an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 8, January-February 2011, ISSN 1552-5112

 

 

 

Race and Racism After Anti-Racism[1]

 

Ben Pitcher

 

 

One believes that the meaning is going to die, but it is a death with reprieve; the meaning loses its value, but keeps its life, in which the form of the myth will draw its nourishment.[2]

 

There is a real problem facing anti-racism in our contemporary societies, but surprisingly it is one that anti-racist activists find hard to acknowledge, and even harder to do anything about. This is because it is a problem not to do with anti-racism’s failures, but rather its successes. As a direct result of the victories of anti-racism, all dominant social actors and institutions will now go out of their way to champion anti-racism. This is not to say those actors and institutions are necessarily sincere in espousing such ideas, but rather they have no real option but to do so. An anti-racist critique has shaped the terms of all contemporary race practice, determining in often very precise terms what can and cannot be said in any particular situation.

 

The Politics of Multiculturalism

In my book which focused on the British state under the New Labour government (1997-2010), I characterized this as the politics of multiculturalism.[3] While the term ‘multiculturalism’ is increasingly criticized by Britain’s mainstream political parties as they position it against nationalistic fantasies of cultural cohesiveness, it nevertheless still describes a political consensus. While they do not admit it, the political establishment continues to practice a multicultural politics. Not only do they nominally sign up to a pluralistic, ostensibly anti-racist agenda (even while they act in a racist and exclusionary fashion), they moreover actively engage ideas about anti-racism and cultural pluralism in the pursuit of a wide range of policy objectives. The politics of multiculturalism can therefore be thought of as immensely productive in the Foucauldian[4] sense: multiculturalism produces a framework of interpretation and understanding – it is a technology by which racialized groups are governed and managed, and through which all dominant forms of race discourse are produced and reproduced.

 

Rather than serving – as the scaremongering conservative argument has it – as a means of corroding or betraying the integrity of the nation-state, the politics of multiculturalism have actually served to consolidate and shore up its shaky foundations. When Paul Gilroy entitled his first book There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, he rightly recognized and named a certain limit to British race politics in the 1980s. In the twenty-first century, this title no longer rings quite true; that limit is no longer in existence, and it is in fact the transgression of that limit that is now exemplary. While the contemporary politics of nationalism continue to be racialized in all manner of ways, this racialization happens through, not against a multicultural politics. Today there definitively is black in the Union Jack, and as I have suggested the announcement and celebration of Britain’s cultural pluralism has provided an incredibly useful mechanism for the pursuit of a range of objectives that would have otherwise been entirely off-limits. Without a multicultural frame, the whole New Labour Britishness agenda – from its peculiar revisions of imperial history to the ideas of cultural citizenship promoted in citizenship tests and ceremonies – would have been politically impossible. Discourses of multicultural pluralism were in this case cleverly used to shape what was in fact a rather reactionary exclusionary nationalist agenda, and in so doing shored up that agenda by defending it against the charge of racism. In another register and realm of intervention, a multicultural communitarianism became a mechanism to reorganize the delivery of social welfare, incorporating a racialized conception of the ‘white working class’ as a beleaguered minority community. A multicultural politics also became expedient on an international stage, as the imperial adventurism of the War on Terror was justified by state actors on the basis of Britain’s racial inclusivity, turning on the distinction between a tolerant ‘us’ and intolerant ‘them’.

 

In short, because all positions taken in contemporary race politics are automatically channeled through this dominant discourse of anti-racism and cultural pluralism, the politics of multiculturalism has necessarily become the most significant contemporary site of racist (as well as anti-racist) practice. This is where anti-racist activism gets into difficulties, because much anti-racist thinking still assumes a clean and clear distinction between racists and anti-racists. While anti-racist activists readily acknowledge that the state, political parties, institutions and corporations may all ostensibly speak an anti-racist language while acting in the usual racist ways, activists tend to finds it harder to recognize that this shift has to a large extent undermined the terms of anti-racist critique.

 

Anti-racist subjects after hegemony

The fact that all dominant social actors now claim anti-racism as their own has important implications for the production of anti-racist subjects, for anti-racism’s move from the margins to the mainstream effectively dissolves the critical position that anti-racists once occupied. While anti-racist activists tend to view mainstreamed versions of anti-racism as inadequate or insincere – little more than whitewashing concessions with little real substance – this neglects the sense in which those concessions fundamentally change the entire field of race discourse.[5] What was once outside, and critical of, the dominant social consensus, has now been brought inside and contained within it.

 

I have suggested this can be usefully conceptualized as a problem of hegemony.[6] Dominant social actors and institutions have performed a very clever hegemonic manoeuvre in racial politics. Rather than maintain the increasingly difficult stance of insisting on opposition to anti-racism, they have conceded to its indisputable moral force. While the fact that this has happened is incontestably a good thing, it means that anti-racist activists have some catching up to do if they are not to remain stuck in a politically unhelpful struggle with an imaginary enemy. Anti-racism’s hegemony means that there is no longer a critical distance that can be opened up between anti-racists and their opponents, because while dominant social actors continue to act in racist ways, they invariably do so while espousing anti-racist beliefs. How do you oppose a racist practice when it is conducted in the name of anti-racism? How do you challenge racism when your adversaries fall over themselves to agree with you? How do you go about reappropriating critical resources that have been ‘stolen’ from you and used against you?

