Invisible Race Wars
Issue #33, September 1997
He says, "I ain't a racist but Aristitle Onassis is one Greek we don't need
And them niggers, Jews and Sigma Nus, all they ever do is breed.
And wops 'n micks 'n slopes 'n spics 'n spooks are on my list
And there's one little hebe from the heart of Texas — is there anyone I missed?
Well, I hits him with everything I had right square between the eyes.
I says, "I'm gonna gitcha, you son of a bitch ya, for spoutin' that pack of lies.
If there's one thing I, I can't abide, it's an ethnocentric racist;
Now take back that thing you said 'bout Aristitle Onassis."
— Kinky Friedman, "They Don't Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore"
There's a race war going on in the men's bathroom downstairs. In Wheeler Hall, the seat of Berkeley's English department, the public bathroom walls filled all summer long with racial insults, and there is no separating this phenomenon from larger campus trends that have led to a renewed, increasing and enforced invisibility for people of color at this public university. If ethnicity no longer appears on university admissions forms, it most certainly has not disappeared from the bathrooms; if there is no honest narration allowed in official narratives, then there will be a frank exchange of views in those less official but vital forums where we pee and crap.
This particular exchange started off with the modest declarations of "Mexican Power" and "Free Chiapas" in red magic marker above the mirror where I check to see if I look sufficiently neat before teaching classes. The political assertions of these graffiti could have found better and more creative outlets than on freshly painted walls, but the mere presence of an ethnicized counter-voice brought an ugly graffiti cycle soon enough. Bold "White Power!" slogans followed by "Kill Whitey!" responses criss-crossed the bathroom walls, together with anemically scrawled suggestions that indulging our inter-racial libidos was the True Answer. An alleged Cal Aryan League made its crayoned appearance several times above the sinks; the Crips left their territorial markings on the toilet stalls. The sexual mores of brown, white and black men were alleged in brusque, graphic detail, as well as the singular purpose of all white women.
There is nothing especially perceptive in observing the symptomologies of American race war, whether in bathrooms, urban streets, or official rhetoric. No less mainstream a commentor than Carl Rowan last year published a book with the apocalyptic title The Coming Race War in America: A Wake-Up Call. The urgencies are clear, but what remains little discussed in this conflict is the idea of 'race' as an obscurantist holdover, as the misbegotten child of 'race science' that emerged from the Enlightenment. Rowan, an African-American, came of age during the early Civil Rights Movement, when such issues were defined as 'the race problem.' Yet this merged syntax of racial specification has become blatantly inadequate: race is the problem, and desperately needs problematization. Race, invented within an extraordinarily traumatic history and inalienably invested with cultural hierarchies, can only lead to race war.
Given this history, the essential ugliness of 'race' is so strong that in language we search for propriety more often than peace. At a very early age my mother made it clear to her child that if a certain word that other people sometimes used for black people were ever to be heard issuing from his mouth, he was going to find himself sucking a bar of Ivory soap like a lollypop. This idea of unmentionable-word-as-abomination led directly to one of my worst moments in fourth grade, when assigned to stand and read aloud a Weekly Reader article on African geography, I found myself confronted with "the Niger River" and knew only the hard 'g' pronunciation. I halted and strained audibly while the class (all-white) held its breath, then went ahead and pronounced that damned word the only way I knew how. The class exploded in laughter; the previously half-attentive teacher called for silence and corrected me, decently, as I stood mortified. That laughter came in part because we knew that a barrier of propriety had been transgressed, a word had been said that must never be uttered, and it was a dirty word for the bathroom wall and not a classroom.
Civil and Uncivil Histories
"We see the black clouds furling, one by one......"
— James Russell Lowell, "New Year's Eve, 1844"
Such propriety is relatively new to American society. The history of 'race' in twentieth-century America can be described as a transit from the overt to the covert, both in words and policies. An unstated, ambiguous and porous system of racialized power has replaced the clear, blatant and legally-sustained system of apartheid at the century's opening. At the beginning of the century Woodrow Wilson inveighed against "the damnable cruelty and folly of Reconstruction," praised the "English race" of the South for its resistance and insistence on white supremacy, and in his History of America (1908) expressed outright admiration for the Ku Klux Klan's positive achievements. Fifty years after Wilson's presidency, Richard Nixon devised his infamous 'Southern strategy' that employed a covert and deniable but patent reliance on white animus and solidarity against blacks, a strategy designed in part to court George Wallace supporters. Where Wilson indulged in pseudo-scientific public statements about black inferiority, Nixon spoke public pieties about race relations and in private talked about blacks "who just climbed down from the trees." The shift lies not in racialist thought paradigms, but in permissible civil speech.
