“Race” as an idea barely existed before the Enlightenment and the onset of modernity in the West. Today, many dismiss the race-concept as an illusion, arguing that “there is no such thing as race;” or in more universalist terms, “there is only one race: the human race.” Yet race continues to demarcate and stratify all the world’s peoples in striking ways. Race remains a peculiar and unstable concept; racism has been upgraded, but it is still violent, coercive, and omnipresent.
The United States is undergoing a significant racial shift. Massive migration and a demographic transition to a “majority-minority” nation are shifting the meaning of race once again. Is race an illusion or an objective reality? Is American and worldwide structural racism a holdover from an earlier epoch of conquest, empire, capitalism, and slavery–all of which are still racially ordered–or is it a more-or-less permanent means of organizing inequality and domination on both a local and global scale? Why is the race-concept so implacably situated at the crossroads of identity and social structure? How permanent is the “color line”?
Few doubt that the civil rights movement achieved substantial democratic reforms. Putting an end to the state-based and legally sanctioned racial despotism that governed the United States for centuries marked a real, if partial, democratization. Yet the movement failed to uproot the deep structure of racism. Consider: the Civil War ended slavery and killed 750,000 Americans in the process, at a time the national population was less than 50 million. Add to that racial upheaval the brief Reconstruction period that followed the war, and note that even these cataclysmic events could not end racism! So why should we think that the 1960s movement could have accomplished that task, even with the expense of blood, sweat, and tears?
The partial victories of the civil rights movement were achieved by a tactical alliance of mass movements on the one hand and elite national interests on the other, brokered by racial “moderates.” This accommodation to the demands of a mass movement too wide and too deep to be resisted any longer involved more than legislated and judicial reforms. Negotiation, compromise, and political incorporation were also required. So was “elite recruitment” of political and cultural activists and intellectuals, as well as a large-scale cultural reorientation. The civil rights movement made race and racism into far more public matters than they had ever been before, even under slavery and after emancipation. It demonstrated to the world that racism and democracy were incompatible.
Yet in the aftermath of the civil rights reforms, the forces of racial reaction–largely but not only based in the South–also regrouped. The old verities of established racism had been officially discredited, not only in the United States but fairly comprehensively across the globe. While White supremacy had been somewhat shaken, it had hardly been destroyed. The Right Wing therefore attempted to tap into repressed but still strong currents of racism in order to counter the civil rights movement’s egalitarian thrust.
Combining organized political campaigns with the free-floating racism that permeates the United States–in culture, economic practices, spatial segregation, profiling, crime, and punishment, health… the list goes on and on–has undoubtedly increased racial tension. Obama’s presidency is also a more volatile enterprise because of race and racism.
The racial reaction was an uneasy alliance between the New Right and neoconservatives. The New Right cultivated race. Its strategy was born in the campaigns of George Wallace and Richard Nixon; they mobilized “coded” White resentments of Blacks, and later women and gays. Neoconservatism downplayed race by reducing it to ethnicity. Neocons were willing to dispense with the outright institutionalized prejudice and discrimination of Jim Crow. They seized upon the most “moderate” and integrationist dimensions of the civil rights movement. To them, “integration” meant ignoring race: “the content of their character, not the color of their skin,” was their message, adopting Dr. King’s words but not his meaning. In practice, this amounted to a denial of the significance of race in American life.
Reformist Strategies and Structural Change
At its heart, the civil rights movement was a radical democratic initiative. This is what explains its influence beyond its core Black adherents. The New Left, feminism, Black power (and Brown power, Red power, and Yellow power, too), and even the later queer and environmental movements were all influenced by it.
As movement demands were translated into law, they were attenuated through compromise. For example, during negotiations in the Senate over the 1964 Civil Rights Act, centrists (mainly Republicans) approved only weak civil remedies against discrimination, rather than criminalizing it. Since the Democrats were split, civil rights law retains that character.
Black “entrism” into government at all levels, where numerous movement activists won electoral and appointed positions inside local and federal governments, also provided a substantial moderating force. It offered a counter-narrative to more radical demands. Activists who remained outside the state apparatus also acted as mediating forces. Working in community organizations and other NGOs, they provided contacts between state officials and the community. [Full disclosure: this is my background. I come out of 1960s community-based service and advocacy work.] Another moderating force was the middle classes of color who rejected Black power, Brown power, etc. These were the people who stood to gain the most from moderate civil rights reforms.
