Racial Literacy or Post-Racial Blindness: Where Should the Law Go from Here?

Limits of the Law | Events | Speakers | Seminars | Resources

The highly publicized encounter last summer between a black professor at Harvard and a white police officer precipitated a national discussion on race, stereotypes, and civil rights. Drawing from this example and others, Harvard Law School Professor Lani Guinier will discuss the subtle and complex ways that race actually works in the 21st century, and present a fundamentally new way of thinking about race, not just a different way of talking about it.

Professor Guinier's new conceptual framework, "racial literacy," is organized around three assumptions. The first assumption is that race is not a sign of just one thing. Sometimes it is used to draw negative inferences about an individual based on his or her physical appearance.  In such settings, a call for color blindness may be appropriate.  But race may also reflect historical and intergenerational forces that fashion or restrict current life opportunities for groups of people, in which case a blanket call for post-racial blindness is unjust. The second assumption is that race is not simply a “problem.” It is also a tool. Race telegraphs information that otherwise gets buried or ignored. The third assumption is that this information can be transformative, especially when analyzed and understood in light of background cues. It can prompt problem-solving strategies  that benefit others, not just people of color.  

The law can and should become more racially literate. By studying the grammar of race, lawyers and judges can learn to read race in multiple contexts. Ordinary citizens can become racially literate as well. We all can, for example, begin to understand the ways in which race simultaneously maps and obscures issues of class. We can also learn to see both race and class in the context of the larger project of democracy.