Rethinking Race

Article excerpt

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need

For this bright morning dawning for you.

History, despite its wrenching pain,

Cannot be unlived, but if faced

With courage, need not be lived again.

Maya Angelou, 1993

OPTIMISM OF THE HEART AND PESSIMISM OF THE MIND, AS THE OLD LEFT ADAGE goes, is reversed for me these days. The political defeat and self-destruction of revolutionary social movements and parties, the military hegemony of the United States, and the staying power of the capitalist world economy have quickly sapped the spirit of even the most enthusiastic leftist. The models for achieving human equality that seemed so promising only 20 years ago -- whether the state socialism of the former U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe, the decolonization and national liberation struggles in the Third World, Keynesianstyle social democracy in the West, or the creativity of New Lefts unleashed by the spirit of 1968 -- are in crisis and disarray.

It is true, as Maya Angelou (1993) proclaimed at the Inauguration, that with Clinton "The horizon leans forward/Offering you space" and that, compared to Reagan and Bush's legacy of malign neglect, the new administration offers "Very simply/With hope -- /Good Morning." Yet with respect to the issue of race, we see very little evidence of moral urgency or political vision emanating from Washington, D.C. There have been no grand conferences, no populist town-hall meetings, and no gathering of academics and opinion-makers to formulate strategies for attacking racism. The Haitian refugees were turned back, while Cubans continue to be given a hero's welcome. Millions of dollars were poured into keeping the lid on Los Angeles, while a pittance was allotted to African American, Latino, and Korean neighborhoods. There is also no lack of money for police and prisons, while every day some 500,000 black men sit wasting away in their cages.

The public discourse about race has been similarly dispiriting. "On the tainted air broods fear," wrote Du Bois 90 years ago in The Souls of Black Folk (1979: 30), but this observation could just as well characterize the literature about "political correctness," which, after all is said and done, is a polite exercise in putting the natives back in their ghettos, barrios, and reservations. And often it's not even very polite. "Just at the moment when everyone else has become a 'person,' blacks have become blacks," complained Allan Bloom in the book that made it fashionable to blame African Americans for perpetuating, if not inventing, racism. "There is now a large black presence in major universities, frequently equivalent to their proportion in the general population," fantasized Bloom. "But they have, by and large, proved indigestible. Most keep to themselves" (Bloom, 1987: 91, 92). When Bloom's book sold over a million hardback copies, the publishing industry rushed to press with new diatribes against the dangers of multiculturalism (D'Souza, 1991; Kimball, 1990; Sowell, 1993; Steele, 1990). The media responded enthusiastically, transforming minor academics into authoritative pundits who fill endless op-eds, talk shows, and documentaries with dire warnings about the return to "tribalism." Even Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the dean of American history, joined the fray with an attack on "ethnic ideologues" -- and he is not talking about fundamentalist Jews or Christians -- who threaten "to become a counter-revolution against the original theory of America as 'one people,' a common culture, a single nation" (Schlesinger, 1991: 17). It is ironic that Schlesinger's project on The Disuniting of America was bankrolled by Whittle Communications, a leading advocate of private schools, and that the book's call for a defense of a "common American culture" is interspersed with two-page, color advertisements for Federal Express -- "When it comes to the international shipping business, we know our way around like the natives. …