If the task of the nineteenth century was to overthrow slavery, and the task of the twentieth century was to end legal segregation, the key to solving this country’s problems in the twenty-first century is to abolish the white race as a social category–in other words, eradicate white supremacy entirely.
from the Call to Renew the Legacy of John Brown, 1999
The politics of the new abolitionism is intended to provide a direct and explicit challenge to whiteness. Its goals are to promote treason among old “whites” and to struggle against the recruitment of new “whites” in order to develop a powerful constituency for human freedom.
There are three views of the new abolitionists which are relevant to the present discussion: first, (as many others have pointed out) race is a social, not biological, category; second, the boundaries of whiteness have been and can be contested and re-drawn, with the result being a more expansive or constricted membership in the white club; third, whiteness should be abolished (such an abolition having nothing to do with the physical existence of any human being) because such abolition is essential to human progress. Let me review these three points.
While there is still some debate among paleontologists, the prevailing view now places the origin of the human species in eastern Africa, just under 200,000 years ago. The species spread out from that point in time and place. Subsequent developments tended to promote a relatively stable inbreeding among folks in the varied regions and relatively superficial characteristics (skin color, hair texture) became more or less common among stable populations in various places. But that variation did not and does not constitute a basis for the differentiation of the human population by race. Indeed, for biologists, race is “virtually invisible:”
Eighty five percent of human genetic variation consists of the differences between one person and another within the same ethnic group, tribe or nation, another eight percent is between ethnic groups, and a mere seven percent is between “races.” In other words, the genetic difference between, say, two randomly picked Swedes is about twelve times as large as the difference between the average of Swedes and the average of Apaches or Walpiris(Pinker 1994,430).
To argue that something is social means to argue that it is the result of human activity rather than the consequence of some natural process, such as the differentiation of human beings as males and females. Human beings have been at this thing called life a long time and it is relatively hard for us to understand that what seems natural is not. Our understanding is complicated by the fact that merely claiming that something is social does not address the issue of “how” it is social. Thus, race can be understood by adherents of a social constructionist viewpoint, variously, as something that was imposed by rulers on underlings, as something that was an act of human imagination gone awry, or as something framed by privileges extended to some and denied to others. Our preferred understandings depend a great deal on answers to some fundamental questions, such as–where do ideas come from. Those who believe that ideas spring forth without reference to material reality will answer differently from those who acknowledge the press of circumstances on ideas. Those of us who advocate a “new abolitionism” subscribe to the notion that circumstances matter a great deal and that it is circumstances which establish the pre-conditions for race. Put simply, people were not favored socially because they were white; rather they were defined as “white” because they were favored. Race itself is a product of social discrimination. At the same time, as I hope to make clear, we insist that human actions matter a great deal as well.
A profound contribution was made to our understanding of race and whiteness by the political activist and historian, Ted Allen. Allen (Allen 1994, 32) argues that racial oppression is distinguished in its formative stage by the reduction of “all members of the oppressed group to one undifferentiated social status, a status beneath that of any member of any social class within the colonizing population.” The Irish were the first victims. Allen makes the perhaps obvious point that the Irish did not have skin colors especially different from the English or the Scots settlers. In a number of articles and in a two-volume book entitled The Invention of the White Race, Allen has argued that whiteness was invented by the planters of Virginia to forestall the threat of a unified rebellion of the laboring population–African and English–in the late 17th Century. He points out that the word “white” had not previously been used to differentiate those of European ancestry. The conditions of servitude for those from Europe and Africa were the same; all were indentured; all could look forward to years of wretched survival or early death. But none were slaves; after the 1670’s, however, according to Allen, the planters decided that those of African descent would be slaves with no right to manumission after a period of time and their children would be property as well. On the other hand, the servants of European ancestry could be freed after the period of indenture and their children would be free–and poor. The newly christened “whites” bit the bait–they exchanged the dream of freedom for the nightmare of a less degrading servitude.
Although the passing of hundreds of years could easily let us think that the “invention” of whiteness was an instance of the exercise of the rulers’ power, it is likely that the process by which those pale skinned laborers who once knew themselves to be the bed-mates and imagined themselves to be the soul-mates of their dark-skinned fellows became “whites” took its own roundabout path through numerous acts of principled refusal, cowardice and resignation (Malik 1996). The details of the making of the “white” working class in those early days are perhaps beyond our ability to research and recover but we should not imagine that whiteness was imposed any more unilaterally than any other effort by rulers to change the terms of their rule.
In any case, other researchers have charted the ways in which whiteness has been made and re-made in the years since. Time and again, new groups arrived from afar, served out a cruel apprenticeship (perhaps their version of indentured servitude), demonstrated their willingness to act white and accept the benefits of membership, petitioned for admission to the club and then became loyal members. Non-European ancestry is not an insurmountable barrier to membership nor is the extent of oppression suffered in the native land or upon arrival here. Only those of African ancestry remain permanently barred. And as perhaps is obvious, all of those who (by appearance) had both African and European forebears were deemed, by the one drop rule, to be black.
There are many deemed white today whose ancestors were not. At times, the inclusion of one group or another has been much contested. The Irish were the first to be tried. In the middle of the 19th Century, Irish immigrants were refugees from racial oppression in their native land and were portrayed as brutes in America. Some predicted amalgamation of the Irish and the African. Instead, the Irish became white (Ignatiev 1996). Each subsequent inclusion of potentially non-white immigrants (such as the Italians, the Hungarians, the Jews) into whiteness was a defeat rather, than as is often imagined, yet another chapter in a glorious history of immigrant triumph.
What difference has whiteness made? A quick accounting yields the following. Whiteness was the foundation stone for the widespread support of slavery on the part of poor whites for almost two hundred years. After slavery was abolished, in spite of the remarkable challenge posed and example provided by the freed slaves during Reconstruction, race remained the centerpiece of social control in the United States. When the populists rose up at the end of the 19th Century to challenge the rule of the railroad and bank barons, it was race that destroyed the movement. When the first unions fought to exist, it was race that made them institutions not of the working class but instead of white workers. And on and on. While American capitalism was establishing the material pre-requisites of common wealth, the whites were insuring that the wealth would remain in private hands.
The support of individuals for whiteness is not necessarily motivated by “prejudice.” All that is necessary is the willingness of those ensconced within its quarters or those seeking entrance to accept its privileges. Currently, their privileges include protection from arbitrary abuse by the police; better homes and neighborhoods; the availability of adequate, if not necessarily high-quality, public schooling; relatively open access to the labor market and opportunities for advancement; the ability to travel without harassment by automobile on the highways of the country, and the opportunity for the more or less unhindered expression of ethnic aspirations. Thus, the Amish in Pennsylvania and the Hasidic Jews in New York are able to sustain cultural forms dramatically at variance with late 20th century customs without jeopardizing their status as whites in good standing. Lest the benefits accruing to those considered white be underestimated, there is a great deal of statistical evidence from many spheres (life expectancy, unemployment, income and wealth, achievements in school and results from schooling, arrests/bail setting/ sentencing) which confirms the prevalence of a thorough-going race differential–a differential significant enough that, as Andrew Hacker has pointed out, when questioned most whites make clear their preference for being white rather than black and are hard-pressed to put a price tag on the possibility that their racial assignment might be changed (Hacker 1992). [I, of course, recognize that this sentiment co-exists ambivalently with a deep-seated attraction for elements of traditional and contemporary black culture and an apparently genuine admiration for black athletes among broad sections of the white population.]
But how are these privileges maintained in the post Jim Crow era, with formal/legal equality the law of the land? Perhaps the key to understanding it is to remember the ways in which an awful lot of white folks, north and south, east and west, resisted real, as opposed to formal, equality in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement. To cite just a couple of New York examples from the late 1960s: in Forest Hills, a neighborhood in Queens, white residents adamantly opposed the construction of housing which would have led to the effective desegregation of that all-white neighborhood; in 1966, white voters defeated a proposal to establish a civilian review board for the police and in 1968, the teachers’ union struck to defeat community control of the schools, a goal that had been adopted by black activists frustrated by the failure of efforts to integrate the schools. In other words, the privileges of whiteness have not only been bestowed by rulers; they have been zealously protected by the beneficiaries.
The prevailing arrangements of white privilege and the negotiation of terms of possible incorporation of new whites are maintained by an inter-play between institutions and popular activity. Those institutions include the various bureaucracies, the police, the courts, the jails and prisons, the schools, the universities, the hospitals and the unions. They include those agencies acknowledged to have a role of social preservation, those intended to ameliorate the worst consequences of life under the prevailing social and economic circumstances and even those intended to reform those circumstances (such as funded community organizations and local economic development initiatives).
This hardly works by magic. Elected officials, and those who staff the various apparatuses, respond quite vigorously to popular sentiment and any potential threat to their continuation in office. But, many of the key social interactions are obscured. Take schools as an example. Perhaps one of the most remarkable features of present-day schooling–in spite of all but complete local governance–is the virtually constant differential in achievement between black and white students across the country. White students over-populate the gifted programs and black students over-populate the lowest tracks (especially the special education one). In a recent study published in Race Traitor, Jane Manners traced the ways in which segregation was repackaged in Montclair, New Jersey, a suburban town celebrated for its integrated schools. In that town, nominal integration of buildings has been accompanied by a methodical segregation of educational opportunity and enrichment. White parents are effectively assured that their children will not suffer because of their physical association with black children and every effort is made to make that assurance real (Manners 1998).
At the same time, other whites insist on more traditional forms of separation. Just recently, The New York Times reported on events in two nominally integrated New York City community school districts. In the first, District 28 (covering Forest Hills and Jamaica), the school board has decided to spend five million dollars in federal magnet school funds–intended to promote and support school integration–to improve seven schools in the northern half of the district (Sengupta 1999). One of those schools is PS 144. Its students are said to be 37% Asian, 19% Hispanic, 4% black and 40% white. But the school board claims that the magnet funds are needed to increase the white enrollment to 50%. According to the local superintendent, Neil Kreinick, the “only way you can succeed in New York City and most big cities” is to attract more white students from the non-public schools (B8). Meanwhile, only two schools in Jamaica (the predominantly black half of the district) are to receive magnet school funds. The resourcefulness of the white folks is extraordinary–they have even figured out how to use money intended to promote integration to support the maintenance of white privilege.
And the other story is from District 10 in the Bronx (a district including relatively wealthy white Riverdale and relatively poor black Marble Hill). In the Riverdale end of the district, Middle School 141 has an enrollment of about 1,400 students–half from Riverdale and half from Marble Hill. A group of Riverdale parents has proposed the redesign of the school so that it would include a new “rigorous” high school. In order to do so, the zone for the middle school would have to be re-drawn, thereby excluding many of the Marble Hill children (Waldman 1999). What’s perfect about this solution is that it’s well-known that the public high schools in the Bronx, with the exception of the Bronx High School for Science (a school that admits students from all over the city on the basis of performance on an exam taken in 8th grade), constitute an educational dead zone. If the plan for a redesigned school is adopted, then the children of Riverdale who don’t do well enough on the exam will have an alternative to the educational misery which is the destiny of their age-mates down the road. What is especially revealing about this episode is that the efforts to re-design the school are being led, not by reactionaries, but by certified liberals in the reform wing of the Democratic Party. As is often the case, those who imagine that they know better rest easy in their conviction that social responsibility is dependent only on intent.
Thus, I suggest that this whiteness that we struggle against is not merely the product of rulers’ efforts to perpetuate their rule but is as well, if not more, the result of the efforts of lots of ordinary people to improve the circumstances of their lives within the racial terms set down by the past. This need not involve any self-conscious motivation to do harm. Instead, it is accomplished through what appears to be unobjectionable participation in a wide variety of institutional relationships and practices–in trade unions, schools, political parties, pension funds, real estate transactions, and so forth. In any case, those who have become accustomed to privilege, for the most part and for most of the time, act to preserve that privilege rather than abolish it. Indeed, when they perceive that their relative advantage is being taken away, some resort to popular protest to secure it–even to the point of challenging the rule of those whose existence as rulers they seem all but incapable of recognizing otherwise. And those “new” immigrants who aspire to share in the privilege become quite accustomed to justifying their complicity by citing their own experience of prior hardship and diligent effort. This is not to suggest that they do not encounter discrimination, danger or degradation. It is, however, to suggest that their yearning for whiteness is politically poisonous.
