Law in Contemporary Society

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

-- By Kristine Saul (Originally by Young Kim - 27 Feb 2009)

A colleague once told me that to acknowledge the preponderance of race in everyday life would be the equivalent of a fish realizing that it is surrounded by water. Regardless of our intuitions, theories, definitions, or beliefs, race is an inevitably pervasive element of the American imagination; it is at once a Miner's Canary, The Problem of the Century. Not surprisingly, few topics of social reality have been subject to as much academic discourse and postulation as race. At varying times and depending upon one's political stance, it has assumed labels of political race, racial formation, racial essentialism and so on. But does academic discourse on race and its promise of a more egalitarian future even remotely capture the reality of what it means to live in a racialized society? Do we even gain anything from studying the metaphysics and politics of race without listening to how it operates in people's lives?

Framing the Debate: The Example of Colorblindness

Although colorblindness is in no way exhaustive of the academic theatre of race, the debate that continues to rage over it is exemplary of the polarizing dogmas that characterize modern scholarship on race. At present, we see two distinct camps emerging: advocates of colorblindness, who criticize the divisive effects of recognizing race as a social category, and defenders of race-consciousness, who seek to restore the nexus between race and the allocation of resources and power.

Once the trench-lines are dug and the stage is set, the analysis begins. Individual stories begin to form patterns and trends when viewed amidst the experiences of others. Themes emerge and theories abound. Arguments from numerous disciplines - sociology, psychology, history, etc. - are drawn upon in attempt to make sense of the phenomena. What was once isolated, everyday experience becomes the springboard for new scholarly thought and theory. But what of the individuals who are at the heart of these frameworks? Do they reap the benefits of these new academic advancements or are they merely the nameless sources for an intriguing dissertation?

The Need for a Game Plan

When looking to answers questions regarding the function of scholarly discourse on race, my mind automatically jumps to the metaphor of war. Armies do not walk blindly on the battlefield with out some kind of plan of attack. Their generals spend timing devising the appropriate tactics, consulting the necessary individuals, and weight the costs against the benefits for each potential move. Strategy is key. Without it, one may win the battle but ultimately lose the war. Critical race theorists provide some of the necessary consultation necessary for people like political activists, social reformers, and grassroots organizers to ultimately effectuate change. As I admitted earlier, race is deeply rooted in the mechanics and identity of this nation. With the realization of the complex interactions race has with all levels of society, it would be foolhardy to attempt fixing a problem without some kind of game plan. Racial frameworks and discourse provides assistance to those who want to take action but need a better understanding of the bigger picture.

But What of the Common Man?

But if we recognize race and racism, what more is there to discuss? How does this assist the common man who encounters race on a daily basis. As I think Felix Cohen would see it, constructing abstract systems out of the things we see and do on a regular basis are not fruitful inquiries that get us any closer to a more racially inclusive society. Let us look to racial profiling, for example. If we see a cop unreasonably abusing and detaining a juvenile black, does it matter whether one labels this an individualized expression of a stereotype (colorblindness) or the reinforcement of hierarchies of privilege (race-consciousness)? Resolving the debate certainly does not help the juvenile, who ends up in prison regardless of how we codify his experience. Even from the standpoint of the enraged observer, the reality that she has experienced race in a way that solidifies her conviction to fight racism is not adequately captured by some abstract theory of racial progressivism. But as the flood of emotions begin to subside and the rage gives way to reflection, where does the observer go from there? What can guide her in her quest for justice? This is where the scholarship's importance becomes evident. Yes, the observer is moved to action and action is definitely needed on this front but in order to make a significant change, she must have an understanding of the issue at hand. The reality of race informs the study of race and this study ultimately cycles back into a plan of action that can allow for a smarter, strategic attack on the problem at hand.

The View from the Ground: Toward a Functional Approach

As a student, I have always prided myself on my ability to apply frameworks of analyses to racial projects at the individual and macro-level. Two months ago, however, I found myself in San Francisco's drug court witnessing a deep racial divide separating the room: the white judge, sheriff, stenographer and prosecutor on one side, and the deep sea of black and brown seated at the other. It occurs to me now that I had processed the entire scene as an experience with race itself, touching off a fervent desire to do something to change it. Whether the event was actually a product of institutional racial hegemony or some other theoretical abstraction, however, meant no difference to how I felt in the courtroom. The desire to mobilize was driven simply by the witnessing of a powerful racial moment with my own two eyes.

This desire to act was strong but once again, act on what exactly? And how? Where exactly was I to begin? Race theorists may not wield a sword and shield, but they can provide the foot soldier with a survey of the battlefield. Perhaps instead of viewing the theoretical and actual as two distinct entities, we can recognize that both must work together. The theory is an interesting read but without action, it amounts to little. Action is what we need but without an understanding of what to act upon, one's efforts may prove ineffective.


If a thing is what it does, it seems obvious to me that racism cannot be explained away. Racism lives and breathes in this nation and is as American as apple pie. It continues to be ever present thus discourse on the subject abounds. Intellectual inquiry about race synthesizes individual experiences to highlight themes and phenomena that are difficult to view from just the ground level. The scholarship is an act within itself but that alone will not solve the societal ills. Others must use the work of scholars and theorists to inform their plans of action and chart their course. The work does not end with race scholarship but rather, it is just the beginning.

  • In the end, I have the feeling that this essay is a complex and subtle attempt to win an argument against no opposition. It's not clear to me that anyone is motivated to disagree with your conclusions (I certainly am not), and it's not apparent to me that anything has been said or thought in the course of the essay that would justify disagreement. Your basic attitude appears to be that a great deal of disputing has gone on in the past, most or all of which is irrelevant; the conclusions which follow from your "functional" approach don't seem to be at odds with anything except a "I don't see no racism around here" position, which we are almost all likely to reject out of hand. So perhaps the most useful step you could take in improving the paper is to show what objections to your point of view you think are worthy of discussion, and to discuss them.

  • Though I found your thoughts to be well made, I take issue with the view that racial frameworks are meaningless and desire to seek a remedy. Racial theorists do not necessarily function to provide microwave-ready solutions to the problems of racism. As you yourself admitted, race is deeply entrenched in our society and the way it operates in our lives is not always as startling as being a Black man pulled over due to racial profiling. Race theorists are able to bring attention to the themes that connect our everyday experiences and encourage others to think more critically about society and one's role in it. These frameworks stimulate thought, passion, and yes, even the social action that you spoke of. The complexity of racism is so vast that to take action without recognition of the source of the problem would be foolhardy and would only create a small, quick fix to a pervasive problem. Now, I'm not saying you are entirely wrong. I do agree that there is a point where talking will only get you but so far, however, to devalue the purpose of race scholarship is an unfair valuation of that body of work. Scholarly writing may not help the juvenile facing a prison sentence but acting blindly without a full recognition of the problem can prove to be a disservice as well. Your piece was very well written, thought provoking (clearly), and as a former Africana Studies major, it made me step back and think "Well, why DID I decide choose to study that particular field?". I don't argue against the main conclusion of your argument but just invite you consider that even though analytical frameworks on race don't provide easy answers or instant solutions to everyday problems, they nonetheless, have a value that shouldn't be so quickly admonished.

* Kristine, I have to concede that within a few days after completing my original paper, I found myself disagreeing with its conclusion that race scholarship is utterly pointless. Wihle I still believe that race scholarship sometimes impedes social action more than it augments it, it would be unfair to say that the study of race as a whole carries no value. On the contrary, as an ethnic studies major myself, it helped me form my own ideas about how race operates, why it continues to be relevant today and the gains to be realized from taking action to promote racial equality. Your points are well taken. Where I do believe race scholarship often obstructs social action (I didn't get to address this in my original) is when ideologies about race pigeon-hole people's views and force them to adopt positions that are in conflict (and derisive) of those seeking the same ends. As a junior in college, for example, a young student approached me with a petition for creating a multicultural center at Berkeley. Flushed with ideas about how multiculturalism 'obscures the topography of power' and perpetuates the colonial condition, I resolutely denied her my signature. In hindsight, the decision was foolishly naive. So I guess my conclusion is that if people can engage the study of race open-mindedly as opposed to engaging in unnecessary scholarly competition, it can still be very beneficial to those seeking to promote racial equality. I appreciate your thoughts.



Webs Webs

r7 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:27:07 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM