Monday, May 21, 2007

Whiteness Candidates and the Post-Racial America

In 1993, Cheryl I. Harris wrote a pathbreaking article in the Harvard Law Review entitled "Whiteness as Property." In it, she articulates how Whites view their Whiteness as a property interest, something they sought to keep "as unadulterated, exclusive, and rare." Whiteness has properties as well and these properties are not static. The meaning of Whiteness has changed as well as its contours. Though we tend to ascribe a permanence to racial categories, the people considered to be White have also evolved. Though the poles of "Black" (at the bottom) and Anglo-Saxon (at the top) have remained reasonably stable, aside from that there is significant latitude for groups to move up and down the racial ladder. For example, Arabs used to be considered White, but today probably would not be. Jews and the Irish, by contrast, were originally "not White" but today are reasonably well-entrenched as White.

Why do the members of Whiteness change? What benefits do Whites accrue by inviting other people into the group? By investigating how and why Whiteness selects its new racial recruits, we may be able to elucidate important properties of Whiteness, as well as gain clues to the future of race relations in America.

Before I proceed, I want to note two issues. First, throughout this post I treat Whiteness as having such anthropomorphic qualities such as "interests", "properties", and "desires". This is because I believe Whiteness as a social phenomenon has evolved beyond the control of any of its constituent parts--it is its own being, not under the control of anyone or thing. Obviously, it can be influenced, but by and large it represents a structuring property to American life that tends to guide us more than we guide it.

Second, my description of a particular group as "becoming" White is not meant to be derogatory (or a nod of approval) towards that group. Some theorists have implied that in pursuing Whiteness, a non-White group is "selling out" or turning its back on their peers who remain at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. For my part, I believe that given the massive perks and privileges available to those that become White, compared to the oppression and dehumanization (up to and including murder) of those who are left at the bottom, I can't critique groups that wish to escape from that fate. This is similar to my view of Jews who have hesitated in proclaiming a strong and unique independent identity in the wake of the Holocaust--it may be better if they did, but given that this path appears to lead right back to Auschwitz, it is quite understandable that many Jews would rather lay low and try to avoid provoking those who have killed them so many times. This is one of Whiteness' greatest weapons when offering incorporation to a minority group--the implicit alternative, of continued degradation and suppression. Ideally, I'd rather that people of color gain equality without having to "become White," just like ideally I'd like for Jews to be able to articulate independent Jewish perspectives without the fear of being slaughtered. But since Whites remain rather jealous of their privileged position, I believe there is a strong incentive for minority groups to take the offer of Whiteness. Similarly, the discussion of what makes a group a good "candidate" for Whiteness is not a statement as to these groups' worth--intrinsic or otherwise. It is deliberately quite calculated--I don't claim that the machinations of Whiteness are moral nor just.

I. The Interests of Whiteness

To begin with, I'll articulate three "interests" possessed by Whiteness. These are the goals that Whiteness seeks to pursue or maintain while drawing and redrawing its institutional and social boundaries and practices. Ideally, Whiteness tries to maintain itself in a manner that secures all three of these interests.

1) Whiteness seeks to remain exclusive.

This plays back into the image of Whiteness as a property. Whiteness is valuable insofar as it is rare--I have it and you don't. This is why Whiteness doesn't simply allow everyone to be White--that would dilute the value. And Whites have resorted to extreme measures to keep its "racial purity" intact. The infamous "one-drop" rules, by which anyone with even a sliver of non-White blood was considered to be of color, helped put up a firm wall against encroachment by racial outsiders, as well as discouraging inter-racial relationships. Because of the exclusivity principle, the decision by Whiteness to allow new members to its ranks is, I believe, a very serious one. It is not something Whiteness does except under duress. Because of that, I believe that the incorporation of new groups into the White category is a signal of weakness in Whiteness, and is a prime time for anti-racist activists to move and exploit that weakness.

2) Whiteness seeks to remain dominant.

For virtually all of American history, Whites have been the dominant racial group. They like it at the top. It gives them privileges. And so, Whiteness has an interest in maintaining those privileges. The desire to remain dominant both encourages and undermines the exclusivity principle. It encourages it because it mandates sharp divisions between what Whites receive as dividends of their Whiteness (thus maintaining the value of Whiteness) and what non-Whites receive that marks them as discrete and inferior. This is related to what W.E.B. Du Bois and later David Roediger called the "wages of Whiteness" argument. Whites of all social classes receive a psychological wage by virtue of being White. No matter how oppressed or downtrodden they are, they can always look back and know there are people beneath them. Incidentally, this is an example of how racial hierarchy can hurt Whites too--if working class Whites weren't focused on insuring that there was always a class beneath them and consequently reassuring themselves that their position isn't that bad, they'd be more likely to forge coalitions with their fellows and press for structural reforms that would provide them real, tangible benefits (yes, I'm aware this is heavily Marxist in tint).

However, the desire for dominance can also undermine the exclusionary principle. This is mostly a numbers game--as demographics shift, Whites find themselves in a position where they might no longer be in the majority. Some Whites have managed to maintain dominance as a minority anyway, at least for a little while (think South Africa). But America's democratic instincts make that an unappealing prospect. Better to shore up the ranks by bringing in some new members. For example, the influx of Southern and Eastern European immigrants (as well as Irishmen) at the turn of the 20th century severely threatened the dominance of Whiteness, as these locales were not considered to be "White." There are scores of writings, speeches, and warnings from the late 19th century arguing why these people were racially inferior to America's Anglo-Saxon stock. Nonetheless, faced with the prospect of being swamped and rendered a (non-dominant) minority, Whites simply changed the contours of the race, and voila! Poles, Greeks, Italians, Jews and the Irish were all White. But note that the gates were not flung open entirely--at the same time that non-Anglo-Saxon Europeans were beginning to gain their White stripes, a series of court cases emphatically declared that Asians were not, in fact, White, and could be excluded from the privileges Whiteness entailed. This is the line Whiteness walks--carefully allowing some new groups in, but likewise careful to maintain borders and boundaries to preserve the exclusivist property.

3) Whiteness seeks to be colorless.

This is a more recent development, and probably going to be controversial, but I think it's true. In its least controversial form, describing the Whiteness' desire to be colorless merely states that Whiteness seeks to be the norm, the center, the measuring stick by which all other groups are based off of. However, I believe it goes beyond that. I believe that in contemporary, post-Civil Rights revolution America, Whiteness seeks to assure itself that it is not a racist hierarchy. It wants to believe that it is not a system of racialized privilege. That doesn't mean that Whites wish to give up the privileges they gain from Whiteness. They just want to believe that they are "earned", meritocratic, legitimate, and theoretically open to everyone who is willing to work hard and play by the rules. They want the guilt-release of being able to blame those on the bottom for their plight. The Just World Theorem dictates that, rather than radically restructuring society to become truly egalitarian, Whites will try and convince themselves that the status quo is an accordance with their ideals of justice, equality, neutrality, etc.. This is probably the weakest of the three instincts--throughout history, Whiteness has been perfectly willing to jettison every liberal value in the book if necessary to maintain its dominant and exclusionary character. Even still, I believe that if possible, Whiteness will seek to negotiate its position in a manner that allows it to at least claim consistency with prevailing liberal, democratic values.

They colorless instinct of Whiteness is obviously in tension with the exclusionary principle, and partially with the dominance principle as well. So my query is: How will Whiteness evolve in the coming years to satisfy all three of its interests?

II. The Candidates for Whiteness

As you may have suspected, I believe that we are approaching a point where new groups will be incorporated as "White." There are two reasons why I think this. First, demographic trends are, once again, threatening Whites with minority status in the foreseeable future. Historically when faced with this prospect, Whites have responded by changing the boundaries of Whiteness so as to stave off the day, and I see no reason why they won't do it again. Second, the persistent presence of "model minorities", especially Asians, poses a severe threat to the dominance principle of Whiteness. It is not possible for Whites to indefinitely maintain their position at the top of the racial hierarchy when they are persistently being bested in academic achievement and test scores. Incorporating Asians into Whiteness would allow Whites to maintain their stance at the apex of American society, a prime interest of Whiteness.

So, what will Whites do? I believe there are two prime candidates for inclusion into Whiteness: Asians, and Latinos. Asians I think present a much stronger case (in fact, were it not for relatively small numbers in America I'd predict they'd be the only candidate), but both have their pros and cons.

