“Race and Crowds from the Nineteenth Century to Now”

deadline for submissions: 
January 18, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
Ben Murphy / UNC-Chapel Hill
contact email: 

Seeking presenters for a panel proposal for the 2019 American Studies Association (ASA) conference in Honolulu, Hawai'i, November 7-10 2019 

“Race and Crowds from the Nineteenth Century to Now”

The 1890s in America were marked by two racist discourses of the crowd. On the one hand, this period saw the proliferation of crowd theory, or crowd psychology, which forged a science—or pseudoscience—out of understanding and predicting patterns of collective behavior. These accounts were overwhelmingly misogynist, elitist, and racist, since the crowds under scrutiny often comprised women, the working class, immigrants, and other marginalized communities. Self-proclaimed crowd psychologists situated themselves above the fray as dispassionate diagnosticians who could make sense of the actions of people supposedly more primitive, susceptible, and herd-minded.

On the other hand, the actual face of crowd terror in the 1890s was undeniably white and male. As reformers like Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass documented, the decades surrounding the turn of the century saw the highest rate of lynchings of black individuals, many of whom were murdered by mobs (i.e., collectives of “persons unknown”) in what Jacqueline Goldsby has described as acts of spectacular secrecy. Putatively anonymous and thus seemingly unaccountable, crowds and collective action here served the ends of supremacist terror.

While in the first discourse, a theory of the crowd is invoked to explain the perceived failings of persons who—because of collectivist behaviors—do not meet the ideal of white masculinity, in the second account it is white masculinity that relies on the collective behaviors of the crowd (or mob) to shore itself up amidst racial anxiety. Whiteness censures and manages race as the collective threat only until whiteness must call on a cowardly form of collectivity to maintain domination.

This panel considers how these and other discourses of race, the crowd, and the collective ramify forward in time from their nineteenth century contexts. What might this conflicted moment in the nineteenth century teach us about contemporary conversations surrounding race and crowds, especially with respect to white nationalism, civil rights, immigration, and the changing demographics of the United States? And if race is often leveraged through an oppressive understanding of collectivity (as in the discourses described above), what other, more constructive formulations existed? What energizing formations of crowd collectivity can we in the present glean from this century that witnessed the Haitian revolution, slave insurrection and revolt, utopian communities, abolition reform, women’s suffrage, and numerous other political and artistic movements? In other words, how might scholars, artists, and activists working today across literary, historical, aesthetic, and political landscapes participate in a tradition of non- or anti-racist theories of the crowd? How—in the terms of the conference theme—do we understand the collective nature of the “we” that “builds as we fight”? What futures can “we” build?

Please submit an abstract of no more than 300 words, along with a brief bio, to bmurphy2@live.unc.edu by January 18, 2019.

Possible topics include—but are of course not limited to—the following:

  • Collective actions and movements situated in specific historical contexts
  • How race in America uniquely shapes questions of biopower and biopolitics
  • Considerations of the crowd with respect to multitude theory and historical materialism
  • Accounts of the crowd/mob with respect to the rise (and endurance) of fascism 
  • The histories of science and social science in relation to race, gender, and sexuality
  • Questions of accountability, responsibility, and culpability with respect to crowds
  • Coalition building across old and new media
  • Literary, aesthetic, and political representations of crowds
  • Account of geography, region, and space, especially with respect urban space
  • Anti- and post-colonial understandings of collective resistance and identity  
  • Post-human, new materialist, or otherwise speculative notions of collective belonging and knowing; and/or feminist, postcolonial, and race studies rebuttals to these accounts