Why Race Is Disappearing From Politics

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Photo: Rusty Darbonne via Flickr

Don’t anybody tell Louis Farrakhan, whose video calling President Obama a murderer is oozing through the web this week, but race is slowly and surely fading away.The problem of the twentieth century may have been, as W. E. B. Dubois put it so eloquently, the colour line; the 20-first century is on course to witness the death of race as a significant political and cultural concept.

Whether one looks at the United States or at the wider world, the diminishing salience of race – in politics, culture and economics – is one of the most important though little remarked on facts of our time.

The death of race would be good news for the United States.  Race has always (and appropriately) been the skunk at the American picnic.  The long reign of slavery followed by 80 years of Jim Crow is a horror and a shame in American history that undermines some of our favourite ideas about ourselves.  The existence of a largely Black urban underclass is one of America’s most serious problems and the roots of so much urban and rural poverty and human suffering in that painful history poses policy problems the American mind has trouble addressing.

All this remains true, but as time goes by people everywhere seem to care less and less about skin colour.  Malcolm X’s call for a union of non-white people against the white oppressors does not resonate like it used to.  Former Brazilian President Lula cast responsibility for the 2008 financial crisis on ‘blond haired people with blue eyes’; that was neither accurate in terms of the demographics of Wall Street nor useful as a political rallying cry.

Internationally, race has already largely disappeared as a viable political idea.  Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and Koreans are more conscious than ever of what divides them than of some common ‘racial’ destiny; the Vietnamese want to strengthen their ties with the US to help keep China at bay.  Indians and Pakistanis are more interested in religion than in skin colour.  The steadfast commitment of the ANC’s leadership to a multiracial vision for South Africa’s future has weakened the importance of racial identity politics throughout Africa, especially given the moral, economic and political bankruptcy of the grandiose socialist/Black Power ideology embraced by early post-colonial regimes.  In any case, sub-Saharan politics today revolves around questions of religion, language and tribe; race can still be a potent political mobilizer but it is much less important to Africans today than it was 50 years ago.

When DuBois wrote, the colour line was a real economic and political division.  Only one ‘non-white’ country had modernized its economy; other than Japan all the world’s non-white countries had either been carved up into European or American colonies or (like China, Ethiopia and the Ottoman Empire) struggled to cope with richer and more technologically advanced rivals.  Pre-industrial and pre-modern societies were helpless before the economic and military might of the industrial giants.  A tiny British garrison and an industrious civil service could secure the British Empire in India.  Even a tin-pot monarch like Belgium’s notorious King Leopold could rule an African empire.  As the British poet Hillaire Belloc put it, “Whatever happens, we have got/The Maxim gun, and they have not.”

The sharp divergence in the fortunes of white and non-white peoples meshed with poorly understood Darwinian ideas to lead many to believe that races were engaged in a great competition to shape the future of the world.  The ‘weaker’ races, like the original natives of the Americas and Australia, would be pushed to the wall by the ‘stronger’ ones.  The “yellow” and the “white” races were doomed at some future date to a contest for global supremacy.

Outside Minister Farrakhan’s social circle, people don’t think like this anymore.  The collapse of European colonialism in the 20 years after World War Two removed the sense of a common, white enemy that united independence activists across the non-white world.  Over the next 30 years, the success of “capitalist road” developing economies in East Asia and elsewhere combined with the failures of socialism to weaken the belief that the real struggle of world politics was a struggle of the mostly non-white South against the largely white North.

The Third World split up as the twentieth century expired.  Brazil, India, China and South Africa don’t have as much in common with each other – much less with Sudan, Somalia, Myanmar and Bolivia – as they once did.  Struggles in Africa like the Rwandan genocide, the Nigerian civil war and the Sudanese wars eroded any idea that racial solidarity could organise African politics even as the generation of post-colonial Black Power Pan-Africanists (Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Mugabe) failed their countries and disappointed their supporters.  As the human race develops, loosey-goosey categories like “race” matter much less; economics, religion and culture matter more.

Both abroad and in the US, the key factor weakening race and racism has been the success of non-whites.  China, Korea, India, Brazil and Japan are the biggest success stories but there are many others.  Non-white success is both eroding the sense of a global pecking order with white countries at the top, and undermining the belief that whites have created an economic system which depends on the exploitation of everyone else.  Non-white success refutes theories of white supremacy and defuses anti-white bitterness.  In addition to these macro-stories of Asian, Latin and South African success, countless micro-stories of non-white individuals who flourish and succeed in a liberal, competitive environment have helped free the non-white world from any lingering inferiority complex and pulled the rug from under the feet of white supremacists.

