Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Are Whites a Race?

One of the things that drives me crazy about "race talk" (to use a phrase from bell hooks) in the U. S. is the the way that white writers write as though African-Americans were the only race. Aren't whites in the United States a race as well?

Gary Kamiya's Salon article on "Is Race Dying" is an example in point. Kamiya claims that "it's hard to believe that just a few years ago, issues of black vs. white dominated the national discourse."

But Kamiya poses whites as passive to invisible to this discourse. For Kamiya, the most important contributions of whites to discussion about issues of race in the United States are guilt and politeness.
The great breakthrough of the civil rights movement, sadly, failed to erase the subtlest and most powerful barriers: internal ones. Whites learned to acknowledge the history of racism, foregrounding their own racial guilt. That was necessary but insufficient. It resulted not in racial enlightenment but racial politeness.

That might be true for liberals, but liberals aren't the only white people. Perhaps Kamiya is not aware of the tremendous amount of right-wing campaigning in opposition to affirmative action, hate crimes legislation, school desegregation, gun control in inner city areas and other racial issues. Conservatives have also been relentlessly promoting a "color-blind" within which any kind of black self-awareness or collective black self-assertion is viewed as the equivalent to segregation. In this way, conservatives have been arguing that the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, and a lot of hip hop music are just as racist as Bull Connor while he was whipping black demonstrators or George Wallace barring the school doors at the University of Alabama.

In fact, Kamiya seems to be sympathetic to the conservative point of view.

According to a recent NPR/Pew poll, 37 percent of blacks agreed with the statement that blacks today are so diverse they can no longer be considered a single race. Among the youngest respondents, aged 18 to 29, a staggering 44 percent agreed.

This is extraordinary. More than a third of the blacks who responded, and almost half of the young blacks, have rejected the cornerstone of American racial politics: black racial solidarity. If the poll is accurate, the most emotionally charged and immutable racial truth, the one-drop rule, is no longer sacrosanct for a large number of black people.

For Kamiya, anything that breaks up "the cornerstone of American racial politics: black racial solidarity" is a tremendously good thing and that's the case whether he's discussing whether blacks view themselves as a single race, the "values gap," or the increase in the bi-racial population of people like Barack Obama and Tiger Woods.

But African-Americans have always considered themselves an extremely diverse group or even a number of groups that were brought together by the scourge of white racism. The efforts of many light-skinned blacks to differentiate themselves from the more darkly hued were observed in turn of the 20th century New Orleans. Spike Lee portrays the same thing in School Daze. Likewise, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X wrote of the religious and ideological distinctions within the African-American population during the sixties and contemporary black writers have been denouncing the lack of political activism among the black middle class for years.

And Black people would be even more self-differentiating if they didn't have to face stereotyping, job discrimination, and police violence from the larger white population. But Kamiya doesn't comment on the relentless racial stereotyping of American television, movies, music, the fashion industry, and the news media. He also doesn't mention the mountains of racial jokes circulating abound black people. Kamiya doesn't ask why the steretyptical representation of black people is so important to white-owned and run media corporations or predominately white audiences. If Kamiya had asked such questions, he would have found that whites have a racial consciousness as well and that white racial consciousness has been a powerful factor in American politics for decades.

Yes, Virginia. Whites are also a race--a relatively unified race on racial issues. And black people will remain relatively united as long as that is the case.

No comments: