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Racial Justice, Part 1 9 March 2006

Posted by Todd in Biology, Inequality & Stratification, Philosophy & Social Theory, Politics, Race & Ethnicity.

[I've been reading and thinking a lot about racial justice in the United States over the past year or so, so this topic will probably come up from time to time for the next little while. These are ideas in process and I'm struggling to reconcile conflicting values, so it may come off weird. I would appreciate any input from any of my readers as I continue my thinking.]

There seems to be a fundamental contradiction in the discussion of justice for African Americans (and other minorities), at least in the way it's debated in the academy. On one hand, the anti-racist position took hold as a political value during the post-war Civil Rights movement, a so-called "liberal" perspective. On the other hand, discussions about multiculturalism have developed since then into a value of cultural difference itself, a so-called more "radical" approach (although it can be more or less radical, depending on the particular argument). In some strands of multicultural thinking, there is an almost fetishistic relationship to cultural and racial differences, such that the maintenance of cultural differences over time becomes an end-in-itself. Many if not most activists, intellectuals, researchers and politicians hold these two values, anti-racism and preservationist multiculturalism, simultaneously, without understanding their contradiction or connection.

The anti-racist position holds that 19th century essentialist anthropology and biology were precisely wrong when they argued that cultural differences and differences in character and ability were due to biological, bodily, or genetic factors among the "races." Indeed, the anti-racist position has been continually bolstered over the past 50 years by research that has demonstrated that, in a nutshell, there are no biological differences among human beings of so-called "different" races, and that things like skin color, nose shape, eye shape, and hair texture are no more meaningful for character or culture than hair color or freckles. (It is important to note, however, that human beings like all mamals do develop population-specific adaptations, so that for example there is a connection between the sickle-cell gene and immunity to malaria; but these are population-based adaptations and not racial.) So given that race as it has been conceived of since the 18th century does not, in fact, exist, anti-racism insists that social inequalities based on race must be eliminated. So far, so good.

Confusingly, because of the way human cultures and societies work, the fact that American culture was racist, that is, that American culture developed over time a racist ideology that historically structured our society, produced a particular material and social environment in which African Americans lived, namely slavery and segregation. Even under the best of circumstances, this division in American culture had its effect at the individual level (what W.E.B. du Bois called "double consciousness") and at the cultural level (what du Bois called the "Story, Song, and Spirit" of African American culture). In other words, around the country, African Americans dealt with their lived experiences by producing cultures to explain them and make them bearable. The net result of this history has been that a major part of U.S. culture is something that might be called "African American Cutlure."

However, like all cultures, this African American culture is diverse and multiple, as African Americans in different regions had different experiences and produced different cultures; African Americans themselves are individually varied like all Americans, by religion, class, gender, sexuality, ability, education, politics, etc. Too further complicate matters, African American cultures (and by analogy, European American) cultures are already hybrid, or culturally mixed, as African- and European American traditions collided and blended over time.

In the preservationist multicultural position, the maintenance of these distinctive African American cultures over time is the goal. On its face, this seems aesthetically and morally desireable. African Americans are part and parcel of America writ large, and their heritage and community and historical experience should be honored and valued by America at large. In a democracy, it likewise appears normal and right that any individual with the right to free association in a large democracy will create and maintain social group identities and will identify with others of like experience and background.

The problem comes when you try to put the anti-racist and the preservationist-multicultural values together. In order to preserve African American cultural identities, at least on the individual level, you have to be able to identify people as racially different. So in a preservationist-multicultural structure, the very terms of racism—the intelligibility of racial differences based on skin color, nose shape, and hair texture—must remain salient in order to preserve the culture in question; while the anti-racist value system seeks at the same time to reduce their salience of "racial differences" by creating ultimately a race-blind society with substantive (not just structural) equality. So the question becomes, can you work toward these two goals at the same time? Can you eliminate racism while at the same time insisting on the salience of race over time in order to preserve African American culture(s)? Can you preserve individuals' and groups' connections to their pasts and heritage while at the same time undermining the means (race distinctions) whereby those groups and identities were formed in the first place?

Based on the unequal distribution of social, cultural, political and economic goods in U.S. society—that is, based on the persistent inequality between people of African and people of European and Slavic descent in the U.S.—I can't help but lean to the anti-racist side. The social context wherein individuals can have histories, and identities and cultures within the larger democracy is an end-in-view of any effective democracy; but I think that substantive equality must take priority. Until African Americans are of a parity in issues of education, property ownership, and occupation, the "right" to have a particular identity is a hollow one. In other words, a mere preservationist appreciation of diversity is insufficient to close the substantive gap between white and black America. Real, substantive and economic reforms must be put into place.

To be continued…



1. diana s. - 10 March 2006

This is so interesting. I’m faced with racial issues every day in Baltimore. I hadn’t thought about how the attempt to preserve cultural diversity allows racism to flourish.

2. Shannon - 14 March 2006

Really interesting post. I think you articulated some things I’d been struggling towards in a vague way for a while.

What I’m always fascinated with are the edge cases. The “mulattos”, the “quadroons”. These are the people who prove with their existence how fragile a concept race really is. Clearly the whole distinction gets completely ridiculous within a few generations, if populations are mingling. And yet…it’s not ridiculous yet, is it?

Dunno. It’s weird. Full disclosure: my little brother is mixed race, so this question is personal to me. My brother has “cafe-au-lait” skin and silky, curly hair. (He’s ridiculously good looking.) Yet when most people meet him for the first time, they instantly classify him as “black”. I’ve seen this happen plenty of times, and even in his high school–though he’s an outgoing kid with a lot of friends who transitions easily between social groups–his closest friends are black kids. He wasn’t raised with any African-American culture at all, but everybody sees him as black…even, to some extent, the culturally African-American kids. I can’t help but think that perception is rooted in the definitions established by slaveowners in previous centuries. That if you’re not totally white, you’re black. It doesn’t make logical sense, but it seems to be how our society continues to perceive race.

So then there’s things like affirmative action, which depend on the ability to sort out the races with some kind of precision, which mean they depend on racism. It tears my little bleeding heart, because on the one hand I *do* believe that racism is very much embedded in our workforce and we need mechanisms to root it out…and I believe that effects of affirmative action are largely beneficial. But I also have to think that the principles it’s based on are seriously flawed.

“Ebonics” is a much more clear cut case. There you REALLY had the “preservationist-multicultural” people arguing for an end that clearly ran counter to the anti-racist position. Anti-racism would say that all children are entitled to equal standards of education; Ebonics proponents said black children should be held to different standards of speaking and writing in the classroom than the white children, for the sake of preservationism. And it’s obvious (at least to me) that, if Ebonics were to win, the black children would end up being disadvantaged by such a double standard.

Of course, there’s lots about African American culture that’s just incredibly cool, and very much worth preserving. Although I suspect it will persevere whatever the policies of liberal white folk 🙂

And anyway, a strictly assimilationist stance … like the one that led Indian children to be ripped away from their parents and placed with adoptive white families … is *clearly* not the way to go. It’s really hard to honor both the fact that race is incredibly meaningful in our modern social context, and recognize at the same time that can be a totally misleading construct. It’s almost impossible to be “colorblind”, and wholly impossible to be both colorblind and ethnically sensitive.

So, yeah. I guess I don’t really have a point. Racism. It’s super hard.

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