Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Race Liberalism and the Deradicalization of Racial Reform

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Race Liberalism and the Deradicalization of Racial Reform

Article excerpt

In the era that followed the formal collapse of white supremacy, efforts to sustain and broaden reformist agendas against the denouement of social justice movements exposed a series of discordant debates on the Left. While many such conflicts surfaced throughout the social order, some of these debates were staged in elite spaces like Harvard Law School. The Harvard Law School boycott of 1982 reflected a rupture among race-reform advocates between what I call "race liberalism," an ideology that ultimately embodies a "colorblind" model of racial justice that seeks to eliminate "discrimination," and a "critical race" discourse focused on the distribution of racial power, a perspective requiring the very race consciousness that race liberals saw as the evil that reform aimed to transcend. In the 1980s, the rhetorical battles between these two camps played out in a number of contexts, including, for example, debates about race-conscious affirmative action policies in elite institutions.

The temporal and institutional setting of the battles exposed how knowledge production in legal education was an arena of racial contestation not unlike the lunch counters and ballot boxes that confronted civil rights advocates in the decades before. When students of color demanded a say in how race and law would be conceptualized as a field of inquiry, they challenged the deepest pretense of liberal sensibility - that universities themselves are apolitical arbiters of neutral knowledge rather than participants in the struggle over how social power is exercised.

Harvard Law School was a generative site of struggle over the norms and content of elite legal education, particularly in shaping the contours of liberal-radical conflict about law and social transformation. The liberal project of enhancing social mobility and democratic participation through rationality and rights was a foundational commitment of the Civil Rights Establishment (CRE) (1). The legal face of race liberalism included not only the network of faculty, administrators, judges, and graduates who moved in concert with this commitment, but also the lingua franca of liberal institutions.

Harvard was also a central location in the map of radical thinking about law. Key figures in the Critical Legal Studies (CLS) movement were prominent members of the law school's faculty. (2) During its heyday at Harvard, CLS's critiques of law and its relation to social hierarchy coincided with a period of heightened student activism related to faculty hiring, curricular development, and the interface between legal liberalism and Critical Race Theory. The influence of these communities of thought in shaping an alternative view of racial power was not a simple matter of students' selective incorporation of legal liberalism and CLS. Instead, the unfolding conflict became an interpretive template from which to map the ideological investments of a race project that wasn't critical, utilizing the critical tools of a radical project that was only beginning to interrogate race. The battle over affirmative action at Harvard became a social text that galvanized student critics into articulating an alternative view of racial power, one in which notions of merit and institutional settlement were seen as mere rationalizations for the refusal to interrogate or interrupt the core commitments of elite legal education. (3)

These dynamics unfolded into projects that integrated insights about the relationship between knowledge and racial power that had surfaced in other sites across the university into critical discourses about law. Critical Race Theory and intersectional feminism/antiracism emerged from this interface as a product of ideological tension between race liberals and their left-leaning critics. (4) It took shape within the simultaneous encounters between faculty and students who were struggling to articulate how radical thinking about law and about race could cross-pollinate and find expression as an intellectual and political project. …

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