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Des catégories et de leurs usages dans la construction sociale d’un groupe de référence : "race", "ethnie" et "communauté" aux Amériques (Mascipo) – Paris, EHESS, 13-15 décembre 2006
Daniel Sabbagh

Commentaries on Charles Hale’s “Racial eruptions: the awkward place of blackness in Indian-centered spaces of mestizaje”


Notes de la rédaction

En raison de l’intérêt de ces commentaires, nous avons pris la décision de les publier bien que le texte de la conférence auquel ils se rapportent n'ait pas été accessible pour la mise en ligne.

Texte intégral

1This very interesting paper deals with – or rather revolves around – at least two –analytically distinct yet interrelated – fascinating topics. The first one is the extent to which the rejection of racism has led to a rejection of racial self-identification, and its group-differentiated dimension: for indigenous people in the countries under study, the rejection of racism did lead to a rejection of racial self-identification; for people of African descent, by and large, it did not. The second topic is the extent to which collective action and the political claims voiced by minority groups rely on cultural distinctiveness and, again, its group-differentiated dimension: the paper suggests that for indigenous people, the politicization of culture has been both more extensive and more successful than for people of African descent. A third topic of inquiry that is perhaps notas explicitly discussed in the paper – although there are several allusions to it – is the extent to which the rejection of racism has led or might lead not only to a rejection of racial self-identification by members of the racialized group under consideration but to a broader, more radical rejection of race as a descriptive category for each and every group. Here, the paper argues that this phenomenon is not group-differentiated: neither people of African descent nor members of indigenous groups actually challenge the relevance of race as an analytical category for all purposes: people of African descent accept the principle of racial identification as far as they are concerned even though they want to change the social meanings formerly associated with race; and members of indigenous groups reject racial labelling as far as they are concerned but explicitly or implicitly accept it as being relevant for blacks, as a kind of residual denomination allowing to emphasize blacks’ distinctiveness without having to acknowledge the existence of a black “culture”, which then allows the monopoly of indigenous groups over culture as a basis on which to ground some political claims not to be jeopardized. Yet, there are also cases outside of Latin America – and, I’d say, outside of the Americas as a whole – where the rejection of racism is utterly intertwined with a rejection of the very principle of racial classification. France is surely a case in point. Although this is surely not one of its (main) goals, the paper has the virtue of reminding us of how specific, how unusual this French and, to some extent, West European pattern is, a pattern in which the ideological delegitimization of racism leads to the analytical disqualification of race.

2Also, as someone who has worked on race and ethnicity in the United States, it seems to me that the tendency among Latin Americanists professionally interested in issues of ethnicity and minority membership to focus on indigenous people and include blacks in their analyses only as an afterthought, that is briefly mentioned in the first pages of the paper, is basically the reverse of what one finds in the US, namely a tendency of most scholars interested in such issues to focus on blacks and then include in their analyzes Native Americans, and even Hispanics only as an afterthought, when they do include them, and they often don’t. (This is true at least as far as political scientists and legal scholars are concerned). So I guess my first question would be: “Do you think that the same factors account for such apparently opposite outcomes in Latin America and in the US, and which ones? Is this internal hierarchy within the population of minority groups in terms of their being both a focal point for scholarly investigation and an agent of political mobilization a reflection of their demographic weight, of their unequal centrality in the historical construction of the nation-state, and/or a function of the demarcation and balance of power between academic disciplines? As a North American anthropologist working on Latin American countries, do you see culturally or politically specific dynamics of inclusion or exclusion at work in Latin American minority activism the equivalent of which one would not find in the US?

3Still on the US/Latin America comparison, about the contrast between the politicization of race by groups of African ancestry and the politicization on culture by indigenous movements: I was not entirely clear about whether you considered that contrast as a distinctively Latin or Central American phenomenon or whether you believed that it applied to the US configuration too. In that latter case, I’d argue that this contrast needs to be qualified. In the United States, as shown by scholars like historian David Hollinger, literary theorist Walter Benn Michaels and others, what one may call a culturalisation of race is also perceptible as far as African Americans are concerned, with the notion of “diversity” as introduced in the 1978 Supreme Court case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke working as the missing link between the issue of racial inequality and that of cultural pluralism. In the Bakke case, Justice Lewis Powell basically argued that race could be taken into account in university admissions within the frame of an affirmative action program only as part of an attempt to promote the diversity of “experiences, outlooks and ideas” within the student body, and this hypothesized correlation between race and a homogeneous set of perceptions and representations, which may be understood as reflecting a primordialist conception of race, presumably applied to all racially defined groups (including blacks). Now Powell doesn’t actually use the word “culture” in his opinion. Yet, if one is to encompass the set of attributes considered as educationally relevant (those attributes that Powell describes as “experiences, outlooks and ideas”) within a single unifying category, the notion of “culture” is arguably flexible and substantively indeterminate enough to work as such and, as a result of the decision reached in Bakke, the accentuation of a “cultural turn” in the rhetoric used by some African American organizations – at least in the field of higher education – was indeed perceptible. So I guess I’d argue that this dichotomy between people of African ancestry choosing to use the vocabulary of race and indigenous people selecting the vocabulary of culture does not apply to the United States as clearly as it seems to apply to some Latin American countries. In the US, for reasons that I believe are related with the key role played by the Supreme Court in the political decision-making process over the admissibility of some kinds of affirmative action programs, the culturalisation of race-related issues has prevailed across the board, in a more uniform way than what is described in this paper as far as Latin America is concerned. The contemporary equation of race with culture partly appeared as a by-product of a purportedly legal – as opposed to political – decision in which a policy obviously designed to facilitate the access of underrepresented ethnoracial minorities to higher education was nonetheless justified by its alleged contribution to viewpoint diversity. This happened mostly because it was easier for the Supreme Court to engage in an inclusive celebration of “diversity” of all kinds and pretend that affirmative action was concerned with promoting such “diversity” than to establish an official hierarchy of disadvantage and, therefore, of desert, among all groups that might be tempted to claim affirmative action benefits. As the Court itself said quite explicitly in that same decision of 1978, this would have required engaging in a “kind of variable sociological and political analysis (…) [that] does not lie within judicial competence”. Doing so may well have endangered the court’s legitimacy as an institution presumably committed to political neutrality. And as soon as the Supreme Court had endorsed a broadly multiculturalist justification for policies designed to operate a measure of redistribution between ethnoracially defined groups, this gave a major incentive for all groups that stood to benefit from such policies to cast their claims in terms of cultural distinctiveness. Perhaps incentives of this kind were not as present in the cases considered in this paper.

