Racism and refuge in one hot summer: The importance of comparative ethnic studies

Since Toni Morrison’s passing at the beginning of August, I’ve been reflecting on the immense impact her work has had on me and on the field of comparative ethnic studies. 

Novels like “Sula,” “Song of Solomon,” “A Mercy,” “Jazz” and “Beloved” have been utterly transformational. So too has been Morrison’s important scholarship on the enduring Africanist presence across the canon of American literature. While the magnificent arc of her oeuvre is unparalleled, and the aesthetic visions of democracy’s promise densely wrought, the discrete moments are luminous in their own right, yielding new insight with every reread. 

For example: In the prologue to her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” Morrison’s young narrator sketches the scars of a world shaped by poverty, intimate violence and internalized racism. She warily notes: “There is really nothing more to say — except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” 

It’s a line of Morrison’s I’ve been studying with students and friends for a while. What to make of this kind of refuge? Is it a space only of resignation or avoidance, as the novel might imply? Or might it be something else as well? Perhaps the difficulty of the “why” is its stark rejoinder: because. Careless responses to “why” risk discarding the unkempt unpredictability of lives lived, or seek causes too deep or mercurial or raw to articulate fully.

Morrison intimates that pursuing the “how,” by contrast, provides sanctuary, a place to elaborate connections, links and relationships, within and among communities. 

This summer’s cascade of racism demands, among other things, such a refuge. One elaboration looks like the following: 

Historic forms of human migration catalyzed by the twin emergencies of war and climate are greeted by some with fears of demographic “replacement.” White supremacist violence boomerangs across central Europe, Pittsburgh, New Zealand and San Diego, crystallizing in El Paso, Texas, in a killer whose avowed mission is to wage war against a “Hispanic invasion.” 

Thousands of Central American migrants seeking asylum are detained along the southern border of the United States, leading numerous scholars and elected officials to reflect on whether the term “concentration camp” is an accurate one to describe these abysmal conditions. The most consequential of elected officials harasses first-term women of color in the U.S. House of Representatives, and presidential campaign rallies echo with chants of “send her back.” 

Meanwhile, the purveyors of the “great replacement” theory figure Jews as surreptitious accomplices to racialized invasion, while bad-faith accusations of anti-Semitism are marshalled to criminalize forms of nonviolent protest that implore the state of Israel to abide by international law, and the Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu governments systematically preclude the legitimate expression of Palestinian national self-determination. 

In recent days, debates have unfolded around how to respond to “domestic terrorism.” These conversations seem to refashion cultural scripts that were drafted over the better part of a half-century and hardened since 9/11 — scripts that deepen the already racialized intersections of terror, security and punishment. While media personalities hem and haw as to the relative effectiveness of naming the purveyors of white supremacy, Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducts one of the largest workplace raids in U.S. history, detaining nearly 700 undocumented workers in Mississippi.

Confronted with litanies like these, comparative ethnic studies offers a key site for elaborating on “how.” The field enables us to map not only how discrete geographies, histories, communities and cultures have become interconnected and entangled with one another, as we have seen this summer, but also how such mappings link questions of knowledge with desires for freedom. 

Comparative ethnic studies scholars remind us to trace how racism breathes through the terribly mundane rhetoric of the everyday. Such everyday talk doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it affects different communities in specific and related ways. In exposing human difference to value-laden procedures of hierarchy, racism forges striated conditions of livability up to and including what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Comparative ethnic studies illuminates how racist rhetoric is linked to enduring social structures that are institutionalized in law, policy and practice; how these institutions are sedimented in histories at once global, national and local; and how these histories have become entangled inextricably with ongoing processes of capitalism, colonialism and warfare. 

At the same time, to follow in Morrison’s legacy is to provide refuge to study how to get free. As impermanent and imbricated as it is within prevailing structures of power, ethnic studies elicits learning from minoritarian histories and memories, languages and desires. As a place to hone our critical sensibilities, the field cultivates how to think within and across lifeworlds shaped under duress, shaped in the theory and practice of dreaming freedom otherwise. 

If nurturing something approaching multiracial democracy is to stand half a chance, elaborating on how we got here and how we get to where we want to go is indispensable to the task. After a summer like this one, the space comparative ethnic studies makes for pursuing interconnections and entanglements couldn’t be more vital. Let’s get to work.

Keith P. Feldman is an associate professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley.