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Jennifer Hochschild to Give Leff Fellowship Lectures, March 10-11

Jennifer Hochschild, professor of government and Afro-American studies at Harvard University, will deliver the Arthur Allen Leff Fellowship Lectures on March 10-11. The first talk will be a formal lecture, titled "From Nominal to Ordinal: The Politics and Morality of Skin Color Hierarchy," and will be held in Room 127 at 4:30 p.m., Monday, March 10. The second talk, "Prospects for Political and Legal Coalitions Among Identity-Based Groups," will be a more informal lunchtime discussion, in Room 127 at 12:00 p.m., Tuesday, March 11. Both events are free and open to the public, although persons wishing to attend the lunchtime discussion should RSVP to Marianne Dietz in the YLS Dean's Office (

For the Leff Fellowship Lecture on Monday, March 10, Jennifer Hochschild will present what she calls a "controversial assertion" about the structure of racial identity in America.

"The traditional nominal racial categories--black, white, Asian, Hispanic--are dissolving," says Hochschild. "[And] they may be in the process of being replaced with a single, ordinal continuum based on skin tone."

In fact, this theory is controversial enough that Hochschild doesn't entirely endorse it. It is really a "thought experiment," she says, "which is meant to say I'm not sure I believe what I'm saying, either empirically or normatively. I'm playing with the idea rather than making a claim." She will present the data supporting this assertion as well as expose some of the holes in the data. Nonetheless, she insists that there is at least some truth in the shift from nominal to ordinal racial identification--and this leads to interesting questions.

"The underlying research question . . . is how and how much do we need to rethink the way we understand the meaning of race in the United States?" says Hochschild. "There are certain ways that you can look at this as a liberating opening up of tired, dysfunctional categories. But in other ways it's an even worse reification of even older, even more dysfunctional, crude prejudices."

She suggests that one potential political response to this change in racial identity would be to replace racial categories in the U.S. census and college applications with a skin color chart. "Well, that makes all of us cringe," Hochschild responds to her hypothetical. "Why is that? If, in fact, skin tone is a better indicator than race, why aren't we prepared to follow the logical implications? . . . Part of what I'm trying to do is bring this out into the discussed open, to see whether there ought to be political policy or legal implications of some sort."

In her luncheon discussion on Tuesday, March 11, "Prospects for Political and Legal Coalitions Among Identity-Based Groups," Hochschild will present several possible future patterns of political alignment between racial groups and analyze how these alignments could affect political and legal issues, such as affirmative action, bilingual education, and immigration policy. The talk will include extensive opportunity for discussion.