Meritocracy and its Discontents   /   Summer 2016   /    Book Reviews

Race Still Matters

Jeffrey Guhin

Great America, 1994, by Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955); gift of the Collectors Committee, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Although few people realistically expected the election of Barack Obama to heal America’s long-festering racial wounds, it is striking how much more race seems to matter today than it did when the first black president took office. Or, more accurately, how much race still seems to matter to white people. Racism has always been real to those who experience its effects, but for much of white America, the story of racial progress has been a reassuring balm.

The inequalities didn’t go away on day one of the Obama presidency, of course—as is made so painfully evident by troubled urban schools, neighborhood segregation, and a prison system so heavily populated by black inmates that an observer might confuse our nation for apartheid South Africa. And there is the explicit racism, too, even if it is increasingly hidden and coded, leaving voter ID laws, welfare reform, and mass deportation open to at least some interpretation as to their intention. It’s not about race, the proponents of such measures say. This is still said, even after Eric Garner’s 2014 death was captured on video, the victim protesting his inability to breathe as he was being pressed to the ground by police while other officers looked on. Black Lives Matter has not made race an issue in American politics. Race has always been an issue in American politics. Black Lives Matter has simply helped white people recognize that this remains the case. Racial progress is real, but the story is far from over.

Why, then, is race still such a problem in America? Facile explanations abound: Racial inequality is just a matter of willpower, we are told, or else the real problem is a “culture of poverty.” Others say the problem is economic, that it’s a class issue more than anything else. Or maybe it’s none of these things. Maybe the problem is a lack of cultural pride and the mis-recognized need for racial autonomy. The problem with these variously proposed diagnoses is how easily they slip between the normative and the descriptive, the laying out of how things are against how they ought to be. It’s a mess that requires the care of a good theorist to sort out—or maybe three good theorists.

In The Racial Order, Mustafa Emirbayer and Matthew Desmond are quick to call out this diagnostic problem. Emirbayer is a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Desmond, his former student, is now a professor at Harvard University. Their book is divided into three parts, and while the bulk of the work is in the section dealing with how best to theorize race, the most important chapters are the ones in which the authors raise the question of how scholars whose research focuses on race should think about that work. (The section on political implications is a close second.) The authors emphasize “the vigilant questioning of our questions,” arguing that too many of the political and social-scientific conversations about race not only take for granted the questions they should be asking, but also how those questions are best asked. The theory of race—what it actually is, how it actually works—is either left implicit or cobbled together from the generic sociological unconscious, with the resulting work being marked by unacknowledged political agendas and an inclination toward parochialism and the “scholastic fallacies” of intellectualism and universalism.

The authors invoke sociologist Rogers Brubaker’s warning against “analytical groupism,” the tendency to treat particular groups (African Americans, say) as already established, self-evident entities that form the building blocks of social life. Brubaker has been writing about the nature of difference for a long time, although almost always through the lens of ethnicity. The focus of Emirbayer and Desmond on race distinguishes them from authors like Brubaker, who tend to see America’s racial experience as just one example of a broader category of ethnic difference.

Emirbayer and Desmond don’t entirely disagree: They grant that race is a subset of ethnicity and that, on a historical level, it’s just one way among many in which any of us could be different. But all times are not alike, and the time we now live in is marked by a legacy of European colonialism and consequent white supremacy all around the world. Authors such as Brubaker worry that it’s parochial to make America’s experience of racial domination the template for so many discussions of ethnic strife. Emirbayer and Desmond make no apology for doing almost exactly that, insisting that the “global racial system” they describe “organizes much of the ethnic conflict around the world—and has done so for centuries,” even if the vast majority of their empirical examples are from the United States.