The United States has also been transformed by non-white success.  As African Americans became increasingly successful and prominent across the professions, more and more whites found arguments about racial inferiority less compelling.  More, the African American middle class, so painstakingly educated against the odds by courageous leaders like Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver and inspired by the ideas of thinkers like Dubois and Gandhi, was large enough and able enough to provide the leadership that enabled American Blacks to win the civil rights struggle.

Elijah Mohammad and the Nation of Islam used to argue that white hatred of Blacks was so intense and profound that Blacks could never achieve true equality in a white-dominated US.  That argument seemed much stronger in 1960 than in 2010; that Farrakhan is now denouncing an American Black president as a murderer and idolizing the Great Loon of Libya shows us all what happens when an ideology hits the end of the road.

The Normalization of Race?

As the external barriers to Black success in the US gradually diminished, the meaning of ‘blackness’ began a complex and still continuing metamorphosis.  America has always been a nation of shifting boundaries and definitions.  In the nineteenth century the term “race” was often applied to different nationalities in Europe; people spoke of the deep differences between the Anglo-Saxon and the Latin, Celtic, Slavic and Jewish “races”.  Ethnic groups often had to fight decades of prejudice before being considered truly “white”; as  recently as the 1920s, the Ku Kluxers and other white power groups lumped African-Americans, Italian-Americans and Jewish Americans together on its hate list.

More recently, Asian Americans have largely made the shift from being an intimidating and alien racial “other” to being just another ethnic flavour in the great American melting pot.  As intermarriage levels rise and Asian immigrants continue to embrace Christianity (at many elite colleges the children of Asian immigrants are among the most active members of evangelical campus groups), we are already approaching the day when being Asian American is more like being Irish American than anything else — an identity that you choose and define for yourself rather than a collection of stereotypes imposed on you by the wider community.

The American response to ethnic and cultural diversity has been simultaneously to celebrate and to trivialize ethnic roots.  We dye the Chicago River green on St. Patrick’s Day, but to be Irish American rather than German American or even Waspo American means less and less.  For most Euro Americans, their ethnic heritage is a suit of clothes they wear when they want and leave at home when they want — you are no more and no less Irish or Italian or Swedish than you want to be.  Americans can be intensely involved with their ethnic group — belonging to the Dutch Reformed Church or the Italian-Americans War Veterans — or they can ignore their heritage completely.  We celebrate diversity so thoroughly because it means so little; ethnic festivals and roots have become part of the common American identity.

Race had been the great exception to this process, but that is beginning to change.  What has been happening in modern America is that the concept of Black is slowly following the path that concepts like Italian, Irish and Jewish took in the last century.  “Negro” or “coloured” was once an all-embracing, all-defining involuntary identity that both public opinion and the state imposed on individuals regardless of their preferences or wishes.  When I was born, the law in South Carolina mandated that a racial classification appear on my birth certificate; that classification determined where I would go to school, what hotels and restaurants I could legally patronize and who I could marry.

Those who broke the written and unwritten laws of race — by dating the wrong person, moving into the wrong neighbourhood, sitting at the wrong lunch counter or attempting to enroll in the wrong school – were subject to legal penalties; worse, they were often the targets of mob violence that sometimes climaxed with grisly and sadistic lynching.  For decades government was impotent to protect the victims of these outrageous attacks; race based hatred and fear were stronger forces in much of America than the Constitution and orthodox Christianity combined.  Neither the pulpit nor the judicial bench could tame the demon of racial hatred in this otherwise blessed land.

Things have changed in the last 90 years.  The distinction between racial and ethnic categories is blurring; to be African American in the US today is more like being Italian American or Jewish American in 1920 than it is like being a Negro in that year.  Rates of intermarriage are blurring; racial background is becoming a less accurate predictor of social and economic status and while many Blacks remain both marginalized and poor, the United States now boasts a large and prosperous Black middle class.

Black poverty remains an important social problem in the United States — in many ways the most serious and tragic social problem we have.  It is one of the Obama administration’s greatest failings that the President has not yet found a way to address the needs of the inner city and, as I’ve written in earlier posts, all Americans should be concerned by the many ways in which the ongoing disintegration of the blue social model will affect African Americans and especially the poor.

Intellectuals in America tend to lag behind society in understanding the changes taking place around us; race is no exception.  When race was the great problem and source of evil in American society 60 and 70 years ago, the academy was largely segregated and most academics tended to give the subject a wide berth.  As race has become less important and the risks associated with an anti-racist position declined, academia has jumped all over the issue and for some the question of race has become the central organising focus for scholarly inquiry and social thought.

The decline of the salience of race has another consequence in American life: the decline in the quality of the leadership of traditional Black organisations.  One hundred years ago, to be a Black doctor, Black lawyer, Black undertaker or Black teacher, you had to work in “coloured” institutions and practices.  Black musicians and entertainers were once confined to the “race” market, just as Black athletes had to play in Negro leagues.

