July 20, 2021


Who Killed Essentialism?On the forbidden but unavoidable concept. (Charlie Riggs, 7/19/21, Hedgehog Review)

As recently as a few years ago, when I was in graduate school, anyone making an "essentialist" argument was generally thought to be committing an intellectual and moral error. Essentialism most often functioned as a pejorative term in left-leaning, academic parlance, naming the retrograde belief that groups, people, or identities were defined by immutable "essences"--ontological or biological substrates that determine action and behavior.

How strange, then, to find "essentialism" being flung as an accusation in the culture war du jour, the recent controversy over critical race theory--but now as an epithet against the Left. Florida governor Ron DeSantis says that "critical race theory is basically race essentialism." Pundit Ben Shapiro calls the pushback against CRT "a rejection of racial essentialism in favor of individualism." Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist who more than anyone else invented the campaign against CRT (on the cynical, though not incorrect, understanding that "strung together, the phrase 'critical race theory' connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American"), accuses CRT-influenced pedagogues of "explicitly endorsing principles of segregationism, group-based guilt, and race essentialism--ugly concepts that should have been left behind a century ago."

The merits of these arguments--about the nature of critical race theory, and of the larger left-wing cultural politics for which it has lately become a symbol--are less interesting to me than the universal disrepute of "essentialism." No one in academia wants to be accused of essentialism, and conservatives seem to have selected the term partly because they know where to slip the knife in. It is a classic example of what Kenneth Burke called the "stealing back and forth of symbols."

But how did essentialism acquire its bad reputation, now on both sides of the ideological spectrum? And is that reputation deserved? As Rufo's comment suggests, at least part of the backlash against essentialism--or racial essentialism, at any rate--originated in the early-twentieth-century collapse of racial/biological deterministic thinking in the social sciences. The story of how Franz Boas and his merry band of cultural anthropologists debunked the scientific racism of the Madison Grant school, toppling rigid biological race categories with a careful attention to culture as a human artifice or "social construction," is a familiar tale. Charles King's recent book Gods of the Upper Air tells it as well as anyone, adorned with ample, colorful details on the lives of Boas, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and others.

But anti-essentialism has other histories, too, some more recent. As Daniel T. Rodgers showed in Age of Fracture, his masterful intellectual history of the last quarter of the twentieth century, the radical politics of the 1960s and '70s produced notions of "essential" blackness--as well as "essential" womanhood--that came in for increasing skepticism from both Left and Right during the 1980s when the range of black and female experiences became more visible and the terrain of racial and gender politics shifted. The "post-essentialist" black writers of that time who sought to destabilize the concept of race--among whom the much-maligned critical race theorists can, ironically, be counted--were sometimes discomfited to find their ideas being mirrored or taken up by conservatives pressing a "color-blind" agenda against Affirmative Action, reparations, and other policies aimed at rectifying historical injustice. The more things change...

The irony, of course, is that it is CRT that holds race to be an artificial construct, while the critics on the Right are Identitarian. 

Posted by at July 20, 2021 12:00 AM