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Public Thinker: Destin Jenkins on Breaking Bonds

A leading historian of racial capitalism, Destin Jenkins published two extraordinary books in 2021. The first—The Bonds of Inequality: Debt, and the Making of the American City (University of Chicago Press, 2021)—is a detailed and damning account of how bond finance structures racial privilege in San Francisco and beyond. The second, coedited with Justin Leroy, is Histories of Racial Capitalism (Columbia University Press, 2021), a wide-ranging and interdisciplinary collection of essays on the intersections of capitalism and race. Jenkins is also a prolific public intellectual, writing for the Washington PostThe Nation, the New York Times, and beyond. He has served as capitalism series editor at Public Books, is coeditor of Just Money, and is currently assistant professor of history at Stanford University.

Hannah Appel is an anthropologist and activist whose work focuses on transnational capitalism and finance, debt and debtors’ unions, and the economic imagination. Most recently, she is a coauthor of Can’t Pay Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition (Haymarket Books, 2020) and author of “Reparative Public Goods and the Future of Finance” (2020). Appel spoke with Jenkins about his current work, what it means to think in public, and what emancipatory finance might look like.

Appel and Jenkins both engage deeply with finance professionals in their work: Jenkins, with the bondmen, ratings agents, and municipal finance officers in his archival work in San Francisco; Appel, with mortgage-backed security underwriters, risk assessors, and the “quant jocks” of high-speed trading in her work on and with Occupy Wall Street.

Hannah Appel (HA): Let’s try to take seriously what Public Books has asked you and me to do here today. The magazine’s Public Thinker interviews seek to “metabolize academic expertise into knowledge that is useful to the public.” How does one do that?

Destin Jenkins (DJ): Big question. Now that the work is out, I get a chance to sit in this identity, and to think a bit more about what it means to be a public intellectual, public thinker.

First, it requires awareness of when to speak and when to stay quiet; it necessitates staying in my lane, deferring to those with whom I’m in solidarity but who know far more about a given topic, and sharing the stories I am best equipped to tell. To be a public intellectual is also to think strategically out loud.

I am a historian, but I am less compelled to show why “history matters.” Rather, to think strategically is to consider how historical analysis of a given phenomenon can help us make sense of the present and, hopefully, open doors to a more promising future.

I would never describe myself as an organizer. Nevertheless, there is a crucial relationship between being a public thinker along these lines and political organizing. I’m reminded of a training I participated in offered by the Center for Third World Organizing. One of the big lessons was to conceive of political campaigns in terms of “ones,” “twos,” “threes,” “fours,” and “fives.” Your ones are your stalwarts; they’re totally committed, in our case, to a progressive agenda. Your fives are on the total opposite end of the spectrum; you’re never going to move those folks. Since then, I’ve come to think about my role as an intellectual in those organizing terms. That is, to help turn threes, who are on the fence, into twos, and to help sharpen the analysis of the ones.

So that’s how I see my role as a public thinker. I’ve sat with some rather dry matters of finance, debt, revenues, expenditures, and so forth. I hope to deploy that knowledge strategically, to try to assist progressive campaigns, including those of which I am completely unaware.

Read entire article at Public Books