Sunday, November 25, 2007

"Racism as Subjectification": Draft Posted

You may have noticed a brief skip in my blogging these past few weeks. While there have been many reasons for this -- finals, applications, holidays -- the excuse I'm currently settling on is that I've been finishing up my latest article. And I am pleased to announce that I have just posted a completed draft of "Racism as Subjectification" online to the SSRN (you can download the PDF from there).

Unlike my last paper, this one is still a work in progress. In fact, I may add a whole new section on the Parents United case, depending on the feedback I get. But that makes me all the more eager to hear your thoughts on the paper. So get cracking! I can't think of a single better way to kick off the holiday season.

Here's an abstract:
Nobody likes to feel used. But everyone likes to feel useful. This paradox has long been overlooked by people examining the parameters of racism in the United States. The classic model of racism focuses on the manner in which Black Americans have been objectified - and for good reason: from chattel slavery to Jim Crow, African-Americans have faced a long and sordid history of being regarded as little more than objects - useful tools for White power-brokers, but not independent subjects with their own desires, perspective, and rights.

However, in the post-Civil Rights era, this dynamic has shifted. While racial objectification has by no means disappeared, today the prevailing sentiment in American society is one that, outwardly at least, respects the independence and inherent dignity of its Black members. However, even as they are granted the full rights of citizenship, the idea that Black people are objectively valuable, are necessary to the full and complete functioning of society, has faded away. While Whites admit that they have inherent dignity and human rights, they nevertheless deny that Blacks have any objective use - and if their presence is lacking in elite institutions (colleges, corporations, and legislatures), it is not seen as a cause for concern. This is the problem of subjectification - when people who are conceded to possess subject status are nevertheless treated as if they have no objective worth. In this paper, I articulate the concept of subjectification and show how it provides a new and fruitful perspective on the problems of race and racism in American society.


Anonymous said...

Sounds fascinating, but for some reason I'm having trouble downloading the paper.

David Schraub said...

It's working fine for me. I don't know what the problem is. Sometimes SSRN is a bit fussy -- just try again later.

PG said...


But the more complicated question is whether people should want to be wanted for their race. I would be hurt if I were told that someone was indifferent to whether I, PG, left. But I'm not sure I would be hurt if I were told that if I suddenly ceased to be ethnically-Indian, I still would be wanted just as much as I had been before. I don't think I like my white friends for their Caucasian ancestry, or my Taiwanese friends for their ancestry. I like them for them, and the them that currently exists incorporates a particular race, but if it were somehow removed, I think they would be in many respects the same people. (Of course, I find myself doing the same "default to white" thinking, which I'd normally deplore, when I try to imagine myself as not Indian.)

Undeniably, race plays a role in shaping people's character due to the culture in which they are raised and the way they are treated by others because of their race. Ditto for sex. I think women as a group will tend to bring some different perspectives to certain decisionmaking processes than men will, and vice versa. And the same will be true for people of different races.

Also, to what extent is your claim peculiarly true for America because of our history of heterogeneity? Do you think Japanese society is suffering an enormous gap because there are no Black people? or is there a different ethnic group that may play the role in Japanese society that you see for Blacks in American society?

In the former case, I'd frankly think you're wrong -- I don't think every race has to be represented in a society for it to be "complete." In the latter case, then what you find valuable is not one's race itself, but one's differentness relative to the majority group. This differentness may not even be defined as race by outsiders to that society (I would be surprised if many Americans could easily differentiate between an ethnic Korean and an ethnic Japanese in Japan, much less an Ainu person.)

David Schraub said...

PG: I'm curious -- if the US said that if every Indian left the country tomorrow, it'd be no big loss, would you feel hurt then? It's that sort of exclusion that I think does create a meaningful moral harm (certainly, if they said it about the Jews, I'd be hurt).

In general, I think all societies benefit from diversity in general, but I'm more concerned with socially salient differentiation -- hair color isn't that important, and you can imagine a society where skin color isn't the defining axis of differentiation (e.g., Japan) -- but what matters is the society incorporates people of all socially relevant groups into its institutions. I think it's a different question about bringing groups in "from the outside", but once a group is present in a society, I think it has a right to demand that it be given meaningful representation across the various societal institutions. My paper definitely is dealing with America's racial situation, and here, at least, it seems that racism is in part represented by subjectification. In Japan, it might be different.

PG said...

If the U.S. said that if every Indian ceased to be Indian and became Sri Lankan instead, or vice versa, that this would be no great loss -- no, I wouldn't be offended. The problem with the way you phrase it is that it uses a group identification to ask a question intended to reach one's individual feelings. "Every Indian" is a category that would include me, and no one wants to feel unwanted. However, I wouldn't mind if the U.S. government were indifferent to the particulars of my ethnicity.

Sorry to keep asking questions without reading the paper in full yet, but what do you consider "socially relevant groups"? The young? the elderly? Boy Scouts? (The Boy Scouts now are included in civil rights legislation.)

David Schraub said...

I guess that's where we differ, because I would be hurt if the government declared its apathy to the prospect of every Jew becoming Christian tomorrow (or Buddhist or Shinto or Animist). I want them to value me for who I am, and part of who I am is a Jew. I think that Jews qua Jews have something meaningful to contribute to the social mosaic, and I want others to recognize that fact.

