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 institutionalism 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.

Antecedent Conditions- Racial Slavery and Blackness as Property

The main “trace of history” that defines racial blackness in the United States is the institution of chattel slavery. As white settlers engaged in the genocide of Turtle Island’s (North America) indigenous population, the necessity for labor became critical. Without the ability to import enough British subjects from elsewhere in the empire, the burgeoning African slave trade, pioneered by the Portuguese, became attractive to American settlers. For a time, the newly imported African slaves were treated similarly to the indentured servants that were British subjects (Baptist 2014). As time went on the labor regime in the American colonies was marked by instability (Parent and Culture 2003). Riots, rebellions, and miscegenation between British indenture servants and African slaves threatened the stability of settler colonial governance. One example of this was the case of Elizabeth Key, a woman of mixed ancestry whose father was a British subject, sued the colonial government to be considered a free person versus Negro in 1658. She won her suit primarily because ancestry, and thereby citizenship rights was passed down through the father (Banks 2005). Soon after, in 1662, Virginia and a number of other colonies passed laws that stated that one’s subject status (British subject, slave, foreigner) is to be considered through the mother’s blood line versus the father (Kolchin 1993). Known as Partus Sequitur Ventrem, this legal doctrine solidified the grounds on which African slaves and their descendants would be enslaved in perpetuity as well as the concept of the “one-drop rule” which considered anybody with any African ancestry as a Negro and slave (Pascoe 2009). Through the American Revolution, Civil War and even into Jim Crow, the conception of blackness as property held itself as the dominant framework through which people of African descent were understood.

The structural consequences of this racial structure in terms of social relations can be seen in various social structures that came to define the Antebellum period. Because any child a slave woman had would also be a slave, slave breeding became a profitable, and after the abolition of slave imports in 1808, necessary industry in the US (Smithers 2013). In addition, because of their status as property, slaves were also included debt payments, repossessions, liens, and other transactions that slave owners had with early American banks and insurance companies (Baptist 2014; Williams 2015). After the abolition of slavery, the southern economy, which was dependent on coerced African labor instituted Black Codes whose intent was to maintain the racial hierarchy even in the absence of legal chattel slavery (Blackmon 2012). These codes made it illegal for Blacks to refuse work, provided legal grounds for the exploitative sharecropping industry, and banned Blacks from owning any property which would free them from economic dependence on whites. These laws were enforced by newly created police departments which were expanded in order to enforce this intermediate racial order. With the rise of Jim Crow and modern urbanizing America the interests of whites became less of wanting to exploit the bodies of Black people and more of managing a population who they did not associate with civilized living. This broad change in interest of the white population coupled with societal shock of the Great Depression will provide the permissive conditions that allows for American society’s conception of Blackness to change.

Permissive Conditions- Rising Urban Segregation and The Great Depression

Jim Crow laws defined the changing logic of white supremacy as it relates to Black people. The growing ethos was one of segregation and maintaining racial boundaries in both public and private life (Hoelscher 2003). Much of the logic of segregation was based on the earlier logics of Partus Sequitur Ventrem, here converted into the one-drop rule of racial ancestry and anti-miscegenation (interracial marriage/relationship) laws. The hyper-potency of “black blood” and the denigrated status of those with it combined to create a racial logic that sought to preserve white purity from the evil of “black blood.” This system of separation was not absolute due to the continued necessity of Black labor on plantations via sharecropping, and in newly built factories in northern cities. In both situations there was a necessity for Black workers to at least share a workplace with white workers and managers, but increasingly that didn’t expand to the communities where all these people lived.

Urban segregation in the early 1900s did not exist in the way we understand it today. Many Black people who worked in factories and in the homes of white families had to live relatively close to their workplace due to the lack of mass transit in most cities at the time (Gotham 2000). This proximity led to a segregation pattern where majority Black cul-de-sacs were surrounded by majority white neighborhoods. Even with these conditions, the trend started to shift to one where Black people were being excluded from spaces in the city through the actions of both individual citizens and local governments who began associating Black presence with unstable or bad communities.

This anti-black sentiment as it relates to city life is best seen in the existence of sundown towns. Sundown towns as defined by James Loewen were neighborhoods, communities, or whole towns that had laws or customs in place that excluded Blacks and other minorities from being within them after dark (2005). In the early days of suburbanization sundown towns served as a way of protecting communities from the negative influences of Black families and individuals. The fact that these measures only applied at night reflect my above point of the continuing necessity of Black labor in many of the homes of these white families.
Although there was a rise in segregationist sentiment and stature during the pre-WW2 era, the xenophobia driving it never rose to the level that we will see in the latter half of the century. There needed to be another large scale change in the landscape of American history and society that would allow the trickle of segregation to become a flood. That large scale change came in the form of the chaos caused by the Great Depression. With the increasingly desperate economic and social conditions for the nation’s workers, FDR and the Democratic Party gained a mandate to take drastic measures to save the nation from economic destitution. The forms that one of these measure took became the basis on which the trickle of segregation became a flood.

