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The Problem of the Twenty-First Century is the Problem of the ColorBlind


[Adapted from Dean Shirley

Newman's Lecture Series (Facing Up to History: Racism's Pasts and Presence) at

the University of Michigan, 22 March 2001]

A few years ago I had the

fortune of spending a morning debating Dinesh D’Souza on the question of

affirmative action. It was in Chicago at the South Asian Students’ Association

annual meeting. I was a bit apprehensive. I’ve debated people before, indeed I

like the format at times. But D’Souza is a formidable debater: he does not

listen to what you are saying, he has great one-liners to earn the audience’s

support and he is ruthless. Our contest went much as I had anticipated. He

railed against quotas and preferences and asked how a society pledged to

equality could countenance unfairness in the admission to colleges. He appealed

to white fear, to the sense that one’s qualified white friends would be

disadvantaged. It is hard to argue against this except to say that there has

been past injustice and that our present system still does not allow for

fairness in the process. Fight for more fairness, he counters, not preferences.

Indeed the logic of equality mobilized by D’Souza militates against the general

liberal argument for affirmative action. He quoted from King on the "content of

character" and not the "color of skin," a strong claim to race-free or

color-blind egalitarianism or merit. To the point of past injustice, D’Souza

took refuge in the weakness of the courts on the issue of remedy: who should

bear the burden for the unfairness of the past? Should it be the descendents of

the slavers, for instance, who did not themselves enslave people?

D’Souza and the neo-cons are

onto something. They are not perverse fools who are out to hoodwink us into the

gallows of the Klan (although it sometimes does feel like that, with Trent Lott

in the wings, hooded and eager). What they have identified is the limits of the

argument for equality in a bourgeois democratic system. When the bourgeois

revolution was completed in the mid-1960s with the various laws that called for

political and legal equality, these laws ended the value of "equality" (as a

concept) in the fight for social justice. Once we won political equality in the

bourgeois sense we won the right to be treated equally at the same time as we

forfeited the right to the accumulated gains of the past, accumulated legally in

the old system, but illegally in our own context. There was to be no retroactive

redistribution of ill-gotten gains: these were to be protected by the law, in

perpetuity. Since equality, within the bourgeois democratic set-up, means

equality before the law and the franchise, the most that one could do was to

call for an equality of opportunity (not equality of result): equality of

opportunity was, and is, the grounds for the debate on affirmative action — do

all people have equal access to education? Are the standardized tests as

standard as they appear? Should there be other means to ensure that people have

the opportunity to enter college? And so on.

Bakke, Hopwood, these are the

words of infamy for us, perhaps the same may happen to the Michigan case now

before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals [Judge Friedman's ruling on 27 March

is a blow to the Michigan case and to affirmative action -- one more victory to

the Center for Individual Rights]: each time the neo-cons demonstrate that they

have the upper hand in terms of the rhetoric of a bourgeois-democratic system.

Our language in defense of affirmative action is inadequate, because we tend to

weigh in with moral rhetoric about diversity which does not win us too many

adherents. The fact is that the language of equality is over. We have already

gained from the days of Jim Crow segregation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964′s

Title Six states that any institution that takes federal money cannot

discriminate "based on race, color or national origin." Jim Crow is over, no

doubt about that, even if Jeb Crow is still alive and well. We need to fight Jeb

Crow with new tactics, with a new language, not with the language that served us

well to overthrow Jim Crow

The problem of the 20th

Century was the problem of the Color-Line (as W. E. B. Du Bois put it so well in

1899); the problem of the 21st Century will be the problem of the Color-Blind.

The naked white supremacy of the Klan is alive and well, no doubt, but it is

fundamentally illegitimate. Our principle contradiction now is not the Klan, or

Jim Crow, but the language of equality itself, the idea of the colorblind, the

notion of an ahistorical and almost Darwinist contest between equal citizens.

George the Second won a perfect score from the Campaign for a ColorBlind America

in 1998; in 1999 he said that "I support the spirit of no quotas, no

preferences"; now, as President, he has surrounded himself with those who are

fervent proponents of racism as the colorblind, people like Grand Wizard John

Ashcroft and Elaine Chao. They tell us that we are already equal in opportunity

(but for a few snags here and there) and that we should be able to compete

without preferences and quotas (indeed Chao, like Susan Au Allen and other Asian

conservatives suggests that quotas for African Americans and Latinos hurt Asians

– this is wrong and misguided as I’ve shown in the latest issue of Amerasia

Journal). We may be equal as juridical subjects, but we are not subjected to the

same pains and penalties as each other. Jeb Crow may not be Jim Crow, but it’s

racism nonetheless.

