This is a companion page for “On the Work of Critical Race Theory in the Library World,” the talk I’m giving on May 17, 2023 as the opening keynote to the Critical Pedagogy Symposium, which this year is focusing on Critical Race Theory.
First, I mentioned the work of Wet’suwet’en land defenders and encouraged folks to donate to that work, in support of legal defense, camp costs, and other financial needs. Here, again, are the links I shared: the Gidimt’en Yintah Access Point camp and the Unist’ot’en Camp. Both sites include lots more background information, along with multiple ways of supporting the work.
The talk I’m giving is pretty top-level, in that there are numerous points that I just don’t elaborate on because of time constraints or that I cut out or left out entirely. I’ve listed some of these below as prompts for further exploration and discussion.
Within these prompts, I’ve also included some details of the works I reference and/or that I’ve engaged with more generally in my work in this area. Finally, I’ve included a (revised) list of introductory materials on the concept of racial capitalism. Let me know if you have any trouble finding or accessing any of these materials.
What I would have liked to elaborate on a little more
- Why I think framing fights for racial justice in terms of white privilege is ultimately counterproductive. Yes, structural disadvantage obviously exists. And I can see how unpacking your invisible “backpack” of privilege might be illuminating. But more often that not, it seems to lead to a facile politics based on the faulty assumption that the “privileged” are not materially harmed by racial injustice. This assumption that misses the point that the creation and maintenance of relative racial privilege—expansive structures of violence against nonwhite communities—is a central strategy through which the ruling class exploits virtually all of us and imperils all of our futures, if at differing speeds. From this standpoint, “privilege” is, in absolute terms, a mirage.
- The library-as-such as an institution of racial capitalism. In the talk, I include a very brief caveat that my references to the library as an institution inescapably bound up in racial capitalism are not about the library as an idea (i.e. a community hub, a place to lend, borrow, and learn, a place of contemplation, play, and respite, and so on). Nor are they references to the many ways in which library workers put this idea into practice on a day-to-day basis. We absolutely need to defend this work.
What I’m referring to in the talk is, rather, what we might call the library-as-such, a term I’m basing on the concept of the university-as-such, as articulated by abolitionist university studies scholars. This is the library as it currently exists, as an institution that is necessarily part of the (racial capitalist) social order of which it’s a part and that, in spite of the many complexities and contradictions involved, has been set up to reproduce that social order. I gesture vaguely towards examples like the library’s inevitable participation in particular labour regimes and its trade in certain ideas about what constitutes legitimate knowledge, but don’t elaborate any further in the talk. I do, however, expand on a similar point (in relation to academic libraries specifically) in a talk I did last year for Concordia University Library’s annual Library Research Forum.
- More details on the history of the development of liberal anti-racism as counterinsurgency. As I mention in the talk, there’s been lots of work on this by very smart people, even though it doesn’t all use counterinsurgency as a conceptual frame. The two books I reference explicitly are Robert Allen’s Black Awakening in Capitalist America and Jodi Melamed’s Represent and Destroy. Other relevant reads include Roderick Ferguson’s The Reorder of Things, A. Sivanandan’s “RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle,” and parts of Sunera Thobani’s Exalted Subjects.
If you want a shorter summary of this history, check out the middle two sections of “The Displays“, an article I wrote for up//root in late 2020.
What I cut out entirely or left out from the start
- A longer reflection on the connections between the critique of liberal racial politics (which I focus on in the talk) and the reactionary anti-“Critical Race Theory” attacks on libraries and schools (which I don’t focus on). I had a whole section in which I reflected on the following things (and I’m happy to chat about any in the discussion period):
- What it means that “Critical Race Theory” is unapologetically being used as a catch-all for anything that even faintly references racial justice.
- The difference between what “CRT” is being accused of doing (distorting history, trading in psychological harm, advancing communism and calling for capitalism’s overthrow, etc) and what CRT as a specific tradition has actually tended to focus on—and the various implications of this.
- The operations of these reactionary attacks as an intensified attacks on material conditions of work and learning—and what that might mean for the kind of work I’m advocating we undertake.
- An account of how I’m defining the Library and Information Studies (LIS) literature of Critical Race Theory. The LIS literature I’m talking about in the talk consists of those scholarly articles, books, and book chapters that draw explicitly and substantively on Critical Race Theory as the latter is understood to be the specific body of work that emerges out of US legal studies. As this suggests, I excluded work that uses “Critical Race Theory” to refer to any and all critical analysis of racialized power relations, without reference to CRT as a formal tradition. I read everything that I could find that was published up to the end of 2022.
