Racism and Cultural Studies: Critiques of Multiculturalist Ideology and the Politics of Difference

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In Racism and Cultural Studies E. San Juan Jr. offers a historical-materialist critique of practices in multiculturalism and cultural studies. Rejecting contemporary theories of inclusion as affirmations of the capitalist status quo, San Juan envisions a future of politically equal and economically empowered citizens through the democratization of power and the socialization of property. Calling U.S. nationalism the new “opium of the masses,” he argues that U.S. nationalism is where racist ideas and practices are formed, refined, and reproduced as common sense and consensus.
Individual chapters engage the themes of ethnicity versus racism, gender inequality, sexuality, and the politics of identity configured with the discourse of postcoloniality and postmodernism. Questions of institutional racism, social justice, democratization, and international power relations between the center and the periphery are explored and analyzed. San Juan fashions a critique of dominant disciplinary approaches in the humanities and social sciences and contends that “the racism question” functions as a catalyst and point of departure for cultural critiques based on a radical democratic vision. He also asks urgent questions regarding globalization and the future of socialist transformation of “third world” peoples and others who face oppression.
As one of the most notable cultural theorists in the United States today, San Juan presents a provocative challenge to the academy and other disciplinary institutions. His intervention will surely compel the attention of all engaged in intellectual exchanges where race/ethnicity serves as an urgent focus of concern.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“An important, stringent critique of the hegemonic versions of multiculturalism touted in both popular and academic spheres. San Juan provides a new reality to contend with—a new version of the present, one in which erased histories of racism, oppression, exploitation, and the struggle of marginalized groups are restored.”—Neferti X. M. Tadiar, University of California, Santa Cruz

“An invigorating analysis and soul-searching critique of contemporary controversies regarding multiculturalism and the centrality of race/culture/class in confronting politics of difference. San Juan casts a wide net, but he handles the workings and intricacies of contemporary politics regarding nationalism, immigration, and revolutionary struggle with much deftness, insightful grounding, and energy.”—Rick Bonus, University of Washington

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822328667
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 3/28/2002
  • Series: New Americanists Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 440
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

E. San Juan Jr. is a Fellow at the Center for the Humanities, Wesleyan University. He was recently chair of the Department of Comparative American Cultures, Washington State University and visiting professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Trento (Italy) and Tamkang University (Taiwan). Among his recent books are Beyond Postcolonial Theory; From Exile to Diaspora: The Filipino Experience in the United States; Hegemony and Strategies of Transgression; and After Postcolonialism, winner of the 2001 Gustavus Myers Human Rights Center Outstanding Book Award.

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Read an Excerpt

Racism and cultural studies

Critiques of multiculturalist ideology and the politics of difference
By E. San Juan

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2866-6

Chapter One

"Can We Get Along?"

Racial Politics and Institutional Racism

From the moment this continent was colonized, racism has been fundamental to this country's functioning on every level. To this day, racism is systematically institutionalized in every aspect of the United States' political, economic, and social life.-Barbara Smith, The Truth That Never Hurts

For many people, goodness is expressed ... by wearing golden crosses around their necks, while ignoring the burning crosses of racism.... They do not confront the evils of oppression, the evils of poverty, of exploitation, or political repression. They think of themselves as moral, but never examine the inequities and the injustices of this world, nor do they condemn the inhumane system that perpetuates those injustices, trampling on the lives of so many people in the process.-Assata Shakur, statement honoring Marilyn Buck, political prisoner in California

"Can we get along?" The pathos of Rodney King's televised comment while the fires were raging in Los Angeles in May 1992 underscores the centrality of racial conflict in the constitution of a stratified and class-hierarchized social order such as the present United States of America. At the outset I need to recapitulate here the cardinalpremise of this work by recalling Charles Mills's thesis of the United States as a racial polity. There is nothing new in this assertion, but its utterance in times of crisis is bound to scandalize the "gatekeepers" of the "American Way of Life." Euro-American "common culture" is unthinkable without its victims and their putative uncommoness. Absent in the philosophical discourse of the mainstream contemporary philosophers (Rawls, Walzer, Rorty) is the idea that the massive racial exclusions in the U.S. social contract that founded the nation-state-expropriation of aboriginal lands from the Native Americans, African slavery, conquest of Mexican territory and peoples, massacre of Chinese workers, internment of Japanese Americans, and so on-all testify to the foundational significance of racial antagonism between the European settlers and people of color. This racial divide constitutes "a form of stratification built into the structure of U.S. society" as a Herrenvolk democracy (Mills 1999, 25; van den Berghe 1978). It organizes the division of labor and allocation of property, together with the unequal distribution of material resources on which differential power relations depend. Racism, not individual prejudice or ethnic discrimination, underpins the social and political network of hierarchical institutions in the whole society.

