- Property Is Bad:Recent Trends in American Studies
Three distinct approaches to property and racism undergird much contemporary American Studies scholarship. While each is illuminating, problems emerge when they are treated as interchangeable or misread altogether. N. D. B. Connolly’s World More Concrete, which interrogates black property ownership in the context of racist America, and Christina B. Hanhardt’s Safe Space, which examines gay claims to neighborhood space in the context of neoliberalism, exemplify the conceptual tangles that sometimes result. Both books have won widespread acclaim. Their problems are therefore worth taking seriously. Looking closely at these books’ claims, I emphasize the need for a clear understanding of basic concepts informing our work—in this case about property.
Renewed attention to the relationship between property and racism dates partly to Cheryl Harris’s foundational 1992 essay, “Whiteness as Property.” Harris argued that whiteness was “like” property in that its benefits—rights to public accommodations, preferential treatment in hiring, and the right to vote, to name a few—were historically protected by law. Harris did not claim that property was synonymous with whiteness. Rather, her goal was to render white privilege concrete by showing how it has been legally protected.
Settler colonialism studies, descended partly from Patrick Wolfe’s Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event (1999), furthered scholarly interest in the relationship between property regimes and systems of race hierarchy. In an influential 2001 article, Wolfe noted that colonial powers needing workers for resource extraction [End Page 471] cast indigenous people as a separate laboring caste. But settler colonists hoped to displace them altogether. They therefore created racial classification schemes that cast indigenous people as savages to be eliminated yet also as people who could, through intermarriage with their conquerors, assimilate into the “dominant” race. Together, these strategies fostered the elimination of indigenous people and the freeing of their land for settlement by colonizers.1
A final, more long-standing approach focuses on the racial biases built into the private ownership of land in the United States. These include the barring of Asians and Native Americans from citizenship and therefore from land ownership, and the racist appraisal systems used by the real estate industry to block African Americans from mortgage loans. Such studies align with the idea of whiteness as property by detailing one crucial way for institutions to support racial bias: by controlling access to wealth. They differ from the whiteness as property approach by focusing on real estate, not property as metaphor. They are similar to settler colonialism studies in that they investigate how racist practices limit nonwhite access to land. They differ in that they rarely investigate how racially biased land ownership practices form the very definition of a colonial settler state.
When scholars of property indiscriminately merge these disparate approaches, the results can boil down to a claim that everything is a form of property and that property is bad. Property is somehow aligned with whiteness and displacement. Thus the only way for minorities to avoid contributing to white supremacy or settler colonialism is to avoid “property” altogether. Of course, there can be great utility in delineating how minority groups collaborate with state violence and in looking at how minorities who own property do so. Yet scholars who take on such complex issues have a responsibility to do so with care. They must avoid doing the very thing they critique: exploiting minority subjects by simplifying the actual power relations and historical conditions they face, and by blaming minority communities in general, and activists in particular, for their predicament.
Unfortunately, the two books under review do all these things. Both highlight the moral and political deficiencies of minority group landlords, property owners, and activists. Both imply that minority groups should somehow abstain from participation...