- A critical look at the assumptions and politics of CRT’s “counter-storytelling and voice” tenet(s). In the talk, I discuss the ways in which CRT’s core “racism is ordinary” tenet easily enfolded into the liberal teachings through which contemporary racial capitalism in part reproduces itself. I had planned to include a similar discussion about the often-paired tenets “counter-storytelling and voice,” which together emphasize the power of storytelling as a tool for communicating distinct nonwhite experiences and knowledges as a means of challenging the dominant narratives of white supremacy. Here’s a summary:
- It’s certainly important to acknowledge the ways in which racial oppression repeatedly shows up as silencing, to recognize and disrupt these patterns, and to learn from stories that have not been heard and that interrupt dominant worldviews
- There are critical questions to be asked about the pretty shaky assumptions around racial identity, knowledge, and political consciousness and affiliation that often seem to accompany invocations of these tenets. While not focused on CRT specifically, Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò offers a bunch of relevant questions in his piece “Being-in-the-Room Privilege.”
- But even if we set these questions aside, the meaningful centering of nonwhite voices and infrequently heard stories does not per se represent the departure from liberal racial politics and liberatory project that it is often made out to be. It is indeed too often attached to a politics of inclusion, recognition, and equity within the spaces and institutions of racial capitalism, a politics emblematized in perhaps extreme form in corporate and organizational employee resource groups, such as imperial weapons supplier Northrop Grumman’s Asian Pacific Professional Network or the UpLyft Forward Black employee “collective” at gig-economy ride-sharing platform Lyft.
- A preliminary engagement with the question of the political project of Critical Race Theory. I say in the talk that CRT (broadly, not just in libraries) is an expansive tradition that has been applied in countless ways and attached to a wide range of political projects, and that it would therefore be silly to suggest that this body of work represents a singular and unified political project. However, I had hoped to bring into conversation assertions about the politics of CRT—about its vision of racial justice—made both by proponents of CRT (such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, Khiara Bridges, and Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic) and by its principled critics (such as Antonia Darder and Rodolfo D. Torres or Paul Mocombe and Pascal Robert), assertions that often seem to converge at the same understanding of such politics: that CRT is ultimately about equality within existing legal systems, about reform of those structures based on faith in their core promises, that it is not ultimately about structural transformation.
- The application of the concept of reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms. In the foreword to Dan Berger’s Struggle Within: Prisons, Political Prisoners, and Mass Movements in the United States (2014), Ruth Wilson-Gilmore makes this distinction in the following way: “Big problems require big solutions. Nothing happens all at once; big answers are the painstaking accumulation of smaller achievements. But dividing a problem into pieces in order to solve the whole thing is altogether different from defining a problem solely in terms of the bits that seem easiest to fix. In the first instance, the remedy for each piece must develop in relation to its effect on actual or possible remedies for the other pieces. The other way is to solve a small part without considering whether the outcome strengthens or weakens the big problem’s hold on the world […] The distinction sketched out above is the difference between reformist reform—tweak Armageddon—and non-reformist reform—deliberate change that does not create more obstacles in the larger struggle” (viii). It seems to me that this conceptual distinction might be useful in thinking through and reframing the politics of work that at face value looks like it’s a project of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but is attached to a political project of structural transformation. (adapted from this page)
Resources On the Concept of Racial Capitalism
This is shorter and/or more introductory material on the concept, in case you don’t yet feel up for sitting down and studying Cedric Robinson’s all 450+ pages of Black Marxism or other book-length treatments. (adapted from this page)
Ruth Wilson Gilmore – “Geographies of Racial Capitalism“
Alana Lentin – “Introduction to Racial Capitalism“
Robin D.G. Kelley – “Race and the Making of the Global Capitalist Order” and “What is Racial Capitalism and Why Does it Matter?”
A Few Short Writings (in rough order of denseness)
Stephen D. Ashe – “Racial Capitalism“
Arun Kundnani – “What is Racial Capitalism?“
Robin D.G. Kelley – “What Did Cedric Robinson Mean by Racial Capitalism?“
Charisse Burden-Stelley – “Modern U.S. Racial Capitalism Some Theoretical Insights”
Jodi Melamed – “Racial Capitalism” (dense, but short and good)