- Of Teachable Moments and Specters of Race
I begin on a somber note. In the past year, we have lost two treasured past presidents of the American Studies Association—John Hope Franklin and Emory Elliott. Their guiding spirits and insights are sorely missed. In 1964, at the height of the black freedom movement, John Hope Franklin wrote of "The Two Worlds of Race" that divided the United States from its inception. With the arrival of the first Africans brought to the mainland of English America as indentured servants in 1619, Franklin noted, "the enormous task of rationalizing and justifying the forced labor of peoples on the basis of racial difference was begun." With the creation of this social order founded on slavery, "the effort to establish a more healthy basis for the new world social order was [also] begun, thus launching the continuing battle between the two worlds of race on the one hand, and the world of equality and complete human fellowship, on the other."1
Although John Hope Franklin lived to celebrate the election of Barack Obama to the highest office in the land, his formulation of the "two worlds of race" has proved sadly prescient for the twenty-first century. To be sure, Franklin had witnessed enormous change in his lifetime. With those of his generation, he welcomed the demise of the rank discrimination and violence of the Jim Crow era. John Hope participated in the democratization of the academy and the professions by the inclusion of people of color, women, and working people of all backgrounds. Yet, for all the optimism Obama's election has generated around the world, it has also brought about a resurgence of old hatreds and renewed attacks on citizenship from the Far Right, targeting immigrants as well as African Americans, and undermining democracy for all.
To begin to grasp the contradictory nature of progress in the age of Obama requires a reckoning with the past. Obama's victory was a triumph of the black freedom movement, particularly the vision of community organizing employed by Robert Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, and John Lewis, and inspired by their fundi (Swahili for "teacher") Ella Baker.2 And yet the surge in racist and seditious rhetoric after Obama's election affirms how fragile and contested the reforms of the civil rights movement are.3 [End Page 195]
In a time of crisis, those most committed to denying the past, it seems, end up being possessed by its hatreds. Today, resilient narratives of white supremacy exert as powerful a hold as ever on the imagination of many Americans; economic uncertainty heightens the allure of racist cultural scripts. The recitation of antiblack narratives by conservative mass media broadcasters prevents many from naming the true beneficiaries of government subsidies and official indulgence in recent years—oil, defense, and prison corporations, private military contractors, and banking and financial firms, among others. The human cost of a generation of conservative and neoliberal policies has been enormous for people of color. But the current economic downturn, with its spate of foreclosures, layoffs, and rising costs in health care and education, suggests that all but the wealthiest Americans have also paid—and are paying—a dear price for the diversionary uses of racism in national politics.
Obviously, the two worlds of race have changed a great deal since John Hope Franklin described a society in which the nonwhite population was 95 percent African American. Against a backdrop of deindustrialization and the exodus of jobs and residents from central cities, post-1965 immigration trends have reduced the proportion of African Americans in the nation's nonwhite population to roughly 50 percent. Within the two worlds of race transformed by post-1965 immigration, Obama's election represents an egalitarian multiracial coalition, including many antiracist whites. That coalition is bitterly opposed by an ongoing Far Right project whose organizations actively inflame the prejudices and exclusionary practices of white supremacists in order to resist democratic demands for social citizenship and those who seek to reassert the public good as a counter to rampant and dehumanizing free market values.4
At this moment, I also think of Emory Elliott. The tragedy of Emory's...