Critical Race Theory and Geography: Issues of Ideology versus Difference

The challenge posed by the postmodern critique in geography and other social science disciplines has led to a virtual renaissance in the sub-fields of human geography. Areas of study such as feminist, queer and post-colonial theory intertwine almost indistinguishably in a multi-hued tapestry of conflict and difference, the common theme of relational ties between dominant and subordinate sectors of society being the tie that binds them together (Tyner, 2003). And yet, the postmodern discourse is considered to be fragmented and without an underlying positivistic or rational foundation, being concerned, as it is, with questions of subjectivity and dialectical opposition. While being valid on the surface, this critique of the postmodern and critical social theory movements fails to regard the ideological metanarratives of the dominant cultural forces as being monolithic in nature. In large part, this identity crisis has to do with the hidden aspects of ideology which form the mental and nationalistic core of all human groupings and consists of the unconscious teachings that make up the generally accepted subtext shared by all participants in social organization (Shelby, 2003).

The critique of social norms that have been codified ideologically and socially over long periods of time is a necessarily difficult and emotional process. According to John Searle, institutional reality is a special case of social reality (2003). Critical social theory critiques institutions, and can be traced to the works of Karl Marx. Even though Marxism is a failed political system, its ability to critique prevailing norms in the capitalistic societies has contributed to the formulation of theories that examine the epistemological methodology of social construction. Belief systems contribute to the creation and reification of ideologies that in turn affect social consciousness. Acting in a functional manner, ideologies serve as regulative mechanisms that reinforce material conditions within society. The inherent instability of these societies and their institutions is based upon the irreconcilable differences between separate strata of society (Shelby, 2003). Critical social theory examines the interplay between these separate strata and their prevailing forms of social and ideological consciousness.

Geography, as a discipline, has not shied away from racial issues. In recent years, many geographers have spent considerable time researching racial and ethnic issues. However, because geography focuses upon space and place, it has been difficult for geographers to discuss the issues of race in a broader social context in any way that relates to life as lived for racialized populations. According to Audrey Kobayashi, “Throughout its development, Western geography has been involved in the construction of (inter alia) ‘races’ and genders. Since its earliest involvement in exploration and scientific classification of the world, it has had a racist role, in that it has (first and foremost) supported the establishment of Eurocentric/Western domination both politically and intellectually” (1994, 226). Because of this history, the disciplinary focus of geography has been supportive of the ideological subtext of colonization and exploitation that has typified Western expansion and globalization. Thought categories, or, aspects of social consciousness, that have contributed to this pervasive racism have been passed down ever since the ‘Enlightenment’ period of European philosophical thought, with roots descending even further into the earliest conceptions of western science and the classical Greek cognitive standardization of dichotomization, exemplified by the platonic discourse (Ani, 1994).

Chapter 12 in David Harvey’s book, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference is concerned with “Class Relations, Social Justice and the Political Geography of Difference”. In that chapter, he states that the decline of progressive politics can be traced, in part, to its increasing fragmentation, brought on by the ascension of social movements concerned with multiculturalism, sexuality, race and gender, among other factors. In her critique of David Harvey’s denunciation of current postmodern trends, Iris Young says “…each of these movements is universalist at the same time that it exposes division of interest based in structural social relations. When the claims of all these movements are asserted together, they expose privileges and differences within each other” (1998, 38). The usefulness of the postmodern and critical social theory paradigms lies in this exposure and the possibility of fomenting some type of fundamental change within the ideological subsystem of the greater culture.

“The incorporation of work on ‘race’ and gender in geography cannot be understood without reference to the parallel incorporation of values as a significant dimension of our research. One major shift in the discipline over the past two decades has been away from positivist philosophies towards a wider acceptance of critical theory” (Kobayashi, 1994)

Analog theories pertaining to difference, therefore, must be borrowed from other disciplines. As a form of social theorization, critical race theory has played an important role in the application of social justice to the academic realm of research and theorization. Even so, in many cases these theoretical formulations retain aspects of Eurocentricity, as must inevitably be the case, as well as little practical application outside of the academy.

Critical race theory had its beginnings in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s (Taylor, 2000). As it evolved, its primary expression came through the criticism of legal doctrine and methodology, particularly in the realm of civil rights litigation and its inability to “produce meaningful racial reform” (540). In his article, “Critical Race Theory and Interest Convergence in the Backlash against Affirmative Action: Washington State and Initiative 200”, Edward Taylor says: “As an oppositional intellectual movement CRT s not an abstract set of ideas or rules. However, critical race scholars have identified some defining elements. The first is that racism is a normal, not aberrant or rare, fact of daily life in society, and the assumptions of white superiority are so ingrained in our political and legal structures as to be almost unrecognizable” (541). Daniel Solorzana and Tara Yosso, in their article “From Racial Stereotyping and Deficit Discourse Toward a Critical Race Theory in Teacher Education” identify five themes that form its basic perspectives, research methods and pedagogy:

1. The Centrality and Intersectionality of Race and Racism
2. The Challenge to Dominant Ideology
3. The Commitment to Social Justice
4. The Centrality of Experiential Knowledge
5. The Interdisciplinary Perspective (2001, 2,3)

These themes transcend discipline and find application in many disparate fields, to include geography. The application of CRT by James Tyner, in his article, “Geography, Ground-Level Reality, and the Epistemology of Malcolm X” contributed to a geographic understanding of the evolution of Malcolm X as a civil rights leader and political thinker. The themes of oppression and transformation found geographic expression through his recognition of the global nature of a racist, capitalist system of exploitation. Malcolm X, according to Tyner, was able to find correlations at the global and local scales of oppression, relating transnational trends to local communities by exploring the possibilities for social activism in the United States and abroad (2003, 177).
Social justice, as a viable political discourse, has many detractors. Among these, is Miles Wolpin, who wrote the article, “The Limits of Social Justice”. In this article, he decries the advent of the multiculturalist agenda and writes in support of the prevailing world order and traditionally rational and empiricist understandings. He also suggests some draconian methods by which social discontent can be quelled. He states of those middle class elites, also called Liberal, that their “Positional ambitions are simultaneously reinforced by class, racial, ethnic and sexual vicarious affinities with the “oppressed.” These in turn provide them with spiritual meaning” (2001, 488). He goes even further: “Thus, here we see psychology is also in accord with traditional conservative emphasis upon the limits of reason and moral perfectionism. While positive and negative eugenic policies might reduce the ubiquity of perversity and even inequality in the distant future, our social environment in the decades ahead is likely to be characterized by leftist elite militancy rejecting such policies and favoring quasi-violent ascriptive zero-sum conflicts for “social justice” (489). Wolpin’s dangerous views are far from uncommon. In fact, they find their genesis in a long tradition of xenophobia and intolerance that date, again, back to the earliest foundations of Western philosophy. The ability of CRT to confront such viewpoints effectively is apparent in his grudging admission that the near future “…is likely to be characterized by leftist elite militancy”, which is an extraordinary admission for an unabashed Conservative of Wolpin’s ilk. The convergence of social justice and CRT is found at the intersection of politics and philosophy. The signpost, at that point, is Action.

In the context of geography, the urban arena is one site of confrontation that has seen wide application of CRT and geographic application. Eugene McCann’s article, “Race, Protest, and Public Space: Contextualizing Lefebvre in the U.S. City”, discusses the social theories of Henri Lefebvre, outlined in his book The Production of Space. McCann argues for the contextualization of Lefebvre’s theory about the social construction of space in America’s racialized urban areas. He argues that, “Lefebvre’s conceptual framework is especially instructive when used to understand how the production and maintenance of “safe” public spaces in U.S. cities is fundamentally related to representations of racial identities and to an ongoing process in which subjective identity and material urban spaces exist in a mutually constitutive relationship” (1999, 164). He contextualizes this discussion by an examination of the murder of an African-American youth in Lexington, Kentucky, and the resultant social and political backlash that rocked the city. By employing a spatial conception of reality in the context of a racial incident that had geographic extent, McCann effectively creates a quasi-CRT applied to a specific problem in a specific context. The greater application of this theoretical model, which utilizes Lefebvre’s “conceptual triad of conceived, perceived, and lived spaces” (165), has been posited by McCann to coincide with certain trends in geography. He states, specifically: “As a result of this increased attention to public space, critical geographers have resolved “to raise questions about both the politics in and the politics of public space,” by examining “how boundaries between what is public and what is private, what is material and what is metaphorical, are constructed, contested, and continually reconstructed” (165). This use of Lefebvre’s theoretical construct is firmly in agreement with the tenets of CRT.

