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African Culture Essay, Research Paper

When W.E.B. Du Bois announced in his marvelous work Souls of Black Folk, that the “problem of the 20th Century is the color line… .” immediately he set out a social and analytical paradigm that instantly recognized that the major racial problem in America was that existing between Blacks and Whites. Nevertheless, we are still, at the end of the 20th Century, struggling with the question of what kind of democratic society we are, or whether we will be a democratic society at all, often oblivious to the fact that the satisfactory resolution of Du Bois’ paradigm is the most critical element in the question.

In this respect, what has not been fully grasped by the new radical conservatism is the notion that social justice and human rights never were disconnected communities of value within the framework of a larger political regime; that they, in fact, define the very nature of democracy itself. Democracy is not just the legal framework of the Constitution, but the real relations among people governed by it. So, the critical objective in the process of Blacks seeking social justice has been to move from an exclusive notion of democracy based upon White dominance to one more perfect even than that envisioned by the founders.

When America was first defined, the founders debated the issues involved in the character of democracy. However, the unchallenged and underlying reality was that the authoritative social structure and the effective citizenship of the nation would be White and male, women having been excluded by custom, most Blacks as slaves excluded by law, and even so-called “freed” Blacks not considered to be citizens. Native Americans, of course, not only were excluded, but were on the chopping block of extermination.

From their position as the authoritative citizens, Whites were able to erect institutions and to behave in ways that enforced their notions of social, political, and economic behavior. Certainly, groups such as the Irish or Jews were considered within the pecking order as socially less than the English, Germans, and French. And by the early 20th century, the Chinese, who had been brought to the country in the 19th century to work on the railroads, were legally excluded by the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 that affected Japanese exclusion. Since then, race relations have been defined by the preoccupation with the real and symbolic conflict between “Black” and “White.”

Of course, we cannot consider race and color in America as absolutes, for within every group there is a natural variation of biology in people who have been exposed to the world. For instance, for the purposes of maintaining social power, “White” people were created in America. This grouping would have the cultural variation of many European ethnic groups-Irish, German, Slav, French, Spanish, Nordic, all subject to the dominating influences of the English culture, political structure, and economic power. But for the purpose of exercising that power, they merged into a defined “Whiteness” of status and behavior. Africans born in America were treated collectively as “Blacks,” colored, and Negroes. They not only were culturally African, they were Mandingo, Yoruba, Nuer, Ovinbundu, etc., who came to possess the flavoring of English, French, Dutch or other European cultures through their experience with colonialism. Thus, while cultural variations exist within the dominant grouping of “White” as well as “Black,” it is power that defines the racial stratification as occurring in near absolute terms. That is to say, any Black person, no matter how rich, is subject to acts of subordination based on race.

The Black/White paradigm is still a convenient way to dialogue about race, where Blacks represent the oppressed and Whites the dominant group. All non-White groups have been oppressed to one degree or another by the dominant culture, not in the sense that they were merely disliked by the White majority (exhibiting prejudice or racial discrimination), but that they were forced into certain roles by it. Where the principle (stated or unstated) of the use of power was based on race, it was racism. Feagin and Sikes define racism as follows: “Racism is racial discrimination backed by the power and resources to effect unequal outcomes based on race.” (Feagin and Sikes, Living with Racism, Beacon, 1994).

The use of the power of the White majority upon Blacks is a measure of the openness of society and a comment upon the nature of democracy. This power has been exercised in personal acts such as brutal forms of lynching in which Blacks were burned alive or hanged, and modern forms of lynching, such as when Blacks have been beaten to death while in jail. (Southern Poverty Law Center, 1994 Report) Also, institutions have used their power to deny Blacks access to capital, often through their own deposits in banks, for the purpose of buying houses, renting, or insuring their property. Other discriminatory incidents include Blacks being suspected of stealing merchandise and publicly humiliated by being forced to disrobe or perform other humiliating acts. Then, more sophisticated acts of intellectual racism have consistently questioned the mental abilities of Blacks and, in particular, their intelligence, in books such as The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, by Richard Herrenstein and Charles Murray. (New York: The Free Press/Macmillan, 1994).

The Black/White Paradigm Becomes Multicultural

The paradigm of Black and White changed with modern events that altered its use and meaning. For example, Asian immigration to the United States came quickly in the 1970s and 1980s with refugees from the Korean War, and especially after the Vietnam War. Even the continued reign of the Communists in China stimulated the flow of immigrants to these shores. For example, in 1970 the U.S. Census counted 1,438,544 Asians, but by 1990, they had grown to five times as many, 7,273,662. Likewise, Hispanics, lured by the economic attraction of the United States, war in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and the proximity of Mexico, came with equal abandon, such that since 1970, Hispanics increased from 9,072,602 to 22,354,059! The result is that in states like California 45 percent of the residents are already Black, Asian or Hispanic, and non-White children are already a majority in the school system.

The rapid pace of cultural diversity is reflected in Census data for non- White population growth, which show that between 1980-1990, Blacks grew by .2 percent and Native Americans by .09 percent, but Asians grew by 1.1 percent and Hispanics by the highest rate of 1.6 percent.

Many incoming groups such as Hispanics and Asians have benefitted from the existence of a legal regime of rights contained in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination against diverse cultural groups, as one protected class, in employment, education, and other areas of society. However, with the expansion of groups and the rights they enjoy, a conflict has developed as some interpret this expansion of democracy as a threat to the interests of the dominant White majority, especially as economic competition increases.


Liberal sociologists such as Gunnar Myrdal, who wrote what is considered a classic on race relations, An American Dilemma, in the 1940s, proposed that pluralism could defeat racial discrimination and subordination. In effect, pluralism assumed that a theoretical equality between Blacks and Whites could be achieved without serious alteration in the status of Whites, by the elimination of racial discrimination and the practice of pluralistic equality. Not only was this a false vision of racial dynamics, but also it protected Americans from the fact that they practiced a virulent kind of Apartheid, and from the implications if the practice stopped.

The fact that each group has a cultural history that shapes its place in the social order, often marked by inequalities of power, negates the doctrine of pluralism.

