The study of race incorporates a set of wide-ranging analyses of freedom and power. The scope of those analyses has much to do with the broad application of racial difference to academic and popular notions of epistemology, community, identity, and the body. With regard to economic and political formations, race has shaped the meaning and profile of citizenship and labor. In relation to corporeality, race has rendered the body into a text on which histories of racial differentiation, exclusion, and violence are inscribed. Analyzed in terms of subjectivity, race helps locate the ways in which identities are constituted.

Many of these insights are the intellectual effects of antiracist political struggles, particularly ones organized around national liberation and civil rights. In the United States, the minority movements of the 1950s and 1960s fundamentally changed the ways in which racial minorities thought about their identities and cultures and the ways that race worked within US society (Omi and Winant [1986] 1994). In doing so, these movements intersected with sociological arguments that displaced notions of race as a strict biological inheritance and forced scholars to confront it as a category with broad political and economic implications. For the first time, there was mass mobilization around the deployment of the linguistic, historical, and artistic elements of minority cultures as a means of challenging racial oppression within the United States. Black, Chicano, and Asian American political and cultural groups emerged out of this context. In addition to cultural recovery, these groups argued for land redistribution, the end of police brutality, and community control over economic development. Race emerged out of these movements as an expression of cultural and political agency by marginalized groups. This was the notion of race that underwrote the ethnic studies movements of the 1960s and 1970s, including the student protests of 1968–69 that inaugurated the Division of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University. There and elsewhere, departments of Asian, Chicano, Native, and black studies worked to challenge race as a mode of exploitation within US society in particular and Western nations more generally (Marable 2000).

At the same time, insights about the various meanings of “race” have also arisen out of movements that countered these largely nation-based forms of racial politics. As postcolonial and poststructuralist theorists have illustrated, race is more than a way of identifying and organizing political coalitions against forms of state repression and capitalist exploitation; it is also a category that sets the terms of belonging and exclusion within modern institutions. David Theo Goldberg (1993, 87) captures this tension nicely: “[Race] has established who can be imported and who exported, who are immigrants and who are indigenous, who may be property and who are citizens; and among the latter who get to vote and who do not, who are protected by the law and who are its objects, who are employable and who are not, who have access and privilege and who are (to be) marginalized.” In other words, race both accounts for the logics by which institutions differentiate and classify, include and exclude, and names the processes by which people internalize those logics. Critical theorists of race such as Goldberg have pointed out that ideals of political agency that rely on notions of race, including those derived from ethnic studies, have often bought into the same unspoken norms of racial regulation that they elsewhere critiqued (Crenshaw 1995; Lowe 1996; Chuh 2003). Feminist and queer critiques of racial ideologies and discourses have complicated the matter further. As women of color and third world feminists have argued since the mid- to late 1970s, civil rights and national liberation struggles shared important and largely unappreciated affiliations with the very racist regimes to which they were responding, affiliations concerning mutual investments in heterosexual and patriarchal forms of power (C. Clarke 1983; Combahee River Collective 1983; A. Davis 1997; Ferguson 2004).

One way of extending the interpretations by women of color and third world feminists of the gendered and sexualized infrastructure of racial discourse is to attend to the ways in which that infrastructure was produced within a genealogy of morality. Morality, in this context, has a much broader definition and application than its more restricted modern understanding, which sees it largely in terms of gender and sexual restrictions. In classical social theory, morality refers to the social powers and privileges that come with political and civil enfranchisement, thus referencing a horizon of possibility rather than an ambit of restrictions and limitations. It was precisely this quality of morality—its promise of enlargement and endowment—that made conservative and liberatory demands for freedom into vehicles for all types of regulations. Morality was both the promise of freedom and the qualification of that promise through regulation. When women of color and third world feminists troubled the gender and sexual footings of antiracist social movements, they were actually struggling against the moral inheritance of those movements—not simply the gender and sexual norms of those movements but also the imperative to stipulate freedom through regulation. Thinking about race within that genealogy allows us to see how a critical interrogation of race must address the gender and sexual itineraries of both conservative and liberatory politics. It permits us to further tease out the unexpected affiliations that revolutionary and nationalist definitions of race share with liberal-democratic and colonial deployments of race.

