About two or three years ago, I joined a couple of my friends from high school to have dinner with our old American history teacher. This is a man we respected as an exemplar of good character, an intelligent man who had provoked us those years ago to think critically in new ways about the issues that have shaped our country and the debates that formed our American structures and institutions. The conversation that night, however, felt strangely alien to me despite how predictable it should have been. I knew that I would be re-engaging a conservative evangelical frame of thinking that I had spent years learning to leave behind. My old teacher talked about how when he looks around at the American political climate – the sorts of statements President Obama had made at the time regarding the death of Trayvon Martin, the very visible protests occurring under the banner of the #blacklivesmatter movement and all the correlate issues of state violence, socioeconomic issues related to race and matters of representation. It seemed to him that “liberal” culture, in these voices and through the media, was making us racist. The fact that race was being treated as an element at play in public action, to him, denied the ideals of equality that ought to have motivated the American ideology. Somehow it denied us a necessary recognition that the Civil Rights Movement had accomplished its work, and that now in America, all God’s children can be free.
Meanwhile, I was finishing up degrees in English and philosophy at Kansas State University. As with many public institutions, the politics of race had risen to a central topic of general discussion as we attuned ourselves to the painful subjects that had seized the news reports those days. My public education had directed me to consider the ways in which race and racism have always been forces constitutively bound up in our public structures, the way groups relate to each other in the structural confines of our political community, even in the flow of ink that has legislated our social order since its legal origin. How can we be making ourselves racist, if “we” – the enforced fantasies and illusions of our shared national identity – always already have been racist? Yet this sentiment abides among much of public discourse today. To claim acknowledgment of racial injustice as extant in our institutions and political structures and not only as singular conscious phenomena enacted by especially cruel or misguided individuals is to make America racist again. Nobody of good character or ideals would want that.
This Thursday, 5:30pm at the Sheldon Museum of Art, we will welcome Alexandre Da Costa as the third Humanities on the Edge lecturer in a series themed around the question “Post-Racial Futures?” Da Costa will contribute to this ongoing inquiry with a lecture titled “Towards a Hemispheric Critique of the Post-racial” which will presumably pick up on a focal theme in his recent research publications. The writings explore “post-racial ideology” in the Americas, through a relational rather than comparative framework, as a “hegemonic force shaping the simultaneous reality of race, racism, and colonialism alongside their institutional and everyday disavowal” (“Thinking ‘Post-Racial’ Ideology Transnationally” 476). Da Costa combines an interrogation of post-racial ideology in Brazil with its symmetrical counterpart in America to show how this sort of ideology functions similarly across the Western Hemisphere, despite the singularity of its local inflections due to the particular histories of race, culture, and politics in each of those countries. His stated goal is that of “reviewing and repositioning theoretical and empirical work towards an identification and critique of post-racial ideology and politics as a systemic question encompassing the Americas as a whole” (“Thinking ‘Post-Racial’ Ideology Transnationally” 477).
What I find especially powerful in Da Costa’s work is his explanation of the conduciveness of post-racial ideology to the functioning of state power in neoliberalism. As the state shifted its administrative function in the later 20th century toward a greater privatization of social programs while increasing its emphasis on security, repression, and social control, it relied on a “racial neoliberalism” to inoculate the ideology against responsibility for the disproportionate negative effects these produced for particular racial communities. The expansion of the market under neoliberalism, with all of its consequences, did not contain itself to the United States. It infected the Western Hemisphere at large. “The global reach of neoliberalism produced similar changes in Latin America and the Caribbean, as the debt crisis, structural adjustment, and neoliberal policies ravaged state services and welfare provision and exacerbated poverty and income inequalities affecting historically marginalized communities the most” (“Thinking ‘Post Racial’ Ideology Transnationally” 478). In this context, the post-racial ideology arrives to rationalize the system’s harm against marginalized communities, illusively privatizing harm in terms of work ethic, bootstraps mentality, meritocracy, and the American Dream. In its reference to the purity of market forces and a universal notion of rights and access, it claims a progressive humanitarian stance toward racial equality while naturalizing racial oppression under market forces. Under this logic, if a particular group is struggling, it’s not because the machinery of the system runs over them, but because they’re lazy or antisocial. In fact, within the post-racial ideology, there are no groups, but a universal people with equal rights, equal access to the free market, who all receive their just desserts for their work and lifestyle. However, the fact that market forces and ongoing histories of systemic racism set up some people as more equal than others begs nonetheless to be examined.
