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Treasured Property: Our racial reality

Cheryl Harris’ “Whiteness As Property” didn’t really come as a surprise to me, for me it put everything I was already familiar with into one article. The part that stood out the most for me was the introduction, it gives somewhat of an emotional and more personal factor which made me feel a connection to the author. Harris talks about her grandmother being able to pass as a white woman, which allowed her to get a job in Chicago’s central business district. The line that stood out the most to me was on page 276, in the fifth paragraph, “Each evening, my grandmother tired and worn, retracted her steps home, laid aside her mask, and reentered herself.” This line was heartbreaking, having to endure hateful comments from your coworkers as well as take on an identity you’re not would definitely take a toll on anyone. Being white meant better jobs, nobody subjecting you to hateful comments, and overall being seen as the “better race.” Unfortunately, in today’s society, it still means a lot of those things. I think one of the main points of this article was to say to the reader “hey, being White was treasured property in the 1930s, but it’s still a thing and we should talk about it.”   

Towards the end of the article, another quote was able to stand out to me was on page 286, where Harris talks about how whiteness is a “consolation prize,” she goes on to say “it does not mean that all Whites will win, but simply that they will not lose, if losing is defined as being on the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy—- the position to which blacks have been consigned.” A lot of this article, but specifically this line reminded me of a quote that has been drilled into my mind as an African American: “In order to get half of what they have, you have to work twice as hard.” Even if we were to get twice as good, we’re still sometimes reaped with half the benefits. This took a complete 180 for me right back to the introduction, Harris’ grandmother could get a job being black, but being White opened more doors for her. Being White meant that she would be able to better sustain her family and probably even make a better income, in short being White is beneficial to White people.

Partus Sequitur Ventrem

In both Philip’s and Harris’ works, there is a question, spoken or non, about the association of blackness to property.

For Harris, she noted that slavery was a system that thrived from the division of color, facilitating the idea that ownership was a birthright of skin tone. On page 278, Harris says, “…the institution of slavery, lying at the very core of economic relations, was bound up with the idea of property.” There were many continuing underlying issues perpetuating the idea of whiteness as property, but the most notable was the monetary gain white slave owners were earning from their black slaves.

Philips examined every line of text from the Zong legal case and offered her own expert insight on the determination of the case. As she tore into insurance and property law, she highlighted several key points, one of which was the reasoning behind throwing the African slaves overboard. The insurance company would have to pay the Captain and the family buying the slaves money for “loss of property and income.” In the original case document, the slaves were referred to as “cargo.” Slaves were considered property.

I find it interesting that in both readings we hear cases for blackness as property, and in each case, the law stands on the side of white, property-owning citizens. Even though the law does not strictly mention skin color, it mentions property, and slaves had their statuses legally demoted to “domestic animal” and were branded as animals (Duke Law). This was because whites had adopted the Roman law of partus sequitur ventrem. It handled the legal status of animals in Rome, but the law had been twisted to fit the needs of slave owners by becoming “a legal doctrine concerning the slave or free status of children born in the English royal colonies” (Wikipedia, Duke Law). Both authors make strong legal arguments that blackness was a determinant of property, and I believe they are correct in their stances of black skin color sealing slaves’ fates as property.

Duke Law:

I realize Wikipedia isn’t a good source, but Duke Law stated the same idea. Wikipedia just said it better.

Founding White America

“Indeed, the very fact of citizenship itself was linked to white racial identity” (285).

To be white was to be free, but the necessity of being white was an unwritten clause in the Declaration of Independence. Harris comments that the “concept of whiteness” was “established by centuries of custom (illegitimate custom, but custom nonetheless)” (280). Harris argues that justice and subsequently equality are heavily dependent on the color of one’s skin. On page 279, she states, “Whiteness was the characteristic, the attribute, the property of free human beings.” Slavery was a system that thrived from the division of color, facilitating the idea that ownership was a birthright of skin tone. There were many continuing underlying issues perpetuating the idea of whiteness as property, but the most notable was the monetary gain white slave owners were earning from their black slaves. I believe it’s also important to note that, while Harris focuses primarily on slavery, these statements transcend the historical timeline to modern day where white privileges are sprouts on the deeply rooted practice of slavery. There is an expectation of inferiority associated with blackness in America, a concept supported and uplifted, according to Harrison, through the perpetuated encouragement of the establishment that was slavery.

