RACE MATTERS

Why did LaTrese Adkins attack Michael Phillips’ White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001 last week? He thinks he might know why.

I think I understand where Dr. Adkins is coming from. First of all, we were set up by the event organizers as antagonists and we played our assigned roles. Secondly, academic discourse tends to be pretty aggressive. If you saw all of her remarks, after giving a pretty harsh critique, she called my book “brilliant.” That’s just how scholars go after each other, though I think Dr. Adkins at times veered into the ad hominem.

Third, I think Dr. Adkins and other scholars of color have a legitimate grievance in that white scholars are over-represented in the history field and she might feel that I was yet one more white writer giving short shrift to the black voice. She feels Dallas’ “black history” has not been told and that I failed to provide one. Of course, I did not see that as my particular goal.

Finally, I think that she is concerned that the field of “whiteness” in which my work is grounded – which argues that race is a social convention and a public fiction – represents a threat to black studies. Whiteness studies arose just as the story of African Americans for the first time was being extensively studied. The danger is that if we dismiss race as a scientific concept, we might also cease using it as a tool of historical analysis.
In other words, if we argue that categories like “white” and “black” are figments of public imagination, the unintended result could be that “black” history disappears. This would be a tragic event given that African Americans history was distorted, buried or simply ignored for so long. That is not my intention, of course. I want political privilege based on skin color to be abolished and think that one way to achieve this is by examining with brutal honesty the central role race and racism have played in American history.

Phillips’ remarks come out of a way of thinking that’s probably unfamiliar to most of us – race as “a social convention and a public fiction,” for example. The problem is obviously the visibility of difference that led to those social conventions. But on the main point – the uselessness of race as a scientific concept – I detect prominent traces of Stephen Jay Gould’s deservedly influential book The Mismeasure of Man in his argument.

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