Race and Racism


A Modest Proposal

Everyone's had their shot at defining "race." Theologians had their shot for hundreds of years. Then scientists took over in the nineteenth century. Social scientists have dominated twentieth-century definitions of race, along with a few bold intellectual historians. I'm talking here about definitions that "stick," that have influence and real political effects. Obviously, those designated as belonging to "inferior races" have sought to contest the meaning and significance of "race," and often have succeeded. Of course, politicians through the ages have also played their part (a major part), while activists have contested and rearticulated all of these definitions. But in terms of intellectual legitimacy, or even intellectual hegemony, I think it's safe to say that the race torch has been passed from theologians to scientists (ethnologists, physical anthropologists, biologists) to social scientists (sociologists, anthropologists).

Now, I submit, it is imperative that the torch be passed to literary critics.

Let me explain. You ask a geneticist what race is and she'll say, "Race is scientifically meaningless. Take any population in comparison to any other population, and you'll find as much genetic diversity within each as between the two." You ask a philosopher what race is and he'll say, "Race is a fallacy. The concept is incoherent and self-contradictory, not to mention pernicious." You ask a social scientist what race is and she'll say, "Look, race may not have a genetic or metaphysical basis, but it is a social fact." Another will reply, "Yes, but it's of declining significance in the new global economy." Another will chime in, "It's an epiphenomenon of class." Another will say, "It's a social construction that must be viewed as it interrelates with and cross-cuts others like class, gender, sexuality, and religion."

I think sociologists and anthropologists are right to point out that race is both a social fact and a social construction. That is, since people still act as if races exist--despite the fact that the very discipline founded upon discerning race, physical anthropology, no longer recognizes the concept, or that biologists and philosophers unite in dismissing it--that belief has a multitude of real life effects. The insight into the social construction of race, however, reminds us that social facts must always be interpreted; they are never transparent, and hardly ever unchanging. This is where intellectual historians have stepped in and tried to document the various twists and turns the race concept has taken over time, what forces and ideas have contributed to the construction of race, and what effects that construction has had. Thus, social constructionists, whether oriented toward the present, the post-W.W. II era, modernity, or the history of the West, have always tried to disrupt taken-for-granted assumptions about race.

However, it is by no means obvious that social constructionists will make their case stick in the twenty-first century. Single-mindedly statistical models prevail in the social sciences, when exclusive attention to "values" or biologically-inflected versions of "culture" are not predominant, and all three approaches dominate the two major political parties. It is still an open question whether the post-Civil Rights era will go the way of the post-Reconstruction era, when biological definitions of race held their most powerful sway, whether neo-racism's segregationist rearticulation of anti-racist rhetoric will continue to redraw maps in blood, or whether the kindler, gentler supremacism of diversity management will prevail. Social constructionists in the social sciences can not make their case alone, and in fact are often constrained by their relative lack of influence in their own field.

Thus, but only partly for disciplinary reasons, I think literary critics can make the case for social construction most effectively. That is, we can and should make the case that race is above all a social fiction. Literary critics are accustomed to the idea that fictions can have real effects, that they are not merely lies or deceptions or illusions or fallacies. If we think of race as a kind of narrative, then all the traditional lit crit questions--what's the story about? who's telling it? what relation to the story does the teller have? for what end is this story being told? what does the teller hope to accomplish in the act of telling the story? for which audiences? which character is the audience meant to identify with? in what ways can the audience take up this narrative outside of authorial intent?--become immediately applicable to issues of "race." If we think of race as something in part performed, we can take the idea of social "roles" back to its theatrical roots. Thinking of race as a fiction can help us understand what Patricia Williams has called "the persistence of prejudice," for a powerful fiction has a much longer shelf life than any commodity.

With this in mind, please check out the following, now open, letters I sent to various major corporate media outlets as a graduate student at Princeton UNiversity. I re-post them here to make a point about small things academics can do to improve academy/media relations, and to get across some of what I think taking race seriously as a social fiction entails (albeit in a slightly repetitive form).

Feel free to skip ahead to:

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Date: Wed, 8 Feb 1995 16:03:12 -0500 (EST)
From: Bruce Neal Simon (bnsimon@tucson.princeton.edu)
To: letters@newsweek.com
Subject: re: "What Color Is Black?" (2/13/95)

To the Editor--

I was pleased to see Newsweek focus on the issue of race in America and the world in a more balanced, in-depth manner than the Bell Curve flap a while back allowed for. The focus on the incoherence of racial science, the parochialism of America's one-drop rule, and the limitations of the temptation to indulge in binaristic Manichean thinking (i.e., race is only a matter of black-white relations) were all very important arguments to circulate among your readership. Sharon Begley's and Ellis Cose's articles were well-written and well-argued. Unfortunately, Tom Morganthau's introductory piece was the weakest link in your presentation. His insufficient grasp of the history of racial thought leads him to make such erroneous claims as: race is "suddenly a matter of ideology and identity as much as pigmentation" (64) and, to most scientists, "race is a mere 'social construct'--a gamy mixture of prejudice, superstition, and myth" (64) [emphases mine]. As a graduate student at Princeton University doing research on nineteenth-century conceptions of race, please allow me to explain why Mr. Morganthau's article is mistaken on the "suddenness" of the rethinking of race and the "mere" socially-constructed status of race.

