I was hit in The New York TimesThe obituary of one of the great breed historians, Leon Litwack, by the flippant and condescending way in which his historical scholarship was dismissed. Of course, the article’s caption was positive: “One of Berkeley’s most popular teachers, he brought passion and nuance – and a love for blues music – to his award-winning study of the marginalized and oppressed. .”
The obituary also mentioned that his scholarship “illustrated how racism has structured institutions and relationships” and “focused on how black Americans experienced and shaped their freedom.
But near the end of the obituary, the author observed that “many fellow historians complained that he relentlessly focused on black people as victims and didn’t tell a more nuanced story about the resistance.” . He then quoted Princeton Distinguished Historian Nell Irvin Painter:
“Litwack implies that African-American institutions simply function in response to white oppression, as if blacks have no existence beyond their connection to whites – southern blacks as victims rather than Southern black people as people…. For all its quaint appeal, ‘Trouble in Mind’ is outdated.”
One should not confuse obituaries with eulogies, and without committed and rigorous criticism, scholarship does not deserve its name. But I fear that Litwack’s obituary fuels a common misconception: that scholarship in the humanities, like its counterpart in the natural sciences, is progressive, as newer research supplants and supersedes its predecessors.
I consider this generational condescension to be entirely mistaken. Since the disciplines of the humanities are interpretative and analytical, research in the humanities does not necessarily advance, and newer work certainly does not sweep its predecessors into the dustbin of history.
Litwack’s historical scholarship, while focusing on very specific historical topics – notably, black life during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era – also represented an attempt to address race and the racial inequality of multidimensional way. He was as interested in racial socialization, racial etiquette, and the intricacies of black life in extraordinarily difficult circumstances as he was in black resistance to racist violence.
Reality is multidimensional, but the academy is compartmentalized.
At this historic moment, no issue commands more attention within the academy than those involving inequality and stratification. Humanities and Social Sciences departments offer a wide range of courses that address issues of anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other forms of bias, prejudice, and persistent inequality.
But our students would struggle to study these topics holistically.
The reasons are obvious. Not only is the topic of inequality too vast to be treated with the nuance and complexity it deserves, but none of us are knowledgeable enough to approach the topic with the expertise we take for granted in more specialized courses.
Moreover, there is the danger of confusing inequalities that have different roots, trajectories and historical manifestations.
Classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and other forms of bias, prejudice, and inequality have economic, historical, legal, political, psychological, sociological, and even linguistic and theological dimensions. Inequality must be understood as ideological and institutional, but also as lived experience. Similarly, resistance to inequality takes multiple forms: everyday resistance, cultural resistance, acts of collective protest, etc.
Efforts to eradicate inequality involve not only politics and politics, but also philosophy, as we consider the myriad of ethical questions the topics raise involving personal and collective responsibility, atonement, forgiveness, and reparations.
As researchers, our expertise is rooted in particular disciplinary specializations. My discipline, history, focuses on change over time. Historians ask how inequalities are socially and culturally constructed, as well as their manifestation, meaning and functioning in specific economic, political and social contexts.
Yet, to take just one side of the broader issue of inequality, gender inequality, any serious attempt to address the subject would require us to consider, in addition to women‘s history:
- The ideological dimension: How various fields, including medicine and psychology, have pathologized the minds and bodies of women.
- The legal, economic and political dimensions: How law, market and policy integrate and perpetuate gender inequalities.
- The representational dimension: How gendered depictions in art, advertisements and various media have twisted and distorted the realities of women.
- The psychological dimension: How gender identities are socialized and how sexism has shaped women’s identities, expectations and behavior, leading women to provide various forms of support to others.
I live my life according to a series of mantras, one of which is: “Anything worth doing is worth half doing”. By this, I simply mean that we must do our best even if we cannot accomplish all that we wish.
What if, collectively, we tried to structure a multidisciplinary cluster in the humanities and social sciences around gender and racial inequalities, with the aim of providing students with a “big picture”? How do you approach such a large and expansive topic without falling into superficiality or punctuating big themes with excessive narrowness?
Here I can only begin to sketch what such a cluster might look like.
1. A history lesson could start with the oldest and oldest form of inequality, patriarchy and the systematic exclusion of women from “the creation of law, symbolic values and structures of meaning”. Such a lesson might begin with the Middle Assyrian laws of the 15th to 11th centuries BCE, which required “women to wear veils from head to toe and forbade them to speak to men not belonging to the family or to walk outside, except in the company of a close male relative. under the pretext of protecting them from male predation.
The notion of separation or segregation as a form of guardianship and shield against social conflict is a recurring theme used to naturalize and legitimize restrictions and various forms of segregation.
Such a class could move on to Aristotle’s equation of women with slaves and domestic animals – which served as a prototype for the “animalization” of other subordinate groups.
This course could also examine how anti-Semitism has served as a breeding ground for racism and how, from the 14and century modern racism emerged, how European expansion and the slave trade reinforced racist thinking, and how racism was institutionalized in the late 19andand early 20and century. This class would also need to examine the fluidity of definitions of race, which have varied geographically and chronologically, and the complex legacy of religious bigotry and the Enlightenment, which both offered new justifications for racial and gender inequality. while first promoting the challenges of slavery and gender and racial inequalities.
2. An economics course could explore occupational and residential segregation, wage differentials, owned assets and savings, debt levels, discrimination in corporate loans, mortgages and patronage, and the concentration of women and blacks in low-wage occupations. But it should also examine, across economic history, women’s unpaid work, the intersection of labor systems and race, and efforts to challenge the subordination and exploitation of labor.
3. A political science class could examine the role of law, public policy, and civic institutions in promoting, reinforcing, and perpetuating racial and gender hierarchies, as well as the political uses of racial and gender ideologies, to preserve and exercise power, promote group solidarity and alienate subordinate classes from supposedly inferior groups.
4. A course in psychology could consider the discipline’s racist and sexist past and examine the affective, emotional and psychological functions of sexist and racial bias. Topics can include gender and racial socialization, stereotyping, implicit bias, scapegoating, and the role of emotional aversion in maintaining racial and gender boundaries. It could also examine the psychological costs of racism and sexism.
5. A sociology course could explore:
- Racism and sexism as systems of structural, systemic and institutionalized privilege and advantage.
- Racism and sexism through the lens of intersectionality: how gender, race, sexuality, and other forms of social hierarchy and discrimination reinforce each other and help define status and power.
- The relevance of caste, with its emphasis on heredity, group hierarchy, purity and pollution, for an understanding of gender and racial inequalities.
- The complex relationship between race, gender and socioeconomic class.
6. A philosophy course could explore ideas of race and gender in the history of philosophy. It could also address some of today’s hottest topics: how best to deal with the relics of a racist and sexist past; the meaning and value of meritocracy and the validity of the mechanisms used to assess merit; the timeliness and practicality of reparations; and issues relating to atonement, forgiveness, and closure.
I am convinced that many students are looking for the context and perspectives offered by the humanities and social sciences on the issues of our time. But discipline-focused surveys and introductory courses and narrow upper-division courses that reflect faculty members’ research interests too often fail to capture students’ imaginations or ignite their passions.
I understand the reluctance to address such a broad and interdisciplinary topic as gender and racial inequalities. But please consider taking my advice and remember my mantra, if it’s worth doing, it’s half worth doing.
Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.