“America’s Original Identity Politics”: On Historical Interconnections of Property, Race and Identity Politics
Identity politics is currently being blamed for a lot of things—in the U.S. even more than on this side of the Atlantic. From different political positions, identity politics that are emancipatory are being reproached for revolving around sensitivities and clouding the view of the essential, for distorting U.S. history and traumatizing white and straight Americans and their children, or for fueling populist, reactionary policies and thus dividing society.
Historicization shatters the foundation of this critique. First, it can show that emancipatory identity politics reacts to a political practice that, in conjunction with identity creating categories such as race, gender, and sex, have produced hegemonic social relations over centuries, established privileges, excluded people, and in turn divided society. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to the politics of white privilege in particular as “America's original identity politics.” In 1977, the women of the Combahee River Collective made “identity” the starting point of their politics precisely in order to break down the relations of oppression in U.S. society that were tied to them being Black, female, and lesbian, to overcome the historically deeply rooted social division, and to fight for recognition as “levelly human.”
Secondly, historicizing identity politics shows that it is not directed at mere sensitivities. Full recognition means equal participation in society and its shaping, in the opportunities, securities and resources it offers. Identity politics thus aims at harsh realities such as health, protection from violence, access to justice and education, income, and property. To dismiss these as sensitivities as not essential is to deny recognition to existential needs from a position of privilege.
The Racial Wealth Gap
One of these realities is the “racial wealth gap.” In the 21st century, the average Black family owns only about 7% of the property of the average white family. This current inequality ratio is a consequence of historical policies that have operated through identity categories, carving white privilege and Black exclusion into U.S. society, with traces going back to the 17th century. The right to property is one of the central U.S. promises to everyone, yet in the opportunity to realize this promise for themselves, Black Americans have been systematically disadvantaged and white ones advantaged. I will look at three key moments in the history of race and property, namely 1669, 1789, and 1865, to identify the mechanism of what Coates calls the “original identity politics” and to put emancipatory identity politics into historical perspective.
In 1669, the eight proprietors of the British colony of Carolina agreed on a written document that determined how the colony would be organized. The 110th article of the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina gave every free settler the right to enslave Black people and claimed that “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves.” The freedom of some was linked to power and authority, the exploitation and ownership of others, and was de facto conceived as a white right.
Article 110 is not really surprising to those who know the history of colonial expansion. After all, colonial expansion and enslavement were intimately intertwined. Moreover, no other of the 13 British colonies in North America was to rely so heavily on enslavement as South Carolina. Nevertheless, the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, with their passage on slavery, have always received particularly great attention to this day. The reason is that they were written by none other than John Locke. With his Two Treatises of Government (1689), the English philosopher is regarded as a founder of a liberal social and constitutional order and the inventor of liberal possessive individualism, i.e., the idea that every person belongs only to themselves and has an inalienable right to life, liberty and property.
In 1669, Locke worked as secretary for the proprietors of the Carolinas, and he helped draft and write their Fundamental Constitutions. He then worked for the Council on Foreign Plantations, a body set up by the British Crown to promote trade with the overseas colonies. From the Council, Locke got paid with shares in the Royal African Company, which was a major player in the global slave trade. Historians argue about the direct link from Locke’s work around 1670, when he approved of and made money from slavery, to the 1680s, when he became a chief theorist of liberal government. And there is also dispute about Locke’s personal culpability. More crucially, however, Locke’s various works reveal how, between 1669 and 1689, a discursive and political space opened up in which an inalienable right of all people to “life, health, liberty, and possessions” was deemed compatible with the enslavement of Black people. This space can only be grasped if we include race as a category from which political rights and social participation were derived. While whiteness as marker for identity was tied to the right to freedom, integrity, and property, Blackness could mean being unfree and subject to absolute power—not owning property, but being property.
On March 9, 1789, the U.S. Constitution was ratified. According to its preamble, “We the people of the United States” were to enjoy the blessing of freedom. For this purpose, a constitution was created that separated the three powers in a Lockean manner. The first article of the constitution constituted the legislative power. The number of delegates that each state was allowed to send to the national House of Representatives depended on the number of citizens of the respective state. The decisive question was whom to count, and how. The number was to be determined, according to Article 1, “by adding to the whole Number of free Persons [...] three fifths of all other Persons.” This so-called Three-Fifths Clause referred exclusively to Black slaves. The Constitution thus drew a line between people who counted fully politically and those who did not, along lines of race and the relationship between person and property. Thus, when it spoke of “we the people,” it did not mean enslaved Black people. Even more, the Constitution conceded to white enslavers, who considered other people their property and deprived them of their rights, to be disproportionately represented in the most important national political body. For South Carolina, for example, the three-fifths rule meant about 50% more seats in the House of Representatives.
The parties involved in drafting the constitution had long struggled over this passage and over enslavement as a whole. In the end, property rights of white slaveholders were given greater weight than the right to freedom of Black people. Even more: the argument of white enslavers that freedom meant above all the right to property and that this could also be property in other people had been validated constitutionally. Freedom, the right to property, and the right and ability to participate politically were fundamentally conceived as white and also male.
On January 12, 1865, twenty representatives of the Black community met with Major General William Tecumseh Sherman in Savannah, Georgia. In the American Civil War, Union troops under Sherman had advanced to the Georgia coast. They were followed by more and more formerly enslaved people, who eventually numbered in the thousands. The meeting in Savannah was to clarify how they would be able to live a life of freedom. Four days after the meeting, Sherman gave the order to confiscate large tracts of land on the Georgia coast and distribute them to Black families; 40 acres to each family, and in addition, they were to receive an old mule from the Union Army.
The freedom that came with the end of enslavement was meant to entail more than owning oneself. The formerly enslaved were also to be able to call land their own. During the course of the Civil War, free Black Americans had regularly demanded to be given the land of the plantations on which they had been enslaved. After all, they had paid for it with their bodies and the bodies of their loved ones; and they had tilled the soil with their own hands. Sherman’s so-called Field Order No. 15 was the first official recognition of these claims—that is, of the right of former enslaved people to own property. It was to stand for this claim as 40 acres and a mule from then on until today: The bill to claim reparations for descendants of enslaved people, which has been reintroduced every year since 1989 until today, is called H.R.40.
H.R.40 not only reminds us of this demand, but also that it remained unfulfilled. On May 29, 1865, less than half a year after Sherman's pledge, the new U.S. President Andrew Johnson, a Southern man, declared amnesty for Confederates. That was the end of 40 acres and a mule, and thousands of Black families were forced off their land. Most soon went back to work for former enslavers as sharecroppers. This was all too convenient for many traders and investors from the North. After all, a production system similar to the old large-scale plantations seemed more likely to ensure that cotton from the United States would once again become a factor on the world market. Sally Dixon, a former enslaved woman from Macon, Georgia, later recalled, “We were told when we got freed we were going to get forty acres of land and a mule. Stead of that we didn’t get anything.”
Back to the Present
Let us return to the present with Dixon in our ears. Since 1865, Black Americans can no longer be considered the property of others. What is remarkable, however, is the insistence with which they have henceforth been denied the possibility of becoming property subjects—and, thus, the “pursuit of happiness”—from sharecropping to redlining and contract selling to the GI Bill, exclusively white suburbanization, and what is now discussed as “predatory inclusion”—that is, the predatory exploitation of the desire for property and participation. From 1865 to the present, the property order has continued to operate through race, and in this way orchestrated who can redeem for themselves, how, and under what conditions, the central U.S. promise.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) has revealed such systemic inequalities linked to race for quite some time. Historically, CRT and emancipatory identity politics have developed together; politically, they pursue the same goals—namely to mark and break up existing hegemonic relationships, to eliminate inequalities, and to work toward equal opportunities and participation of all people. In the form of powerful recent debates on “racial capitalism,” corresponding economic questions are penetrating even established forums of historical scholarship.
At the same time, in recent years, laws have been passed in over half of all U.S. states prohibiting the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools or colleges. Such a law in the state of Florida is entitled “HB 7: Individual Freedom,” and is said to protect the freedom of (white) Americans. Again, the freedom of some means the exclusion of others. They are to be prohibited from making themselves, their analyses and positions heard, from inscribing themselves in the discourse, from pursuing emancipatory politics, and from understanding and ending structural racism.
In August and November 2022, the United States District Court for Northern Florida halted the Individual Freedom Act because it restricted freedom of opinion and expression. The state of Florida and its governor and possible U.S. presidential candidate Ron DeSantis intend to appeal the rulings and keep the censorship in place.
Laws like Florida’s Individual Freedom Act are thus in the tradition of all of the strategies and tactics, measures and policies in U.S. history that have perpetuated a racialized property order and that Ta-Nehisi Coates has called the “original identity politics.” The unequal distribution of property will never be seriously changed unless its deep roots in U.S. history and society are allowed to remain in mind.
First published at https://geschichtedergegenwart.ch/americas-original-identity-politics-ueber-historische-verflechtungen-von-eigentum-race-und-identitaetspolitik/. This post has been adapted slightly, translated into English by Catharina Gottschalk and republished with permission of the author. Image credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USF34- 009541-C. Lange, Dorothea, photographer. A Negro tenant farmer and several members of his family hoeing cotton on their farm in Alabama. United States Alabama, 1936. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017768065/.