But first some history that was missing from even the best accounts in your magazine. Race is a European invention. In the midst of the Enlightenment, where theories of human equality and freedom were being developed, Europeans were also developing a hierarchical theory of humanity--like the Great Chain of Being, humans were also divided into superior and inferior groups, known as types or races. This always had a social and political, not just scientific dimension (which is to say that science is never separate from politics). Sharon Begley cites Loring Brace's theory that eighteenth-century racial schemas developed out of the Age of Exploration; but she does not cite Cedric Robinson's claim that intra-European conflicts provided the basis for racial thought before the Age of Exploration began (see Black Marxism, pp. 83-84) or Ronald Judy's careful reading of some early documents on slavery and colonialism (see (Dis)Forming the American Canon, pp. 63-98). Begley asks how and why eighteenth century racial schemas persist even to today, but she skips from Linnaeus to the present. The accounts (some of which I cite below) of the history of racial thought in the nineteenth century tell a fairly consistent story: among U.S. elites after the Revolutionary War, enlightenment ideals of humanity, equality, and liberty predominated, along with environmentalist and monogeneticist explanations of race. Although Jefferson truly had mixed feelings, he was, if not the first, certainly the most influential American figure to open Pandora's box by calling for a scientific study of race, and he did so in what I would not hesitate to call a racist manner (see Notes on the State of Virginia). Although Jefferson may have hoped for objectivity to dominate, the people who took up his call (Robert Knox and Josiah Nott, for instance) and developed the racial science that emerged out of the "American School of Ethnology" in the 1840s through the 1860s were anything but objective. They were basically interested in proving the natural inferiority of "the Negro" and in justifying slavery through polygenist arguments. In fact, several historians have shown that racial science emerged in response to abolitionist demands. But somehow this highly political movement was successful in lending seemingly objective scientific authority to what under rationalistic enlightenment thought would previously have been dismissed as superstitions, prejudices, religious dogmas, etc. Although Darwin's attack on the concept of types in the late 1850s would have seemed to demolish the very basis of racialist thought, this scientific racism was able to incorporate (or appear to incorporate) the latest scientific advances, so efficiently that by the 1880s, almost every educated American knew that blacks were inferior (because science said so). The career of one of the co-founders of the NAACP, W.E.B. Du Bois, is a perfect illustration of the hegemony of racial science--at first, he believed utterly in the biological fact of racial difference, even as he continually fought against the assumption that blacks were naturally inferior. But in a career which lasted until the 1960s (his death was announced during the March on Washington), he came to believe that races were not biological facts. Although one can see hints of such a turnaround as early as The Souls of Black Folk (1903), the clearest instance of it is in his 1940 autobiography, Dusk of Dawn.

This brings up my major problem with Mr. Morganthau's article: the rethinking of race is not some sudden event. In a sense, it's not even news--or if it is, it is old news. The attack on biological notions of race began with certain African-American and white abolitionists in the nineteenth century and continued into the twentieth--key figures in this century would be W.E.B. Du Bois, Franz Boas, Gunnar Myrdal, and other early twentieth century scientists and social scientists, whose arguments were not really heeded (they certainly had much less influence than eugenicists, for instance!) until the racial science of the Nazis and the genocide of the Jews during the Holocaust came to public knowledge.

Which brings up my second major point: saying that race is a social construction means that we need to better understand its tenacity and force, and not just assume it is some holdover from pre-rational times. That is, people have been saying, "Race is not a natural fact, but it is a social, cultural, political one" for a long time. The big question now is how to interpret that claim: are cultural differences relatively static, evenly distributed, and easy to recognize (as Senator Moynihan and other "culture of poverty" types believe), or is the question of relations among society, culture and politics considerably more complicated (as the people I mention below argue)? As for Mr. Morganthau's facile "mere" social construction, even de Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, recognized that "in the modern world the hard thing is to alter mores... When they have abolished slavery, the moderns still have to eradicate three much more intangible and tenacious prejudices: the prejudice of the master, the prejudice of race, and the prejudice of the white" (Democracy in America, HarperPerennial edition, 1988, pp. 341, 342). Historians have known for a while now that Tocqueville got most of his information from Colonizationists (the first back-to-Africa folks!), whose pessimism toward the possibility of multiracial democracy led them to suggest the need for shipping freed slaves back to Africa--which explains his own apocalyptic conclusion later in Democracy that a race war is inevitable in the United States. But Tocqueville's basic point is one we should heed: just because "race" is a social construction, we shouldn't kid ourselves that saying so will make it go away.

I would add a further point: part of the problem with Tocqueville's framework is his reliance on concepts such as prejudices and mores. The concept of social construction is one that attempts to break out of this limiting framework and analyze the persistence of race in more precise terminology. A good introduction to this kind of scholarship can be found in Michael Omi and Howard Winant's Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (2nd ed., 1994). If I may slip further into academic mode, I would say it should be required reading for any reporter writing on race today. But as somebody said around the same time as Tocqueville was writing, the point isn't to analyze the world, it's to change it, or words to that effect. It is the worst form of "idealism" to believe that lecturing people that they should stop believing in race will work when so much racism is still so blatantly obvious. But I will forgo commenting on Lincoln Kaplan and Joe Klein's pieces on civil rights and affirmative action!

In the end, my point is not simply to correct some of the factual errors of an individual reporter, but to suggest that Newsweek raise its editorial standards. After all, I am writing this off the top of my head, so it's not as tight as it could be, but this history or one like it would not have taken too much space to include in your magazine's recent look at race. So I would encourage you in the future to hold your reporters to higher journalistic standards, and find a way to condense more information into the space available.

But I would also submit that you have a greater responsibility to educate your readers on the history of racial thought than in an article or three (or ten). A quick way to do so would be a short bibliographic article on contemporary scholarship on race in the humanities and social sciences, so that readers interested in gaining a better sense of the history of racial thought and how it is being reconsidered today could read further on their own.