Civil rights measures were thus a mixed bag. Undeniable victories, such as voting rights and immigration reform, stood alongside many losses, such as activists’ unmet demands for redistributive policies and broader social rights. The assassinations and repression of the 1960s were devastating, especially for more radical groups. Reforms provided a counter-narrative to COINTELPRO and the murder of Panthers, AIM activists, and others, and defused political opposition by permitting the reassertion of a certain broad-based racial stability.
Nonetheless, it is important for those working for social change to recognize that to be “free at last” ultimately means something deeper than the gaining of partial access–principally by favored minority elites–to key social and political institutions. It means more than limited reforms and palliation of the worst excesses of White supremacy. It requires a substantive reorganization of the American social system. It means political implementation of egalitarian economic and democratizing political measures. It means social democracy, “a Marshall Plan for the Ghetto and Barrio,” human rights, and social citizenship for people of color.
It is this last issue–redistribution of resources–that seems to be the dividing line between liberal and radical demands. This is the continuing threat to the right-wing racial regime that continues to rule, even with a Black man in the White House. What threat exactly? That of a working and poor people’s alliance, race-conscious but transracial, and feminist and queer as well. We can see inklings of that “dream” yesterday in the Poor People’s Movement that Dr. King was trying to organize when he was killed, in the peace movement, and today in Occupy.
Nothing symbolizes the unresolved dilemmas of race more acutely than the election of Barack Obama. A few years earlier, the idea of a Black president appeared to be the stuff of purest fantasy, or at best a Hollywood conceit (see: Chris Rock in “Head of State” or the series “24,” among others). Although the 2008 election briefly appeared transformational, to paraphrase George Clinton, the White House has not yet become a Black House.
Obama is manifestly unable–especially in a chronic recession–to address a severe heightening of racial inequality. Structural racism lives on. The massive increase in Black and Brown incarceration, the growing disparities in Black-White (and Latino-White) inequality, and the resurgent, somewhat race-driven U.S. imperialism in the Middle East and elsewhere, all demonstrate the failure of sustained efforts to institutionalize “colorblindness” as the new racial common sense. In addition, a decades-long series of Supreme Court decisions has attempted with increasing absurdity to redefine racism as a problem chiefly suffered by Whites. The claims of a “post-racial” order were premature.
The Continuing Political Project and the New Coalition
The United States’ Right Wing may speak the language of “colorblindness,” but it unhesitatingly uses race to rule: to manipulate elections, justify foreign wars and nativism, organize repression and incarceration at home, and to assault social and human rights. Racial profiling is not gone; indeed it is more embedded than ever in such arenas as immigration, where all Latino@s are presumed to be undocumented. Profiling is also visible in the “homeland security” targeting of Muslims but not White terrorists like Timothy McVeigh or the White assassins of abortion providers.
There’s resistance out there. Our movement challenges racism mainly through the targets it chooses and the people it mobilizes. Immigration, education, health, incarceration, police violence, labor, and many more issues are being confronted by people at the grassroots, and by community organizations. Movement people and movement groups today have an awareness of racism and a racial diversity that was not present in previous waves of American protest. Occupy, immigrants rights, antiwar, opposition to profiling and police violence, feminist, and queer movements, all have significant anti-racist dimensions.
Occupy has not been sufficiently understood in terms of race. Where Occupy has succeeded, it has directly addressed the needs of poor people and people of color: feeding and talking with the homeless in Zuccotti Park was not easy, but it was vital. Voices of color were heard in the General Assemblies. Resisting foreclosures and evictions and occupying banks have been recognized as anti-racist actions. Occupy is the prototype of a new direct-action, nonviolent, and somewhat anarchist-oriented political approach. It is a radical democratic project. Given that the structural racism at the heart of the Right Wing is fundamentally despotic and anti-democratic, Occupy offers an alternative. Direct democracy must be antiracist.
Activists for racial justice must come to understand race and racism, as well as a wide range of other political themes, as everyday encounters between despotic and democratic practices. As individuals and groups confronted by state power and entrenched privilege, but not entirely limited by those obstacles, we must choose to take part in a constant anti-racist “reconstruction” both of everyday life and of the state itself.