White supremacy legitimizes sociopolitical inequality. It is, for Mills, "the ideological correlate of a fundamental organizing principle of the modern Euro-implanted social order," the mythical social contract that governs the "construction of the self, civic identity, significant sociopolitical actors, systemic structural privilege and subordination, racial economic exploitation, or state protection" (1999, 27). White supremacy legitimizes the differential entitlements, the system of advantage and disadvantage, the "wages of whiteness" (Roediger 1991; Lipsitz 1998). Mills elaborates, "The liberal-democratic Rechstaat of an ideal Lockean or Kantian liberalism, acting to protect the property and rights of its abstract citizens, functions here as the racial state, acting to protect differential white entitlement" (1999, 30). This social ontology is of course built on a pseudobiological fiction; nonetheless, the racializing of interests and group identity endows the fiction with verisimilitude. Critical race theory has reinforced Mills's proposition, with Richard Delgado claiming that "racism is normal, not aberrant, in American society" (1995, XIV). Patricia Williams concurs with her observation that "Blacks and women are the objects of a constitutional omission that has been incorporated into a theory of rationality.... It is the fixed, reiterated prophesy of the Founding Fathers" (1995, 121).

This thesis of the United States as a racial polity is certainly a heretical riposte to the prevailing consensual doxa of the United States as a democratic, egalitarian polity. It is anathema to liberal experts on "race matters" from Oscar Handlin to Thomas Sowell. Reviewing Oliver Cox's formidable treatise Race, Class and Caste, Handlin denounced its Marxist framework and explained race prejudice as an outgrowth of beliefs and "innermost emotions" (1957, 53). Sowell for his part censured those who used "ideologically defined vocabulary" because "mere tendentious words" obscured the empirical issues (1994, 155). In the discourse of neoliberal apologists, ethnicity absorbed race into a paradigm that dissolved the "racial divide" into psychological attitudes and ill-informed behavior amenable to educational therapy (see chapter 4). In 1967 Ronald Segal still could write about "mounting guerilla warfare of race" based on fear. Thirty years later, a college textbook on ethnic groups concluded that while "cultural pluralism" has not completely prevailed, "white racism has lessened" (Dinnerstein, Nicols, and Reimer 1996, 343). Cognizant of the ongoing debate on whether the use of the term race aids in promoting racism or not, Lucius Outlaw Jr. reminds us that for the last twenty years, "race has been the primary vehicle for conceptualizing and organizing precisely around group differences with the demand that social justice be applied to groups and that justice be measured by results, not just by opportunities" (1990, 60)-this hard precept of institutional racism, won by the civil rights movement, still encounters resistance, as witness Will Kymlicka's uphill battle to prove that normative liberalism can acknowledge national/ collective identities and that "group-specific rights can promote equality between minority and majority" (1997, 246). The only problem is that without a thoroughgoing overhaul of the social division of labor and legally sanctioned property relations sedimented in state and civil society, any claim to achieving genuine equality will remain a hypocritical formality. That is, in fact, what official multiculturalism today has succeeded in doing without knowing it.

Recent events, however, have revised the terms of group identity and differentiation. Now the conflict is to be conceived no longer between black and white as before, no longer construed in fact as racial. What preoccupies the ruling bloc (the monopoly elite and their representatives) is the task of displacing flagrant class conflicts and subsuming them into a new hegemonic, reactionary project, one that recuperates an old model of the United States as a nation of assimilated immigrants geared for what some observers (Harvey 1989) have called a "disorganized," more flexible mode of twenty-first century global capitalism. Still underpinned by the ethos, if not logic, of white supremacy, the racial polity has been reconfigured on the basis of posited cultural differences and ethnic particularisms (Mills 1999; Bonilla-Silva 1999).

What animates the refurbished agenda of resurgent racism at the beginning of the millennium is nothing new: it recycles a nostalgic invocation of the "good old days" of consensual peace and togetherness. A typical Establishment opinion instanced by Tom Morgenthau in Newsweek (18 May 1992) dusts off from the obscurantist archive a fin de siecle culinary relic:

The devastated hopes of L.A.'s Korean-immigrant community, meanwhile, are a powerful reminder that the nation is rapidly moving toward a multiethnic future in which Asians, Hispanics, Caribbean islanders and many other immigrant groups compose a diverse and changing social mosaic that cannot be described by the old vocabulary of race relations in America. The race crisis of the 1960s has been subsumed by the tensions and opportunities of the new melting pot: the terms "black" and "white" no longer depict the American social reality.... Like it or not, we Americans are a hyphenated, intermarrying and increasingly blended people-and we are likely to become both more diverse, and more nearly like each other, as time goes by.

A meliorist gradualism is invoked here to bless the mixing and domestication of the multitudes for a program to resurrect a mythical homogenizing, if not homogeneous, polity. Morgenthau proposes the classic fundamentalist solution: "We now believe government must teach the values of work, thrift, marriage and personal responsibility to millions of resisting subjects ... and the new gospel of family values and personal responsibility" is needed to revive the myth of the American "dream of success." Politics is once again mystified by the aesthetic aura of American exceptionalism, that is, the final resolution of class antagonisms that plagued the ethnic homelands of the old world.

New Frontier Assimilationism

Ever since the days of Hector St. John Crevecoeur and Alexis de Tocqueville, the quest for defining the essence of "the American" has been motivated by the "specter" of Europe's class-ridden social formations. Today, despite the demise of Soviet-style communism, the same specter compels the elite to resuscitate an ideal or trope of the American nation as united, democratic, egalitarian, harmonious. Conflated with this strategy of recuperation is a rhetoric of divide et impera-divide and rule-that draws its power not only from traditional nativism and ethnocentrism but also from an artificial notion of authentic American-ness. This contrived authenticity is equated with individual liberty and worldly success via diligent work and self-reliant discipline. The paradigm of laissez-faire democracy pivots around personal liberty that guarantees social equilibrium and functional integration. In the Cold War sixties, Seymour M. Lipset (1960, 1963) theorized the uniquely American ethos as centered in the norms of equalitarianism (equal opportunity) and achievement ("ethic of hard work"). National identity and consensus are therefore concretely realized through the effects of inequality and difference, just as consumerism is thought to expunge the incommensurable heterogeneity between North and South in globalized capitalism.

In the last twenty years, especially during the Reagan-Bush administrations, the profound disparity of wealth and power between the elite and the working people has seriously destabilized the national consensus. Just to cite a telltale index: real wages of the majority of Americans in the period 1970-1990 fell by a total of about 19 percent, a decline only exceeded in the nineties (Chasin 1998). To insure the preservation of hierarchy and undisturbed accumulation of capital, it became necessary to rearticulate markers of cultural plurality along the axis of equivalence, dissolving alterity into the sameness of a singular American mold. Despite or because of this monolithic model, a plausible mode of diversity, however, has to be preserved. A populist strategy of displacing class contradictions by foregrounding ethnic antagonisms is deployed by media publicists and religious propagandists of "white popular wisdom." One example of this is the work of Charles Murray of the conservative American Enterprise Institute who writes in Newsweek (11 May 1992, 50): "When blacks say they've suffered years of neglect, a lot of whites are looking at pictures on TV of black looters taking things from stores as a disconsolate Asian sits by and watches his life's work go down the drain. They're saying, "How is it that this Asian guy, who we've not done one damn thing for in terms of social programs, how come he doesn't deserve our sympathy instead of the looters?" Unless blacks come to grips with that reaction, we're never going to get anywhere." Unfortunately, Murray's white spectators may not be really sympathetic to the Korean merchants-are they really perceived as struggling and suffering persons?-whose long immigrant history of discrimination and ostracism cannot be divorced from the anticommunist crusade of the Korean War of the fifties, U.S. neocolonial domination of South Korea, and the U.S. public's attitude toward Asians in general (see chapter 3). This attitude has been colored by World War II, anti-Chinese propaganda, and the defeat of the United States in Vietnam. The war against Japan that culminated in the first use of nuclear bombs also led to the incarceration of 110,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. In 1982, a Chinese American, Vincent Chin, was killed by two Detroit autoworkers who were virtually exonerated by the courts despite public outcry. The victim was mistaken for a Japanese in the context of a nationwide campaign of scapegoating Japan's economic success as the chief cause of unemployment in the United States.

