Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race

Reviewed by Steven

Patrick Wolfe, Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (New York: Verso Press, 2016), 296 pp., $29.95

In light of the recent upsurge in far-right white supremacist politics across Europe and the US, revisiting histories of racism in particular contexts seems imperative. As I write, the events of August 12th in Charlottesville, Virginia, have just taken place. A conglomeration of extremist right-wing groups, white supremacists, and neo-nazis converged purportedly to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. The events resulted in the murder of an anti-fascist counter-protester by a white supremacist who drove his car deliberately into a crowd. Prior to these events, media in the US, France, and elsewhere often responded with a sense of surprise to far-right candidates and their racist rhetoric: surely overt racism is a thing of the past and could not possibly occur in 2017. The events in Charlottesville reveal otherwise, and while the response from the Left has been swift and commendable, it appears that a sense of history behind these groups is missing across media narratives. Thus, it was fortuitous to be reading Wolfe’s analysis at this time.

Wolfe takes us back to the earliest formations of what we now call race. Studying Australia, the United States, Central Europe, Brazil, and Palestine, Wolfe shows how such brazen, overt racism has its origins in settler-colonialism. Connecting settler-colonial aims of property accumulation with the racialization of indigenous and enslaved populations, Wolfe examines the ways in which race itself was created and dispensed in colonial contexts to the benefit of each specific colonial regime. While the underlying focus on colonialism suggests a class-based analysis, Wolfe does not particularly delve into labor issues. Instead, he focuses on the victimized populations and on how race was legislated and enacted in order to advance the settler-colonial project.

In order to effectively combat racism globally, Wolfe explains, “anti-racist solidarities should conjoin as wide a range of historical relationships as colonialism itself has created” (4). Here, then, is an implicit connection between racism and global capitalism that began centuries ago. Wolfe tracks the histories of land and labor exploitation but not from an overtly Marxist perspective. Similarly, he references the horrific brutality enacted upon indigenous populations and bodies, but does not explicitly engage with bio-politics. Rather, mingled with some important discussions of native sovereignty, Wolfe’s analysis is primarily historical, using archival material and building upon prior work. The result is an objective, straightforward analysis of settler-colonial strategies that created and implemented race to the benefit of the colonists.  Wolfe reminds his readers throughout that such strategies were never actually about race in and of itself. Rather, he shows that racialization was about dispossession and accumulation for the colonial regime, that “the discourse [of race] presupposed colonialism” (11).

Wolfe’s book is another contribution to the study of the dialectical relationship between racism and class inequality. When Wolfe draws attention to race, colonialism is always present, and vice-versa. What is significant is that Wolfe examines how this dialectical relationship has endured over time and continues into the present in each particular location.

A key concept in Wolfe’s discussion is “preaccumulation.” In order for the settlers in each location to establish themselves, they required preconditions that allowed for them not only to reach their destination but to occupy it. “Preaccumulation” posits not only the colonizers’ preconditions, but the natives’ as well. As Wolfe states, “colonialism did not impress its will on a blank slate” (20). The notion of preaccumulation also alludes to the contingent nature of the attributes of culture, technology, and capital. Wolfe argues that nothing about colonial history was inevitable, but rather these attributes functioned in particular ways across colonial contexts to provide European colonists with material advantages over indigenous populations. Each instance of preaccumulation was distinctive. If anti-racists are to succeed in eradicating systemic white supremacy and racism, it is therefore imperative that we fully comprehend the contingencies and peculiarities of each setting.

Wolfe begins by looking at Australian Aborigines and the differences between blackness in Australia and in the United States. He explains that the assimilation of some indigenous populations and the elimination of others form two sides of the same settler-colonial strategy. He argues that seeing assimilation and elimination as two paths to the same goal is critical because other historians have questioned whether there is a contradiction between the two processes. Wolfe’s point is that we must understand and view settler-colonialism as “a structure, not an event” (33). Therefore, all its various strategies – from miscegenation and citizenship to conversion and the like – contributed to an overall process, or structure, that dispossessed the indigenous population. Such strategies have different outcomes in each location. In the United States for example, the federal government carried out a plan of assimilation with African Americans alongside a plan of elimination of Native Americans, because the nascent country needed the natives’ land while it needed black Americans’ labor. But in tandem, the two strategies served (and continue to serve) the dispossession of non-whites in the country.

Moving on to Brazil, Wolfe documents the fluidity of race as a concept, noting that there are possibly up to 500 different racial categories in that country (113). For Wolfe, the sheer multitude of categories belies any possibility of an essential racial category, and if anti-racists are to achieve solidarity to combat racism, it is precisely this unwieldiness of race that demands attention. Further racial complexities are present in Wolfe’s analysis of Jews in Europe and Jews in the Israel/Palestine region. Wolfe persuasively explains the ways in which Jews in central Europe were targeted as the embodiment of capitalism’s negative qualities and stereotypes, while Zionists ironically borrowed similar colonial strategies from those same European nations. In the latter situation, we have a contemporary form of settler-colonialism, but Wolfe does a thorough job charting the long history of Zionism that led to this point, including previous attempts at establishing a Jewish state in the early 20th Century. 

Wolfe’s work directly addresses the questions “how are races constructed, under what circumstances, and in whose interests?” (6). A thorough reckoning with these questions in Traces of History powerfully suggests that if we fully understand how race was constructed in various contexts, then we can work to comprehensively dismantle those constructions to the benefit of a truly egalitarian society. In the face of neo-fascism and political discourse that accommodates racism and white supremacy in 2017, events like those in Charlottesville can make anti-racism seem hopeless, but Wolfe shows us that such movements and ideologies are standing on very thin historical ground, implying that just as such ideologies were constructed, so too can they be undone.  

Reviewed by Steven Delmagori PhD Candidate, English University at Albany, SUNY