Brubaker, a professor of sociology at UCLA, has always relied far more heavily on international examples, but now he, too, is talking explicitly about race. (Disclosure: I recently became a colleague of Brubaker’s at UCLA.) In Grounds for Difference, he expands his usual focus on ethnicity to look at three other major sources of distinction: religion, class, and race. Brubaker has already written about the relationship between nationalism and ethnicity, and given his interest in European politics, it is no surprise that he has increasingly focused on the political and cultural interactions of religion. His chapter on race, “The Return of Biology,” is a response to recent tendencies in biomedicine, forensics, and genealogy to treat race as something “prior to or independent of people’s beliefs and practices…of identification, classification, and categorization.”

That essay builds on one of Brubaker’s most famous articles, “Ethnicity as Cognition” (2004), in which he, Mara Loveman, and Peter Stamatov argue that “objectivist understandings of ethnicity…have been displaced by subjectivist approaches.” The argument sounds counterintuitive, but as with Brubaker’s warning against analytic groupism, that’s sort of the point: It moves against a tendency to view particular categories as settled and self-evident, insisting instead that the processes of categorization are settled in the mind rather than in some “real world” beyond human control. Brubaker explains how a kind of biological imperialism struggles to make race seem self-evidently actual, despite ample evidence that it is a muddled social construct. Reluctant to separate race and ethnicity, he usually lumps the terms together in a way Emirbayer and Desmond would not. Yet his work parallels that of Emirbayer and Desmond in The Racial Order in an important way, especially in its focus on how race and ethnicity are constructed and how those constructions have real-world effects.

Emirbayer and Desmond devote much of their book to describing that process of construction, pulling primarily from the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, along with generous helpings of cultural sociology (Émile Durkheim) and American pragmatism (John Dewey). Bourdieu is famous for his “field theory,” the description of social life as a competition among people within a particular “field” to dominate one another by mastering particular forms of capital. Bourdieu’s arguments become quite complex, but basically he asserts that there are three kinds of capital that matter: economic capital (which is self-evident); social capital (your ability to leverage connections for self-advancement); and cultural capital (your ability to look as though you know what you’re doing, as though you’re comfortable, competent, and wholly unafraid).

Emirbayer and Desmond show how “racial capital” has heretofore been left unexplored. They demonstrate that there is a way in which being white in America can be understood, via Bourdieu, as automatically having access to kinds of capital that non-whites, because of their race, cannot. People have made such arguments about “white privilege” for years, but putting them in Bourdieu’s language gives them greater analytic precision. Emirbayer and Desmond are careful to emphasize that these processes are entirely relational: Your position in the field and your accumulation of capital are accomplished only because other people believe they are. This focus on the relational nature of social life echoes Brubaker’s reminder about the cognitive basis of categories, with both challenging a human tendency to assume that our categories are self-evidently true.

The main flaw of The Racial Order is its outsized theoretical aspiration. Emirbayer has always been a theorist with grand ambitions and wide interests, and by the end of the book he and Desmond have cited and discussed many of the more important theoretical debates in sociology. It’s a largely effective synthesis, but it leaves one wondering if all the pieces fit together as well as they are made to seem. The authors appear so determined to demonstrate their theory’s compatibility with every other theory that, ironically, race itself sometimes seems to recede in importance. They provide an impressive array of examples from across the social-scientific study of race, yet these are often just a few lines in reference to a book-length argument. This made me wonder if their theoretical synthesis could handle a more complicated interaction with an empirical study. I couldn’t help wanting a more concrete empirical argument, both to ground their theory of race a bit more securely, and to ensure that its many moving parts really do mesh as well as the authors claim.

Brubaker’s book also has many moving parts, although for him it’s the empirical range that is perhaps broader than he can manage. I think he’s right to claim that his theoretical model can encompass class, religion, and race and ethnicity in the way he’s describing, but I’m not convinced that this book proves it—and I’m not sure he would disagree. The book may be more of an opening move than the kind of definitive statement The Racial Order appears to be.

Yet such criticisms should not detract from these two books’ highly important contributions to our understanding of how race works, and why it works the way it does. These insights may be insufficient to heal racial wounds, but at this point, maybe we should be willing to settle for identifying the source of the pain.