What is the lesson here? The complex history of U.S. imperialism is flattened by the media tactic of valorizing the "instant knowledge" afforded by simplified TV spectacles. What the media has done in the case of the Los Angeles revolt is to displace the anger (triggered by the verdict of police acquittal in the Rodney King trial) of the African American and Latino communities toward police brutality and decades of neglect and exploitation by zooming in on the plight of Korean storeowners and the Latasha Harlins incident (a fifteen-year-old girl was shot by Korean grocer Du Soon Ja, for which she was fined $500 and some community service). Is it Koreans or African Americans who constitute a social "disease" that needs to be quarantined? The racializing phantasm of segregation revolves around an implied American identity grasped only when stigmata of Otherness (once biological but now sociological and cultural) are shifted in accord with conservative and national-chauvinist political agendas.

Racism in the United States has metamorphosed, with new forms sublimating old elements in response to altered modalities of labor exploitation and status stratification. Here is Albert Memmi's definition of racism: racism is "a generalizing definition and valuation of biological differences, whether real or imaginary, to the advantage of the one defining and deploying them, and to the detriment of the one subjected to that act of definition, to the end of justifying (social or physical) hostility and assault" (2000, 184). This abstract definition needs to be fleshed out in varying concrete situations. Robert Miles has urged that the interpolation of racialization and racism needs to be historically contextualized and framed by the "analysis of the general political process of nation-state formation and reproduction and its interrelation with the process of capitalist development" (1989, 130).

Consequently, we need to anatomize the "physiognomy" of U.S. racism with a historical-materialist organon in order to combat it effectively. In addition to keeping track of the historical context, the cultural subtext, and the ideological pretext-terms suggested by Michael Dyson (1997), we need the transformationist approach propounded by Manning Marable. Marable insists that class-the basic power structure and ownership patterns-is central to the theoretical and programmatic critique of the U.S. racial polity: the diversity of ethnicities in the urban United States today "should help us to recognize the basic common dynamics of class undergirding the economic and social environment of struggle for everyone" (1995, 85; see also Goldfield 1997). The historical-materialist approach of Miles and Marable is, however, a minority trend in a predominantly neoconservative academy.

Another obstacle to comprehending adequately the nature of U.S. racism is the surface complexity of "civil society" that hides its racializing dynamic. Sociological wisdom fails to comprehend the constitution of a racial polity by the "combined forces of atheism, determinism, individualism, democracy and egalitarianism" (Guillaumin 1995). The creation of inferiorized Others by the seeming diktat of nature now legitimates the bourgeoisie's conquest of power. Bourgeois civil society harbors a fatal flaw, according to sociologist Jeffrey Alexander; liberty is defined in a discourse that legitimates friends and delegitimates enemies: "The discourse of repression is inherent in the discourse of liberty" (1992, 299). Adhering to the classic civil society/state bifurcation, Ronald Jacobs concludes his analysis of the Rodney King episode by defining the discourse of U.S. civil society as comprised of "contestatory and tragic discourses" (those protesting racial violence by the police) competing for interpretive authority with a utopian discourse of inclusion, "idealized and romantic sources" that resemble the "cosmopolitan" pluralism of Randolph Bourne (1998, 152). The racial discourse of civil society, then, will always be ambivalent, torn by irresolvable antinomies, paralyzed in schizophrenic fragmentation.


Excerpted from Racism and cultural studies by E. San Juan Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1. "Can't We Get Along?" Racial Politics and Institutional Racism
2. Performing Race: Articulations of Gender, Sexuality, and Nationalism
3. Allegories of Asian American Experience
4. Ethnicity and the Political Economy of Difference
5. "Culture Wars" Revisited
6. Questioning Contemporary Cultural Studies
7. Postcolonial Criticism and the Vicissitudes of Uneven Development
8. For a Permanent Cultural Revolution: From Raymond Williams to Frantz Fanon
Works Cited

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