Dispossessions and race in the Americas

This fall Belén Unzueta is teaching a seminar on the historical account of race and ethnicity in the Americas as a Penn-Mellon Just Futures Initiative postdoctoral fellow.

A group of Native Americans standing in a row. The trees behind are bare; it looks to be cold.
Belén Unzueta and her students looked at the enrollment cards the U.S. government gave Native Americans. It’s striking, because the cards list the blood quantum, she says. (Image: Harris & Ewing, photographer/Library of Congress)

Originally from Chile, Belén Unzueta says she was struck when she came to America as a graduate student by how the United States thinks of race. American racial attitudes are codified and accepted, “universal principles that have always been and will always be,” she says. “But that’s not really true.” 

Unzueta, who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton, is currently at Penn in her second postdoctoral year and is a Penn-Mellon Just Futures Initiative postdoctoral fellow. This semester she is teaching the course Dispossessions and Race in the Americas, a historical account of ethnic and racial theories.

The course starts by examining the economic changes in Europe that precipitated the racial attitudes that many people hold today. “Discrimination based on skin color started around the 15th century when the Portuguese started their explorations of Africa, starting plantations in different islands along the coast,” says Unzueta. “Very rapidly, the market for Black slaves developed.”

She says cash crops, including sugar, were produced with slave labor before 1492 and the conquest of North and South America. Subsequently more tropical islands were planted with cash crops. In the Americas, the Spanish first tried to use Indigenous labor, Unzueta says, and eventually switched to using enslaved Africans.  

But classifications for these two racial groups—Black and Indigenous—were very different because of the differing economic needs of Europeans, says Unzueta. African Americans were categorized according to the “one-drop rule,” where one-sixteenth African ancestry might have qualified one as Black. Native Americans, on the other hand, were codified using blood quantum, where one-quarter Native American ancestry might not have been enough to designate a person as Indigenous. 

Unzueta and her students looked at the enrollment cards the U.S. government gave Native Americans. It’s striking, she says, because the cards list the blood quantum. In some cases, “D” cards were given to people with “doubtful” applications and “R” to those who had been rejected. 

Both constructions of race were tied to European economic realities, Unzueta says. “African Americans were exploited for labor, while Native Americans were exploited for land. If you’re looking to exploit land, it’s better for people to disappear. If you’re looking to exploit labor, it’s better if the population grows.”

Racial categorizations emerged in different ways in different places. “It has to do with the political economy of land and labor, how we develop those things, how they are organized in society,” says Unzueta. “They can change. Most importantly, I think if you study the origin of something, you’re implicitly saying this can also have an ending. 

“I think that’s important, because we tend to study the reproduction of racial inequality, which is like a never-ending circle,” she says. “Truly these are not universal principals. We can study the historical construction of how they came to be, and hopefully how can we end them in some way.”