In Arizona, Censoring Questions About Race

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2012-04-02 15:41Z by Steven

In Arizona, Censoring Questions About Race

The New York Times

Linda Martín Alcoff, Professor of Philosophy
Hunter College, City University of New York

In recent weeks, the state of Arizona has intensified its attack in its schools 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.  After decades of debate over whether we might be able to curtail ever so slightly the proliferation of violent pornography, the censors have managed a quick and thorough coup over educational materials in ethnic studies.

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 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, but the term has been all over the press with a “damning” image from 1990 of Barack Obama, then a Harvard law school student, hugging the law professor Derrick Bell, one of the field’s founders. State Superintendent Tom Horne devised the bill particularly 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 what they say is a “deeply disturbing theory.” Perhaps the negative publicity recently produced by the Republican stance on contraception has the party looking for a new target to shore up the base.

What the bill does say may sound to some ears as reasonable. 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…

…Yet 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 coherency or consistent social practice 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, including intelligence, are produced, not found. Dividing people by race, others explained, was like identifying slides by the box they came in.

Many people who are familiar with the debates over racism — over its causes, its nature and its solution — may be unaware that the very category of race has been debated for decades, not only among anthropologists but also among biologists, sociologists, social psychologists and even philosophers. Human beings share over 99 percent of our genes across racial groups, and no single gene accounts for anything physical other than eye color, a rather insignificant attribute. Diseases often associated with racial groups are found in other groups, thus making them more likely to be the result of reproductive patterns than some biological foundation. 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? There just is no clear cut way to map our social classifications of race onto a meaningful biological category. Debates today concern how to explain the historical development of the physical traits we associate with races, but nobody with any standing believes that the racial groups named in the Great Chain of Being actually exist. In short, scholars have become quite critical of the concept of race…

Read the entire article here.

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Linda Martín-Alcoff: Visible Identities: Race, Gender and the Self [Review]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Latino Studies, Philosophy on 2011-05-11 03:33Z by Steven

Linda Martín-Alcoff: Visible Identities: Race, Gender and the Self [Review]

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

Linda Martín-Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender and the Self, Oxford University Press, 2006, 326pp., ISBN 0195137353.

Ronald Sundstrom, Associate Professor of African American Studies
University of San Francisco

Linda Martín Alcoff’s book, Visible Identities, offers a conception of social identities that collects together her work on the metaphysics, epistemology, and politics of ethnicity, race, and gender. The idea of visibility has a unifying role in Alcoff’s metaphysical and epistemological account of those social identities. Likewise, visible is what social identities should be in Alcoff’s vision of political life. Visible identities, according to Alcoff, are a resource in a pluralistic democracy, and are not to be eschewed for a simple American identity beyond hyphens, race, ethnicity, and gender difference. That political point is the fundamental point of this book, and it is delivered through Alcoff’s metaphysical analysis of race, ethnicity, and gender.

Alcoff’s attempt to make a political argument through metaphysical analysis immediately calls to mind the distinction between those two areas of inquiry and their presumed separateness. Richard Rorty captured this distinction by framing it in terms of the two questions “what are we?” and “who are we?” The first question is concerned with metaphysics, while the latter is political. The “who are we?” question seeks to discover some unifying thing or idea that, in Rorty’s words, “makes us less like a mob and more like an army.” Rorty’s point, in part, was that those questions were distinct and that an answer to the first did not determine the answer to the second. Answers to the “who” question are always hopeful, for they point to not what we are but who we hope to be. Thus, the political question is a constituting one that points to an ongoing formative project, and it requires the political community to work through time to achieve their collective ideal identity. Who the US should hope to be, according to Rorty, is a nation that “achieves” its constitutional ideals by learning the necessary lessons from the Civil Rights and Feminist movements, yet not losing focus on the political process of building a national moral community that takes primary pride in its collective national identity.

