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Review of Radical Political Economics

Keeping People in Their Place: An Exploratory Analysis of the Role of Violence in the Maintenance of "Property Rights" In Race and Gender Privileges In the United States

MaryC. King

Review of Radical Political Economics 1999; 31; 1 001: 10.1177/048661349903100301

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Keeping People in Their Place:

An Exploratory Analysis of the Role of Violence in the Maintenance of "Property Rights" in Race and Gender Privileges in the United States

Mary C. King

ABSTRACT: Economists' accounts of the experience of women and people of color in the United Ststes completely omit the role of violence against them. This paper begins the process of incorporating violence into economic analysis. suggesting that violence maintains property rights in race and gender privileges. This paper presents the analytical underpinnings for this conceptualization, surveys the extent of race and gender violence in the United States, and sketches a research agenda investi- gating the dynamics of race and gender violence.


Any student of the histories of people of color in the United States cannot help but be aware of the extreme level of violence with which people have been "kept in their place." Violence against women continues at levels that overwhelm our resources for combating it. Surely this violence has played a role in derIDing and maintaining the' economic status of women and people of color in the United States, yet economic theory does not address violence. Economists have expended oceans of ink on the economic, political, and social factors underlying differential access to human capital available to people due to race and

The author would like to thank Johanna Brenner, Clifford Lehman, Art Neal, Doug Orr, and Harold Vatter for their constructive critiques.

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Review ofRadical Political Economics

gender, but nowhere do we confront the economic consequences of violence, even that which is obviously economically motivated. This paper is intended as an initial exploration of a framework with which to incorporate a recognition and analysis of race and gender violence' into economic theory, history, and empirical work. I propose analyzing this violence as action taken to maintain "property rights' in race and gender privileges. Property rights in white supremacy have included the 'ownership' of the best jobs, occupations, land and education by the white community, enforced by the state, private organizations, and individuals in the form of intimidation, imprisonmeIlt, destruction of-property, beatings, rape, and murder. Property rights in male supremacy similarly include ownership of occupations, assets, and education, as well as of reproductive services and sexual access, maintained by force within the home as well as in the wider community. The fITst section of the paper develops a working definition of violence. The second section presents the analytical underpin- nings of this view of the economic meaning of violence. The third section reviews the extent of race and gender violence in the United States, historically and currently. The fourth section sketches a research agenda investigating the economic conse- quences of race and gender violence.


I define violence with respect to two dimensions, the relationship of the perpetrator to the state, and the scope of actions to be understood as violence. Donohue and Levitt [19981 assert that violence is a method for allocating resources in the absence of markets founded upon legally enforceable contracts and property rights. This under- standing of violence cannot encompass the role of racial and gender violence in U.S. history. State sponsored violence has kept people "in their place.' The American government has madeuse of violence-or the threat of state violence-to enforce the legal apparatus of slavery, the exclusive access to higher education of white men, and the disenfranchisement of women and people of color. Extra-legal but tolerated violence on the part of state officials, such as police brutality, has kept people in their place. Finally vigilante and domestic violence have played a large role in our history, the perpretrators operating often with near impunity and even the covert sanction or unofficial participation of the


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Keeping People in Their Place

autl~(:<rities. An assessment of the economic meaning of race and gender violence in the United States must include the full spectrum of state-sponsored, state-tolerated and illegal violence. 'I emphasize physical violence, "rough or injurious physical force, action, or treatment,· and threatened physical violence [R~ndomHouse Dictionary of the English Language, College Edition 19f1i8J. Harassment, stalking, verbal abuse, and humiliation can also!legitimately be considered violence, or to imply the threat of phy'~ical violence. Institutions that maintain high poverty rates, pOC?Ii housing, inadequate medical care, and inferior education are clejU"ly construable as socially sanctioned violence, perpetrated particularly upon ethnic minorities and women, as well as working claSs white men, and could be included. More for the ability to bound my focus, particularly given the limits of this paPer, rather thari as a matter of principle, physical violence and the threat of physical violence will be emphasized.



~ : A prominent scholar of property rights, Yoram Barzel, as~erts that the term property rights conveys two meanings in eCIilIilomic writing, economic property rights and legal property righ~s. Barzel defmes economic property rights as "the ability to enjoy a piece of property.;.the individual's ability, in expected terms, to consume the good (or the services of the asset) directly or: to consume it indirectly through exchange,· whereas legal property rights are "essentially what the state assigns to a person' (BF,;el 1997: 3). , I White supremacy and male supremacy can be understood as h~vfng conveyed certain socially conferred property rights in Banet's economic sense to whites and men in the United States. ~ites have expected to monopolize preferred jobs, businesses, ., schools, and land. Men have expected to occupy the political and economic positions they desired, and have expected that, women '

sIWuld raise their children and perform all household work.


d~v~loped in legal studies by critical race theorists Derrick Bell arid Cheryl Harris. In a particularly rich article, Harris (1993) exp~ores the idea of whiteness as property. Theoretically, Harris cl~,ms that whiteness falls well within a tl;"aditional legal url4erstanding of property that allowed that property may be mhaphysical as well as physical, rights as well as things.