New abolitionists propose a struggle against many years of sedimented reality–wherein white privilege is passed down through generations and sustained through the normal workings of most of the social and economic institutions of the country. By way of example, abolitionists in New York are attempting to organize and support efforts to disrupt the normal workings of the police department and of those institutions, such as the police union, which protect the police. Specifically, this could involve a challenge to the forty-eight hour rule, enshrined in the police contract, which allows officers a protected grace period when they face possible charges for misconduct. But it will also involve a challenge to those legislators who accept contributions from the union and routinely support legislation favored by that union.
There is no shortage of other possible targets, such as tracking in the schools and, in more than a few cities, segregated elite high schools. Some of our suggested remedies are quite simple–for example, in the case of the segregated high schools in New York (which base admission on performance on an examination), we propose that admission be granted to a proportionally appropriate number of top-performing students in each of the city’s community school districts–a variation on the fixed percentage admissions policies recently adopted by the public university systems in Texas and California.
But, just as important, abolitionists advocate and applaud the breaking of the “racial contract” in every sphere of human life. Thus, we celebrate those “white” teenagers who insist on their right to wear the clothes they prefer, to listen to the music they like, to choose the friends and lovers they wish. We appreciate those artists, such as Russell Banks, who dare to go deep into the white folks’ lives, dreams and nightmares and imagine that there is a future for them on the other side of their complicity with the miserableness sustained by whiteness.
In all our efforts, we are guided by a simple proposition. Black folks spend their lives fighting to abolish whiteness. We pay close attention to and support their efforts–to stop profiling on the highways, to end the warehousing of their children in special education, to end discriminatory practices in medical research and diagnosis, to expose the pseudo-scientists who scheme of new racial biologies, to battle against the exclusionary practices of the construction trade unions, to end the criminalization of black youth and the consequent imprisonment and denial of citizenship rights to millions.
And what do the non-abolitionists think and do? First, there are the dissolutionists. There is some evidence that whiteness is being dissolved–not as the product of principled struggle but instead by the development of capitalism itself. If this path were to be followed, there would be no preferential treatment granted to white workers; they would be eligible to be as badly paid and as badly treated as those considered non-white. Thus, race differentials, such as the effective guarantee of higher wages for white construction workers through the Davis-Bacon Act, would be eliminated.
The outline of this approach can be seen in the recommendations of the Advisory Board to President Clinton’s Initiative on Race. But that dissolution is proceeding by fits and starts and it is not at all clear that it will be carried through to a conclusion. Not surprisingly, any dismantlement of whiteness is opposed by many beneficiaries of the previous order and by some who wish to become beneficiaries. Therefore, those who desire dissolution with minimal conflict and with minimal electoral losses, such as Clinton, prove to be unreliable advocates. He nominates Lani Guinier but does not support her. As an important aside, at least two distinctive contributions by Guinier to the cause of abolition deserve mention–the recommendation of proportional representation as an alternative to redistricting and the recommendation that standardized test scores be used to set minimum thresholds of satisfactory performance as an alternative to strict rank ordering (Sturm and Guinier 1996).
Similarly, Clinton convenes the Advisory Board for his Initiative on Race, accepts its recommendations, and then sends it off to a virtual reality. Today, in March of 1999, if someone calls the number for the President’s Initiative on Race, he or she is informed, by a recorded message, that the Initiative has become the President’s “One America Initiative.” The message also advises callers what to do if they have experienced discrimination at the hands of employers, real estate agents or police officers–press another key. If and when a caller presses that other key, the electronic messenger gives you another number to call. If a caller persists through the messages and leaves his or her own message asking how he or she might obtain a copy of the Advisory Board’s report, chances are that a White House staffer will call back and let you know that there are no copies of the report available for public distribution (there are two copies in the office–one for the Director of the Initiative and the other for the public relations staff). There is a copy available for downloading from the web but they’ve been having some problems lately so people haven’t been able to download it. It’s virtual reality without the virtual.