What does it mean to say that

the bourgeois revolution was generally complete by the late 1960s? This means

that the tactical demand for equality had worn out its value. The struggle for a

hundred years, from the mid-19th Century to the mid-20th Century, had been about

equality: equality, however, was not the goal of the struggle only the tactical

device toward the larger goal of human freedom. By the late 1960s, equality had

been enshrined, but it had not itself led to freedom. Equality, as the

foundation of a bourgeois-democracy, meant equality before the law, juridical

equality, but not freedom. This equality was almost mathematical, with numbers

on one side of the equation being bound to equal those on the other side. The

world of mathematics, however, is axiomatic: the rules are made up and our

operations conform to the premises we set up. The world is not an axiomatic

place. We have to live within the contradictions of history. Bourgeois law

treats the world as an axiomatic place, where those what come before the bar of

the court, in its best world, are to be seen as equal once the state grants them

equality. The grant of equality, indeed, is the final task of the bourgeois

revolution. It cannot go any further than that. In that sense, "equality" has

run its course.

The completion of the

bourgeois democratic revolution means simply that the idea of "equality" is by

now established as the norm and that racism is seen generally as abhorrent. It

is hardly brave to speak out against racism. But since "equality," in the neocon

framework, means equal treatment for all regardless of the depravations of

history, then "equality" itself ceases to be a worthwhile horizon for

progressive social change: its task is done. We need a new framework for our

struggles, one that reflects the social conditions of those struggles, not a

nostalgic politics against a Jim Crow that has become a Jeb Crow. For the

former, Jim Crow, violence was the condition of its being, it was its first

gesture; with Jeb Crow, violence is immanent, but it does not strike until the

disobedient fail to act according to its orders (such as in Iraq and Florida —

you can rule yourselves as long as you do so according to our rules). If once

people were violently enslaved to work, now they are left hungry, forced to seek

workfare or else to do crime, do the time, and work for slave wages for the

Correctional Corporations of America. Equality won freedom from slavery;

equality can’t win us freedom from the lockdown conditions in our cities, from

the routine (and equal) police violence against crime.

If "equality" now privileges

the language of the colorblind, then "freedom" is no better. The Right has

kidnapped the word and reduced it to reflect on the relationship between the

individual and the state, notably individual liberty from what is sees as state

tyranny. But "freedom" is an expansive term, less able to be made mathematical

than "equality." The horizon of our struggle should be freedom, not equality.

For a brief instant in its history, the Indian judiciary tried to marry the

notion of an expansive freedom to bourgeois democracy, first in 1951 (equality

did not mean that "every law must have universal application for all persons who

are not by nature, attainment or circumstances in the same position, and the

varying needs of different classes or persons require separate treatment") and

then in 1964 ("advantages secured due to historical reasons cannot be considered

a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution"), but neither of these brave

judgements stood the test of "equality." Property trumps justice in the courts

each time.

One task of a movement driven

by freedom is to raze privilege. For example, Lon Burnham (state representative

from Fort Worth, Texas) has once more put forward his innovative, and simple,

bill (this time H. B. no. 954) which makes the following case: "Consideration of

Kinship to Student, Former Student, or Donor in Admissions Prohibited," in other

words, legacy admissions must be stopped. Defend affirmative action, but end

legacy admissions. Build power for the oppressed (and help ease their

sufferings), but at the same time ensure that the by now "normal" advantages of

the past are not flagrantly used on behalf of the well-heeled. If "equality" is

now the norm, then it must be so not only against those of color, but also those

who eat high on the hog. No need to be defensive about that. Affirmative action,

anti-legacy, welfare: these are our tactical fights in a broad struggle for

freedom. The goal is freedom, not equality. The neocons keep trying to reduce

the horizon of freedom to equality, but those of us who spend our time with

ideas need to join the intellectual charge against this reduction. We need to

keep up, to stumble after, the movement in the streets that seek freedom against

equality, that seek something more than Miranda and Roe v. Wade, Brown v. Board

of Education and Sheff v. O’Neill.

We should not be interested

in the blandness of "equality" which is as much a straightjacket these days as

an impetus for further struggle. I went after legacy in the debate with D’Souza.

He tried to make me out to be a surly, humorless Leftist who was jealous of the

virtue of prosperity. He stayed with the language of the colorblind, a language

that enrages us so much that we want to yell "racist." But that is the easiest

way to lose the ideological fight. The only way to engage the colorblind is to

reject its ground of "equality" and to engage it with freedom, not freedom as a

moral imperative, but freedom as the only condition for real equal opportunity,

to ensure that the votaries of the colorblind don’t hide from their own premises

and make us look silly. Equality in an unequal world is the silly thing.

 

 

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