: I The



property rights







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Review o/Radical Political Economics

Whiteness is also encompassed in modem theories of property, which include socially constructed property in the form of ·jol:is,

entitlements, occupational licenses, contracts, subsidies

lectual property, business goodwill, and advanced e~ings potential from graduate degrees" (Harris 1993: 1728).

The concept of property rights in whiteness is easily extended to gender; "it's a man's world." Until quite recently, men have enjoyed the exclusive right to govern and police society; to enter most occupations and educational institutions; to own property,

including one's wages; and to

of children. Women were

effectively denied the ability to participate in society and to support themselves and their children without the sponsorship of

a man, and have occasionally "passed" as male to gain these

privileges. Women are still struggling for admittance to govern- ance, many lines of work, and the ability to move independently in public space.




Racial Violence

A common experience of people of color in the United States has been th(llack of legal standing in the court system. The consequence was widespread indifference to crimes against people

of color. In 1854 the California SupreIll.e Court went so far as to

strike down the conviction of a white man for the murder of a Chinese, as the evidence had come from Chinese witnesses (Chan


Native Americans Howard Zinn (1995) describes the actions of "Columbus and his successors' as genocide. Policies of war and massacre were followed in the late 19th and the 20th centuries by decades during which Indians were confmed to reservations and murdered or cheated with relative impunity (Amott and Matthai 1996). More recently Native American communities have confronted the placement of Indian children with white families, sterilization abuse, the violent repression of the American Indian Movement, and a law enforcement atmosphere many regard as prejudicial to Indians (e.g., Amott and Matthai 1996; Churchill and Vander Wall .1990; Crow Dog and Erdoes 1990; Matthiessen 1984, 1983).


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Keeping People in Their Place

African Americans

Clearly the history of violence against African Americans in the United States must start with an acknowledgment of the existence, extent, and brutality of 246 years of slavery. While economists have argued that slaves would have been relatively well treated by economically rational owners seeking to gain full value from their capital, even Fogel and Engerman state, "Force

was not an incidental feature of slavery. Without force the alienability of the title to the human capital of blacks would have •

been worthless

rape, and murder, as well as overwork of pregnant women,

forcefully attenuated breastfeeding, and purposefully poor nutri- tionof children, figured in low overall life expectancies (Jones 1985; Steckel 1986a, 1986b). Jones (1985) asserts that ·cruelty


violence to achieve a productive labor force" (Jones 1985: 20). The decades following emancipation are marked by vigilante

and ~ob violence, rapes, lynchings, race riots, and attacks on successful businesses and farms. In response to the 1892 lynching of the three black proprieters of a Memphis grocery, Ida

B. Wells stated that, •

Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and 'keep the nigger down m (Jones 1998: 333). Sharecropper, labor, and civil rights organizing 'Yere consistently met with violence, often by legal authorities (e.g., Carson 1981). Allst!>n and Ferrie (1993) note the interest of Southern landowners in maintaining an environment of racial violence, as sharecroppers

were bound to landowners who could provide some measure of protection and intercede with authorities. .Currently, police brutality, hate crimes, and harassment of African Americans in occupations lIuch as firefighting continue to be routinely reported in the news. The apparently racially-based discrepancies in policing and sentencing related to America's War on Drugs implicate the s:tate in the violent control of black communities and the destruction of the economic potential of thousands of young people.

(Fogel and Engerman 1974: 237). Whippings,


a basic premise of the slave system itself: the use of


was merely an excuse to get rid of


.The first and largest group of Latinos to reside in the United States became American citizens by virtue of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This treaty brought the northern half of the territory of Mexico into the United States and recognized the earlier annexation of Texas. Any of the 80,000 to 100,000 Mexicans who failed to leave became U.S. citizens, with

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Review ofRadical Political Economics

guarantees that they would retain their property rights (Defreitas 1991; McWilliams 1978; Zinn 1993). Most of what the Mexicans owned was lost in ensuing decades, in part through violence including scores of lynchings (Acuna 1981). Especially notorious were the Texas Rangers, a paramiliatry group that operated as paid thugs for Anglo landowners (Samora, Bernal, and Pena


Official and semi-official violence against the Mexican Ameri- can community has recurred regularly. Particularly infamous are the 1943 "Zoot Suit Race Riots" of Los Angeles, five nights during which hundreds of American sailors savagely beat young Chicanos. The marauders were followed by the police, who arrested the Mexicans (McWilliams 1978). Events in Los Angeles touched off "'zoot suit' disturbances· in San Diego; Philadelphia; Chicago; and Evansville, Indiana, and major race riots in Beaumont, Texas; Harlem; and Detroit (McWilliams 1978: 256). Police brutality, excessive fC?rce on the part of immigration officials and vigilante beatings of immigrant workers continue today, as do very high incarceration rates of Latinos.

