Friday, 24 June 2011

A Short History of the ‘Critical’ in Critical Race Theory

Lewis Gordon, People of Color Organize

Critical Race Theory is strongly associated with Critical Legal Studies—an approach to American jurisprudence advanced by a group of progressive, often liberal and sometimes Marxist jurists in the 1980s and the present decade. The Critical Legal Studies group, of whom the most prominent associates are Patricia Williams, Richard Delgado, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Derrick Bell, are most peculiarly marked by their utilization of developments in postmodern poststructural scholarship, especially the focus on “subaltern” or “marginalized” communities and the use of alternative methodology in the expression of theoretical work, most notably their use of “narratives” and other literary techniques.

A constraint on the Critical Legal Studies group is the focus on law. Quite often, the presumption of their work is that strategies of recognition—powerfully evoking, for instance, an unemployed Latina or black mother’s confrontation with the obstacles posed by the legal system and government bureaucracies, or the situation of a person of color facing juries and other facets of the criminal justice system—will have an impact on the practice or implementation of justice within the systems of laws available. In effect, the structure of interpretive legal argumentation permits criticisms of the system only to the extent to which the criticisms call for, at best, systemic adjustment. Such an approach renders revolutionary or more radical approaches to questions of law at best “interpretations” worth considering but performatively limited. As a consequence, the form of critical discussions of race that emerges in the Critical Legal Studies movement is usually limited by the impact of juridical conceptions of how race will be negotiated in the sphere of litigation and legislation. How about race in civil and often not so civil society?

The critical treatment of the concept of race and especially the impact of racism in the modern world has pre-dated the Critical Legal Studies approach well more than a century. Its history is isomorphic with the development of Africana thought, which began in the eighteenth century with, ironically, critical efforts to render slavery illegal. Although the African dimension of Africana thought preceded the eighteenth century, the diasporic reality created by conquest, colonization, and slavery created the conditions for the discourse on black humanity that has been a main feature of thought among the African diaspora. That discourse can be traced back to the writings of Wilhelm Amo and Quobno Cugoano where,especially in Cugoano’s work, a philosophical anthropology of freedom is advanced, and stands as the groundwork for nearly all subsequent critical discussions of race and racial oppression.

Subsequent discussions emerged in the nineteenth century in the work of nearly all of that century’s central figures in Africana thought: David Walker, Maria Stewart, Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, Alexander Crummell, Edward Blyden, Anna Julia Cooper, Rufus Lewis Perry, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Although freedom was the leitmotif of their writings, quite often they found themselves straddling questions not only regarding the freedom they sought, but also the identification of the bearers of the oppression they sought to alleviate. The liberation of “blacks,” “Negroes,” or “nègres” was complicated by cultural differences between many sets of peoples designated by these terms and the simultaneous epistemological leakages in the developing “sciences of man.” We could call this complication the identity question. It addresses the question, “What or who are racialized people?” or, “What does it mean for a people to be racialized?” or, simply, “What is race?” That century ended with a body of writings that can perhaps be considered, in spite of their limitations, the first critical work that focuses on the concept of race, namely, Rufus Lewis Perry’s recognition that there is an ontological dimension to race discourses, and W.E.B. Du Bois’ reflections on racial conservation and the problems involved in studying racialized people. The more influential of the two, however, was Du Bois.

Critical race theory has gained much from Du Bois. It was Du Bois who formulated, for instance, the distinction between identity and policy (liberation). In “Conservation of the Races” (1897), Du Bois struggled through the difficulty of using biological criteria for group classification of differences in the human species. Much of what he says in the essay is archaic today and downright false. But of importance is his identification of the need for a policy to protect certain groups from the genocidal onslaught of American and European imperialism. We should bear in mind, when we read Du Bois’s essay today, that the indigenous populations of the United States were reduced to four percent of the original numbers in little more than a century. Du Bois had every reason to believe—given the rhetoric and realities of Manifest Destiny—that not only black populations in the New World but also such populations in Africa faced a similar fate. His essay challenged the intellectual community of color to take action against such a calamity. Those of us today who are very critical of Du Bois and his contemporaries’ errors should wonder what our present may have been like had they not built institutions to combat the racist policies of the U.S. government and the European governments. In order to prevent “racial” genocide, however, Du Bois had to articulate “racial identification” of “racial identities.”

Du Bois was a critical thinker of unusual talent for his times. In other work from the period, for instance, his “The Study of the Negro Problems” and The Philadelphia Negro, he began to question not only prevailing racial assumptions but also the assumptions of racial study itself. In other words, he began to study the studier, the imagined “objective” voice of reason in the systematic acquisition of knowledge of racial or racialized subjects. At the heart of Du Bois’s critical race theory, then, was a critical theory—a critique of theory itself. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois formulated the problem succinctly as a failure on the part of the theorists to study the problems of racialized people instead of reducing such peoples to the problems themselves. Implicit in this move is Cugoano’s insight: a proper anthropology keeps the humanity of human subjects in sight. So the legacy is this. We must study even dehumanized human subjects in a humanistic way in order to recognize the dehumanizing practices that besiege them. The importance of such work for those who focus on policy is, then, obvious.

Critical work burgeoned throughout the twentieth century, the century marked by Du Bois’ famous admonition about the color line. It is in this century that the most prominent other strain of critical race theory emerged, through the radical critical work of Frantz Fanon. Fanon announced, in Black Skin, White Masks (1952), the constructivity of racial formation.4 In addition, he brought into focus the tension between structural identities and lived identities and the tension between constitutional theories (the organism) and raw environmental appeals. The mediating forces, he argued, are sociogenic forces, forces that are “real” but subject, always, to the dictates of human intervention or agency. These forces were all examined after Fanon declared that he was not going to concern himself with problems of method but instead with problems of “failure,” problems where the assumptions and presumptions of the social system and its modes of rationalization break down. In effect, Fanon’s response to the status of the studier was to admit prejudice at the outset, which required an exploration of the failures that emerge both from prejudice itself, and from a failure to admit prejudice. Later, in an essay entitled, “Racism and Culture,” Fanon explored the complications raised by cultural normativity. The pervasiveness of culture offered a degree of “rationality” to racist thinking. There is, in other words, such an appeal as “racist logic,” and worse, racial normativity leads to racial normality. A racist in a racist society is, in a word, “normal.” In each instance, Fanon pushed categories of interpretations to their limits to address the systemic flaws at hand, flaws that require revolutionary practices for their transformation instead of discourses of systemic adjustment. One can never “fix” all the players of a bad system.

The Fanonian strain had an enormous impact on the development of poststructuralism. Its focus on failure, popular textual resources, cultural aetiologies, and constructivity were all subsequently utilized by deconstructionists and genealogical poststructuralists, and their importance for critical discussions of race came to the fore in Edward Said’s influential Orientalism. That all postcolonialists appeal to the constructivity of race is but an example of this influence.

From the late 1970s to the present, critical race theory has, thus, been marked by two major influences: Du Bois and Fanon. The central contemporary figures can easily be distinguished by the predominant influence of one of these two thinkers, and conflicts have emerged from the use of one to criticize the other, and from efforts to combine the two. The Du Boisian legacy is, perhaps, most marked in the work of Lucius T. Outlaw and the group of contemporary African-American philosophers who have followed his lead, albeit critically—for example, Tommy Lott, Robert Gooding-Williams, and Josiah Young. The Fanonian legacy varies because it has two offshoots. On the one hand, there are those who simply follow Fanon’s insights on constructivity. Some of those scholars rely on an appeal to scientific verificationism that makes for some strange allies. Anthony Appiah, Naomi Zack, Charles Mills, and Victor Anderson, for instance, share Fanon’s approach of analyzing failures, and his appeals to constructivity, but they reject his thesis that liberalism and scientism are examples of those failures. David Goldberg, Michael Omi, Howard Winant, Cornel West, Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, and many others have taken the lead on the racist culture position. We should bear in mind that none of these thinkers, on either the Du Boisian end or the Fanonian end, represent a complete unity. Cornel West, for instance, draws upon insights from both Du Bois and Fanon, although he explicitly appeals to John Dewey and Michel Foucault, as is evident not only in Prophesy, Deliverance! and Race Matters but also in Keeping Faith.6 Tommy Lott and Robert Gooding-Williams have taking the constructivity thesis seriously in much of their critical work on race as well. And although I have placed Omi and Winant in the Fanonian legacy of focusing on racist culture and racist projects, their sociological approach owes much to Du Bois’ turn-of-the-century efforts at policy analysis.

A debate that has emerged from the work of the aforementioned theorists is the significance of the “critical” in critical race theory. For some, “critical” serves a purely negative function—to determine what must be eliminated or rejected. Such theorists dismiss “race” on the basis of its constructivity. A construction is, such theorists argue, a fiction, and by ‘fiction’ they mean that which fails to achieve ontological legitimacy through natural scientific criteria. The leader of this way of using ‘critical’ is K. Anthony Appiah.

For others, “critical” serves the same function as does “critique” in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason—to determine the transcendental conditions of meaning and limits of concepts, in this case, the concept of “race.” Kant, as is well known, eventually called his transcendental philosophy “critical philosophy.” The impact of Kant’s work on modern thought needs no explication here. Let it be said that its legacy has continued influence on another way of using the word ‘critical’, namely, Frankfurt School type of critical theory. There, although the historical figurehead was Marx—where the critical exposed the ideological forces of the economic sedimented as the “natural” and the “religious”—the Kantian fusion led to explorations of meaningful conditions of dialogue, including dialogue on the critical, as we find in the work of Jürgen Habermas. The critical here does not function in a dismissive way, but instead as a way of interpreting the social world. For race theorists, the question of a critical understanding of the social brings back Fanon’s sociodiagnostical approach. To be critical here requires understanding how the social functions as its own reality.

Although not often mentioned in this light, the phenomenological work of Alfred Schutz is central here in that it examines the intersubjective dimensions of social reality. Schutz’s work has influenced critical race theorists primarily in the so-called “continental” tradition, which, ironically, includes such theorists as Lucius Outlaw as well. Outlaw has, in addition, presented a powerful case for this dimension of the critical through his examination of the debate between class-centered theorists and race-centered theorists. In “Toward a Critical Theory of Race,” Outlaw appeals to Omi and Winant’s racial formation theory—where racial projects, by virtue of institutional agents of transmittal, have led to the formation of the “racial state”—to raise the question of a Marxist or any other type of critique in a racialized society. Does not such a reality betray the error of reductive readings of race and class (and other identity formations)? Outlaw’s phenomenological side emerges in his concluding remarks:

Lest we move too fast on this [on moving beyond racism in a pluralistic democracy] there is still to be explored the “other side” of “race”: namely, the lived experiences of those within racial groups (e.g., blacks for whom Black nationalism, in many ways, is fundamental). That “race” is without a scientific basis in biological terms does not mean, thereby, that it is without any social value, racism notwithstanding. The exploration of “race” from this “other side” is required before we will have an adequate critical theory, one that truly contributes to enlightenment and emancipation, in part by appreciating the integrity of those who see themselves through the prism of “race.” We must not err yet again in thinking that “race thinking” must be completely eliminated on the way to emancipated society. (Outlaw, 77–8)

Outlaw’s advancing the category of “lived experience” raises another legacy that, ironically, is a fusion of Du Bois and Fanon through their differing phenomenological influences. Du Bois, as is well known, advanced the experience of blackness as a dual consciousness. Fanon raised this question in Black Skin through a phenomenology of alienated embodiment. Both Du Bois and Fanon recognized, as well, the impact of “historicity” in this mode of alienation. Racialized peoples have an ambivalent relation to history, for their identities are historically constituted as both the bane of their existence and the reality without which they could not be. Like an abusive parent who has abandoned its offspring, modern history is also such people’s history, for better or worse. For Fanon, this ambivalence called for a dialectic between history and theoretical reflection, and what emerges from that dialectic is lived experience. The counsel of recognizing lived experience reaffirms Du Bois’ edict of studying people’s problems without problematizing the people—in effect, appealing to their lived experience calls for recognizing them as points of view, as part of the intersubjective world of sociality. But more, experience is here used as a bridge between the subjective and the objective (where the objective signifies intersubjectivity).

