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Race, Property, and Debt

March 11, 2016 @ 9:00 am - March 12, 2016 @ 12:00 pm

Co-Sponsored Conference:

In the six years since the nadir of the Great Recession, debt has attracted scholarly attention across the humanities. Debt names not only student loans, underwater mortgages, and consumer credit but also, more significantly, a form of life molded by debt: the everyday practices, desires, virtues, and vices of the indebted. In other words, debt offers a way of exploring the concrete, lived experiences that result from neoliberal economic policies. Debt is not colorblind: in the United States, Blacks and Latinos are affected most severely. The foreclosure rate at the peak of the Great Recession for Blacks was 7.9%, for Latinos 7.7%, and for whites 4.5%. A significantly higher percentage of Blacks than whites take on student loan debt, and the credit card interest paid by Blacks makes up a significantly greater share of their income. Debt severely distorts the lives of people of color in the US.

Race and debt have long been connected, and together entwined with property. Classically, in The Merchant of Venice, it is the racial other, the Jew, who demanded repayment of debt in flesh when property was unavailable. Treating flesh as property was the principle animating the slave trade, a business sustained by debt secured by Black human “property.” Post-emancipation, Black sharecroppers remained tied down by debt and by lack of property ownership. The hyper-incarceration of poor Blacks today justifies itself by extracting a debt owed to society. Calls for reparations claim that society owes a debt to Blacks or to other communities that have suffered injustices. A variety of Black social movements for decades have called for property ownership as a means of Black empowerment.

This symposium will bring together a dozen senior and junior scholars of history, literature, anthropology, and law to reflect on the conjunction of race, property, and debt. Looking both at and beyond Black experience in the Great Recession, presenters will share their own research and place it in dialogue with the research of colleagues, clarifying the often elusive spider-web of concepts and practices that entangle, entrap, and ruin the lives of people of color in the US and beyond. Drawing on a variety of sites and methods, the symposium will encourage research cross-fertilization while featuring state-of-the-art scholarship on this timely and important set of issues.

All conference presentations will be free and open to the public.


Friday Schedule:

9am: Welcome from Susan Friedman, Director, Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Wisconsin, Madison

9am-10:30am Panel I

Moderator: Cindy I-Fen Cheng (History, University of Wisconsin)

Devin Fergus (History, OSU) – “Broke Black Nation”

Cheryl Harris (Law, UCLA) – “The Afterlife of Slavery: Markets, Race, and Debt”

Shana Redmond (American Studies, USC) – “Hand-Me-Down Haiti: Disaster Aid and the Culture of Debt”

10:45am-12:15pm Panel II

Moderator: Brenda Gayle Plummer (African American Studies, University of Wisconsin)

Anne-Maria Makhulu (Anthropology, Duke) – “Debt, Finance, and Securitization: The Economis, Politics, and Policing of #FeesMustFall

Thomas Mitchell (Law, UW-Madison / Texas A&M) – “African-American Property Ownership: Racialized Opportunities, Unjust Legal Regimes, and the Racial Wealth Gap”

Cedric Johnson (Af Am, UIC) – “Gentrifying New Orleans: Thoughts on Race and the Movement of Capital”


1:30pm-4pm Panel III

Moderator: Nan Enstad (History & Comparative US Studies, University of Wisconsin)

Jodi Melamed (English, Marquette) – “Dispossession by Administration”

Lynn Itagaki (English, OSU) – “Debtlessness”

K-Sue Park (Texas RioGrande Legal Aid) – “Mortgages, Money, and the Conquest of America”

Joshua Dubler (Religion, Rochester) – “White Guilt, White Debt”


Saturday Schedule:

9:30am-12:00pm Community Conversation

Moderator: Karma R. Chavez (University of Wisconsin)

M Adams (Freedom, Inc)

Cindy I-Fen Chen (University of Wisconsin)



Devin Fergus, Associate Professor of African American and African Studies, The Ohio State University

Cheryl Harris, Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Professor, UCLA Law School

K-Sue Park, Attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid

Jodi Melamed, Associate Professor of English, Marquette University

Shana Redmond, Associate Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, USC

Tayyab Mahmud, Professor of Law and Director, Center for Global Justice, Seattle University

Thomas Mitchell, Professor and Frederick W. and Vi Miller Chair in Law, University of Wisconsin Law School, and from July 1st, Professor of Law and Agricultural Economics, Texas A&M

Joanne Barker, Professor of American Indian Studies, San Francisco State University

Joshua Dubler, Assistant Professor of Religion, University of Rochester

Anne-Maria Makhulu, Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University

Lynn Itagaki, Assistant Professor of English, The Ohio State University

Cedric Johnson, Associate Professor of African American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago

Vincent Lloyd is a Kingdon Fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities and, from June 1, Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University


Poster for Event Race, Property, Debt with all speaker names and associations


March 11, 2016 @ 9:00 am
March 12, 2016 @ 12:00 pm
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Fluno Center for Executive Education
601 University Avenue
Madison, 53703 United States