From The Chronicle Review's Brainstorm Blog
May 16, 2008
The Racial Impasse
By John L. Jackson, Jr.
I remember speaking to an auditorium full of 7th and 8th graders at a junior high school in Central Florida a couple of years ago. I was attempting to explain to them just what anthropologists do for a living, and I was having the hardest time.
I’d been brought down to lecture at a local university only a few miles away, and the person who invited me, a minister and activist in the community, wanted to make sure that I got a chance to learn about the local area, especially from residents of the all-black town a stone’s throw from campus. I’m used to speaking to academic audiences about my work (undergraduates, graduate students, and colleagues), but addressing an auditorium full of pre-teens and teens was a major challenge.
I decided to start off with an invocation of Indiana Jones, which felt a little bit like cheating (or just pandering), but I thought that they’d at least have heard of the pop-culture icon. Of course, that might have already been a bad jumping-off point, since some of the kids weren’t even born when the third installment of the motion-picture franchise was released — and there wasn’t buzz in the air yet about Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg gearing up for this summer’s fourth installment. Even so, they seemed to listen, probably because any “special assembly” in the auditorium probably beats class-as-usual for most teenagers.
I wanted to give them their money’s worth and to make sure that they didn’t feel like I was speaking above their heads. I bounced around the stage like a prize fighter, making eye contact with kids, telling the worst jokes you could imagine, even singing a bar or two from some popular songs to help punctuate points — just hoping that my physical energy and inadequate grasp of contemporary teen culture might translate into something exciting and engaging to a few of them.
I then moved from a discussion about all of anthropology (in about five minutes) to a longer description of my work, ethnographic research on race and class in America. I asked them what they knew about “race” and how they’d define it. Some students defined it as “what you look like” or “people that look the same.” Others blurted out that it had to do with “your family being related to other families from before.” Still other kids declared that it had to do with “blood and stuff.” But the talk of “blood” was met with a series of hoots, with vocal objections and dismissals.
“It isn’t blood,” one girl said. “We all have the same blood.” Her friend, a chubby-cheeked young boy, nodded his head in agreement. Several rows behind them, another student added, “race is just made up.” Many of the students shook their heads to second that conclusion, even as some of those same students seemed unconvinced of their own position, scrunching their eyebrows quizzically and pursing their lips in disbelief at their own arguments about how race should be defined.
Most students, even junior high school students, have gotten the memo about “race” not being simplistically biological. They know to say that race is at least partially about culture, not just biology, even if they can’t necessarily marshal the specific evidence scholars use to challenge assumptions about race’s biological grounding. To say that race is “cultural” is usually to say that it doesn’t have the inflexible imprimatur of nature behind it. But the stamp of culture can feel just as
There are at least two racial camps in the academy right now. One consists of biologists, geneticists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and medical doctors who declare that “race” is not biologically based at all — and never has been. These are the social and cultural constructionists. They say that race is hardly reducible to biology. It is about power and exploitation, a way we fool ourselves into thinking there are natural justifications for the kinds of inequalities that plague us.
There is another group of biologists, geneticists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and medical doctors who dispute that claim. They think that there is a kind of academic conspiracy afoot to pretend that race isn’t real when it is — a move to treat the biology of race as a taboo subject, too politically sensitive to analyze. Instead of taking it seriously, they say, the folks in the former camp use dogma and charges of racism to keep contrary scientists (still interested in thinking about the physical realities of race) in line.
Each camp sets the other one up as being more powerful — and dangerous. They make accusations about one another’s intentions and morality. And they both imagine the other to be a serious problem to the future of scholarship.
There is even a growing third category of scholars, mostly nonscientists, who argue that race isn’t real (the first group is right) but that even the people in that camp use race in ways that are similar to their rivals. In one of its strongest versions, scholars claim that the “culture” of cultural constructionism is really just a smoke-and-mirror trick that allows academics to have their racial cake and eat it, too — by just renaming that race “culture.” (Literary critic Walter Benn Michaels has made this claim most forcefully.)
Race’s complicated relationship to reality (real vs. unreal, there vs. not there) is exactly what has everyone so preoccupied. Of course, just as those junior high school kids in Florida could imagine that race is and isn’t biological at the same time, a little of both and a little of neither, racial experts are caught in the same quicksand — of accusation and innuendo, of charges and countercharges. Race is a social construction, but it is also more than that, and this complicated, contradictory notion of race is exactly what makes racism so tenacious, perched right atop the electrified fence between those racial camps.