Such a bibliography would have to include Jacques Barzun's Race: A Study in Superstition (from the 1930s), Thomas Gossett's Race: The History of an Idea in America (1965), George Fredrickson's The Black Image in the White Mind (1971), Winthrop Jordan's White Over Black (1977), George Mosse's Toward the Final Solution (1978), Reginald Horsman's Race and Manifest Destiny (1981), Nancy Stepan's The Idea of Race in Science (1982), Audrey Smedley's Race in North America (1993), David Theo Goldberg's Racist Culture (1993), and Michael Omi and Howard Winant's Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (2nd ed., 1994). As a bare minimum. [I would add to this list now such works as Ivan Hannaford's Race and Robyn Weigman's American Anatomies.]

A better bibliography would also mention such essay collections as "Race," Writing, and Difference, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1986), Anatomy of Racism, ed. David Theo Goldberg (1990), The Bounds of Race,ed. Dominick LaCapra (1991), Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power, ed. Toni Morrison (1992), Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising, ed. Robert Gooding-Williams (1993), and The "Racial" Economy of Science, ed. Sandra Harding (1994). [Also, Identities, ed. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1995), Mapping Multiculturalism, ed. Avery Gordon and Christopher Newfield (1996), Representations 55 (Summer 1996), Race Consciousness, ed. Judith Jackson Fossett and Jeffrey Tucker (1996), The House That Race Built, ed. Wahneema Lubiano (1997), and Birth of a Nation'hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson Case, ed. Toni Morrison and Claudia Brodsky Lacour (1997).]

An even better one would survey the recent developments by scholars in the following fields: historians such as Alexander Saxton, David Roediger, Eric Lott, and Theodore Allen [also Noel Ignatiev]; literary critics such as Wahneema Lubiano, Eric Sundquist, Henry Louis Gates, Houston Baker, Hortense Spillers, David Lionel Smith, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Hazel Carby, Chris Newfield and others; anthropologists such as Brackette Williams; sociologists and cultural critics such as Cornel West, Michael Omi, Howard Winant, Andrew Ross, Avery Gordon and others; legal scholars such as Lani Guinier, Patricia Williams, Kimberle Crenshaw, and Kendall Thomas; political theorists such as Thomas Dumm; filmmakers such as Isaac Julien--the list goes on and on. (I'm ignoring such "furriners" as Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Etienne Balibar, Slavoj Zizek and others who are required reading for any rethinking of race.)

Out of the many recent academic conferences on race and multiculturalism, let me just mention three: "Race Matters," at Princeton University last spring, organized by Wahneema Lubiano; the Bohen Foundation conference on multiculturalism in New York City last year, organized by Tom Keenan; and "'The Negro Problem': 1895-1995," a graduate student conference to be held at Princeton University March 3-4, 1995, organized by Judith Jackson Fosset and Jeffrey Tucker.

This list is only preliminary (i.e., off the top of my head), but it should indicate the extent and suggest the quality of the work being done now by the media's favorite whipping boy--academics. If journalists and academics are to move beyond mutual disdain and disrespect, then each should become familiar with the others' work, and do what they can to help them improve it. I've already indicated above what was left out of your magazine's accounts. It strikes me as your responsibility to include some of that history and indicate to your readers where they can go to learn more about it. In today's information age, magazines like Newsweek can provide introductions to its readers to complicated topics and roadmaps to the vast amount of interpretations, arguments, and information that are out there already.

--Bruce Simon
22 McCosh Hall, English Department
Princeton University
Princeton, NJ 08544
(609) 924-1593

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Date: Mon, 20 May 1996 21:01:34 -0400 (EDT)
From: "Bruce N. Simon" (bnsimon@flagstaff.princeton.edu)
To: abcnews@aol.com
Subject: World News Tonight "Race" Report

To the World News Tonight Crew:

First off, congratulations on your American Conversations series generally, and on your report of Monday, May 20, 1996 on race in America, in particular. I'll bet you take some heat from some for responding to Lani Guinier's (and many others') call for a public national conversation on race, but I'm sure you will get many more expressions of support as well. I think it's very important to try to capture the complexities of what ordinary people are saying about the ways race plays into their daily lives--to create some public way of acknowledging these complexities beyond quantitative methods and opinion polling. Your report was a good start toward creating such public spaces. So let me just say, good job. Keep up the good work.

I would, however, like to register my dissatisfactions with some of the assumptions underlying the various pieces, as well. While I recognize the difficulties involved in compressing people's complicated stories into such a brief news segment--and I look forward to this week's Nightline series on race--I do think some of the problems I'm about to identify were avoidable. As a graduate student at Princeton University doing a dissertation on race and Hawthorne thanks to a Newcombe Fellowship, I wanted to share with you some of what I've learned these past five or so years. Please think of the following as constructive criticism coming from a fan of ABCNews.

1) Why was the automatic assumption of every piece, never questioned by anyone interviewed or interviewing, that race is a matter of black and white people only? Even a disclaimer from Mr. Jennings could have solved this problem, but a better solution would have been to try to get perspectives from recent immigrants on how race works in the U.S. (as opposed to where they came from). It's easy to take a lot for granted when you've lived here all your life! I've had the pleasure of knowing some Canadians and some Brits while at graduate school at Princeton, and they have all been shocked at the U.S. race system, even after being here four or five years. Knowing them has made me more aware of what I've been taking for granted. I'm sure Mr. Jennings knows what I mean here.

