An Interview with Justin Leroy

Racial finance and the question of moral progress

On Wednesday, March 29th, Justin Leroy, an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Davis, delivered a presentation entitled “Race, Finance, and the Afterlife of Slavery,” as part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, the seventy-eighth installment of the longest-running survey of American art. Leroy’s talk, which drew from an article co-authored with Zenia Kish entitled “Bonded Life: Technologies of Racial Finance from Slave Insurance to Philanthrocapital,” served as a continuation of his collaboration with visual artist Cameron Rowland. His presentation referenced the subject and text of Rowland’s exhibit on a Social Impact Bond, or a “Pay for Success” contract entitled, Public Money, a conceptual artwork “enacted” by this year’s Biennial.

Rowland’s featured Biennial project is thematically focused on institutional investment in social impact bonds (SIBs). The piece itself consists of his request for the Whitney to make a $25,000 investment in a social impact bond for a program to prevent recidivism in Ventura County, California. The gallery includes framed documents related to the project: a five-year legal non-disclosure agreement, a print out of a $25,000 wire transfer, and the Pay for Success project application for the Ventura County Project. Rowland’s art conveys both conceptual and material agency. The physical contract is documented as a legal agreement entered into as of February 24, 2017 between the Whitney Museum of American Art and Social Finance, Inc., a non-profit corporation in Massachusetts.

According to the museum wall text, SIBs marketize social services as well as their receipts. They are instruments of austerity that structure temporary social services as investment opportunities through private investors with the goal to reduce government spending. The contract is typically between the city or county government and a private intermediary organization, the latter of which selects a nonprofit service provider to design a program in pursuit of the outcomes. The context for Rowlands’ exhibition is the Whitney’s SIB, specifically that the museum will retain any return on its investment if the “specific social outcomes” of the SIB contract for the Ventura County Project are achieved.

Leroy’s criticism takes up this example of a private intermediary organization and institutional investment supporting a social service. According to Leroy, SIBs perpetuate racialized capitalism and serve to privatize what are typically thought of as state-sponsored public works. Specifically, he questions the objects of investment for social finance projects and ‘ethical’ financing. He argues that although SIB investments can be marketed as financially innovative vehicles for philanthrocapitalism — philanthropy that assumes a for-profit business approach — the historical and contemporary dimensions of financial experimentation situate SIBs within the context of racial capital. Leroy uses his research on the overlapping histories of race and the tropes of financial innovation as evidence for how human life — especially the lives of black people — have been the object of financial investments across historical periods. Financial innovation has always been deeply racialized, he argues, operating as a primary vehicle of black subjugation.

Leroy reminds us that Black lives in the West have perpetually been the site of financial experimentation. Though he resists claiming that the Transatlantic Slave Trade should be conceptualized as a direct antecedent to modern financial transactions, Leroy provides a number of historical instances that illustrate the varied ways in which racialized capital has appeared in the past 250 years.

By connecting the history of slavery and the history of finance, Leroy challenges us to recast our understanding of the afterlife of slavery. Most notably, he contends with the notion of progress, both historical and moral, and asks if the present is an “amplification” of the past rather than its “echo.” History has demonstrated that securitizing human life by leveraging black suffering to transfer risk from the public to private markets continues to be absolutely central to the functioning of financial markets. It is through Leroy’s account of slavery’s legacy, and his questions about finance as an instrument for exploiting racialized bodies, that he reframes our understanding of slavery and capitalism. Perhaps we should, as Leroy suggests, consider more critically, the intertwined relationships between race and financial capitalism, and how it exploits Black life for profit.

In the brief interview that follows, Professor Leroy responds to questions from Aaron Neber and Narender Strong on social impact bonds and the afterlife of slavery.

Aaron Neber: At the start of your talk, you laid out your trajectory by saying that you didn’t want to make the claim that the slave trade is necessarily a direct antecedent to contemporary financial structures, but you affirm that racialization is mobile. Why should we not think of slavery as a direct antecedent to contemporary, racializing financial structures, and why is this distinction important?

Professor Leroy: I caution against saying that it’s a direct antecedent because then it becomes a question of whether or not we can trace a clear line from the financial practices of slave-owners and their investors to the philanthrocapitalists of today. I want to focus on the larger idea that race has been a recurring site of financial experimentation, and that recurrence is significant even if the direct transference of ideas is difficult to pin down.

Narender Strong: You defined Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) as monetizing and profiting from social services that will presumably benefit the public, but certainly the majority of the return will go to private investors. You also brought in the idea of Theodore Parker’s moral arc of the universe. Rather than creating something like social impact bonds, could we think of alternative assets such as a “moral impact bond”?

Leroy: I brought up Martin Luther King Jr.’s paraphrasing of Parker’s quote, because I think it is such an appealing notion.1 It’s a notion that, even if we can intellectually be critical of it, emotionally it seems so right. You can ask the most jaded scholar if human life is generally better now than 200 years ago, and they would be very hard pressed to say no. But I don’t think it’s particularly useful to think about history in this very linear way. It’s something we see in both liberal and Marxist thought — the idea that history moves constantly forward toward some goal. What if it doesn’t? What if these new forms of social finance are actually steering us in a direction that exercises a more exploitative form of financial control over racial life than less? What if we thought about the racial aspects of contemporary social finance not just as lingering legacies or diminishing echoes of the way that finance was racialized in the past, but as an intensification of this relationship, drawing the two closer together?. I don’t necessarily have definitive answers, I just want us to consider the questions and what new intellectual paths it may open up to think of history in that way.

Strong: When you think about privatizing assets, you are in some ways structuring the asset and its value around the assumed risk. I am wondering if there might be some kind of financial structure that would promote “moral capitalism.” Could there be an incentive towards “moral capitalism,” leaving aside whether or not an innate moralism exists?

Leroy: I’m very suspicious of the idea that capitalism can be moral or ethical in a way that would have any substantive value behind it. I think [in the case of SIBs] two competing ethical systems are coming into conflict. The idea behind any bond is that the lender is ethically entitled to interest and a return based on the sanctity of the contract, but the purpose of those bonds, if they’re to further a social good, operates on a totally different set of assumptions and principles. This is a problem and in the interest of justice we’re going to work towards fixing it. You can sit these two interests side by side, but there is always going to be a tension, and you can see that tension as soon as you start to scratch the surface of these bonds.

Neber: During your talk, you hypothesized that the present may actually be an “amplification” of the past as opposed to an “echo.” Can you explain what you mean in terms of the dominant narrative of race in the U.S.? That is, how does thinking about the present as an amplification of the past affect the story that emancipation signaled an achievement of freedom that left the institution of slavery in the past?

Leroy: For me, the idea of amplification as opposed to echo is a provocation, not necessarily a statement of fact. It’s an invitation to consider how deeply the narrative of constant progress from slavery to freedom is embedded in our consciousness. That’s not to say that the end of slavery was not a major moment in world history, because it was. Emancipation was incredibly important to enslaved people for many, many reasons. But I think we then move too easily to the idea that no matter how oppressive what came after emancipation was, it couldn’t be as bad as slavery. But formerly enslaved people used the language of slavery to describe the limitations of emancipation quite frequently. We don’t have to take such statements at literal face value, but we do have to take them very seriously and truly wrestle with what they’re trying to convey about the experience of freedom. For example, in 1894, Frederick Douglass — who spent the first part of his life enslaved himself and had very clear memories of that time, he knew exactly what it meant to be a slave, and he didn’t make these kinds of comparisons lightly — he said, “the negro is physically, in certain localities, in a worse condition to-day than in the time of slavery.” That’s pretty arresting. To really confront what Douglass’s words meant, I had to suspend my own assumptions about the singular importance of emancipation. What if the things that black people didn’t see in their freedom were just as important or more important as what they did see or what they did gain?

Strong: You spoke in your lecture about the “contraction of black freedom.” How do you theorize freedom, or what would it look like today?

Leroy: That’s a really good question. In my own work, I argue that we do a disservice to the depth of 19th-century black intellectual history when we collapse a wide range of political aspirations into the benign language of “rights.” I try to look at a familiar archive from a new perspective to draw out the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist dimensions of black abolitionist thought. For instance, take an idea that everyone has heard of, “40 acres and a mule.” Both black intellectuals and enslaved people with no formal education expected this kind of land redistribution would be a part of what freedom meant, but we don’t often think of that demand as an important moment in the history of black anti-capitalism.

Similarly, in the 1890s and early 1900s, there were robust debates about the occupation of Cuba and the Philippines in the black press, and about what Black people’s role in that imperial project should be. I want to move beyond the idea that Black men could prove their fitness for freedom by fighting in the US military, and showing how they were just as manly as white men, and would be good citizens. I’m much more interested in the moments when they expressed solidarity with Cubans and Filipinos and imagined the pursuit of freedom as a fight against U.S. occupation. So yes, black people have always wanted rights, but not to fulfill some fairy tale about the U.S. being founded on equality—they saw rights as just one part of the reordering of society.

Strong: Professor Leroy, thanks for this interview.

Leroy: Thank you.

The interview above was conducted on March 29, 2017 with Professor Leroy after his lecture on “Race, Finance, and the Afterlife of Slavery” at the Whitney Museum in New York. The transcript of the conversation was lightly edited for clarity.

Aaron Neber is a Ph.D. student in Philosophy at The New School for Social Research.

Narender Strong is a cultural historian and graduate student in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program offered jointly by Parsons The New School for Design and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian National Design Museum. She is a multidisciplinary scholar and emerging public intellectual whose research focuses on cultural narratives of identity and representation. She writes critically about racial history, design and material culture, and on contemporary topics that intersect with Black and African diasporic subjects .

1 The 1853 sermon quote by the abolitionist minister, Theodore Parker: “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

An admirer of Parker, Martin Luther King Jr. referenced his quote saying: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Narender Strong

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