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10 Directions for New Scholarship in Black Studies

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.


Directions for New Scholarship in Black Studies Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

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