Author: Angela Harris

3

Of Law and Self-Loathing

“I’m a self-loathing law student,” confessed one of the students in my Critical Race Theory seminar this week. Several others immediately owned up to the same affliction. I will stipulate that self-loathing is probably not an affect we all should strive to achieve. But I was heartened anyway.

Twenty-five years ago when I began teaching law, my social-justice-minded students regularly veered from rage and tears at moral wrongs to a defiant hope. They sustained themselves and one another with a faith that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice, as Dr. King is thought to have said. And they ultimately placed their trust in law and especially the courts.

My students were not alone. Even by the mid-1980s, many of us lawyers and law professors were still recovering from the collective daze of delight induced by the Second Reconstruction and the Warren and Burger Court eras. Of course, we were already in the throes of affirmative-action backlash and judicial retrenchment; colorblind constitutionalism was shaped before our very eyes; and even as a law student I had studied Harris v. McRae in my equal protection class and learned that the formal declaration of a constitutional right is not the same as the economic security needed to exercise it. Yet the romance, the belief that getting the courts to pronounce a legal right was a mighty blow for justice, lingered on.

Maybe it was the continued influence of the post-war “idea of America as a normative concept,” as Edward Purcell  put it in 1973: the incorporation throughout social and political debate of “terms that were analytically confused but morally coercive – patriotism, Americanism, free enterprise system, mission, and, most grossly, ‘we’re number one.’” In the culture of legal academia, this logic translated into a faith in the jurisprudence of legal process. In my little corner of the world we were all reading Democracy and Distrust and trying to locate neutral principles. The faith that procedural fairness, at least, could be achieved despite a lack of consensus about the good life reinforced a belief in the American rule of law as an unshakable bulwark of democratic fairness. That sentiment was entwined with a professional loyalty to the law: to have gone to law school was in itself a statement about one’s commitment to the law as the royal (I mean “democratic”) road to justice.

So when critical legal studies, feminist legal theory, and then critical race theory hit the academy around this time, the crits (like the Legal Realists before them) were accused of “nihilism” and shown the door. Critical legal theory was not just a disloyalty to the civil rights movement but to the rule of law itself. It was subversive, in those mid-1980s days, to pass around The Hollow Hope  and to insist, as the crits were loudly doing, that “reification” and “legitimation” were basic functions of legal reasoning. The trust that the system works – or, at least, could work if we got it right – was now being dubbed “legal liberalism” by the crits, and being skewered in massively long and ponderous articles about fundamental contradictions. But the critics could be challenged by asking them where their “positive program” was. And they could (sometimes) be silenced by demands that they leave the law altogether.

For the crit project seemed deeply and radically anti-law. We junior professors, reading their work and sometimes contributing to it, felt like outlaws (which brought with it a sense of being dangerous and cool, along with a sense of vulnerability heightened by our lack of tenure and the material consequences of being perceived as a nihilist). At the same time, interestingly, the practice of teaching was not too different for us as it was for our older Legal Process colleagues. It was all about puncturing our students’ illusions, showing them the indeterminacy of legal reasoning and teaching them how to surf on it, questioning the use of words like “fairness.” It was just that we had no shining neutral-principles machine to lift from the bottom of Pandora’s box at the end of the day.

I don’t mean to suggest that legal liberalism and faith in the rule of law as central to the American way ever died. At a conference at Santa Clara Law School last week on race and sexuality, some of the lawyers and academics gathered there bemoaned a “politics of civil rights” that has somehow placed marriage equality at the top of the LGBT agenda. The charge was familiar: too many lawyers and non-lawyers alike believe that “gay is the new black;” that the civil rights movement brought about racial equality and “now it’s our turn;” that if we prove we are just like them, we’ll all be free. The rush to assimilate to mainstream institutions and practices throws under the bus, as usual, those most vulnerable to premature death – those without the racial, economic, and bodily privileges (and/or the desire) to get married, move to the suburbs, and blend in.