Historian Dr. Arthur Schlesinger, in The Disuniting of America, writes of Hector St. John de Crevecour, an 18th Century Frenchman who had settled in the American colonies in 1759 in Orange County, New York, who asked the question, “What then, is this American?” He answered his own question by saying: “He is an American who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles….Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.” E pluribus Unum!!! This was the original theory of the “melting pot.”

Schlesinger, a critic of multiculturalism, admitted that the United States has never fulfilled Crevecour’s original ideal of the “melting pot,” but he did not admit the fact that the framework of unity provided by the English and their European cousins was maintained by force and brutality and was imposed on an unwilling people, not only African slaves, but others as well. Thus, he refused to admit that America has never been united into one ideal by freely consenting groups. It was united by the use of power to enforce the ideals of the dominant racial class upon Blacks and other subordinate groups in a situation of brutal internal colonialism. That is to say, E Pluribus Unum meant “from many, one nation, but not one people”!!!


Today, there are many intellectuals-Charles Taylor (Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition), Amy Gutman, Steven C. Rockefeller, Michael Walzer, and Susan Wolf – who oppose multiculturalism, suggesting that one should look at culture from an individualized point of view rather than from a group perspective. (Taylor, 28)

Nevertheless, the identities we have discussed were manufactured both individually and collectively. So Whites and Blacks are not only individuals, but are linked to basic and extended group social relationships that contain the matrix of the social behavior of individuals. Whites are, for example, individuals whose individualism is enhanced in relationship to non-Whites because it is linked to the matrix that includes wealth, access to resources, and control over the dominant institutions of society. Whether or not they can successfully use these resources depends upon their individual skills and other factors, but the fact that they exist for Whites to a degree much greater than for Blacks and other non-Whites is unassailable.

Therefore, there is an urgent need to examine the concept of “Whiteness” or for Whites to understand the way in which they are connected to systems that result in the racial subordination of non-Whites. Understanding “Whiteness,” suggests such scholars as Ruth Frankenberg, will also illuminate many of the same systems that are the route to the subordination of women. (Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters, 93)

It is just as important for subordinated individuals and groups to understand the many ways in which racial power is exercised upon them. Otherwise, their ignorance becomes a major resource for racists. In fact, subordinated individuals often employ individualism as a buttress to racial stigma. An example is Whoopi Goldberg, who denies her connection to Africa by saying, “Don’t call me an African American, I am an American.” Another example is Morgan Freeman, who returned from Africa to declare: “I ain’t lost nothing in Africa. I’m an American.” But then, the irony is that they are not regarded by the movie industry or its patrons as merely “American” actors; they are ultimately Black actors who are given – and who accept – racial roles such as those the movies “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Color Purple.” And one of the often heard criticisms of O. J. Simpson is that the nature of his individualism is manifested in his selection of White associates rather than Black, which has cost him personal support within the Black community. In any case, individualism is a myth of American culture in a society dominated by the richest group culture in the world. In fact, the proliferation of groups for every conceivable purpose and their control of social resources and direction are the dominant reality of American culture and democracy.


In order to bolster their power in the midst of racial subordination, Blacks have strengthened their position by political movements that enhanced the sense of group solidarity and rehabilitated their identity. But there is the irony that while this form of naming spells out the ambiguity of the Black existence far more explicitly than other terms, it also normalizes Black identity by equating it to Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, and other groups.

It is the same with the adoption of the concept of Afrocentrism, a modernized form of Pan Africanism. Afrocentrism in some quarters is a threatening philosophy, primarily because it is the newest concept that emphasizes the social cohesion of African-origin people rather than the American individualism of the older Anglo-Conformity doctrine. To this extent, it is a corrective project which seeks to:

A. Reconstruct the past: African civilization

B. Rehabilitate Black identity

C. Redefine the Black perspective by becoming subjects of history rather than objects.

However, the issue of achieving “centering” has drawn the most fire, perhaps because implicit in achieving it is the political project of the struggle of a people to control their own destiny, their own definition of themselves, their own cultural way of being, and their own agenda.

This is true not only in America but everywhere that people of African origin have tried to “center” themselves in the face of European imperialism and colonialism, the racism in the countries to which they immigrated, and their treatment as a global underclass. I have attempted to address this struggle in my most recent book, Pan Africanism In The African Diaspora, to suggest that there is both a real and theoretical unity to the existence of African-origin peoples as they struggle for reinterpreting community and destiny in places outside of Africa through politics. (Irele, 98)

The potential of Afrocentrism is that it enhances the possibilities of African Americans by their becoming actors in the positive uses of power. In this regard, an historic example is the Million Man March, which took place in October of 1995. While the meaning of the March was analyzed by the press from the perspective of its relationship to the dominant society, far more important was the political project of centering actions that it initiated within the African-American community, using unity to approach an intractable set of problems.

The Problematic of Race and Democracy

So let us take Dr. Schlesinger’s problematic seriously in the following question he poses: “What happens when people of different ethnic origins, speaking different languages and professing different religions, settle in the same geographical locality and live under the same sovereignty? Unless a common purpose binds them together, tribal hostilities will drive them apart. Ethnic and racial conflict, it seems evident, will now replace the conflict of ideologies as the explosive issue of our times.” (Schlesinger, 10)

Implicit in this question is an answer that we must preserve the old Anglo-conformity doctrine and its notion of racial hierarchy as the definition of an American, and of what constitutes the basis of unity, since there was no serious ideological conflict to either Capitalism or the European cultural origins of the nation. But there is another vision: a Rainbow Coalition of people from different ethnic and racial groups, including Whites, striving together to create a truly democratic nation without racial subordination.

Therefore, I believe that we should adopt a 21st century frame of reference that includes factors that will enhance diversity. In fact, the most powerful idea of the new cultural framework is that a decent respect for the principle of diversity, the integrity of the diverse groups, and the equality among them will provide the basis of a truly democratic society. To the extent that this notion is reflected in law and in social practice among groups and individuals, the basis of a new democracy will be laid.

In order to achieve this new democracy, it will be necessary to remove the impediments that stand in the way, such as racism, sexism, group imperialism, and materialism. This task will require the persistent involvement of those who want true democracy in projects of social change. As former Black Panther Chair Bobby Seale has said, you don’t fight racism with racism, you fight racism with solidarity, the solidarity of diversity, solidarity about the things that will make America a progressive and humane society. And if we take the famous African-American writer Jimmy Baldwin seriously when he said that the White man cannot free himself from racism by himself, then the very salvation of this idea of democracy lies in the hands of those who are the most dispossessed.



Race matters: whether we in the United States — and in many other countries as well — wish this to be the case or not. The US: what is it? A nation built on the soil of conquest, battened on the theft of human beings. Yet it is not only this. The US was also created out of the doctrine of natural rights, whose restrictive application was continually eroded by the struggles of the excluded: first the European “others,” and then the other “others” down to our own day. Throughout US history, racial conflicts continually shaped and reshaped the categories into which identities — all identities — were classified. The racial struggles at the heart of US society, the racial projects whose clash and clangor leaps off the pages of today’s headlines as it has for centuries, have created the politics and culture of today.

Race matters: yet race today is as problematic a concept as ever.

Over the last few decades the way we in the United States think of race has changed once again, as so often in the past. I shall argue in this essay that we are now in a period of universal racial dualism.

Once, US society was a nearly monolithic racial hierarchy, in which everyone knew “his” place; under racial dualism, however, everyone’s racial identity is problematized. “How does it feel to be a problem?” Du Bois reported being asked (Du Bois 1989 [1903]). The racial dualism he discerned was, of course, that of black people, who (he argued) were forced to live simultaneously in two worlds. His insight, which at the beginning of the 20th century addressed black experience in a society of all-encompassing white supremacy, continues to apply, but the situation he analyzed has now become considerably more complicated. Today the racial anxiety, uncertainty, conflict, and tension expressed by the term “racial dualism,” affect everyone in the US, albeit in different ways.

Monolithic white supremacy is over, yet in a more concealed way, white power and privilege live on. The overt politics of racial subordination has been destroyed, yet it is still very possible to “play the racial card” in the political arena. Blacks and other racially-defined minorities are no longer subject to legal segregation, but they have not been relieved of the burdens of discrimination, even by laws supposedly intended to do so. Whites are no longer the official “ruling race,” yet they still enjoy many of the privileges descended from the time when they were.

The old recipes for racial equality, which involved creation of a “color-blind” society, have been transformed into formulas for the maintenance of racial inequality. The old programs for eliminating white racial privilege are now accused of creating nonwhite racial privilege. The welfare state, once seen as the instrument for overcoming poverty and social injustice, is now accused of fomenting these very ills.

What racial dualism means today is that there are now, so to speak, two ways of looking at race, where previously there was only one. In the past, let’s say the pre-WWII era, everyone agreed that racial subordination existed; the debate was about whether it was justified. Lester Bilbo and Thurgood Marshall — to pick two emblematic figures — shared the same paradigm, perhaps disagreeing politically and morally, perhaps even representing the forces of evil and good respectively, but nevertheless looking at the same social world.

But today agreement about the continuing existence of racial subordination has vanished. The meaning of race has been deeply problematized. Indeed, the very idea that “race matters” is something which today must be argued, something which is not self-evident. This in itself attests to the transformation which racial dualism has undergone from the time of Souls to our own time.

On the one hand, the world Du Bois analyzed is still very much with us. We live in a racialized society, a society in which racial meaning is engraved upon all our experiences. Racial identity shapes not only “life-chances,” but social life, taste, place of residence. Indeed, the meaning of race, the racial interpretation of everyday life and of the larger culture, polity, and economy, has been so finely tuned for so long, and has become so ingrained, that it is now “second nature,” a “common sense” that rarely requires acknowledgement.

As our racial antennae are tuned and retuned, race becomes “naturalized.” As an element of “human nature,” race partakes of the same degree of reality today — so it seems — as it did at the end of the 19th century when biologistic theories of race held sway and eugenics was advocated by supposedly enlightened and progressive thinkers. Indeed, if race is so much a part of “common sense”; if it is so involved in the production of person, culture, state, and nation; if racial identity is so recognizable, so palpable, so immediately obvious, then in practical terms at least, it becomes “real.” The sociological dictum that if people “…define situations as real, they are real in their consequences,” has its truth (Thomas and Thomas 1928, 572).

On the other hand, though, this “reality” is a rank illusion. It is patently inadequate, if not wholly false, to understand human experience, individual or collective, in racial terms. Indeed it is difficult even to specify the meaning of race beyond the most superficial notions. When we seek to delineate the principles underlying racial categorization, we encounter tremendous obstacles. Not only ordinary individuals, but even specialists — say, anthropologists or sociologists or geneticists — cannot present a convincing rationale for distinguishing among human groups by physical characteristics. Our “second nature,” our “common sense” about race, it turns out, is deeply uncertain, almost mythical.

Consider: in the U.S., hybridity is universal; most blacks have “white blood,” and tens of millions of whites have “black blood.”

Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and blacks, as well as whites, have centuries-long histories of contact with one another; colonial rule, enslavement, and migration have dubious merits, but they are all effective “race-mixers” (Davis 1991, Forbes 1988). Of course, even to speak in these terms, of “blood,” “mixture,” or “hybridity,” even to use such categories as “Asian American,” “Latino,” or “white,” one must enter deeply into the complexities of racial discourse. Such language reveals at once the socio-historical imbeddedness of all racial ideas. For these are merely current North American designations, and hardly unproblematic ones at that. They are not in any sense “true” or original self-descriptions of the human groups they name. Nor could any language be found which would avoid such a situation.

Race matters, then, in a second sense: it matters not only as a means of rendering the social world intelligible, but simultaneously as a way of making it opaque and mysterious. Race is not only real, but also illusory. Not only is it common sense; it is also common nonsense. Not only does it establish our identity; it also denies us our identity. Not only does it allocate resources, power, and privilege; it also provides means for challenging that allocation. Race not only naturalizes, but also socializes. The ineluctably contradictory character of race provides the context in which racial dualism — or the “color-line,” as Du Bois designated it, has developed as “the problem of the 20th century.”