2) Furthermore, the reports tended to homogenize those classed as "black" and those classed as "white"; that is, they tended to downplay the diversity of opinion and perspective within these groups. I'm not quite sure how a problem like this can be avoided, given time limitations and the importance of airing "representative" images and views. I hope the Nightline reports can improve on this--but so many more people watch the evening news than late night TV that creative thinking on this issue is key. I think the news can do more than represent common-sense that's out there; it can also challenge people to reflect on what they take for granted. A few more surprises in the reports would have been nice. I would love to see the outtakes from the program made publically available in some form on the World Wide Web....

3) So many people think "color blindness" is the answer to the racial divides facing the country today, but how many "white" people realize that this means more than "other races" giving up their group identifications and thinking of themselves as individuals and as people, but also that this would mean "white" people would no longer think of themselves and others as "white"? We never hear people reflect on what it feels like and means to be white, except for that irritating "angry white male" talk. Particularly for "ethnic" groups like Jews, Irish, and Italians, who have been discriminated against on the basis of their ethnicity and have largely gone through the old pattern of assimilation, what meanings does whiteness have? An interesting question. Perhaps a subject for a future piece. At the same time, I don't think "color blindness" is a solution--and not just b/c when you're color blind you only see in black and white. I think the best way to fight racism is for a more nuanced and critical sense of race consciousness for all people--because the privilege of "whiteness" has made many "white" people either unable to talk about race or very uncomfortable while doing so, we have a lot to learn from those who have been forced to think and talk more about it, and to deal with the effects of being "raced." But if you're going to set up a "color blind" model, the least you can do is try to put whiteness into question while you're doing it.

4) Finally, the reports were done under the "race relations"/"racial tensions" paradigm, a paradigm that many social scientists reject today. The rejection is usually on two grounds, ahistoricism and closet racism. That is, the "race relations" model tends to take the existence of "races" for granted, so that the only kind of analysis is how different groups are getting along in a given time and place. However, many have argued that since what is at issue is the social construction of race, the assumption that "race" refers to already-existing and highly stable socio-biological groups out there somewhere is precisely what should be contested. The second critique--closet racism--takes issue with the phrase "racial tensions," which seems to suggest that this actually-existing force called "race" is what causes the tensions. That is, the "racial tension" model is a social scientific version of what has long-since been discredited--the faith in the existence of quasi-biological "race instincts," which cause people of different races to naturally hate each other, or think they're ugly, or whatever. The historian Barbara Fields has reminded us several times that race should not be the trump card in an explanation--instead, it's precisely what needs to be investigated. How breaking with this model would actually work in practice is still an open question. One way to start would be for media people to familiarize themselves with critiques of these models and of the newer "diversity management" model as well.

Some concluding comments: The chief issue facing nation-states across the world today is how to create and sustain a multiracial democratic system; we all know the demographics predictions about the composition of the nation in the 21st century. I accept that the major and most fraught racial division in the U.S. has always been what W.E.B. DuBois called "the color line" (black/white), but few people realize that even as early as The Souls of Black Folk (1903), he hinted that there was more to the question than a simple binary and that it was more than just an American issue. So why is it still assumed that issues facing Latinos/Chicanos, Asian Americans, and other "ethnic" groups have nothing to do with race? Hasn't the main issue facing immigrants to the U.S. always been theirs and others' willingness to see and to think of them(selves) as white? (On this, see Flannery O'Connor's short story "The Displaced Person," but this phenomenon isn't limited to the south or to the segregation era.) With this in mind, may I recommend some recent works from various fields--all of which are written with style and verve and are totally accesible--that have meant a lot to me as I pursue my own graduate work on Nathaniel Hawthorne? I think those in the media should be aware of the new perspectives on race put forward by this intellectually diverse group of writers in the humanities and social sciences. I am NOT saying "stop listening to ordinary people and just interview the experts"--quite the contrary--no, I'm saying that reading even a few of the following works will enable media people to listen better to ordinary people and to hear the complexities of our narratives without immediately pigeon-holing them into already-constituted debates, paradigms, and categories:

Literary studies: Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination; Eric Sundquist, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature; Harry Wonham, ed., Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies; George Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White;

Law: Kimberle Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller and Kendall Thomas, eds., Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement [also, Ian F. Haney Lopez, White by Law];

History: Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White; David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class;

Sociology and cultural criticism: Patricia Williams, The Rooster's Egg: On the Persistence of Prejudice; Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, 2nd. ed.; Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness; F. James Davis, Who Is Black? One Nation's Definition; Tyagi and Thompson, eds., Names We Call Home: Autobiography on Racial Identity.

Finally, and of special significance, I note Wahneema Lubiano, ed., The House that Race Built: Black Americans, U.S. Terrain, a collection of essays from last year's Race Matters conference at Princeton University, including a major foreword by Nobel prize-winner Toni Morrison, that is due out in the fall [and came out in January 1997].

Again thanks for all the great work that ABCNews does. I only took the time to write this because I am sure you all can do better.