What was different was that an alternative position, the “politics of dispossession” as Marc Spindelman named it, was also on the table – not as a stance that made one’s commitment to the law suspect from the get-go, but as an accepted ground for lawyering. When thinking about sexuality we might want to begin, under this politics, not with marriage but with the kids doing sex work on International Boulevard in Oakland, as Margaret Russell pointed out. And, after decades of critical theory, it was taken as a truth in that room — if an inconvenient one — that to do this would mean instantly coming up against poverty, racism, and violence, forms of suffering law is not well positioned to ameliorate.

In this way, lawyering for social justice is a contradiction. Not in the “nihilist” sense, the law-as-a-tool-of-the-ruling-class notion that those who want justice ought to give up their bar cards and go protest in the streets. (My friend Norma Alarcón once identified this romantic position as the desire to “be out in the jungle with Che.”) Rather, the politics of dispossession begins with recognizing that the law is not designed to go to root causes; that fundamental changes in the ground rules, which is what the most vulnerable need, come from organizing;  and that lawyering isn’t useless, but that it looks different if it is prison abolition you want and not a marriage license.

More abstractly, the understanding in that room was that, as Patricia Williams said to the crits in one of the founding texts of critical race theory, law is both inadequate and indispensable in the struggle for justice. Post-legal-liberalism lawyering begins here.

What’s also new is that this commitment to living in the contradiction — accepting the tension between law and justice as a place to work rather than as a source of despair — is increasingly expressed not only by battle-scarred veterans at academic conferences but by law students. The desire to make positive social change has not gone away among my students. They still hope and expect that law can be used in the service of justice. But along with a waning of faith in the courts, they express an increasingly sophisticated awareness of the limits of the law more generally. They know, already, that justice and law are not the same. The task is no longer disillusioning them, but helping them develop the skills for finding what works and what doesn’t.

Okay, so “self-loathing” is probably not the best way to say it. But this wry recognition of the imperfection of law seems to me nevertheless an improvement over the wounded attachment to law as a portal to justice that seemed to mark so many progressive law students a generation ago. As the same student said later in the conversation that day, “That’s my contradiction, and I’m sticking to it.” There’s a wisdom there that’s heartening.

1

The Preacher and the Pragmatist: Remembering Derrick Bell

I’m now old enough to have lived through several moral panics over critical race theory. There was that culture-wars-era (remember those days?) one over whether critical race theorists were destroying the legacy of the Enlightenment by publishing first-person anecdotes; there was the one about whether critical race theorists were anti-Asian and anti-Semitic for criticizing extant standards of “merit” in the context of affirmative action in higher education; connected with that, there was that flap over whether Richard Delgado’s skin was the same color as Richard Posner’s (young people, I swear I am not making this up! Google it!); and, of course, there was that time Jeffrey Rosen blamed O.J. Simpson’s acquittal on, you guessed it, critical race theory.

These are reduced days, and the most recent moral panic over CRT cannot compare in either grandeur or silliness. Still, I experienced a moment of nostalgia when video recently surfaced on YouTube of a sweetly young Barack Obama, then a student at Harvard Law School, introducing Professor Derrick Bell at what appears to be a rally. The tagline attached to the video refers to “radical racist Derrick Bell,” and a related video shows Soledad O’Brien frantically riffing off some clearly inadequate notes as she tries to defend critical race theory as a mainstream academic literature (watching her, I had the urge to shout encouragingly, “EPA!”). The “gotcha” moment that follows shows Bell explaining to an interviewer his sympathy with W.E.B. DuBois’s concept of “the wages of whiteness”: the idea that anti-black sentiment has been so hard to eradicate in American society because it serves the function of keeping poor and disempowered white people content with their lot, willing to identify with elite whites based on the symbolic community of race rather than making common cause with poor folks of other backgrounds based on economic interest.

Seeing Bell explaining this argument in his characteristically soft, courtly voice, and thinking about the juxtaposition of Bell and Obama, made me think about the preacher and the pragmatist. Not Bell as preacher and Obama as pragmatist, but the preacher and the pragmatist within Bell himself.

What’s true in the characterization of Bell as a radical is, of course, his thoroughgoing rejection of America’s official liberal pieties about race, the most important of these being the faith that racism either has already disappeared or could very soon, probably in our grandchildren’s generation (if we could just get rid of affirmative action, or fully implement it, depending on whether you skew right or left).  Bell is probably most famous for two concepts: the idea of “interest convergence” and the conviction that “racism is permanent,” and both – especially the second – were and continue to be deeply emotionally upsetting to many. Interest convergence is the idea that black people (about and to whom Bell largely spoke) will only experience improvement in their material condition to the extent that white people as a group believe that it serves their own interests. The idea that racism is permanent links back to DuBois and undermines another liberal faith: the idea that racism is peripheral rather than central to American society. The Bell who believed racism is permanent also believed that the American social contract is founded on racial identity, that Americanness and whiteness are too bound up in one another to ever be teased apart.

This side of Bell counseled pragmatism rather than idealism, rejecting King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in the most brutal terms. Under this view, the best strategy for black people is to appeal to white self-interest for moderate reforms; and we will never be post-racial as long as there is an America. Bell was accused of nihilism for taking this position. Yet there was another Bell too, a preacher in addition to a pragmatist.

Re-reading his book Confronting Authority, I get the sense that Bell was not an easy colleague, and not because of his personal style. Bell was always warm, gentle and mild-mannered, funny, and dedicated to dialogue even with those with whom he bitterly disagreed. He never came across as the stereotypical Angry Black Man. But he had the discomfiting habit of trying to live up to his principles and expecting everyone else to, too. His account of his personal strike against Harvard Law School – his decision to take leave unless and until a qualified black woman was hired to the full-time tenure-track faculty – is the best example. Like Peter Singer, the philosopher who tries to get affluent people to use their money and privilege on behalf of the worst-off instead of benefitting their friends and family, Bell was always taking an uncomfortable but principled stand and making you have to explain to yourself why you couldn’t do the same. This Bell was an idealist, not a realist. His answer to those who criticized his “permanence of racism” thesis was similarly disconcertingly idealistic: One fights against racism, even though we know it to be permanent, simply because it is the right thing to do, because we have a moral responsibility to do so. Preachers’ kids sometimes grow up to be odd people in this way: trying to live as God wants us to live rather than making the accommodations to social norms and physical and mental comfort that the rest of us do. I have no idea whether Professor Bell was a preacher’s kid, or whether he considered himself religious, but this aspect of his thought and life has that same unnerving quality.

In his book A Secular Age,  Charles Taylor argues that a signal social division of our time is between those who feel that the pleasures and pains of this world are all there is, and those who feel that there is something more. Derrick Bell placed himself on both sides of the divide. He was both a preacher and a pragmatist, deeply principled and deeply strategic. Both sides of him were uncompromising. People like that are seldom easy company, but they challenge us in a useful way: not only with their ideas, but with the shape of their lives.

11

Diversity Day!

“Mom,” said my fourteen-year-old daughter. “What can I be for Diversity Day without being racist?”

As a good, progressive private school, my daughter’s school prides itself on its commitment to “diversity.” And like schools everywhere, it has a Spirit Week during which students and staff are instructed to do wacky things together in the service of building school spirit. Pajama Day! Crazy Hair Day! Superhero Day! This year, for some reason, the two mandates collided. Thus we got Diversity Day.

Someone, fortunately, had made a stab at thinking things through. We parents got an email from a school administrator warning us, “This is NOT a day to try to be someone else.” At least no one is going to show up in blackface, I thought with relief.