The difference between the spatial permissions of classroom and bathroom, or the temporal domains of Wilson and Nixon, constitutes the difference between covert and overt color lines. Repressed antagonisms that are unacceptable in the classroom or public rhetoric find an ineluctable expression elsewhere; racisms that cannot be admitted without personal discredit shift to hit-and-run expressive anonymity or the unguarded moments of foul-mouthed Exxon executives who could use a bar of Ivory soap. Color lines exist today no less than a century previous, only contemporary America reproduces its color lines under camouflage of nominally 'colorblind' policy or through forms of social privatization whereby racial exclusions gain legal protection. The segregated parochial Catholic schools that I witnessed as a child in Philadelphia have been integrated, but an entire national network of all-white private Christian academies arose in the wake of school desegregation. The consistent pattern of de facto resegregation a generation after segregation's supposed legal defeat has lent impetus to the current 'why bother trying?' discussions within the black community, especially in the NAACP which dedicated its organizational soul to integrationism and the defeat of color lines.
Pretending that American color lines do not exist does not make them any less real, and only insults the intelligence of those who are expected not to notice them or credit that low melanin levels are just part of the suburban lifestyle. This pretense has become stronger in recent decades, as racism has become increasingly covert. In the current language of euphemisms and attempted concealment of color lines that cannot be concealed, the agencies and mechanisms of racism have almost disappeared. Direct responsibility — beyond the current fad of impossible historical apologies — is an increasingly rare commodity. But consider the directness of these lines: "What white Americans have never fully understood.......is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it." This indictment is not from a Farrakhan tract. It comes from the 1968 Kerner Commission national report, drafted and signed by a bipartisan elite of elected officials. Thirty years later a neutered political rhetoric reigns and these words appear almost radical; but now the problems are worse, and solutions and opportunities appear to diminish constantly.
Such avoidances have their antecedents in the likes of Lowell's hopeful antebellum social metaphors, where the above-quoted "black clouds" were supposedly disappearing, but of course were gathering year by year. American racial history has never emerged from its preferred shadow realm of invisibilities. In Albion Tourgee's neo-abolitionist novel Invisible Empire (1880), an enlightened protagonist ineffectually exclaims against "the prejudice-blinded multitudes who made the Policy of Repression effectual" and argues that under its terms the political racializations of the era "are all alike the harvest of ignorance. The Nation cannot afford to grow such a crop." Tourgee referred to the same character, now dead and buried, when he concluded the novel with the cynical line "Time smiled grimly as he traced anew the unsolved problem which had mocked the Fool's heart."
The Invisible Empire remains today, only differently constituted. Proposition 209 is far from the first time that Tourgee's "unsolved problem" of racialism has been proclaimed solved through public refusal to grant its existence ('racialism' being the ideology of race and 'racism' being race prejudice, following Tzvetan Todorov's distinction). The ignorance of racialism relies intrinsically on a refusal of manifest knowledge, on an analytic absenteeism, on an invisibility steadfastly imposed despite visible counter-evidence.
Unlike the late nineteenth century, though, contemporary anti-affirmative action arguments base themselves on an assertion of pseudo-equalitarianism. When Senators Hatch and McConnell recently protested a Department of Education investigation of discriminatory effects from race-blind admissions policies at the University of California, charging that it is wrong "to investigate whether schools are discriminating by refusing to discriminate," they coopted the language of equality to perpetuate inequality. Right-wing politicians now indulge in the social rationalizations propagated by such as Clint Bolick, who writes in The Affirmative Action Fraud (1996) that "What many of the civil rights policies of the past three decades have done ... is to reinforce the propensity of individuals to define themselves in terms of their race," thereby defeating the purposes of the same legislation to create a color-blind society. According to this school of political deceit, policies generated by the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 acted to solidify racialism and self-contradictorily defeated true racial equality.
Bald falsifications like these have used a new formulation of 'close our eyes' invisibility to maintain the status quo of an old American racial hierarchy. They have divorced language from content, and misappropriated civil rights language to drive a prolonged movement of reaction against minority advances, tracing their recent intellectual lineage most notably from Nathan Glazer's Affirmative Discrimination (1975). Slavoj Zizek argues that these arguments based on misappropriated terms of equality have created an era of metaracism, where racism assumes the form of a fight against racism. The old-style racism exemplified in the Kinky Friedman quote that opened this essay has given way to a far more sophisticated racism, a new racial hegemonism based on superficial equality-by-declaration in a society where gross inequalities prevail. Friedman's 'slam-'em-in-the-mouth' approach, while offering a certain imaginative gratification, instances an antiquated and ineffectual heroic individualism far more than a recognition of postmodern racism within nominal anti-racism. It remains preoccupied with the visible where the invisible has become paramount.
