The Acceptable Social Construction: Racial essentialism and a reactionary “social justice”.

I have a friend that I know from my time in Minnesota. She identifies as a white person, which is not all that uncommon in a state that Chris Rock famously described as having a Black population of two (Prince and Kirby Puckett). If you saw her walking down the street, you would never suspect anything different: very light skin and an accent straight out of a scene from Fargo or Feeling Minnesota. Partnered with a Black man, you would not be able to tell the two of them apart from any other interracial couple (and there are many) in the Twin Cities.

But my friend ain’t exactly descended from Vikings. You see, she is at least a quarter Native American. In Minnesota, a state with a large and politically active Native community, that can be quite beneficial when you are going through either of the state’s university systems. This is because of the legacy of oppression towards Native people in the state. For example, my alma mater, the University of Minnesota Morris, was formed in 1960 by adding a liberal arts component to the University of Minnesota’s West Central School for Agriculture (WCSA). The WCSA was founded on the site of the old Sisters of Mercy-run Morris Industrial School for Indians, which had closed in 1909, the year before the WCSA was formed. Due to this history, any person that can prove their Native background to a certain degree receives free tuition.

Although my friend did not attend UMM with me, it is not hard to find such programs at many of the state’s universities. I used to ask her why she did not avail herself of those opportunities; after all, there were a ton of “Native Americans” at Morris that you would be hard-pressed to find at a pow-wow (a common event at the University) or at a Circle of Nations Indian Association student group meeting. She would simply say, “I was raised as a white woman. I was not raised as a Native American, and it would be wrong for me to claim a community that is not mine simply to get financial benefit.”

Makes sense, right? But judging by the reaction to Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP chapter chair in Spokane, Washington who was born to white parents but identifies as Black, and now University of California Riverside professor Dr. Andrea Smith, sensibility no longer appears to be on the menu.

Dolezal’s road to perdition, as most people living in non-rock-based domiciles will be able to tell you, began when her parents dropped the dime on her born ethnicity. From there, all hell broke loose. It was the major story in every news outlet imaginable. By the time the story began to wind down, Dolezal was enough of a known quantity to warrant my receipt of not one, not two, but three breaking news alerts from different media outlets to my phone informing me of her resignation from the chapter presidency of a NAACP branch in a city with a Black population of barely two percent. The Andrea Smith story does not threaten to explode in the same way that Dolezal’s did. This might be due to the fact that, in the wake of nine dead at an African Methodist Episcopal church in South Carolina and at least seven church burnings in the last couple of weeks, people have decided that other things may warrant their full attention.

But we should not be under any illusions that absent such inhuman barbarity unseen in the United States since the days of Klan night rides through the South, the Smith story would not have been one that blew up in much the same way. I have blogged a lot about identity politics and the ways in which individual instances have manifested in some incredibly nasty and solidarity-killing ways. But it is time to go beyond the sturm und drang of social media slap fights to examine just how we got to this point. How have we arrived at the point where putatively liberal and progressive activists, organizations, and websites are enthusiastically repeating the foundations of an ideology once confined to far-right reactionaries?

“As scholarship on race science and its kissing cousin, eugenics, has shown, research that sets out to find evidence of racial difference will find it, whether or not it exists.”

– Dr. Adolph L. Reed, Jr.

From the quote listed above, Reed (2013) then goes on to discuss the ways in which racial essentialism, the notion that all people have certain immutable qualities that can only be explained because of their racial or ethnic background, was of great use to the capitalist class during the Industrial Revolution:

“John Bodnar and his coauthors reproduce a Racial Adaptability Chart used by a Pittsburgh company in the 1920s that maps thirty-six different racial groups’ capacities for twenty-two distinct jobs, eight different atmospheric conditions, jobs requiring speed or precision, and day or night shift work. For example, Letts (people of Latvian descent) were supposedly fair with pick and shovel, and concrete and wheelbarrow, bad as hod carriers, cleaners and caretakers, and boilermaker’s helpers; good as coal passers and blacksmiths as well as at jobs requiring speed or precision; and good in cool and dry, smoky or dusty conditions; fair in oily or dirty processes; and good on both day and night shifts.”

It does not take much digging to find examples of such thorough taxonomy, based as it ever was on the purest grade of hokum, was used to classify Black people in the United States. It is easy to laugh (or cry) today at the thought of a disease that made slaves run from their masters being named anything other than “freedom” or “liberty”, but such was the power of essentialism in the form of “race science” to shape what was believed to be true of the human condition. The cure for such a disease, of course, was much less given to such whimsy:

Gordon, a slave whose photos documenting the extreme brutality he survived were popularized in Harper's Weekly.
Gordon, a slave whose photos documenting the extreme brutality he survived were popularized in Harper’s Weekly.

In the power of reactionary lawmakers and vigilante groups, racial essentialism was used to carry out some of our nation’s most vile and reprehensible atrocities. One only needs to look up the histories of places like Elaine, Arkansas; Opelousas and Colfax, Louisiana; Duluth, Minnesota; or Rosewood, Florida to know this to be true. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, state lawmakers passed the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 at the urging of Dr. Walter Ashby Plecker, who served as the Commonwealth’s registrar of statistics. In addition to banning interracial marriages, it also legalized the sterilization of Black and Native American inmates in the Commonwealth’s jails and prisons. It also allowed for the sterilization of the “feebleminded”, which was affirmed by Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s famous pronouncement that “three generations of imbeciles are enough” in Buck v. Bell. The law continues to have a deleterious effect on Virginia’s Native American tribes; due to the law’s assignment of all non-white people as “colored”, it has adversely affected tribes’ abilities to confirm the entirety of their history. It is why, until the Pamunkey tribe this week, there had never been any federally-recognized Native tribes in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The Racial Integrity Act was but one piece of a network of laws that aided in the often violent oppression of people of color based on racial essentialism and junk science that reified it in the minds of far-right lawmakers and the groups that assisted in their maintenance of social, political, and economic domination.

Black people, on the other hand, fought the notion that they were a monolith tooth-and-nail. In fact, the movement widely recognized as contributing to the democratization of the South and the breaking of Jim Crow’s back was largely based on the rejection of racial essentialism. Though it is used by white reactionaries today in order to avoid any discussion of the aforementioned policies and their legacy on our body politic today, one of the key moments of the key speech at the key event of the Civil Rights Movement asked people to consider something more than skin color in judging their neighbor.

Yet if the Dolezal and Smith situations have shown us anything, it is that racial essentialism is alive and well in the form of identity politics. I mean, you have to be amused by someone like Touré Neblett, who once wrote a book called Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness, asserting that Dolezal has not experienced racism, which according to Neblett “binds all of us” as Black people. But if the controversy is that Dolezal was able to use her purported Blackness to rise in the ranks of the NAACP and to become a professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University, why is it so crazy to think that Dolezal has experienced forms of racism? It is almost as if Neblett believes that white people were in on the ruse all along, leaving Black people to be duped and taken advantage of while white people watched their mole rise in power and prominence.

Neblett’s comment is also a flattening of the actual Black experience in the United States. The power of racism is not to offend, but rather, as explained above, to shape repression and oppression. Those two things are likely to have a more dramatic effect on the life of your average member of the Black working class than it will for Malia or Sasha Obama. In this vein, class also matters.

Neblett’s point is pretty absurd, but it is a point that was enthusiastically repeated by others. To wit:

“I saw how much pain she was causing sisters like me who have been demeaned for the very blackness she stole. I read the social media posts of black women living in anguish because the skin they’re in has been deemed less than in the eyes of society at large, and even in some of their own homes and communities.”

Kirsten West Savali, in her article for The Root, rejects any notion that race is anything other than a socially constructed classification system designed by the very white supremacists that she hates, and joins Neblett in the “White People Were In On Rachel Dolezal All Along” caucus. She goes on to say that we should not question “Blackness” just because “the white woman says so”. On that point, she is actually right (most likely by accident); we should question the notion of racial essentialism because it is something that has never been of benefit to Black people and their liberation. We go back to Reed (2013) for this point:

“In this way, Chang’s perspective (that the language of race has replaced the rhetoric of class in liberatory struggle) can be helpful in sorting out several important limitations in discussions of race and class characteristic of today’s left. It can also help to make sense of the striking convergence between the relative success of identitarian understandings of social justice and the steady, intensifying advance of neoliberalism. It suggests a kinship where many on the left assume an enmity.”

While identity politics has been a great interlocutor for catharsis from constantly oppressed communities online, it begs for a brief examination of its actual effectiveness offline.

  1. Politics. With regards to the Pamunkey Indians finally receiving its recognition from the federal government, it should be noted that many members of the Congressional Black Caucus strongly opposed the recognition. That would not seem to make much sense, would it? From the AP report: “Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus opposed recognition because they said the tribe had a history of banning interracial marriages with blacks, which MGM also pointed to in its opposition.” Yes, that would be Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the movie company that has seen its plans for a casino in suburban Washington, D.C. threatened by the recognition of the Pamunkey. It is doubtful that the movie company that produced Gone With The Wind pointed this out because of an overriding concern for the Black community, but this is but one example of how easily the politics of racial essentialism can be used to the advantage of capitalism at the expense of oppressed communities. In addition, representatives of color are drawn into legislative districts that guarantee that they will never be able to build the kind of constituency that would allow them to win office statewide. This arrangement has been met with some resistance, but it has also been welcomed as a way of preserving symbolic representation for historically disenfranchised communities. Or, that is how the people most affected by any boundary change have justified it (hint: it is the politicians).
  2. Movements. I have written before on how rhetoric in social justice spaces has become more and more exclusionary and antithetical to solidarity. If you doubt that, then read this blog post at Black Girl Dangerous and see if it changes your perspective at all. If you manage to get to the end of that and still not be convinced, then read this article written at The Daily Least where two Black Lives Matter activists muse about all the ways that white people should feel bad for even deigning to get involved in their series of protests. Of course, it is more important to castigate and excoriate than it is to educate in the era of Google It. But it remains to be seen whether, in the midst of all this tut-tutting, these new forms of protesting will yield anything other than more blog posts and notches in the activism belts of “radicals”.
  3. Economics. Because the politics of racial essentialism has replaced the politics of class for the social justice liberal set, any discussion of economics gets a very short shrift. Check the website of any group that has sprung up in the last ten months — this includes Black Lives Matter — and see how much time they devote to transforming the economy into one that is democratic and inclusive. When you understand that the economy is the number one issue for people of color in this country, it is really disappointing that more attention has not been paid to this issue. But hey, does it really matter so long as we have an appropriately diverse set of millionaires? (Walter Benn Michaels is exceptional on these points in his 2007 book The Trouble With Diversity.)
  4. Results. TBD.

I mean, racial essentialism has even been shown to blunt your creativity. Which, if you have ever spent any amount of time perusing what qualifies as social justice writing online, the sheer repetition and mindlessness of it all will make that point extraordinarily clear.

In a way, this all comes from a somewhat understandable place. People feel powerless to change the structural problems around them; the problems we face seem so gargantuan, and the habits of coalition building and solidarity have not been modeled by American history save for a few exceptions. As such, we have given ourselves over to endless amounts of catharsis purging through untold numbers of forgettable outrages.

We have fooled ourselves into thinking that appropriating the ideology of reactionaries will win us anything other than a strong sense of self-satisfaction and self-righteousness. But those feelings are just as personal and fluid as the concept of race itself. Who is it for anyone to tell my friend from Minnesota that she is Native American, or Rachel Dolezal and Andrea Smith that they are white? More importantly, how does focusing on the personal identification of these people do anything to advance the world we live in? While Dolezal’s work has come under scrutiny because of the possibility that she lied about the occurrence of hate crimes (a far greater, yet less discussed, crime given her position), few can question that Dr. Smith has had a major impact on the study of Native oppression. That impact should still remain regardless of how Dr. Smith chooses to ethnically identify.

My friend and co-blogger Cato Uticensis is fond of saying that, before he undertakes any action in his capacity as a union organizer in the South, he asks himself two questions: “is what I am doing today building power? And if it is not, then why am I doing it?” The “social justice activists” whose blog posts and protestations loaded with racial essentialism would be right at home in the Jim Crow South might want to ask themselves that same question. Nothing less than the world we live in is at stake in the answer they, and we, come up with.