In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Race and Violence

  • Introduction
  • Manifest Destiny, Westward Expansion, Genocide, and White Supremacy in the United States
  • Lynching and Racial Terror in the US-Mexico Borderlands
  • Attacks on Latinx Youth in World War II: Zoot Suit Riots and the Criminalization of Youth
  • Police Brutality: The Ongoing Saga of State Violence toward People of Color
  • State and Vigilante Violence in the US-Mexico Borderlands
  • Violence and Carceral Regimes: Race, Gender, and Mass Incarceration

Sociology Race and Violence
Arturo Aldama, Laura Malaver, Shawn O'Neal, Alejandra Benita Portillos
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0250


White-supremacist violence; theft of land and resources; the genocide of indigenous peoples and the horrors of violence of stolen and enslaved human beings to build wealth for their colonial overlords, countries, and empires in the United States, the Caribbean, and the Americas; and xenophobic and racialized exploitations of labor produced by people of color are core aspects of US history. The issues, spectacles, histories, and lived experiences of race, racism, and racial, gender, and sexual violence drive the structural oppression of nonwhite communities in the United States and have unique trajectories while also developing unevenly and relationally within shared histories of racial, gender, and sexual violence and economic exploitation. Violence toward people of color started with first contact between European colonizing forces and indigenous communities in the late 15th century. From the late 15th century to the 21st century, the spectacles of lynching; vigilantism; Jim Crow / Juan Crow segregation practices; the imposition of boarding schools and the documented physical, psychological, and sexual violence inflicted on indigenous children; and the extreme anti-Chinese violence of vigilante race riots and xenophobic immigration laws are all legacies continuing into the 2020s. In the 20th century, a range of organized systems and acts of violence continued and emerged, from white-supremacist and patriarchal authority on communities of color; race riots; lynching; massacres; and unlawful imprisonments to the 1943 zoot suit riots, deportation, other acts of state-driven violence, and the rise of mass incarceration. Acts of domestic terrorism by white-supremacist individuals who see Latinx, Muslims, Jews, and other non-Anglo-Saxon communities as threats and invaders to the US body politic are a central feature of the 21st century. Along with vigilante violence toward communities of color, police brutality and deadly force with impunity continue to traumatize communities of color and foments the racial biopower politics of the 21st century, not to mention the ongoing crisis of domestic and gender-driven violence. This article summarizes a range of sources that speak both to empire- and state-driven and vigilante violence in different time frames toward varying communities in the United States and beyond.

Violence of Empire and European Colonization in the United States and the Americas

Colonization in the Americas by European empires (Spanish, English, French, Brazilian, and the Dutch Crown) started in the late 15th century and lasted until colonized nations began winning their independence in the 19th century. These empires sought to build further wealth and power by usurping land and resources, murder, enslavement, and displacement of indigenous people, as well as the theft and enslavement of people from the continent of Africa to replace and work with enslaved indigenous subjects. Given how each of these areas of colonization has a huge archive of primary and secondary sources and scholarly studies, we feature only some key texts that discuss colonization and enslavement and the racial and gendered violence that drives the colonial project and the ideologies that place nonwhite peoples as inferior, savage, and less evolved than Euro-Western setter-colonialists. The four-hundred-plus-year holocaust of enslaved Africans to build the wealth of European and Anglo-American plantation owners in the Americas and the Caribbean has a huge range of sources and needs to have its own full-length annotated bibliography. However, we included a variety of key sources that speak to the racialized violence of the Middle Passage and the racialized violence of enduring enslavement and violence of subjecting human beings to become slaves and “property” for plantation and mine owners, among other industries. For a good overview of the genocide enacted by the Spanish Empire in Mexico and the ways that indigenous subjects were decimated by warfare, enslaved work conditions, and disease, see Aldama 2001, Dunbar-Ortiz 2015, and Todorov 1999. Mignolo 2003 discusses in great detail the systematic denial of “coevalness” that characterizes Europe’s colonialist attitudes toward Mexico and its civilizational complexity. For an understanding of racialized sexual violence during conquest on indigenous women, see Smith 2005, and for a more recent look at the ongoing femicides of racialized sexual violence on indigenous women, see Deer 2015. For a study on sexual violence toward enslaved indigenous and African bodies in Brazil, see Aidoo 2018. Some key texts that discuss the racialized violence on enslaved people of African descent in the United States include Hartman 1997, on the terror of racial and sexual violence on enslaved bodies, and, for work on the horrors of abjection in the Middle Passage, Hurston 2018, which is based on interviews with a survivor of the Middle Passage. We also summarize a key work by Orlando Patterson (Patterson 2018), which discusses the practices of slavery across different continents and countries and then focuses on the practices of “social death” that were employed by US plantation owners and slave owners to reduce human beings to literal property.