In the greater social context of our times, the last bastion of the 1960s civil rights movement, Affirmative Action, has seen drastic reductions in its applicability across the country, as state after state, university after university, have ended or drastically revised their commitments to diversity. The general view seems to be that discrimination has ended, and that factors that contribute to the marginalization of individuals or groups must be attributed to other sources, such as family structure, cultural differences or educational inadequacies. Edward Taylor says that, in the context of Washington State and the I-200 program – which ended affirmative action programs in the universities of Washington State – “”Because of their majority status and exemption from residential and employment segregation, many whites have relatively little exposure to the lives of people of color and, hence, little knowledge of the myriad ways that racism continues to negatively affect the lives of people of color. Nor is it easy to see the converse reality—the ways in which the inheritance of property, voting rights, homesteading laws, and job opportunities have positively shaped the experience of whites and their ancestors compared to minorities” (2000, 552). This myopic view seems to be the norm, and has contributed greatly to the rollback of affirmative action as an effective political and social equalizer.

CRT uses the informal narrative to great effect in its methodology. The ‘telling of stories’, in the grand oral tradition of many indigenous societies serve the underlying ideological basis by codifying social and behavioral rules, as well as providing constraints upon the extent of cultural production. This is true of traditional African, Native American and Asian societies, as well as the pre-platonic – and pre-literate – or ‘Homeric’ Greek society. The ability of narrative to explore the dimensions of time and space negates the linearity of progress as well as the tendency of the written media to encourage linear conceptualization. Marimba Ani, in her critique of Western thought and philosophy, Yurugu, says that, “the European conception of history was secular—ostensibly to separate it fiercely from “myth.” To them this was another mark (indication) of superiority—accurate, written history as opposed to “inaccurate” orally transmitted mythology. Yet this concept of history rests on a conception of time that is not validated by phenomenal reality” (1994, 62-63). The reluctance of the critics of CRT to give value to the narrative form is reflective of this observation, utilizing similar reasoning: according to Edward Taylor, “One (reason) is the issue of verifiability—whether or not the stories be proven to be true . The other is whether the narrative methods meet the standards of traditional legal scholarship, which explicates through methods of fact, logic, and linear reasoning. They also question the concept of a unique voice of color and are concerned that CRT has not clearly conceptualized its existence” (2000, 554). The use of the personal to signify the universal has been a method employed by humans throughout time and, in fact, has become the signature aspect of the Western European scientific endeavor. However, the term ‘Universal’ in the context of western science, has taken on certain negative connotations of subjectivity and the imposition of cultural forms (Ani, 1994). Jordy Rocheleau, in her article, “The Politics of Critical Theory: Discursive Proceduralism and Its Discontents” makes the observation that “…philosophers such as Jean Francois Lyotard, Judith Butler, Iris Young, and Lucius Outlaw have argued that our conceptions of reasonable arguments and rational discourse are constructed by social norms and historical world-views and, thus, buy power in addition to reason. Claims to a universal ‘we’ mask ambiguity and partiality. Thus, the invocation of universalism can function ideologically in presenting particular perspectives and interests as if they were universal” (2003, 149-50). In this quote, the problem is stated succinctly, revealing the philosophical and social continuity of Western Europe as it has consolidated military, economic and political power the world across.

Ideology underlies all social production. CRT exposes ideology for what it is: subjective, power-related and culturally normative. As a method of critical discourse, it functions as a lens through which disparate disciplines, geography included, can focus their arguments against the dominant forms of cultural production and perhaps achieve some form of social justice and transformation that will make the lives of the oppressed and downtrodden somewhat more livable. Its concern with action differentiates CRT from most theoretical constructs. According to George Dei and Alireza Asgharzadeh, in their article, “The Power of Social Theory: The Anti-Colonial Discursive Framework”, “The process of producing and validating what is knowledge in the academy can be a colonial exercise. Rather than heralding a knowledge that allows learners to develop a counter culture, a colonial process can actually reward the knowledge that inserts learners within existing hegemonic structures and practices. Therefore, a decolonization project in the academy must be aware that the colonization process and colonizing tendencies accede a false status to the colonial subject through the authority of Western canons at the same time as local knowledges are deprivileged, negated, and devalued” (2001, 299). This quote states the problem succinctly. How is it possible to deconstruct cultural metanarratives from within that framework? Can true social justice be achieved through non-violent means? Is revolution necessary? CRT attempts to provide an answer to these questions by approaching them through the polemic of fragmentation and confrontation.

The postmodern assault upon the grand metanarratives of the West is still in its formative stages. Voices from within the culture as well as without are rising in cacophonic disharmony as the forces of globalization tear the social fabric of disenfranchised populations asunder. To end, I will quote Paul Smith, in his book, “Millennial Dreams: contemporary culture and capital in the North”.

“…the current restructuring is perhaps most relevantly seen as a particular historical development arising from the collapse of the North’s colonial systems and of American mid-century hegemony over both economic and cultural realms in the global system. In that important sense, the contemporary, ‘globalized’ form of capital accumulation derives from the moment of direct imperialism and is in many respects the continuation of colonialism and imperialism by other means” (1997, 47).

In sum, there can be no discussion of fundamental change, without an understanding of global trends. CRT is one methodology that geographers can and do use in order to facilitate a greater understanding of these processes, as well as what needs to be done to change them.

Reference List
Ani, Marimba. 1994. Yurugu: An African-centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior. 2nd Ed. Africa World Press.
Bonnett, Alastair. 1996. Constructions of ‘race’, place and discipline: geographies of ‘racial’ identity and racism. Ethnic and Racial Studies 19 No.4, 864-83.
De Oliver, Miguel & Dawson-Munoz, Teresa. 1996. ‘Place-not-race’?: The inadequacy of geography to address racial disparities. Review of Black Political Economy 25 No.2, 37-58.
Kobayashi, Audrey. 1994. Unnatural Discourse. ‘Race’ and Gender in Geography. Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 1 No.2, 225-44.
Lazarus, Neal. 1999. Charting Globalization. Race & Class 40 No.2-3 91-109.
McCann, Eugene J. 1999. Race, Protest, and Public Space: Contextualizing Lefebvre in the U.S. City. Antipode 30 No.2, 163-66.
Peak, Linda & Ray, Brian. 2001. Racializing the Canadian landscape: Whiteness, uneven geographies and social justice. The Canadian Geographer 45 No.1, 180-86.
Rocheleau, Jordy. 2003. The Politics of Critical Theory: Discursive Proceduralism and Its Discontents. Social Theory and Practice 29 No.1, 137-57.
Sefa Dei, George J. & Asgharzadeh, Alireza. 2001. The Power of Social Theory: The Anti-Colonial Discursive Framework. Journal of Educational Thought 35 No.3, 297-323.
Shelby, Tommie. 2003. Ideology, Racism, and Critical Social Theory. The Philosophical Forum 35 No.2, 153-88 (Summer).
Solorzano, Daniel G. & Yasso, Tara J. 2001. From Racial Stereotyping and Deficit Discourse Toward a Critical Race Theory in Teacher Education. Multicultural Education 9 No.1, 2-8 (Fall).
Smith, Barry & Searle, John. 2003. The Construction of Social Reality: An Exchange. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 62 No.1, 285-309.
Taylor, Edward. 2000. Critical Race Theory and Interest Convergence in the Backlash against Affirmative Action: Washington State and Initiative 200. Teachers College Record 102 No.3 539-60.
Tyner, James A. 2003. Geography, Ground Level Reality, and the Epistemology of Malcolm X. Journal of Geography 102 No.4, 167-78.
Wolpin, Miles D. 2001. The Limits of Social Justice. The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies 26 No.2 487-501 (Summer)
Young, Iris M. 1998. Harvey’s Complaint with Race and Gender Struggles: A critical response. Antipode 30 No.1, 36-43


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