First of two parts
Sociologist Howard Winant’s essay, “Racial Dualism at Century’s End,” offers a cogent analysis of the issue of race which has special significance for Blacks in the U.S. Race is a perpetually timely issue, despite the fact that many people continue to minimize its importance. This helps to perpetuate the status quo that clearly is not in Black people’s best interests.
Race matters in the United States, and virtually throughout the world. Throughout U.S. history, race and racial conflict shaped and reshaped the categories into which all identities were classified. Since its beginning, the racial struggles at the heart of U.S. society created the nation’s politics and culture. Winnant argues that although race matters, it is as problematic a concept today as ever. He calls the current period one of “universal racial dualism.”
Once, U.S. society was nearly a monolithic racial hierarchy in which everyone knew “his place”; under racial dualism, everyone’s racial identity is problematic. Monolithic White supremacy is over, yet in a more concealed way, White power and privilege live on. The overt politics of racial subordination has been destroyed, yet it is still very possible to “play the racial card” in the political arena (and throughout society). Blacks and other racially defined minorities are no longer subject to legal segregation, but they have not been relieved of the burdens of discrimination, even by laws supposedly intended to do so.
The old recipes for racial equality which involved creation of a “color-blind” society have been transformed into formulas for the maintenance of racial inequality. The old programs for eliminating White privilege (e.g., affirmative action, etc.) are now accused of creating non-White racial privilege. The welfare state, once seen as the instrument for overcoming poverty and injustice, is now accused of causing these same ills.
Racial dualism means today that there are two ways of looking at race, where previously there was just one. In the past, everyone agreed that racial subordination existed, the debate was whether it was justified. However, agreement about the continuing existence of racial subordination has vanished. The very idea that “race matters” is something which today must be argued, something which is not self-evident. This, in itself, attests to the transformation which racial dualism has undergone from the time of W.E.B. DuBois’, “The Souls of Black Folk” to our time.
On the one hand, the world DuBois analyzed is still very much with us. We live in a racialized society, a society in which racial meaning is engraved on all experiences. Racial identity shapes not only life-chances, but social life, taste and place of residence. The meaning of race, the racial interpretation of everyday life and the larger culture, polity and economy, have been so finely tuned for so long, and have become so ingrained, that it is now second nature, common sense, that rarely requires acknowledgement.
On the other hand, race, as a “reality,” is an illusion. It is patently inadequate, if not wholly false to understand human experience, individual or collective, in racial terms. Indeed, it is difficult even to specify the meaning of race beyond the most superficial notions. Not only ordinary individuals, but even anthropologists, sociologists and geneticists cannot present a convincing rationale for distinguishing among human groups by physical characteristics.
In the United States, for example, hybridity is universal; most Blacks have “White blood” and tens of millions of Whites have “Black blood.” Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Blacks, as well as Whites, have centuries-long histories of contact with one another; colonial rule, enslavement and migration have dubious merits, obviously, but they are all effective “race mixers.”
Race matters then in a second sense: It matters not only as a means of rendering the social world intelligible, but simultaneously has a way of making it mysterious. Race is not only real, but also illusory. Not only is it common sense, it is also common nonsense. Not only does it establish our identity, it also denies our identity. Not only does it allocate resources, power and privilege, it also provides means for challenging that allocation. Race not only naturalizes, but socializes. The built-in contradictory character of race provided the context in which racial dualism, or the “color line” as DuBois designated it, developed as the problem of the 20th, and now the 21st century.
For centuries, white supremacy went almost entirely unquestioned in the political mainstream, which established the overall contours, as well as the particular political and cultural legacies of racial insubordination and resistance. It eliminated, or at best, severely limited the political terrain upon which racially-defined groups could mobilize within “civil” society, thus defining these groups as “outsiders.” It denied the existence of commonalities among Whites and non-Whites—such as shared economic activities, shared rights as citizens and, most often, shared humanity— thus constructing race, at least in principle, in terms of all-embracing social differences.
Not only did racialization tend to minimize differences among people considered White, but it also blurred distinctions among those whose physical difference with whites was considered the only crucial component of their identities. Over time then, this “White versus other” concept of difference created not fixed and unchanging racial identities—these were always in flux—but the potential, the social structure, indeed the necessity of universally racialized identities in the United States. (To be continued.)