- Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution
The title of historian Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn’s latest book captures perfectly her subject and thesis. Lasch-Quinn believes that an army of “race experts,” equipped with “half-baked, contradictory, quasi-scientific pseudo-truths” (xiv–xv), has succeeded in defining attitudes, such as white racism and black low self-esteem, as the preeminent racial problems existing in the contemporary United States. Drawing upon and developing racial identity theory, oppression pedagogy, and interracial etiquette, race experts have made significant forays into counseling, public education, and business, according to Lasch-Quinn. In each area, they enact the “harangue-flagellation ritual” (xv), a routine of black assertion and white submission whereby blacks play the angry victims and whites, the guilty oppressors. Lasch-Quinn laments the triumph of the race experts, asserting that these psychotherapists, social psychologists, diversity trainers, and multicultural educators have “hijacked” the civil rights revolution. Race experts have turned Americans’ attention from persistent racial inequalities in politics and economics to the feelings and interactions of individuals and, perhaps most egregiously, have reinforced—rather than minimized—racial differences. Indeed, Lasch-Quinn argues, race experts have “unintentionally helped prolong old racial tensions and foster new misunderstandings and anxieties” (xii).
Setting out to examine how the United States got to this point, Lasch-Quinn traces the emergence of race experts to developments during the decade of the 1960s, specifically the convergence of black identity politics and the culture of therapy after 1965. For advocates of black power, the search for an authentic black identity and the projection of ethnic pride became a movement aim. At the same time, “individual identity, emotional satisfaction and expression, and an immediate, superficial sense of well-being were the staples of the therapeutic sensibility that increasingly held Americans in thrall” (40). These two forces came together most prominently in the first interracial encounter workshop held at the Esalen Institute in California in 1967. Jointly run by Price M. Cobbs, a psychiatrist who coauthored Black Rage (1968) with William H. Grier and attributed the mental health problems of blacks to pervasive white racism, and George Leonard, a leader in the human potential movement, such workshops aimed to address and ameliorate interracial tensions—which appeared intractable at the national level—in small group settings. The success of this and later workshops contributed to the increasingly prominent idea among other emerging race experts that psychotherapy was the best way to deal with America’s problematic race relations. By the late 1960s, Lasch-Quinn contends, this “transition to a therapeutics of race helped sap the best potential of the movement, hijacked many real prospects for change, and allowed the civil rights movement...to falter” (62).
Lasch-Quinn then traces the evolution of the goal of individual racial psychic well-being in the decades following the 1960s by examining developments in black psychology, reevaluation counseling, diversity training, and multicultural education. In the last area, Lasch-Quinn finds fault with what she sees as one of [End Page 235] the basic tenets of multicultural education: that the public schools can and should build students’ self-esteem through promoting ethnic identity. To demonstrate what is mistaken about this tenet, she uses a 1998 controversy at a school in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York over a teacher’s use of a children’s book called Nappy Hair (1997). Nappy Hair, written by Carolivia Herron and illustrated by Joe Cepeda, tells the story of an African American girl with “nappy” hair, a usually derogatory term used to describe the curly hair of many blacks. In the story, the heroine’s curls refuse to be straightened and end up being seen as beautiful and celebrated. Angry black parents, upset at what they understood to be demeaning and caricatured portrayals of African Americans in the book, protested against the white teacher who had assigned it, and the conflict ended with the teacher moving to another...