We Are Living in a Racial Vacuum

After recently attending two thought-provoking events related to racial justice, I am left with the disturbing feeling that we are living in a racial vacuum. One event was a conference at UCLA Law School, a Symposium on the 20th anniversary of Cheryl Harris’s law review article “Whiteness as Property.” The other event was a three-day workshop on community organizing called “Undoing Racism” in Newark, NJ sponsored by The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. If these events could be considered, as I do, barometers for measuring the level of systemic racism permeating our country now, then we are clearly in serious trouble. Both events illustrated the massive disconnect between the seriousness of past and present systemic racism and the utter lack of awareness about this crisis on the part of many Americans, which leads me to believe we are in a racial vacuum.

First and foremost, one of the most valuable ways of understanding systemic racism is through the field of Critical Race Theory, a legal studies specialty created by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Mari Matsuda, and Cheryl Harris (the latter three of whom presented their work at this UCLA conference). This field creatively and accessibly explores how the law is not neutral or colorblind; it was created to uphold white supremacy. Scholars in this field help us understand who is presumed guilty, who is presumed innocent, who has a right to land, who is an American, and much more. Critical race theory has now been around for a few decades and the audience of two hundred at UCLA clearly shows how much passion exists for this field by law students, alumni, and scholars alike. The entire conference focused on the influence of Harris’s article about whiteness, one of the first pieces of scholarship to analyze the way whiteness was created in the law and how the law adjusted, decade by decade, century by century, to maintain and uphold that white supremacy.

I only wish that more people from disciplines outside of the law recognized the potential of this field. While Michelle Alexander’s 2010 brilliant best-seller The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness has broken through and reached readers outside of academia, it’s hard to say the same of many other books from the field of critical race theory. My own presentation at UCLA focused on the interdisciplinary possibilities that can come when we break down the boundary between critical race theory and literature. I received only positive comments and support from people at my session as well as from other people I spoke with at the conference, including Harris, Crenshaw, and Matsuda. They all seem quite eager for such interdisciplinary interventions, but why isn’t it happening? Why aren’t other fields picking up on the richness that critical race theory has to offer? Are they unwilling to recognize that we are living in a racial vacuum, and if we don’t do something soon, it will be too late?

The forty to fifty participants at the Undoing Racism workshop would have, I suspect, gotten a lot out of the UCLA conference, and some of them have likely read critical race theory. This workshop focused on teaching several fundamental concepts that can be used as a way to organize around racial justice. The participants tended to either be social workers, other social service workers, high school and college educators, faith-based organizers, and college students. The workshop facilitators ran sessions on key concepts like systemic racism, poverty, the history of race as a social construct, and specific systems like the criminal justice system, education, and religion. There was a lot of discussion about Ferguson and how black parents must have conversations with their kids about the police that white parents don’t need to have. Interestingly, I found a lot of overlap between the key concepts they taught and the way I approach the college class I developed called “Race in American Literature and Popular Culture.” However, just like I asked why scholars from fields outside of the law were generally absent from the UCLA conference, I ask, where were the colleagues of the workshop participants?

Both the UCLA conference (and critical race theory more generally) and the Undoing Racism workshop point to the need for a critical consciousness, and that’s what I keep coming back to in my teaching as well as in this blog and my research. That’s the thing that’s missing. The vast majority of Americans are not aware of the history of racism in the US, and when they see a reference to a current example of racism in the news, they don’t bring historical and cultural context to it. And the mainstream media certainly does not provide that context. This is how we got to a point when some whites believe they are the ones being racially discriminated against, as if a hierarchy based on white supremacy had never been built into our law and our institutions. That history evaporates when we’re in a racial vacuum.

The only way that people learn this unacknowledged history is if they go out of their way to attend a workshop or a conference, take a class about it, and/or read on their own. If you’re already living in a vacuum, what will prompt you to take that step?

I’d like to end with a few questions I have about Audre Lorde’s famous statement, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” a quote that kept going through my mind at UCLA and in Newark. What would she say about where we are now? And what should we do? How do we work on helping as many people as possible develop a critical consciousness about racial justice? If we follow Lorde’s advice, is there a role for public school K-12 education? Would it ever be possible to enact Paulo Freire’s theory of “problem-posing education”? While his book and the Mexican American Studies Program was banned by the state of Arizona, doesn’t that mean it was actually working? My community college students keep asking why they didn’t learn that race was a social construct when they were younger and how much of a difference that could make.

Is there a role for the media to play in helping the public build a critical consciousness? If critical consciousness is developed only one at a time on a grassroots level, is that a pace at which we can afford to move? Don’t we need something bigger? But if we use something bigger, are we in danger of using the Master’s Tools? How do we reconcile these issues?

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