Saturday, February 19, 2011

From Subjective to Structural: Racial Power Dynamics

American Political Discourse has great difficulty coming to terms with the reality and gravity of racism. I believe a big part of this is because of the values which our society holds in such high regard: individual autonomy and responsibility. From our political theory, economic system and intellectual history to our cultural norms, everything centers around these concepts. Thus, remedies and analyses of racism rely primarily on an individual agent's culpability. Racism, so the story goes, is the fault of the bigot. Racist actions are only those actions which intend to harm members of a certain group. In this narrative, the enemy of racial equity is thinking in terms of groups, and judging people based on the perceived value of the group. Thus, by becoming "color-blind" a society can attempt to create a tabula rasa with respect to personal exchange, interaction and moral assessment. I argue that this "solution" which society has come up with is wholly unproductive for a meaningful progression of race-relations, and in fact could be the worst option.

This color-blind filter which is worked into society forecloses analyses and solutions which would consider collective outcomes of a people as significant, or one which considers the agency and culpability for discrimination as residing in something other than the subject. This lens places us behind a veil of ignorance, and wholly avoids the question of race - only becoming cognizant of racism when individuals show an explicit intent to discriminate. Our failure to recognize and engage the giant elephant in the room that is racism arises in part from a deeply ingrained philosophical sensibility, enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, firmly rooted in British empiricism and social contract theory, which takes the individual as the sole unit of analysis, responsibility, and justice. Within this context, it is impossible to articulate why (or how) it is that racial disparities that are not traceable to intentions of individual actors come about.

The realities of structural racism in America must be brought to bear on our theoretical discourse. Naively atomistic constructions of the bigoted individual as the sole actor and perpetuator of racism will not hold weight with even a mildly observant citizen. There is a structural component which is so deeply-rooted as to be nearly invisible to many. We must focus on the implicit logic and thought processes as well as institutions which foster such blatantly racist discrimination as abounds in America. For those of you who still do not understand what I mean by structural racism, Here is a PDF about housing in America.


  1. Hey Colin,

    This is a great post and I am very much in agreement with the general trajectory of your argument. However, I am not sure that your assertion that structural racism is not recognized in our theoretical discourse is correct. Looking even at the content of legal statues(ie Civil Rights Act of 1964), there is a obvious recognition that racism permeates the social realities of American life. I am in total agreement that the institutional nature of racism should be recognized to a larger degree,but I think you might be overstating its absence in public discourse.

  2. Yo Colin,

    I think the act of ignoring race is definitely detrimental to our social development. Being color-blind doesn't fix anything, it's just a form of ignorance. Whites don't want to be "found guilty" of being racist so they ignore race, and sometimes make the problem worse.

  3. Hey Kim,

    Thanks for targeting that, I actually meant to clear this up. What I mean by asserting that structural racism is not recognized in American political discourse is that only the symptoms of racism are treated, and only poorly at best. To highlight this, I will compare the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the UN resolution for Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination of 1965 in a post on the blog today.


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