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Saturday, October 08, 2011

Critical Concepts of Race Privilege

Critical Concepts of Race Privilege1

In the mid-1980s, two sociologists affiliated with Ethnic Studies developed and promulgated the

theory of racial formation, which explains that race is a social construct, a concept that people impute

with evolving meanings as societies change historically.2 The theory of racial formation is foundational to

understanding the centrality of race and racism in the United States and offers a significant challenge to

other paradigms of race, including those that are biologistic or based on constructs of ethnicity, class, or

nation.

A few years later, some feminist scholars adapted critiques of patriarchy to extend critical

understandings of race in the United States. They conceptualized white privilege—the sometimes hidden

yet significant motivation for the continued subordination of minority social groups in the United States.3

By the early 1990s, feminist legal scholars had extended critical knowledge about race and racism by

naming the transparency phenomenon—a key component of white privilege that explains why most

people who are socially constructed as white tend not to think about how race affects their daily lives but

instead think of race as something that other people have.4 Race is a colored thing; race marks some

people’s differences from the (putative) norm.5

Responding to these ideas about race and racism, critical race theorists critiqued and supplemented

the concepts of white privilege and the transparency phenomenon to extend critical comprehension of the

social construction of whiteness and the maintenance of white supremacy in the United States.6 One of their

several important insights is that the transparency phenomenon incompletely explains white privilege:

throughout the United States’ racial formations, law has naturalized the constitutive privileges of racial

whiteness. By statute and judicial opinion, legislators and judges reified the social construction of racial

whiteness as a biological reality that is confirmed by everyday common sense.7

These critical concepts can help people who are dedicated to effecting social justice better

understand the current era of “colorblind constitutionalism8 promulgated by the Renquist Court and to

intervene against this aspect of the neoconservative project (shared by the Federalist Society), which

directly supports the United States’ racial hierarchy. Additionally, developing critical understanding of how

race has been socially constructed to privilege the white social group by subordinating all social groups

defined as non-white and dubbed minorities may help people of good will work together successfully

across the diverse categories of social difference to which we are all subject, e.g., age, dis/ability, gender,

race, sexuality, etc. Developing such critical understandings is a project of critical race praxis and

interracial justice.9

1 Prepared by Marc-Tizoc González for the “Race Privilege Town Hall Meeting,” held on Wednesday January 26,

2005 at the U.C. Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall) and hosted by the Center for Social Justice as part of its Spring

2005 “Privilege Series,” with minor revisions on October 11, 2006 for the “Introduction to LatCrit Theory:

Scholarship and Practical Applications” panel of the Tenth Annual National Latina/o Law Student Conference.

2 MICHAEL OMI & HOWARD WINANT, RACIAL FORMATION: FROM THE 1960S TO THE 1980S (1987).

3 See e.g., Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, in Working Paper 189: White

Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s

Studies (1988), available at http://www.utoronto.ca/acc/events/peggy1.htm.

4 See BARBARA J. FLAGG,WAS BLIND, BUT NOW I SEE:WHITE RACE CONSCIOUSNESS & THE LAW (1998); STEPHANIE

M. WILDMAN, ET. AL., PRIVILEGE REVEALED: HOW INVISIBLE PREFERENCE UNDERMINES AMERICA (1996); Stephanie

M. Wildman, with Adrienne D. Davis, Language and Silence: Making Systems of Privilege Visible, 35 SANTA CLARA

L. REV. 881 (1995); Barbara J. Flagg, “Was Blind, But Now I See”: White Race Consciousness and the Requirement

of Discriminatory Intent, 91 MICH. L. REV. 953 (1993); and Trina Grillo & Stephanie M. Wildman, Obscuring the

Importance of Race: The Implications of Making Comparisons Between Racism and Sexism (or Other-Isms), 1991

DUKE L.J. 397 (1991). Professor Wildman was the first director of Boalt’s CSJ. She now teaches at the University of

Santa Clara School of Law where she directs its Center for Social Justice and Public Service.

5 See Angela Harris, Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory, 42 STAN. L. REV. 582, 604 (1990).

6 See e.g., IAN F. HANEY LÓPEZ,WHITE BY LAW (1996).

7 Id. at 160-64.

8 See Neil Gotanda, A Critique of “Our Constitution is Colorblind”, 44 STAN. L. REV. 1 (1991).

9 See Eric K. Yamamoto, Critical Race Praxis: Race Theory and Political Lawyering Practice in Post-Civil Rights

America, 95 MICH. L. REV. 821 (1997); and Eric Yamamoto, Rethinking Alliances: Agency, Responsibility and

Interracial Justice, 3 ASIAN PAC. AM. L.J. 33 (1995).

2 comments:

Rob Yanagida said...

An excellent, concise exposition, look forward to discussing with you all soon.

Rob

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