Frizzly Studies: Negotiating the Invisible Lines of Race


Beginning with the assumption that race is a conceptual blur, this contribution to the Common Knowledge symposium “Fuzzy Studies” argues that race conflates what is plain to see with something that is invisible. Race roots today’s policy decisions in a remote and often imagined past. It blurs agency and overwhelming structural inequality. It is a set of categories that people define for themselves and that, at the same time, others—strangers, neighbors, government officials—relentlessly impose upon them. For four hundred years, the meaning of racial categories in North America has remained unstable. A central question underlying the history of race in the United States is how people could acknowledge the incoherence of racial categories while still structuring their lives, communities, politics, and culture around the idea of race. At a fundamental level, race has functioned as a set of rules and rights—and legal entitlements and disabilities are a primary source of meaning for racial categories. The law provides a starting point for understanding how there could be so much consensus regarding such a blur. Legal decision making is itself a process that blurs what is objective and subjective, scientific and social, precise and penumbral. Taken together, the pervasive fuzziness of race and law ensured the resilience of clear and definable regimes of discrimination and hierarchy.