This other legacy raises the question of the critical through the paradoxes and failures of intentional life. The critical here signifies the self-reflective activity of the theorist advanced by Du Bois a century ago. The studier must here raise the question of his or her performative contradictions. The theorist must be attuned to possibilities of bad faith—lying to himself or herself about the practices of knowledge production at hand—and the “object,” if we will, of “race” study, namely, human beings. In my work, this question has required the challenge of developing resources through which to study a being who lacks a nature. It has meant taking Du Bois’ and Fanon’s contributions on a phenomenological journey of socially converging matrices of identity. A properly critical race theory must address, in other words, the fact that no human being is, nor is able to live, one (and only one) identity without collapsing into pathology. In addition, a properly critical race theory must be willing to explore the possibility of systemic failure, a failure which may require radical transformations of the matrices through which a society’s resources are distributed and through which they are interpreted. From this point of view, liberating practices aim at opening possibilities for more humane forms of social relations. In effect, it argues for “material” and “semiotic” conditions of human possibility. As such, it’s a theory that bridges the identity and liberation divide.

The currents listed here are not, of course, the entire story. There have been efforts to articulate a critical theory of race that range from the psychoanalytical to the theological. And there are the texts that critically address discussions of racial mixture, indigenous peoples, and Asian and Latin-American racialization. The streams listed here represent, however, a set of questions and theoretical responses that have gained some influence in philosophical discussions of race.

Suggested readings

Critical race theory could be studied from a variety of vantage points. Here are some texts I have found useful for an introductory course in the field:

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1897. The Conservation of the Races. New York: American Negro Academy.
Fanon, Frantz. 1967. Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays. New York: Grove Press.
Goldberg, David Theo, ed. 1990. Anatomy of Racism. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press (especially the following chapters: Anthony Appiah, “Racisms”; Lucius T. Outlaw, “Toward a Critical Theory of Race”; D.T. Goldberg, “The Social Formation of Racist Discourse”).
Gordon, Lewis R. 1997. Existence in Black: An Anthology of Black Existential Philosophy. New York: Routledge.
——. 1997. Her Majesty’s Other Children: Sketches of Racism from a Neocolonial Age. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield (especially chapters 3 & 4: “Mixed Race and Biraciality ” and “Sex, Race, and Matrices of Desire in an Antiblack World”).
Mills, Charles W. 1997. The Racial Contract. Ithaca: Cornell U Press (especially the introduction).
Omi, Michael and Howard Winant, eds. 1986. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s. New York: Routledge.
Pieterse, Jan N. 1992. White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture. New Haven: Yale U. Press (especially chapter 14: “White Negroes”).
West, Cornel. 1982. Prophesy, Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity. Philadelphia: Westminster Press (especially chapter 2: “A Genealogy of Modern Racism”).

Also for more advanced courses, where close readings of books is preferred, the following sources are worth more detailed exploration:

Frantz Fanon. 1967. Black Skin, White Masks. Tr. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press.
Gates, Jr., Henry Louis (ed.). 1985. “Race,” Writing, Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Goldberg, David Theo. 1993. Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning. Oxford: Blackwell.
. 1997. Racial Subjects. New York and London: Routledge.
Gooding-Williams, Robert. 1993. Reading Rodney King, Reading Urban Uprising. New York and London: Routledge.
Gordon, Lewis R. 1995. Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press.
Hooks, bell. 1981. Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End Press.
. 1990. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End.
. 1992. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press.
James, Joy Ann. 1996. Resisting State Violence, with a foreword by Angela Y. Davis. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
Jones, William R. 1997. Is God a White Racist?: A Preamble to Black Theology. Boston: Beacon Press.
McGary, Howard. 1998. Racism and Social Justice. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Mills, Charles W. 1998. Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
Morrison, Toni. 1992. Playing in the Dark. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. 1994. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, 2nd Edition. New York and London: Routledge.
Outlaw, Lucius T. 1996. On Race and Philosophy. New York and London: Routledge.
Zack, Naomi. 1993. Race and Mixed Race. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
. 1994. American Mixed Race. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

This list is not, of course, exhaustive. But they provide a good source of especially the Africana philosophical approach to critical questions of race.