The Transition from Blackness as Property to Blackness as Pathogen in the United States

(Derived from a course paper for a Historical Institutionalism class taught by Jim Mahoney at Northwestern University)

One of the central stories within United States history is that of the development of its racial regime. From slavery till today we have seen fairly large changes in the racial regime that reflect changes in how the nation, specifically its white settler populations, understood various racialized peoples in relation to itself. In sociology the predominant group dynamic is that of anti-Black racism. Produced out of the institution of chattel slavery, many of the broader developments within the racial order can be tied at least partly to Black-White relations. In this paper I will propose an investigation of the larger transitions in the US racial order and its perception of Black people which is the transition from the slavery based conception of Blackness as property to the modern conception of Blackness as pathogen. This proposal will use historical intuitionalism based logic of critical junctures to conduct the analysis.
For the sake of clarity, I want to first define how I am theorizing race and racial domination/racism. For this paper I will use a composite conception of race as defined by Racial Formation Theory (Omi and Winant 2014) as well as the concept of Race as a “Trace of History” (Wolfe 2015). Racial Formation Theory is defined by an understanding of race as a social construct, more specifically, the result of social conflict that references “different types of human bodies.” The emphasis of the theory is on understanding how race changes over time via different social conflicts in which the state and various social groups/actors engage in (conscious or unconscious) “racial projects” which have the intent of redefining racial categories and hierarchies. Whereas Omi and Winat’s theory is one of racial change, Patrick Wolfe’s definition of race is based on relationality and legacy. Wolfe argued that “For every articulation [of unequal social relations] – relations of slavery, of indenture, of dispossession, of compradorship, of (inter) mediation, of commercial exchange – a corresponding racial category could be nominated.” He went further to argued that “race registers the state of colonial hostilities.” For Wolfe, race represents both the structural relationship between oppressor and oppressed, and similar to Omi and Winat, changes based on the resistance of the oppressed to that relationship. Drawing from both frameworks, I will understand race as a register of the structural relationships of oppression which then changes through the implementation of racial projects by various actors. The structural relationship that this paper will seek to explain is the transition from slavery-based conceptions of Blackness as property to our more modern conception of Blackness as a pathogen and agent of social decay.
In order to understand better this transition in the history of race I will adapt the concept of the critical juncture to propose a study that can explain the change from one race concept to the other. Cappacoa and Keleman define critical junctures as “institutional development characterized by relatively long periods of path-dependent institutional stability and reproduction that are punctuated occasionally by brief phases of institutional flux…during which more dramatic change is possible” (2007). Hillel David Soifer argues that we can further break down a critical juncture into two parts; the permissive conditions and the productive conditions (2012). Permissive conditions represent changes in society or an institution that allows individual or collective agency to take over. More generally they are the conditions of instability that allow for changes in the developmental trajectory of institutions through the actions of some actor(s). Productive conditions are those events or conditions that actually change the trajectory of institutions or society in general. Soifer argues that critical junctures exist as long as the permissive conditions, the window of opportunity, stays open. He also identifies critical ascendants that exist as the preexisting conditions that structure the space within which the critical juncture will take place. This framework has the advantage of allowing us to consider what events or actions have had the most decisive impact on facilitating social change without losing sight of the social context that allowed for that action to be decisive in the first place. Below I will consider the case of the structural changes in anti-black racism using the framework of critical junctures with the key point of change being the passage of the National Housing Act and it’s racist policy of redlining. I argue that the passage of the FHA accelerated the already increasing trend of racial residential segregation in the United States and consequently produced conditions within which modern blackness became solidified around the (social) pathogen concept. Continue reading →