The Property of “Whiteness”

This set of prose was especially interesting to me as I had never read an article where the idea of privilege and institutionalism was directly related to the property of citizens, also known as “whiteness”. The author, Cheryl I. Harris, goes into detail about how whiteness is property based on the laws of America and having that particular amount of property, gives you the advantage above most people who don’t have it. The author defines whiteness as “the characteristic, the attribute, the property of free human beings…” (279). It is so important to begin with the definition of the advantaged within our country before we understand why that is.

Property and the advantage during this time is described as wealth and privileges. The idea that the government is there to protect your property at any cost during this time is not only biased but just blatantly racist. In this article we can understand that even poor white people had more of an advantage than free African or Native Americans. This means that the whites would have had more support and rights than anyone else even though they might own less property. For example, whiteness was seen as “-the right to white identity as embraced by the law-is property if by ‘property’ one means all of the person’s legal rights” (280). Overall, the property of their “whiteness” gives them the leverage needed to create a great life and social status.

Even according to Harris, although “blackness” is organically property, it is not looked at the same way that “whiteness” is. The advantage is that the whites, since the beginning, have dominated other races, even buying them as property. Therefore, “It is contended that property rights and interests are not “natural” but “creation[s] of law” (280-281). To explain, the only reason other races have been put down and are considered disadvantaged, was all based on the laws of our country. For example, slavery, sharecropping, etc. were all legal ways of life, supporting the white idea of gaining social status by owning and the repression of other races.

Whiteness as Property

William Stover

I found this to be a really interesting take on an issue that has been discussed quite often recently: the idea of white privilege and white institutionalism. This in- depth description of whiteness and “the others” stands out from other pieces that I have read because of the concept of property. The writer makes a point that I never really considered when reading or referring to the constitution: whiteness is seen as property so that it can exclude and remain to itself. It is something that was sought after due to its implications of wealth, class, and a variety of other characteristics deemed to be pleasant. Certainly, her ideas force me to look at the Constitution in a bit of a different light. It makes me think more deeply about some of the concepts introduced by our founding fathers.

Here, the writer speaks a great deal about the founding of the United States. She speaks of the importance of “natural law” that usually has a rather nonmalignant connotation. However, Harris writes that this idea of natural law was something made up so that whites could be separate from and more powerful than other races, and have the law to back that behavior up. She mentions that whites tend to see natural law as positive and important without understanding that these purposefully implemented laws were used to kick out natives and to put down blacks, all by giving undeserved power to the white race. Harris uses many gruesome examples of colonial theory such as the utilization and exploitation of black women to sort of breed slaves, among other ideas.

Property is associated with ownership, with wealth, with class, and with privilege. It is something that cannot be tampered with or taken because it is inherently “yours”. The law tells us that. From Harris’s work, I take it that she is bothered by the idea that one could be born into a private, privileged group simply because of their complexion and family roots. She points out that because of the protection of whiteness as a form of property, it forces others to be intruders or at least put into a separate, less than realm.

There is a ton of history, some dark, written about in this piece. Given that, it was a lot for me to digest. However, I feel like the ideas presented are fair ones and should be discussed. There is something about the work as a whole that is off-putting for me, and I kind of feel like the writer does a lot of grouping. I am not going to say that she is wrong about anything she discusses (I think she has great ideas), and I absolutely feel more educated about the topics presented, but it was a bit difficult for me to get through at times. Overall, I think the ideas brought forth were interesting, complex, and begging to be discussed.