Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society

Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society

by John a. Powell


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Renowned social justice advocate john a. powell persuasively argues that we have not achieved a post-racial society and that there is much work to do to redeem the American promise of inclusive democracy. Culled from a decade of writing about social justice and spirituality, these meditations on race, identity, and social policy provide an outline for laying claim to our shared humanity and a way toward healing ourselves and securing our future. Racing to Justice challenges us to replace attitudes and institutions that promote and perpetuate social suffering with those that foster relationships and a way of being that transcends disconnection and separation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253017710
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 01/26/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 301,676
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

john a. powell is Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley, where he holds the Robert D. Haas Chancellor's Chair in Equity and Inclusion. He is author (with Gavin Kearney and Vina Kay) of In Pursuit of a Dream Deferred, and (with Laughlin McDonald) of The Rights of Racial Minorities: The Basic ACLU Guide to Racial Minority Rights.

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Racing to Justice

Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society

By John A. Powell

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2012 John A. Powell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01771-0


Post-Racialism or Targeted Universalism?

We hear it said nowadays that there is no "race problem," but only a "class problem." ... From a practical angle there is a point in this reasoning. But from a theoretical angle it contains escapism in new form.... And it tends to conceal the whole system of special deprivations visited upon the Negro only because he is not white.

Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma

Executive and legislative branches, which for generations now have considered these types of policies and procedures, should be permitted to employ them with candor and with confidence that a constitutional violation does not occur whenever a decisionmaker considers the impact a given approach might have on students of different races.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle

The United States made history on November 4, 2008, by electing Barack Obama as its first African American president, generating a sense of pride and a collective celebration that was shared worldwide. The installation of a black president who was supported by a significant minority of white voters was an occasion imbued with great political, social, historical, and cultural meaning. That meaning has been interpreted and expressed in many different ways, and Americans will continue to attempt to determine its contours and synthesize its various strands far into the future. As we engage in this process, different segments of society will continue to identify and promote different meanings, any of which may have important ramifications. Perhaps no aspect of the election compares, however, with the milestone that it represents with respect to the history of race. Questions about how we are to understand racial conditions in society and what the proper role of public policy and law should be in addressing – or avoiding – racial issues will gain greater salience as we seek ways of building upon the understandings the election has fostered. These questions about where we are on the issue of race are not just factual or descriptive; they are deeply political as well, having implications for how and when we respond to social problems and how we define the scope of our collective obligations.


In exploring these questions, I will add the term "racialization" to the more common terms "race" and "racism," which are understood in a way that is too limited and specific to fully address these important issues. By racialization, I refer to the set of practices, cultural norms, and institutional arrangements that both reflect and help to create and maintain race-based outcomes in society. Because racialization is a set of historical and cultural processes, it does not have one particular meaning. Instead, it describes conditions and norms that are constantly evolving and interacting with the sociopolitical environment, varying from location to location as well as throughout different periods in history. These processes are not uniformly present or static. They respond to what we collectively do and think and are therefore highly contested. As a society, however, we are not inclined to consider the nuances of race and racism. Rather, we tend to see them as a limited set of discrete practices that remain constant over time, in spite of social changes.

Even as we use "racialization" to connote the fluid nature of the phenomena we are describing and the broader context in which racial outcomes are manifested and understood, the use of this term will not automatically break us of our reflexive thinking and mental habits around race and racism. In this country, the cultural understanding of racism is most closely associated with Jim Crow. In this context, it is imagined as conscious discriminatory activity, directed at a particular victim, by racist individuals. Issues of race and racism, therefore, have come to be understood as explicit acts by individuals or explicit laws or policies implemented by institutions such as school boards or municipal governments. This overly individualistic definition of race and racism fits well with our country's individualistic approach to many life issues. Consequently, issues of race are likely to be seen primarily as deliberate psychosocial events, instigated by individual bad actors or by institutions managed or directed by them. This view was made law in the 1976 case Washington v. Davis, which sets out the Supreme Court's discriminatory purpose doctrine, requiring that a plaintiff prove intent in racial discrimination claims. From the point of view of the Court in this case, the Jim Crow system – a highly institutionalized and extensive regime of racial oppression that was only partly legal – is reduced to the behavior of bigots, whose policies can be purged or reversed in an election cycle or by excising the offending de jure rules. In this individualistic frame of analysis, if one does not engage in conscious acts of racism, or, better still, does not consciously see race, then there can be no racism or racialization.

This requirement of proof of intentional discrimination became the legal standard at the same time that our society more consciously embraced a public position of racial egalitarianism. Virtually all sectors of society now renounce racism. To call someone racist impugns not only the legality of that person's actions but also his or her morality. Indeed, to call someone racist today is seen as incendiary and a form of character assassination. The good American refuses to engage in conscious racially motivated behavior and refuses to see race or call it out. He is race-blind, purportedly embracing the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that our children "will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Unfortunately, this line is too often used to suggest that were Dr. King alive today, he would oppose policies such as affirmative action or race-conscious voluntary integration. This allows the good American to claim that as long as others share this blindness, race does not matter.


The conservative form of race blindness has been extremely callous at times. Consider the Supreme Court's 2007 opinion in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. The case actually involved two school districts: Seattle, in which racial segregation had not been legally mandated, and metropolitan Louisville, in which court-imposed desegregation had been terminated when the district was deemed "unitary" – meaning that it no longer operated a racially segregated, dual school system. Both districts had created student assignment plans that took race into account in order to maintain diversity, equality of opportunity, and broad support for public schools. Writing for a plurality of the Court, Chief Justice Roberts adopted language from the struggle to remove racial barriers to education, but uncoupled it from both history and current patterns of racialization:

Before Brown, schoolchildren were told where they could and could not go to school based on the color of their skin. The school districts in these cases have not carried the heavy burden of demonstrating that we should allow this once again – even for very different reasons.... The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.

The chief justice seems to be arguing that when school districts devise student assignment plans that foster diversity and integration, it is as injurious a practice as intentional race-based exclusion. From this perspective, racial hierarchy is legally irrelevant to the constitutional principle of Equal Protection. Other conservatives assert that "moving beyond race" is not just an aspiration or a description of where we ought to be, but is also the best means to get us there. They are all but indifferent to segregation and other forms of racial stratification unless the intent to create or foster them can be located in the conscious minds of specific perpetrators. This position not only ignores the policies, structures, and conditions of racial marginalization; it also ignores the extent to which our behavior and motivation are unconscious.

Though Chief Justice Roberts asserts that color blindness is the appropriate mechanism for addressing racial hierarchy, a race-blind stance not only does not address racialized conditions, such as failing minority-majority schools; it also fails to avoid the divisiveness that many conservatives say they are attempting to mitigate through this form of denial. In fact, this use of color blindness bars engagement on the issue of race. It also precludes intervention. It offers a narrative that supports the racial status quo, even blaming marginalized groups for their status and conditions. Fortunately, eloquent voices are raised in dissent, as in Justice Stevens's reminder that "the history books do not tell stories of white children struggling to attend black schools. In this and other ways, the Chief Justice rewrites the history of one of this Court's most important decisions."

Color-blind conservatives focus only on the purity of the conscious mind with respect to awareness of race, which allows them to remain purposefully unconcerned with racial realities or the complicity of the unconscious mind. The evil they seek to guard against is the psychological state of those in power – the noticing of race – not the condition of various racial groups or current and historical patterns in the distribution of opportunity. Indeed, if conservatives do take notice of them, they are likely to explain existing racial arrangements as caused by a nonwhite "culture of poverty," a term often used to excuse the lack of effort to improve conditions in low-income communities of color by implying that the problems are caused by blameworthy and immutable group behavior. Justice Thomas, for example, expresses indifference to racial arrangements, practices, and conditions, telling us that real harm ensues when we see race, whether our intentions are benevolent or malign. In Parents Involved, Thomas and the plurality assert that only harms caused by intentionally discriminatory state action can be remedied using race, with a very limited set of exceptions.