Meanwhile, others who desire dissolution, without fundamental alteration of the social landscape, affirm affirmative action within limits. Thus, Bowen and Bok (Bowen and Bok 1998) write a book to demonstrate that “race-sensitive” admissions policies will not dilute the quality of the nation’s leadership but oppose the introduction of a “fixed-percentage” admissions policy to state institutions of higher education since it would diminish “the pool of students who can compete effectively for positions of leadership in business, government and the professions.” Nonetheless, the dissolutionists still affirm their good intentions: “Individuals of every political stripe agree that, ultimately, we must fix the K-12 ‘pipeline’ (or ‘river’ to adopt the Bowen-Bok metaphor). But this will take years.” (Zwick 1999,35)
It is probably worth noting that there are some, such as Jim Sleeper and the Thernstroms, who believe that the dissolution project has been completed and that the only thing that stands between black folks and the end of whiteness as a social obstacle is their own effort (Sleeper 1997; Thernstrom and Thernstrom). I ask them, simply and straightforwardly, the Andrew Hacker question. Are they willing to become black?
Second, there are the expansionists and the restrictionists. Since the mid-1960s, the popular white viewpoint on race has been framed primarily by the debate between the populist/Klan/Nazi far right and the more traditional conservative/neo-conservative right. In the recent past, this has been incarnated in two variants, the conservative typified by politicians such as Newt Gingrich and Rudolph Giuliani and the quasi-fascist or fascist, typified by David Duke and Tom Metzger. While the two frequently share some ideas and language, it is important to differentiate them. Let me suggest that they can be considered respectively as white expansionists or restrictionists.
Although it is often submerged, the political project of the Gingrich/Giuliani sector allows for a significant recomposition of whiteness to allow for the inclusion of Hispanics and “new” immigrants. But it demands a more or less consistent opposition to the blacks and a defense of traditional white prerogatives. It is, I think, highly unlikely that the political potential of the Gingrich/Giuliani’s is going to be much diminished by an “unmasking the racist” approach. At the same time, it does seem clear that Giuliani’s political ambitions have been interfered with by the continuing protests concerning the murder of Amadou Diallo. There has been no shortage of commentary in New York suggesting that the mayor is to blame for the unrelenting assaults against the black residents of the city. But there has been far too little commentary about the fact that he launched those assaults with the advice and consent of the white people who elected him to do just that. They will be unmoved by an unmasking of the mayor.
At the same time, the forces represented electorally by David Duke and those to his right can imagine no expansion of whiteness. They hold out a vision of a purified America, an America purified of blacks, Jews and (occasionally) of capitalists. They are hardly a homogeneous group and they often spill over into the conservative camp. A “virtual” illustration of this can be seen on the web page of the Council of Conservative Citizens (COFCC.org). There you will find those who call for the restriction of immigration, the rehabilitation of those who fought for the Confederacy, the extension of plebiscite rights to the states (as was granted, however symbolically, not long ago to the residents of Puerto Rico), and white proletarian revolutionaries as well as a link to the neo-nazi National Front in France. I hope it is obvious that the threat represented by those forces cannot be effectively combated by a defense of mainstream institutions. For the young people who see nothing but a bleak future (such as those described by Raphael Ezekiel in The Racist Mind), only the promise of a total alternative will suffice (Ezekiel 1996).
We are frequently urged to recognize that there is something new about the situation in the United States today and to expand our conversation and analysis “beyond black and white.” Those who urge the recognition of the racialized ways in which those other than the descendants of Africans are oppressed in America risk becoming part of an effort not to abolish whiteness but instead to rehabilitate it through the inclusion of new “non-whites.” Unfortunately, I believe that what we are being urged to recognize as new is quite old and the ground is being laid for a reconsolidation of the oldest. Simply put, I am afraid that a reconceptualization of intermediate categories between black and white will allow for a smoother recomposition and preservation of whiteness and a renewed appreciation for the old whites. Thus, in an essay entitled “White Loss,” in a collection entitled Beyond Black and White, Michelle Fine, Lois Weis, Judi Addelston and Julia Marusza conclude:
The time has come to shift the sands so that whiteness and maleness are reinvented. Adult women and men must invite and invent pedagogies that begin to unscramble various forms of masculinities for young boys and men. …. Carving out safe spaces, white males need to analyze critically the banner of privilege they once carried, and have now lost, and the sites of white masculinity from which productive identities can be spawned. All other “demographic groups” have begun this work of consciousness raising and critical identity reformation (Fine, Weis, Addelston, Marusza 1997, 300).
The white studies folks, who are almost never abolitionists, are not hostile to the proliferation of other identities. Indeed, they know that such a proliferation makes their own work to rehabilitate whiteness more palatable. This approach is connected to a project of “rearticulation of whiteness.” In that vein, the otherwise formidable Howard Winant replaces a whiteness formed by biology with a whiteness formed by culture but insists that culture has, for all practical purposes, the same permanence as biology (Winant 1997). Among other objections to that point of view, I would ask what is white culture. What cultural practices do the steelworker and the corporate financier who executes the billion dollar deal that results in the liquidation of the steel mill share in common? None. They share only the privileges of the white skin and, as a result, the steelworker imagines that he has something–other than his humanity–in common with the financier.
The politics of those who counsel rearticulation and deconstruction rather than abolition are a politics of despair–rooted in a conviction that ordinary people cannot transform themselves and are incapable of ruling society. Their “politics” is a politics of multi-cultural education and diversity and sensitivity training. As one radio commentator pointed out, it’s a good thing that they didn’t have diversity consultants available during slavery or we might still be dealing with a “rearticulated” enslavement of human beings.
Outside of the circles of the far right and the militia movements, the desirability and possibility of radical change seem very strange these days. In large part, the political stage, which once seemed so full of possibilities, was transformed because of large developments–the liquidation of a large chunk of American industry, the suppression and defeat of the black movement, the end of the war against Vietnam. But it was transformed as well by developments internal to the movement–generally, the incorporation of activists within a whole variety of mainstream institutions. Whereas the left was once the source of many of the most penetrating critiques of the limitations and perversions of governmental and quasi-governmental institutions (such as large medical centers, universities, the public schools, social service agencies and unions), its adherents are now content to be the most forthright defenders of those institutions against attacks from conservative Republicans and, perhaps worse still, the promoters of the government’s police agencies as the front line of defense against the insurgent forces of the right. The only things that distinguish those who imagine themselves to be on the left from their liberal counterparts is a willingness to organize occasional public protests and a pronounced tendency to write in impenetrable prose–a style that often suggests a critique far more through-going than in fact it is. The notion that a left might be concerned with the vision of a new world and not a defense of institutionalized accommodations to the existing state of affairs is greeted in most quarters as nostalgic.
As the possibility of social transformation receded, a renewed defense of whiteness became the cornerstone of the Republican strategy to win the South away from the Democrats and it became the script of choice for conservative mayoral candidates from Los Angeles to New York. As race became an ever more potent weapon for those seeking a reversal of the popular victories of the 1950s and 1960s, the white left sought out excuse after excuse for why whiteness could not be directly challenged.
Let me give two quite different examples which provide specific illustrations of this excuse-making in practice. From 1970 until 1978, I drove a yellow taxi in New York City. For much of that time, the taxi fleet owners and the elected leadership of the taxi workers union engaged in a relentless campaign of vilification against the so-called gypsy cabs. Those were cabs that cruised the predominantly black neighborhoods of the city as a result of the refusal of most yellow cab drivers to take black passengers to those neighborhoods and/or to remain in them once taken there by a fare. Inevitably, the gypsy cabs were taken by their passengers into other neighborhoods and the fleet owners and union leaders were determined to resist any infringement into what they imagined to be their territory. To be precise, the union leadership had seized upon the gypsy cabs to explain away a disastrous reduction in taxi drivers’ wages subsequent to a new contract negotiated in early 1971. In any case, the story I wish to tell is not so much about the venal motives of either taxi fleet owners or incumbent union leaders. Instead, I want to highlight the response of the group of mostly young left activists that I was part of.