The post-racial ideology has several tactics in its arsenal, all of which produce similar effects in disavowing the significance of race while propagating racialized harm. “Colorblindness” or “colorblind racism” attributes racial inequalities to non-racial causes and prevents legislation that takes racial inequality into account, as these would violate disinterested equality under the law. “Racial neutrality is embraced and aggressively promoted while racial profiling and policing of particular populations are maintained, prisons burst at the seams with disproportionate numbers of imprisoned Black and Brown men and women” (“Thinking ‘Post Racial’ Ideology Transnationally” 481). “Colorblind racism” is also at work in the restriction of voting rights on the basis of ostensibly equal and fair regulation that disproportionately keeps racial minorities from equal access to the voting booth.
Neoliberal multiculturalism, on the other hand, claims an interest in diversity and difference but without addressing the particularities of unique communities and without reckoning with the way difference has been particularly politicized. Simultaneously, neoliberal multiculturalism “privileges those subjects who are valuable to capital accumulation and easily brought within its circuits; it extends to them new rights and forms of belonging with the goal of coopting dissent, minimizing conflict, and securing political stability for capitalist accumulation” (“Thinking ‘Post Racial’ Ideology Transnationally” 483). This is a multiculturalism that praises inclusion, while extending that inclusion unequally and specifically towards the interests and directionality of market forces; it instrumentalizes diversity while depoliticizing difference.
Additionally, Da Costa examines a unique emergence of post-racial ideology in Brazil within their discourse of racial mixing. Here the ideology posits that since Brazilians are already so mixed, racism can play no role in politics. The claim that “we are all mixed” seeks to do away with race by referring to a shared common humanity without doing away with racism as a material, contingent historical factor in the production of contemporary differential states of affairs. “[T]hey also perform the privilege they claim to undo – ‘we’ are in fact not all mixed, or at least not all mixed in the same way; and ‘we’ cannot all safely claim mixture and be protected by the positive mixedness demonstrated in the whiter shades of (some of) our skins” (“Confounding Anti-racism” 505-6).
Ultimately, I think that Da Costa presents a fantastic case that the obscurantist methods of post-racial ideology claim racial progress while allowing racial inequality to continue on, to the benefit of the white dominant factions:
Belief that race is no longer important and that racism no longer shapes experiences of non-whites (especially Black, Indigenous, and Latino/a peoples) generates the conviction that any action that takes race into account to redistribute resources or remedy socio-economic differences constitutes ‘special treatment’ or ‘reverse racism’. As a result, the persistence of white supremacy gets masked and denied while the ideal of ‘diversity’ becomes delinked from the history and politics of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. (“Thinking ‘Post Racial’ Ideology Transnationally” 482)
It is in the interests of contemporary conservative ideologies to say that we have transcended race and that those who claim race still works as a decisive factor in politics are only producing division and are unnecessarily making us racist. Da Costa writes, “An underlying totalitarian logic drives this version of ‘anti-racism’, signaling the ways in which oppressive preservations of the status quo in the name of national unity and collective identity can shape aggressive investments in mixture, racial democracy, and universal equality” (“Confounding Anti-racism” 503). We should keep Da Costa’s critiques of this logic in mind as we watch the churning-out of policy in the United States under the ideals of Steve Bannon’s “economic nationalism.” This will surely have negative effects for racial minority groups in America while claiming unity under an ostensibly all-encompassing national identity, the idea that “we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being,” as Bannon puts it.
It is clear that the question of the post-racial is as, if not more so, relevant as ever. Many of the matters of power and hegemony are bound up not only in the forms of activism and policy that may need to take place within a politics of race, but also in the very statement that a politics of race as such may be necessary. It is worth diving into the nuance, as exemplified in Da Costa’s work. He writes,
If racism, white supremacy, and antiblackness together constitute a hemispheric question, as I believe they do, then we must mount transnational and interdisciplinary theoretical, epistemological, and practical strategies to deconstruct and challenge the ways post-racial ideologies rearticulate racial hierarchy and subordination to impede justice and transformative change. (“Confounding Anti-racism” 509)
Da Costa raises a powerful call to action, and I, for one, look forward to his further contribution to this discussion on Thursday.
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Da Costa, Alexandre Emboaba. “Confounding Anti-racism: Mixture, Racial Democracy, and Post-racial Politics in Brazil.” Critical Sociology, vol. 42, no. 4-5, pp. 495-513.
---. “Thinking ‘Post-Racial’ Ideology Transnationally: The Contemporary Politics of Race and Indigeneity in the Americas.” Critical Sociology, vol. 42, no. 4-5, pp. 475-490.