Racing Mobility, Excavating Modernity

A Comment

in Transfers

The diversity of methodologies, theoretical orientations, geographical settings, and disciplinary perspectives in this special issue of Transfers testifies to a dual arrival—that of race as a key category of inquiry in mobility studies, and of mobility as a crucial practice in analyses of what scholars in the humanities and social sciences call the social construction of race. Drawing on poststructuralist and critical race theory, reflexive ethnographic methods, and scholarship in literary studies, sociology, and the history of technology, these essays illustrate the versatility of the mobility optic as well as its massive potential for the formation of new knowledge and the effecting of egalitarian policy. The scholars here make the case for mobility as central to everything from the structured inequalities of the contemporary city to the formation of the raced and gendered modern subject; and their interventions range from the reformist to the ontological. Maybe the influential cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz (and the other Western sahibs who recounted the story before him) misunderstood the structure of the world as the fabled Hindu interlocutor conveyed it; perhaps the infinitely regressing turtles on which the universe rested were never simply standing, but crawling.

Mobility merits such capacious claims, insofar as by moving and being moved we remake our selves and our worlds every day. Race offers researchers a similar capacity and multiplicity. Indeed, as with race, mobility is never not at issue in any modern practice, text, and inst itution. The authors here corroborate mobility’s abiding significance in studies that range from the more prosaic protocols of commuting, walking in the city, and hauling goods, to the transgressive mobilities of those who cross the border and U.S. football’s end zone, to ontologies of laying claim to modern personhood itself. As a number of the essays assert as a sort of a priori, race has historically functioned and continues to function as an inhibitor or enabler of a given subject’s spatial (and, consequently, socioeconomic) mobility. The connection between race and mobility is venerable but not ancient: both rely on conceptions of self, Other, and community, as well as technologies and modes of production and exchange that emerge in the early modern era and over the next few centuries gather nearly all environments and relations under their ambit.

Pursuant to the hierarchy of human types established through colonization, slavery, and the racial regimes those systems handed down to our era, a subject’s whiteness (or proximity to it) increases his access to volitional mobility, which in turn encourages in that subject an imaginary of self-possession and entitlement, which in turn licenses practices of annexation and extraction. Hence, the argument, put forward here most forcefully by Sarah Sharma and Armond R. Towns, who draw upon a growing body of literary, philosophical, and cultural studies scholarship, that whiteness has stood as the very prerequisite for a modern subjectivity based in freedom. Hegel, writing in 1830, evaluated the three racial categories—Mongolian, Ethiopian, and Caucasian—in terms of their respective capacities for self-differentiation from the natural world and the self-determined, purposive mobility that is its consequence. “Negroes,” Hegel asserted, “are to be regarded as a race of children who remain immersed in their state of uninterested naïveté. … they do not show an inherent striving for culture … their mentality is quite dormant, remaining sunk within itself and making no progress.” Further along toward enlightenment are the Mongols who, for their part, “reveal as their characteristic feature a restless mobility which comes to no fixed result,” and therefore evince only the germ of what has come to fruition in the Caucasian of Christian Europe. This latter figure “is interested in the world, he wants to know it, to make this Other confronting him his own”; the force of his awakened mind “subdues the outer world to its end with an energy that ensures for it the mastery of the world.” Only the Caucasian attains and merits the condition of freedom; only his mobility “produces [an] advance in world-history.”1 Nonwhites either remain listless or engage in extravagant, aberrant mobilities—the “unsportsmanlike” celebration dances of the NFL players and the “drapetomania” of runaway slaves described by Tim Cresswell, as well as the purported “dangerously inferior driving cultures” of South Asian truck drivers in Amie McLean’s contribution—that evidence their spiritual and psychic infantility.