One of the most egregious and counter-historical attempts at justifying selective color-blindness lies in the contention that a new era has arrived in American history, as where California governor Pete Wilson hails Proposition 209 for ushering in "a new era of equal opportunity for all of the people." Historical dividing lines between old and new dispensations are a descriptive excuse, an argumentative and untenable disaggregation of history's continuities. Under Wilson's declarative re-ordering, 'race' disappears as a social barrier, leaving only cultures of dependency and presumed excuses for non-performance. This mythology, counter-factual by every measure of economic and social data, underpins the efforts of university regent Ward Connerly and Connerly-wannabes leaping into public life to assault policies that remain conscious of the history and effects of the concept of 'race' (noting the irony of Connerly's catapault into national recognition as an affirmative action opponent who derived public legitimation from his own blackness). Their argument holds that an historical dividing line has been passed between Old and New, and that some fresh dispensation has been granted under which a discontiguous and new history may be established without reference to prior and current conditions. Historic American color barriers never disappeared. As increasingly black urban school systems — and now the newly black-less and re-whitened Boalt Hall first-year law class, together with other medical and law classes in California and Texas — evidence, they have only grown firmer in the three decades since the end of the King-led civil rights period. What has increasingly disappeared instead is a willingness to acknowledge those barriers.
Too, 'race' itself has become part of the trap. Even as we accept the social construction of 'race' and trace its social features, the concept remains the most solidly realized legacy of national intellectual history. Without race, America would not exist. Minus its race history, the American nation is literally unimaginable. And more, the country cannot imagine a deracinated future even while it confronts the demographic awareness that no racial majority will prevail two generations hence. Clinton formulated his new 'Initiative on Race' in precisely this inherited, increasingly discredited language of racialism rather than a specification of the tragic ethics of 'race' as a social rubric. What imaginatively different politics of anti-racialism might have emerged if Clinton had announced an 'Initiative Against Race'? When he stood in front of an audience at University of California-San Diego in June to announce that "Over the coming year I want to lead the American people in a great and unprecedented discussion about race," just what did he suppose had been under discussion all these long years? Unlike Wilson/Connerly's denial of racism's social existence and a need for counter-measures, Clinton addresses the historical specificities of 'race' and its effects; he speaks of segregated swimming pools and movie theaters, using them as metaphors for past troubles and without direct identification of white supremacy.
In the end, though, this presidential initiative lends validation to race-as-unalterable-fact, one that invests itself in an unfounded hope that open national discussion will dissolve accumulated evil effects. "[I]f ten years from now people can look back and see that this year of honest dialogue and concerted action helped lift the heavy burden of race from our children's future, then we will have given a precious gift to America." What this sentence proposes as a national goal — the elimination of ineffable memory as a strategy for social unification — relies on openness to achieve closure. Centuries of history have been racialized, however, and that ideological act cannot be undone. It is the specific idea of 'race' that needs public dissection in order to create an eventual anti-racialist social environment. Failing a direct and antagonistic address to 'race,' the bathroom walls at least have the advantage of rhetorical realism compared to Bill Clinton.
I am black, but comely...
— Song of Songs 1:5, King James translation
I am black and beautiful...
— Song of Songs 1:5, corrected translation
Difficulties in wrestling with issues of 'race' are not limited to any one portion of the political spectrum. Bad Subjects, in a reverse irony created by its opposition to the prevalence of racial ideology, has participated after its own fashion in the erasure of 'race.' In its 1993 Manifesto, Bad Subjects staked out an intensely critical position regarding multiculturalism's identity politics "based on race, ethnicity, gender and sexual preference" (note the rank order suggestive of diminishing negativity) and its common failure to neglect or obscure class identities. Such failures, the Manifesto argues, led to a fetishization of marginality "as in the multicultural celebration of the cultures and identities of oppressed peoples, [which] leaves the offensive center largely untouched: the price of a marginal identity is political marginality." Implicit within this position lies an advocacy of assimilationism, one where knowledges of racialized, ethnicized or gendered histories — the involuntary epistemologies of daily life — must be severely demoted in favor of economic class self-cognizance and the pursuit of radical non-marginality. Tellingly, the Manifesto's final coda on utopianism refers unspecifically to "human communities" and, inadvertantly following the reductionism of French social theorist George Devereux, thereby erases ethnos as disposable dysfunctionality.
