Race and Democracy

My opposition to identity politics is rooted in deep democratic sympathies. To illustrate, let me take the paradigm of identity politics: race. There is nothing more undemocratic.

In racialized systems, individuals are compelled to belong to a race and expected to behave in a manner consistent with whatever doctrine can be made to appear to be associated with or “normal” to that racial designation. Richard Ford puts this well in Racial Culture: A Critique (2005) when he notes that, although “there is no necessary correspondence between the ascribed identity of race and one’s culture or personal sense of self,” identity politics produces “compulsory” enactment of “prewritten racial scripts.” Ford argues that “group difference is not intrinsic to members of social groups,” thus rejecting the notion that identity can be essentialized. Instead, he contents, it is contingent upon “the social practices of group identification.”  

Despite it being a demographic category, incapable of agency (which sociologists conceptualize as a telic ability/capacity unique to individuals), self-appointed (i.e., unelected) spokespersons tell those they claim as their own how to think and behave at the risk suffering ill-repute or some negative sanction. If a black person deviates from the hegemonic doctrine of blackness, then he risks a derogatory epithet. A white person, on the other hand, is expected to deviate from the doctrine of whiteness lest she risk s being labeled a racist. To claim virtue, a white woman must admit her white privilege and declare herself an ally or even a race traitor (which is not to say she can ever escape her whiteness, which she wears like an invisible knapsack).

Again, demographic categories have no collective agency. Race is a designation based on who you (allegedly) are, not on what you actually think or do. There is no deliberative decision-making process in a racial group. Race is not a democratic institution. It’s not a voluntary associational group to which one can consent or from which one can withdraw. (If anything, as a structure, race limits the ability/capacity of agents.) David Duke doesn’t represent me by virtue of sharing my skin color. Neither does Bernie Sanders. My race tells you nothing about my politics, my religion, my taste in food or music, or my sexuality. If you think you can tell me who I am on the basis of my skin color, then you are stereotyping on the basis of race—and guess what that makes you? Well, that depends, since only some people can be a racist by virtue of their skin color (I know the drill).

The assumption that race represent collective agency is the trick that allows people to tie culture to race. That way, when one criticizes culture (which human beings should do since culture is a mixed bag of enabling and disabling thoughts and actions), you can be accused of racism—or antiracism if the culture you criticize is attributed to the right demographic. But the very notion that culture is an expression of race—that is, that values, thoughts, behaviors, tendencies, etc., things that can validly differentiated by skin color and other superficial phenotypic features – is the essence of racism. Racism roots the mind in two false biological propositions: (1) the mind flows from the genes and (2) humans can be meaningfully racially differentiated on the basis of genetics. The first proposition is found in the claim that whites are more intelligent than blacks. The second is found in the claim that whites really are different from blacks. Both claims find no purchase in anthropology. So the answer to this question: “Why do people over there act like that?” can never be “Because they’re black.” The scientific explanation would be something like this: The people over there act like that because they are socialized in a culture that provides the myths and rituals that guide their behavior. And that has nothing to do with race.  

Critical race theory (CRT) and its variant critical race feminism (CRF) constitute an enterprise based on this error. CRT/CRF manufacture a system of concepts—not a theory, but an ideology – that permits the reification of abstractions by disappearing concrete indidivudals into demographic categories, hypostatizing them, substituting identity for human agency. CRT/CRF then “theorize” that colorblindness—defined as the act of rejecting the practice of determining the fate of an individual based on her skin color—is racist in-itself. This is indeed a strange alchemy: the man becomes most racist when he chooses colorblindness. CRT/CRF identifies advocacy of colorblindness as a feature of what it calls the “perpetrator’s perspective.” White people who are not allies prefer this standpoint because it systematically benefits them. The antithesis of the perpetrator’s perspective is the “victim’s perspective,” which assumes that every person in a minority group is a victim. This victimhood can lie outside of consciousness, hence the need for race consciousness (except if you’re white).

Richard Thompson Ford provides one of the more lucid explanations for how material inequality is reproduced without laws requiring inequality in his 1994 article “The Boundaries of Race: Political Geography in Legal Analysis,” in Harvard Law Review. Ford contends that public and private actors cooperate to construct “racially identified spaces.” Such spaces define political boundaries that determine and condition the distribution of individuals, economic resources, and political power. These spaces are externally imposed or emerge from divisive structural forces. A myth has grown up around this that the surrounding racialized spaces are “quasi-natural,” “prepolitical,” or primordial associations of individuals. In fact, these spaces are political creations that accumulate—after they are formed—a “natural” history, developing an “organic” social organization. Scholars must, therefore, to take care to avoid mistaking effect for cause.

Richard Thompson Ford

Central to Ford’s argument is the promotion of race-neutral policy that has become the main component in a strategy to create and maintain racialized spaces: “racially identified space interacts with facially race-neutral legal doctrine and public policy to reinforce racial segregation rather than to eliminate it gradually.” Understanding how race-neutral policy perpetuates and even intensifies racial segregation is a key to understanding the situation the United States faces today. Indeed, it has been the exploitation of the ignorance of the public and most experts about the reality of race as structural power, and the relationship of the law to this reality, that lies at the heart of the assault on affirmative action, and the prevailing legal thinking that puts substantive civil rights goals virtually out of reach.

Like many CRT scholars, Ford advances his argument with a thought experiment. He asks us to imagine a society with two groups—one black and one white—that are differentiated only by visible physical variation.  Because of a history of racial discrimination in Ford’s invented society, blacks earn significantly less income and own substantially less wealth in comparison to whites. Over the past thirty years or so, whites have come to understand the sin of racial discrimination and have abolished the legal structure that had formally maintained the system of discrimination. Moreover, the society installed a regime of public education on the subject of race and succeeded in eliminating race prejudice. This society, Ford asks us to accept, is color-blind. Ford’s exercise desires to prove fallacious the argument that, with de jure discrimination and race prejudice eliminated, the racial divide should, with time, disappear.

