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Posts from the ‘Race and Racism’ Category

Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality at IUPUI

I saw Kimberlé Crenshaw speak at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis tonight. Crenshaw’s work on the unique legal and political situations that Black American women faced led her to coin the term intersectionality. As she said tonight, she meant for this term to be a dynamic term of analysis rather than a noun of identity, but she graciously allowed that concepts are dynamic and take on a life on their own.  As an analysis, intersectionality shows how Black women’s concerns could be captured neither by race in the law, which considered Black experience in terms of men, nor by gender, which considered women’s experience in terms of white women.  A new analysis was needed to see that adding black to woman did not just mean adding those experiences up but in fact pointed to a unique set of concerns.  Intersectionality has so become a part of our discourse that it is now being used against the very movement that spurred its coinage.

Tonight she gave a talk that was a model example of how public intellectuals should be engaging public audiences.  The talk was purposefully marketed to the community: the Black woman sitting next to me told me she heard it advertised on Praise Indy, A Black Christian radio station in Indianapolis. Some of the leadership team of BlackLivesMatterIndy were there, as well as other activists. And of course, a bunch of academics. Crenshaw staged her talk as an interview that lawyer, civil rights activist and now radio show host Barbara Arnwine conducted with Martin Luther King, Jr. today, in these times. King wanted to know what the state of racial justice was since he’d been gone. Using that narrative device, Crenshaw was able to dramatize the real harm that has been done to the cause of racial justice by forgetting history, tracing back to Dr. King’s own work how the movement erased the previous work of women like Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks. She argued that Parks has become pacified and acceptable to white Americans through the story of how she was too tired, but Parks was actually an activist who had been defending Black women for years, purposeful in her planning for this moment.  She spent much of the talk drawing connections, as she explained them, between unlearned history and the present moment, having the talk show host explain to King how the things that he left unlearned from his history help produce this moment, like the forgetting of Harriet Tubman in favor of Frederick Douglass.

While effectively dragging Mark Lilla for his critique of identity analysis, she pointed to how people across the political spectrum from Black male civil rights leaders to white conservatives bought into  “Moynihanism”–the idea that the responsibility for racial injustice lies with the Black family–which allowed them to naturalize patriarchy as a point of departure for advocacy up to and including in Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper project.  Crenshaw argued that everyone from the right to left internalized this view and effectively ignored the structural workings of those invested in maintaining racial power.  As she put it, when we broader the frame, our sense of responsibility shifts.

She took this device further to draw attention to #SayHerName and the women who have been killed by police, and to say in drawing to the close, “When we take leadership from the margins, things change.”

As I sat and listened and learned from her, I thought about how effective she was at engaging a public audience in her work even as that work was complicated and deep. She didn’t make it less complicated. But she found ways to make her case that did not require jargon and made the work significant for her audience. She honored the contributions of activists to her own work. I have shown her Ted Talk (below) of this same title–The Urgency of Intersectionality–in classes. But she wrote a new talk for this moment and this place that made this case in a new way, urgently.

Teaching Plato with Baldwin: The Aporiae of Self-Examination

This past fall I taught the philosophy senior seminar on Plato and Baldwin.  I had several reasons for putting these thinkers together.  One, I wanted students to see the ways that knowing oneself, individually and collectively, remains of pressing importance for producing a just world.  I wanted students to see the philosophical aporiae involved in distinguishing between a true account and an ideology–an account propogated for the sake of power.  I wanted them to think about how difficult it is to distinguish the two and how dangerous it is to assume the distinction is clear.  I wanted them to think about how philosophers make claims to power by assuming they can make this distinction easily.  I wanted them to think about how our own investments in being right make it difficult for us to change our minds.  And finally, I wanted them to consider what the implications of that difficulty are for the status of our own self-evaluation.  I also wanted students to think about both the individual and the collective process of self-examination, as Plato has Socrates asks of Athenians and of Athens. Read more