Several theorists have followed these leads by locating the procedures of racialization within the moral discourse of Western modernity. By doing so, they have interpreted modernity as an epistemological procedure that produces racial knowledge, a material formation that engenders the racial foundations of political economy, and a discursive formation that fosters racial subjects. Goldberg (1993, 14), for instance, situates our understanding of racial modernity within moral notions that constitute “personal and social identity.” Take as an example Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s linkage of race and morality in The Social Contract. According to Rousseau, man’s transition from the state of nature to civil society effects a moral change in “him,” one that delivers man to the morally constituted domain of civil society. In the state of nature, man is “governed by appetite alone”; in civil society, he is ruled by justice rather than instinct and through this subjection ascends to freedom and rationality. Man thus becomes a moral being who is part of a civil order that gives his “actions the moral quality they previously lacked” ([1762] 1968, 64–65). Rousseau’s formulation of morality as an entrance into freedoms that are both social and personal can help us see the ways in which morality expresses a racialized genealogy that links emancipation and subjection.

Through the history of racial formations, we can outline these connections between emancipation and subjection. Indeed, that history reveals how a commitment to political ideals of freedom and liberty was often understood in explicitly racial terms and how it required forms of gender and sexual governance. In the Caribbean plantation economy, for instance, slaveholders and colonizers stood as symbols not only of whiteness and freedom but also of gender and sexual morality. The bodies of nonwhite Caribbean subjects—blacks, “coloureds,” and indentured Indians—were unevenly constructed as outside the parameters of gender and sexual propriety (M. Jacqui Alexander 1994). In the nineteenth-century United States, black women’s bodies were similarly constructed as the antithesis of true womanhood, a womanhood presumably embodied by white femininity. Responding to this construction became a simultaneously moral and political agenda for black feminists during and beyond this period. As historian Darlene Clark Hine (1989) has argued, African American clubwomen subscribed in the late nineteenth century to Victorian ideologies of gender and sexual propriety as a means of subverting negative stereotypes about black women’s sexuality. In doing so, these clubwomen entered civil society by invoking forms of mastery and discipline, underlining and extending the connection between their relative freedom and the subjection of others.

In the early twentieth century, this racialized genealogy shaped the emergence of sociology as a discipline that tried to assimilate US residents and citizens to the presumably rational ideals of liberal democracy. That discipline worked to reconcile communities of color, particularly African Americans, to the gender and sexual regimes of morality in part by pressuring them into normative US citizenship. For instance, W. E. B. Du Bois ([1900] 1978) argued for a partnership between the census (to track the social problems afflicting African American communities) and an emerging sociological profession (to lift African Americans from the moral residues of those problems). US sociology in the early to mid-twentieth century matured into a discipline that responded to the social changes of industrialization and migration by extending these moral prescriptions, including Gunnar Myrdal’s famous recommendation that African Americans adhere to the gender and sexual ideals of heterosexual patriarchy as a means of achieving citizenship—a recommendation that used the “instability of the Negro family” to argue that Negro culture is a “distorted development, or a pathological condition, of the general American culture” (1944, 928; see also Ferguson 2005). By advocating the rational ideals of liberal democracy, sociology linked the political to the social morality of citizenship. In other words, a commitment to the political ideals of citizenship entailed a fidelity to the nuclear family, conjugal marriage, and heterosexual monogamy. Given this genealogy, a critical interrogation of race needs to locate the links between citizenship and gender and sexual regulation. By studying race through its emergence within this genealogy, we obtain an understanding of political agency as the extension of power and discover how political freedom is tied to gender and sexual subjection.