The racial dynamics of conquest, of colonization, and of enslavement placed an indelible stamp on US society. Racialization (Omi and Winant 1994, Roediger, 1991) affected every individual and group, locating all in the hierarchy of the developing herrenvolk democracy (Takaki 1993, van den Berghe 1967, Roediger 1991). The herrenvolk, of course, were the white men of a certain standing or class, the only ones deemed worthy of full citizenship rights.

For centuries, white supremacy went almost entirely unquestioned in the political mainstream. This fact established the overall contours, as well as the particular political and cultural legacies, of racial subordination and resistance. It eliminated or at best severely limited the political terrain upon which racially-defined groups could mobilize within civil society, thus constituting these groups as “outsiders.” It denied the existence of commonalities among whites and nonwhites — such as shared economic activities and statuses, shared rights as citizens, even on occasion shared humanity — thus constructing race, at least in principle, in terms of all-embracing social difference.

Not only did racialization tend to minimize differences among people considered white, but it also homogenized distinctions among those whose difference with whites was considered the only crucial component of their identities. Over time, then, this “white vs. other” concept of difference created not fixed and unchanging racial identities — for these are always in flux — but the potentiality, the social structure, indeed the necessity, of universally racialized identities in the US. Elsewhere Omi and I have described this process (drawing on Gramsci 1971), as racial war of maneuver: a conflict between disenfranchised and systematically subordinated groups and a dictatorial and comprehensively dominant power (Omi and Winant 1994). In a war of maneuver, the principal efforts of the subordinated are devoted to self-preservation and resistance. They are anathematized; they lack social standing or political rights. In respect to social action, their options are generally reduced: to withdrawal into exclusive (and excluded) communities, to subversion (Bhabha 1994), and occasionally, to armed revolt.

In a schematic account of this type, there is an inevitable tendency to render the dynamics of racial oppression as more homogeneous than they actually were. But of course racial war of maneuver is not static, not frozen. At various moments, for example under the impact of the Haitian revolution or the pressures of abolitionism, and in the interregnum of Reconstruction, the power of white supremacy waxed or waned considerably. Its component parts — its ideology and instrumentalities — evolved and changed over time. Furthermore, what is true of oppression is true for resistance: both everyday, small-scale forms of opposition (Scott 1985), and large-scale challenge such as armed revolt and institution-building among free blacks, varied significantly with the conditions of racial war of maneuver. Nor should the account of racial war of maneuver be confined to black-white dynamics alone. Efforts to subordinate Native American nations (Cornell 1988, Rogin 1975), Mexicans (Montejano 1987), and Asians (Okihiro 1994, Takaki 1990) through warfare, expropriation of land, exclusion, denial of political rights, and super-exploitation, all fit into the general pattern of racial war of maneuver. Regional and temporal variations in these conflicts (Almaguer 1994) do not diminish the general applicability of this concept. Although I cannot detail these processes here, I have discussed them elsewhere (Winant 1994), and they have been extensively treated by others (Du Bois 1935, Foner 1990, Williamson 1986, Takaki 1993).

Paradoxically, white institutionalization of racial difference; white refusal to grant such basic democratic rights as citizenship, access to the legal system, and the vote; and white resistance to the participation by racially defined minorities in civil society, permitted — and indeed demanded — the organization and consolidation of excluded communities of color. Because it had so comprehensively externalized its racial others, racial war of maneuver helped constitute their resistance and opposition. It set the stage for its own destruction because, over centuries, whites forced nonwhites to forge their own identities, to draw on their own profound cultural and political resources, to suppress their differences, and to unite outside the high walls of a supposedly democratic society whose rights and privileges were systematically restricted on the basis of race.

Racial war of maneuver can be linked to the racial dualism discerned by Du Bois. If in the present we have no trouble understanding racism as a relation with both macro- and micro-social dimensions, as something which necessarily operates at both the institutional and social structural levels on the one hand, and at the levels of identity and experience on the other (Omi and Winant 1994), it is not anachronistic to discern that dynamic in earlier historical moments. What for whites was a fierce and pathological rejection of the possibility that they might harbor traits identified with various racial “others,” was for nonwhites a quasi-terroristic requirement that they anticipate and strive to protect themselves against the “violence of representation” (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 1989), not to mention the physical violence, directed against them by members of the ruling race. Psychohistorical approaches to US racial dynamics have long investigated these processes (Drinnon 1985, Rogin 1975, Williamson 1986).

Thus racial dualism was in part an adaptation, a resistance strategy of the oppressed, the excluded, the terrorized, under the conditions of racial war of maneuver. This recognition is clearly present in Du Bois, although by the time of Souls the seeds of the breakdown of this centuries-long racial regime are already germinating; indeed Du Bois himself is the chief cultivator of those seeds, the key agitator for a very different strategic orientation, racial war of position.

In the US a racial war of position came into being gradually in the 20th century, taking full shape only in the years following WWII. Gramsci explains war of position as political and cultural conflict, undertaken under conditions in which subordinated groups have attained some foothold, some rights, within civil society; thus they have the leverage, the ability to press some claims on their rulers and on the state (Omi and Winant 1994). Du Bois was the crucial early theorist of the transition to racial war of position, as well as the key strategist of black movement politics in that transition. His conflicts with Washington, and later wih Garvey, can be understood in terms of his commitment to politics, his ceaseless struggle for black access to civil society — in other words, his effort to create a racial war of position. Like Horatio at the bridge, Du Bois stands between the old and new racial orders, fighting tenaciously at the cusp of historical transition. Among modern theorists and activists, the only figure to whom he can be compared is Marx, who also ushered in almost singlehandedly a new way of thinking about the world, and who, like Du Bois, made his new manner of thought into a distinct kind of political practice.


Once a foothold in civil society was achieved, it was only a matter of time until full-scale political struggle over race emerged. The sources of the modern black movement have been extensively analyzed (Morris 1984, Branch 1988, Carson 1981, Zinn 1985, Omi and Winant 1994, Kluger 1977, Joanne Grant, ed. 1968) and need not detain us here. For present purposes, the important thing is that the movement transformed the American political universe, creating new organizations, new collective identities, and new political norms; challenging past racial practices and stereotypes; and ushering in a wave of democratizing social reform. This “great transformation,” which at first affected blacks, but soon touched Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans as well, permitted the entry of millions of racial minority group members into the political process. It set off the “second wave” of feminism, a new anti-imperialist and anti-war movement, movements for gay and disability rights, and even for environmental protection. The black movement deeply affected whites as well, challenging often unconscious beliefs in white supremacy, and demanding new and more respectful forms of behavior in relation to nonwhites.

In transforming the meaning of race and the contours of racial politics, the movement shifted the rules of participation and organizing principles of American politics itself. It made identity, difference, the “personal,” and language itself political issues in very new ways.

Once racial politics had taken the form of war of position, once basic political rights had been achieved, racial dualism ceased to be an exclusively black or minority response to white supremacy. The “normalizing” quality of white (and male) identity, which in the past had tended to render whiteness “transparent” and to equate it with US nationality itself, as in the phrase “a white man’s country,” necessarily experienced a certain erosion as nonwhites and women acquired a significant degree of admission into mainstream institutions, and began to exercise their voices and rights from inside, rather than from outside, the terrain of democratic politics.

By the mid-1960s, popular support for the main principles of the “civil rights revolution” had been secured, and legislation passed. An alternative viewpoint to the exclusionary framework of racial war of maneuver, to the archaic principles of overt white supremacy, had been institutionalized; and in legal terms (or in respect to what Weber would call “formal rationality”) something which could be described as “equality” had developed.

But no more than that. Substantive equality had not been achieved. White supremacy had not been vanquished. Indeed, as soon as civil rights legislation and “equal opportunity” policies were initiated, they started to erode under reactionary pressures. Because a significant breach had been opened in the armor of white supremacy, it was not expedient for the forces of “racial reaction” (Omi and Winant 1994) to seek a return to overtly exclusionary policies. Instead they sought to reinterpret the movement’s victories, to strip it of its more radical implications, to rearticulate its vision of a substantively egalitarian society in conservative and individualistic terms. “Equality” has had many meanings since the nation was founded; it was hardly unprecedented to redefine it in terms of formal and legal standing rather than in terms of redistribution of resources, compensation for past wrongs, or forceful efforts to reshape the material conditions of minorities. In retrospect, we can see that to have undertaken these measures would have involved as revolutionary a change as the Reconstruction measures did (Du Bois 1935, Foner 1988), for it would have required not only the dismantling of segregated neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools, but the transformation of the status of white workers as well. Substantive equality would have meant massive redistribution of resources; it would have clashed with fundamental capitalist class interests; it was never even on the table.

The seeds of racial reaction were thus already present in the ideological choices open in the 1960s: moderate tendencies which espoused integration and “color-blind” racial policies, and radical positions which advocated black (or brown, or red, or yellow) power, in other words racial nationalism. While each of these positions had something to recommend it, neither was sustainable by itself, and no synthesis between them seemed possible. Integrationist views held open the possibility of a class-based alliance between minority and white poor and working people, a position which Martin Luther King Jr. was espousing in the last year of his life (Garrow 1988). In ideological terms, though, integrationism tended to liquidate the specifically racial dimension of the movement which had spawned it. Nationalist perspectives had the opposite problem: though they could assert the irreducibility of racial differences, they lacked the ideological equipment to forge alliances across racial lines, particularly with whites. The few groups which possessed the ability to walk the line between racial nationalism and radical multiracial class politics — such as the Black Panther Party — were undone by repression and by their precarious hold on an impoverished and volatile membership.

Thus the rise to power of neoconservatism, which inherited and rearticulated the “moderate” tendencies which emerged from the movement. Indeed, already in the mid-1960s such voices were heard decrying the tendency toward “positive discrimination” (Gordon 1964); by the mid-1970s a leading neoconservative could produce an influential tract entitled Affirmative Discrimination (Glazer 1975), and an important intervention of 1978 claimed that race was “declining in significance” (Wilson 1978).

Among ordinary whites similar fragmentations occurred: reacting to perceived losses in their racially privileged status but unable to identify with the more radical successors to the movement; unable in the aftermath of the civil rights era to espouse white supremacy but excluded and condemned by a racial politics which paid little attention to class, most whites came to support a conservative and individualistic form of egalitarianism, advocating a supposedly “colorblind” (but actually deeply race-conscious) political position. This was the white “politics of difference.” This synthesis acquired particular force as job losses and stagnating income cut deeply into whites’ sense of security. It gathered strength as the lower strata of the black and Latino communities were plunged into deeper poverty by massive cutbacks in welfare state programs, education, and federal assistance to the cities; when the inevitable moral panics about crime, drugs, drive-bys, and teenage prgenancy ensued, they fuelled the white flight to the right. In a thoroughly corporate culture, no countervailing arguments (against corporate greed and deindustrialization, for example) acquired so much as a foothold in the mainstream political discourse.

Meanwhile blacks, as well as other racially-defined minority groups, were convulsed by new conflicts over group identity. Class divisions and various strains of resurgent cultural nationalism disrupted the black community and drove some blacks, both elite and “everyday” folks, in strongly conservative directions. Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans experienced different, but parallel, schisms. Even those whose “whiteness” retains problematic elements, such as Arab Americans and Jews, were newly confronted by conflicts over where their political and moral allegiances lay in the post-civil rights era.

These examples need not be extended further. The point is clear: a new racial paradigm, tension-ridden, uncertain, and unstable, came into being. This paradigm combined the pre-WWII inheritance of white supremacy, which survived in significant measure, with the legacy of the 1960s movements — themselves based on a centuries-long tradition of resistance to conquest, enslavement, and racial oppression.

Thus all the social practices which enforced black racial dualism in 1903 continue today: the segregation of minority (and particularly black) communities (Massey and Denton 1993), the discriminatory and regressive allocation of underemployment, undereducation, and other forms of substantive inequality to members of these communities, and the general cultural subordination that accompanies white supremacy.

Nevertheless, we are not in 1903. Massive transformations have occurred in the US racial order, particularly over the last half-century. From the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, an important wave of racial reform swept across the land, altering not only racial policy but also racial identity, redrawing the American political and cultural map, refuelling oppositional currents that had lain dormant in the US for decades, such as feminism and anti-imperialism. Strictly, of course, this was not a “new” movement at all, but rather an upwelling of oppositional forces that abided, that had their origins in the earliest moments of conquest and enslavement, and that were linked to the most epochal struggles of oppressed peoples across the globe for emancipation and justice.

