Skip to main content
Log in

Racism is structured as a language: Sexual difference and the 1943 Detroit race riot

  • Original Article
  • Published:
Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society Aims and scope Submit manuscript


Shortly after the 1943 Detroit race riot, white men in analysis with the Viennese-American psychoanalyst Richard Sterba began to report dreams about beheading, hunting, and aborting black people. Sterba interpreted their dreams as symptomatic expressions of repressed fratricidal and patricidal wishes that animated the Jim Crow system of racial segregation and fueled antiblack violence. This paper reconsiders Sterba’s interpretations by tracking how the dreams’ metaphoric and metonymic constructions disrupt the cultural meanings of race, gender, and sexuality. Read in the broader political context of the 1940s, racism emerges as a volatile signifier for the impossibility of liberal democracy and the irreducibility of sexual difference.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Figure 1

Similar content being viewed by others


  • Balibar, E. (1991/2011) Racism and nationalism. In: E. Balibar and I. Wallerstein (eds.) Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. London: Verso, pp. 37–67.

  • Collins, P.H. (2000) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fanon, F. (1967/2008) Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by C.L. Markmann. London: Pluto Press.

  • Fredrickson, G.M. (2002) Racism: A Short History. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Freud, S. (1908/1959) On the sexual theories of children. Standard Edition 9. London: Hogarth Press, pp. 205–226.

  • Freud, S. (1919/1955) ‘A child is being beaten’: a contribution to the study of the origin of the sexual perversions. Standard Edition 17. London: Hogarth Press, pp. 175–204.

  • George, S. (2016) Trauma and Race: A Lacanian Study of African American Racial Identity. Waco: Baylor University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Grosz, E. (1990) Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction. New York: Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Hall, J.D. (2005) The long civil rights movement and the political uses of the past. The Journal of American History 91(4): 1233–1263.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hyman, M. and Swan, G. (1994) The Michigan Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology: a brief history. In: R.C. Lane and M. Meisels (eds.) A History of the Division of Psychoanalysis of the American Psychological Association. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, pp. 256–260.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lacan, J. (1997) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book III. The Psychoses, 19551956. Translated by R. Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

  • Lacan, J. (2006) The instance of the letter in the unconscious, or reason since Freud. In: Écrits. Translated by B. Fink. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 412–441.

  • MacCannell, J.F. (1991) The Regime of the Brother: After the Patriarchy. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mannoni, O. (1966) Decolonisation of myself. Race 7(4): 327–335.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marable, M. (1984) Race, Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 19451982. London: The Macmillan Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Memmi, A. (2000) Racism. Translated by S. Martinot. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Miller, J.-A. (1991/2014) The analytic experience: means, ends, and results. In: E. Ragland-Sullivan and M. Bracher (eds.) Lacan and the Subject of Language. New York: Routledge, pp. 83–99.

  • Miller, J.-A. (2011) The non-existent seminar. Symptom 12., accessed 31 May 2019.

  • Morrison, T. (1992) Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pluth, E. (2007) Signifiers and Acts: Theory in Lacan’s Theory of the Subject. Albany: SUNY Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Seshadri-Crooks, K. (2000) Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sitkoff, H. (2010) The Detroit race riot of 1943. In: H. Sitkoff (ed.) Toward Freedom Land: The Long Struggle for Racial Equality in America. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, pp. 43–64.

  • Sterba, R. (1947) Some psychological factors in Negro race hatred and in anti-Negro riots. Psychoanalysis and the Social Sciences 1: 411–427.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sterba, R. (1982) Reminiscences of a Viennese Psychoanalyst. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • White, W. and Marshall, T. (1943) What Caused the Detroit Riot? New York: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Christopher Chamberlin.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

This statement is to confirm that the enclosed manuscript does not include any third party material subject to copyright or ownership rights.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Chamberlin, C. Racism is structured as a language: Sexual difference and the 1943 Detroit race riot. Psychoanal Cult Soc 24, 239–259 (2019).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: