Second of two parts
The institutionalization of racial difference codified white peoples’ refusal to grant Blacks such basic democratic rights as citizenship, access to the legal system and the right to vote. Ironically, formalized white resistance to the participation of racially defined minorities also strengthened the organization and consolidation of excluded minorities of color. Because it had so comprehensively externalized racial “others,” white racism helped strengthen their resistance and opposition.
Sociologist Howard Winant’s racial dualism (Black/white), was in part an adaption, a resistance strategy of the oppressed, the excluded and the terrorized under the conditions of racial war. The modern Black movement transformed the American political universe, creating new organizations, new collective identities and new political norms. This challenged past racial practices and stereotypes and ushered in a wave of democratizing social reform. In transforming the meaning of race and racial politics, the Black movement shifted the rules of participation and organizing principles of American politics itself.
Once racial politics had taken a new form, once basic political rights had been “achieved’’, racial dualism ceased to be an exclusively Black or minority response to white supremacy. By the mid-1960s, popular support for the main principles of the “civil rights revolution” had been secured and legislation passed. A framework to deal with the archaic principles of overt white supremacy had been institutionalized in legal terms, something that could be described as “equality” had been developed-but no more than that.
Equality had not, and still has not been achieved. White supremacy had not vanished. As soon as civil rights legislation and “equal opportunity” policies were initiated, they started to erode under reactionary pressures. Neo-white supremacists sought to reinterpret the movement’s victories, to strip it of its more radical implications, to rearticulate its vision of a substantively egalitarian society in conservative and individualist terms.
The seeds of racial reaction were already present in the ideological choices available in the 1960s, i.e., modern tendencies that espoused integration and “color-blind” racial policies and radical positions that advocated Black—or Brown, Red or Yellow—power, in other words, racial nationalism. While each of these positions had merit, none was sustainable by itself and no synthesis between them seemed possible.
The rise to power of neo-conservatism, which inherited and rearticulated the “moderate” tendencies that emerged from that movement was also ironic. Most whites came to support a conservative and individualistic form of egalitarianism, advocating a supposedly color-blind—but actually deeply race-conscious political position. This was the white “politics of difference.” This synthesis acquired particular force as job losses and stagnating income cut into whites’ sense of security. It gathered strength as the lower strata of Black and Latino communities were plunged into deeper poverty by massive cutbacks in welfare programs, education and federal assistance to cities. When the inevitable moral panic about crime, drugs, etc., ensued, it fueled white flight to the right. In a thorough corporate culture, no countervailing arguments (against corporate greed, for example) acquired so much as a foothold in the mainstream political discourse.
Blacks, as well as other racially-defined minority groups, were further agitated by new conflicts over group identity. Class divisions and strains of resurgent cultural nationalism faced the Black community, driving both elite and ordinary folks in strongly conservative directions. Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans experienced different but parallel schisms. The point is, that a new racial paradigm, tension-ridden, uncertain and unstable, came into being. This paradigm combined the pre-World War II inheritance of white supremacy, which survived in significant measure with the legacy of the 1960 movements- themselves based on centuries-long tradition of resistance of conquest, enslavement and racial oppression.
From the 1960s to the present, not only Black people, but the nation at large has been driven by a deep-seated struggle; the antagonistic existence, the contradiction of the forces of white supremacy on the one hand and the movement for racial and social justice on the other. It is this convergence, this contradiction that constitutes racial dualism in the 21st century.
As U.S. politics plunged to the right, as the aspirations of the activists of the 1960s movement weakened, as indeed the legacy of those struggles is twisted into an obstacle to the achievement of real social and racial justice, the attempt to imagine a greater democracy, racially inclusive as well as egalitarian, almost seem almost utopian. It is this daunting task that remains most relevant and requires new thought commitment and concrete action today.
The right wing has understood the challenge of redefining race and has clearly articulated a vision of the meaning of race in a conservative, “democratic” society. This is the concept of “color-blindness.” Undeniably, this vision has a certain appeal, not only as a cover for the perpetuation of white supremacy, but as a plausible reinvention of fundamental elements of national ideology: individualism and “opportunity, not entitlement.”
“Our dire political situation demands that we reinvent coalition politics as an alternative to the ‘politics of indifference. There is room for the kinds of anti-racist alliances now emerging in parts of the country, alongside exclusively Black, Native American, Latino or Asian organizations.”
Howard Winant’s concept of racial dualism suggests political possibilities that have always been shut down and/or criticized by whites as vague, impractical or utopian. Hopefully, Black Lives Matter and its cohorts foretell a sustainable Black United Front on issues of importance to the Black community.)