Nobody likes to feel used. But everyone likes to feel useful. This paradox has long been overlooked by people examining the parameters of racism in the United States. The classic model of racism focuses on the manner in which Black Americans have been objectified—and for good reason. From chattel slavery to Jim Crow, African Americans have faced a long and sordid history of being regarded as little more than objects—useful tools for White power-brokers, but not independent subjects with their own desires, perspective, and rights.

However, following the Civil Rights revolution, this dynamic has shifted. While racial objectification has by no means disappeared, today the prevailing sentiment in American society is one that, outwardly at least, respects the independence and inherent dignity of its minority members. Yet, even as they are granted the full rights of citizenship, the idea that racial minorities are objectively valuable—are necessary to the full and complete functioning of society—has faded away. While admitting that racial minorities have inherent dignity and human rights, White society nevertheless denies that members of these groups have any objective use. If their presence is lacking in political, economic, and social institutions, it is not seen as a cause for concern. This is the problem of subjectification—when people who are conceded to possess subject status are nevertheless treated as if they have no objective worth. In this essay, I articulate the concept of subjectification and show how it provides a new and fruitful perspective on the problems of race and racism in American society.

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