Professor Gary Peller Authors Book on Race Consciousness

April 23, 2012 —

In his newly published book, Critical Race Consciousness: Reconsidering American Ideologies of Racial Justice (Paradigm Publishers, 2012), Georgetown University Law Center Professor Gary Peller criticizes conventional civil rights ideas in favor of a black nationalist alternative. He argues that today's mainstream views about race reflect the victory of a conservative and apologetic vision of racial justice over what he describes as a more liberatory and compelling alternative articulated in the 1960s and 1970s by Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and others.

According to Peller, in 1970s America, a coalition of white liberals and progressives coalesced with the black middle class around an "integrationist" vision of racial justice. This coalition saw black nationalists and white supremacists as being equally wrong-headed. But, Peller says, the "integrationist" vision, centering colorblindness and equal opportunity as the ultimate goals of racial justice reform, was itself conservative and apologetic. He argues that it identified "racism" narrowly as discrete acts of discrimination, and assumed the category of "merit" was otherwise neutral and apolitical.

Peller maintains that integrationism worked to justify and legitimate the basic ways that American society distributed wealth, power and prestige, leading to the "dilemma" of affirmative action's purported departure from a system of merit. He argues that conventional civil rights discourse silently accepted underlying (and indefensible) ideologies of merit, celebrating the integration of a few privileged blacks into the elite rather than working to reform all the unfair ways that most are locked out.

Peller contends that black nationalism has itself often been a conservative ideology, but that, in the 1960s, through the work of Malcolm X, Kwame Ture and others, nationalist thought developed a leftist version of black nationalism that saw race as part of a more general radical critique of American society and culture.

"Gary Peller's Critical Race Consciousness is a profound inquiry into the prevailing frameworks through which we understand race in America," said Cornel West. "His compelling critique of liberal integrationism alongside his rejection of postmodern understandings of race is a major [scholarly] contribution."

According to the late Derrick Bell, "Reviewing racial developments over the last half century, Peller asserts that the triumph of 'integrationism' over black nationalism left a leadership void," whereby "the growing number of poverty-level blacks, who, mostly passed over during the civil rights era, find themselves with few opportunities and no effective plans to improve their plight."

UCLA Law Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw called Peller's book "a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the link between critical race theory and radical social thought more generally," while Harvard Law School Professor Duncan Kennedy added, "Peller's brilliant critique of color blindness and his case for race consciousness are more important and valuable than ever."

Peller specializes in constitutional law, contracts, torts and legal theory. He has taught at Georgetown Law since 1989. He is a widely recognized contributor to the critical legal studies and critical race theory movements, and he was instrumental in developing the Georgetown Law alternative first-year curriculum program. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review, a winner of the Sears Prize and a John E. Thayer Scholar. After law school, he clerked for Judge Morris Lasker of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. He was a member of the University of Virginia School of Law faculty prior to joining the Georgetown Law faculty.

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