The work that we did together forced us to deal with lots of complicated issues in ways that were respectful of the mostly older workers we were trying to engage. For example, we spent many hours discussing whether we would publicly support the victory of the National Liberation Front in Vietnam; we spent many more hours discussing whether we would support the right of those gypsy cabs to cruise all the streets of the city. Ultimately, in a show of principled lack of principle, we decided that we would have no position on the issue. We failed the test of solidarity with our fellow workers because we thought that the “white” cab drivers would not be able to rise to the challenge of supporting something that they thought would be detrimental to their own short-term interests–even though it was the right thing to do.
Another version of this same failure was on display some years later when the anti-apartheid movement in the United States organized its campaign to persuade pension funds to divest themselves of investments in companies with holdings in South Africa by convincing those covered by those pension funds that such divestment would not affect the value of their retirement pensions. The argument was that if divestment did result in lower pensions then no request would be made of the prospective pensioners to support the struggle in South Africa.
At the same time, blacks are being cautioned, even by some who know the history of whiteness and blackness quite well–such as George Lipsitz, the author of the much acclaimed The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (Lipsitz 1998). He recounts an old Moms Mabley joke about a black lawyer being denied the right to vote in Mississippi–in spite of the fact that he can explicate the state constitution and a biblical passage–because he is unable to read a Chinese newspaper. When the voting registrars ask the lawyer what the Chinese paper meant, the lawyer responded that it meant that no matter what he did they were not going to let him vote. Lipsitz argues:
the operative assumption beyond this assertion is that it is unreasonable to expect someone who is “American” to be able to read a Chinese newspaper. This is in no way to belittle the black claim for inclusion contained in Mabley’s story, only to warn that in the current multiracial and international context in which racial identities are made and unmade, a simple black-white binary, or indeed any binary opposition, will not help us address or redress the possessive investment in whiteness (212).
In an essay in the recently published The Real Ebonics Debate, Theresa Perry warned otherwise:
One of the most serious theoretical flaws embedded in most conversations about multicultural education and changing demographics is the assumption that all people of color in this country are similarly situated politically and that their cultural formations carry similar political salience. The school performance of African Americans in minority/majority school districts should compel us to inject the notion of “a racial caste group” into discussions of multiculturalism in schools, in the workplace, and in the economic order (Perry 1998,212, Note 1).
The use of race or whiteness as a way to analyze social realities does not directly address the issue of the extent of misery endured by an individual or members of various groups. Although the point has been made before, it is worth repeating that it’s difficult to compare suffering. Hunger, pain, fear, terror, anxiety, self doubt and derogation are all available in ample supply and simple rankings of relative misery probably do not help much to allow us to imagine a way to create a world where the cards are not so terribly stacked against the possibility of human freedom and pleasure. But, as I hope I’ve made clear, there is another way to look at this issue. It involves an examination of the ways in which individuals find themselves placed in different groups, the ways in which they understand their relative good or bad fortune and the ways in which they imagine overcoming their misfortune.
To place this in perspective, let’s take a moment to look at South Africa earlier this century. As is commonly known, the South African people were divided into four major population groups–the Africans, the Europeans, the Coloureds and the Asians. While all but the Europeans were victims of systematic state and personal oppression as a result of that classification system, it is also true that oppression was measured out in different dosages and modalities. Not too surprisingly, according to No Sizwe (the pseudonym of Neville Alexander), in One Azania, One Nation:
…the educated elite, which had absorbed the capitalist ethos, inevitably formed organizations which catered for disabilities felt to be peculiar to the groups from which they themselves originated. Thus, without exception, all the political organisations of the oppressed which were formed up to approximately 1918 were essentially caste organisations concerned with the betterment of their own particular group and with gaining economic and political concessions for ‘their’ people (No Sizwe 1998).
And the South Africans put up with white rule for another century.
