Race and Crowds from the Nineteenth Century to Now
Session type: 

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 send an abstract of your proposed paper (300 words) & a short bio to Ben Murphy (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


Current contributors: 
Ben Murphy
Panel contact: 




In Theatre of the Mind: Formations of U.S. Nationalism in the 19th Century, I am specifically interested in the role African Americans had in shaping U.S. nationalism during the 19th century. I argue, African Americans played a pivotal role willingly and unwillingly in forming of U.S. nationalism for whites as well as blacks. In other words, prior to the Civil War the “color-line” as W. E. B. DuBois defined was not fully set in stone. This meant that the social norms that accompanied political, social and economic norms could be applicable to groups outside of African Americans. Further, this transitional period suggested that African Americans could participate in the same religious, social, cultural and political institutions as whites although limited. To address issues surrounding disenfranchisement, indentured servitude, enslavement and economic distress African Americans utilized print media and entertainment as a way to shape political, social and cultural thought. During what I term this uncertain period of racial and national formation, black artists, abolitionist, intellectuals and politicians understood that print media and the arts allowed a pathway to driving political change and economic stability. Significantly, some African Americans saw this historical moment of hope as a transitional period to “becoming American” and a collective national identity.

This work is significant for several reasons; first, the settler colonial mentality, ambitions and territorial growth of the U.S. throughout the duration of the 19th century signify one of the nation’s initial and most concrete political schemes. However, few scholars examining American nation building and political expansion have explored or have ignored the process, deserting conventional descriptions for why or how the United States expanded at the rate and scale that it did, where it expanded, as well. 1 In this paper, I suggest that African American’s participation in theatre played a central role in helping the U.S. gain a national identity in which the U.S. accelerated its growth. In this context, the theatre serves as a key political platform in several ways; one, theatres provided an opportunity for blacks to align themselves with political ideologies; two, theatres transformed public and private spaces and until the Civil War remained desegregated. 

Short Bio:

Marcus Johnson earned his B.A. Global Studies (2013) and M.A. in Cultural Studies (2016) from the University of Washington Bothell. As a Mary Gates Scholar alum, and 2018-2019 Mellon Fellow, Johnson looks forward to continuing his research on key issues surrounding race, gender and identity. Johnson’s previous work, The Multi Dimensions of Blackness: Cultural Hegemony in the United States and Abroad;” stems from a “disquieting” encounter he had while visiting family in the Dominican Republic that catalyzed his interest in different formations of “blackness” in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and the United States. Johnson's comparative project situates issues of race within the domestic dynamics of the United States and the international aspects that contribute to the lives of Afro-Dominicans, Afro-Haitians, and Afro-Americans today. Johnson’s more recently work explores the emerging paradigm of “new blackness” which builds on his previous research interest in how representations of African American culture, race and class reinforce perceptions of difference within black communities. Johnson has instructed courses such as Ferguson and Beyond: Race, Police, and Protest in the Contemporary United States; and Interrupting Privilege: Race and Politics. Currently advised by Dr. Ralina Joseph, Johnson continues to expand his academic career through his collaborative work with the Center for Communication Difference and Equity as a PhD student in the University of Washington Seattle Communication Program.