restricted access Race at the End of the "American Century"
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Radical History Review 87 (2003) 207-225

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Race at the End of the "American Century"

Kevin Gaines

Thomas C. Holt, The Problem of Race in the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963. New York: Henry Holt, 2000.
Gary Gerstle, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

In its September 2001 issue, National Geographic surveyed the profound changes wrought by post-1965 immigration to the United States. For his article, journalist Joel Swerdlow visited J. E. B. Stuart High School in suburban Virginia, whose multihued student population would have been unthinkable for the confederate general for whom the school is named. Swerdlow informs us that however much they lament their vanishing national or cultural heritage, all the students of various Middle Eastern, Asian, Spanish-speaking, European, and African backgrounds really want to do is "chill," flirt, and go cruising to the mall like other American teenagers. 1

The students' ordinary Americanness finds expression in racial terms as well. "I don't want to be white," opines a Polish-born student, as some fellow students nod in assent. A young woman from Russia adds, "I don't consider myself white... . Whites act white and do white stuff." White kids, she went on, act different and hang out differently. "Whites are privileged. They're smart, do homework on time, run the [End Page 207] student government, participate in plays and musicals, sell stuff, have parents who are involved in school." Another youth of undisclosed racial appearance (here Swerdlow's reticence suggests "colored," since all other speakers, despite their protestations, are labeled "white") adds, "When you go to apply for a job, you have to act white." Swerdlow claimed that several students were amazed at his inability to understand, and that those students who considered themselves white remained silent during such discussions. He interpreted this as an "age-old adolescent dilemma" of wanting to achieve versus wanting to be seen as "cool," and evidently found nothing objectionable in the students' disconcerting equation of whiteness with achievement and "uncoolness."

What seems most uncool to some of the students is a system of social reproduction that reinforces the cultural dominance and academic success of white middle-class students out of proportion to their actual numbers. In calling attention to this, the students are enacting Stuart Hall's insight that race often provides the language through which class conflicts find expression, though here race and class remain inseparable. For his part, Swerdlow dismisses the students' critique, telling them that the leisure activities they themselves prefer to the "white" attributes they decry "[sound] like what a white person would do." Confronted with the students' objection to white privilege, he imposes a neutral notion of "white" behavior. Even as Swerdlow downplays race by voicing skepticism toward the students' claims of white middle-class hegemony, the author casually upholds whiteness as the norm to which immigrants should aspire, in effect banishing blackness from his imagined nation.

The surge in xenophobia after the terrorist attacks of September 11 renders this recent example of melting pot ideology quaint and obsolete. But despite all the talk about how everything has changed, the article's treatment of race remains relevant. In this sense, Swerdlow is hardly an endangered species. Many scholars and teachers share his aversion to critical race thinking, even as the centrality of race in the modern world is widely accepted among historians. Those who wish race would just go away would do well to heed this journalistic account of the problems of race and class in our schools, where academic achievement is undermined as too many students and teachers internalize racial stereotypes. Three recent books—Thomas C. Holt's The Problem of Race in the Twenty-first Century, David Levering Lewis's W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963, and Gary Gerstle's American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century—regard the problems of...