Invisibilities: Deviation. Visibilizing the Invisible Operation of Racism in French Psychosocial Institutions.

To deviate a little, I would like to critique a particularly nefast invisibility called racism. This invisibility is much like the previous invisibilities discussed in this forum, but with an important difference: Many, including myself, argue that this deviant kind of invisibility should be chased out of hiding in order to eliminate it entirely. I have attempted to do so through tools that I draw from Latourian philosophy of science. My critical approach is deviant in the sense that entering into critical relationship with subjects generally leads Latourians to suspect that I am acting as an “all-seeing” critic attempting to unveil the facts to everyone else who are blinded by illusions, a visual metaphor that Latour generally employs in a pejorative fashion (Latour 2004). I will argue that my deviance is not as radical as it may appear at first glance since Latour’s own work, and perhaps most explicitly in his most recent publication Enquête sur les modes d’existence, has consistently involved tactics of making invisibilities visible (Latour 2012, ch. 7 & 8).

Latour’s criticisms of what he calls “critique” do not apply to the visibilizing tactics that I use in my research. For one, as William Girard says about Latourian invisibilities in the introduction to this discussion, race and racism are neither “mere social constructions” nor “autonomous realities beyond our reach.” As Donna Haraway writes, race is a “inextricable weave of historically specific discursive, scientific, and physical reality” (Haraway 1997, 233). 

In the field, I do not deploy unveiling tactics that imply that I alone can directly perceive the operation of race. Instead, my research has involved collective processes of making race and racism visible. This process of visibilizing is greatly facilitated by what I call breakdown situations: the perturbation of breath in asthmatics by typically invisible entities helps make breath visible (Ali Kenner’s post), violent and unresolved death make spirits especially visible (J. Brent Crosson’s post), and the breakdown of technical artifacts helps visibilize the networks needed to sustain them, networks which generally go unnoticed until things fall apart (Latour 1991, 36).

The breakdown situations that motivated my research on French institutions were the revolts in the poorest and most segregated neighborhoods in Los Angeles in 1992 and in the outskirts of Paris in 2005. In the U.S., the psychiatrist Frederick Goodwin—preceding his appointment as director of the National Institute of Mental Health—compared poor urban African-American “rioters” to “hyper-aggressive monkeys” in order to defend research on “conduct disorder” (Goodwin 1992; Feder 2007, 74). In France, Nicolas Sarkozy, then head of internal security, argued that the rioting “black giants from the periphery who are under 18 and frighten everyone” are not like the more normal delinquent youth of the 1940s. His comments were also given in defense of similar research on “youth conduct disorder” that was published in a review of Anglophone research by the National Institute of Health in France (Inserm) in 2005. 

Foucaultian philosopher, Ellen Feder argues that Goodwin’s remark represents a “discursive ‘break’, revealing what is meant to be unspoken about race and the management of difference during this period” (Feder 2007, 70). Sarkozy’s comment was another break of this type that occurred in a similar political climate. As an anthropologist, I simply traced the network of actors implicated in these remarks concerning large-scale urban revolts and in the ensuing bio-psycho-social controversies in France specifically. In this way a whole network of institutions became visible and controversial as well as a form of “governmentality” that “exerts its violence in total silence, through the indisputable foundation, the impression of naturalness, of obviousness that it has succeeded in giving to . . . institutions” (Latour 2008, 668).

The psychosocial institutions that I encountered—such as the National Institute on the Education of Handicapped and Special Needs Children (the INSHEA) where I attended workshops on “behavior disorders”—manage routine violence in poor segregated neighborhoods and especially in their schools, the primary contact zone between stigmatized families and the state. I argue that this form of governmentality is based on a racial logic that, due to the particular history of racism, must remain invisible to operate as it does.

Ever since Hitler lost popularity among the white elite throughout the world, biologists in the United States that had been in friendly contact with Nazi scientists replaced words like “Eugenics” with “Sociobiology” or “Human Genetics” in the titles of their journals and began to define Hitler and other “racists” as aberrational psychopaths (McWhorter 2009, 249). Biologists nevertheless continued to focus on the management of abnormal individuals, which they evaluated through psychometric technologies that supposedly found ninety percent of African Americans to be “feebleminded” (ibid. 237). 

Today, public health research like that mentioned above still labels large numbers of inhabitants of poor segregated neighborhoods as deficient and intervenes in their lives. For instance, supposedly disordered youth are frequently placed in segregated educational institutions. These institutions avoid accusations of racism by avoiding any explicitly race-related vocabulary. 

Thus, it is not surprising that the majority of psychosocial professionals that I accompanied in France perceive any accusation of “racism” as one of the greatest insults. To gain their respect for my positions, I first needed to make visible the explicitly racial character of the controversial remarks that frame the research I critique. I go against the grain of the race neutral language of even the largest protest movement criticizing such research in France (Pas de O de conduite). The images the movement uses for their publications suggest that the little blond blue-eyed “petit Nicolas” is the principle victim of Public Health early prevention of “delinquent behavior” programs. 

Photo Credit: Serdal Cartercity

However, visibilizing the repeated references to racially segregated neighborhoods in the workshops I attended also has its risks as Crosson’s discussion of the “right to opacity” (Glissant) rightly highlights in the preceding entry of this debate. Pointing out that specific populations are being talked about in discussions about problematic behavior can simply further stigmatize those populations if done inappropriately. As a constructive critic, I avoid seemingly transparent judgments concerning the nature and origin of youth behavior, the types of judgments certain psychological theories make. Rather, my method has primarily been to complicate the dominant judgments of the professionals I was in contact with. I did so by revealing the racist implications of their judgments through stirring semi-dormant controversies with the help of other more marginal actors implicated in these debates in France. 

It was necessary to draw attention to the larger backdrop of racism as a “massive network of biopolitical machinery” (McWhorter 2009, 238), which includes “institutions for confinement and discipline” as well as “practical knowledge systems” (ibid.). Through debate and through opening doors to new experiences with youth, I tried to help professionals see how a more generalized form of racism is tied up with rational expertise, naturalized perceptions of the supposed dangerousness and irrationality of trouble-making youth that seem to correspond with experience, mixed with widely shared ethnocentric judgments that tend to be unquestionably taken as universally valid. 

I did so by highlighting additional breakdown situations, such as conflicts in schools over wearing a “cap” [casquette], one of the principle sources of conflict in schools that professionals in the “scientific” workshops mentioned while entirely dismissing the supposedly irrational reasons that the youth provide in their attempts to keep wearing caps in class. My research sparks controversy by publicizing the ways in which hip-hop professionals and certain Muslim teachers that I discussed with also defend the “cap”—an important target in a broader institutional war against hip-hop street culture and the racial backgrounds that it is predominantly associated with. I do not have space here to go into more detail on these racism-revealing strategies through collective debate, but readers of French can go here or here to find two not-yet-translated articles I published in francophone psychology journals upon request, which both present aspects of my research to my principle target audience for the moment.

Works Cited  

Feder, E. K. 2007. Family Bonds: Genealogies of Race and Gender. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

1992. National Mental Health Advisory Council. Presentation of "Violence Initiative". February 11th.

Haraway, Donna. 1997. Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium. FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Technoscience. London: Routledge

Latour, B. 2004. Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical Inquiry 30 (2):225–248.

Latour, B. 2012. Enquête sur les modes d'éxistence. Une anthropologie des Modernes. Paris: La Découverte.

Latour, Bruno. 1991. On Technical Mediation: Philosophy, Sociology, Genealogy. Common Knowledge, fall, V 3:29-64.

Latour, Bruno. 2008. Pour un dialogue entre science politique et  science studies. Revue Française de Science Politique 58 (4):657-678.

McWhorter, Ladelle. 2009. Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America: A Genealogy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.  

Roberto Domingo Toledo received his doctorate in philosophy from Stony Brook University in 2013. His dissertation is entitled Latour as Philosopher: On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Critique for Innovative Science and Sociology. He is currently working as a sociologist at the INSHEA on a project analysing the evaluation of youth with school-related disabilities in French schools and disability services.

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