Society for Cultural Anthropology Culture@Large presents: "Race, Power, and Social Justice," Organized by Polly Strong, New Orleans, 2002
Each year SCA's Culture at Large session features a lecture by a prominent scholar from outside the discipline, followed by responses from anthropologists representing various perspectives. The speaker for 2002 was Gerald Torres of the University of Texas Law School, an important figure in critical race theory, environmental law, and American Indian law. Torres most recently co-authored, with Lani Guinier, The Miner's Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2002).
Weaving together an understanding of race as both structural and experiential, Foucaultian and feminist approaches to power, and a dose of magical realism (among other influences), The Miner’s Canary seeks to advance critical race theory from the legal arena into that of political theory and democratic practice. The book’s title is drawn from a 1953 article in the Yale Law Journal by Felix S. Cohen, the foundational theorist of Indian law, who wrote: "Like the miner’s canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere, and our treatment of the Indian . . .marks the rise and fall in our democratic faith." (62:48, 390).
Guinier and Torres identify all those who are racially marginalized with the miner’s canary, stating that "their distress is the first sign of a danger that threatens us all." Through a series of case studies concerning such topics as affirmative action, political districting, racial profiling, and labor and community organizing, The Miner’s Canary considers "how racialized identities may be put to service to achieve social change through democratic renewal" in a movement "led by people of color but joined by others" (pp. 11-12). A critique of the discourse of colorblindness as well as identity politics, the book’s structure enacts the coalition-building that it advocates.
Torres’s lecture, "The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy,” discussed the broader narrative turn in legal scholarship. As he explains in a 2002 article in the Harvard Law Review, this approach rests on an interdisciplinary literature emphasizing "the importance of narrative in understanding and ultimately transforming social realities" (115:1362). The methodologies of anthropology, linguistics, and rhetoric play an important role in this approach to law, particularly in their ability to illuminate "the plurality of social lives," "the role of law in those lives," and "the process of translation between stories across cultures" (1394-95). Attention to narrativity is significant in The Miner’s Canary as well as Torres’s analysis of two important court cases in which Native American stories failed to translate meaningfully in the courtroom: the Mashpee claims case (Duke Law Journal, 1990) and a Supreme Court case involving the construction of a paved road impacting sites sacred to Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa Indians (Harvard Law Review, 2002).
Anthropologists Nahum Chandler (Johns Hopkins), Renato Rosaldo (Stanford), and Verena Stolcke (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) served as discussants. Each reflected on Torres’s lecture and writings from the perspective of his or her own theoretical and substantive work on race, power, and social justice.