restricted access 4. Dictatorship, Democracy, and Difference: The Historical Construction of Racial Identity
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Chapter 4 Dictatorship, Democracy, and Difference: The Historical Construction of Racial Identity Introduction: The Sources of Racial Identity The paradox of racial identityis that it is simultaneously an utter illusion and an obvious truth. Whatever those of us in the United States—and in many other countries as well—might wish to be the case, we live in a racialized society , a society in which race is engraved upon our beings and perceptions, upon our identities. Indeed, our ability to recognize race is so finely tuned, so ingrained, that it has become a "second nature."Andwith the development of this ability comes a naturalizing of race itself: if racial identityis so recognizable , so palpable, so immediately obvious, then in practical terms at least— irrespective ofwhat one might believe about race—it becomes "real." The sociological dictum that ifpeople "define situations as real, they are real in their consequences" has its truth (Thomas and Thomas 1928). Yet at the same time, this "reality" is illusory,illogical, unspecifiable beyond the most superficial terms. When we seek to delineate the principles underlying racial categorization, we encounter tremendous obstacles. Not only ordinary individuals but even specialists cannot present a convincing rationale for distinguishing among human groups by physical characteristics . Our "second nature," our "common sense" about race, it turns out, is deeply uncertain, almost mythical. 37 38 Dictatorship, Democracy, and Difference Consider: in the United States, hybridity is universal; most blacks have "white blood," and many millions of whites have "black blood."Latinos, Native Americans,Asians, and blacks, as well as whites, have centuries-long histories of contact with one another; colonial rule, enslavement, and migration have dubious merits, but they are all effective "race mixers" (F. J. Davis 1991; Forbes 1988). Of course, even to speak in these terms, of "blood," "mixture," or "hybridity,"even to use such categories as "Asian" or "Latino," one must enter deeply into the complexities of racial discourse . Such language reveals at once the sociohistorical imbeddedness of all racial categories. For these are merely current NorthAmerican designations , and hardly unproblematic ones at that. They are not in any sense "true" or original self-descriptions of the human groups they name. Nor could any language be found that would avoid such a situation. Thus, race may be real, but it is also a construct. Race may be present, even permanent, in U.S. society, but what we mean by race is by no means obvious, despite anyappearances to the contrary.Wemaynot be able to do without race, now or in the future, but we are alwayschanging the "nature" of race, and of the various racial meanings and categories through which we identify ourselves. These ideas would have seemed strange, if not incomprehensible, until a few years ago. The "naturalness" of race was taken for granted for a very long time. Indeed, from colonial days until World War II, biologistic notions of race were the ruling ideas in the United States.While not fixed and unchanging, biologism itself was not fundamentally challenged until the early twentieth century, and did not undergo substantial modificationuntil quite recently. It is only since WorldWar II, and most importantlysince the rise of the modern civil rights movement, that the idea of equality— however fuzzy—has been coupled with notions of race in an accepted, commonsensical way.But debate over such issues as what equality might mean, how it might be achieved, and who is responsible for achieving it obviously continues. Thus, the noise generated by the disruption of the U.S.racial order, by the postwar politicization of race, by the resistance on the part of racially defined minorities to policies of systematic inequality, conquest, and exclusion is still reverberating quite strongly. It takes the form of fierce debate about racial policies, a subject that continues to attract significantattention , both scholarly and popular. But less intensively examined is the anxiety and confusion over racial identity—experienced both by racialminorities and by the white majority—that derives from the same sources: the political struggles that transformed but did not destroy the long-standing racism built into U.S. society. Dictatorship, Democracy, and Difference 39 This is an effort to explore that terrain, to consider some of the forces now at play in the construction of contemporary racial identity.I examine the logic of racial identity as it has evolved in the United States, from the aftermath of the Civil War to the present. I emphasize four basic themes: First, in the United States there has always...