“Producing Race,” Exceptions to Equality in American Liberalism
Appearing at the Asian American/Asian Research Institute on Friday, November 11th, Professor Falguni Sheth discussed “Producing Race,” a chapter from her book, “Toward a Political Philosophy of Race.” Concerning the equal protection afforded all persons in American liberalism, Professor Sheth highlighted how there are always exceptions -- certain groups who do not qualify for full-fledged membership into the polity. The “exception group” has changed throughout history and at different times has included blacks, women, Asians, and many others. Much of Professor Sheth’s discussion, and the heart of her book, deals with the current state of Muslims being the “exception group” since 9-11. Her examination of the creation of “exception groups” leads her to argue that it is not actually hypocritical to the ideal of American liberalism but is instead an intrinsic part of how liberalism operates in the United States.
In her book, she states that America’s “equal and universal treatment can hardly be recognized and valued unless it was understood to be acquired through difficulty” (115). In other words, part of the value of having full “membership” as an American is that it is not to be easily attained by just anyone. Additionally, Professor Sheth argues, “it is only by identifying an enemy or stranger that a liberal polity can understand itself and its function” (115). Therefore, American liberalism requires an enemy within its borders, an enemy to whom it can deny full and equal rights as a way to underscore the value of membership in the polity and to allow its members to understand themselves by seeing in the enemy what they are not.
Determining what group becomes the exception to inclusion in liberalism’s equal protections has many factors. In her book, Professor Sheth discusses how the persons in the exception population are determined to be not quite “human-like-us.” They are typically an immigrant population that does not possess the same values, or share the same God, or are so culturally different with such different beliefs that they are seen as a threat to the American way of life. In her discussion at AAARI, Professor Sheth used the term “unruly” to describe this not “human-like-us” group and explained how the sovereign power uses race as a “technology” or “instrument” to manage the “unruly” group who refuses to assimilate. In her analysis, race is partially a political construct used to control the “exception group” through what she called “gaps or ambiguity” in the nation’s laws.
Professor Sheth’s book also finds exceptions to be “intrinsic” to liberalism since “they enable sovereign authorities to manage and secure their own claims to power” (117). The sovereign power uses the focus on the exception group to highlight the “potential vulnerability for all populations” within its borders, thereby encouraging other groups to behave or risk becoming the next target. During her talk on Friday night, Professor Sheth briefly discussed how this dynamic leads to a “triad” of populations. There is the sovereign power, the “exception” or outsider population, and existing between them is what she calls the “border population.” This “border population” often facilitates the ostracizing of the outsider group. They were formally the outsider group but were brought up in the ranks to gain inclusion so the new exception group could become the focus of the sovereign power’s manipulation. When this happens, they may be held up as an example in order to highlight their strengths compared to the “evils” of the new exception group.
While not functioning in exactly the same manner as the “model minority myth,” which was used to pit Asian Americans against African Americans in the 1960s, the concept of “border populations” does share some similarities. When a nation confronts an “unruly” minority that appears to threaten its stability (whether a new threat, or an existing one that is fighting for equal rights, like blacks in the 60s) it can use another minority (even one that doesn’t truly have full and equal rights) to try to influence the “unruly” group. Even if it does not succeed in moderating the actions of the “unruly,” by highlighting the threatening qualities of the “unruly” group compared to the “border population” or “model minority,” it may garner enough support from the majority of its polity to alter existing laws or create exceptions to those laws that will further limit the rights of the “unruly” group. Professor Sheth gives the example of the Patriot Act, created after 9-11, which allowed for violations of the civil rights of America’s Muslim population with the claim that it was protecting the majority of America’s population. Professor Sheth discussed how at the time when Muslims became “the enemy” there was an increase in media stories claiming racial discrimination (primarily against African-Americans) was no longer an issue in America. And during this time, President Bush made sure to have many racially diverse people high up in his administration. She noted how both of these things enabled America to claim it was not being racist while it was targeting a new portion of its population in a decidedly racist manner.
Professor Sheth’s concept of “exception groups” in American liberalism fits right in with most everything we have studied throughout this semester in our class. Asians, from their earliest appearance in America (and even, in some respects, today) were viewed as “alien,” as not quite “human-like-us.” They were seen as unable to assimilate and were therefore determined as “unruly” and a threat to American society. Laws were enacted to restrict their civil rights and to prevent them from naturalizing and gaining “membership” in America. Professor Sheth’s discussion of those having membership in a polity understanding themselves against those who they exclude can be seen in direct relation to Orientalism and how the Occidental, the west, understood itself by what it was not – it was not “the other,” the Oriental. As mentioned earlier, her notion of “border populations,” and the distinctions and conflicts it raises between minority populations, shares similarities to the development of the model minority myth in the 60s. Additionally, Professor Sheth’s discussion of how America can use a time of crisis and perceived national threat to limit the rights of a group of its own citizens – as it has currently with Muslim Americans – directly relates to America’s internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
While I would like to believe in the ideal of liberalism in a democratic nation – that equal rights for all and equal protection under the law is possible, Professor Sheth’s argument is too strong. The creation and maintenance of “exception groups,” minority populations that are exempt from full equality in the nation in which they reside, has been and continues to be an intrinsic element of American liberalism.