Sunday, June 3, 2007

"Racial Culture"

Richard Thompson Ford is George E. Osborne Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and author of Racial Culture: A Critique.

He applied the "page 69 test" to his book and reported the following:
Page 69 is critical to the argument of the book, but the main themes of the book — race and multiculturalism — do not appear on page 69. In the book I argue against the attempt to use civil rights to protect "cultural practices" associated with racial and ethnic groups. I argue that this use of civil rights would reinforce racial stereotypes and social conformity within racial groups: I think, for instance, it's wrong to think of discouraging "black English" as a form of race discrimination because doing so reinforces the stereotype that failure to use standard diction and grammar is a natural attribute of the black race, rather than a result of poverty, poor schools, ghetto isolation, etc.

Page 69 makes a broader argument against the commonplace idea that legal rights are simple tools for liberation; there I argue that rights are actually means by which one branch of government — usually the courts — exercises power at the expense of another branch of government or at the expense of private actors, such as employers:

Any first year law student knows that First Amendment … forbids government from discriminating against either the content of expression or the teachings of a religion. Therefore, liberal constitutionalism concludes, First Amendment rights are ideologically neutral and enhance the freedom of the individual. But… [o]ne could argue that First Amendment rights serve to channel social activity, protest and unrest in a prescribed way, to institutionalize particular forms of expression (leafletting, marches, demonstrations and political advertising) at the expense of others (situationist pranks, civil disobedience, transgressive performances, shock art, obscene gestures.) We could say something similar about the religion clauses, pointing out that spirituality is protected to the exclusion of philosophy and politics — Aquinas is protected but not Thoreau — and therefore individuals and groups are encouraged, both by law and by the set of practices that law supports, to join churches and to embrace and present their commitments in a religious form.

None of this means rights are bad. But one must evaluate the use of power that occurs when rights are asserted and vindicated — it's not enough to justify them in terms of "freedom."

I build on this argument to make the more specific case against multicultural rights: this assertion of rights, if successful, wouldn’t simply leave members of minority groups free to engage in their cultural practices — it would also makes it harder for them or anyone else to resist the implication that certain cultural practices "belong" to certain racial groups; it would make it harder for people to criticize practices that are defined as "cultural" (consider the handwringing around female circumcision and how much more clarity we would bring to the issue it we simply asked whether or not the practice was child abuse — it turns out it usually is, but not always.) In these sense multicultural rights would not make anyone — not even members of minority groups — more free. Instead they would encourage some practices at the expense of others. I argue that many of the practices they would encourage are worse than those they would displace…
Learn more about Racial Culture from the Princeton University Press website and read an excerpt.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue