This post is the introduction to our online forum on Race, Property, and Economic History.
What is erasure? How have Black residents been historically displaced in communities across the United States? How has gentrification shaped the experiences of people of color across the nation? This week’s online forum on race, property, and economic history grapples with these and other related questions. Whereas gentrification describes a series of choices by institutional drivers in real estate markers to make a neighborhood too expensive for its current residents, displacement includes the use of more direct tactics like harassment and violence to force residents to vacate their homes. Erasure is a specific kind of displacement. Beyond removing residents through market forces or terrorism, erasure then involves the techniques of removing all of the markers of the displaced residents’ impact and history in a specific place.
This is the case for many communities across the United States. The Pergolaville migrant labor camp in Manalapan Township, New Jersey is a case in point. Over 1,000 African Americans lived there in 1960. Between 1960 and 1990, all of the residents’ homes were destroyed. Their roads and water systems were uprooted. With the families scattered and the physical markers destroyed, Pergolaville disappeared from local maps. It became a mystical point of reference—a rapidly fading memory among people soon to pass away. Pergolaville, like thousands of marginalized communities in rural areas across the United States, was erased. How has this process become entrenched in racial capitalism? Do other patterns of income, debt, and wealth reflect this history? Are there competing, undiscovered histories of Black economic autonomy? How can people create just and inclusive institutions of cooperative economics?
This phenomenon moves a reader’s attention to the power of the economic developer—the banking industry, real estate speculators, and municipal managers who created a body of invisible traditions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These individuals and their companies were the villains of the histories of colonialism and Jim Crow segregation. Scholars Cedric Robinson, Walter Rodney, and Manning Marable, among others, established a body of work that revealed the hard boundaries against the economic liberation of the people of the African diaspora. Historians Juliet E.K. Walker and Robert Weems explored the depths of African American business ownership within these boundaries.
From this foundation, important outlets like Black Perspectives, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Boston Review have taken up the discussion and analysis of racial capitalism as a branch of the broader field of political economy across multiple disciplines. Silent in much of this qualitative analysis are the economists, especially those who specialize in African American history. This online forum merges both fields of study, bringing together a diverse group of historians and economists to explore the central themes of race, property and economic history.
These scholars–Devin Fergus, C.N.E. Corbin, Paige Glotzer, Kasturi “Rumu” DasGupta, Tomas Gonzalez, and Zebulon Miletsky–point the way forward in exploring race and economic history in the twenty-first century. DasGupta and Fergus explain the ways that persistent economic inequalities have defined American society in ways that worsened in the last decade, due to phenomena like the exploding market for student loan debt. Glotzer shows the historical roots of segregated wealth in housing markets. Corbin, Miletsky, and Gonzalez offer analyses of the ways that African Americans mobilized to defend and expand their economic autonomy, despite persistent segregation. Taken together, this work moves readers towards more effective systems of economic distribution.