This is not the position of many of the liberals who supported President Obama. The word "post-racialism" has been adopted to describe their race blindness. Like their conservative counterparts, many liberals believe that racialization is primarily a psychological event and that good Americans are beyond race. "Race doesn't matter!" – much. These liberals focus, as do conservatives, primarily on the conscious mind, the least important area for understanding our motivation and actions. Growing evidence reveals that even if the conscious mind does not notice race, the unconscious is likely to notice and to act on this awareness unconsciously. Unlike color-blind conservatives, post-racial liberals are willing, under some conditions, to be race-sensitive, but they agree that a frontal attack on racial conditions is divisive.

Naturally, in the wake of President Obama's victory, the question of where we are with regard to race has surfaced again and again. The president has specifically rejected the claim that we are in a post-racial world, citing continuing racial disparities:

When I hear commentators interpreting my speech to mean that we have arrived at a "postracial politics" or that we already live in a color-blind society, I have to offer a word of caution. To say that we are one people is not to suggest that race no longer matters – that the fight for equality has been won, or that the problems that minorities face in this country today are largely self-inflicted.... [A]s much as I insist that things have gotten better, I am mindful of this truth as well: Better isn't good enough.

Yet there is and likely will continue to be stubborn insistence that we are in a post-racial world, evidenced most poignantly by President Obama's own success.

For both color-blind conservatives and liberal post-racialists, we are all but beyond race. In their view, a few old-style racists may remain, especially in the South, but those individuals, like many civil rights activists, are still stuck in old paradigms, locked in a struggle that is antiquated, outmoded, and distracting. The alternative to this tired old battle is post-racialism. Adolph Reed asserts that we should stop using race and deal with the real issue of class. Some post-racialists also use changing demographics to support the claim that we are beyond race. From these perspectives, the question of where we are with regard to race then becomes binary. We are either in a divisive space from the past where we continue to assert the dominance of conscious racism, or we are in a post-racial world where race really does not matter to most Americans.

To post-racialists, white support of President Obama is proof positive that we are in, or rapidly approaching, a new, post-racial era. They argue that young people do not even see race, and that only persons over forty are still likely to think in racial terms. All we must do is wait patiently, and post-racialism will grow as the older generations pass on. Post-racialists further assume that there is a direct connection between improved conscious racial attitudes, by which they mean race blindness, and the end of racial inequality. While there is a certain intuitive logic to this assumption, it is often incorrect. During the counterculture movement of the 1960s, for example, many young Americans rejected materialism, but the assumption that materialism would therefore decline as the young became the leaders of the country did not pan out. Likewise, we should not assume that the hopes we have now will lead naturally to racial nirvana. Post-racialists claim to remain blind to growing evidence of the racialized work of structures on one hand and the powerful role of racial anxiety and unconscious bias on the other. They insist on a simple notion of race and racism: either you are a racist, or you are not. A more realistic picture would accommodate the reality that one can have and act on racial anxiety and bias in one situation and have and act on racial openness and fairness in the next. We now know that one can have inconsistent racial positions at both conscious and unconscious levels. So as it turns out, it is the post-racial position that is stuck in the past, ignoring mounting evidence from neuroscience.


One way of expressing color blindness is to be neutral on the issue of race. Proponents of this position apparently are most interested in neutrality in the design of policies and programs. They pay less attention to the administration or implementation of what they design and, more importantly, often ignore the effects of the policies and procedures they create. Although a policy that is neutral in design is not necessarily neutral in effect, the courts and the public seem all but obsessed with the design and, even more narrowly, with the intent of the design, rather than the results. Fairness is not advanced by treating those who are situated differently as if they were the same, however. For example, it would make little sense to provide the same protections against hurricanes to mid-western communities as to coastal communities or to provide the same level of investment against diseases such as malaria to communities in which the risks of an outbreak are dramatically different. If the institutions managing and distributing resources in such contexts are merely neutral, the effects of their work may not be, given that the intended beneficiaries are differently situated. This kind of blindness, moreover, is wasteful as well as inadequate. Equality of effort can produce very different overall outcomes, depending not only on the beneficiaries' individual needs, but also on their environments. These policy views – and the goal of neutrality of results in targeted spending – would spark little debate in most contexts. Applying them with respect to racial disadvantage, however, is often controversial. It need not be.

