To Berkeley civil-rights scholar, race is uppercase concern

At a recent campus book-launch event, sociologist Michael Omi described his colleague john a. powell as “two persons rolled into one” — “john the theoretician, who draws on a range of disciplines to rethink notions of race, racial identity and racism,” and “john the grounded and practical policy analyst.”

Both johns figure large in Racing to Justice, a new collection of essays by powell, as they do in his vision for the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, which he came to Berkeley to direct earlier this year. (He spells his name in lowercase in the belief that we should be “part of the universe, not over it, as capitals signify.”)

john powell

Haas Institute director john powell (Cathy Cockrell/NewsCenter photo)

An internationally recognized civil-rights scholar, powell has served as national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union and executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State, to name just two of his past roles (see CV PDF here). At Berkeley, he holds the Robert D. Haas Chancellor’s Chair in Equity and Inclusion and professorships in African American studies, ethnic studies and law, where he teaches an advanced civil rights course.

Powell’s parents were sharecroppers in the South before moving to Detroit, where his father worked at General Motors, his mother as a nurse. The sixth of nine children, he earned his undergraduate degree at Stanford and his law degree at Berkeley, and did a postgraduate human-rights fellowship at the University of Minnesota. He has two biological children, two stepchildren and a granddaughter.

The NewsCenter spoke with powell recently about Racing to Justice (subtitled Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society) and his ambitious plans for the Haas Institute.

How would you describe the central theme of Racing to Justice?

This book is a meditation on race in the 21st century. Our racial language of the 1960s and ’70s is not appropriate for what we’re experiencing. This country is going through a profound shift and a profound anxiety: who are we as a country or a people as we become less white, less European, less Christian? I try to make sense of the anxiety and discomfort that many Americans feel. I try to offer an understanding of our history, but also our future.

Racing to Justice
book-launch remarks

On the unconscious

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On whiteness

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The book draws on scholarship in many fields. Is there a scholarly insight that’s particularly important to rethinking race in the 21st century?

My work has been informed by groundbreaking work, by Michael Omi in particular, on the social construction of race. That concept has filtered into more and more of our society — so much so that you have Supreme Court Justice Scalia yelling at advocates: “What is race? Is it biology? Is it blood? What is race?” These are pretty bright lawyers arguing before the Supreme Court, and they become tongue-tied. They can’t answer. What Scalia is saying is that race is not real — and so we use it at our peril.

So race as a social construction, that idea, has gotten traction, but you believe it’s been misunderstood?

The mistake that Scalia and others make is in thinking that if something is socially constructed, as opposed to biologically given, it’s not real. What we haven’t done as a society is the hard work of thinking it through: if race is social constructed, how is it constructed and what work is it doing?

In the past we may have talked about race as a descriptor of someone’s phenotypical or biological being. But it’s actually a set of practices. It’s a verb. It’s what we do to each other. We “race” people. And that’s very closely associated with a sense of who we are.

book cover

See video of john powell, on Racing to Justice, here.

I would go even further to say that the social construction of race actually constructs many things in our society — including the structure of our brains and of our institutions and culture. So the belief in race, in some inchoate, ill-defined way, is actually forming a lot of things we can touch and feel, even though we may not be able to define race.

Institutions, culture, even our brains — that’s a far cry from the popular notion that the U.S. is now “post-racial.”

Yes. As we move into the 21st century, there’s the received wisdom that race is behind us. That there may be a few things to clean up on the edges, but we’ve actually fixed race. And that a really enlightened person does not do race anymore; a really enlightened person is colorblind.

But if we want to find out how race is constituted, or what work it’s doing, we have to look at our practices, conscious and unconscious — not just our practices as individuals, but as a culture and via our institutions and structures. In that context, the idea of getting beyond race, or even becoming colorblind, makes less sense.

Mind science figures prominently in Racing to Justice, as well as your vision for the Haas Institute. How did you come to see work in his field as key to progress around fairness and inclusion?

I majored in psychology as an undergrad, a hundred years ago, but the mind sciences were virtually non-existent then; when we talked about the unconscious, we were talking about Freud. In contrast, the mind science coming out now is not psychoanalytical. We can measure brain activity with instruments; we can see the brain function through MRIs; we understand stress now and measure it through cortisone levels. The field has exploded.

From all this we’ve learned that even though we may not consciously see race, or gender, or some other descriptor, the unconscious has not only seen it, it’s had a meeting, had a discussion about it, sent a memo, and reacted — all before the conscious comes online. The unconscious is lightning-fast; the conscious is slow.

Much of the social suffering that we visit on one another is … spiritual at its base. We deny one another’s humanity because of our flawed spiritual understandings.

– john powell, in Racing to Justice

So when we say we don’t see race, what we’re really saying is that in the 40 bits of information that we process at a conscious level, race is not significant. We’re not talking at all about what’s going on with the 11 million bits of information being processed unconsciously.

The research suggests that in this society, for virtually everyone, race is one of most salient cleavages, processes, schemas. But it’s behind our back. So someone may be honest in saying “I don’t see race.” But they’re not describing their unconscious.

Would you talk about your vision for the Haas Institute?

Our work is to identify barriers to an inclusive, just and sustainable society and to challenge those barriers and help to create transformative change. We’re now up to seven cross- disciplinary research clusters, all looking at the “othering” process through different lenses — race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, etc. The Institute will work to help create synergy between the clusters, but also to promote and engage itself in policy-oriented activities in California and throughout the country — putting them in alignment with stakeholders and organizers outside of academia.

I’m hoping that at least a third of the work of the Institute will be focused on what I call “cross-cutting, game-changing issues” — issues that affect more than one cluster, and issues that, win or lose, will have a huge impact.

Racing to Justice invites us to rethink our prevailing notions of race, racial identity, and racism by interrogating the notion of the self in Western thought.
– Michael Omi, associate professor of ethnic studies

Another important part of our work is effective communication to illuminate the research and impact policy. Research is critical and necessary, but not sufficient. It’s not enough to convince academics. You have to convince the larger public and policy makers. Very sophisticated communication is part of our work — and not just as an afterthought. So that’s the essence of the Institute.

Could you give an example of a potentially “game-changing issue” that the Institute, through its research and engagement, might hope to impact?  

I think the first one or two will have to be prototypical — because it does have to be an iterative process, where people have to buy in…. I have some ideas — for example some of the work around the attack on the public, in favor of what’s called the “private,” but really in favor of the corporate.

Given other choices of what to do next in your life, why did you decide to come to Berkeley to head up the Haas Institute?

Some personal considerations figured into my decision: I was here on campus for law school; my daughter is a now a Berkeley grad student, studying regional planning and water; I have a 3-year-old granddaughter in the area.

On another level, I’ve been doing a version of this work for most of my adult life. But it’s always been fragmented; there have never been enough resources.

What the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund has put in place, with the Institute, is really unprecedented in the social sciences. You start with 16 full-time faculty positions and eight endowed chairs, all focused on these important issues. In addition we have a cadre of supporters, 10 to 12 in each cluster, bringing the total up to more than 80. That’s a phenomenal opportunity — though it won’t be fully realized unless it goes beyond the university.

The core of what Berkeley has put on the table is completely unprecedented. By networking with those doing similar work, at other institutions, there’s a chance to do something across the country and across the globe.

Related information: john powell posts on the Berkeley Blog