Against Discourse: Why Eliminating Racial Disparities Requires Radical Politics, Not More Discussion
Georgia State University Law Review, Vol. 37, 2021
Georgia State University College of Law, Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2022-06
59 Pages Posted: 4 Nov 2021 Last revised: 15 Mar 2022
Date Written: October 14, 2021
Racial disparity discourse is one of the main modalities through which we discuss and experience race and racism in the United States today—in discussions with colleagues and friends, in scholarly work, on cable news, on social media, and in lecture halls. Despite its ubiquity, racial disparity discourse is under-theorized: what, exactly, is its intended purpose? This Essay argues that most discussion about racial disparities is predicated on the faulty premise—grounded in the Habermasian concepts of discourse and communicative rationality—that antiracists will convince their interlocutors by engaging in a practice of rationalistic discourse among participants who share the objective and expectation of consensus. Drawing on the work of political philosopher Charles Mills and sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Moon-Kie Jung, the Essay explains why the pragmatic conditions of possibility for discourse of this sort concerning matters related to race in the United States are frequently absent.
Specifically, Mills theorizes that a “racial contract,” saturated with racialized hierarchies and subordinating logics, has always underwritten the American social contract, leaving in its wake an “epistemology of ignorance” that is today responsible for localized and global cognitive dysfunctions. Jung develops Bourdieu’s concept of doxa to explain how, when it comes to the politics of race in the United States, individual agency and actions are always mediated by a classificatory, schematic, and hierarchical social structure in which race frequently plays a decisive organizing role. This Essay concludes by recommending that those committed to redressing vulnerability, precarity, and disposability along racialized lines should not focus their efforts on cobbling together a transracial coalition of the discursively convinced. Instead, it is argued that attentional and financial resources are better directed to develop and reinvigorate a radical, oppositional politics dedicated to eradicating racialized hierarchies and those elements of the political economy that reciprocally nurture and feed off them. Political theorist Chantal Mouffe’s model of “agonistic pluralism,” which centers the irreducibly conflictual nature of modern politics and proposes a politics that aims to confront and convert rather than to convince, is offered as a fruitful theoretical model to underwrite this non-discursive, radical politics.
Keywords: racial disparities, discourse theory, communicative rationality, Habermas, Chantal Mouffe, Charles Mills, Pierre Bourdieu, Stuart Hall, Moon-Kie Jung, agonistic pluralism, real utopia
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