excerpted from: Khiara M. Bridges, Excavating Race-Based Disadvantage among Class-privileged People of Color, 53 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 65 (Winter, 2018) (229 Footnotes) (Full Document)
Silence is like starvation. Don't be fooled. It's nothing short of that, and felt most sharply when one has a full belly most of her life. When we are not physically starving, we have the luxury to realize psychic and emotional starvation.
In February 2016, students at Harvard Law School (“HLS”) began to occupy a student lounge in the Caspersen Student Center--renaming the space “Belinda Hall” to honor an enslaved woman whose uncompensated labor made her owners, the Royall family, so wealthy that they were able to bequeath the funds that would establish HLS. The students, a collective that called itself Reclaim Harvard Law, demanded that the school remove from its official shield the crest of the Royall family, establish a Critical Race Theory program and meet deadlines for hiring faculty members who could teach courses in the program, reform the mandatory 1L curriculum so as to expose HLS students in their first year to critical analyses of the relationship between racial hierarchies and law, and take steps to ensure that low-income students can attend HLS. They decided to occupy the space after the law school administration failed to respond to their demands in a way that they deemed satisfactory.
The Reclaim movement incited many responses from observers--some supportive, some unsympathetic. Responses in the latter camp frequently gave voice to the sense that the student agitators lacked standing to lodge any complaints against HLS. These skeptics denied that the student agitators could justifiably complain about race because they denied that the student agitators could be conceptualized as disadvantaged in any way. After all, they were students at Harvard Law School. Reclaim's critics often articulated the idea that to speak of a “racially disadvantaged Harvard student” was, at best, oxymoronic; at worse, it was an exercise in sophistry.
The belief that there is no such thing as a “racially disadvantaged Harvard student” is related to the broader societal tendency to conceptualize class-privileged black people, and class-privileged racial minorities more broadly, as unaffected by processes that burden them on account of their race. The tendency is to think of them as immune from the practices and the treatment that have conspicuously and devastatingly disadvantaged their poorer brethren. We often do not see their marginalization.
The invisibility of the racial subordination of wealthier people of color-- that is, their marginalization on account of their race--is profoundly problematic because it is fertile soil for the germination of post-racialism. Post-racialism is the sense that we, as a nation, have overcome our racial problems. It is an ideology that asserts that race is simply not as important as it once was. It acknowledges that our racial past is horrible, but it declares that the present is a brand new day. Post-racialism asserts that if racial discrimination occurs today, it is an anomaly: a one-off occurrence that does not disrupt the fact that, as a general matter, the nation is one in which individuals and groups are not disadvantaged because of their race. Finally, and crucially, post-racialism acknowledges that racial stratification exists in the country. But it insists that such stratification is the effect of other forces--namely class.
Professors Mario Barnes, Erwin Chemerinsky, and Trina Jones have incisively explained why post-racialism is an ideology that we ought to resist with all of our might. They write that “being post-racial eliminates the need for policies that address the continuing legacy of America's racist past,” like race-based affirmative action, race-conscious school integration plans, and race-conscious protections of voting rights. They observe that:
Declaring U.S. society to be post-racial allows opponents of race-based remedies and programs to seem noble rather than racist .... [It becomes] possible to oppose race-based approaches without seeming regressive. It allows those who oppose affirmative action or the continuation of race-based remedies, like section five of the Voting Rights Act, to take the moral high ground; they are the ones who have moved on to a new, more enlightened era, while those who are trying to continue race-conscious remedies are mired in the past.
This article argues that the relative hiddenness of the racial subordination that wealthier racial minorities endure has contributed to post-racial thinking. When the subordination of wealthier racial minorities is not readily discernible, we perceive poor racial minorities as the only group that has been affected by racially burdensome practices and processes. The dramatic visibility of the poor's suffering, combined with the relative invisibility of the suffering of those who are not poor, breeds the belief that class is now the main issue--the thing that really matters. It breeds the belief that while the racial inequality that we witness today might have had its origins in racial issues, race no longer determines why people of color are on the bottom of social hierarchies: class now makes those determinations. This belief leads to the post-racial thought that if we want to dismantle the racial stratification that we witness, we can--and ought to--do it through race-neutral, class-based means.
Thus, the aim of this article is to begin to theorize the fraught space within which class-privileged racial minorities exist--the disadvantage within their privilege. It begins this much-needed theorization by charting how we have gotten here: a place where the well-documented marginalization of class-privileged racial minorities is known (i.e., the wealth gap, racial disparities in health, residential segregation), but nevertheless unnoticeable. What has made it difficult for us to appreciate their subordination?
The article answers that the illegibility of the racial subordination of wealthier people of color is owed, in part, to our existing theories of racial discrimination. This article traces how our theories of racial discrimination have come to obscure the discrimination that class-privileged racial minorities experience and identifies how we ought to augment our theories of racial discrimination so as to make the racial subordination of wealthier people of color discernible.
This article observes that prevailing theories of racial discrimination have led us to focus most of our attention on how racial discrimination has produced the disproportionate poverty that people of color presently bear. That is, we have come to focus on how the country's history of racial discrimination is embedded in our class structure. This is true: our country's history of racial discrimination certainly is embedded in our class structure. But it is risky to acknowledge this without simultaneously acknowledging, loudly and often, that racial discrimination is embedded in places other than our class structure. Indeed, this article contends that the failure to acknowledge the fact that racial discrimination has had effects beyond class disadvantage--that racial discrimination has disadvantaged the economically privileged--has helped to lead us to post-racialism and post-racial thinking.
