Where do we go when we go ‘beyond Black and white’?
This essay will appear in the upcoming newsletter of the Association of Black Sociologists.
Tamara K. Nopper
November 3, 2009
In the past fifteen years, the call to go “beyond black and white” has gained momentum and resulted in a growing body of scholarship about non-Black people of color (hereafter NBPOC) produced by academics, funded by granters, and published by presses. More job announcements in the sociology of race or ethnic studies request that applicants engage in comparative research. As an Asian American sociologist who first began researching and writing about racial conflict between Blacks and Asian Americans during my sophomore year, my work could easily be labeled comparative. Today, I examine how dominant institutions (state, finance, etc.) influence the socioeconomic inequality among people of color. However, I have encountered some common responses to my research that have led me to wonder what people mean by comparative when promoting comparative research.
One response is the argument that by examining conflict between people of color, we normalize whiteness and thereby let white supremacy off the hook. I understand this criticism since whites generally go out of their way to avoid accountability and are also quick to enjoy watching people of color fight it out publicly. Such tendencies occur in the scholarship; there are several white sociologists who focus on the impact of NBPOC on the color line but never mention whites, whiteness, or white supremacy.
Related, efforts at making critical comparisons between people of color are sometimes met with the response that we can not allow people of color to be politically divided and conquered. As someone who came to sociology and activism with an interest in multiracial organizing, I understand this gesture. It can be difficult at times to draw attention to inequalities among people of color because it disrupts a desire for multiracial coalition. For those, like me, who are inspired by the dreams of the 1955 Bandung Conference, multiracial unionism, and third world united fronts, suspending coalition for the sake of sociological inquiry can be challenging. But a desire for what could be shouldn’t usurp a serious investigation into what is.
Finally, the most common response I have encountered is that sociologically, people of color are not comparable because compared to Blacks, NBPOC are too ethnically and economically diverse. There are a couple of concerns that I have about this response.
First, an over-emphasis on internal diversity often elides questions about race. How do we compare racial groups or even talk about race if we assume that race is simply pan-ethnic in the most limited sense, as in comprised of different ethnicities, rather than pan-ethnic politically as delineated by David Lopez and Yen Le Espiritu? And if we can’t talk about race, how do we talk about racism? How does our own desire to recognize diversity possibly contribute to a progressive color-blind racism in which we have no basis of comparison?
Second, how do we engage and confront the globality of race and racism if we simply assume that race in the U.S. is again, simply a pan-ethnic affair in the most limited sense. How do we understand the relationship between national identities, geopolitical formations and relations, ethnicity, culture, and race on a global scale if we eschew racial categories when it comes to NBPOC?
Whatever the case, we can deduct that there are relatively few published sociological studies examining how dominant institutions (state, financial, educational, unions, media) engage or restrict communities of color in relation to each other. There is an important body of sociological research examining how different people of color groups are perceived by one another and whites. Yet with the exception of some (primarily earlier) studies examining how employers comparatively construct different races as employable or “good” workers, most of the contemporary studies tend to emphasize how people are perceived by survey respondents in major data sets. Extremely important, this research could only be complemented by increasing investigation into how people of color are comparatively perceived and engaged by subjects representing dominant institutions responsible for allocating resources valuable to social mobility.
Such an approach might help to challenge the pathologizing tendency to view Black patterns of assimilation as distinct and isolated from the trajectories of other races. In other words, we can move beyond circumstantial approaches that posit that racial groups just happen to take certain trajectories because of what is unique to them and instead focus more on making relational arguments grounded in a structural account of how one group’s progress is related to another group’s suffering. Although Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton pointed out in their 1967 book Black Power that African Americans have a unique racial experience due to slavery, the pair never failed to identify how racial status is a relational category. Put simply, and relevant to my concerns here, the trajectories of NBPOC can not be extracted from that of Blacks even if they do not identically mirror one another. To believe as much is to be satisfied with a racial formations approach, which suggests that different groups are racialized in distinct ways. While popular and perhaps a useful starting point, the racial formations approach is not enough for comparing the socioeconomic situations of people of color. As political scientist Claire Jean Kim points out, “because…[the] racial formation framework presents racialization processes–or the processes by which people get defined and characterized as racial groups–as open-ended and highly variable, it does not give us the conceptual tools we need to grasp how relational and even mutually constitutive racialization processes can be.”
Curiously, the absence of relational comparisons has been accompanied by an increased number of sociological publications about the distinctive racial status of Asian Americans and Latinos. Consistent with the call to go beyond black and white, these texts pointedly claim that the two groups can’t simply be reduced to a black status in the black/white binary and thus deserve to be understood as a distinct racial group. I agree that Asian Americans and Latinos are racialized in some distinct ways in relation to Blacks and whites. But I don’t think that this distinctiveness puts them outside of the antagonism between Blacks and whites. While some will disagree with this assessment, it’s unclear how the “distinctiveness” in relation to Blacks and whites can be properly assessed unless we trace how dominant institutions participate in creating differential results among communities of color and more importantly, consider why.