Before reform, Ford’s society had in place a system of racial segregation in which each of these municipalities consisted of two enclaves, black and white, or municipalities incorporated as white or black. These municipalities, decentralized and geographically defined governments, are political units that tax their citizens and use the revenues to provide public services, education, utilities, and infrastructure. “Thus,” Ford notes, “the now color-blind society confronts a situation of almost complete segregation of the races—a segregation that also fairly neatly tracks a class segregation.”  

In those municipalities that are “racially mixed,” even though public services are equally distributed among the neighborhood, whites have, because of their higher incomes, amassed more wealth, as larger homes, larger bank accounts, etc. The black-white cities would therefore have substantially inferior public services compared to exclusively white cities who would enjoy a higher average tax base (or would at least enjoy a lesser tax burden given same level of services). Exclusively black cities would be in the worst position of the three types of municipalities, with considerably inferior public services and/or higher relative taxes. 

Under such circumstances, whites in “mixed” cities would have an economic incentive to leave or secede from the city; and unincorporated white areas would also have a reason to resist being incorporated in the mixed cities. However, it seems a reasonable assumption that blacks would favor the superior public services (or lower tax burden) of white neighborhoods and would, if they had the means, move there. If this occurred, it might be assumed further that over time economic segregation would replace racial segregation. 

This outcome depends on a false assumption, namely that residential segregation has not economically hamstrung blacks. Residential segregation affects employment opportunities and economic status for three reasons. First, since education is financed by local taxes, there would be different levels of educational opportunity and outcome. Those who enjoyed superior educational facilities would be better trained for the higher income jobs. Second, informal social networks would be racially differentiated, and these would act as barriers against outsiders entering the privileged jobs sectors. Third, the market value of homes would present with marked inequity depriving black families of the collateral necessary to buy homes in white neighborhoods.

The history of residential segregation would have created (and would continue to generate) deficits in what some have imagined as “social capital.” As a result, blacks would have substantially lower incomes, earning lower wages and probably suffering higher levels of unemployment (given what would surely be an undercapitalized neighborhood). Given these disadvantages, poor blacks would be unable to move into privileged neighborhoods. On the other end, whites would understandably be reluctant to give up their privileges to relocate to black neighborhoods (for they would suffer inferior public services and higher taxes). The outcome would be, absent intervention, the reproduction across generations of economic inequity. “At some point an equilibrium might be achieved: generally better-connected and better-educated whites would secure the better, higher-income jobs and disadvantaged blacks would occupy the lower-status and lower-wage jobs.” 

One of the important features of Ford’s imaginary society is that these outcomes occur without the presence of racial prejudice or a racial ideology. “There is no racist actor or racist policy in this model, and yet a racially stratified society is the inevitable result.” On purely economic grounds, that is, those of rational self-interest, the structure of racial segregation perpetuates itself. This is what I refer to elsewhere as objective racism. It is objective because its existence does not depend on the consciousness of actors. It is a species of racism because the effect is to privilege one group of people over another, a group identifiable only by their previously racialized physical features. “Even in the absence of racism, then, race-neutral policy could be expected to entrench segregation and socioeconomic stratification in a society with a history of racism,” Ford writes. “Political space plays a central role in this process. Spatially and racially defined communities perform the ‘work’ of segregation silently.” 

Identity politics contents that blacks exist in a world that has all the features and dynamics of Ford’s model and more: the conscious struggle by whites to secure racial privilege by actively denying blacks the opportunity to achieve substantial racial equality by taking off the table the right to secure redress for racially differentiated outcomes. These outcomes are said by those who oppose substantive racial equality to either be the result of historical inequities or the fault of the disadvantaged. Those who advance the former believe that over time racial equality will be achieved. But, as Ford demonstrates, even under the most ideal circumstances, this is impossible and so this viewpoint effectively advocates the status quo. Those who advance the latter—that the fate blacks suffer is of their own doing—explicitly advocate the status quo while at the same time express a desire to absolve whites of any responsibility for the fate of their black brothers and sisters.

However, since this reframing means one no longer has to identify a specific perpetrator upon whom to lay guilt and responsibility (the old discrimination test), that is, since perpetration is an automatic collective action by virtue of being born into the perpetrator group, this formulation convicts everybody with a particular skin color of a crime. Individuals of a certain race are all guilty (or all victims) by definition. No specific facts need be shown, no individual need be tried, only statistical abstractions represented as prima facia evidence of some thing need to be provided (if any facts need providing at all). How can such a conclusion/verdict ever be falsified? It assumes as proven that which should require proof but is never proven nor provable. This is not rational. It’s a theological argument. And like theology, it alienates us from our species being. What do we call presuming the guilt of all those with a particular skin color?

Did you ever wonder why it seems that we can’t have a broad democratic community where individual interests are represented in deliberative decision-making processes? The answer is, in part, because racial consciousness, with offensive or defensive, doesn’t see individuals. Instead of our species ties, race consciousness sees the world as made up of antagonistic groups—not material class relations, I hasten to stress, but imagined communities based on ideology—that are intrinsically oppositional. Unlike class antagonism, which are resolved by transcending class-based system through socialist revolution, the problem of race does not have a material solution. At least not one any moral person would advocate. The only way to transcend race is to give it up. Like religion. You have to stop practicing it.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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