--Bruce Simon

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Date: Fri, 24 May 1996 02:20:45 -0400 (EDT)
From: "Bruce N. Simon" (bnsimon@flagstaff.princeton.edu)
To: abcnews@aol.com
Subject: On Nightline and racism

To the Nightline Crew--

Before I get to the topic of black racism, another quick criticism of your series. Again, you presuppose that "race" really means "black," so that what you're always doing is looking at how Americans (black and white) look at African Americans. I think it would have been much more interesting, too, if the format of tomorrow's show were to have been reversed--why not have white people talk about white racism and privilege, and have the black audience respond? Why is it always the black perspective being analyzed, judged, held up to scrutiny in the STRUCTURE of the show? Admittedly, the content is not this way; particularly gripping tonight were the clips from the racism expert's classes and workshops. Really brought out how tiring and wasteful these arbitrary distinctions are, yet how difficult it is for those benefitting from them to even recognize this fact, much less do something to change the situation. But be that as it may, this has really been a show about "blackness" and not about "race." If it were the latter, we'd have seen more excavating of the meaning and significance of whiteness.

White Americans only like to remember a few sentences from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech (particularly about someday everyone being judged by the content of their character not the color of their skin), and are too quick to forget the rest of what he was doing. But how long will it take for us whites to recognize that being judged by the content of our characters means that we're going to have to confront the fact of whiteness? By that I mean that whites let ourselves and each other off easy because we judge each other by the colors of our skins. In order to get to be "color blind" (assuming that blinding yourself and only seeing things in black and white are good things), you first have to be more conscious of how you yourself are "raced," particularly if you are white.

To put this point another way, commitment to democracy means a rejection of aristocracy, of inherited privilege. Yet from the time this nation was founded, the democratic revolution that Tocqueville described has remained incomplete, for white-skin-privilege was coded into our Constitution, even into our Declaration of Independence (check out the first draft, where Jefferson tries to place all the blame for the slave trade on the British and accuses the King of fomenting slave rebellion--it's slightly coded, but it implies that slaves were definitely not citizens, a judgment made explicit in the 1857 Dred Scott decision). White supremacy short-circuits American democracy. It is about as un-American as you can get, especially when you consider that the American "mainstream," as Ralph Ellison and so many others have pointed out, has always been at the very least culturally black. And by white supremacy, I don't just mean far-right extremists; I mean habits of thought and action that get reproduced by the major institutions of this country (family, schools, the state, the media, to name a few), and that show themselves at the level of everyday life.

So I'll care a whole lot more about black racism once I see this nation as a whole coming to grips with its racist past and present today, now. And that means really rejecting white supremacy in all its forms (and this goes across the political spectrum, including marxists and liberals). And what does "black racism" mean, anyway? Is it like "black supremacy"? Well, until I see blacks overwhelmingly dominating every major institution and corridor of power (as white males still do--the numbers don't lie here), I won't be too worried by a few isolated voices who uphold this. Is it something like "hating people whom you perceive as belonging to a different race for no other reason than that perception," I would say that on the whole (and this is an overbroad generalization, I know) blacks are much less racist than whites, because they are forced every day to make fine distinctions in every interaction with white people, just as a matter of survival and maintaining one's dignity and mental equilibrium. This is not b/c of some mystical racial trait, it's b/c of a power differential, one that applies to any relationship; for example, you are a whole hell of a lot more sensitive to what mood your boss is in than he (or she--remember, affirmative action has historically benefitted white females the most) is to yours, as it's your job that's on the line. Or maybe I'm wrong here; given the prevalence of de facto segregation, maybe too many black kids almost never encounter whites and never are forced to learn how to read them. Maybe I'm taking a model from an older version of segregation and misapplying it. I don't know. But here's a test. Read Richard Wright's Black Boy, the version that contains the second half his publishers asked him to drop from the original edition (entitled American Hunger), and then watch closely at how people of color interact with you. If you have non-white friends, ask them if Wright is still right today, over a half-century later. So I'll accept that this point I'm trying to make is debatable, even contentious. But if I'm right, then blacks are much better at judging white strangers by the content of their character and not the color of their skin than whites are of blacks.

So what is "racism"? Everybody loves to diss academics these days, and often for good reason. A lot of it comes down to needlessly difficult-to- read prose, although you'll notice that when academics write for a wider audience and not just to fight among themselves, they become quite a bit more readable. The books and articles I'm about to recommend offer some very important definitions, although they are not easy reads. I still think they're very important, so I'm asking for those who are interested in following this through further to have patience, and maybe to start with the article by Avery Gordon and Christopher Newfield below, which is very clear, as is Slavoj Zizek, who's basically ventriloquizing Balibar's ideas and making them more accessible by applying them to what's going on now in Bosnia. As far as getting ahold of these works, try your local university or college library, or ask your public library to do an interlibrary loan. I mean, there's no reason to buy any of these books, assuming they're still in print (did you know the average academic book sells less than a thousand copies?).

The reason I'm asking for somebody out there to pick up at least one of these works is that although I think the woman on Nightline was fundamentally right about racism/white supremacy--especially in her critique of "reverse racism"--her take on power and the way racism works was too reductive and functionalist (almost behavioralist). I think her approach clearly works in a workshop to make a point to white people who never really thought about racism before, but it strikes me as something you have to experience to find persuasive. The nice thing (and the limit) of the works below is that the only experience needed is the act of reading. What I'm saying is that to make her your only "expert" on racism is to ignore more nuanced work being done today by a wide range of international scholars. Admittedly, nuance is something that's hard to get across in a half-hour, and she certainly was provocative, and hopefully people will really think about how much difference the past 40 years can make compared to the previous 400. So, for those who have started thinking about what it really takes to break with white supremacy, I recommend the following works.

I do so in the spirit of Nightline, which brings in a white expert to talk about racism because they know their viewers are so racist they'll often tune out what a black person is saying or try to pigeon-hole it right away into some stereotyped category; so, in that spirit, here's a group of non-black scholars who have interesting things to say about how racisms work. For good measure, a lot of them don't even directly discuss the U.S., so no need to get all defensive right away! [If you want the analysis of U.S. racial politics, check out the collection Nobel laureate Toni Morrison edited (the one with the awful title!), Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power, as well as the one just out called Mapping Multiculturalism, edited by Avery Gordon and Christopher Newfield, and the one that will be out within three [or so] months, The House that Race Built: Black Americans, U.S. Terrain, ed. Wahneema Lubiano.] OK, onto the list:

Recent Work on Racism

Anatomy of Racism, ed. David Theo Goldberg (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1990)--a collection of essays, some better than others, on racisms.

Etienne Balibar, "Is There a Neo-Racism?" in Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities (NY: Verso, 1991) 17-28--ground-breaking piece on France and Europe, with definite connections to the U.S.; makes more sense after reading Taguieff's study of the French New Right (see below), but stands on its own as a major essay.

Etienne Balibar, "Racism as Universalism," Masses, Classes, Ideas: Studies on Politics and Philosophy before and after Marx (NY: Routledge, 1994) 191-204--a continuation of the last essay; makes a lot more sense after Taguieff.

Joe R. Feagin and Hernan Vera, White Racism: The Basics (NY: Routledge, 1995)--looks at contemporary U.S. society;

David Theo Goldberg, Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993)--philosophical approach to racism; some interesting critiques of liberalism;

Avery Gordon and Christopher Newfield, "White Philosophy," Critical Inquiry 20 (Summer 1994) 737-757, recently reprinted in Identities, ed. Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (U of Chicago P, 1995)--an eminently readble, incredibly important expose of how liberal racists operate (liberal in the political theory sense, which means several strands of the conservative movement today as well as "liberals"); my favorite one of the bunch, and the most readable. The article is in part a critique of an earlier essay by Walter Benn Michaels; if you're interested in the larger exchange, get ahold of the Identities book.

Colette Guillaumin, Racism, Sexism, Power and Ideology (NY: Routledge, 1995)--direct, blunt, mostly about racism in France but making more general claims, too.

[Paul Kivel's Uprooting Racism is also a good introduction to issues raised in more complicated forms elsewhere....]

Joel Kovel, White Racism: A Psychohistory (NY: Pantheon, 1970)--maybe a bit too rigid in its application of Freudian principles for my taste, but still a very important text;

Robert Miles, Racism after "Race Relations" (NY: Routledge, 1993)--a critical review of mostly Anglo-American sociology on race and racism;

"Race and Racism: A Symposium," ed. Tricia Rose and Andrew Ross, Social Text 42 (Spring 1995) 1-52--this is the really quick and easy place to start, although b/c the pieces are so short and they respond to already well-known positions (especially Balibar's), it might make more sense after Gordon and Newfield's and Balibar's essays.

Pierre-Andre Taguieff, "From Race to Culture: The New Right's View of European Identity," trans. Deborah Cook, Telos 98-99 (Winter 1993-Fall 1994) 99-125--in-depth study of the French New Right, which is so different from the New Right here, in everything except the reliance on racialized notions of culture, it's really an amazing read, despite the dryness of the prose.

Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (Durham: Duke UP, 1993) 226. For a similar argument, see "Caught in Another's Dream in Bosnia," in Why Bosnia?--Zizek can be by turns crystal clear and amazingly difficult. I really recommend the piece from Why Bosnia?, which is quite clear and really sums up a lot of good work being done today, with his own quirky twist to it.

Thanks for bearing with this way-too-long and cranky post.

--Bruce Simon

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Feel free to skip back to:

Letter to Atlantic Monthly

The Atlantic Monthly
77 North Washington Street
Boston, MA 02114

7 May 1997

To the editors:

Randall Kennedy deserves credit for his adroit avoidance of the pitfalls of both liberal and conservative arguments for color-blindness in his thought-provoking essay, "My Race Problem--and Ours" (May Atlantic). His recognition of the "sociological fact that race matters" marks his awareness of recent studies, such as Massey and Denton's American Apartheid and Oliver and Shapiro's Black Wealth/White Wealth, which should finally put to rest tired claims about the declining significance of race. His argument that race-related social problems are the "responsibility of us all" is timely and important. And his attention to the subjective and the everyday--to emotions, feelings, and intuitions in daily life--is an important corrective to those who would argue that race is either simply illusory or simply structural. All of which is to say that Professor Kennedy's critique of racial kinship, racial pride, and racial loyalty is a major improvement on the usual calls for black people to transcend race that exempt whites from a similar responsibility or imagine the achievement of transcendance as a quick and easy process unrelated to wider societal transformation. His advocacy of race-neutrality as a means to the end of racial justice is a clear improvement on the worn-out rhetoric of color-blindness.

But in the process of demonstrating that racial "differences and differentiations" are social facts which nevertheless "do not dictate the proper human response" to them, Kennedy makes several claims and assumptions that reveal the limitations of a dehistoricized, depoliticized race-neutrality. I will go into two such limitations--a problematic theorization of race and a weak argument against racial solidarity--in some detail in this letter. Whatever my disagreements with Kennedy, however, I have much more serious reservations about the complacent and irresponsible manner in which the Atlantic introduced his essay. Hence, I close this letter with some questions that neither Kennedy nor the Atlantic raised.