Aristotle, who gave us much of our understanding of equality, asserted that it is just to treat those who are situated similarly the same, but it would be unjust to treat those who are situated differently the same. Once stated, this seems obvious; yet we have difficulty acknowledging that we are differently situated. Even when we are more attuned to the fact that differences matter, we are inclined to focus on a single factor, which causes us to misunderstand the situation. The debate over neutrality in relation to those differently situated has a particular history in jurisprudence. Legal scholar Herbert Wechsler argued that Brown was not rightly decided because it was not based on the neutrality principle. According to Wechsler, even if segregation harmed blacks, legal neutrality required also considering the harm of integration and association for whites. This argument was rejected by other legal scholars such as Charles Black, who asserted that the Fourteenth Amendment and other Civil War Amendments were not meant to be neutral, but instead embodied certain constitutional values. As the case Parents Involved indicates, however, the Supreme Court has been moving toward the neutrality principle, effectively overturning Brown and changing the meaning of the Civil War Amendments.


Excerpted from Racing to Justice by John A. Powell. Copyright © 2012 John A. Powell. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Moving Beyond the Isolated Self
I. Race and Racialization
1. Post-Racialism or Targeted Universalism?
2. The Colorblind Multiracial Dilemma: Racial Categories Reconsidered
3. The Racing of American Society: Race Functioning as a Verb Before Signifying as a Noun
II. White Privilege
4. Whites Will Be Whites: The Failure to Interrogate Racial Privilege
5. White Innocence and the Courts: Jurisprudential Devices that Obscure Privilege
III. The Racialized Self
6. Dreaming of a Self Beyond Whiteness and Isolation
7. The Multiple Self: Implications for Law and Social Justice
IV. Engagement
8. Lessons from Suffering: How Social Justice Informs Spirituality

What People are Saying About This

Michelle Alexander

"Few scholars today explore racial (in)justice with as much depth and clarity, and with such fresh insight, as john powell. In these enlightening essays, powell challenges those of us who consider ourselves relatively evolved on issues of race and social justice to think far more critically about the basic assumptions and paradigms that frame our perspectives, animate our scholarship, and drive our advocacy. The central question he poses—"Can we stop focusing simply on transactional moves that we see as winnable and start working for the transformation of institutions that perpetuate suffering?"—is, perhaps, the most important and pressing question for racial justice advocates today."

Center for Social Justice and Public Service, Santa Clara University School of Law - Stephanie M. Wildman

"Juxtaposing race, spirituality, self, and social justice, john powell reveals the poverty in contemporary policy debates and crafts a road map for building true democratic community. Read this book and tell a friend."

Michael Omi

"powell sets forth a powerful argument that . . . until we expand our sense of self, we will be unable to create the racially egalitarian and democratic society to which many progressives aspire. . . . A brilliantly original and provocative challenge to the current social order."

Seton Hall University School of Law - Rachel D. Godsil

"A book that will provoke readers to rethink prevailing notions of race, racial identity, and racism . . . [and] what prevailing law does and does not consider in tackling persistent forms of racial inequality."

Center for Community Change - Deepak Bhargava

"john a. powell is among the most original and important thinkers writing about politics, race and social change in America. He is a genuine genius whose work has been indispensable to thousands of activists and scholars. Finally, his critical work is gathered together in one place. If we succeed in changing in America—and we must do so—it will be in no small part because we have engaged deeply with the ideas, analysis and heart in this book. Racing to Justice is essential reading for everyone implicated by race in America—and that means everyone."

coauthor of The Production of Difference - David Roediger

"Infused by moral urgency, intellectual precision, sweeping command of history and of critical race theory, and an unequalled ability to situate race in concrete places, these linked essays take us into the mind of one of our greatest legal and social thinkers. They navigate tensions between law and justice with consummate skill and great passion."

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