Colloquium: Linda Alcoff (CUNY)
The Historical Formation of Race
This paper will argue that race is best understood not as a social construction, at least as this is usually understood, but as a historical formation. Social constructivist theories of race have provided a helpful antidote to biological essentialist theories. They have argued that, as Chike Jeffers puts it, it is “only through social and historical processes that the particular physical, biological, and geographical differences that we recognize as racial have come to gain some relatively stable significance.” (Jeffers 2019, 45) And yet some prominent versions of social construction have supported the false idea that what has been constructed by state policies might be deconstructed by ceasing official usage of the category of race. I will argue here that racial identities are best understood as formed through large scale historical events, and that this genesis can only be obscured by disavowals of racial categories as conceptually mistaken and inevitably morally pernicious. In this sense, races are formed not simply as ideas, or ideologies and policies, but as forms of life with associated patterns of subjectivity including, as a wealth of social psychology has shown, presumptive attitudes and behavioral dispositions (Jeffers 2019; Steele 2010; Sullivan 2005). Because they are historical formations, racial identities are thoroughly social, contextual, variegated internally, and dynamic: for these reasons, the substance of racial identities is best understood as local.