The Center for Critical Democracy Studies

Demos21: Students Join Symposium on Race and Social Justice

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On Tuesday, February 23, 2021, students from AUP's Department of History and Politics joined Professors Michelle Kuo and Miranda Spieler for a discussion on the application of Critical Race Theory in the US and French contexts. The event was the first in a series of seven symposia organized on the topic of race and social justice as part of Demos21: a year-long series of lectures, roundtables and workshops organized by AUP’s Center for Critical Democracy Studies (CCDS). The hybrid event, which students attended both in-person and online, was also open to interested AUP staff and faculty.

Professor Spieler began the event by introducing the aims of the symposia: “I wanted to create a space for conversation that wasn’t just specialized or scholarly but would be accessible to students and interested members of the public.” She then laid out the six events to come, all of which approach the interactions between race and law, with two scholars presenting papers during most sessions, followed by a roundtable discussion. Upcoming sessions include discussions on “Race, Law and Universalism” and the prison abolitionist movement. Both Spieler and Kuo will present their own papers in upcoming events.

Next, Kuo discussed the history of differing public discourses in France and the US, presenting several examples of race being written into law. Her examples included Le Code Noir, signed by Louis XIV in 1685, which nominally granted full citizenship to emancipated slaves, but in practice was quickly hampered by a series of laws reducing the rights of freed people of color – for example the right to inherit property or take the name of a white person. In the US context, Kuo discussed the “Black Codes” of 1866, which defined Black citizens as anyone whose heritage is at least one-fourth Black, as well as Plessy vs. Ferguson, a Supreme Court decision in 1896 that upheld racial segregation in public facilities.

Spieler concluded the discussion with a look at the concept of racial colorblindness. In France, research relating to Critical Race Theory is often rejected due to the state’s refusal to legally recognize race. “Affirmative action is called positive racism in France,” said Spieler. “Any recognition of particularity is refused by the state.” She also highlighted how moments in American history, including Brown vs. The Board of Education and the election of President Obama, when the concept of a postracial society has been used to disavow further commitment to racial justice. “What France and America share is the weaponizing of colorblindness as a way of perpetuating injustices,” argued Spieler.  
Following the professors' presentations, students discussed key questions arising from Critical Race Theory: What is a race-blind society and is it desirable? If not, what utopian society would be desired? Finally, what is universalism, and how does its definition differ in the French and American contexts?

The Demos21 Race and Law Symposium continued on Tuesday, March 9, with a discussion on “Race, Law and Universalism: Empire and Its Legacy” with Jennifer Anne Boittin, associate professor of French, francophone studies and history at the Pennsylvania State University, and Lionel Zevounou, maître de conférence of law at the University of Paris-Nanterre. For more information on the remaining events, see the AUP website.