1) Asians

a) Advantages

As articulated above, the "model minority" issue poses a legitimate threat to the dominance of Whiteness, one which I can't believe Whiteness does not wish to head off. Incorporation would solidify the White monopoly at the top of the social and academic sphere. It would also serve international interests by strengthening our ties with the growing East and South Asian powers (China, Japan, India, and the various tigers and dragons). The work of Derrick Bell and Mary Dudziak has shown that responding to international concerns can be a powerful motivator in domestic racial politics. Furthermore, my intuition is that there is relatively greater acceptance of Asian presence in the spheres normally reserved by Whites for Whites. Interracial relationships between Whites and Asians seem to raise fewer eyebrows than other racial pairings. The heavy enrollment of Asians at elite colleges and universities has both conditioned Whites to an Asian presence at the top circles, and forced Whites to accept Asians as, to some extent, peers. Finally, Whites have already sought to pull Asians into their political orbit and away from other people of color on several issues, most notably affirmative action. This seems like a first step towards inviting them to join the White club entirely.

b) Disadvantages

Numbers is the big one--there are not anywhere near as many Asians in America as there are Blacks or Latinos. Changes in immigration patterns could possibly fix that, but it's not guaranteed. Though it's a close call, my feeling is that the perception of Asians as a distinct and separate "race" is more deeply ingrained than it is for Latinos, which could make it psychologically more difficult to incorporate Asians into Whiteness. Finally, the growth of Asian powers--specifically China's emergent challenge to US hegemony--may allow Asian-Americans to resist the pressure to become White and maintain cultural independence.If this last scenario happens, it could cause a serious breakdown in the entire schema of White dominance. On the other hand, this potential prospect again might motivate Whiteness to try and strike before Asians can mount an independent challenge.

II. Latinos

a) Advantages

As I said, I think the primary argument for why Latinos will be incorporated into Whiteness is the numbers game. Latinos are America's largest minority group, so bringing them into Whiteness would remove the demographic threat for the foreseeable future. The immigration issue also could cut in the favor of Latinos--with the forthcoming amnesty, Americans will have to get used to the idea of millions more Latinos on the track to citizenship, and it might decide it is preferable to try and incorporate them (probably using our pre-existing positive immigration narrative from Ellis Island) rather than maintain the current hostile stance. Finally, Latinos can claim some historical link towards Whiteness (the connection to Spain), and are already classified as "White" in the census (in that I check my box as "non-Hispanic White"). So in that respect they've already got their foot in the door.

b) Disadvantages

The degree of hostility flowing towards Latinos dwarfs that directed towards Asians and is rising, not falling. In contrast to the "model minority" portrayal of Asians, Latinos face a bevy of mostly negative stereotypes (lazy, unproductive, dirty) that would seem to clash with the Whiteness' dominance principle. By this I don't mean to imply Asians don't have their own negative stereotypes, just that the ones for Latinos seem to be far more prevalent and controlling in the White public eye at this time. Right now, the language of political discourse has taken a definitive turn towards seeking to exclude Latinos from Whiteness (the exclusionary principle seems to be the operative one right now, in other words), we'd have to see that reversed for Latinos to stand any chance of becoming White.

III. Outcomes

My prediction is that Asians will be effectively incorporated into Whiteness in the near-to-medium future, and that Latinos will follow if the demographic threat doesn't dissipate. The advantages/disadvantages section hopefully explained why this move will occur to satisfy the first (exclusionary) and second (dominance) principles of Whiteness. However, what of the third (colorless) principle? That, I believe, will occur in the mechanics of the incorporation, and it strikes me as potentially a very revealing event.

As I argued above, a significant shift in the interests of Whiteness in recent years is that it wants to see itself as egalitarian, liberal, fair, and not reminiscent of the Jim Crow hierarchies of old. This is not just me being idealistic--Critical Race Theorists have observed that there appears to be a genuine sentiment among White folks that racism is something bad, and it is bad to be racist. Unlike years past, the battle against racism, as Mari Matsuda notes, "has legitimating force." Since the majority of Whiteness' existence has been predicated on racism being okay and the key signifier of White dominance, this change requires adaptation by Whiteness if it wishes to maintain its dominance and exclusion. This is what I mean by "post-racial" America. I do not mean that racism is or will become absent, and I reject whole-heartedly that we are "post-racist." However, the press by Whites to try and erase race-talk and race categories (California, for example, is barred by law from even collecting data categorized by race) is highly symbolic--it articulates the sentiment that race is something dirty, a scary remnant of our darker past that should be buried away. This is misguided (the problem of the color-line was not the presence of race, it was the presence of racism), but a very active sentiment. And so, paradoxically, the oppression we are and will continue to be seeing in the future will, increasingly, be racism without race.

The relative absence of (and to some extent, social disfavor against) speaking in racial categories, ironically, may allow Whiteness to de facto include Asians without ever explicitly saying "you're White now." It will instead express the feeling that they "might as well be White, they're so similar." It would erase the difference in character, but preserve the formal distinction. Why? Because by incorporating Asians this way, Whiteness could stake a claim to the third interest (colorless) as well. This would turn Asians into the racial equivalent of what Derrick Bell calls "contradiction closing cases," that show "the system is not so bad after all," that the deck is fair and that anyone can "make it" in America. If someone argued that America is dominated by Whites, Whites could point to Asians as a counter-example, thus "proving" the neutrality of the system (while at the same time ignoring that Asians have been made effectively White). This would change Whiteness from a unitary category to somewhat of an alliance, but I don't think it would effectively change the dynamics of Whiteness, as the property is evolving away from biological essentialism and into a system of preserving and structuring the distribution of privileges. This, I believe, will be able to account for nominally different groups being placed under the same banner of Whiteness--allowing us to claim diversity (and with it, all the liberal ideals of fairness and equal opportunity) without really redressing the groups that are not accorded the privileges of Whiteness.

IV. Afterthoughts

None of this is inevitable. First, I could be wrong about the progress of true racial egalitarianism. We might turn the corner; racial equality may be right on our doorstep. In that case, happily, none of these predictions will bear fruit. However, this post also operates from the perspective of Whiteness; it is my understanding of what I believe Whiteness "wants" to do. As I noted above, the candidates for Whiteness have strong incentives to cooperate with the White agenda. But that is not the same as being inevitable. As I expressed above, Asian-Americans may move into a position where they will be able to mount a challenge to White supremacy--something that would throw the whole strategy for a loop. That may be extreme, but there is more that can be done aside from outright revolution. Historically, as Frank Wu has argued, Whites have conditioned inclusion into Whiteness on acquiescing to the system of White supremacy. However, I noted my belief that Whites seek the incorporation of other groups when they feel threatened or weak. The candidates, therefore, are in a temporary position of relative strength, they can leverage their inclusion into Whiteness to secure concessions by Whites in favor of the non-Whites that are not be included. This sort of infiltration strikes me as one of the best opportunities to really gain some ground--it is the cousin of my own belief that (current) White people should use their privileged position (and the "credibility" that entails) to press for real racial reform. However, Whiteness candidates may be better suited towards making that maneuver, as they are more closely tied to the oppressed and may thus make better and more informed advocates.

The preceding post may feel a bit grim, because it operates within a paradigm that Whiteness will remain dominant, that it will continue to pursue and maintain its dominance, and then seeks to predict what will result from those principles. Obviously, I'd be thrilled if my baseline assumptions turned out to be untrue. But even if they are, there are chinks in the armor that can be exploited. If people of color and their allies prepare well, they may be able to catch Whiteness with its guard down. And that could yield a genuine opportunity to undermine the system of racial superiority that has plagued American history for so long.


Anonymous said...

Good post, well thought out. One issue, though.

"For virtually all of American history, Whites have been the dominant racial group. "

Chronologically speaking, I think the American Indians had a pretty good run. Or, to paraphrase a professor of mine, American history didn't just spring into existence 400 years ago.

Of course, you might have meant US history, but why not say so? It's shorter. (Believe it or not, this is actually a genuine pet peeve of mine.)

-One of your roommates; I feel you need to guess who

Stentor said...

One mitigating factor with respect to the "hostility to Latinos" point is the "good immigrant/bad immigrant" dichotomy. You see it all the time in the immigration debate, where people (probably from the same motives as the "colorless" interest) say that they don't have a problem with legal immigrants, just the illegals. So Latinos could be partially incorporated, with the "legals" (who would in practice be identified more by the lightness of their skin and their degree of cultural assimilartion than by their immigration status) becoming white while the "illegals" remained the target anti-Latino racism.

Edward Blum said...

Wonderful post. And just so you know there is some work right now - particularly my two books, _Reforging the White Republic_ and _W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet_ that look at a "spiritual wage of whiteness."

Meep said...

In your point about Latin@s becoming white, I think you have made the same mistake that many white people make in that there is a large group of Latin@s that are *not* recent immigrants to the US. Cubans and Puerto Ricans have maintained position in New York and Florida for quite some time with varying results. Many Mexicans were living in former Mexican colonies until the US acquired that land, and continue to do so today. Your argument is at the beginning of a rift between the native (and possibly White-ified) Latin@s and the recent immigrants.
I'm not sure if this oversight was on purpose, in which your argument should be tailored to say something more explicit like "Latin@ immigrants from 1980 onwards", or by accident, which seems to happen a lot.