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Nonprofits in Production: Race, Place, and the Politics of Care


In the contemporary United States, nonprofits serve as central conduits of urban reform and welfare provision including legal, health and job assistance for racialized neighborhoods. Despite the salience of nonprofit organizations in urban politics, few academic analyses investigate their crucial political work. My work critiques normative academic and popular understandings of nonprofit organizations as ahistorical and nonpolitical service providers fundamentally delinked from the state. In contrast, my dissertation examines how nonprofits operated as a critical technology that intensified the state's relationship to urban racialized communities in the mid 20th century. Based on over two years of ethnographic fieldwork in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, CA and archival research in four different sites, I argue that nonprofit organizations are a powerful vehicle in the remaking of contemporary racial subjectivities and citizenship. As critical community-routed organizations, they negotiate how urban racial subjects relate to the state and social movements.

This project probes the material and political consequences of discourses of benevolence in state, nonprofit, and social movement projects. By focusing on projects professing compassion, I unsettle dominant academic frameworks that overwhelmingly focus on two problematics regarding race making: 1) the state as a monolithic entity monopolizing all modes of power; and 2) the attribution of intentional violence to projects of race making. I advance the "politics of care" as an analytic for understanding contentious projects of urban improvement normalized as benevolent acts of kindness. Academic debates typically construct welfare as the privileged site of state projects. In contrast, my conceptualization of the "politics of care" attends to the role of the state and the work of non-state actors such as nonprofit health clinics, legal-aid centers, and community development corporations. Far more than mere service providers, nonprofits enact diverse techniques of government that target specific racial identities and populations.

My findings reveal that nonprofit organizations are a productive site of power in contemporary urban racialized communities like Fruitvale. Nonprofits engaged in multiple sites/acts of production that have spatial, demographic, as well as political effects. First, they build extensive patronage networks that cohere Fruitvale residents as a united Latino "community" despite the existence of diverse and often competing factions along class and nationality. By producing this community as a target of projects of improvement and care, nonprofits also link Fruitvale with fiscal patrons outside the geographical confines of the neighborhood. Second, they market the neighborhood as Latino and produce representations of Latinidad that are architecturally and aesthetically visible in the urban form. Third, nonprofit-mediated projects demarcate Latinos from other racial groups and politicize the neighborhood as a haven for immigrant rights and in so doing link residents with constricted citizenship to alternative avenues of belonging. My study fills an important gap in the social movement literature by demonstrating the diversity of 1960s Chicano mobilizations, how they related to African American movements, Asian American experiences, and how this translated into contemporary political formations. Furthermore, my dissertation troubles academic and popular conceptions of Oakland as a Black/White city. This move remaps Latino Studies scholarship into less traditional areas of inquiry outside the metropoles of Los Angeles and Chicago.

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