Interlocking Erasures: U.S. Empire, Whitness, and the Terraforming of Politics

Nicholls, Heidi, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Vickerman, Milton, AS-Sociology (SOCI), University of Virginia

Many scholars have determined that racism is a structural problem that is continually reproduced through a racialized social system and are able to account for how racism has changed over time, from explicit and overt to seemingly “colorblind” mechanisms (Bonilla-Silva 1997, 2015; Omi and Winant 2015). However, few approaches have addressed how changes in racism over time relate to the territorial expansion of the United States. As a result, scholarship in sociology tends to characterize racism in the United States as a form of marginalization and exclusion from full civic and social participation in the nation-state rather than detailing the role of race in the formation of the United States as a settler colonial empire. Accordingly, studies often exclude the impact of racialization on Native Nations and Indigenous peoples and are unable to grapple with the relationship between whiteness, indigeneity, and state-rule.
This dissertation examines how settler colonists employed whiteness during different periods in the long history of U.S. imperial formation. I analyze how settler colonists used race in different ways depending on how they imagined the borders, future, and content of empire. They deployed ideas about whiteness in ways that either outlined or obscured these various edges of empire. What I found was not relationships between whiteness and imperial or colonial processes, but whiteness as a relationship that connected people to these processes and, therefore, to the settler state. In other words, looking for whiteness as a thing proved futile. Instead, during key periods of settler colonial expansion in Virginia and Hawai‘i, whiteness denoted a particular kind of relationship between the U.S. state and specific populations. Settler colonists consistently used whiteness as a shorthand for loyalty to the empire-state. They did so while working to rule over various population, though they enacted contradictory racial policies, and imagined divergent imperial futures. As I demonstrate, as U.S. empire-state rule became increasingly hegemonic globally, the federal government changed strategies in terms of the racial politics of empire, pivoting from a racially exclusive empire, to a “progressive” empire. This change marked a shift in ideologies of race, from using race to denote particular types of relationships to the empire-state, to race as biological, but not always the determining factor of a person’s relationship to state rule. Settler colonists in favor of assimilation and integration hoped to convince various audience that everyone was capable of contributing to the empire-state. Such a change in imperial strategy worked to further erase alternative political possibilities to U.S. empire-state rule.
Throughout these findings, I develop a theory of interlocking erasures. Settler colonists contributed to the erasure of structures, such as empire, settler colonialism, and the state, as well as positionalities including Indigenous peoples, Native nations, and settler colonists. I show how the overall structures of settler colonialism were obscured alongside the positionalities created by that structure. Settler colonial control over knowledge, including through sociology as a discipline, created and reinforced settler colonial figures of place and notions of race, geographies and ontologies of empire that shape where and who people think that they are.
Finally, I argue that widespread debates around racism typically reproduce the interlocking erasures of settler colonialism by neglecting the state. This dissertation therefore contributes to the sociology of race, political sociology, and the sociology of knowledge. It does so by detailing how the empire-state not only shaped the material geographies of lands now claimed within its territorial borders, but also constructed the categories from which politics proceeds. Manifold forms of elimination preceded colonial conceptualizations of place and people. In the process, settler colonists engaged in a terraforming of politics so that the strength of antiracist efforts would be funneled in ways that reinforced the power of the empire-state, leaving the structure of U.S. settler colonialism intact.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
U.S. Empire, whiteness, settler colonialism, comparative-historical sociology, race, racism, Hawai'i, Virginia
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