In Arizona, Censoring Questions About RaceBy LINDA MARTÍN ALCOFF
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.
In recent weeks, the state of Arizona has intensified its attack in its schools on an entire branch of study — critical race theory. Books and literature that, in the state’s view, meet that definition have been said to violate a provision in the state’s law that prohibits lessons “promoting racial resentment.” Officials are currently bringing to bear all their influence in the public school curriculum, going so far as to enter classrooms to confiscate books and other materials and to oversee what can be taught. After decades of debate over whether we might be able to curtail ever so slightly the proliferation of violent pornography, the censors have managed a quick and thorough coup over educational materials in ethnic studies.
I have been teaching critical race theory for almost 20 years. The phrase signifies quite a sophisticated concept for this crowd to wield, coined as it was by a consortium of theorists across several disciplines to signify the new cutting edge scholarship about race. Why not simply call it “scholarship about race,” you might ask? Because, as the censors might be surprised to find, these theorists want to leave open the question of what race is — if there is such a thing — rather than assuming it as a natural object of inquiry. Far from championing a single-minded program for the purpose of propaganda, the point of critical race theory is to formulate questions about race.
Arizona’s House Bill 2281, which was signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer in May 2010, does not actually mention critical race theory, but the term has been all over the press with a “damning” image from 1990 of Barack Obama, then a Harvard law school student, hugging the law professor Derrick Bell, one of the field’s founders. State Superintendent Tom Horne devised the bill particularly to put a stop to what he describes as the “racist propaganda” of critical race theory, and now other conservatives are sounding the call against what they say is a “deeply disturbing theory.” Perhaps the negative publicity recently produced by the Republican stance on contraception has the party looking for a new target to shore up the base.
What the bill does say may sound to some ears as reasonable. It prohibits courses that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people,” that “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals,” or that are “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.” The reality, of course, is that ethnic studies teachers are constantly trying to get students from multiple backgrounds in our classes, and many of us have even endeavored to make these courses required for all. But the other two issues raised by the bill, concerning “resentment” and “ethnic solidarity,” are a bit more complicated.
So what is critical race theory, in reality? The phrase is used differently in different disciplines, but it generally refers to the study of the ways in which racial concepts and ideas may be operating relatively covertly across social institutions and practices — as ideological drones, of a sort. As Michelle Alexander, in her influential new book, “The New Jim Crow,” argues, for example, we need to consider how what appear to be colorblind drug laws are nonetheless permeated with ideas about race in order to explain the massively disproportional rates of incarceration for African-Americans and Latinos. You can’t have that much racial disparity at the end point without something going on at the starting point. Many people think it is plausible, even obvious, that ideas about race are systemically operating in our criminal justice system, somehow, perhaps below the level of conscious intent. Critical race theory is an attempt to develop critical tools for analyzing the racist effects of legal practices, as well as other practices, that appear neutral, objective and colorblind.
Yet those who believe that critical race theory aims to produce ethnic or racial “solidarity” may be surprised to find that most critical race theorists have some skepticism about the existence of race. In this they simply follow the anthropology profession, which declared some 50 years ago that the concept of race is an illusion. In a paper published in 1963, S. L. Washburn, the president of the American Anthropological Association, referred to the concept of race as “an antiquated biological notion.” He and others argued that there is simply no global coherency or consistent social practice in regard to the concept of race, and that the biological status of the term was a sham produced by suspect scientific methods. Character traits we associate with races, including intelligence, are produced, not found. Dividing people by race, others explained, was like identifying slides by the box they came in.
Many people who are familiar with the debates over racism — over its causes, its nature and its solution — may be unaware that the very category of race has been debated for decades, not only among anthropologists but also among biologists, sociologists, social psychologists and even philosophers. Human beings share over 99 percent of our genes across racial groups, and no single gene accounts for anything physical other than eye color, a rather insignificant attribute. Diseases often associated with racial groups are found in other groups, thus making them more likely to be the result of reproductive patterns than some biological foundation. If siblings — who share the largest amount of DNA — can be identified as being of different races because of the way they look (as is common in Latin America and in my own family), how can race be biological? There just is no clear cut way to map our social classifications of race onto a meaningful biological category. Debates today concern how to explain the historical development of the physical traits we associate with races, but nobody with any standing believes that the racial groups named in the Great Chain of Being actually exist. In short, scholars have become quite critical of the concept of race. [UPDATE]
So how did this skepticism about race produce a ground for censorship in Arizona?
If the scientific status of race reveals the disconnect between reality, on the one hand, and common ideas and practices on the other, then we need to train our attention on the latter. Race is a socially constructed category with a resultant set of very real experiences. In an important sense, after all, races exist absolutely as social and historical entities. Biologists and social scientists may have rejected the concept, and many may declare that we are now post-racial, but one’s apparent racial identity continues to determine job prospects, career options, available places to live, potential friends and lovers, reactions from police, credence from jurors and whether one can walk around safely at night wearing a hoodie. Scholarly debates have not changed these facts, as the tragic case of Trayvon Martin has revealed.
Race may not be in our DNA, but it is all over the history of Western literature, in Melville as much as in Mark Twain, Charles Dickens as well as Conrad. The white imaginary — in Toni Morrison’s evocative phrase — constructs “Americanness” in racial terms while undertaking what she calls “elaborate strategies” to erase its own influence from view.
The operations of race are thus complex and can take some work — critical work —to render visible. Everyday racial identities raise a host of normative questions. For example, how should mixed race identities, recently visible, be classified? Are Latinos a race? Can race be so clearly distinguished from ethnicity when categories like “African-American” bring both to mind, distinguishing this group from Afro-Caribbeans and Africans? Letting people ascribe their own identities cannot settle all of these questions when how we are seen and interpreted by others can still have such devastating effects, and even affect how we see ourselves. Serious scholarship in the area of race is really just beginning.
In truth, the Arizona legislature was not motivated to confiscate textbooks because it opposed complicating students’ understanding of what race is or how race works. Their real concern, as stated in the bill, was about “solidarity” and “resentment.” They are scared of a curriculum that might foment an anti-white sentiment among impoverished populations of Mexican and Central American kids. One might think they are worried about misplaced political targets, as the Black Panthers were when they rewrote their Ten Point Program to replace “whites” with “capitalists.” But the Arizona legislature is not concerned with misnamed targets but with having any targets at all. Tom Horne was incensed when students walked out of an assembly in 2006, protesting English-only policies and calling out Republicans for having anti-Latino racism. He does not want politically active Latinos in his state. He wants them to shut up and keep mowing the lawns.
It may remind one of the Southern slave owners who began to nervously sense, shortly before the Civil War, that “the natives” were getting restless. This was especially worrisome when those “natives” were right out in their front lawns, or even inside their homes, tending their children and cleaning their kitchens, doing the same work that Mexicans and Central Americans do today. H.B. 2281 is an attempt to stem the tide of Latino political integration as full participants, a development that may well change the color of “Americanness.”
The concept of “anti-white” is interesting. Teaching the unvarnished truth about preferential land distributions that favored whites, or recounting the endless broken treaties including the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which promised that Mexican nationals would not lose their land after the 1848 annexation of Mexico, might just make somebody, somewhere, a little ticked off. But telling the whole truth of that chapter of American history might make white kids feel a little ticked off as well at racist institutions and laws and the ugly history of a country that has been portrayed as, so to speak, lily-white. Recent polls show that the gap between whites and non-whites who believe that racism continues to be an important problem in United States society has dropped significantly, at least in the younger generation. So perhaps it will not be only Chicano children who demand change, but their white allies as well. That is the sort of solidarity the Arizona Republicans may be most worried about.
Critical race theory is an open-ended project of inquiry, a set of new questions rather than predetermined answers. It involves a history lesson, to be sure, but more than that, it is a set of questions about how this history continues to impact us all in ways we have yet to uncover. But even asking questions on these topics is dangerous to some.
UPDATE April 2, 2012, 2:30 p.m.
My article has generated some consternation in the comments section over the issue of the biology of race, so let me offer a little clarification.
The resounding consensus among scientists today is that there is no genetic basis for the social categories of race. That is, there is no set of genes that can account for the distinctions between racial groups. Socially recognized attributes that divide people into racial groups are based on phenotypes, but our phenotype is the product of our genotype in combination with our environment. So even the predilection to certain diseases cannot be laid at the door of genes given the fact that the ways in which those genes are expressed, and the ways in which an actual organism develops, has to do with the environment in which it develops, what it eats, what toxins it is exposed to and so on. One can look at the divergences between cancer statistics to see how this works, so that people of the same racial group who grow up in different parts of the world eating different kinds of food, engaging in different amounts of physical exercise and exposed to different environmental factors will have different rates.
For more on this topic from an influential expert, you can look at Joshua Glasgow’s “On the New Biology of Race” (Journal of Philosophy Vol. 100, No. 9, Sept 2003, pp. 456-474). Philip Kitcher, the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, and one of the leading philosophers of biology in the world, disagrees with Glasgow to some extent and takes as realist a position as one can responsibly take on the biology of race. Kitcher holds that races exist biologically not in the sense that genes provide an explanatory foundation for racial groups but in the sense that one can define races as “breeding populations” and track the historical development of traits. But even this concept does not provide predictive capacity but only a historical explanation. See Kitcher’s essay “Does ‘Race’ Have a Future?” (Philosophy and Public Affairs Vol. 35, No. 4, 2007).
Pharmaceutical companies that are today trying to market drugs based on racial identity should not be taken as the best source of the best science. I recommend reading the biologists.
As for myself, I am actually a racial realist, and have defended the reality of race throughout my work, precisely in the sense some of the commentators have wanted to emphasize: that race is a socially constructed category with much significance and relevance even though the old-fashioned biological notions of race are false. To say that race is socially constructed is not to say that it is a figment of our imagination, a product of ideology, or that it has no physical correlates. But it is to say that racial groups are more about the ways in which human history and human practices have evolved. The future of race is, indeed, open.