But what is Diversity Day supposed to be about? According to the email, “It is a day to celebrate a core aspect of the School’s mission by giving students the opportunity to celebrate their own cultural and/or family traditions. . . a day to express a certain amount of pride and respect for their families and backgrounds.”

Great, but there is complexity on top of complexity here. Begin with the fact that among the children of the Northern California professional-managerial class, there are hardly any who would claim a single “cultural and/or family tradition” for “their own.” These are kids with hyphenated last names and hyphenated backgrounds. The email to parents says, “They need to express themselves in a way that would make their grandparents proud of who they are.” Yes, but which grandparents? And who “are” these kids? Do they – or we – yet know? Yes, they have studied slavery and the Holocaust at school. My daughter and I have had lively discussions about President Andrew Jackson and his role in the Trail of Tears. But these children are fourteen and privileged and they live in the Bay Area; they are only now beginning to come into personal contact with the sharp edges of racism. I’m sure the parents of the eighth-grade black boys have already had several painful talks about being deferential and making no sudden movements when around strange white people or police officers. But I’m lucky; as mother of a girl, I only (!) have to worry about sex.

As in: “None of my friends think Asian boys are hot,” says my daughter. Some boy in her class has declared, “Black girls aren’t hot unless they look white.” To which my (black, curvy) daughter said sorrowfully, “I would have thought black girls would be attractive because they’re curvy.” We talk about the politics of personal ads; it seems grown-ups are also not quite post-racial in this area. And we try to unpack what “hotness” is supposed to mean, anyway.

Yet even these hard conversations are only tiny forays into the maelstrom of identity. High school and college, these days, are where the racial decisions really begin to bite for privileged kids. That accords, anyway, with the accounts of my “of color” students in their Critical Race Theory journals, who report being shocked when college classmates suddenly insisted on knowing “What are you?” or “Where are you from? No, really?” College is when those with complex identities and backgrounds are pressured by others to choose, to align, to make a stand.

Add to this confusion our national culture’s own vexed commitment to “diversity,” that peppy, All-American solution to the tragedy of racial subordination. Diversity is great because everyone has it already! Also, it’s good for everybody, since the corporate world, the military, and advertising can’t be wrong! But as Sheila Foster pointed out long ago, the downside of diversity is its emptiness; it can mean all things to all people and therefore nothing at all. And since everybody is different from everybody else, diversity is kinda automatic, no? “Should I just go as myself?” wonders my daughter. I respond, “If it’s their mission, then why isn’t every day Diversity Day?”

The truth, of course, is that race is the elephant in the diversity room. What we really care about when we talk about “diversity” is race and ethnicity, with perhaps a nod to gender, sexuality, and disability. But within the diversity framework, this commitment becomes fraught. When corrective justice was the paradigm, it made sense to put race and ethnicity at the center; flute players and yoga practitioners have not been targets for society-wide discrimination. If diversity for its own sake is the new goal, however, what do race and ethnicity become but skin color, eye shape, and quaint native costumes? Thus does Diversity Day pull us, ironically, toward the post-racial fantasy in which Martin Luther King, Jr. Day really is no different from St. Patrick’s Day in the United States: just another chance to be sold fun foods and drinks, and to feel good about how we are all the same beneath our superficial differences.

And I would be fine with that, were my daughter actually growing up in a world where no one would make her hotness depend on how “white” she looks.

Well, by the time she’s ready to go to college, of course, no doubt the Supreme Court will have ruled that diversity is not a compelling state interest after all and that higher education admissions in public schools must be race-blind. The question will be what these well-meaning private schools should do with their Diversity Days. New awkward rituals await, I’m sure.

But perhaps an awkward commitment to justice is better than no commitment at all.

P.S. I know: All these race problems are supposed to disappear in twenty-five years or less. Our innocent, colorblind children are going to lead us into the promised land. OK, I’ll wait.

P.P.S. Oh, and for those who want to know — She’s going to wear a pink triangle.