Our So-Called Progress: Humanities on the Edge Review, Alexandre Da Costa
On an evening between the old travel ban and the new one, more than forty days and forty nights after having bid farewell to the first African American, bi-racial president, Alexandre Da Costa continued the conversation on “Post-Racial Futures?” (emphasis on the question mark) with his lecture “Towards a Hemispheric Critique of the Post-Racial.”
Public praise for the post-racial, Da Costa explained, is a rhetorical and conceptual smoke screen. It hinges on a strategy of obfuscation, banking on the fact that by accepting but warping anti-racists' criticisms of racial essentialism, those who benefit from a white supremacist status quo can slow and resist change and justice. By professing to ignore, minimize, and deny the category of race, the real effects of racism can continue unmolested by criticism based in race as a historical category. Understood in this light, the post-racial amounts to a promise that, if we haven’t “gotten over” our collective racism, then, well, we are almost there. Any racism we do encounter is just a matter of a few bad apples, individuals acting out a twisted evil or a backwards ignorance. Da Costa explained how this has been, in Canada, the United States, and Brazil, an appealing and widespread argument that we must combat if we are to seek justice.
In the US, the post-racial often takes the form of “colorblindness,” the idea that we shouldn’t perceive race. The effect is to ahistorically blame victims for their real complaints about an ongoing colonial project. In making their arguments, prophets of the post-racial seek to delink racism from race--and by so doing, they smother an understanding of race as a constitutive category of modernity, and whiteness as a key governmental force throughout the “project of Western civilization.”
Da Costa outlined the “key logics” of the post-racial: racial progress, colorblind ideology, racial exceptionalism, and a fixation on futures beyond the influence of race. Racial progress is the widely articulated sense that “people are better” now than they were, one, two, or thirty generations ago. It rests on pointing to (contestable) perceptions that racial violence has declined since some negatively idealized past that is thankfully behind us across an unthinkable gulf. We see fetishizations of slavery, for instance, or a location of the cultural genocide against indigenous peoples as something exclusively in the past. Colorblind ideology -- as captured by Nebraska’s well meaning state motto of “Equality Before the Law” -- has been twisted into actually preventing the law from recognizing, and thus defending, the wronged, on the basis of race. It plays out by undermining any attempt to seek reparations, reconciliation or even justice for past racist violence by denying the categories of logic within the sufferer’s complaint. Racial exceptionalism is the perception of relative merit in a given national community. The United States elected a black president, Canada is a multi-cultural haven, and Brazil celebrates mixed race heritage, for example. A fixation on the future beyond race, on the other hand provides a “happy object” that can carry the desires of white guilt and alleviate the necessity for action for those benefiting from a system that they would otherwise be unable to tolerate while still claiming they weren’t personally racist.
He engaged a wide range of scholars to argue that race as a category is the result of European government. It is not an aberration or a glitch in the system, but a constitutive feature of liberalism. In the USA after the civil rights era, the rise of colorblind ideology, has in essence functioned as “racial neo-liberalism,” shifting responsibility, and calling the racially disproportionate effects of poverty, economic crisis, and health care “fair.” In Brazil, post-racial rule that emerged in the first third of the 20th century as “racial innocence” in the wake of the abolition of slavery meant that there was an “idealized miscegenation” in the elevation of mixed heritage to a privileged category. The idea of eugenic race purity was associated with foreignness and fused with a denial of racism that occurred at the same time as an aggressive whitening of the ideal Brazilian subject and the narrative of indigenous disappearance. This gave rise to a system of “veiled racism” officially denied but well known.
Da Costa noted that Canada, meanwhile, is founded on genocide and isolation. White settler ideology at the foundation of the modern Canadian state envisioned political, economic, and social development as white. When this began to be threatened, the public discourse of Canada largely shifted to a retrenchment of the liberal democratic public sphere, with race now coded as “culture,” and the liberal acceptance of others itself coded as belonging foremost to white Canada. This, even as the purported multi-culturalism existed side by side with persistent virulently negative stereotypes of indigenous peoples, and any mention of race is met with charges of “reverse racism.”
Da Costa concluded his talk by pointing to two important foundations for combatting the elisions of the post-racial: the performativity of race, and the linkage of racism and death. The performance of the post-racial ideology often manifests as strategies of white fragility and taking up space, the well known comments section (or, sadly, classroom) tactics of rushing to a victim position (see, for instance, the shameless antics of the reprehensible and disgraced former Nebraska state senator Bill Kintner). Such white victimhood is the denial to see white embodiment as a structural outcome. To name this rightly, Da Costa suggested, we should move away from the language of white privilege and begin to talk about white supremacy as acts. It is secured by everyday work, the acts which are historical and ongoing, from the relocation of the Dakota Access pipeline to the school vouchers program proposed by DeVos. A recognition of this performance can help move those of goodwill from a cathartic and impotent empathy to action and work toward justice.
Death, Da Costa argued, can be an objective yardstick for racism in the face of denial. Da Costa pointed to recognizing a continuum of genocide as including all those situations in which being black, indigenous, or in any way Other has lead to a genocidal killing of mind, body, and/or spirit by the forces of the white supremacist state. Systemic deprivation and precarious access to resources across the hemisphere have led to an ongoing and permanent event wherein even silence, inaction, and ignorance manifest as genocidal. Yet we also need to recognize that, as Da Costa said, “Death clogs vision,” because the “mathematics of the unliving” cannot contain Black life, indigenous life, Othered life. The archive of death cannot contain the living: we must all attend to the voice crying “I am still here!” We cannot, in our criticism, afford to reproduce the narrative under critique, nor fail to acknowledge the reality that this summary of a white man’s lecture that almost ended on a white man’s questions is written by a white man.
There is nothing “post” about race in the Americas.