Almost exactly two years ago I sat crosslegged on the floor of a filled-to-the-gills meeting room at Harvard Law School wrapping my mind around what Devon Carbado was trying to get across.
He was describing racial salience.
Carbado, a legal scholar and articulator of the field of critical race theory, and co-author of Acting White?: Rethinking Race in Post-Racial America, established several “moments” of race, among them:
The simple model of racial discrimination is this, according to Carbado: Racial identification (let’s say, black) leads to racial stereotypes (let’s say, criminality), which leads to acts of discrimination (such as racial profiling).
But there is a more complex social interplay to discrimination, to wit, this thing called “racial salience.” It affects the speed, or the durability, or the “stickiness” of a steretotype, according to Carbado. The concept of race as performative is embedded in this “racial salience” idea. When applied to other kinds of identities–gender and sexual orientation—law seems to take this performative nature into account. Not so with race.
Here’s the parallel concept he gave as a way of explanation—gender salience. I paraphrase his description of the legal case as follows:
A certain employer required females and males to groom themselves in a particular way. A woman who grooms herself in a way that comports with the normative aspects of masculinity encountered discrimination. The employer argued in the courts that men and women had “equal burdens” in the grooming requirement; both men and women were asked to groom themselves in a particular way.
However, the “equal burden” for women was in fact not equal—for example, it takes more time to put on nail polish. The cost of the items used for grooming is more. And so on.
The court stated that the employer was committing sex discrimination because it traded on stereotyping, and in fact required women to conform to a stereotype in a way that was an unequal burden on female employees.
For gender, the performative act of conformity is “on the table” in how the law protects against discrimination.
For race, the performative act of conformity is not “on the table” in the same way.
Carbado, who is the Honorable Harry Pregerson Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law, with co-author Duke University professor of law co-author Mitu Gulati write that:
In highlighting the problem of racial character we are not saying that it is the most significant racial problem facing the nation. It is not. We bring it up because it offers us an opportunity to rethink Martin Luther King’s imperative that we judge people based on their character, not skin color. This has led too many people for too long to think of discrimination on the basis of skin color as the only form of racial discrimination. Judging people on the basis of character—racial character —can be a form of discrimination as well.
Acknowledging and understanding racism that runs as deep as this, that extends to the burden of “racial character” described by Carbide and Gulati, isn’t just important, it’s critical. Black Lives Matter, growing and strengthening as it has over these past few years, is the greatest agent of change we have in the U.S. right now and it is expressing values and taking action in a powerful way. You can read about Black Lives Matter everywhere online, but why not stick with the source? It’s blacklivesmatter.com.
Dear fellow environmental and climate change activists,
Dear fellow teachers and parents who care about child-centered education, robust public education, and educational justice,
Dear fellow activists and advocates for restoring and building connections to nature for children, followers of Richard Louv,
Study the principles of Black Lives Matter.
Listen to Alicia Garza, one of the three founders of the movement (here’s Garza delivering the 9th annual Robert Coles “Call of Service” Lecture at the Phillips Brooks House Association). Don’t take the concepts of race and racism you may have developed in 1975, 1985, or 1995 and go no further. I, for one, hope we’ll see more grassroots activists incorporating racial and economic justice into demands for sustainability policies.
I hope we’ll see truth about racism embedded in the “children and nature movement.” I hope we’ll see more and more that the climate change movement embeds within it environmental justice as well as radical reconsiderations of race like those of Carbado and Mulati, Ta-Nehisi Coates and other Critical Race Theory writers.