From the 1960s to the present, then, not only black people, but the nation at large, have been riven by a throughgoing and deep-seated struggle: the antagonistic coexistence, the contradiction, of the two great forces of white supremacy on the one hand, and of the movement for racial and indeed broader social justice on the other. It is this convulsion, this contradiction, that constitutes racial dualism at century’s end.

I anticipate various objections to the line of argument that race no longer operates as a simple signifier — as it largely did in Du Bois’s day — absolutely locating one in a certain largely homogeneous community or another. Was white supremacy ever truly that monolithic? Did not Du Bois’s narrative already expose its delusions of absolute racial difference? And hasn’t “the movement” accomplished at least this much: that it has made possible a greater “crossing over,” a greater cultural hybridization, a greater awareness of the presence of “others” who are also subjects, who also have rights, who can act politically, etc.? Furthermore, isn’t the designation of “duality” suspect for various reasons? Does it not privilege whites, for instance, by suggesting that there are whites and there are “the others”? In racial terms, shouldn’t I be talking about “pluralism” rather than dualism?

And what about the other dimensions of politics and identity? What about gender and class? These dynamics shape politics and culture today in ways very different from the manner in which Du Bois — feminist and socialist though he was — encountered them nearly a century ago. Even if we think about their impact on racial identity and politics, on the problematic theme of racial dualism today, they appear to play a fragmenting role: pointing to many fissures, not just two.

Without question, there are weaknesses in my use of the racial dualism framework in a revised, contemporary form. Although I think these objections can be all be answered, for now I want simply to stress the effectiveness of this approach in illuminating the charged and contentious sociohistorical context in which racial politics are framed in the US at century’s end. I have shown how the concept helps us understand the peculiar and contradictory character of large-scale, macro-level racial politics at century’s end. I should like now to apply it to small-scale, micro-level racial politics.


As the civil rights legacy was drawn and quartered — beginning in the late 1960s and with ever-greater success in the following two decades — the tugging and hauling, the escalating contestation over the meaning of race, resulted in ever more conflicting and contradictory notions of racial identity. The significance of race (”declining” or increasing?), the interpretation of racial equality (”color-blind” or color conscious?), the institutionalization of racial justice (”reverse discrimination” or affirmative action?), and the very categories — black, white, Latino/Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American — employed to classify racial groups were all called into question as they emerged from the civil rights “victory” of the mid-1960s. These racial signifiers are all ambiguous or contradictory today. We cannot escape the racial labels which US society comprehensively assigns to all within it; this has been the fate of “Americans” since Europeans arrived on these shores. Yet less than ever can we identify unproblematically or unselfconsciously with these designations, for they are riven — as we ourselves are fissured — to an unprecedented extent by the conflicts and contradictions posed by the political struggles of the past decades.

How do these conflicts and contradictions shape the various racial identities available today? Without hoping to be anything more than schematic, I will now offer some observations on the racial “politics of identity” at century’s end. As the entire argument I have presented here should suggest, I do not share the denunciatory attitude toward “identity politics” so evident on both right and left today (Newfield 1993, Gitlin 1993). In my view, the matrices of identity are ineluctably political, for they involve interests, desire, antagonisms, etc., in constant interplay with broad social structures. To explore these matters more fully would go beyond the present article’s scope.

Yet the critics do have one thing right: if any of my account here rings true, there can be no “straightforward” identity politics. Our awareness of the pervasiveness of racial dualism today should serve to check claims of unmediated authenticity, whether hegemonic or subaltern. Appeals to “traditional values,” to the national culture, to canonized texts which exemplify hegemonic claims, must therefore be treated with the extreme suspicion which awareness of standpoint demands. Subaltern claims, as expressed for example through invocation of supposedly direct experiences of oppression — of the form “As a black person, I know X…,” or “As a woman, I know X… (where X is an undifferentiated generalization about blacks’ or women’s experience) — are also suspect.

With these guidelines in mind, let us briefly explore the terrain of the racial politics of identity, focusing our attention on the operations of racial dualism today.

BLACK RACIAL DUALISM: First, 30 years after the ambiguous victory of the civil rights movement, what does it mean to be “black”? The decline of the organized black movement in the 1970s, and the wholesale assaults against the welfare state initiated by Ronald Reagan during the 1980s, sharply increased divisions along class and gender lines in the black community. The divergent experiences of the black middle class and the black poor — experiences far more distant from each other than they were in the days of official segregation — make a unitary racial identity seem a distant dream indeed. A whole other set of divisions has emerged around gender, such that black men’s and women’s experiences probably diverge more significantly today than at any other moment since slavery days. Consequently, a coherent black politics which could reach across class lines seems remote.

Divisions of class have meant that in the upper strata of the black community a portion of the ideal of substantive equality has indeed been achieved, though in the US no black person can ever believe her or himself to be beyond the reach of white supremacy (Cose 1993, Graham 1995, Williams 1991). Meanwhile the desolation of the poor increases steadily, fuelled in part by the very claim that equality (formal equality, that is) has been attained, that we are now a “color-blind” society, etc. Such rhetoric attributes black poverty to defects in black motivation (Murray 1984, Kaus 1992) intelligence (Herrnstein and Murray 1994), or family structure (Gordon 1994), a strategy of victim-blaming which often takes aim, not only at “underclass” blacks but at low-income black women in particular. Additionally, opportunity structures for blacks are changing by class and gender in unprecedented ways (Carnoy 1994, Hacker 1992).

The significance of a divided black community, and hence identity, is complex, even contradictory. On the one hand the emergence of diverse and even conflicting voices in the black community is welcome, for it reflects real changes in the direction of mobility and democratization. On the other hand, the persistence of glaring racial inequality — that is, of an ongoing dimension of white supremacy and racism that pervades the entire society — demands a level of concerted action that division and discord tend to preclude. Racial dualism at century’s end.