Apprehending political agency through its connections to gender and sexual subjection is also a way of understanding the antiracist movements that decried regimes of race. Anticolonial and antiracist movements represented powerful challenges to racial regimes of colonial and liberal capitalist states. But they often did so without theorizing how those practices were constituted out of heterosexual and patriarchal relations. Antiracist social movements within Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and North America not infrequently became sites where women, especially, were subject to gender and sexual oppression and regulation. As Cynthia Enloe (1989, 44) notes, “Nationalism typically has sprung from masculinized memory, masculinized humiliation and masculinized hope. Anger at being ‘emasculated’—or turned into a ‘nation of busboys’—has been presumed to be the natural fuel for igniting a nationalist movement.” In the US context, Angela Davis (1997) observes that the liberatory ideals of the civil rights and Black Power movements were constituted on unexamined heterosexual and patriarchal norms. As anticolonial and antiracist movements figured liberation and freedom either as the acquisition of rights that would eventually empower racially marginalized men or as the decolonization of colonized spaces for those men, these movements produced freedom and liberation as the extension of regimes of heterosexuality and patriarchy. As such, the antiracist critiques developed in these settings could only apprehend part of race’s genealogy as a social formation. Such analyses often failed to see how national liberation and rights-based action fostered new forms of power. Antiracist and anticolonial movements evinced a moral commitment to liberation and rights that did not necessarily entail a commitment to dismantling gender and sexual hierarchies.

In contrast, women of color and third world feminist formations directly addressed freedom’s connection to gender and sexual regulation. In doing so, these formations provided what is referred to today as an intersectional model for a more complete consideration of the moral genealogy of racial projects. The Combahee River Collective (1983, 277), for instance, argued in its organizational statement, “We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless workers, but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic lives.” Emerging from the failures and contradictions of national liberation and civil rights, this statement calls for a theory and practice of freedom that link differences of gender, sexuality, and class within specific epistemological and material formations. Subsequent work on the history of women of color and third world feminisms illustrates how the regulatory architecture of emancipatory projects resulted in postcolonial state formations that rearticulated the moral agendas of colonial regimes (M. Jacqui Alexander 1994). Hence postcolonial states represented the dawn of dubious forms of neocolonial freedom that depended on economic subordination to advanced capitalist states whose claims to universal freedoms were undermined by internal processes of exclusion at the level of gender and sexuality. Those processes, as M. Jacqui Alexander (1991) points out, eventuated in much regulatory activity, including the criminalization of lesbianism in the Caribbean.

In the United States, the gendered and sexual legacies of civil rights have powerfully illustrated the ways in which rights-based projects extended (and continue to extend) regimes of gender and sexual normativity. We might understand the critical cultural and political practices of queers of color as inheriting women of color feminism’s critical assessment of liberation and emancipation. Groups such as Other Countries, Gay Men of African Descent, and the Audre Lorde Project have pointed to the historical and material limits of universal gay identity and the limited assumptions about freedom that such an identity presumes. The contemporary gay and lesbian movement has been organized along the axes of participation in the military, access to marriage and adoption, and protection from hate crimes, an agenda that has also been a means of fostering a universal gay identity (Spade and Willse 2000). In doing so, this mainstream movement has revealed itself as excluding the interests of queers marginalized by some intersectional combination of gender, race, and class. This analysis points to the ways in which hegemonic queer cultures presume the rationality of gay visibility, a visibility ritualized through the coming-out process and institutionalized through gay rights agendas. The study of race as it is applied to queer formations demonstrates how the mainstream gay rights movement fosters forms of white privilege and displaces queers of color, particularly those marginalized by class and nationality. We might therefore say that today’s racialized gay rights agendas emanate from the dialectic of freedom and unfreedom that arises out of an equally racialized genealogy of modern morality. Work by queer scholars who engage questions of racialized modernity intervenes into the study of race by observing how the array of nationalist and normative formations has expanded within the contexts of diaspora and contemporary globalization. Today, as it has for at least three centuries, the study of race names the different permutations of morality that continue to shape social formations according to freedom’s relationship to unfreedom.


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