Asian Americans

The second half of the· nineteenth century was characterized by recurrent violence against Asians. Chinese were murdered throughout the West for their gold; others were targets because they were perceived as an illegitimate source of competition for jobs or bUsiness, as were Japanese, Koreans, and Filipinos after them (Chan 1991). Asians are still vulnerable to violent attack motivated by the perception of economic competition, both domestically; as has been the case for Vietnainese fishers in California and Texas, and internationally, as in the case of Vincent Chin, whose murder was apparently motivated by animosity at the success of the Japanese autos in this country (Chan 1991). The idea that Asians illegitimately take work or wealth from more deserving members of the community is part of what underlay the targeting of Korean grocers during the rioting in Los Angeles in 1992.

Gender Violence . Violence Against Women

Violence against women primarily takes two forms, the threat of sexual assault outside the home and domestic violence, including sexual assault, within it. Rape, and the threat of rape, has functioned to keep women uin their place" by making many public and semi-public spaces, many occupations, and all arenas


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Keeping People in Their Place

outside the home after dark off-limits to women without a male escoit. uWomen learn that there is a series of boundaries in the physical and social worlds which they must 1).ot cross if they wish to remain safe" (Pain 1991). Women "deserve what they get" if they preslime to enter a bar or party unaccompanied by a man, remain on t11e streets after dark, hitch-hike, or enter a male occupation.

While women are vulnerable to sexual assault from police and prison guards, the primary roles of the state in the history of violence against women appear to be (a) tolerance of violence women in the home, (b) indifferent enforcement of laws sanctioning violence against women outside the home, (c) tolerance, even encouragement, of violence against women by the armed forces, and (d) the always present threat of state violence to back 'up both women's exclusion from political and social institutions and men's "rights· to their children, their wives' earnings, and even to commit their wives to psychiatric care. Much violence against women has been concentrated in the home, where battering, or the threat of it, may assure that women provide housekeeping, childrearing, and sex. What many of us prefer to think of as ·caring labor" removed from the self- interested forum of the market place, is often motivated by fear (Folbre 1995). The linguistic roots of the word family reflect the historical Roman institution familia, a man and. his slaves, including his wife and children (Stordeur and Stille 1989: 33). Many men still assume that they "own· their wives. "In an intimate heterosexual relationship, the assumption of ownership will lead a man to assume that he has certain rights concerning

the right to punish his wife if she does

not comply with his wishes or meet his expectations (Stordeur and

his 'property'


Stille 1989: 33). . Women are killed by their abusive partners most often at the poiI!t at which the woman is making an effort to leave the household. The prevalence of domestic violence presently cannot be accurately assessed. It is certainly true that community resources to combat domestic violence are not nearly adequate in the United States at the present. Violence may also play a role in the maintenance. of particular occupations as the property of men. Harassment of women in the trades and uniformed services has included sexual assault, as well as neglect of training or supervision, and even sabotage, causing dangerous "accidents· (Eisenberg 1998; Martin



, I

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Review ofRadic41 Political Economics

VIOlence Against Gay People Another aspect of gender violence that enjoys the same degree of social sanction is violence against gay people. Whether or not violence against lesbians and gay men represents an assertion of some sort of property right in heterosexual privileges-either in the ownership of particular occupations and public spaces, or in reinforcing conventional gender roles-or whether such violence is better, understood' purely as an expression of bigotry is difficult to say. Research on topics relating to sexual orientation is as yet quite undeveloped among economists (Badgett and Hyman 1998).


The full economic consequences of the violent enforce- ment of race and gender privileges in U.S. history are incalculable. The cumulative impact of generations of economic marginalization in all forms, including denial of access to education, training, occupational attainment, unionization, land ownership, business ownership, and Credit, cannot be estimated. Perhaps the only reasonable assumption that can be made is that in the absence of racism and sexism, and any sCientifically sound judgement that intelligence and drive are distributed differently among different groups of people, no identiftable demographic group would hold an economic status much different than any other. The economic consequences of some particular acts may be estimated. The losses sustained by women kept in the home can be accounted: 'lost wages, coerced household services, and reduced additions to the GOP. The value of real estate transferred in suspicious circumstances from Chicanos to Anglos after the annexation of Northern Mexico could be evaluated, as could the value of resources transferred from Indian land even after treaties were signed. These research projects are enormous because they are largely untouched, with the exception of the efforts to appraise the losses to African Americans due to slavery (e.g., America


Another project of great interest is to investigate the dynamic relationship between racial and gender violence and economic variables such as unemployment, wage inequality, race and gender wage gaps, residential segregation, mortgage discrimina- tion, indices of occupational attainment of women and people of


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Keeping People in Their Place

color, and GOP. Scholarship of this sort might illuminate the circumstances during which violence is most prevalent, perhaps when subordinate groups are making gains or when dominant groups are frustrated in their aspirations, and the economic conse-quences for the wider economy in terms of growth rates and overall inequality.


The magnitude' of violence against women and people of co~or in the United States has been horrific. Much of this violeQ.ce has had obvious economic motives and consequences, but economists have completely overlooked violence in their study of discrimination and disparities. This paper has asserted that the purpose of the violence has been to retain property rights in race and gender privileges, and the result has been to widen disparities in economic status by race and gender. Further research is required in order to begin to understand the significance of viole.t;lce in keeping people of color and women "in their place. n


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Marte. King

Economics Department POrt¥md State University P.O.'Box 751 Portland OR 97207 king! 1




Sep~mber 1999


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