OTHER “OTHERS”: In the 1990s, what does it mean to be “yellow” or “brown”? Before the success of civil rights (and particularly immigration) reforms in the mid-1960s, racialized groups of Asian and Latin American origin experienced very high levels of exclusion and intolerance. After 1965 these communities began to grow rapidly. Previously isolated in enclaves based on language and national origin, Koreans, Filipinos, Japanese, and Chinese underwent a substantial racialization process from the late 1960s onward, emerging as “Asian Americans” (Espiritu 1992). Accompanying these shifts was significant upward mobility for some — though by no means all — sectors of Asian America.

Similar shifts overtook Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Central Americans, and even Cubans as the “Latino” and “Hispanic” categories were popularized (Moore and Pachon 1985). For example, the destruction of formal segregation in Texas had a profound impact on Mexican-Americans there (Montejano 1987). Segregation of Latinos in the upper and middle economic strata decreased rapidly across the country (far more rapidly than that of comparable black income earners) (Massey and Denton 1993), and some Latino groups achieved or consolidated solid middle class status (notably Cubans and to some extent Dominicans). The Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Central American barrios, however, continued to be plagued by immigrant-bashing and high levels of poverty that could only be seen as racially organized (Moore and Pinderhughes, eds. 1993).

Thus for both Asian Americans and Latinos contemporary racial identity is fraught with contradictions. Apart from long-standing antagonisms among particular groups — for example, Cubans and Puerto Ricans, or Koreans and Japanese — significant class- and gender-based conflicts exist as well. Tendencies among long-established residents to disparage and sometimes exploit immigrants who are “fresh off the boat,” or for group ties to attenuate as social mobility increases, suggest the centrality of class in immigrant life (Portes and Bach 1985; Takaki 1990). The liberating possibilities encountered by immigrating women, and their greater proclivity to settle in the U.S. rather than to return to their countries of origin, suggest the centrality of gender in immigrant life (Grasmuck and Pessar 1991).

Not unlike blacks, Asian Americans and Latinos often find themselves caught between the past and the future. Old forms of racism have resurfaced to confront them, as in the renewed enthusiasm for immigrant bashing and the recurrent waves of anti-Japanese and anti-Chinese paranoia. Discrimination has resurfaced again, sometimes in new ways, as in controversies over Asian admissions to elite universities (Takagi 1993). Yet at the same time the newly panethnicized identities of Asian Americans and Latinos have brought them face to face with challenges that were quite distinct from anything faced in the past. Some examples of these challenges are the dubious gift of neoconservative support (Asians as the “model minority,” for example), the antagonism of blacks (Kim 1993, Omi and Winant 1993, Miles 1992), and the tendencies toward dilution of specific ethnic/national identity in a racialized category created by a combination of “lumping” and political exigency. Often more successful and accepted than in the past, but subject to new antagonisms and new doubts about their status, Asian Americans and Latinos experience a distinct racial dualism today.

For reasons of space I am going to slight Native Americans here, but there is ample evidence to believe that in the postwar period Indian nations as well came face-to face-with a racially dualistic situation. Here too the old logic of despoliation still applied: environmental destruction and land rape, appalling poverty, and cultural assault continued to take their toll. Yet a new, activist, and often economically and politically savvy Native America could also be glimpsed. Today Indians have developed techniques for fighting in the courts, for asserting treaty rights, and indeed for regaining a modicum of economic and political control over their tribal destinies which would have been unthinkable a generation ago (Nagel 1995, Cornell 1988).

WHITE RACIAL DUALISM: In the post-civil rights period, what did it mean to be white? During the epoch of racial war of maneuver, in which exclusion was the predominant status assigned to racially-identified minorities, white identity (and particularly white male identity) was “normalized”; “otherness” was elsewhere: among people “of color” and to some extent women. All these were marked by their identities, but under conditions of virtually unchallenged white supremacy, white men were not. Once “white egalitarianism” (Saxton 1990) had been established as the political price elites had to pay to secure mass electoral support, herrenvolk Republicanism (Roediger 1991) became the organizing principle of 19th century US politics and culture. Only whites (only white men) were full citizens; only they were fully formed individuals. In terms of race and gender their identities were, so to speak, transparent, which is what we mean by the term “normalized.”

Of course, for a long time many whites partook of an ethnic “otherness” which placed them in an ambiguous relationship with both established WASP elites and with racially-defined minorities. But by the 1960s white ethnicity was in serious decline. Large-scale European immigration had become a thing of the past; while urban ethnic enclaves continued to exist in many major cities, suburbanization and gentrification had taken their toll. Communal forms of white ethnic identity had been eroded by outmarriage, and by heterogeneous contact in schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, and religious settings (Alba 1990, Waters 1990).

Nor were alternative collective identities, other forms of solidarity, readily available to whites. Class-based identities had always been weak in the US, and were particularly debilitated in the wake of the red-baiting period of the late 1940s and 50s, the same moment in which the black movement was gathering strength. What remained was the “imagined community” (Anderson 1983) of white racial nationalism (Walters 1987): the US as a “white man’s country,” etc. It was this ideological construct of whiteness, already deeply problematic in a thoroughly modernized, advanced industrial society, which the black movement confronted in the post-WWII period.

Detached from the previous generations’ ethnic ties, unable to see themselves as part of a potentially majoritarian working class with larger social justice interests, and unable to revert to the discredited white supremacy of an earlier period, most whites were ripe for conversion to neoconservative racial ideology after the civil rights “victory” in the mid-1960s. Efforts on the part of Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, and even the Black Panther Party to forge multiracial alliances for large-scale redistributive policies and other forms of substantive social justice never had a serious chance in the national political arena.

Instead, neoconservative and new right politicians, initiated by the Wallace campaigns of the mid-1960s, appealed to white workers on the basis of their residual commitments to racial “status honor” (Edsalls 1992). Wallace, and Nixon in his “southern strategy,” invoked the powerful remnants of white supremacy and white privilege. Since white identities could no longer be overtly depicted as superior, they were now presented in “coded” fashion as a beleaguered American individualism, as the hallmarks of a noble tradition now unfairly put upon by unworthy challengers, as the “silent majority” etc. The racial reaction begun by Wallace and consummated by Reagan, which resurrected 20th century Republicanism from the oblivion to which the New Deal had supposedly consigned it, was thus a fairly direct descendant of the “white labor republicanism” (Roediger 1991, Saxton 1990) which had shaped the US working class along racial lines more than a century earlier.

