Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Postscript on "Race" as a Social Construct

As it happens, when I read and criticized Michael J. Smith's ruminations on race yesterday, I had just begun reading Eduardo Bonilla-Silva's Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism & Racial Inequality in Contemporary America (3rd edition, Rowman & Littlefield, 2010). I'd picked it up off the new arrivals shelves at the university library because it included a new chapter on the "Obama Phenomenon", and then someone recalled it, so I had to read it soon. It's an interesting book, which draws on interviews about race with a wide range of white Americans as well as the usual scholarly literature.

I finished reading it tonight, and in the final chapter read this among a short list of examples of "how most whites think and talk about racism in contemporary America" (261f):
“Race is a myth, an invention, a socially constructed category. Therefore, we should not make it ‘real’ by using it in our analyses. People are people, not black, white, or Indian. White males are just people.”
Bonilla-Silva added in an endnote (272, note 1):
A colleague said something like this to me almost verbatim a few years ago in response to a presentation I gave about racism in sociology. Later on, the same colleague uttered a statement along the same lines to challenge a graduate student’s presentation on whiteness. Denying the social reality of race because of its constructed nature (see chapter 1), unfortunately, has become respectable in academia. This position, which has been uttered by conservatives such as David Horowitz, has now been adopted by liberals such as Todd Gitlin and even radicals (or former radicals) such as Paul Gilroy.
Nice coincidence, isn't it? Smith's complaint puts him in some distinguished company. Now, Smith did concede that it's valid to study the history of race and racism, as long as one doesn't indulge in excessive jargon (that is, more jargon than he himself employed) or create new departments with "studies" in their names. This, he held, somehow conformed to the worst tendencies in academia, and produced people like the African-American female writer he was denouncing in the first place, for usurping a page in The Nation that properly belonged to a white male writer. (I've been wondering if she was actually replacing Patricia J. Williams, a black female law professor. If not, surely The Nation doesn't need two black women writing for them on a regular basis! That's reverse discrimination!)

But the more I think about it, the more confusing it all seems, because Smith attacks academia while at the same time granting legitimacy to what I can only call traditional disciplines like history: "To demand that historians, say, should start paying attention to formerly ignored historical subjects was a great thing", as long as you didn't create new departments to study those formerly ignored subjects when the old white men refused to study them or to permit their students to do so.
But none of these critiques require you to be a race specialist: they require you to be a historian or a scientist or an organizer. If you are none of these things, your critique is going to be rather feeble, because you don't have the knowledge you need to make it stick.
It is, of course, possible, to be all of "these things." It seems that Smith is calling here for a return to, or the conservation of, traditional disciplinary boundaries in Academe (those pesky "studies" departments have a distressing tendency to be multi-disciplinary). Maybe I just stumbled onto the National Association of Scholars webpage by mistake?