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Excerpted From: Kenneth B. Nunn, “Essentially Black”: Legal Theory and the Morality of Conscious Racial Identity, 97 Nebraska Law Review 287 (2018) (312 Footnotes) (Full Document)


Generally speaking, “essentialism” is the idea that all things have a fundamental character--an “essence”--that is permanent and unalterable. Applying essentialist thought to groups results in the belief that group members share essential qualities that confer group membership. They may also possess unessential or accidental qualities that are not needed to affirm group membership, but do not preclude membership either. For example, as an African-American I could assert that my phenotypic appearance is an essential part of my Blackness, but the fact that I am a lawyer is not.

When it comes to social categories, such as gender, race, sexuality, or identity, essentialism is highly controversial. Adherents of postmodern theory argue that social categories are socially constructed and that essentialist notions of identity, which suggest that identity is static, natural, and unchanging, are theoretically wrong and suggestive of biological determinism.

Consequently, “essentialism” is a bad thing. It is an epithet, a pejorative and derogatory adjective. This is especially true in newer versions of critical theory, postmodernism itself, and among social groups that identify themselves as politically “progressive.” In these circles, essentialist thinking is decidedly looked down upon and an indication that the proponent of the idea is in need of correction. As one writer summarizes it, essentialism is “a term of abuse which silences or short-circuits arguments, being irredeemably tainted by association with racism and sexism.”

As a Black nationalist and an African-centered scholar, I am particularly interested in the essentialism debate. Black nationalism is a broad and diffuse ideology that centers on the importance of creating and maintaining Black political, economic, and cultural unity. For the Black nationalist project to be viable, it is necessary for African-descendant peoples to organize and act collectively. And it is important for African-descendant peoples to defend this collective association politically, ethically, and morally. In this regard, the position that Black nationalists occupy vis-à-vis essentialism is similar in some respects to that occupied by feminists who seek to organize themselves as women. Consequently, there is a rich literature about essentialism in feminist circles, as well as a contentious debate about its applicability, that can be instructive for African-centered scholars.

Debates over essentialism have been a part of legal analysis since the foundation of the critical legal studies movement in the late 1970s and have only intensified since then. The origin of Critical Race Theory (CRT) can be traced to differences over race essentialism or “racialism” within the critical legal studies movement and staking out a non-essentialist position vis-à-vis race has been an important goal for both critical race scholars and scholars in the related area of Latina/Latino critical studies (LatCrit). Virtually all of this radical legal scholarship takes a negative view of race essentialism and thus disfavors efforts to organize African-Americans along the lines of race or analyze their condition using racial categories.

Within this condemnation of essentialism is a normative claim. The anti-essentialist argument is not simply an objection that essentialism does not comport with postmodern theory. Anti-essentialists also contend that essentialism infringes a prescriptive code of conduct that makes essentialism immoral. The moral claim raised here assumes that to conceive of a person or group of persons in essentialist terms is hurtful. It is hurtful because to make an essentialist claim about a person is to deprive the person of agency in selecting the aspects of their identity that are important to them and that they desire to perform or foreground at any given moment.

Under this reasoning, to assert that a thing, individual, or collective has an essential characteristic is wrong both factually (there are no essential qualities) and ethically. If we are talking, then, about the conscious choice to express racial identity, to organize politically around this identity, and to use this identity as an intellectual and ideological foundation for interpreting the world--if this is “essentialist,” it is morally wrong. Anti-essentialism, then, presents a stark barrier to African-centered thought. As I explain in this Article, African-centeredness celebrates the conscious choice of racial identity and uses African identity as a wellspring for political organizing and ideological theorizing.

Essentialism concerns are often offered as a reason why Africans should not organize collectively or why they should be cautious doing so. Black nationalistic political arguments are seen as particularly problematic in critical legal scholarship, even within the confines of CRT. This is true because, to anti-essentialists, Black nationalist arguments reinforce nineteenth century racial categorizations in an invidious way. Moreover, Black nationalism establishes a definition of Blackness that can be policed at its boundaries, enforcing a kind of conformity that many postmodernists find unattractive. Finally, the idea of Black nationalism, or political organization along the lines of race, runs counter to the postmodern idea of an identity that is shifting and contingent.

This normative position is problematic for activists who are interested in organizing African and African-descendant communities. If asserting a racial identity is immoral, then the only form of political involvement and organizing available to Africans is integration into collectives that are multiracial and therefore not essentialist. The anti-essentialist position, like post-racialism, suggests that there are no common problems and issues that Black people face as a community and need to address collectively and independently. It suggests, as a matter of ethics, that the slogan “All Lives Matter” represents a better moral position than the slogan “Black Lives Matter.”

A moral claim, however, is one that is based upon values and not facts. Indeed, a moral claim cannot be evaluated outside of a system of values or axiology. It is the values that underlie postmodernism and critical theory that lead to the moral assessment that essentialism, including race essentialism, is wrong. But the values of antiessentialism are not universal. The style of anti-essentialism that concerns us here, and that I critique, derives from deconstructionism, critical theory, and postmodernism. While these philosophies arose as critiques of positivism and Enlightenment thinking generally, they are still part of a continuum of Eurocentric thinking and thus embrace the epistemology, ontology, and axiology of the West.

This genealogy is important because it explains why anti-essentialism is so particularist, with a narrow focus on individuality over collectivity. It also explains why the postmodern view of the self, in which anti-essentialist values are grounded, is so fragmented and alienated. And it explains why, in the critical race literature, anti-essentialism is deployed as a barrier to Black political organizing but not to prevent the organizing of other oppressed groups.

When centered in different values--values grounded in the African tradition--not only does the anti-essentialist moral claim lose its force, but the logic of the anti-essentialist position evaporates as well. African values are not Western values. African values are communal values wherein the self is imagined as part of an extended network of interconnected beings. This interconnectedness leads to different ethical concerns than articulated in postmodern and critical theories. Limitations on the agency or free will of the self are not remarkable in African-centered contexts because the self is already constrained by its communal commitments. Consequently, normative arguments against essentialism are simply not germane.

This is not to say that there are not important political questions raised by anti-essentialists. There are indeed. At the very least, these include the questions of how to determine commonality and difference, as well as the problem of asserting a false universalism. At some point, a choice must be made about how a group should be defined and who should be included. But it must be understood that these problems are political in nature and must be resolved on the political battlefield through the process of articulation and struggle. They cannot be resolved by appeal to abstract theories. To attempt to do so simply evades the problem.

In the way anti-essentialism has been deployed within legal scholarship, there is a moral prohibition against Black nationalist political organizing. Because Black nationalism has been defined as essentialist, organizing on that basis is declared unethical and problematic from the outset. The real pressing questions regarding the political definition and future of Black people thus are never confronted. How can one theorize about Black people if the effort to do so is shut down at the start as ethically wrong?

In this Article, I conclude that a morally-grounded critique of essentialism is misplaced. I do not believe that there is anything about essentialism qua essentialism that makes it ethically suspect. In particular, I do not think that the effort to block Black nationalist identity formations, or to manage and to control them so that they are only provisionally essentialist, can be justified.

In Part I, I examine the anti-essentialism critique as it has been deployed in critical race and LatCrit scholarship. In Part II, I “critique the critique” and point out how it is both theoretically inconsistent and reductionist.

In Part III, I specifically focus on the impact of the anti-essentialist position on the African community. I argue that it impedes African political organization and leaves African communities vulnerable to oppression. In Part IV, I look at the Eurocentric values that underlie antiessentialism and contrast those with African-centered values.

I conclude that anti-essentialism does not represent a universal ethical prohibition against collective Black organizing and that as a theory it is not relevant to African-centered thought.

[. . .]

In this Article, I have attempted to demonstrate that CRT's antiessentialism critique is impractical and misguided ideologically. It is impractical because adopting CRT's stance on anti-essentialism would make it impossible to organize the African community or to advance African interests. Strong versions of the critique would prevent recognizing any identity that was formed around race and/or ethnic identity. Weak versions of the critique would allow a contingent Black identity, but it is clear that even this weaker version would take an integrationist tenor and not allow any type of Black nationalist organizing. Any African-only organizing would be viewed as morally suspect.

Anti-essentialism is also ideologically misguided. The anti-essentialism critique prevalent in CRT derives from the adoption of postmodern theories about the nature of reality and the self. Yet, postmodern indeterminacy, reductionism, and opposition to structuralism make it difficult for CRT to uphold its professed commitments to the needs of the local and the particular. Moreover, it is contradictory for CRT to struggle against social constructs like racism and sexism when, according to postmodern theory, persistent social constructs like these would not even exist.

More importantly, the assumptions of post-modernism are based on an analysis that privileges and universalizes European intellectual history and European values. To the extent that ethics are based on values, the Eurocentric foundation of the CRT anti-essentialism critique makes its ethical position problematic for African people and for other people of color. Non-Europeans do not privilege individualism to the extent that Europeans do and consequently do not see the promotion of group interests as a problem to be overcome. In focusing on the individual over the collective, anti-essentialism promotes a false universal.

Finally, anti-essentialism adopts a view of reality that is alien to the African mind. Although the postmodern claim that there are no essences may seem commonsensical to individuals trained in a European system, to individuals who live in a universe filled with spirit, such a view would seem reductionist and strange. A moral prescription cannot work if it commands belief or behavior that is viewed as impossible or illogical.

An appropriate ethics for African people would promote what is viewed as good in an African-centered cultural context and would fit the African worldview. African people value communalism and collectivity over individualism, and African people believe in the existence of essence. Plainly, anti-essentialism does not fit the bill.

For African activists and scholars, the charge that one is an essentialist is meaningless. One does not need to stop organizational activities to respond to such a charge, nor should one be concerned with shaping one's affiliations or one's thinking so that the charge will not be leveled. Although anti-essentialism asserts itself as a moral prerogative, I conclude that there is no ethical obligation for African-centered activists to avoid essentialism. Rather than honor an ethics that does not honor us, that challenges our very right to exist, Africans “must claim our heritage as our base for solving problems, collectively, [and] not as individuals.”

The task that lies before us was described beautifully by the Ghanaian author Ayi Kwei Armah in the conclusion to his novel Two Thousand Seasons:

There is no beauty but in relationships. Nothing cut off by itself is beautiful. Never can things in destructive relationships be beautiful. All beauty is in the creative purpose of our relationships; all ugliness is in the destructive aims of the destroyer's arrangements. The mind that knows this, the destroyers will set traps for it, but the destroyers' traps will never hold that mind. The group that knows this and that works knowing this, such a group itself is a work of beauty, creation's work. Against such a group the destroyers will set traps for the body, traps for the heart, traps to destroy the mind. Such a group none of the destroyers' traps can hold.

Professor of Law, University of Florida Levin College of Law, Omaha Technical H.S., Class of 1976; A.B., 1980, Stanford University; J.D., 1984, University of California, Berkeley School of Law.