Foreword: Critical Theories of Race and Racism in World Perspective


UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper

28 Pages Posted: 5 Nov 2011

See all articles by Angela P. Harris

Angela P. Harris

University of California, Davis - King Hall School of Law

Date Written: October 31, 2011


Race as a grammar of governance has been central to the prosperity, dominance, and sometimes founding of the Western nations, and race remains a powerful folk category that makes sense of group differences and secures social and political hierarchies. Yet, today every Western nation has formally renounced race as a grammar of governance and prohibited racist behavior in labor and educational settings as a matter of civil and/or criminal law. This contradiction shapes race equality law in the West. In this essay, the introductory chapter in a forthcoming edited collection for Ashgate Press, I explore the social and legal dimensions of this fundamental contradiction.

At the social level, race and racism are “essentially contested” concepts, to the point that there is widespread disagreement even as to the definition of these terms. Yet evidence suggests that race and racism continue to pervade societies around the world. The law reflects the contradiction as well. Because race and racism have played, and continue to play, such a pivotal role in law, political economy, and social stratification, law’s commitment to racial equality is conflicted and ambiguous. As a result, laws prohibiting racial discrimination or mandating racial equality often have the unexpected effect of preserving racial hierarchy.

Today, racial equality is a globally-accepted legal norm, as exemplified by the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the European Racial Equality Directive. In addition to these international legal norms, domestic law in every country of the global North prohibits racial discrimination. These provisions reflect a worldwide consensus that race has no scientific basis and racism is morally wrong.

Nevertheless, the law of racial equality reflects the fundamental contradictions of social race. One aspect of equality law’s dilemma is historical: many of the nations that now prohibit and punish racist practices once embraced and incorporated openly racist laws and policies. A second source of the dilemma of equality law is the social contradiction we have already noted: race and racism are simultaneously morally scandalous and politically and socially potent means of justifying inequality. Finally, although equality often calls for a substantial redistribution of economic and political power, a central function of state law is to preserve and legitimate the political, economic, and social status quo. For all these reasons, law’s relationship to racial domination is ambivalent at best.

This volume explores three aspects of this ambivalence. First, both international and domestic law in many countries reflect a rift between principles and policies of “equality” and principles and policies of “sovereignty.” Second, equality and anti-discrimination law is haunted by the problem of denial. A third legal effect of denial is that state policies may adopt practices and targets that are not officially acknowledged as racialized, yet that are understood in the general population (and sometimes by politicians) as directed toward minorities. Fourth, and finally, equality and anti-discrimination law must struggle with the inherent risk of promoting the very racial divisions it seeks to abolish.

Suggested Citation

Harris, Angela P., Foreword: Critical Theories of Race and Racism in World Perspective (October 31, 2011). CRITICAL THEORIES OF RACE AND RACISM IN WORLD PERSPECTIVE, Ashgate Press, Forthcoming; UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper . Available at SSRN:

Angela P. Harris (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - King Hall School of Law ( email )

One Shields Avenue
Davis, CA 95616
United States
530-752-3276 (Phone)
530-754-5311 (Fax)

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