Alcoff would disagree with the completeness of the distinction that Rorty drew. She argues in Visible Identities that “what” we are, as well as “where” we are—in terms of our social location—has political implications, although not the deterministic implications that racial nationalists would desire. Furthermore, she clearly disagrees with the condition regarding identity that is required by Rorty’s great left liberal hope: that strongly felt identities be put aside in favor of a unifying national identity…

…Other features of Alcoff’s account of social identities are familiar ideas in debates about the metaphysics of social identities. She defends a dialogical account of the self that incorporates her use of hermeneutics and phenomenology, and argues that individuals participate in multiple and hybrid identities. Of course, the familiarity of the latter idea is due in no small part to the influence that her essay “Mestizo Identity” has had on race theory. That essay is renamed, “On Being Mixed,” and is the twelfth chapter of Visible Identities. The upshot of these features of her account is to further weaken the three objections she analyzes, especially the assumption that such identities lead to narrow, isolated, and separated self-conceptions that undermine national political life…

…Alcoff’s account of identity exposes important features of “visible identities” that make them radically particular experiences. While she places the social identities she analyzes within the context of group interaction, her emphasis on hybridity and multiplicity allows for enough divergence so that three problems with identity are avoided. This feature of her account is developed in her discussion of mixed race and mestizo identity. She also, however, reminds us that these complex and radically particular identities have historically served as points of political organization, and argues that they should engender larger political participation. Alcoff develops this line of thought in the first chapter, as well as in her chapters on Latino and mixed race identity. In that analysis she avoids, however, the dangers of the institutionalization of those identities, which precisely lead to critiques of identity politics. Groups become centers of power that seek social reproduction and offer measures to encourage loyalty, compel membership, and exclude those who exercise their individual autonomy by not conforming to the group’s will. They seek to suppress the very multiplicity and hybridity which Alcoff depends upon to save identity from the criticisms of liberals. For the sake of their own visibility, groups engender the invisibility of other embodied identities…

Read the entire review here.

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Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self

Posted in Books, Identity Development/Psychology, Latino Studies, Media Archive, Monographs, Philosophy, Social Science on 2009-12-04 07:10Z by Steven

Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self

Oxford University Press
344 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4
ISBN13: 978-0-19-513735-4
ISBN10: 0-19-513735-3

Linda Martín Alcoff, Professor of Philosophy
Hunter College/CUNY Graduate Center

Winner of the 2009 Frantz Fanon Prize

In the heated debates over identity politics, few theorists have looked carefully at the conceptualizations of identity assumed by all sides. Visible Identities fills this gap. Drawing on both philosophical sources as well as theories and empirical studies in the social sciences, Martin Alcoff makes a strong case that identities are not like special interests, nor are they doomed to oppositional politics, nor do they inevitably lead to conformism, essentialism, or reductive approaches to judging others. Identities are historical formations and their political implications are open to interpretation. But identities such as race and gender also have a powerful visual and material aspect that eliminativists and social constructionists often underestimate.

Visible Identities offers a careful analysis of the political and philosophical worries about identity and argues that these worries are neither supported by the empirical data nor grounded in realistic understandings of what identities are. Martin Alcoff develops a more realistic characterization of identity in general through combining phenomenological approaches to embodiment with hermeneutic concepts of the interpretive horizon. Besides addressing the general contours of social identity, Martin Alcoff develops an account of the material infrastructure of gendered identity, compares and contrasts gender identities with racialized ones, and explores the experiential aspects of racial subjectivity for both whites and non-whites. In several chapters she looks specifically at Latino identity as well, including its relationship to concepts of race, the specific forms of anti-Latino racism, and the politics of mestizo or hybrid identity.

Table of Contents

  • Part One: Identities Real and Imagined
    • Introduction: Identity and Visibility.
    • 1. The Pathologizing of Identity.
    • 2. The Political Critique.
    • 3. The Philosophical Critique.
    • 4. Real Identities.
  • Part Two: Gender Identity and Gender Differences
    • 5. The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory.
    • 6. The Metaphysics of Gender and Sexual Difference.
  • Part Three: Racialized Identities and Racist Subjects
    • 7. A Phenomenology of Racial Embodiment.
    • 8. Racism and Visible Race.
    • 9. The Whiteness Question.
  • Part Four: Latino/a Particularity
    • 10. Latinos and the Categories of Race.
    • 11. Latinos, Asian Americans, and the Black-White Binary.
    • 12. On Being Mixed.
  • Conclusion.
  • Notes.
  • Bibliography.
  • Index.
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