Minoritized Space: An Inquiry into the Spatial Order of Things

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Minority spaces, in both spatial and psychic senses, are the heartland of national self-imagination in the United States.

Michel Laguerre

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Monday, December 6 1999, 1:09 PM

Minority spaces, in both spatial and psychic senses, are the heartland of national self-imagination in the United States. US history can easily be conceived as the story of expansions and contractions, assemblies and diffusions. These spatial stories, heavily shaped through Euro-American ideologies of race and gender, constitute that foundation of American politics and social expression. Without them, no tour bus would ever pull up to the Greek colonnade that covers Plymouth Rock, representative of a miniscule minority that transformed itself into the United States. Without an historic, enabling and racialized concept of majoritarian space and power, freeways could not be bulldozed through working class and ethnic neighborhoods in order to provide sanitized access to islands of secure office complexes, as in Newark or Detroit.

From the enactment of Manifest Destiny in the Philippines to the clearances of black neighborhoods in urban renewal programs, the United States has literalized its ideas of space and power. As a rule, "minority" (for these were not always numerical minorities) cultures have been the exhibition spaces for the putative virtues of whiteness. Those who did not appreciate such virtues found themselves short of living room, in both literal and metaphoric senses. Those who offended white supremacy discovered that minority space was their trap. Bigger Thomas, trapped within an ever-narrowing search in Chicago's Black Belt and looking at a newspaper map, discovers blackness and space as simultaneous social traps: "He stood looking at that tiny square of white as though gazing down into the barrel of a gun. He was there on that map, in that white spot, waiting for them to come." Power inexorably translates into either spatial control or its absence.

Yet at the same time, in the United States there has been a long and continuing fascination with contained minority spaces. Praying Indian villages of the eighteenth century; reservations and East Coast urban immigrant neighborhoods of the nineteenth century; Harlem, Chinatowns, barrios and gay districts of the twentieth century. After shaping the terms of existence for minority groups through legal instruments of segregation, ranging from forced transfers to legislated apartheid to restrictive covenants, American majoritarianism visited its creations with an admixture of desire and horror. If these locales were sites of vice and erotic fulfillment on the one hand, they were also sites towards which rental agents, police, missionaries, social workers, and sanitary reformers were dispatched on the other hand. Above all, minority spaces have historically been the originating locales for low-paid and subordinate labor pools: economic utility within capitalism preceded ethnic attractions and exoticism. Whatever the rosy hues of belated memory, there was no glory on Hester Street.

One of the most significant theoretical shifts in ethnic studies of the past twenty years lies in an understanding of minority spatiality as an interlinked set of political practices. Perhaps most memorably, Yi-fu Tuan has stood out as a US geographer who has brought this sensibility of minoritization in space to bear on understanding how Americans continue to shape their society through resistances and gradual acceptances of alterity. This geographic understanding of ethnicity, which began in single-community studies, has expanded to a sense of inescapable cross-culturalism. Studies of social space remain incomplete or untenable without comparison across ethnic communal experiences, and Minoritized Space is a leading representative of this wave of cross-cultural spatial studies.

Michel Laguerre, who teaches African-American studies and social anthropology at Berkeley, works in this volume to elaborate a theorization of minority space. He begins with the unexceptionable premise that in order to have a minority subject, one must have minority space. Following from this hypothesis, Laguerre uses this study to anatomize and discuss the varieties of minority space.

He does not provide simple answers, and begins the book by advancing opinions that comfort neither side of the current social debates over race. Will affirmative action, for instance, act to fracture the spatial solidities that have so far characterized ethnic demography in the United States? Laguerre responds that "While affirmative action --- in the states where it still is a legal practice --- helps a few to overcome discriminatory obstacles in society, it plays to the advantage of the dominant group since it requires cosmetic, but not drastic, change, and reinforces the inferior position of minorities. Once they consider themselves as minorities, the ethnic others are squarely in the logic of the dominant system that is structured to control, contain, and subjugate them." In this situation, he argues, minoritization and affirmative action serve as interfaces of accomodation with dominant ideologies of capital. Laguerre implies, without specific argument, that affirmative action is a pressure valve that ultimately enables the preservation rather than seriously challenging systems of subordinate minority space.

After opening the book with such provocative thoughts, it is a pity that Laguerre does not elaborate them further. However, this sort of contention does provide forewarning of Laguerre's repeated anti-naturalizing argument that "We tend to take for granted minority status as if it were a nature-given identity for some citizens." Throughout, Laguerre emphasizes that "the majority and minority are not static or fixed entities. They are fluid and historicized social constructions, social formations based on alliances, common perceptions, and sharing of similar ideologies." Thus, Laguerre asserts, no racialized subject can be anticipated to live within an inalienable minority or majority identity. Maybe so. Yet, short of passing, precious few have limned themselves back and forth with fluidity. Regular folks live within the ethnic identities they received from childhood forward, spending their working hours on income production rather than Gatsy-like self-reinvention. Even granting the shifting constitutions of minority and majority subjectivity will not erase the hard social statistics associated with these non-static entities.

In the book's introductory sections, the theoretical arguments on space threaten to read like a vaguely racialized recapitulation of passages from Everyday Life theorists Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre. However, it becomes clear that Laguerre is setting out terms for the rest of his argument.

The first major chapter (#3) is a misstep. Laguerre places too much emphasis on the US Constitution in forming his argument about the creation of American minority and majority subjectivities. The promulgation of the constitution becomes a 'magic moment,' one where a new corporate self-understanding congeals and one which we in the contemporary United States can locate as the point where majority citizenship and minority non-citizenship acquired legal meaning and force. What the constitution did in this regard, however, was no more than to confirm prevailing practices of political exclusion as existed under the Articles of Confederation and the colonial charters. Laguerre's argument, ironically, re-privileges the signing of the US Constitution as a supreme national moment, reinstating the vision of older historiographies dating back to Bancroft and Hildreth, in contrast to newer histories that de-privilege this epochalism. The practical tactics and violences of American spatial practices in regards Indians were formulated long before the Founding Fathers congregated. In fact, the constitution became more of a bothersome hindrance to federal Indian policy than a planning document, as Andrew Jackson demonstrated by repeatedly ignoring Supreme Court orders during the Indian removals under his administration.

The following chapters are far more convincing. Chapter 4 provides a reasonable review of the spatial formation and positioning of minorities in a broad international spectrum of societies, although its plundering of Levi-Strauss for typological descriptions of "raw and cooked" minorities (I groaned aloud) is unsuccessful and quickly aborted. Too often the astute analyses that Laguerre can provide find themselves victimized by such metaphoric sleights of hand, as where he reads anti-Chinese court cases dealing with education and licensing in California through uniform reference to not fully comparable "spaces." Where spatiality subsumes all social phenomena, or as here, where legal exclusion emerges in only one analytic dimension, spatiality becomes progressively meaningless.

Two following chapters are perhaps the strongest in the book. In "Diaspora, Memory and Space," Laguerre ranges across ethnic communities and geographies for some cogent observations about the attributes of diaspora, one of the most expropriated and misused of phrases in current critical literature. The question that particularly concerns Laguerre, himself a Haitian expatriate, is the mapping of space within memory. He is particularly attentive to issues of class in collective memory, and draws upon the Haitian community for illustration of the difference that class experience creates in creating more positive or negative memories. In "Technologies of Minoritized Space" Laguerre writes briefly but with rigor and persuasiveness of the mechanisms that serve to locate and restrain minoritized subjects within specific sites. This chapter compresses much of his prior thinking towards a theorization of segregation, enclaves, borders, control and ideologies. It is the jewel of the book, written in a succinct style remniscent of Canetti's Crowds and Power. Perhaps Laguerre needs an entire book to reach that synoptic power, but it is worth the wait.

Berkeley: Institute of Governmental Studies Press, 1999 

Copyright © 1999 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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