  • Aidoo, Lamonte. 2018. Slavery unseen: Sex power and violence in Brazilian history. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    This study expands histories of enslavement within the Americas, documenting practices of sexual violence on enslaved indigenous and African bodies from the early 16th century to the late 19th century. Aidoo examines male rape of male adult and child slaves, hierarchies of race among women and their privileges, and sexual violence permeating and exacerbating these privileges. The study delineates four hundred years of ongoing sexual violence(s) by whites toward nonwhites in Brazil.

  • Aldama, Arturo. 2001. Disrupting savagism: Intersecting Chicana/o, Mexican immigrant, and Native American struggles for self-representation. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    Historicizing the processes of racial hierarchies for the “justification” of colonial violence toward indigenous peoples, this study locates how the discourses of the “fierce” and “noble” savage drive criminalization and violence in Mexico and in the US-Mexico borderlands. The book considers the politics of racialized, subaltern, feminist, and diasporic identities while analyzing how Mexican immigrants, indigenous peoples of Mexico, and Chicanas/Chicanos neutralize and disrupt negative discourses.

  • Deer, Sarah. 2015. The beginning and end of rape: Confronting sexual violence in Native America. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

    DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816696314.001.0001

    Arguing that surviving colonization and surviving rape are interconnected processes, Deer grounds modern sexual violence against Native American women in historically ongoing contexts of colonialism. The book discusses rape in legal, political, social, historical, and individual contexts and calls for indigenous nations to place legal reform (both internally and at the state and federal levels) regarding sexual violence against native women as the top priority for tribal self-determination and decolonization efforts.

  • Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. 2015. An indigenous people’s history of the United States. Boston: Beacon.

    Dunbar-Ortiz provides a wide-ranging look at the effects of conquest and colonization and the racist ideologies and practices that drove the genocide and displacement of indigenous civilizations, and the total change of lifeways, ecosystems, and relations among tribes. The final chapter critiques how the US war on terrorism uses similar tactics of torture, subjugation, and displacement of those perceived as enemy combatants.

  • Hartman, Saidiya V. 1997. Scenes of subjection: Terror, slavery, and self-making in nineteenth-century America. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Hartman examines how discourses and practices of racial and gendered subjugation of enslaved human beings of African descent occurred in the 19th-century US antebellum and post-plantation South. Hartman engages with a wide variety of examples of how black bodies are terrorized by slave masters and others for enjoyment by the white community from the auction block and minstrel shows, and the violent ways that bodies are subjected and punished in chattel slavery. Hartman argues that freed slaves had to continue to endure racial and gender terror in the post-plantation South through lynchings, subjugated “free” labor, and the ongoing resentment of former slave owners.

  • Hurston, Zora Neale. 2018. Barracoon: The story of the last black cargo. New York: HarperCollins.

    Based on Hurston’s 1927 interviews with Cudjo Lewis, at the time the last living survivor of the Middle Passage. Lewis’s account describes the raid on his people and subsequent capturing and transporting of his communities across the Atlantic aboard the slaver Clotilda. This work can be held as a foundational narrative recounting the horrors of racialized slavery, violence, and death, while beautifully capturing great human resolve.

  • Mignolo, Walter. 2003. The darker side of the Renaissance: Literacy, territoriality, and colonization. 2d ed. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.8739

    Mignolo’s work draws on history, semiotics, literature, historiography, cartography, and cultural studies to argue how European colonialism is driven by the systemic denial of civilizational complexities of Mesoamerica to justify their genocide and imposition and false hierarchies. Mignolo argues that the period of conquest by Spain and Europe of the Americas is characterized by a systematic denial of coevalness of civilizations between Mesoamerica and western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

  • Patterson, Orlando. 2018. Slavery and social death: A comparative study. 2d ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    In this comparative analysis, Patterson analyzes sixty-six locations where slavery has occurred, such as Greece, Rome, China, Korea, Africa, Caribbean, and the US South. He demonstrates the prominence of slavery within the daily social structures and systems by providing an understanding of the uneven power dynamics of a slave-and-master relationship, which results in subjecting the slave to social death.

  • Smith, Andrea. 2005. Conquest: Sexual violence and American Indian genocide. Cambridge, UK: South End.

    From state-sanctioned boarding schools, genocide, land extraction and abduction, and reproductive health control, Smith argues how sexual violence is a tool of colonization and genocide, and she discusses the impacts on indigenous women in different sites and times of colonization in the U.S.

  • Todorov, Tzvetan. 1999. Conquest of America: The question of the other. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

    Using 16th-century sources, Todorov examines the almost total destruction of indigenous people and their civilization during the conquest of Mexico. He argues that the almost total genocide occurred through direct violence by the Spaniards, working conditions of colonized indigenous peoples forced to work for the Spanish Crown, and the spread of diseases. Todorov argues that the imperial self is constructed through the violent abjection of the Other.

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