 

Against a possessive model of anti-racism

It is my suggestion that while these questions are keenly felt by anti-racist activists, there is no turning back to a simpler time when it was perhaps possible to make that straightforward distinction between the ‘racists’ and the ‘anti-racists’, for we are all anti-racists now. Central to the anti-racist activist imaginary is the idea that anti-racism is an entity that ‘belongs’ to its activists – that it is something they possess and are at liberty to arbitrate over. It is an idea of the political modeled on something like copyright, where social actors can be taken to task for not ‘doing’ anti-racism in the approved fashion. Though we may sometimes wish this were the case, it is unfortunately not how the ethics of the public sphere actually work. In truth, there is no such conditionality. Anti-racism cannot ‘belong’ to anyone. The hegemony of anti-racism, paradoxically, makes the job of anti-racist activists a harder one, but the objective here must clearly be not to destroy that hegemony (and somehow persuade dominant social actors to admit their disingenuousness by ‘coming out’ as bona fide racists), but rather to strengthen and deepen it.

 

The first objective of anti-racism was to make itself hegemonic – to impose itself as the dominant racial discourse of our societies. The second objective – and the task that faces us today – is to find ways of making that hegemony ‘work’ and deliver on its promises. This might seem like a particularly difficult undertaking given what in certain respects feels like the deradicalization of a movement that began in the streets and has ended up being written into corporate mission statements. The character of anti-racism has certainly been modified by its popularity and the specific terms of its adoption, and it would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that there are significant losses and disappointments to be registered here.[7] In some respects the anti-racist struggle might be said to lack something of dynamism that once characterized it, but it would be childishly counterproductive to give up on anti-racist hegemony as soiled goods. Indeed, it would effectively be an argument to return anti-racism to the ghetto.

 

Anti-racism after Obama

The election of Obama to the U.S. presidency brought into a clear focus some of the problems attendant to anti-racist hegemony.[8] Manning Marable has used the idea of a ‘post-black politics’ to describe a relatively new cadre of African-American politicians – of whom Obama is the leading example – whose popularity (and hence electability) has depended on the way they have broken with the more explicitly radical black politics of the civil rights generation.[9] Many black activists, implicitly following the possessive model of anti-racism I have just called into question, feel justified in charging Obama with having ‘sold out’ their struggle.

 

My argument is not that this criticism of post-black politics is illegitimate – there are – as with anti-racism more generally – certainly losses to acknowledge here. What is problematic is the assertion that so often accompanies it: that post-black politics and the Obama election represent a superficial, surface change in U.S. race politics, beneath which there persists an underlying continuity of more-of-the-same. Nothing, I would suggest, could actually be further from the truth. The idea of a black President historically signified the supreme moment of racial transcendence: the end point of anti-racist struggle. While the fact of a black President necessarily falls short of this dream, it nevertheless totally reconfigures the meaning of black politics in the U.S., for in the figure of Obama, blackness has now shifted decidedly centre-stage. To be black in America was once by definition to occupy an outsider position: the simple fact of blackness necessarily embodied a form of oppositionality to dominant social norms. In the figure of Obama the historic valency of blackness has been inverted, and now in a very real sense it serves as an expression of those norms. Of course racism still exists and needs to be challenged as vociferously as it ever did, but the claim to a critical, outsider status and the implication of exclusion per se from power and privilege are no longer positions that are as available to black activists as they once were. Obama’s victory thus simultaneously represents both the triumph and undermining of existing models of practice: this is just one of the challenges that characterizes the politics of race and racism after anti-racism.

 

              

an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 8, January-February 2011, ISSN 1552-5112

 

 

Notes



[1] A version of this paper was originally given at Postcolonial Ethnicity, Visuality and Cultural Politics Conference, Cardiff University, February 2009.

[2] Roland Barthes Mythologies (London: Vintage, 1993), 118.

[3] Ben Pitcher, The Politics of Multiculturalism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[4] Michel Foucault in Paul Rabinow (ed.) The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 204.

[5] It also neglects to entertain the possibility that the putative anti-racist commitments of dominant social actors might be genuinely held, however inadequately they might find expression.

[6] For a longer version of this argument, see Ben Pitcher, ‘Radical subjects after hegemony’, Subjectivity, 4 (1), 2011. 

[7] ‘No sooner has a form been objectified than it seems in some measure constricting or inappropriate to the vital process which called it into being’, Donald N. Levine in Georg Simmel On Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), xxxvi.

[8] For a longer version of this argument, see Ben Pitcher ‘Obama and the Politics of Blackness: anti-racism in the “post-black” conjuncture’, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society, 12 (4). 2010.

[9] Manning Marable ‘Racializing Obama: The Enigma of Post-Black Politics and Leadership’, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society, 11 (1). 2009.