Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, University of California at Los Angeles
My remarks about the future direction of Black Studies scholarship highlight the interface between Black Studies, Critical Race Theory, and dominant discourses concerning race, the state, and public policy. I want to suggest that in this moment in which the viability of race as a legitimate category of political, social, and legal discourse is being challenged, the increasingly conservative ideological foundation of law and social policy is a vitally important arena of concern. The genealogical ties between Black Studies and Critical Race Theory suggest a relationship that if strengthened, can be profoundly sustaining to both enterprises in the difficult times that lie ahead.
Critical Race Theory (CRT), like Black Studies, was born in the midst of pitched institutional struggle over the meaning, scope, and consequences of institutional efforts to increase the number of students of color in law schools. These struggles occurred at precisely the time that the prevailing view of racial justice among elites was consolidating around an idea of color blindness, a take on race neutrality that framed race discrimination as a rare instance of irrational behavior based on skin color. By and large, this institutional understanding positioned elite, liberal institutions such as Harvard Law School as objective, race-neutral zones to which post-civil-rights students could easily matriculate, study, and integrate themselves into corporate America. To be sure, there were still significant skirmishes between liberals and conservatives, particularly on whether exceptions to their commitments to meritocracy might be accepted. Yet by and large the belief that race neutrality described the actual practices of institutions of higher learning was fairly widely held. Into this virtual consensus came a class of students bearing a completely different conception of racial power and racial justice derived from a variety of progressive undergraduate experiences including Black Studies curricula and anti-apartheid and anti-colonial activism on campus. Derrick Bell constituted the logical next step along our educational path.
Ideologically speaking, Bell was the embodiment of Black Studies in the legal academy. With his uncompromising substantive focus on how law worked on/for Black people, and his unequivocal epistemological stance, Bell brought a scholarly agenda to legal scholarship that was unprecedented. Unfortunately for those of us seeking his tutelage, Bell left Harvard to seek more hospitable environs just prior to our matriculation.
Bell’s departure set the stage for the institutional drama out of which CRT emerged. Disappointed as we were that Bell had left, students expected nonetheless that Bell’s course, “Constitutional Law and Minority Issues,” would continue to be taught. Moreover, his departure left the faculty with one tenured professor of color, a situation that we fully expected to be corrected. But when we shared our expectations with the dean, he informed us that there were no plans to teach Bell’s courses, and few possibilities of recruiting any scholars of color to Harvard’s faculty since so few were in fact “qualified” to teach at Harvard. He boldly challenged us to explain why we “wouldn’t prefer an excellent white professor over a mediocre Black one.”
Having set the terms of the institutional battle in barely a paragraph, the dean soon became locked in a struggle with students over affirmative action, Black epistemology, reverse racism, and Black nationalism. Before the battle was over, the civil rights establishment kicked in along with the mainstream media to denounce the students for refusing to accept his compromise. As the school moved forward with its plans to bring a white civil rights lawyer to Harvard to teach a mini-course, the students created an alternative offering that featured scholars of color from across the country. These scholars, along with a handful of the students who organized the course, continued to share work and to meet alongside Critical Legal Studies, the progressive movement of white law professors. Eventually this minority caucus flowered into an allied intellectual movement that we christened Critical Race Theory.
The institutional battle that erupted over the Bell courses amplified and engaged Black Studies themes in the contest over legal education. First among them was the notion that rhetorics of racial power need not be grounded or even framed by “prejudice” to do the work of racial subordination. In the rarified air of Harvard Law School, efforts to explain away its virtually all-white faculty in terms of “the pool problem” were as much a manifestation of racial power as Ross Barnett’s claim of “interposition” against James Meredith’s efforts to integrate Ole Miss two decades earlier.
The struggle also revisited the basic questions surrounding the utility of race as a subject of independent study, and the legitimacy of Black subjectivity in that study. Indeed, perhaps the key contribution that Harvard’s dean made in the development of CRT was his challenge to us to articulate the specific value and content of scholarly work that focused on race and the law. The many scholarly responses to his challenge eventually crystallized into a literary canon or scholarly work that catalogues, analyzes, and contests the particular ways that law can be said to “construct” race in American society. Indeed, a key element of CRT is its commitment to a non-essentialist race consciousness epistemology and pedagogy. On par with that theoretical orientation is a focus on the way that law constructs whiteness as a discourse of power, as well as the occasional ways in which law has facilitated efforts to resist racial subordination. CRT is also grounded in the recognition that the experience of being “raced” creates a range of subjectivities that can and should be valued in scholarship and teaching.
