In recent weeks, the state of Arizona has intensified its attack 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.
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 and investigate 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; it restricts ethnic studies classes. But State Superintendent Tom Horne said he devised the bill 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 it. The term has gained visibility in the press since Andrew Breitbart’s website trumpeted a “damning” video from 1990 of Barack Obama, then a Harvard law school student, hugging the law professor Derrick Bell, one of the field’s founders. Breitbart’s website calls critical race theory “a counter-American, collectivist idea.”
The Arizona bill may sound reasonable to some. 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 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. For example, as Michelle Alexander argues in her influential new book, The New Jim Crow, to explain the massively disproportional rates of incarceration for African Americans and Latinos we need to consider how what appear to be color-blind drug laws are nonetheless permeated with ideas about race. The level of racial disparity at the end point tells us we need to investigate what is 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, 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 can appear neutral, objective and color-blind.
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 consistency 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 are not found but are produced by practices of segregation. Dividing people by race, others explained, was like identifying slides by the box they came in.
A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT
The resounding consensus among scientists today is that there is no genetic basis for the social categories of race. Human beings share over 99% of our genes across racial groups. 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?
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 directly at the door of genes, given that the ways in which those genes are expressed, and the ways in which an actual organism develops, has to do with its specific environment, what it eats, what toxins it is exposed to and so on. And disease-related genes associated with a racial group still don’t have a direct connection to racial status: genes associated with sickle-cell anemia, for example, are not found among most African Americans but are common in parts of India.
So how did this skepticism about race produce a ground for censorship in Arizona?
If questions about the scientific status of race reveal 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 reminds us.
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.
RENDERING RACE VISIBLE
The operations of race are thus complex and can take some work – critical work – to render visible. Everyday racial identities raise a host of questions. For example, how should mixed-race identities be classified? Are Latinos a race? Is race so distinct 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 given that how we are seen and interpreted by others affects 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 lead impoverished populations of Mexican and Central American kids to question and challenge the barriers of racism they confront in their daily lives. Superintendent Horne, now Arizona’s attorney general, was incensed when students walked out of an assembly in 2006, protesting English-only policies and calling out anti-Latino racism among Republican elected officials. Horne 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. House Bill 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 the ugly racism that has been white-washed, so to speak, in their textbooks. 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.
Linda Martín Alcoff is professor of philosophy at Hunter College and The Graduate Center, author of Visible Identities: Race, Gender and the Self (Oxford 2006), and president-elect of the American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division. A longer version of this article appeared on The Stone, a New York Times blog that features contemporary philosophers.