Productive Condition- The Federal Housing Administration and Redlining

In 1934 the National Housing Act became law and part of its provisions created the Federal Housing Administration. The FHA’s purpose was to facilitate changes in the mortgage market that will both stabilize it for both homeowners and banks, as well as create a new lending system that will allow more Americans to own homes. To this end, the FHA in partnership with various banks began making available government backed loans that both refinanced existing mortgages to keep people in their homes as well as allow people to buy new homes. The hope was that this would stabilize the market and even facilitate the growth of the housing the market by providing an incentive to create new housing, often in the suburbs. The key decision within the implementation of this policy that matters for this project is how the FHA and its partners decided to rate communities and create guidelines for lending.

When asked to provide assessments and guidelines for what neighborhood would be good investments or not by banks, the FHA began assessing individual communities across the nation to determine their creditworthiness. However, one of the key elements of the FHA’s assessments was the racial makeup of the communities in question (Jackson 1987). Neighborhood were rated on a scale from best to worse: Blue, Green, Yellow, and Red. Blue neighborhoods were the best investments with the Red being the worse. Where race mattered was that assessors often labeled a neighborhood Red if it had even one Black family present. This practice eventually came to be known as redlining. Although Irish, Jews, and other less prestigious white populations were also deemed a negative influence on neighborhood, it was the presence of Blackness that was seen as the hyper-potent catalyst of neighborhood decay. Adding to the explicit racist logics used by assessors, the FHA also openly advocated that in order to protect housing values that residents should use restrictive covenants to prevent minorities from buying homes in their neighborhood. This last decision signified a new logic of anti-Black racism that made what was mostly an informal system of racial exclusion into a government funded economic logic that made anti-Black racism part of the economic structure of the housing market. This association will solidify the white logic of Black people as a pathogen through their impact on housing values and by extension community values.

Outcome- Persistent Urban Segregation and Blackness as Pathogen

Once the FHA began engaging in redlining, it took already existing social logics of exclusion of Black people and turned it into an economic logic. This unintended consequence meant that immediately Black families would not be refinanced because they lived in a majority Black community and they would not be afforded loans to move to other places, especially newly built suburbs, because they would drive down the value of the new neighborhood. This began the process by which Black families became concentrated in central cities. Blockbusting, which was realtors buying white family homes at low prices and selling them to Black families at inflated prices, and white flight to the suburbs helped further racial residential segregation by pushing whites into newer, wealthier, suburban communities (Gotham 2002).

Because of the decline in population of central cities due to the flight of their white residents, as well lack of investment in what was saw as “already declining” Black communities, a large gap in lived experiences and resource access opened between these communities. Media began talking about “The Ghetto” and “The Hood” as mostly Black, crime ridden, improvised communities that lacked cohesiveness and safety. The Moynihan Report, published in 1965, reflected this sentiment by arguing that there is a “ghetto culture” within poor Black communities that prevent them from moving up out of poverty. This logic within sociology became the “Culture of Poverty” thesis which emphasized the differences in social practices of poor and middle class communities and argued that these differences accounted for much of the immobility that poor communities experienced (Coward, Feagin, and Jr. 1974). Blackness within these discourses and in broader social understandings became seen as a kind of public health crisis that needed to be contained and sometimes eradicated. The first goal of now affluent suburban communities in this vein was to make sure that the ills of the inner city didn’t make it to their community, further facilitating segregation, even after the FHA ended its redlining policies.

The longer legacy of this new understanding of Blackness can be seen in the rise of the War on Drugs, Hip Hop Music, and the current Black Live Matter movement. In all of these cases we see a recognition of the instability of spaces where Blackness is present. For the police, this meant treating urban communities like occupied territories or quarantine zones, increasing surveillance in hope of destroying the drug trade. For Hip Hop and Rap music the sense of isolation from mainstream White society is ever present. The veneration of the hood as home in the music is recognition of the social position of Blackness within American society. Black Live Matter has recently taken on the conceptions of Blackness and the ghetto that makes Black people victims of police brutality. All of these institutions, cultures, and social movements would not be possible without the changes in the racial and economic structure that took place during the Great Depression.

Concluding Reflections on the Critical Juncture Framework for This Paper

Many of the discussions around critical junctures are based on choice and agency. In the case of the FHA and redlining, there doesn’t seem to be a strong “other choice” that they could have made considering the extensive nature of racism in American society. Perhaps the counterfactual here is the FHA not existing at all versus the racist policies they implemented. Without the FHA, segregation would have likely continued but not nearly at the rapid pace that redlining enabled. Related, one of the unusual things about this study is that the productive condition, the creation of the FHA, is not changing the trajectory of American racism in a qualitative way, but instead accelerating an already existing process, which is the permissive condition. I wonder if I am violating some kind of casual logic by making the critical juncture about the “rate of change” in a social process that happens to have a qualitative component (conceptions of Blackness).


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