4Two last marginal questions:

5- On p. 5 of the paper, you briefly discuss a rather sensitive topic, namely the nature of the connection between a scholar’s race and the content of his or her scholarship on race: one the one hand you do not want to claim that “racial identity determines research outcomes”; on the other hand, you argue that “racial positionality exerts systematic influence on empirical and theoretical facets of our scholarship” and you go on suggesting in the next footnote that the recent controversy between Loïc Wacquant and Michael Hanchard on the transnational relevance of race in general and blackness in particular as an analytical tool for mapping relations of power and subordination is, quote, “deeply conditioned by the racial positionalities of the analysts in question”, unquote. Since I have read those papers and since I have had the opportunity of discussing Michael Hanchard’s response to Bourdieu and Wacquant in a seminar with him in Paris two years ago, I was just curious to hear you say a little more about how exactly those scholars’ race, or “racial positionality”, “condition” their analytical disagreements. To put it starkly, would you be willing to make the argument that an African American scholar could not possibly agree with Bourdieu and Wacquant against Hanchard? If you would, I’d invite you to present this argument; if you would not, I’m not sure I understand what it means to write that those scholars “analytical disagreements are deeply conditioned by their racial positionalities”.

6- However hard I try, I also fail to understand the following sentence on p. 36:  “to affirm the impossibility of egalitarian black-indigenous coalition politics frees us up to think about how to move forward toward precisely that end”…

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Racial Eruptions : The Awkward Place of Blackness in Indian Centered Spaces of Mestizaje

Charles Hale

Why does the politicization of race so consistently mark Afro-descendant mobilization for rights, in contrast to indigenous movements’ equally consistent preference for the politicization of culture? In this paper, I advance the theoretical proposition that the cultural politics of black and indigenous peoples are best understood through a conceptual frame that encompasses both. I also want this theoretical insight to contribute to ongoing efforts of activist research in favor of rights to land and resources. I focus on a cluster of Miskitu Indian and Garífuna Afro-indigenous communities in northeastern Honduras, whose overlapping territorial claims, and general political-economic relations, have been the source of considerable tension in recent years. I conclude that race and culture conjoined, not pried apart, will prove the most powerful conceptual basis for mutually conceived collective rights, against the persistence of white supremacy in the neoliberal-multicultural era.

blackness, mestisaje, policization of culture, politicization of race, black-indigenous relations

Irruptions raciales: la place déconcertante de l'identité noire dans les espaces de 'mestizaje' indiens

Pourquoi la mobilisation politique des Afro-descendants est-elle marquée par la politisation de la race, par contraste avec les mouvements indigénistes qui lui préfèrent celle de la culture ? Dans cet article, je propose de considérer les politiques culturelles des populations noires et indigènes au travers d’un cadre conceptuel qui englobe les deux groupes. J’entends également contribuer par cette perspective théorique à la recherche militante en faveur des droits à la terre et aux ressources de ces groupes en Amérique centrale. Je m’attache ici à un ensemble de communautés amérindiennes Miskitu et afro-indigènes Garífuna dans le Nord-est du Honduras, dont les revendications territoriales et les relations politico-économiques ont été à l’origine de tensions considérables ces dernières années. La race et la culture envisagés conjointement, et non pas séparément, apparaissent comme un cadre conceptuel fondamental pour penser les droits collectifs et contrer la perpétuation de la suprématie blanche dans l’ère néolibérale et multiculturelle.

blackness, mestisaje, politisation de la culture, politisation de la race, relations noirs-indigènes

Erupciones raciales: El incómodo lugar de la negritud en los espacios de mestizaje centrados en la indianidad.

¿Por qué la movilización política de los afro-descendientes está marcada por la politización de la raza en contraste con los movimientos indigenistas que prefieren la de la cultura? En este artículo me propongo considerar las políticas culturales de las poblaciones negras e indígenas a través del marco conceptual que engloba a ambos grupos. Me propongo igualmente contribuir a través de esta perspectiva teórica a la investigación militante en favor de los derechos a la tierra y los recursos de esos grupos en América Central. Me voy a centrar aquí en un conjunto de comunidades amerindias Miskitu y afro-indígenas Garifuna del noreste de Honduras, cuyas reivindicaciones territoriales y las relaciones político-económicas han estado al origen de tensiones considerables estos últimos años. La raza y la cultura consideradas conjuntamente, y no separadamente, aparecen como un marco conceptual fundamental para pensar los derechos colectivos y oponerse a la perpetuación de la supremacía blanca en la era neoliberal y multicultural.

negritud, mestizaje, politización de la cultura, politización de la raza, relación negros-indígenas.

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Référence électronique

Daniel Sabbagh, « Commentaries on Charles Hale’s “Racial eruptions: the awkward place of blackness in Indian-centered spaces of mestizaje” », Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Colloques, mis en ligne le 19 novembre 2009, consulté le 19 juin 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/nuevomundo.57603

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Daniel Sabbagh


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