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Against "Post-Ethnic" Futures
Linda Martín Alcoff
Where rationality is measured by the ability to distance oneself from one's cultural and religious traditions, the preemptive commitments of ethnicity seem counter to the ideal of a rational life. Arthur Schlesinger's The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society gives a typical account of this view. Schlesinger paints a picture of a past "America" happily moving toward the melting pot that Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, author of the widely read Letters from an American Farmer, thought he could perceive in the 1700s, a United States where individuals were losing their old identities and forming what he called a "new race of men." This marked progress, not simply because a homogeneous nation would be a stronger nation, but because what these individuals left behind included "ancient prejudices and manners," or backward ways of life, clearing the way for them to adopt a more advanced way of life based on democratic ideals (Schlesinger 1991, 1).
Schlesinger suggests that the "cult of ethnicity" that derailed this move toward a post-ethnic future by the 1960s actually began to emerge in the early 1900s, not as a product of the grassroots but of intellectual elites who presumed a right of cultural and political leadership as "ethnic spokesmen" (34). Schlesinger claims that these intellectuals were "moved by real concern for distinctive ethnic values [but] also by real if unconscious vested interest in the preservation of ethnic constituencies" (34). Thus, according to Schlesinger, the opposition to ethnic assimilation was not an expression of the spontaneous will of the masses but was promoted by leaders motivated by their own desire for power, a charge that he continues to maintain against the political leadership of ethnic communities today. Here, then, is the picture: authoritarian elites ramming ethnicity down the throats of gullible citizens for their own narrow purposes. And here is the effect:
The ethnicity rage in general ... not only divert[s] attention from the real needs but exacerbate[s] the problems. The recent apotheosis of ethnicity, black, brown, red, yellow, white, has revived the dismal prospect that in happy melting-pot days Americans thought the republic was moving safely beyond—that is, a society fragmented into separate ethnic communities. The cult of ethnicity [End Page 99] exaggerates differences, intensifies resentments and antagonisms, drives ever deeper the awful wedges between races and nationalities. The endgame is self-pity and self-ghettoization.
Without a cult of ethnicity, Schlesinger imagines, we might again have the hopes of a society of free-thinking individuals who could rationally debate the public good.
In the academy, as we know, the idea that a decontextualized rationality and generic individualism lies just below the surface of particularized identities has undergone serious critique from a variety of quarters, which might have had the effect of "legitimizing" ethnicity. However, the modernist antipathy toward particular identities that Schlesinger manifests has received new formulations in recent work that provides a more theoretically updated and putatively plausible justification. There is Wendy Brown's pathologizing of identity attachments as a species of Nietzschean ressentiment, Paul Gilroy's analogy between the coercive conformisms of black nationalism and fascism, Nancy Fraser's claims about the nondistributive politics of recognition, and Jean Bethke Elshtain's arguments that identity-based politics hinder democracy, just to name a few.1 These new critiques are dependent on the assumption that ethnicity is socially constructed, and they also emphasize the fact that most oppressed identities were forged in their current articulations by the oppressors, not the oppressed: for example, the lumping of all indigenous people into one category, and the very concept of biological race. Rather than relying on uninterrogated concepts of the individual and of rationality, the new critics of ethnicity argue from the specific histories of oppression to conclude that ethnic identity claims almost always involve a bad faith or inconsistency about their contingent social construction, or that they represent a reductively strategic approach to political gain, or that they are simply naive...