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  • Racial Imperatives: Discipline, Performativity, and Struggles Against Subjection by Nadine Ehlers
  • Michael Steven Williams (bio)
Nadine Ehlers Racial Imperatives: Discipline, Performativity, and Struggles Against Subjection. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2012. x + 185 pp. ISBN 9780253223364 paper.

Race matters in the United States because its influence permeates the social, political, economic, legal, and educational organization of society. Though this country has progressed, the vestiges of chattel slavery and the concomitant circumscription of rights and opportunities along racial lines still restrict opportunities for growth, advancement, and self-determination for non-Whites. Given this historical and contemporary reality, how do we challenge the way race is constructed and deployed to create a more just society? This is the guiding question in Racial Imperatives: Discipline, Performativity, and Struggles Against Subjection. In this work, Nadine Ehlers utilizes the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler as theoretical launch points to show that race is both disciplinary and performative and, as such, holds the possibility for critical reconstruction. Using the Rhinelander v. Rhinelander legal proceedings from 1925 as a critical case study, she shows how law and language are used to create and control racial subjects. While other works attend to the ways that social identities like race and law intersect to influence identity development and social stratification in U.S. society (e.g., Taylor, Gillborn, & Ladson-Billings, 2009; Delgado & Stefancic, 2012), Ehlers contributes to this body of scholarship by exploring what forms of agency and, ostensibly, resistance to strict categorization along racial lines are possible. [End Page 116] In addition, she offers a nuanced lens for the contemplation and analysis of racial identity formation, racial subjectivity, and whiteness as property.

Following an introductory chapter that provides a brief road map of the issues addressed in this work, chapter 1 turns attention to the way the subjective separations we understand as race are given meaning and maintained. Using Foucault's ideas of power and discipline, Ehlers shows how the larger system of social norms and its associated lexicon make race discernible by teaching people how to understand the world and their place in it in racial terms. By recognizing ourselves as racial beings—something we are compelled to do within the structure of our society and the way race influences identity development—we are at once producing and maintaining the power structures apparent in arbitrary racial classifications. Ehlers argues that by making race visible in this way, it is possible to use it disciplinarily because race dictates what actions and beliefs are permissible for individuals along racial lines. Though the author does not subscribe to the idea that there is a racial "truth," she shows that there is a clear system of meanings and practices associated with race that operate as mechanisms to regulate behavior. However, these systems rest on the tenuous idea that race is something that can be readily revealed through skin color and heredity.

The idea that race, and thus the appropriate ways to construct individuals, can be "known" is taken up in chapter 2, as the author analyzes legal history to show how whiteness has consistently been associated with agency, privilege, and freedom while blackness has been associated with impotence, disfavor, and servitude. She argues that the construction of whiteness as a superior racial category through legal precedents has left an indelible mark on the way race is understood in society at large. In this way, the law shapes how people see themselves, their relationships with others, and their relationship to society. Using anti-miscegenation laws as an example, Ehlers masterfully shows how the justice system has been used to produce and discipline racial subjects. The statutory limitations on interracial unions and the language developed to classify the products of those illicit unions (e.g., mulatto, quadroon, etc.) created "knowledge" about race. Based on this racial "knowledge" system, only those with pure White blood—blood uncontaminated by racial pollutants—could claim access to the upper echelons of society or enjoy the full protection of the law. In this way White skin and White blood became synonymous with independence and protection. Through law, whiteness was transformed into a property interest worth aggressively maintaining, both because of its attendant benefits and...


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pp. 116-119
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