Perhaps because in law, ideology is so closely linked to state coercion, critical scholars are particularly invested in identifying and contesting the ideological constructs that marginalize, silence, and suppress racially subordinate communities. The colorblind project, now wrested away from liberal ambivalence, is currently in the hands of conservatives who have grafted this social ideology onto the Constitution. As a consequence, not only has the pace of modest racial remediation ground to a halt, but race-conscious efforts to rethink institutional structures have been chilled and in places reversed. Indeed, California represents the metastasized version of color blindness in its passage of Proposition 209, which has dramatically limited the number of African Americans in its flagship universities.
The convergence of this contested social ideology with state power constitutes a profound threat to the viability of Black Studies and to the political power of Black people as a whole. Color blindness harnesses state power not only to dismantle modest efforts to offset racial subordination, but it simultaneously seeks to deprive us of any legitimate language with which to contest these aggressions. It is no accident that in the wake of the decimation of Black student presence on campus in the aftermath of Proposition 209 in California, Ward Connerly and other conservatives targeted Black Studies and other ethnic programs as inconsistent with the spirit if not the actual terms of the law.
If Black Studies is to protect itself and its subjects institutionally and materially, then new scholarship should be directed toward contesting and resisting the widespread and ominous consolidation of color blind ideology. Color blind ideology’s feigned agnosticism about the origins of continuing racial disparities can only be countered by focused and sustained analyses of the myriad ways that racial power continues to be exercised against Black people. The thick description necessary to reveal and contest these dynamics calls for broad-scale collaborative efforts among scholars across many disciplines.
Not only should greater links be sought within the academy, but also Black Studies should play a far more central role in the policy-making and advocacy sectors related to the Black community. For at least a decade, heavily financed conservative forces have built strong, functioning linkages between their intellectual, research, policy-making, and advocacy communities. Conservative foundations have spent nearly 250 million dollars over a ten-year period to shift the societal consensus about a range of social justice issues; affirmative action and poverty programs are chief among them. Black Studies can and should play a greater role in shaping the direction of advocacy on behalf of the Black community.
Black Studies scholarship must also address a range of critiques from a variety of intellectual and political sectors that place the continuing viability of “Blackness” as a category of analysis in doubt. Blackness is challenged, for example, by other nonwhite academics who call for the transcendence of the so-called “Black-white paradigm.” Although they rightly seek to enter the conversation about race, they often come dangerously close to implicitly suggesting that it is Blacks themselves that must be marginalized in order to make room for other non-whites. Elements of the multiracial movement similarly seek to “liberate” their members from the traditional indicia of Blackness, while other critics argue that immigration has fundamentally shifted the centrality of Blackness in America’s racial narrative. In an increasingly pluralistic society Blackness loses any particular valence as it becomes submerged into a mosaic of countless non-white identities. On the global stage, Blackness is increasingly framed as a category of privilege within paradigms that feature North-South relations as the primary axis of power and marginality.
At the same time that we seek to respond to these critiques, we should be mindful of the internal demands for more inclusive and intersectional analysis. Black Studies must continue to seek ways to sustain attention to race without suppressing the valence of other categories of difference. It is the intersection of Blackness with gender, class, sexual orientation, and other categories of difference that constitute the sum total of the Black experience. This effort involves more than simply listing the trilogy of race, class, and gender, or worse still, simply adding Black women or gay men to analyses grounded in the experiences of a subset of our community. We have to move away from grounding our political sensibilities within a narrative focused on Black men in crisis toward a vision that reflects a variety of segments of the Black community in crisis.
Black Studies and CRT are closely allied intellectual projects. Their shared intellectual agendas can be usefully mobilized to build closer institutional relationships between law schools where CRT is present and Black Studies programs. For example, UCLA’s Black Studies Department and CRT concentration now offer a joint JD/MA program and they have both managed to attract competitive students. This is a fruitful development that promises to strengthen both programs and to produce a new generation of scholars who are equipped to take up the new challenges that Black Studies and Black people as a whole now face.