Monday, January 19, 2009

The conversation on race since the '80s

There has been an interesting conversation going on about how race relations in the U.S. have changed since the 1980s, which has gone (as I understand it) more or less like this: 1. We elected a black man/biracial man who reads as black President of the United States--crazy! 2. Black-white relations have improved distinctly since the 1980s, when political conversations were very much charged with racialized conversations about welfare, affirmative action, and busing. 3. Yes, but is this only because we're now more afraid of Arabs/Muslims than we are of African-Americans?

Hilzoy's post on this references these ideas as well as putting forward some ideas about a natural and necessary evolution of race relations. It's well worth reading and I encourage everybody to do so.

What frustrates me about this conversation is this. On the one hand, yes, race relations have come a long way, and that is not nothing by any means. On the other hand, we are still not really talking about race relations in terms of anything but black vs. white, and there are still unspoken problems in terms of Asian-Americans, Latin@ Americans, immigrants of many stripes, and any other ethnic group you can think of. It makes perfect sense that the issue of black vs. white Americans is the centerpiece of our race debate: it is also a central problem of our history, a "birth defect" as Condoleezza Rice put it in response to Obama's race speech. But we have yet to even really begin to deal with other racial issues, let alone with our general sense that race is a category to be dealt with in terms of either/or, boxes to check on a census. What about biracial or multiracial Americans? How do we understand them?

I think a lot of the often-clumsy discussion of Barack Obama's race over the course of the last Presidential campaign illuminates how clumsy we still are in understanding and discussing these issues: why does he have to be "more white than black," or solely black because he chose to marry a black woman, or some sort of post-racial chameleon and panacea? Why is it so hard to get our heads around the fact that he's simply a biracial man of African and white American ancestry? I took a class on late antique North Africa last quarter, and more than once students brought up questions of race relations. The professor had to emphasize over and over that the Romans/Greeks/Byzantines/Berbers/Arabs simply didn't think of things that way. They weren't living in a racialized discourse and society, and in ancient North Africa there wasn't a question of whites vs. blacks nearly so much as there were questions of class, of imperial allegiances (at various times) and military power, of religious identification, and of linguistic heritage. We can't seem to get away from this oppositional framework, even when the data do not fit into it and never suggested it.

On a more positive note: Josh Marshall's point that perhaps the receding of black vs. white questions has been in favor of Judeo-Christian vs. Muslim or "Western" vs. Arab issues is, I think, well taken. However, it is not as simple as just swapping one opposition for another; in the "us" and "them" of these more current polarities, in this particular "self" and "other," African-Americans are more in, are more "us" and "self" than they have been in a long time, if ever (I am not qualified to make an absolute statement on that). As disheartening as it is that some Americans regard Arabs and Muslims as "other", it is still significant that, at least for some white, xenophobic Americans, American blacks stand with them against the national threat. This is not meant to justify anti-Muslim attitudes, but to say that this is not a zero-sum game. Improvement in one area coupled with antagonism in another does not cancel out. It is simply that: improvement in one area, disimprovement in another. That improvement should not be discounted. It can be built upon.

No comments:

Post a Comment