Thus, our theories of racial discrimination have led us to conceptualize economic disadvantage as constituting the entire universe of racial disadvantage. If this is true--if economic disadvantage does, in fact, constitute the universe of racial disadvantage--then those who are not economically disadvantaged (i.e., wealthier people of color) have not been racially disadvantaged at all. However, the reality is that economic subordination is just one element of racial subordination. Racial discrimination has disadvantaged people of color not only economically, but also socially, culturally, and politically. Thus, if we are to bring visibility to the racial subordination that wealthier people of color experience--a visibility that, possibly, may keep post-racial thinking at bay-- then we have to theorize the noneconomic injuries that racial discrimination inflicts.
This article begins this endeavor in Part I by documenting, again, class-privileged racial minorities' disadvantage.
Part II then identifies how theory has come to obscure this disadvantage. It shows that scholars have largely conceptualized two modalities of racial discrimination: individualist (which is perpetrated by individual actors) and institutional (which usually takes the form of race-neutral policies and practices that disproportionately burden or harm people of color). It then shows how scholars have conceptualized institutional racial discrimination as predominately affecting poor people of color; we think of it as the modality of discrimination that bears the most responsibility for the poor's spectacular deprivation. Meanwhile, scholars have come to conceptualize the racial discrimination that wealthier people of color encounter, when they encounter it, as usually of the individualist variety. This article calls this the discrimination-class schema.
When scholars go on to deny the significance of individualist racial discrimination in the post-civil rights era, the racial discrimination that scholars imagine to affect wealthier people of color is dismissed as insignificant in the contemporary present. This obscures the disadvantages that this group experiences on account of its race. Part III goes on to identify other contributors to the illegibility of class-privileged racial minorities' racial disadvantage, naming as culprits the conceptual collapse of race and class, the use of descriptive statistics, and explicit attestations that discrimination produces economic disadvantages.
Part IV then attempts to complicate the existing theories of discrimination so as to remedy the problems that this article identifies. It proposes avenues that race scholars might take in order to destabilize the discrimination-class schema, identifying as paramount the necessity of theorizing noneconomic categories of disadvantage.
A brief note before continuing: Liberal and radical race scholars frequently call racial discrimination “racism.” Thus, they tend to speak of “racism” perpetrated by individuals and “racism” perpetrated by institutions or structures. However, identifying a phenomenon as “racist” or an example of “racism” frequently works to end conversations. When a speaker declares a thing or person to be racist, it does not tend to invite listeners who are not already sympathetic to characterizing the thing or person as racist to engage with the speaker. That is, calling a thing racist does not lead persons who do not already believe the thing to be racist to contemplate the characteristics of the thing that has led the speaker to describe it as racist. Accordingly, I largely do not refer to racism in this article, instead choosing to use the language of racial discrimination. I do not make this choice because I believe the phenomena that I discuss in this article are not examples of racism. Quite the contrary: I have been, and continue to be, an avid proponent of labeling as racism the various mechanisms that function to shorten and reduce the quality of the lives of people of color in this country and around the world. Instead, I make the choice to avoid the language of racism in this article because I believe that for many readers, it will obscure more than it illuminates. Thus, I largely speak of individualist racial discrimination instead of individualist racism, and institutional racial discrimination instead of institutional racism, although I believe that the terms in each pair refer back to the same phenomena.
. . .
This article has observed that the race-based disadvantage that class-privileged people of color endure has been obscured, and it identifies our theories of racial discrimination as responsible for this obfuscation. The article shows that we have come to conceptualize two modalities of racial discrimination--individualist and institutional; this is the racial discrimination binary. Further, we have come to think of poor people of color as most affected by the institutional variety of racial discrimination, while conceptualizing class-privileged people of color as primarily encountering the individualist variety of racial discrimination; this is the discrimination-class schema. Because most agree that individualist racial discrimination in the post-civil rights era is nowhere near as impactful as it was in the pre-civil rights era, we conceptualize affluent people of color as impacted by the variety of racial discrimination that is not really that meaningful in modern times. The suffering that they experience on account of their race gets diminished, and oftentimes erased entirely, as a consequence. The only suffering that remains legible is that endured by poor people of color. The vividness of the poor's suffering, combined with the indiscernibility of the race-based disadvantages borne by wealthier people of color, leads us to believe that only the poor are burdened by racial discrimination. This in turn suggests that economic disadvantage is the form that racial disadvantage takes in the post-civil rights era and that class is the new engine of racial inequality. This is post-racialism: the sense that race does not matter anymore.
As this article identifies theory as responsible for obscuring the race-based disadvantages shouldered by more affluent people of color, it identifies theory as the cure. If we are to defeat post-racial thinking, we have to destabilize the discrimination-class schema. We have to theorize noneconomic forms of race-based disadvantage. And we have to think outside of the racial discrimination binary and theorize modalities of discrimination, like discursive racial discrimination, that are neither individualist or institutional.
Developing our theories of racial discrimination--expanding them, adding nuance to them, sharpening them--is necessary. It is necessary if we are to bring into stunning relief the marginalization that class-privileged racial minorities endure on account of race. It is necessary if we are going to rise to the challenge that post-racialism--and now, in the era of Trump, postpost-racialism--poses to racial justice. And it is necessary if we simply want to understand what is going on in our present-day society. It has been over fifty years since Carmichael and Hamilton introduced the concept of institutional racism to the country. It seems highly unlikely that the conceptual tools that were developed to describe a nation that was just emerging from an age of legally sanctioned racial apartheid are as capable of describing a nation that is a half a century into an experiment in formal racial equality. As our society is not stagnant, the theories that describe our nation ought not to be stagnant. They ought to shift, evolve, transform, adjust--ever-responsive to the social milieu that they are designed to explain.
Professor of Law and Professor of Anthropology, Boston University.