By Noel A. Cazenave, Guest Blogger
As has been true throughout much of its history America’s racial tensions are once again at a boiling point. This sad fact is evident in the 2016 presidential campaign by the salience of racially-charged issues like immigration, voting rights, and criminal justice.
Unfortunately this nation is so racially divided that it does not even have a common language with which to discuss its racial woes. For example, in referring to what is happening, while the racially dominant group--in keeping within its historical tradition of treating America’s systemic white racism problem as its “Negro problem”--tends to use vague and non-hierarchical terminology like “race” and “the race issue,” the racially oppressed are more inclined to utilize words like “racism” and “racial oppression.”
This language divide is especially evident in the widespread protests against the frequent police and vigilante killings of African Americans. In response to those killings African Americans and their supporters have chanted “Black Lives Matter!” in demonstrations and rallies in cities and towns throughout the nation. The color-blind ideology driven response of many European Americans has been to attempt to silence that racism-specific African-American grievance by substituting or adding the phrase “All Lives Matter!” At my own university, the University of Connecticut, a boulder set aside for various forms of expression that was painted with the phrase “Black Lives Matter!” was painted over with the words “All Lives Matter!” Such language conflict was also evident when a presidential candidate was booed loudly at an African-American forum after he added “All Lives Matter!” to the phrase “Black Lives Matter!”
The messages sent by members of the racially dominant group to the racially oppressed is clear. We will only hear your grievances if you express them through the use of racism-evasive language. Language that challenges the racial status quo by insisting that racism be examined directly and explicitly is normally not allowed.
Conceptualizing Racism: Breaking the Chains of Racially Accommodative Language examines such power and voice centered language conflicts both within American sociology and other social sciences and the white power structure of the larger society, which they all too often serve more than they critically examine. In doing so it begins and ends with two words: “words matter!”
Because it is critical of the conceptual work of all of the most influential race relations scholars, including my own, and since it challenges the prevailing conceptualizations of racism with precision, clarity, and power the truth it reveals will be difficult to ignore. But, of course, reading a book and liking it are quite different matters. Conceptualizing Racism may prove to be so controversial that its cover may need a warning label that “Some readers may be upset by its tone and content.” If you are defensive of sociology and sociologists, you may find this book to be unsettling. If you agree with most of today’s leading scholars of race and ethnic relations that the large and robust view of systemic racism pushed into social science discourse by the civil rights movement was too big for its sociological britches and must be reduced to a more manageable size, you may not like Conceptualizing Racism. If you think that the uncritical use of terms and phrases like “race,” “the race issue,” “black,” “white,” and “minorities” is compatible with a radical perspective on racial oppression, this book may not be your preferred cup of tea. If you believe that the race concept is benign or is actually a good thing or that racism is no more than an ideology, you might not like Conceptualizing Racism. If you think that the systemic racism perspective is sufficiently developed to explain the everyday workings of racism, you may not appreciate its findings. Finally, if you believe that sociology and the other social sciences have done a good job of conceptualizing race and racism, although you read Conceptualizing Racism, you may not like it.
However if you are looking for a book that speaks truth to power about systemic racism you will find that Conceptualizing Racism is exactly what the doctor ordered. Building upon its premise that words matter in the construction, maintenance, and dismantling of oppressive systems it introduces two useful concepts with which it fleshes out the dual components of its argument. First, linguistic racial accommodation is an instrument of racism denial and evasiveness in highly racialized--but otherwise democratic--societies that has resulted in the conceptual retardation and underdevelopment of our understanding of systemic racism. And second, only by challenging such language censorship through linguistic racial confrontation is the development of an honest and full conceptualization of and articulation about such racism possible. This study includes a careful sociology of knowledge and historical sociology analysis which is crafted around an examination of the deployment of a dozen language-centered racism denial practices it both names and explains. Its findings reveal why and how throughout their histories American sociology and its related social sciences have more often than not aligned themselves with the powerful forces that push for racially accommodative language like “race” and “minorities” rather than with the racially oppressed who have challenged such language with large and robust conceptualizations of systemic racism and racial oppression.
Conceptualizing Racism should therefore be warmly welcomed by those of us who will settle for nothing less than the dismantling of systemic racism and who believe that goal can only be achieved by boldly breaking the fetters of its racially accommodative language.
Noel A. Cazenave is professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, where he also teaches in the Urban and Community Studies program. In addition to many journal articles, book chapters, and other publications, he coauthored Welfare Racism: Playing the Race Card against America’s Poor, which won five book awards, and has more recently published Impossible Democracy: The Unlikely Success of the War on Poverty, Community Action Programs and The Urban Racial State: Managing Race Relations in American Cities.