Race Frameworks: A Multidimensional Theory of Racism and Education

reviewed by Rosemary Henze - July 17, 2015

coverTitle: Race Frameworks: A Multidimensional Theory of Racism and Education
Author(s): Zeus Leonardo
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807754625, Pages: 216, Year: 2013
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Race Frameworks, by Zeus Leonardo, is a unique and forward-thinking book for scholars of race and racism, graduate students, and teacher educators. It is unique in that no other book compares and appraises four major critical frameworks for studying race and racism, and it is forward thinking because the final chapter provides carefully reasoned ideas on how critically informed post-race thinking can help us move through and beyond race without denying the present reality of racism and racial thinking. The introductory chapter provides a concise overview of the four frameworks for critical race studies: Critical Race Theory (CRT), Marxism, Whiteness Studies, and Cultural Studies. Each of the next four chapters is devoted to a well-researched discussion of one framework, with frequent comparisons and contrasts among them.


“Critical Race Theory in Education” characterizes CRT as a more structurally informed and critical extension of multiculturalism. Education, in particular, is saturated with racism in every way, as Ladson-Billings and Tate’s foundational article (1995) describes. Where multiculturalism is mainly focused on reforming curriculum, CRT engages the entire racial structure of education—tracking, testing, discipline, teacher education, community involvement, school funding, and beyond. One of Leonardo’s concerns is that CRT, while bringing structural racism to the foreground, avoids a deep analysis of class and race and would be strengthened by a more labor-informed analysis. His other main concern is that while CRT provides a deep critique of racism, it fails to provide a similar critique of the concept of race, which is problematic because it may end up solidifying race as a “natural” classification of humans. Furthermore, lack of agreement about the parameters of race (how to discriminate between culture and race, for example) makes analysis a slippery slope.


In “Marxism and Race,” Leonardo explains that in a classical Marxist framework, race is considered ideological, not material, and therefore it cannot be the subject of analysis itself. In a neo-Marxist perspective, the classical dismissal of race as inherently ideological was re-framed, and constructs such as race and religion were seen as having real material effects even though fundamentally they are not real. However, despite the effort among neo-Marxists to explain racial oppression through economic analysis and concepts such as hegemony, Leonardo is concerned that such an explanation may be seen as color-blind, in that it skirts direct analysis of race as a lived experience.


Since emerging in the late 1980s as a subfield of education, Whiteness Studies raises for scrutiny the processes through which Whiteness (the system of White privilege and White supremacy) becomes invisible, normalized, and powerful. The chapter examines two strands: abolitionists such a Roedigger want to do away with Whiteness altogether, while reconstructionists such as McLaren seek to invigorate a reformed White consciousness that is proudly anti-racist. The author poses several problems with Whiteness Studies, among them that it recenters Whiteness, “when White as center was the original problem to begin with” (p. 7). He also questions whether the journey of coming to know one’s own privilege (an important part of many anti-racist teacher education programs) is actually a self indulgence on the part of White people and suggests that Whites “intimately know their Whiteness, even its dividends” (p. 105).


Cultural Studies also emerged in the 1980s-90s, influenced by scholars such as Derrida, Foucault, Giroux, and Hall. Scholars in this tradition focus on how representation (be it through discourse, language, images, or other signifiers) is used to maintain power and to wound. Representations in this framework constitute the material world and have real, practical effects on us and on our institutions. The author raises important questions about how race representations actually limit living conditions, particularly for people of color. He reminds us that “no amount of reclaiming the word will succeed in substantially changing a racist landscape without a simultaneous transformation of material relations” (p. 141).


In the final chapter, “Race Ambivalence and a Multidimensional Theory of Racism and Education,” the author considers what the future holds for race and racial thinking in the US. While many heralded the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as a clear sign that the US is over its race problem, Leonardo characterizes the current status of race in this country as profoundly ambivalent. He describes race ambivalence as a conceptual orientation that neither denies the power of race as a still-consequential organizing structure in US society (police shootings of unarmed African American men are just one example of system-wide racism), nor insists that it will remain stable.  

A race ambivalent orientation recognizes not only that race is a biological fiction but also that racial structuring has changed over time and will continue to do so. Furthermore, it allows for post-race thinking—the possibility and hope that we might someday discontinue our racialized organization. This cannot happen by thinking outside of race, as colorblind approaches do, but rather must involve thinking through race. Moving through race to a space where race is "undone from within rather than without" (p. 149) may be problematic, not least because for racialized groups, "it risks the very self we have come to know" (p. 150). However, Leonardo suggests that dismantling race does not have to mean dismantling culture. In the end, he advances post-race thinking as ultimately hopeful, for it searches through and beyond race “for a more humanizing language and a humane material condition” (p. 166).


Race Frameworks does all scholars of race and education a huge service by presenting all four frameworks together, with detailed references for those who seek to read further, and the author’s appraisals. This comprehensive approach alone is enough to highly recommend the book. Furthermore, the author strikes a nice balance between a scholarly genre and a more reader-friendly language, using apt analogies and metaphors to clarify concepts. Readers who have some scholarly background in critical approaches to race will find it extremely helpful to see the author’s appraisals of the four approaches—what they illuminate, as well as what they cover up. The book will also be a valuable resource to graduate students in the social sciences and teacher educators (although depending on their familiarity with critical scholarship on race, some of the concepts might not be as easily grasped).

There are a few areas where I wished for more nuanced discussion. While the book focuses on the US context, in some instances the skin-based racism practiced in the US is portrayed as more global, outweighing other forms of racism. It is true that through global capitalism, we have exported US ideas about race, but I wanted to see more cross-cultural comparisons to bring home the point that race, as we know it in the US is not inevitable. I appreciated the well-articulated intersectional analysis of class and race and the nuanced understanding this enables. At the same time, the book would be further enriched by additional intersectional analyses, especially with regard to race and gender, and perhaps religion and language (for example, to what extent is White privilege in the US primarily White male middle and upper class Christian English-speaking privilege?).

One message that comes through, especially powerfully through all the chapters, is that we need to move away from an ideology that presumes essentialized identities based on skin tone—focusing on racism without also questioning race does not get us beyond racism. Yet, when statements about the characteristics of people of color and Whites at times assign them particular feelings and mindsets, the strength of the stance against essentialism is undermined. Perhaps some discussion about the choices involved would be helpful: How can we identify, as we must, real patterns in power dynamics based on race, and at the same time, commit to moving away from “assumptions of sameness” (p. 164), based on skin color?


For me, the book’s greatest strength lies in the final chapter. The notion of a “post-race America” has been mired in confusion, and Leonardo lends great clarity where it is needed. His scholarship and his courage to explore the future of race lead to an exceptionally interesting and probing look at how we might navigate toward the dismantling of the US system of both race and racism. He confronts head-on the problems involved in such a move, throwing a clear light on the fact that racial identity has, of necessity, offered an important sense of belonging and being for those who have suffered from racial oppression, as well as the fact that the beneficiaries of White privilege are unlikely to give it up.  

He offers no prepackaged, quick-fix solutions, and for that I am very appreciative because too often in education we are fed simplistic recipes for fixing racial and other kinds of inequality in schools. Nonetheless, he offers plausible ways of thinking through and coming to terms with the problems he identifies. Readers are left with an enhanced understanding of how to look at race critically, and with hope that what once seemed impossible might actually be possible. For all these reasons, I highly recommend Race Frameworks.


Ladson-Billings, G., & Tate, W.F., IV (1995). Toward a critical race theory of education. Teachers College Record 97(1), 47–68.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 17, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18033, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 5:44:46 PM

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