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

In last week’s episode of blackishthe character played by Laurence Fishburne tells his grandson about the other parts of the “I Have A Dream” speech that no one ever talks about.  In this week’s issue of the New YorkerRachel Aviv documents how the prosecutor of the Angola 3 opposed the Black Panthers to the non-violence of Martin Luther King, Jr.  In American public discourse, King is the respectable Black man to Malcolm X’s violent scary Black man.  Accepting King becomes a marker of diversity and inclusion that allows individual white people to absolve themselves of racism without confronting and changing the racist structures of their worlds.  Parts of King’s speeches get used to conjure images of diversity and to lend support to colorblind public policy.  But much of King’s speeches point to his call for justice, freedom and equality.

Fifty years after the “I Have a Dream” speech, in 2013, the Supreme Court eviscerated one of the key legislations to come out of the Civil Rights Movement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Unfortunately, this decision was not reached because there was no longer any evidence of discrimination in access to the vote.  The economic inequalities King addresses in his “I Have a Dream” speech similarly remain today. Thus, King’s concern with the follies of political gradualism in this speech seem all the more pressing. Read more

On Ending Whiteness

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (see these collected reviews), Coates refers to “people who believe they are white.”  In his 2004 book, The Abolition of White DemocracyJoel Olson says he will capitalize Black when referring to people of African descent in the book because Black refers to a culture, but white does not (xviii-xix).   Read more

False Equivalencies and Liberalism

There was a lot of talk during the general election cycle about false equivalencies in the coverage of the two major party candidates.  The concern was that vastly different actions were treated as similar under the guise of journalistic balance or objectivity: Clinton’s emails treated with the same degree of coverage as Trump’s recorded statement about how he grabs women.  But these false equivalencies have moved beyond election coverage.  Identity politics, a term that refers to political efforts by groups who are marginalized on the basis of some aspect of their identity, has been taken up by those who occupy the position of the norm–Christians, white people, men–and made equivalent to the political efforts of those whose identities make them the systemic targets of injustice.  An opinion piece in The Washington Post argued that Democrats lost this election because of SCOTUS decisions against Christians’ rights to refuse to bake cakes for gay weddings.  Jeremy Carl argued last August for the legitimacy of white interests in National Review.  New York Magazine reports on the revitalization and politicization of the men’s rights movement in the era of Trump.  The idea in each of these cases is that the identities of those who because of their identity are structurally situated as having power occupies an equivalent political position to those who because of their identity are structurally situated as lacking power.

There has been a lot of wringing of hands over the move toward false equivalencies of this kind.  I submit that this situation in which every identity is treated as equal to every other one is what is on offer from liberalism, and here I mean liberalism in the sense of the political theory that both parties in the United States affirm.   Read more

PODNetwork Conference 2015: Critical Reflection

Image from PODNetwork, logo for 2015 conference.

Just left my first PODnetwork meeting in San Francisco.  POD is the acronym for Professional Organizational Development, which, I know, sounds like something I’d never be a part of.  But the meeting was about pedagogy, which I am very much a part of.  I’m a faculty member who does not have an official role in a Center for Teaching and Learning, but I am the program chair of the Gender Studies minor; I administer a GLCA grant on Ancient Philosophy Teaching and Research where one component is a pedagogy workshop;  and I’m actively engaged in discussions of pedagogy as many other faculty are on my campus (as part of the academic honesty task force, for example).  All this to say, I was thinking about the discussions at the meeting very much from a faculty perspective. Read more

Collected Reviews of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me

I went looking for reviews of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, ahead of our last reading group meeting on it. In case you needed evidence that Coates has sparked a national conversation, here it is.  The reviews point up the issues raised by the book: who is this book for?  what kinds of demands do White and Black readers bring to the book and how do those demands point to the very issues Coates raises about the relation between the Dream and the struggle? Read more

Not Being Able to Make What is Just, Strong, One Made what is Strong, Just.

