W.E.B. Dubois's "The Comet" and Contributions to Critical Race Theory: An Essay on Black Radical Politics and Anti-Racist Social Ethics

By Rabaka, Reiland | Ethnic Studies Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

W.E.B. Dubois's "The Comet" and Contributions to Critical Race Theory: An Essay on Black Radical Politics and Anti-Racist Social Ethics


Rabaka, Reiland, Ethnic Studies Review


Critical Race Theory and the Riddle(s) of (Anti-)Race(ism)

No longer considered the exclusive domain of legal studies scholars and radical civil rights lawyers and law professors, critical race theory has blossomed and currently encompasses and includes a wide range of theory and theorists from diverse academic disciplines. Its most prominent practitioners, initially law professors and "left scholars, most of them scholars of color" employing the work of the breathtakingly brilliant African American lawyer, scholar, and activist Derrick Bell (2005) as their primary point of departure, borrowed from many of the political and theoretical breakthroughs of black nationalism, anti-racist feminism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism. They also employed and experimented with new cutting-edge literary techniques and social science methodologies that shaped and shaded their work and burgeoning socio-legal discourse, ultimately giving it a fierceness and flair unheard of in the history of legal studies. Early critical race theorists' work acutely accented "the vexed bond between law and racial power" (Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller & Thomas, 1995, p. xiii). The emphasis on race and power quickly led them to the critique of "white supremacy and the subordination of people of color," not simply in the legal system, but in society as a whole (p. xiii).

Most notably, critical race theory essentially entails: a claim that race and racism are central to European modernity; an insistence that European modernity spawned a homogenizing social, political, legal and medical system that glosses over the heterogeneity of non-Europeans; a declaration that racism interlocks with sexism and classism to form an overarching system of oppression that thrice threatens modern movements for multicultural (and/or radical) democracy; a critique of the established order's claims of colorblindness and racially-neutral rule; a critique of whiteness and white supremacy; a call for racial justice; and lastly, a controversial claim that the raced (i.e., people of color) may have to employ race and their experiences of racism as a rallying point to mobilize a revolutionary anti-racist movement (Crenshaw, et al., 1995; Delgado, 1995; Delgado, Stefancic & Harris, 2001; Essed & Goldberg, 2001; Goldberg, Musheno & Bower, 2001; Goldberg & Solomos, 2002). W.E.B. Du Bois's philosophy of race in many senses foreshadows contemporary critical race theory and, therefore, contributes several paradigms and theoretic points of departure. However, as with so many other aspects of his thought, Du Bois's writings on race and racism have been relegated to the realm, at best, of sociology, which downplays and diminishes their interdisciplinarity and significance for contemporary critical social theory and radical politics (Rabaka, 2006b). Therefore, his writings on race have been virtually overlooked and/or rendered intellectually invisible by critical race theorists. With what follows I endeavor to fill this void in contemporary critical race scholarship by analyzing Du Bois's writings on race and racism as contributions to (the reconceptualization and reconstruction of) critical race theory.

In Critical Race Theory (1995), Richard Delgado states that though it began organizing as a "self-conscious entity" in 1989, critical race theory's "intellectual origins go back much further": "The movement has predecessors-Critical Legal Studies, to which it owes a great debt, feminism, and Continental social and political philosophy. It [also] derives its inspiration from the American civil rights tradition, including Martin Luther King, W.E.B. Du Bois, Rosa Parks, and Cesar Chavez, and from nationalist movements, including Malcolm X and the Panthers" (p. xiv). What I wish to highlight here is, first, though it generously draws from European and white American thought-traditions, African American social and political thought and movements have been at the heart of and enormously influential on critical race theory's discourse and debates.

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