For Hegel, as well as Immanuel Kant and other builders of the philosophical substructure of modernity,2 blackness signified that which remained most abjectly outside of and ineligible for modern subjectivity, the political articulation of which is citizenship in a nation-state —Tamara Vukov’s concern in her essay. The exclusion that Michel Foucault characterized as “state racism” usually lurks behind the grand rhetoric of Enlightenment nation building, as in the bad faith of “all men are created equal” and other such universalistic precepts. It is only occasionally, and only when compelled by the mobility of intra- and international migrants that a state draws explicitly the borders around its legal and cultural citizenship. Here the citizen-ideal assembled in the United States is instructive: as opposed to more homogeneous states of the Westphalian model, American identity was cobbled from disparate nationalities and in the context of a thoroughgoing mobility of a racially varied populace: the entry and distribution of immigrant settlers and sojourning laborers; entrepreneur-enslavers’ advance into the southwestern frontier; and the forced migration of Indigenous people and enslaved African Americans. Given the tacitly or explicitly racist cast of the Enlightenment political philosophy on which the founders drew, it is unsurprising that the citizen-ideal that emerged shortly after the achievement of independence had a consanguinary whiteness, understood as European heritage, at its heart. Key moments in this process of demarcation include the 1790 Naturalization Act, which expressly limited citizenship to “free white persons”; the Supreme Court’s 1857 rejection of the legal personhood of African Americans in Dred Scott v. Sandford; and the Chinese Exclusion Acts of the 1880s, among myriad others. Even after the U.S. Civil War formally ended de jure white-only citizenship, a deep historical commitment to the latter (which to a large degree all white settler countries share) has meant that whiteness continues in our own time to secure “safe passage”—a trope on which Sharma and Towns capitalize in their account of the LA gang ceasefire—into and through political and geographical spaces; and nonwhiteness, if not precluding altogether one’s access to those spaces, narrows one’s range of motion inside them, and exposes one to various forms of violence.

The social and legal construction of race begun during the Enlightenment has had such a lasting influence that it can make it seem as though racialization is an accomplished fact and not an ongoing process. We must consider the practice of mobility within and between states as constituting an occasion for racial recognition, formation, negotiation, and reformation. Examples of racial self-transformation and reinscription through mobility abound in U.S. literature, popular culture, and history: Eston Hemings, most likely fathered by his and his mother’s enslaver, Thomas Jefferson, left Virginia, where he was indelibly black, for Wisconsin, where he lived as a white man. Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants whose whiteness was considered dubious in the eastern cities found themselves “Anglo-Saxonized” as they moved westward as agents of U.S. “manifest destiny” and the destruction of Native American tribes, and took up the cudgel against Asian immigration on the West Coast.3 Mexican nationals who remained on land seized by the United States in the 1848 Mexican War found themselves by treaty naturalized and thereby rendered officially white, a status revoked in the twentieth century as the upper-class ranchero descendants of the Spanish colonials assimilated and greater numbers of more mestizo Mexicans moved into the region. Segregated black and white railroad and streetcars as well as social, education, and cultural spaces in the U.S. South compelled the racial reinscription of a variety mixed-race people as black, though many, like the novelist Charles Chesnutt, noted the inconsistency of the racial regimes across the postbellum South: even the color line was mobile. Today, an African American who boards a plane in Atlanta might step off as “white” in Port-au-Prince, or another locale where her particular phenotype signifies differently.

It is with an eye to mobility as an occasion for racialization that Tamara Vukov takes up the deployment by the state—here, Canada—of strategies of border regulation that subject different bodies to biopolitical (cultivating life and efficiency) or necropolitical (killing or threatening with death) regimes. Vukov asserts that “race is currently being (re)shaped by the complex interplay of bio/necropolitics, algorithmic governmentality, and specific border technologies in current bordering practice in North America.” She proposes that new biometric and algorithmic practices appear to transcend and rectify earlier models of racial profiling, but instead merely perpetuate those models in augmented form. Drawing on the work of scholars in media and critical race studies and on Deleuzian assemblage theory, Vukov casts doubt on the technocratic promise that racism can be circumvented by reducing human bodies to data points. It is precisely at the border, where state power concentrates, that those data are “epidermalized” through human scrutiny, reconstituted as national, ethnic, and racial, and then classified as assets to be biopolitically shepherded or threats to be necropolitically contained. As with its neighbor to the south, Canada’s border stations and immigrant intake facilities (such as Halifax’s Pier 21) have long been sites of racialization and exclusion based on that racialization—as in the 1910 Immigration Act that rejected all newcomers “unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada.”4 It is significant that Vukov closes her essay by resisting the ineluctability of the seemingly total system of the smart border regime she has described, gesturing instead to “further trajectories of research to pursue so as to more fully account for the tensions and contradictory forces at play.” This invitation to push at the seams and locate resistance and agency, even as one acknowledges the array of powerful institutions committed to the reproduction of what David Theo Goldberg calls “the racial state,” is in keeping with the most generative scholarship in mobility studies and critical race studies.5

Although not all these essays pursue the genealogy of whiteness-as-modern-subjectivity, nor the articulation and reconstitution of race through regimes of mobility, they all at least explore the relationships between already ascribed and relatively stable white and nonwhite identities and the right to mobility. Bradley Rink’s accounts of his friends’ and colleagues’ admonition, “You can’t take the bus!” for example, and of the deference he receives from other passengers while boarding and onboard as a visibly marked white professional, ironically reveal the long fetch and comprehensiveness of white spatial privilege. The same can be said for Amie McLean’s study of white Canadian truck drivers’ proprietary attitudes toward the roadway and their derogation of South Asian immigrant truckers. Tim Cresswell’s discussion of the Middle Passage presents the reader with a harrowing scene, repeatedly enacted in the holds of many thousands of slave ships over more than three centuries, of abjection and what we might call “chattelization”—the turning of people into alienable property. As Cresswell notes, the forced migration of the enslaved entailed both “extreme enforced transatlantic mobility and equally extreme enforced bodily immobility,” a paradox that runs through African-American culture. Yet while the Middle Passage undoubtedly left a traumatic imprint on African Americans, the U.S. context in which Cresswell situates his vignettes is more directly shaped by the domestic slave trade (North America received only some 4 percent of the upward of ten million people transported from Africa; and Congress outlawed the Atlantic slave trade in 1808). As Edward Baptist has recently argued, the American and British economies burgeoned mostly through the violently coerced labor and mobility of forced migrants to the Southwestern cotton frontier. Just as the arms of the enslaved were compelled to carve out the agricultural infrastructure for the cotton that powered British and Northern industrialization, the feet of those sold south and driven in long coffles hewed the roads that would become the arteries of continental travel and commerce.6 It is in these conditions of forced migration, which broke families and companions apart, subjected bodies to the constant threat of torture, and reminded the enslaved of the precarity of life, that African-American people built the cultures of improvisation, irony, and resistance that Cresswell sketches.

One is tempted, in writing remarks like these, to gather everything together and manufacture from the bundle of scholarship some commonality. The fact that I cannot do that strikes me as a good sign. Transfers has never been an organ of disciplinary formation or perspectival unity; and thank goodness for that. Instead, this special issue, with its variety of theoretical and rhetorical approaches and objects of study, reveals a salutary disorder in the field of mobility studies. However, it also shows that field’s recent aplomb in taking up the critical topic of race—a development as exciting as it is overdue.


G. W. F. Hegel, “Anthropology,” Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830), vol. 3, in Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott, The Idea of Race (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000), 39–44; here: 40, 41, 43, 42.


See, for example, Thomas McCarthy, Race, Empire, and the Idea of Human Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).


See Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).


David Theo Goldberg, The Racial State (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002).


Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

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Contributor Notes

Cotten Seiler is associate professor of American studies at Dickinson College. The author of Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America (Chicago, 2008) he is currently working on a book examining race and citizenship in the U.S. In the 1970s.


Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies