Difference Politicized
Reflections on contemporary race theory
By Mark A. Sanders, Associate Professor of English
and Director of the Program in African American Studies


Race Theory
A Selected Bibliography

Intellectual Content on the Conference Table
A preview of topics for the Reconciliation Symposium

Slaves in the Family
By Edward Ball
A review by Amy Benson Brown

Return to Contents

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, and social.

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 patriarchal oppression.

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 ideals.