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Racial Capitalism and Migration

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Organizer: Eleanor Paynter

Co-Organizer: Yumna Siddiqi

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First used by Marxist South African scholars and activists in the 1970s and taken up by Cedric Robinson in Black Marxism (1992), “racial capitalism” underscores how capitalism is fundamentally predicated on difference, reified as “race.” Racial capitalism is inextricable from modernity, and migration–forced or otherwise–is a crucial structuring dimension of racial capitalist societies. If capitalism emerged in the West, the initial accumulation which was its springboard was enabled by the enslavement, forced migration and labour, trafficking, indenture, colonization, Indigenous genocide, and dispossession by Europeans of racialized people whose land, labour, and bodies were violently appropriated and turned into commodities, and whose cultures and societies were ravaged. 

Several bodies of scholarship address the relationship between racial capitalism and migration. Indigenous studies scholars have addressed settlers’ violent displacement of Indigenous people from their land (Coulthard). The Black Mediterranean framework engages postcolonial studies and the Black radical tradition to address the centrality of migration to the construction of Europe and how border policing maintains racialized hierarchies and an exploitable, deportable labor force (Hawthorne, Saucier, Danewid). Migritude literature and scholarship considers both the “third space” of African literary production (via Chevrier) by writers and artists in the diaspora, and intersectional and perspectives on migration (via Patel). Likewise, recent border studies scholarship emphasizes the material and symbolic violence of borders and their role in sustaining racial capitalism, arguing for decoloniality, abolition, and migrant justice (e.g. Paik, Walia, Mezzadra and Nielsen). 

These approaches offer key lenses for considering how migration is mediated for various publics–from news and social media, to artivism, to literature and film, to technologies that offer migrants new possibilities for documenting, crafting, and distributing their own accounts. These texts also reflect upon memory, trauma, exploitation, and repair, and center practices of creation, resistance, and solidarity.

We invite contributions that take up questions of racial capitalism and migration through a discussion of visual, narrative, new media, and theoretical works from any world region. Proposals might consider, for example:

  • The occlusion of histories of racial capitalism and colonialism in the global north

  • Links between racialized exploitation, capital accumulation, and the control of mobility

  • Intersections between Indigenous studies and postcolonial migration studies

  • Perspectives oriented around specific geographies, e.g. city, island, or spaces of containment

  • How the lens of racial capitalism helps reengage key themes/theories related to postcolonial migration (memory, center/periphery…)

  • Witnessing, testimony, and emergent forms of storytelling that grapple with the above

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