For anti-ethnic levellers, human difference is an enemy, not a friend. Indeed, a long tradition of American progressivism has treated ethnicity as a source of retrograde factionalism and chauvinistic particularism, as an imposed paradigm must be discarded, except for a few songs and savory recipes. The Manifesto participated in this tradition, for while rejecting the inadequacies of multiculturalism's separatist essentialisms it evidenced a discomfort with intense ethnicity and rejected ethnicism as an impediment to liberationist thought. Calls to transcend ethnic or racialized culture groups are a staple of both left and right political platforms, albeit the former towards class and the latter towards nationalist ideology. But for this difference, how little might separate left-wing 'ethnic transcendence' from the neo-conservative cries of Jack Kemp at last year's Republican Party convention for "An America that transcends the boundaries between races with the revolutionary power of a simple, yet profound idea — love thy neighbor as thyself." Utopian chimeras of a non-ethnicized social singularity represent searches for an unrealizable exemption from intercommunal dialectics, an exemption that seeks to privilege singular ideological standards.
Human communities exist within ethnicized specificities, not an indeterminate universalism, and plural histories of race and ethnicity cannot be dismissed by easy fiat. When black abolitionists met at a convention of the American Moral Reform Society in 1837, their manifesto for the occasion voiced a spirit similar to the Bad Subjects Manifesto when they declared "We shall aim to procure the abolition of those hateful and unnecessary distinctions by which the human family has hitherto been recognised, and only desire that they may be distinguished by their virtues and vices." However, they lodged this social faith — for their experience of the African diaspora gave them no alternative — within the particularism of a black liberationist political program. A realistic and egalitarian politics cannot sidestep particularized group histories, nor afford to denigrate all identity cultures but that of assimilationism. Whatever its uses or abuses, ethnicity is constituted at its core of the human right of free association.
Political climates such as have propelled Proposition 209 demand a rethinking of implied alliances. Some Bad Editors gradually transformed their positions towards one they termed 'critical multiculturalism,' prompted by a recognition that the social antagonisms that continue to condition life for communities of color in California and elsewhere require more comprehensive, affirmative address than a reiteration of anti-multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is an ideology that attempts to neutralize social inequalities through the intangibles of 'recognition,'and performs tasks of class integration and reconciliation under capitalism; it well deserves critical hatchetwork. This analytic purpose, however, is very different from acceding to the profound unease with strong culture groups and less-fashionable ethnicities that inhabits some left-wing positions which rely upon class-only and indiscriminately universalist cultural visions. The ideological senility and incapacity of this mode of thought is evident throughout eastern Europe, where supposedly class-monologic citizenries with generations of political education took the first available opportunity to render large countries into ethnic rump fragments.
To ignore 'race' and ethnicity is to restate the color line by demanding an inimicable invisibility, even — or especially — when performed in the name of left oppositionalism. A past and continuing history of social damage insists on analytic comprehension, regardless of whether an aversion to rubrics of 'race' and ethnicity derives from left, center or right ideologies. In a similar vein, recent post-Benedict Anderson and post-nationalist arguments emphasizing the artificiality of these rubrics, while quite often precisely on target, do nothing at all to dislodge a necessity for engaging with ethnos as a vital means of self-explanation rather than as a form of collective delusion. It does not matter in the least that 'race' has no demonstrable essential features and no biological validity as speciation when, without agency or choice on their parts, minorities have been subjected to the characterizations and hierarchies of racialized societies. Whatever the point of political origin, avoidances and disdainful refusals to acknowledge the persistence of color lines gain nothing. The politics of denial are counter-productive.
There is a dichotomy here. 'Race' and color lines are not fixed realities, nor are they past realities that can be fixed by strategic oversight, official color-blindness, or cultural assimilation. There is no contradiction between denying the validity of racialism and recognizing its historic and continuing presence, to be contended with through social policies. The false consciousness of 'race' is a creature of the past that controls the present, one that needs clear historicization in order to confront contemporary racisms and so as not to uncritically reinvent 'race.'
At Wheeler Hall, the men's bathroom overflowed with racial graffiti as the summer ended. With the new academic season about to begin, the maintenance workers began an erase-and-cover campaign. Most of the graffiti has now disappeared; some remains half-visible. The graffiti words have become an under-image, part of the palimpsest that is the design of American history. Again and again we hover between invisibility and visibility, often uncertain which is better and wrestling with the ethics of a decision. We live with the ghosts of race, and the ghosts are real within our imaginations. In bathrooms and admissions offices, 'race' is undead.
Thanks to A. Robert Lee, Mike Mosher, and Matt Wray for their helpful comments. This essay is dedicated to the voting rights activism of Fanny Neal, a black Alabama woman who over a dinner table in 1965 told me about the Act of Congress needed to get her children into the local drive-in movie theater.
Joe Lockard is a doctoral candidate in American literature and a Bad Editor. Send digicash contributions to the Epikoros Legal Defense Fund at email@example.com.