I agree socially relevant groups is a nebulous concept, and I hate to fall back on such nefarious standards like "I know it when I see it," but at some point....yeah. When a given group reaches the point of development that it can conceive of itself as a) having group characteristics that meaningfully alter the way it participates and is treated in larger society (or even a sub-institution of society) and b) imagines those characteristics or perspectives to be of specific value to society (or the sub-institution), then I think it's socially salient for the purpose of this argument.

But that's off the cuff. I'm not as up on the debate over identity categories and borders as I should be.

PG said...

What do Jews qua Jews have to contribute that Shinto people don't? Or vice versa?

When a given group reaches the point of development that it can conceive of itself as a) having group characteristics that meaningfully alter the way it participates and is treated in larger society (or even a sub-institution of society) and b) imagines those characteristics or perspectives to be of specific value to society (or the sub-institution), then I think it's socially salient for the purpose of this argument.

Should we be worried if a given institution (e.g., the NYTimes) lacks anyone on its writing/editing staff who identifies as a fundamentalist Christian?

David Schraub said...

Seriously? Jews and Shintos each bring their own histories, their own theologies, their own relationships with other people, their own social position....I think it's pretty clear that the two are differently situated groups, and thus should be expected to have at least somewhat different perspectives.

As for the NYT question -- you can't seriously think that's a "gotcha" for me? Yes, I do think the NYT should have a fundamentalist Christian on its editorial staff (if it doesn't already -- I'm a WaPo loyalist myself). I don't think it should be overrun by them -- but I see no harm and a lot of good for letting the group define its own interests and arguments. But, of course, by and large the problem in America isn't that the fundamentalist Christian perspective isn't heard. It's other group's voices who are likely to be left out, and whose exclusion needs remedy.

PG said...

Jews and Shintos have different perspectives from each other, sure. Someone who is a Boy Scout has a different perspective from someone who isn't. But what exactly do you envision these different groups to be offering? Just their various perspectives? A Hindu dwarf has a different perspective from a Hindu non-dwarf, and I can't believe you think that we have to make sure to get one of each.

I disagree that there is something wrong with the NYTimes if it doesn't have a fundamentalist Christian on its staff. Someone who identifies as a fundamentalist Christian 1) is less likely to reside in NYC; 2) if conservative, is unlikely to admire the Times; 3) if conservative, is less likely to go into journalism.

These are all reasons why the Times office may not be overrun with applications from fundamentalist Christians. Now, if talented fundamentalist Christians are applying to the NYTimes and aren't being hired because they fail to evidence the secular liberal values held by the majority of Times staffers, that's a problem.

David Schraub said...

I guess we're just in disagreement here. I think perspective matters in a lot of cases -- a Jewish perspective on Israel, or Church/State relations, or just plain old normative ethics, is likely to differ at least somewhat from other positions. Would the Hindu dwarf? Perhaps occasionally, but by and large I don't think it meets my (admittedly off the cuff) definition of social saliency given a few comments ago. Hindu dwarves, I don't think, conceptualize themselves in such a manner.

As for the NYT, again, possibly agree to disagree, but I'm uncomfortable with the "there are all sorts of reasons they aren't applying!" argument, which has been used to all sorts of nefarious ends in race and gender cases. First, if I think that there perspective is valuable, then I think the NYT should be proactively seeking it out, not just shrugging its shoulders if it doesn't fall into their lap. And if there are structural barriers that make the group less likely to participate in media forums, I think that makes the moral situation more perilous, not less.

PG said...

Just as the very tall Megan McArdle was probably more conscious of being a tall female in Asia than she was of being white, b/c the height was treated as "weird" whereas white is "different," I suspect people with dwarfism are more conscious of that difference than of having a different religion. I honestly don't have much in day-to-day life that makes me self conscious of being Hindu, but I'm pretty sure there's a lot that would make me self-conscious of being a dwarf.

I think the NYTimes should be proactively seeking out a variety of perspectives for their editorial/ letters pages, but I'm doubtful that they need the fundamentalist Christians on their general reporting and editorial staff in the same proportion that such persons exist in the U.S. population. Certainly the Times takes an interest in reporting on fundamentalist Christians. There's a basic Catch-22 with regard to reporting on any ideological group: send someone who belongs to it, and the article will be colored by that sympathy; send someone who doesn't, and they can bring only an outsider's perspective. I think we're better off with the well-educated outsider (e.g., someone who knows enough about fundamentalist Christianity not to write something stupid) than the insider, however.

David Schraub said...

There's a difference between realizing you're different and believing that, in a given context or institution, that difference is relevant. Physical distinctions always will be more prominent than other important social cleavages, but that doesn't mean they'll always be relevant. So the question isn't whether the dwarf is cognizant that she is different than the folks around her; it's whether she conceptualizes that identity and experience as bringing important contributions to the task or project at hand.

As for the NYT's reporting staff, I think we agree that at some level a different sort of story will be written by an insider versus an outsider (even a plugged-in outsider). I'm not sure that, depending on the situation, you wouldn't want to have both options in your back pocket if at all possible (even if one is "on average" more useful). And of course, the evangelical might bring other perks as well -- she might be able to spot a budding story that others are missing, read between lines to hear an undertone others are missing, make contacts and get candid statements more easily, etc. (and of course, the educated outsider also brings her own unique set of advantages).