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Speaker Series: Cheryl Harris, University of California, Los Angeles

  • When: December 5, 2018, 12–1:30 pm
  • Where: ABF Woods Conference Room, 750 N. Lake Shore Drive, 4th floor, Lakeside, Chicago, IL 60611

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Debt, Development and Dispossession:  Afterlives of Slavery

This paper considers dimensions of the relationship between dispossession and race.  Racialized dispossession is not episodic but is a pattern, part of the afterlife of slavery, that functions through the mechanisms of debt and development or “improvement.”  Recent events have revealed the relationship between debt and policing and incarceration.  Following the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson a now much cited Department of Justice report, the use of the criminal sanction system to extract revenue from Ferguson?’s Black population was well entrenched.  Through issuing citations for minor municipal ordinance violations, the City imposed fines and penalties which were beyond the ability of many of its black residents to pay.   These unpaid fines became the basis for issuance of arrest warrants often leading to incarceration.   Based on the burgeoning number of lawsuits challenging modern day debtors?’ prisons in many jurisdictions, this practice is hardly unique to Ferguson.  I argue it is systemic pattern relying on the mechanism of debt as a race-neutral means of implementing racial dispossession— what the late Clyde Woods called “asset-stripping.”    Following emancipation, the alchemy of debt transformed freed people into an asset that could be leased and exploited.   Indeed, Black bodies were “propertized” and become a source of value by virtue of their indebtedness.   This racialized structure of property and dispossession persists. 

Black geographies and spaces as well as Black bodies are similarly subject to being placed under the heel of debt.  Debt has become the means of racially profiling localities whose fiscal distress triggers the deployment of emergency management systems. Under state laws, emergency managers displace structures of democratic control and facilitate further extraction, such as infamously, in the city of Flint. 

Concurrent with the use of debt as a key feature of dispossession is the use of development. Black spaces and geographies are deemed to be “waste” lands, “no-go” areas caught in a process of inevitable decay from which they are in need of rescue and improvement.   I consider two contemporary examples, one in which the propertyless are subject to racialized dispossession and another in which Black property owners are subject to targeted predation through development.

Photo and bio courtesy of University of California, Los Angeles

Cheryl I. Harris is the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Chair in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at UCLA School of Law where she teaches Constitutional Law, Civil Rights, Employment Discrimination, Critical Race Theory and Race Conscious Remedies.

A graduate of Wellesley College and Northwestern School of Law, Professor Harris began her teaching career in 1990 at Chicago- Kent College of Law after working for one of Chicago’s leading criminal defense firms and later serving as a senior legal advisor in the City Attorney’s office as part of the reform administration of Mayor Harold Washington of Chicago.  The interconnections between racial theory, civil rights practice, politics, and human rights have been important to her work.  She was a key organizer of several major conferences that helped establish a dialogue between U.S. legal scholars and South African lawyers during the development of South Africa’s first democratic constitution.  This work played a significant role in the production of her acclaimed and influential article, “Whiteness as Property” (Harvard Law Review).

Since joining the UCLA Law faculty in 1998, Professor Harris has continued to produce groundbreaking scholarship in the field of Critical Race Theory, particularly engaging the issue of how racial frames shape our understanding and interpretation of significant events like Hurricane Katrina—(“Whitewashing Race”, in California Law Review), admissions policies (“The New Racial Preferences” in California Law Review)(with Carbado) and anti-discrimination law (“Reading Ricci: Whitening Discrimination, Race-ing Test Fairness” in UCLA Law Review) (with West-Faulcon).

She has also lectured widely on issues of race and equality at leading institutions here and abroad, including in Europe, South Africa, and Australia, and has been a frequent contributor to various media outlets on current events and cases involving race and equality.

Professor Harris has served as a consultant to the MacArthur Foundation and has been on the board of leading academic societies, including the American Studies Association.  She has served as faculty director for the Critical Race Studies Program at UCLA Law School and has been widely recognized as a groundbreaking teacher in the area of civil rights education, receiving the ACLU Foundation of Southern California's Distinguished Professor Award for Civil Rights Education. 

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