Nancy Fraser-My New Best Friend

Having read through much of Adding Insult to Injury today by Nancy Fraser, I’ve decided I’d like to claim her as my new best friend. That is, her ideas seem very helpful for me in conceptualizing some of the dilemmas I see in the work of addressing the problem of racism in the context of white congregations.

Here was my post on this book from April:

In reading Nancy Fraser’s Adding Insult to Injury, I was reminded of a recent event I attended. As an affiliate member of the President’s Commission on Race and Ethnicity (PCORE) at Emory University, I was invited to attend a Commissions Retreat. At this retreat, the three commissions at Emory came together, each representing the diverse constituencies of these commissions: the President’s Commission on the Status of Women; the President’s Commission on Sexuality, Gender Diversity and Queer Equality; and PCORE.

The retreat was hosted by the Office of Community and Diversity, whose Vice-Provost was there to present an alternative model to the commissions. Rather than these three separate commissions, he and the others with him were proposing a new model of one Community and Diversity Advisory Council. On a PowerPoint slide, the Vice-Provost represented this new council with four concentric circles: the inner most consisting of the Executive Committee (including the President of Emory as well as executive leadership of Emory University and Healthcare), the Steering Committee (including the diversity officers serving specific populations at Emory as well as at-large members), the Divisional Committee on Diversity (including liaisons from each of Emory’s schools and divisions, forming teams to address issues of diversity within the following areas: faculty, staff, students, local/global issues, facilities, and data), and a fourth circle for “Town Hall meetings” open to all members of the community.

Throughout the retreat, it was echoed that we had to choose between these two models, because we were in a “zero-sum game.” We could not have both. The structure of the commissions, in which at large members from the Emory community participated and communicated “advice” or advocacy directly with the President of Emory, could not co-exist with this more complicated structure which internalized into the institution the concern for diversity across its many divisions. The leaders of the retreat (the diversity officers at Emory) argued that the President would not be willing to have both co-exist because that would take up too much of his time. They argued that this second model was more complicated, but in their opinion, much more effective in advocating for diversity and ensuring divisional compliance with goals of diversity than the commissions model.

The objections by the participants (predominantly members of the commissions) consisted in rejecting the premise that this second, more institutional, model would be more effective, given the success of the commissions in raising awareness in the past and effecting real changes on campus. They also worried about the lack of participation from persons on the “front lines” of dealing with discrimination—with this new model, the only people discussing these issues with the President would be more invested, higher up on the institutional ladder, and thus in some ways more indebted to and dependent on the institution than these others who had some degree of anonymity in raising their concerns within the commissions. Could real change come from within the institutional structure itself?

Also, would there still be fair representation of these diverse constituencies? While the diversity officers represented particular populations, not all the populations were represented by these paid staff members. For instance, certain officers only offered services to students, which left no place for staff persons to voice their complaints about issues of discrimination. Without the Commissions as places where members across the campus community can speak and voice their concerns, would there be fair representation of all those affected by discrimination in moving towards a more just university environment?

Fraser’s framing of the recent debate between redistribution or recognition brings to light the inherent struggle present at this commissions retreat. The redistribution of power along more internalized institutional lines would in some ways transform the system and give persons who are given the job of advocating for particular populations a greater chance at impacting the greater university. At the same time, such a reconfiguration would limit the recognition granted to those with less power within the institution, a recognition many felt they received by being able to participate in something called a
President’s Commission”—a title granting status to those within it by pointing to the impact they can have on Emory’s leadership. I am curious as to how Nancy Fraser would have responded to this event. How would she have responded to this change in structures and in the concerns lifted by the participants?

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Having re-read the text today and feeling more confident that I understand where Fraser is going, I think she would acknowledge the complexities of the situation in terms of the recognition/redistribution tension as well as the different forms that each of these can take (affirmative versus transformative). I’ll have more to say tomorrow…

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