The limitations of race-neutrality are most obvious in Kennedy's theorization of race, for while he refuses to reduce race to skin color, he comes dangerously close to reinscribing it in terms of blood; his insistence on race as a social fact at times shades into a tacit acceptance of race as a biological fact. When he claims that one's race is "merely an accident of birth" or that a race is "a conglomeration of strangers," he turns his back on the insight into the social construction of race and capitulates to those who see race as primarily a matter of biological inheritance. Other scholars have made stronger arguments about the origins, workings, and consequences of the concept of race. Beyond showing that the so-called science of race is utterly incoherent, as Kwame Anthony Appiah has famously done, these scholars have challenged the assumption that science has or should have the final word on defining and valuing race in the first place. A host of intellectual historians, from Thomas Gossett to Ivan Hannaford, have shown that before the invention of "racial science" in the nineteenth century, the primary discourse that defined and legitimated the concept of race was theology--and that the race concept itself was invented at some time in the last five centuries. Michael Omi and Howard Winant's account of "racial formation" ably summarizes these findings, and, more important, points to the limitations of Kennedy's secondary claim that a race is "a conglomeration of strangers." Their book, Racial Formation in the United States, shows that it is necessary to analyze how such a collectivity is constituted and reconstituted. Examining the social construction of race, that is, puts issues of history and politics at the forefront of one's inquiries. Kennedy's avoidance of social constructionism, by contrast, leads him to individualize matters of race--to focus almost exclusively on the question of how an individual should act in a given situation. By casting the question of agency and responsibility in this individualistic and moralistic manner, he fails to take advantage of recent work on ideology, identification, and subject-formation that would enable him to formulate his concerns more precisely--and might lead him to rethink some of his conclusions.

Although Kennedy would probably respond that his acceptance of race as blood tie is only a strategic concession to help him advance his larger argument against valuing racial kinship, the problem with race-neutrality is deeper than this. Race-neutrality is logically dependent on a prior conceptualization of race as a personal attribute or quality that can then be shown to be an accident, not an essence. To be neutral in this view, that is, requires something--"race"--for us to be "neutral" towards. By removing the concept of race from the realms of history and politics, Kennedy frees himself to deploy the fact/value distinction to argue that morality requires neutrality toward the fact of race and a valuing of individual agency and distributive justice. His version of race-neutrality thus asks only that we stop treating "inherited group status" as "an honorific credential" and instead value "chosen loyalties," "loyalties of will," and "ties created by loving effort." But the point of social constructionism is to emphasize that race is not simply a matter of "inherited group status" (contra Kennedy); similarly, social constructionists emphasize that there are other kinds of racialized "status-driven loyalties" than "the loyalties of blood" he critiques. Kennedy's move to depoliticize the process of racial formation, that is, calls into question his attempt to find a universal rule by which to judge what constitutes racial justice in every time and place. And his presentist reading of social facts leads him to downplay the histories and politics that produced those facts in the first place. In short, conceiving of race as social fact and not also as social construction does not lead to consideration of the historical processes of group formation, or of what "endeavoring to continue . . . the struggle for racial justice" might concretely entail. If racial justice is the goal, it is not enough to shift our commitments from being to doing, from inheritance to choice, from the particularism of race to the universalism of justice, from collectivity to individuality. Nor is it enough to call for need-based "outreach" and the construction of ideals "untrammeled by race." Rather, the point is to analyze how racial oppression has worked and is working, to study past and contemporary racial formations and projects, and to intervene decisively in those practices and institutions that reproduce race.

Which is to say that the limitations of Kennedy's theorizing of race also raise questions about some of his conclusions--particularly about the intellectual, moral, and political bankruptcy of all calls for racial solidarity. The problem here is complicated, and deserves close consideration. It is not just that when Kennedy centers his critique on "feelings of primordial attachment" or "the sentiments and conduct of racial kinship," he reinforces contemporary conventional wisdom that race is a matter of genetics and racism is a problem of individual prejudice (a kind of cognitive error that manifests itself in everything from bad manners to outright discrimination and violence). It is also that by suggesting that his critique of racial pride and racial loyalty are simple extensions of his critique of racial kinship, Kennedy implies that a similar extension of his arguments will similarly answer the political question of racial solidarity. But despite his dismissive listing of "racial unity, racial loyalty, racial solidarity, racial kinship--whatever one wants to call it" at the close of his essay, the terms he critiques are neither synonyms nor simply interchangeable (above all, they do not all share the same referent). As evidenced by the very form of his essay, Kennedy himself concedes that kinship, pride, and loyalty deserve separate critiques. And he concedes that solidarity is not a precise synonym for these terms when he admits that there are larger issues "that cannot be exhaustively dealt with" in his essay. Thus, no matter how convincing his arguments against racial kinship, racial pride, and racial loyalty are, this does not imply that his case against racial solidarity is airtight. His suspicions about the potential for calls of solidarity to squelch intraracial dissent and diversity are well-taken, although a forthright seconding of critiques (by black feminists and others) of the misogyny and homophobia of certain forms of solidaristic politics would have been a more courageous move. But where Kennedy would reject out of hand calls for racial solidarity (by simply repeating his arguments against loyalty or kinship whenever he is in danger of taking on the solidarity issue directly), others who have made similar critiques as he has would nevertheless leave open the possibility that some kinds of racial solidarity are morally, intellectually, and politically progressive in certain situations. At best, then, the questions Kennedy raises are worthwhile cautions to be taken seriously in the political process of struggling for racial justice. At worst, they will be read only as another in the long line of polemics against identity politics.

