to change the structure of the economy in ways that would alter the subordinated status of Black people in the USA. There is thus a marked difference between the idea of affirmative action and its implementation in policy.

The perversity of the Supreme Court’s rejection of affirmative action, in cases from between the 1970s and the 1980s examined by Harris, is that it is based on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was ‘the very constitutional measure designed to guarantee equality for Blacks’ (ibid. 1767). The court decided that affirmative action policies were unconstitutional because they are said to benefit one group over another, thus reversing the principle that Black people cannot be treated unequally by the law and applying it universally in a way that fails to take account of the foundational nature of racially-based inequality in America. As Harris remarks, this decision was ‘based on the Court’s chronic refusal to dismantle the institutional protection of benefits for whites that have been based on white supremacy and maintained at the expense of Blacks’ (ibid.). The legal response thus operates on the basis of a colorblind approach to race which reduced it to skin colour alone. Under such a narrow and dehistoricised vision, it is unfair to treat anyone differently on the basis of the color of their skin. However, this view fails to take into account the operations of race as a mechanism of power, denying the process whereby skin colour is imbued with meaning in the interests of racial rule. As Harris notes, by denying that race matters the courts reinscribe the immutability of race: ‘colorblindness is a form of race subordination in that it denies the historical context of white domination and Black subordination’ (ibid.).

Nevertheless, the belief that colorblindness is equatable with racial justice is one that has had much success because it is predicated on generalized notions of fairness, understood in individualised terms, that are entirely dissociated from the actual conditions in which the distribution of power takes place, namely colonialism and racial rule. The insidious misuse of the concept of equality could be seen in then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s rejection the idea of a Makaratta Commission ‘to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and Nations and truth-telling about our history,’ proposed by the signatories of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Setting aside the many and compelling questionings from Aboriginal people of the necessity and purpose for such a commission for the moment, the Prime Minister’s reaction was telling of a similar logic to that in play over affirmative action. In an article I wrote for the ABC Religion and Ethics website, I remarked, ‘in language reminiscent of the bans on affirmative action in public universities in several American states, the Prime Minister rejected the proposal on the basis that the Commission would be anti-egalitarian and undemocratic because it would exclusively represent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.’

The work engaged in by the authors discussed in this post are unified in their concern to denaturalize what has been made to appear natural by racial regimes. As Brenna Bhandar notes, both race and property ownership have been deemed natural and that it is our job to ‘reveal the techniques of their fabrication’ (Bhandar 2018, loc. 261). For Bhander, ‘racial regimes of ownership must be continually sustained and renewed by specific social, economic and juridical practices’ (ibid. loc. 309) and it is this need for constant renewal in policy, law and discourse that make it susceptible to challenge. Nevertheless, it is clear that in the current moment, postracial narratives that simplistically pit an unquestioned discourse of liberal equality against any form of ‘identity politics’ are ascendant. In the atmosphere, it is even more important to drill deep into the workings of race as a structure of power.

Further reading on race and property:

‘The Production of Race Through Time and Title Registration’ by Sarah Keenan.

Money, Mortgages, and the Conquest of America by K-Sue Park

Concluding remarks

Unfortunately I do not have any time at present to go further into the myriad strains opened up by these readings. However, one aspect was of extreme interest to me, and I intend to take it up further in future work. This relates to the mutually constitutive relationship constructed between Black and Indigenous racialisations which cannot be stressed often enough, also in part because of the tendency for it to be missed outside of the work of those scholars, such as Wolfe, Harris, Moreton-Robinson, Robin D.G. Kelley and others who have cast is as central. The narrowness of the focus of much of what is called ‘ethnic studies’ in the US is in part to blame. This was the subject of the talk by J. Kēhaulani Kauanui at the 2016 American Studies Association conference panel, ‘Racializing the National Home: Patrick Wolfe’s “Traces of History”‘ (with Cynthia G. Franklin, Jean O’Brien, Robin D.G. Kelley, J. Kehaulani Kauanui, Saree Makdisi, and David Colles Lloyd). Kauanui also takes these themes up in a paper in the American Quarterly.


Alana Lentin