In Pensees, Blaise Pascal writes:

Justice, Force.—It is just that what is just be followed; it is necessary that what is strongest be followed. Justice without force is impotent; force without justice is tyrannical. Justice without force is contradicted, because there are always bad people; force without justice stands accused. So justice and force must be put together; and to do so make what is just, strong and what is strong, just. 

Justice is subject to dispute; force is easy to recognize and is indisputable.  And so one could not give force to justice, because force contradicted justice, and said that it is was unjust, and said that it was force that was just. And thus, not being able to make what is just, strong, one made what is strong, just.

The week that Sandra Bland died in police custody, I was working through this passage that Derrida quotes in The Beast and the Sovereign with friends, colleagues and students in Italy.  Today, two days after another young black man was shot in Ferguson, MO, I have been recalling this passage.  Pascal recognizes our problem: we need justice to have force, but if all we have is force, there will be no justice.  What is the just way of giving force to justice? Read more

On Juneteenth: History of Race Relations in Indiana

Wednesday night a terrorist attacked a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina.  I was in the middle of working on this post when I heard about it and wondered if in light of current events the subject of this post mattered.  I have come to think that it does.  It seems to me that part of the reason that people think these incidents can be and should be treated as isolated incidents is that we forget our history.  I’m not a historian.  I am sure there are others who know this history better than I do, but I couldn’t find a short condensed history of race relations in Indiana when I went looking for it (except this archive).  I think it is important that we remember our history and how it continues to affect our present.  As Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” Another reason I’m writing this is that today is the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth.  Juneteenth is the earliest celebration of commemorating the end of slavery because it was on June 19, 1865 that Union soldiers showed up in Galveston, TX and informed the slaves that they were free, two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  I used to live in Texas, where I learned about Juneteenth, but now I live in Indiana.  I’m from Philadelphia, and I have a pretty good sense of the history (and the present) of race relations in Philadelphia, but when I moved to Texas and Indiana, I wanted to better understand the history of those places.  So I was thrilled when a friend from graduate school who is now a Hoosier, Nazareth Pantaloni, gave me IU history professor James H. Madison’s book: Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana.  Madison spends considerable space addressing the history of race in Indiana (though I was disappointed to see no entry for race or racism in the index). In the spirit of Juneteenth–of learning about emancipation long after it has been declared but does not seem yet to be in force–I want to blog about the history of race relations in Indiana that I learned from Madison’s book.  I just want to give some of the highlights.  I am limiting this list to highlights, especially to highlights that continue to echo in today’s climate. Read more

Sara Ahmed On Racism and Institutionalized Diversity

As I was writing my book on Aristotle’s political thought, I became interested in how and why institutions fail to achieve the end they purport to achieve almost as a matter of course.  Institutions seem to shift their goal from the end they were established to fulfill to merely preserving their existence.  What happens is that the desire to preserve their existence contravenes their efforts to fulfill the goal for which they were established.  I wrote about this in a critique of Stieg Larsson’s Girl With a Dragon Tattoo series.  The notion that institutions become more concerned with their preservation than their proclaimed goal now resounds from every corner (eg., protecting the police force trumps the peace and justice the police force is meant to maintain and enforce).

Over the last two months, I have been making my way slowly through Sara Ahmed’s book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity In Institutional Life (Duke University Press 2012).   Ahmed argues that institutions institutionalize ‘diversity’ as a way to protect and preserve themselves without ever adequately recognizing diversity.  Ahmed exposes the ways that what seems to be institutional recognition becomes institutional justification of ignoring its grave problems.  So the rest of this post isn’t so much a review (good reviews can be read at Society and Space, Graduate Journal of Social Science, Erina FrostHypatia Reviews Online and the American Association of University Professors), as a list of the ways that diversity works that contribute to how  institutions fail to diversify through appeals to their instituted diversity projects.

So the list includes three things: 1) diversity statements function as non-performatives; 2) diversity programs and policies are implemented to protect the institution rather than to further diversify the institution; 3) the language of diversity comes to have commercial value and to reflect the commercial value of the institution.

Read more