Under these conditions the best and the brightest in Black America focused their talents and attention largely on race issues.  Morally, the injustice was so stark and the threat of racial violence was so great, that conscience demanded a race-centric career.  Economically, there was no alternative to a career based on service to the African-American community.  The invisible walls forced all African Americans into a racial ghetto.

Little by little those walls came down.  Athletes and entertainers were among the first to escape.  Professionals soon followed.  Howard loomed less large in the Black mind as Black teachers got tenure at Harvard and as the best African-American students gained access to every college in the country.  The best Black professionals could earn more money, have more power and achieve more by working on Wall Street than by working for historically Black financial institutions; lawyers made more from general practice than from pure civil rights or community forcused work.  While some first-rate people continue to choose to work in the world of historically Black institutions or to serve race-focused causes, inevitably the opening of other doors has had its effect.  (In the same way, the end of housing segregation allowed the growing Black middle class to leave inner city ghettoes for the suburbs.  The quality of community leadership in the inner city declined even as Blacks generally became more successful.)

This experience is one of the ways in which Black America is becoming more like other ethnic groups and less like a unique outlier.  Early generation immigrant communities from other groups also once stuck together in the way that Blacks did.  Irish and Italian lawyers got jobs working for Irish and Italian clients; Irish and Italian schoolteachers had better luck getting jobs teaching “their own” while discrimination against Catholics and immigrants held them down.  Tightly focused immigrant neighborhoods clustered around Catholic churches and operated a series of parallel institutions (like parochial schools) that offered both education and employment within the ethnic cocoon.  Anti-immigrant feeling in the wider community kept immigrants in the cocoon: Protestant school boards insisted on using the King James Bible in school, meaning that many Catholic parents and teachers could not conscientiously participate.  Many colleges and private firms had barriers (No Irish Need Apply) or quotas to keep “pushy” newcomers out of good jobs.  Over time, the walls of these ethnic ghettos also came down, and the best and the brightest left the ethnic community behind to engage in the larger society around them.

Both among Blacks and white ethnic groups like the Irish and the Italians, elected local politicians and the clergy seem to be the last professions for whom ethnicity is the focus of professional activity — and in many cases the quality of the people filling these roles has declined as more opportunities appear for young people to build different kinds of careers.

The Black identity has a much longer history in the US than the immigrant identities, because racism generally is declining but has not yet disappeared, and because the forces that once pushed Blacks together and the pull of communal history and loyalty are so strong, the shift from a racial to a post-racial identity for Black America will be wrenching and slow.

One of the forces propping up the invisible walls around the race ghetto, paradoxically enough, are the various policies developed over the last 50 years to overcome the legacy of past discrimination.  Affirmative action, minority set-asides, racial gerrymanders, ethnic study departments in universities and other programs and policies encourage and subsidise the existence of a race-focused leadership group.  The African American experience is deep enough, and the consequences of past racism deep enough, that some forms of special social focus on the problems of this group are still needed.  But sooner rather than later the question of reforming these programs to make them both more effective at solving real problems and less costly and intrusive is going to have to be faced.  

Today we face a paradox that is going to demand new ways of thinking.  To help poor African Americans we may have to think less about race.  The social problems of the inner city are increasingly human, urban and political problems, and race-based solutions may not help as much as they once did.  Affirmative action can help qualified African Americans compete for jobs in the marketplace; it cannot help a ninth-grade dropout with a drug problem earn a middle class standard of living. We are coming to the point where the well-qualified African American needs affirmative action less and less, while the inner city kid who needs all the help he or she can get doesn’t benefit from it at all.

As race declines in significance globally and nationally, the relationship between race and poverty also changes.  Racial discrimination must be taken into account, historically speaking, for understanding why so much of the American underclass is non-white.  But racial discrimination today (which has by no means vanished and still needs to be fought) is ever less important in explaining the economic and social difficulties of children growing up fatherless in gang-infested, drug-dependent neighborhoods.  That your grandparents’ skin colour was black helps provide a historical explanation for why you are stuck in a bombed-out inner city landscape of social devastation; that historical fact may provide an extra reason why society should interest itself in helping you (though there are plenty of other, more immediate ones).  But that history is of very limited use in helping you think about improving your situation — or to society as it tries to think of ways of doing something useful about the problems you face.

To be morally decent people and to build a stronger society, Americans of all colours cannot forget about our history of racial oppression.  But to continue liquidating the bitter legacy of race, America must move on.

Whatever one thinks about President Obama’s performance in office, his election — and Louis Farrakhan’s bitter reaction to an America changed beyond his imagination — still demonstrates that the United States has turned an important corner.  The colour line is now just one of many questions we face, and race is losing its power to warp and diminish American life.

This post originally appeared at The American Interest.

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