I was struck in the New York Times obituary of one of the great historians of race, Leon Litwack, by the casual and condescending way his landmark scholarship was dismissed. Sure, the article’s subtitle was positive: “One of Berkeley’s most popular professors, he brought passion and nuance—and a love for blues music—to his award-winning study of the marginalized and the oppressed.”
The obituary also mentioned that his scholarship “illustrated how racism had structured institutions and relations” and “focused on the way Black Americans experienced their freedom and shaped it.”
But toward the obituary’s end, the author observed that “many fellow historians complained that it placed unrelenting emphasis on Black people as victims and failed to tell a more nuanced tale about resistance.” It then quoted the Princeton historian emeritus Nell Irvin Painter:
“Litwack implies that African-American institutions function merely in response to white oppression, as though blacks had no existence beyond their connection with whites—Black Southerners as victims rather than Black Southerners as people … For all its picturesque appeal, ‘Trouble in Mind’ is stale.”
We mustn’t confuse an obituary with a eulogy, and without engaged and rigorous criticism, scholarship isn’t worthy of its name. But I fear that the Litwack obituary feeds into a common misconception: that scholarship in the humanities, like its counterpart in the natural sciences, is progressive, as more recent research supplants and supersedes its predecessors.
I consider this generational condescension utterly wrongheaded. Since the humanities disciplines are interpretive and analytic, humanities scholarship doesn’t necessarily progress and newer works certainly don’t sweep their predecessors into the dustpan of history.
Litwack’s historical scholarship, while focusing on highly specific historical topics—notably, Black lives during Reconstruction and the age of Jim Crow—also represented an attempt to grapple with race and racial inequality multidimensionally. He was as interested in racial socialization, racial etiquette and the intricacies of Black lives in extraordinarily difficult contexts as he was in Black resistance to racist violence.
Reality is multidimensional, but the academy is siloed.
At this historical moment, no issues draw more attention within the academy draw than those involving inequality and stratification. Departments across the humanities and social sciences offer a vast array of courses that speak to issues of anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism, sexism, xenophobia and other forms of bias, prejudice and persistent inequality.
But our students would be hard-pressed to study these topics holistically.
The reasons are obvious. Not only is the subject of inequality too broad to be treated with the nuance and complexity that it deserves, but none of us are knowledgeable enough to speak to the topic with the expertise that we take for granted in more specialized courses.
Also, there’s the danger of conflating inequalities that have different historical roots, trajectories and 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 needs to be understood as ideological and institutional, but also as lived experience. Similarly, resistance to inequalities takes multiple forms: day-to-day resistance, cultural resistance, acts of collective protest and more
Efforts to eradicate inequalities not only involve policy and politics but philosophy, too, as we contemplate the host of ethical issues that the subjects raise involving personal and collective responsibility, atonement, forgiveness, and reparations.
As scholars, our expertise is rooted in particular disciplinary specializations. My discipline, history, focuses on change over time. Historians ask how inequalities are constructed socially and culturally, and their manifestation, meaning and function in specific economic, political and social contexts.
Yet, to take just one facet of the broader issue of inequality, gender inequities, any serious attempt to grapple with the subject would require us to examine, in addition to women’s history:
- The ideological dimension: How various fields, including medicine and psychology, have pathologized women’s minds and bodies.
- The legal, economic and political dimensions: How law, the market and policy embed and perpetuate gender inequities.
- The representational dimension: How gendered depictions in art, advertisements and various media have distorted and misrepresented women’s realities.
- The psychological dimension: How gender identities are socialized and how sexism has shaped women’s identities, expectations and behavior, pushing women to provide various forms of support to others.
I lead my life according to a series of mantras, one of which is “Anything worth doing is worth doing half-assed.” By that, I simply mean that we need to do the best we can even if we can’t accomplish everything we might wish.
So what if we, as a collective endeavor, tried to structure a multidisciplinary humanities and social sciences cluster around gender and racial inequalities, with a goal of providing students with “the big picture”? How might we address such an expansive and sweeping topic without lapsing into superficiality or punctuating broad themes with excessive narrowness?
Here, I can only begin to sketch what such a cluster might look like.
1. A history class might begin with the oldest, most long-standing form of inequality, patriarchy, and women’s systematic exclusion from “the creation of law, symbolic values, and structures of meaning.” Such a course might begin with the Middle Assyrian Laws of the 15th to the 11th centuries BCE, which required “women to wear head-to-toe veils and forbade them from speaking to non-family males or walking outdoors except in the company of a close male relative,” in the guise of protecting them from male predation.
The notion of separation or segregation as a form of guardianship and a shield against social conflict is a recurrent theme used to naturalize and legitimate restrictions and various forms of segregation.
Such a class might move on to Aristotle’s equation of women with slaves and domesticated animals—which served as the prototype for the “animalization” of other subordinate groups.
This class might also examine how anti-Semitism served as a seedbed for racism, and how, beginning in the 14th century, modern racism emerged, how European expansion and the slave trade reinforced racist thought, and how racism was institutionalized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This class would also need to look at the fluidity of definitions of race, which have varied geographically and chronologically, and the complex legacy of religious sectarianism and the Enlightenment, which at once offered new justifications for racial and gender inequalities while also fostering the first collective challenges to slavery and gender and racial inequalities.
2. An economics course might explore occupational and residential segregation; differentials in wages, owned assets and savings; debt levels; discrimination in loans, mortgages and patronage of businesses; and the concentration of women and Blacks in low-wage occupations. But it should also examine, through economic history, women’s unpaid labor, the intersection of labor systems and race, and efforts to contest subordination and labor exploitation.
3. A political science class might 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 distance subordinate classes from supposedly inferior groups.
4. A psychology class might reckon with the discipline’s racist and sexist past and examine the affective, emotional and psychological functions of gender and racial bias. Topics might include gender and racial socialization, stereotyping, implicit bias, scapegoating, and the role of emotional aversion in maintaining racial and gender boundaries. It might also examine the psychological costs of racism and sexism.
5. A sociology course might 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 one another and help define status and power.
- The relevance of caste, with its stress on heredity, group hierarchy and purity and pollution, to an understanding of gender and racial inequalities.
- The complex relationship between race, gender and socioeconomic class.
6. A philosophy course might explore ideas of race and gender in the history of philosophy. It might also speak to some of today’s hottest topics: how best to address relics of a racist and sexist past; the meaning and value of meritocracy and the validity of the mechanisms used to assess merit; the desirability and practicality of reparations; and issues relating to atonement, forgiveness and closure.
I am convinced that many students crave the context and perspectives that the humanities and the social sciences offer on the issues of our time. But the discipline-based surveys and introductory courses and the narrow upper-division courses that reflect faculty members’ research interests fail, all too often, to capture students’ imagination or ignite their passions.
I understand the reluctance to tackle a topic as expansive and interdisciplinary as gender and racial inequalities. But please consider following my advice and remember my mantra—if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing half-assed.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.