restricted access 7. Hard Lessons: Recent Writing on Racial Politics
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Chapter 7 Hard Lessons: Recent Writing on Racial Politics The subject, once again, is race. The meaning of that term remains as elusive and paradoxical as ever. Astaple of common sense, a word that we live by, "race" retains its profound ambiguities and contradictions, its uncertainty , and, most deeply, its power. Racial inequality still structures the social world, assigning varied "life chances" to winners and losers distinguished only by their color. Racial difference still acts as an all-purpose social signifier, designating attributes of taste and style, attaching symbols of pleasure and danger, hope and fear, to our physical bodies. Yet race is also changing constantly. In the past, the meaning of the concept was taken for granted in ways that would be impossible today. Certainly , criticalreflection on the concept of race alwaysexisted. But from the time the race concept attained world-historic importance about half amillennium ago to quite recently, that critique has been a largely marginal one. Even the great racial upheavals of the past, such as the U.S. Civil War, did not expunge the biologistic cast of much race thinking. In the past, questions of racial identity, racial meaning, the role of race in history, and the relationship between race and justicewere at times debated; they were even at times the source of bloody conflicts.But they were probably never as complicated as they are today. Never before has race—as a social structure , a set of attitudes, beliefs, and emotional identifications—attained the 85 86 Hard Lessons level of societywide attention that it now demands. Never before has the task of theorizing race been as complex, as daunting, as it is today. Nor is theorizing enough. Here lies an even greater difficulty. Wewould like to move beyond theory to practice, to participate meaningfullyin the transformation of the inequities, the assaults, the power plays, the misunderstandings , and the sufferings to which the term "racial injustice" is attached . Weknow too—controversial assertion here—that these desires for coherent thought and meaningful action cannot be realized simply, byany nostrum or formula prescribing a "color-blind" or other similarly nonsensical "solution." For race is not a matter of color alone, nor is it something one can be blind to, nor indeed is it a "problem" that can be solved. It is more like a way of life, a way of being, in which we must learn to act consciously , usefully, and justly. Knowing these things, what can we do? If indeed we know these things today,or intuitthem, it is a result of hard lessons. In the United States, the past half century has been a continuing course in "race relations." Many loathsome social practices and modes of thought have been destroyed during this period, as radical movements, sustained critical interrogation, and the eventual mobilization of the powers of the state were trained upon them. But in this process the "racial progress" that has been won has also been cast into doubt. The early visions of harmony and communityevoked by civil rights leaders have come to appear rather simplistic. Dreams of a raceless society are now cited— often disingenuously—by the right. Hopes for integration have been tempered . The militant rhetoric of movement radicals has also encountered obstacles: inchoate goals, a tendency toward demagogy, and persistent sexism and homophobia have tarnished racial radicalism's earlier luster. Finally , the state has proved an unreliable partner in the cause of racialjustice ; policies framed throughout its various branches—from the Supreme Court to the Census Bureau,from city councils to state legislatures—have chipped away at the dream of racial justice. The presence of Republican administrations from 1968 to 1992 (interrupted only by the Carter interlude ), administrations sustained in large measure by their commitment to foot-dragging if not outright reaction in racial policy, certainly has not helped matters. Thus have we come to the 1990s. The heroic period is over. Progress and reaction go hand in hand. Hybridity confronts essentialism. Divisions within raciallydefined groups compete for attention with the imperative of diversity in mainstream institutions.Tensions are everywhere, from Crown Heights to the universityquad, from the Mexicanborder and the watersoff Haiti to the suburban voting booth. There is no reason to think that race will preoccupy us any less in the next few years. Indeed, in just over a year Hard Lessons 87 we saw the Hill-Thomashearings, the LosAngeles riot, and the election of Bill Clinton—the first racially moderate president in a dog's age. Each of these rather...