"Race" toward Freedom: Post-Cold War US Multiculturalism and the Reconstruction of Eastern Europe

Article excerpt

In this article, I argue that the celebratory rhetoric of freedom following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Eastern Bloc must be understood as a discourse that was coconstitutive with the rhetoric of US nationalist multiculturalism of the 1990s. The demise of the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc was hailed by US politicians and dominant media as a victory of the ideals of freedom based in democracy, cultural diversity and free markets over totalitarianism and repression. In contrast to the rise in nationalism and ethnic violence in Eastern Europe, the US was upheld as a model for multicultural democracy that Eastern Europe might look to during its transitional period. One manifestation of this post-Cold War relationship was the emergence of comparisons between the Roma of Eastern Europe, who were combating a resurgence of racism in the "new" Europe, and African Americans in the US. Such parallels presumed African Americans to be a group that had already overcome injustice and could, therefore, provide a model for racial integration in a Western democracy. For instance, Kanata Jackson and Mark Whitaker, professors of business at the historically black Hampton University, proposed that in the post-Communist marketplace African Americans could serve as "consultants" whose "unique experience in surviving slavery" qualified them to teach Eastern European ethnic minorities, such as the Roma, how to integrate into the global free market. Jackson and Whitaker's argument is representative of the conflation between multiculturalism and free markets during the 1990s that underplayed the history of racialized slavery in the Americas and persistent racial inequality that is at the foundation of the US capitalist economy. Such discourses served to relegate racism to the annals of US history.

In order to interrogate the cultural conditions that facilitated the comparisons between the Roma of Eastern Europe and African Americans in the context of US interests in spreading free markets to post-Communist Eastern Europe, I will focus on two book-length journalistic accounts that sought to envision and evaluate democratic possibilities in the former USSR and Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War era through the rubric of US multiculturalism. They did so by refiguring Eastern Europe as a region newly freed from totalitarianism in which the US public could see its own racist past. The Afro-Russian journalist Yelena Khanga's 1992 memoir Soul to Soul: The Story of a Black Russian American Family 1865-1992 connected the African and African American presence in the USSR to the history of race relations in the US by telling the story of her own family. My reading of the US reception of Soul to Soul that conceived of this popular text as being representative of glasnost, multiculturalism, and the lifting of the Iron Curtain highlights the cultural reinvention of Eastern Europe as the negative reflection onto which the US could project its national, racial, and ideological anxieties at a moment of retreat from the promises of civil rights during the Reagan/Bush era. While US readers' interest in Khanga as an embodiment of multiculturalism, which was grounded in the symbolic position of African Americans as representatives of racial injustice in US national history, demonstrated how racial diversity came to signify the possibilities for US global leadership in the aftermath of the Cold War, US journalist Isabel Fonseca's bestselling 1995 book-length account of the plight of the Roma in post-Communist Eastern Europe, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, argued that racial and ethnic diversity in Eastern Europe proved to be an obstacle in the post-Communist transition of the 1990s. Although Fonseca's work sheds light upon the dual and contradictory processes of renewed ethnic nationalism in Eastern Europe and the transnational aims of European enlargement, it nevertheless upholds the US civil rights model, which is based in claims to equality in the law that supersedes those claims to material equality, as the only viable one for solving the problems of ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe. …