One of the major flaws of political correctness and multiculturalism has been the way in which it has subsumed questions of ‘race’ under the euphemistic umbrella of ‘culture’. This shift in language correlates with the disavowal of the race problem. Culturalisation of discourse has amounted to depoliticisation. With good intentions of inhibiting prejudice and furthering sensitivity, we find ourselves all too complacent in attestation to racial oppression and injustice. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever had that conversation about Malcolm X with your liberal friend, who accuses the man of being as bad as the white racists he fought against. It’s the presupposition of equal standards which trips over the unevenness of history’s contours, where we find the grievances of black people conveniently tucked away from prying eyes.
As if standards have ever been levelled between white and black. The continued relevance of these categories of race are evidence of the inequality already present before we begin to talk. The categories remain with us in spite of the civilising consequences of the abolition of slavery, the struggle for human rights, the emergence of affirmative action and political-correctness. In the avoidance of these primitive forms of classification we only affirm them as categories, in that we hold them at arm’s length because they seem too real. This isn’t to say that we should revert back to the language of scientific racism. Rather I would suggest we have to first acknowledge the problem of race and engage with its emanations and its poisonous legacy. I would not discard politically-correct and multiculturalist tolerance for I value hybridity, equality, freedom and solidarity. It’s that these innovations are reformist rather than revolutionary for which I reproach them.
What was so interesting about the trial of George Zimmerman was the way in which Zimmerman’s own ethnic background became a subject of discourse. The question of whether or not Zimmerman counts as ‘white’, or if ‘white Hispanic’ is a more appropriate term, became an early fixture of the media spectacle. This is interesting for a number of reasons. For starters ‘white’ isn’t even a colour and the classification of ‘Caucasian’ has been discredited as a product of archaic ethnology. Yet the history of ‘whiteness’ reveals it is not a wholly natural factor. There was a time when signs saying “No dogs or Irish” could be acceptably left in shop windows. Benjamin Franklin considered German immigrants to be too dark. By the 19th Century the American settlers laid claim to a mythic Anglo-Saxon heritage to distinguish themselves from the fresh influxes from the Old World. Traditionally racists have viewed any tainted form of whiteness to constitute its opposite.
Last year John Derbyshire was dumped by National Review for a racist article in which he refers not to ‘white’ people but to ‘non-black’ people. Revealingly we find ‘white’ to be socially constructed and necessarily distinguished from the Other. How else are we to understand the tones of voice in which coloured and half-caste were once said? This is how we are to properly understand George Zimmerman and the media fascination with his background. It is not whiteness but his status as a non-black person. Incidentally we find that the signifiers used to designate blackness are just as slippery, if not more so, than in the case of white privilege. During the American imperial adventure to the Philippines, the racial classifications of the period were far from absent. Sergeant Howard McFarland of the 43rd Infantry described the situation “At the best, this is a very rich country; and we want it. My way of getting it would be to put a regiment into a skirmish line, and blow every nigger into a nigger heaven.” In these examples we find that there can even be a disconnect between pigmentation and racial constructs.
We can’t get away from these tropes even if we have moved away from the acceptance of scientific racial classifications. The constructs have to be understood partly in accordance with the historic situations from whence they came and the consequences they continue to have in society today. It is on these lines that Noel Ignatiev talks of the need to abolish the ‘white race’, e.g. the category of ‘whiteness’ as a privileged social strata. This is no simple task and cannot be achieved by liberal colour-blindness. The hopes of resuscitating Black liberalism in the wake of the Zimmerman not-guilty verdict are highly flawed. The radical strain of the Black Civil Rights movement has to be resuscitated. Though we also need to engage with the historical process behind the identities of white and black. The very contours of the debate have to be explored before Americans, let alone the rest of us, can move to a post-racial society.
Originally written for A Bigger Society in 2013.