If we wish to challenge those who rule, those who are fundamentally responsible for the misery we put up with, we will have to challenge the way that they rule–including the ways that their rule is perpetuated by our own deeds. The continued existence of the white race as a social formation allows for the continued oppression of the black population, restricts human freedom, distorts all popular movements that rise up to challenge various injustices and prevents progress on almost every front.
Some, no many, will be skeptical of the possibility that the white race can be abolished. And indeed the loyalty of most whites to their race and the earnest desire of other newcomers to insist upon enrollment seem to confirm its durability. But times change and, with them, their possibilities. There was a time in many parts of the world where the people thought it obvious that their rulers were either divine or endowed by the divinity with the right to rule. But the monarchies fell and the earth still turned.
What would it mean for whites if all differentials were eliminated? Keeping in mind the percentage of black folks in the country, how much would unemployment and/or imprisonment increase for those now considered white if the race differential was eliminated? Not a whole lot. But there would be an enormous change in their understanding of their predicament. Without whiteness, those who rule would have to resort to other forms of social control. Put simply, ruling groups have two alternatives to secure the orderliness and cooperation of those they rule over–persuasion or coercion. When persuasion fails, coercion is resorted to. If whiteness were abolished, the police would have to become equal opportunity beaters. That would be a victory for us all and would create the possibility for an end to police abuse and even policing itself.
We urge upon so-called whites and those yearning to be white the abolitionist project because we believe that they can be better than they are. We believe that they too have dreams of freedom, but that those dreams are buried. We do so because we remain convinced of the possibility of radical change–where, instead of spending our time debating the extent of the meanness we are prepared to put up with, we would be imagining and creating the possibilities of free human personalities. We should be clear. Our project is not intended to win over a majority of the whites or of the potential whites. Instead, we wish to attract enough of them, either those already discontented with whiteness or those disgusted with the whole social order, so that we can build a movement against whiteness. Neither the 19th Century’s abolitionists nor the 20th Century’s civil rights activists ever constituted majorities. Still, they made decisive contributions to human freedom. We hope to do the same.
Allen, Theodore W. 1994. The Invention of the White Race. New York: Verso.
Bowen, William G. and Bok, Derek C. 1998. The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Ezekiel, Raphael. 1996. The Racist Mind: Portraits of American Neo-Nazis and Klansmen. New York: William Morrow & Co.
Fine, Michelle, Weis, Lois, Addelson, Judi and Marusza, Julia. 1997. “White Loss,” In Beyond Black and White, edited by M. Seller and L. Weis. Albany: SUNY Press.
Hacker, Andrew. 1992. Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile and Unequal. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Ignatiev, Noel. 1996. How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge.
Lipsitz, George. 1998. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Malik, Kenan. 1996. The Meaning of Race: Race, History and Culture. New York: New York University Press.
Manners, Jane. 1998. “Repackaging Segregation: A History of the Magnet School System in Montclair, New Jersey,” Race Traitor 8: 51-97.
No Sizwe. 1979. One Azania, One Nation: The National Question in South Africa. London: Zed Press.
Perry, Theresa. 1998. “‘I ‘on Know Why They Be Trippin”: Reflections on the Ebonics Debate,” In The Real Ebonics Debate: Power, Language, and the Education of African-American Children, edited by T. Perry and L. Delpit. Boston: Beacon Press.
Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: William Morrow & Co.
Sengupta, Somini. 1999. “In Queens, Integration Tool Skips Racially Isolated Schools,” The New York Times. February 23: B1-8.
Sleeper, Jim. 1997. Liberal Racism. New York: Penguin Books.
Sturm, Susan and Guinier, Lani. 1996. “The Future of Affirmative Action: Reclaiming the Innovative Ideal,” California Law Review. 84:953-1036.
Thernstrom, Stephan and Thernstrom, Abigail. 1999. America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Waldman, Amy. 1999. “Bronx Neighbors Spar Over School: Plan for an Academy Widens Racial and Economic Rifts,” The New York Times. February 25:B1-10.
Winant, Howard. 1997. “Beyond Blue Eyes: Whiteness and Contemporary US Racial Politics,” New Left Review. 225:73- 88.
Zwick, Rebecca. 1999. “Backdoor Affirmative Action,” Education Week. February 10:56-35.