In this fashion from the late 1960s on, white identity was reinterpreted, rearticulated in a dualistic fashion: on the one hand egalitarian, on the other hand privileged; on the one hand individualistic and “color-blind,” on the other hand “normalized” and white. With Reagan’s election in 1980, the process reached its peak. A class policy of regressive redistribution was adopted; working-class incomes, stagnant since the mid-1970s, continued to drop in real terms as profits soared. Neoconservative racial ideology — with its commitment to formal racial equality and its professions of “color-blindness” — now proved particularly useful: it served to organize and rationalize white working class resentments against declining living standards. To hear Reagan, Bush, Gramm, etc. etc. tell it, the problems faced by white workers did not derive from corporate hunger for ever-greater profits, from deindustrialization and the “downsizing” of workforces; rather their troubles emanated from the welfare state, which expropriated the taxes of the productive citizens who “played by the rules” and “went to work each day” in order to subsidize unproductive and parasitic welfare queens and career criminals “who didn’t want to work.”

Nowhere was this new framework of the white “politics of difference” more clearly on display than in the reaction to affirmative action policies of all sorts (in hiring, university admissions, federal contracting, etc.). Assaults on these policies, which have been developing since their introduction as tentative and quite limited efforts at racial redistribution (Johnson 1967), are currently at hysterical levels. These attacks are clearly designed to effect ideological shifts, rather than to shift resources in any meaningful way. They represent whiteness as disadvantage, something which has few precedents in US racial history (Gallagher 1994). This imaginary white disadvantage — for which there is almost no evidence at the empirical level — has achieved widespread popular credence, and provides the cultural and political “glue” that holds together a wide variety of reactionary racial politics.

To summarize: today, the politics of white identity is undergoing a profound political crisis. The destruction of the communal bases of white ethnicity is far advanced, yet whiteness remains a significant source of “status honor.” White privilege — a relic of centuries of herrenvolk democracy — has been called into question in the post-civil rights period. Yet, far from being destroyed, the white “politics of difference” is now being trumpeted as an ideology of victimization. The situation would be farcical if it weren’t so dangerous, reflecting venerable white anxieties and fortifying the drift to the right which, now as in the past, is highly conducive to race-baiting. Today’s “color-blind” white supremacy, then, embodies the racial duality of contemporary white identity.

It is not the case, however, that whites have unequivocally or unanimously embraced the right, though certainly the ideological effects of neoconservatism have been profound, particularly on economically vulnerable whites. Although undoubtedly a minority among whites, there are still millions who have resisted the siren-song of neoconservatism, recognizing that the claim of “color-blindness” masks a continuing current of white supremacy and racism.

Why? What enables any whites to adhere to the objective of substantive social justice, rather than its merely formal illusions? And how deep does this commitment run? We know little about the sources of white anti-racism today. Yet few themes on the domestic political horizon are more important.

Without becoming entirely speculative, it is possible to identify a few elements of white experience which have potential anti-racist dimensions. Feminism and gay liberation have developed critiques of discrimination which are intimately related to the experiences of racially-defined minorities. Furthermore, these struggles can trace their origins back to the black struggles of the 19th century as well as those of the 1960s. Millions of white lives have been changed by these movements. Other forms of radical political experience also taught basic anti-racist lessons, despite various political and ideological limitations. Here I am thinking of the great industrial organizing drives of the 1930s, the various communist currents, new left and anti-war activities during the 1960s, the farmworkers movement, the solidarity movements with Central America in the 1970s and 80s, and above all, the civil rights movement, in which many thousands of whites were involved.

These political struggles exercised a moral influence on whites, just as they did on national politics; that influence has perhaps waned under decades of assault from the right, but it has proved far more difficult to eradicate than its opponents expected. Beyond its fundamentally ethical character, it draws upon various material interests as well (I recognize that this distinction is not an absolute one). Among these is the difficulty of uniting all whites under conservative banners: Jews in particular (whose “whiteness” continues to exhibit fissures and cultural contradictions) (Sacks 1994) still adhere disproportionately to social and political liberalism for reasons which have been extensively analyzed. Arab Americans, paradoxically, are in much the same position. Other sources of white anti-racism may be located in religious institutions, the academy, and popular cultural forms, although none of these is free of ambiguity and contradiction.

In short, the problematic and volatile quality of contemporary white identities, not their consolidation, is evident at all levels of US society: from the most casual conversation to the contortions and contradictions of national politics. This volatility provides ongoing evidence of racial dualism among whites.


As US politics plunges to the right, as the aspirations of the activists and adherents of the 1960s movements are forsaken, as indeed the legacy of those struggles is twisted and tortured into service as an obstacle to the achievement of real social and racial justice, the attempt to imagine a greater and more robust democracy, racially inclusive as well as substantively egalitarian, seems almost utopian. Yet I submit that it is precisely that task which most cries out for thought and action today. Those who wish to halt the gallop to the right need to be able to envision a convincing political alternative, if the cause of racial justice, and indeed of radical democracy, is ever to resume its advance.

Without presumption — for this task is more than the work of an article — I would like to suggest that the recognition of widespread racial dualism in US politics and culture at century’s end suggests certain principles that can be applied to this work of imagination.

To acknowledge racial dualism is to understand the malleability and flexibility of all identities, especially racial ones. One of the recognitions hard won by the movements of the 1960s — not only the racially-based ones, but all the so-called new social movements across the globe — was that identity is a political construct. Not carved in stone, not “sutured” (Mouffe and Laclau 1985), our concepts of ourselves can be dramatically altered by new movements, new articulations of the possible. It may yet turn out that the greatest achievement of the 1960s movements, sparked by the black movement, was not the political reforms they accomplished, but the new possibilities for racial identity they engendered, not just for black people, but for everyone.

The right wing has in a certain sense understood the challenge of “reimagining” race, for it has clearly articulated a particular vision of the meaning of race in a conservative democratic society. This is the concept of “color-blindness.” Undeniably this vision has a certain appeal, not only as a cover for the perpetuation of white supremacy, but as a plausible reinvention of fundamental elements of national ideology: indi


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