Rogers Smith: “Most of our most vital identities and statuses have been greatly shaped by laws and policies”
On the evening of June 2, 2011, at the annual Moynihan Prize and Fellows Induction dinner, Douglas Massey, President of the American Academy, introduced Rogers Smith, who was named the 2011 Theodore Roosevelt Fellow. Dr. Massey described Professor Smith as “one of the foremost scholars of public law, of political theory, and American political thought in the United States.” Below is a transcript of Rogers Smith’s remarks.
Thanks Doug, though it does not quite make up for your leaving Penn. I am deeply honored to be named the Theodore Roosevelt Fellow of the Academy, but I fear that Theodore Roosevelt might not favor my work because it has not wholly favored Theodore Roosevelt. I have stressed how, even as Roosevelt supported securing to each man, whatever his color, equality of opportunity, equality of treatment before the law, he also called African-Americans a backward race, in need of training before they could enter into the possession of true freedom. He led a progressive movement that promised not to try to “force the political recognition of an inferior race upon an unwilling and superior people” by enforcing black voting rights.
I have stressed these features of Roosevelt’s record, which includes many admirable things, because the central theme of my scholarship has been how human identities and statuses, including national, racial, ethnic, religious, class, and gender identities and statuses have been constituted for good and ill, not just by processes of social construction but specifically by politics and government. Most of our most vital identities and statuses have been greatly shaped by laws and policies that have used identity categories to structure political memberships and to define varying political and economic rights and duties, including eligibility for many forms of public assistance, from corporate charters to welfare checks, and for forms of public employment, from military to jury to civil service posts. Public policies have also structured formative educational, religious, and economic institutions, public and private, shaped permissible forms of marriage, family life, civil associations, and much more. My work has been part of a multi-peaked wave of scholarship rising over the past two generations, but this wave is still an undercurrent in political science with limited impact outside the Academy.
Because our identities are so vital to us, we tend to see them as natural, or at least pre-political, rooted far more in biology or history or sociology or economics or divine providence than in public policies. Yet though it is true that few identities originate purely in formal political processes, none originate outside of politically structured context and most gain their prominence in our lives in part because they have been embraced, adapted, and then institutionalized by laws and policies. My interest in this political identity crafting did arise from fascination with how the decisions embodied in the U.S. Constitution restructured the lives of former British subjects who became U.S. citizens and with how the Constitution’s impacts shifted over time with new American civic conceptions. But I soon had to come to terms with the fact that from early on American lawmakers gave official sanction to conceptions of racial identities in order to buttress first slavery, then forms of second-class citizenship, generating inequalities that haunt America today. In my book Civic Ideals these facts led me to argue against claims that the U.S. has always been a society dedicated to democracy and individual rights with a few exceptions slowly but inevitably expunged. I contended instead that major political movements have long believed America should be governed only by white Christian men, and I argued that only highly contingent victories in bitter contests won laws and policies that re-crafted American identities and statuses more inclusively.
In my new book, Still A House Divided, my co-author Desmond King and I argue that today, despite President Obama’s victory, the U.S. is mired in a new era of stagnation and partial retreat in the nation’s long, unsteady march toward racial equality. Virtually all Americans now agree that racial segregation policies were wrong, but modern policymaking on many fronts is marred by clashes between members of two rival racial policy alliances that formed in the 1970s. One alliance insists that government must be colorblind, making all decisions without regard to racial consequences. The other favors explicit racial goals in policy arenas that include employment, housing, electoral districting, education, census categories, immigration, criminal justice policies, and much more. King and I conclude that effective policies cannot be reached in any of these domains, either by ignoring racial consequences or by focusing only on them. Instead, policymakers and the public alike must accept that explicit, empirically informed attention to racial consequences is always necessary, yet policies must pursue many objectives and often can do so best without explicit racial provisions. Today, policies in the areas I listed are shaped by racial concerns but they are often crafted so that those concerns can be concealed and denied, producing contorted policies that rarely work well from any point of view. Sadly, this is true of many of Obama’s policies, though there are some signs of hope.
Beyond race, my work considers many other identities, including immigrants, religious minorities, women, gays and lesbians, the disabled and more. Beyond formal policies, I explore the roles that broader narratives of identity stories of peoplehood play in the contests that generate those policies. I believe political science must attend more to these topics in the future because the twenty-first century promises to transform the politics of identity and status. Social roles are in flux, migration is rising, national boundaries are being challenged and, still more significantly, today new technologies are creating new options for the communities we inhabit, for electronic and chemical enhancement of our physical capacities – even for changing our very genetic endowments. These scientific developments pose profound policy choices. What kinds of cybernetic and genetic innovations do we promote? What do we merely permit? What do we forbid? These choices will make it clearer that identities and statuses are constituted in great part by laws and policies. They will not make clear what our answers to these questions should be.
Those momentous uncertainties are why I find these issues so compelling and why I am grateful for the recognition of their significance that this induction represents. Thank you.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.