Content on the Conference Table
preview of topics for the Reconciliation Symposium
in the Family
By Edward Ball
A review by Amy Benson Brown
While this essay was in
production, a student opinion essay in the Emory
Wheel argued that "genes (and not racism, past inequalities,
or anything else) are primarily responsible for blacks' lower
status on the socioeconomic ladder in the U.S."
Theorizing about race is
certainly nothing new. Indeed, the preoccupation with difference
in skin color and all that difference has been alleged to entail
(in terms of culture, religion, intelligence--even one's humanity)
may well be one of the engines of Western history since the close
of the fifteenth century.
This historical moment of European contact with the "other"
combined increased contact with sub-Saharan Africa, the economic
and religious drive to colonize this "New World," and
the lethal mix of germs and technology. That volatile combination
made the exploitation of Africans and Native Americans possible.
At that moment, the Ibo, Yoruba, and Xhosa began to become black;
the Aztecs, Mayans, Incas, and Arwaks became Indians; and equally
important, the Dutch, French, Spanish, English, and Portuguese
began to become white. The Catholic Church, Protestant theologians,
heads of state, captains of the new mercantile, slave-based economy,
Enlightenment philosophers, and slaves themselves all tried to
explain the meaning of phenotypic difference-the superficial,
physical markings of race. And those various and competing explanations
have been ongoing now for over five hundred years.
Yet if theorizing about race is centuries old, there is something
unique about the present moment in race theory's history, a moment
of exceptionally high visibility within and beyond the academy.
Perhaps due to globalization and rapidly changing racial demographics
in the U.S., new attention is now devoted to explaining differences
in income, material wealth, health, life expectancy, customs,
and belief systems-differences that often align themselves with
differences in complexion.
In such a brief essay, it's impossible to attend to the entire
range of conceptual and disciplinary approaches animating a field
that includes African American studies, virtually all humanistic
disciplines, and biology and genetics. But the opportunity to
broaden the general understanding of race theory outweighs the
risk of being reductive. With that caveat, we can say that race
theory basically operates from two assumptions.
First, all of the genetic differences we can observe between
(and among) populations cannot be discretely organized by the
broad racial categories popularly used (white, black, Asian,
Hispanic, and so forth). Second, "races" and the differences
between them are products of history and culture--the constructionist
argument, in other words. Rather than a set of permanent properties
rooted in nature, race is a description of man-made processes--a
narrative, if you will, of the politicizing of phenotypic difference.
This explanatory model accounts for the historical power of the
concept without perpetuating the racist assumptions inherent
in the history of the term. Both assumptions reverse the pseudo-science
of the nineteenth century, which claimed innate and immutable
racial difference according to biology and which--as the recent
Wheel commentary demonstrates--still influences some contemporary
thought. Needless to say, difference is never neutral, but it
tends to reinforce racialized hierarchies--political, economic,
Put more succinctly, what is unique about this moment in race
theory's history is that more white critics are saying what many
African Americans have been saying for quite some time: race
is not a fact of nature but a human creation with overt political
intent. Particularly in the Enlightenment, in order to realize
ideals such as freedom, reason, civilization, and democracy,
the embodied antithesis was essential: the slave, the allegedly
uncivilized, unintelligent, and subhuman. Critics such as W.E.B.
DuBois, Sterling A. Brown, Ralph Ellison, C.L.R. James, and Orlando
Patterson have all commented on the racialized nature of Western
freedom and democracy. As Toni Morrison puts it, the black presence
in the U.S. "is the vehicle by which the American self knows
itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable;
not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but
historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of
evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny." Much
of contemporary race theory extends the work of the earlier generation
of theorists into new arenas of analysis.
As the field grows, it confronts several major challenges. One
of the most glaring contradictions is the emergence of "whiteness
studies." The scrutiny race theory brings to bear on the
constructed nature of whiteness--its historical process and current
maintenance-is crucial to the field. In at least two ways, though,
whiteness studies seriously checks the impact of the critique.
First, the phrase seems to suggest a history of exploitation
and oppression comparable to those invoked by African American
studies, women's studies, gay and lesbian studies, and so forth.
Furthermore, after ninety years of criticism placing the historical
construction of whiteness in a relative position to that of blackness,
"whiteness studies" threatens to reclaim the center,
often asserting itself as the exclusive focus of race-based criticism.
Another serious problem is the claim that race is an historical
or cultural phenomenon can quickly be distorted into the facile
notion that race is a fiction. Status quo-minded politicians
can quickly manipulate the theory to support the call for immediate
color blindness, an effective strategy for perpetuating the material
advantages that long have been associated with whiteness.
Finally, although race theory disrupts essentialist assumptions
about race, it tends to essentialize gender. We have yet to develop
a language that can account for the intersection of racism and
Yet even with these limitations,
race theory makes important contributions to scholarship and
civic life beyond the academy. As we have seen most recently
with the national re-emergence of essentialist arguments over
intelligence and genetics, an alarming amount of intellectual
energy is still expended in the academy in order to justify racial
stratification in American society. Race theory offers a broader
theoretical context for debates over intelligence testing or
heritable traits, for example.
Working from a deep conviction in democratic ideals, race theory
attempts to explain why rights and material goods are distributed
unequally according to race. Ultimately, this discourse may generate
the critical tools to move us closer to realizing American democratic