In fact, Kennedy at his least rigorous moments suggests that arguments against his "shoe-on-the-other-foot test" for evaluating calls for racial solidarity "amount to little more than an elaborate camouflage for self-promotion or group promotion." But he would do well to consider the differences between his own position and another, quite similar one. The journal Race Traitor--whose project to "abolish the white race" is encapsulated in their slogan, "Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity"--begins from the premise that "the white race is a historically constructed social formation." Despite this fundamental disagreement with Kennedy over how to theorize race, the editors of Race Traitor would certainly agree with his important argument that "racial kinship mobilized in behalf of whites" is the "best organized and most destructive" form of racial ideology in the United States. They would also agree with his central assertion that "The fact that race matters . . . does not mean that the salience and consequences of racial distinctions are good or that race must continue to matter in the future." But Race Traitor's social constructionism leads them to quite different conclusions than Kennedy. Drawing on the work of David Roediger, Theodore Allen, George Lipsitz, and Noel Ignatiev (not mention W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Albert Murray, and bell hooks), Race Traitor points out that at different points in American history various immigrant groups have chosen to identify with the ideology whiteness, to identify themselves as white, to identify their interests with white people--and have over time become recognized as "white ethnics." Race Traitor thus distinguishes between race as ascribed/claimed status in a system of racial oppression and questions of inheritance or biology, on the one hand, and culture, on the other; where Kennedy appears to be most concerned with those who choose to identify as black, Race Traitor holds that those who choose to identify as white are part of a much larger social problem. Furthermore, in marked contrast to the voluntarist solutions that Kennedy proposes, Race Traitor calls attention to the ways in which the "principal institutions of society" (schools, the labor and housing markets, the criminal justice and welfare systems, the family, corporations, unions, and above all, the state) are involved in the reproduction of race (through tracking, redlining, lobbying for state support, and so on). Thus, where Kennedy is suspicious of "asymmetrical standards of judgment," Race Traitor is adamant in insisting that their critique of the debilitating consequences of white racial loyalty should not be construed as a critique of racial solidarity and liberation struggles among those not privileged by the system of racial oppression only partially dismantled in this country (irrespective of the embattled and easily reversible gains of a black middle class). In limiting the problem of white nationalism to far right political projects by the likes of Patrick Buchanan and Jesse Helms, Kennedy falls far short of the mark set by Race Traitor and the even more impressive essays collected by Wahneema Lubiano in The House That Race Built.

Whatever the limitations and hesitancies of Kennedy's arguments, though, I have a much more serious problem with the way in which they were introduced. The Atlantic boldly and ridiculously proclaims that the matters Kennedy considers are "rarely discussed." On the contrary, questions of racial pride, racial kinship, racial patriotism, racial loyalty, racial solidarity, and racial unity (not to mention race consciousness, racial oppression, racial formation, and racial projects) have been long discussed and debated--whether or not mainstream periodicals have taken notice. Let's limit ourslves to the twentieth century for the sake of space. W.E.B. Du Bois raised precisely these questions throughout his long life, most notably in his 1940 autobiography, Dusk of Dawn. C.L.R. James was a perceptive observer of race politics in mid-century America, as evidenced by the writings collected in C.L.R. James on the 'Negro Question'. Stuart Hall, some of whose writings have been collected in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, is only the most eminent in the long list of the scholars who, in the past dozen years alone, have discussed precisely the issues Kennedy considers (and have drawn a variety of conclusions): historians Barbara Fields and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham; sociologists Michael Omi, Howard Winant, Paul Gilroy, Michael Hanchard, and Avery Gordon; philosophers Cornel West, Lucius Outlaw, and Kwame Anthony Appiah; legal theorists Patricia Williams, Kimberle Crenshaw, Kendall Thomas, and Neil Gotanda; and literary critics Wahneema Lubiano, Nahum Chandler, Christopher Newfield, Kenneth Mostern, and Walter Benn Michaels. Such edited collections of essays as Morrison's Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power and Birth of a Nation'hood, Lubiano's The House That Race Built, Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller, and Thomas's Critical Race Theory, Gordon and Newfield's Mapping Multiculturalism, Gooding-Williams's Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising, and Goldberg's Anatomy of Racism have continued a dialogue on racial oppression and racial formation that is influencing an entire generation of young scholars. This ongoing discussion can be followed in journals like Race & Class, Cultural Critique, Public Culture, and Transition (not to mention ones that focus on African-American, Asian-American, and Latino/Chicano literature). Even more tellingly, Kennedy's specific arguments about the limits of racial loyalty and the race/family metaphor have been directly anticipated by Hortense Spillers's "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe," E. Frances White's "Africa on My Mind," Wahneema Lubiano's "Black Ladies, Welfare Queens, and State Minstrels," Cornel West's "The Pitfalls of Racial Reasoning," Paul Gilroy's "It's a Family Affair," Kendall Thomas's "'Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing,'" and Rhonda Williams's "Living at the Crossroads," among others. Thus, it is more than surprising that the editors of the Atlantic would suggest that Professor Kennedy is virtually alone in his field; it is a disturbing disservice to their readership, not only flattering their ignorance but also perpetuating it.

As to the even more questionable editorial claim that Kennedy's position is a reminder of "the enduring ideals of American society," I leave it up to the Atlantic's readers to make an informed decision (hopefully based on a generous sampling of the works to which Professor Kennedy is responding) to consider for themselves three pressing questions that "My Race Problem-and Ours" raises: Was American society built on the very ideas Kennedy critiques? What are the limits of distinguishing between American ideals and American realities? What acts of imagination, creativity, and political struggle might be required to, in Toni Morrison's eloquent formulation, "convert a racist house into a race-specific yet nonracist home"?

Bruce Simon

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Last updated: 2/5/05 5:36 pm