Comparative Race, Comparative Racisms
In an article entitled, "Top Colleges Take More Blacks, but Which Ones?" the New York Times reported in June of 2004 on an increasing discomfort among some leaders in ethnic studies about the overly generalized racial categories used in affirmative action policies. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is quoted expressing concern about the fact that many of the black students accepted to Harvard are not of U.S. origin but come from the Caribbean or Africa. Mary C. Waters, the chair of Harvard's Sociology Department and author of the influential books Black Identities and Ethnic Options, is quoted as saying "If it's about getting black faces at Harvard, then you're doing fine. If it's about making up for 200 to 500 years of slavery in this country and its aftermath, then you're not doing well."1
The controversial essayist Richard Rodriguez registers a similar complaint about the broad brush strokes of U.S. census categories, which are listed as "Black, White, Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American/Eskimo, and Hispanic." He imagines each category as a "drafty room" in which "statisticians in overalls" move India "over beneath the green silk tent of Asia" and direct "Mayan Indians from the Yucatan...to the Hispanic pavilion," which is styled in Spanish Colonial. Here, he says, the Mayans must share quarters with "Argentine Tangoistas...and Russian Jews who remember Cuba from the viewpoint of Miami."2 The existing census categories, Rodriguez seems to be suggesting, are incapable of doing justice to the ethnic, linguistic, cultural, political, and experiential differences that are lumped together within these broad identity groupings.
There are two interestingly similar questions being raised here by Gates, Waters and Rodriguez. The first question, which is raised in regard to African American and black identity, asks whether ethnicity makes a difference within the racial category of blackness, and, if so, what kind of difference it makes. The second question, which is raised in regard to Latino identity, asks whether race makes a difference within ethnic categories, in particular the ethnic category of "Hispanic" or "Latino", and if so, what kind of difference it makes. Thus both questions raise the issue of difference within a category, either racial difference within an ethnicity, or ethnic difference within a race.
Each of these questions (or sets of questions) indicate two further, and two different, types of concerns. One concern is about social ontology, and asks how adequate a description can be that uses such wide and amorphous classifications. The second concern is moral and political, and asks whether the differences that these classifications skip over are in fact morally and politically significant, especially in the application of laws meant to redress past injustice and/or bring about future equality. Pressing the question of difference within a category might be motivated by either ontological or moral or, what is most likely, both types of considerations.
Of course, one might ask whether the law is a fine enough instrument to be able to parse out such distinctions as might be necessary if we want to achieve more ontological adequacy and moral fairness. The law seems more like a blunt instrument, handy and dangerous in equal measure.
In this paper I will leave to my betters in moral and political philosophy the discussion of policy and legal matters, and address the two questions about the social ontology and moral significance of differences within racial and ethnic categories as general ontological questions rather than as policy questions. In philosophy, of course, unlike in law, social ontology can be practiced with as fine a set of distinctions as we have the patience to develop, but, in my view, it should ideally be practiced in such a way that our aim is higher than mere accuracy; rather, our ultimate aim in doing social ontology should be to establish useful distinctions that are connected to common linguistic and cultural practices and that might elucidate our political realities and moral responsibilities. This means that going back to Leibniz's definition of identity as indiscernibility is not terribly useful in getting at the problems we have with identity concepts today, or, arguably, with identity concepts as they occur in ordinary languages at any time (there are exceptions, of course). Further, I would argue that the questions of social ontology and moral significance—although they are conceptually distinct questions—cannot be completely disentangled, given the normative implications that follow from our formulation of the ontological tasks before us. How hard we will want to work the distinctions of social ontology, for example, will mostly depend on their moral implications.
Let me make one further preparatory note: I am going to approach the ontological questions primarily through considerations of sociological positionality and political practice, which is something philosophers rarely do and requires some explanation. I believe we can discern the contours of our present day social ontologies precisely through this lens of empirical based practical analysis and sociological ethnographies.3 Given that ethnicity and race only figure as social kinds of entities, I suggest that we can learn about what they are from how they operate in communities and what effects they have on practice. In other words, given that their only locus of existence is the social realm, which includes practices, structures, and beliefs, we must look to find them here, and not in an imagined pre-social realm through intuition or conceptual analysis.4 Empirical based analysis may not yield an exhaustive or completely adequate account, but it is indispensable in order to draw out important aspects of the social ontology of race, ethnicity, and their interrelations.
I will not take up here the general ontological questions about whether "race" or "ethnicity" are legitimate or meaningful categories, since I have addressed each of these questions in previously published work.5 For the purposes of this paper, I will take race to be a very real aspect of social identity, one that is marked on the body through learned perceptual practices of visual categorization, with significant sociological and political effects as well as a psychological impact on self-formation. All of this is true despite the fact that race is a historically variable phenomenon and subject to change. But changing the meanings of race is not susceptible to individual agency, only collective. (An individual might try to surgically alter their appearance, but this in itself does nothing to alter racialized categories, and probably simply reinforces their power). In contrast to race, I will take ethnic terms as principally referring to groups that are demarcated by historical events, cultural practices, and structural formations, rather than by the phenomenological experience of identities that are marked on the body. Ethnic terms signify a group's relationship to historical experiences and cultural practices, and they are indicated more by practices than by physical appearance. Ethnic identities are "real" despite the fact that such narratives and practices are endlessly subject to reinterpretation and change. In my view, the narratives and practices that demarcate ethnic identities are not scripts we are forced to follow, as Anthony Appiah fears, but real historical events and structures with an impact on our lives, families, and communities, with which we each must grapple.6
I. Black racial identity and ethnic difference
Gates raises the issue of honesty, and this is often an important concern that people have for wanting to contest the currently available categories for self-identification. In the literature on multi-racial identity, for example, there are many first person accounts that argue that we need to allow for multi-racial categories because mono-racial categories require multi-raced people to be "dishonest" about their family genealogy, as well as their experience (or lack of experience) of discrimination.7 Exclusivist categories cannot express the experience or complex family allegiances of multi-racial people. The context of Gates' statement—his call for people to be honest—does not indicate whether his concern is about self-disclosure, or simply about honest discussions, but it is clear that what he wants us to be honest about is the variability of identity within the rough racial categories used, for example, in admissions. Those broad categories may conceal differences that make a morally and politically relevant difference, and he wants to have an honest discussion that names those differences.
The differences that Waters think make a relevant difference within blackness are spelled out in her statement that "If its about making up for 200 to 500 years of slavery in this country and its aftermath, then [our admissions policies] are not doing well." To make visible the distinction that she is alluding to here, we need to put the emphasis in her statement on the phrase "in this country." Slavery in the New World was not exclusive to the U.S., of course, nor have U.S. based institutions become enriched only by the enslavement that occurred exclusively on U.S. soil, but have also become enriched by slavery committed elsewhere. Nonetheless, the implication of Waters statement is that affirmative admission policies need to clarify whether they are aiming toward redressing slavery here, or redressing slavery against all people of the African diaspora, or attempting a future-oriented remedy for the ongoing onslaught of anti-black racism.
These distinctions bear on the types of arguments used to justify affirmative action, but they also bear on whether we are assuming a focus that encompasses black identity generally or only African American identity. The generic term "black," used today intentionally by many critical race theorists, such as Patricia Williams, Robert Gooding-Williams, Charles Mills, Lewis Gordon, and others, signifies a transnational grouping that crosses geographical and national boundaries but shares, at minimum, the obstacle of anti-black racism and the legacy of colonialism.8 So one way to understand this debate is that it concerns how we define what is the more salient feature of identity: being black, and thus being the target of anti-black racism, or being African American with a relation to a specific historical experience of U.S. slavery.
It would seem that only a backward looking justification for affirmative action that aims to redress U.S. slavery would be relevant for the distinction Waters is invoking. Forward looking justifications may not be as troubled by these distinctions within blackness, unless one can show that anti-black racism works differently for different ethnicities that share blackness. This idea—that ethnic difference can have an impact on anti-black racism, by perhaps diluting or softening it—is probably the key claim behind the concern Waters articulates, that is, that racism is not equally distributed across the various ethnicities in the African diaspora. That claim itself requires empirical study.
Sociologist Ramón Grosfoguel and historian Chloé S. Georas have analyzed the way in which Caribbean immigrants negotiate the racial categories of the U.S. after their arrival to the New York metropolitan area. Their study indicates how U.S. racial categories can erase the otherwise salient ethnic differences among people of color, but also how various ethnic identities can offset the impact of certain kinds of racisms. Thus, they show how the available categories of social identity can have real material effects. For example, they argue that
"In many instances the racism experienced by Afro-Puerto Ricans is more profound than that experienced by lighter Puerto Ricans. However, no matter how 'blonde or blue-eyed' a person may be, [and no matter how successfully he can 'pass' as white], the moment that person self-identifies as Puerto Rican, he enters the labyrinth of racial Otherness [in which] Puerto Ricans of all colors have become a racialized group in the imaginary of white Americans, whose racist stereotypes cause them to see Puerto Ricans as lazy, violent, stupid, and dirty.Although Puerto Ricans form a phenotypically variable group, they have become a new 'race' in the United States. This highlights the social rather than biological character of racial classifications."9
Their claim here is that the ethnic (or national) category "Puerto Rican" has become racialized in the sense that it has come to signify shared essential and inherent traits. Certain negative traits are essentialized across the identity category of "Puerto Rican" in the same way that so-called "racial traits" are essentialized across racial groups. Based on this kind of example, some theorists today are developing combinatory ethno-racial concepts, to signify this slippery overlap between racial, ethnic, and cultural identity categories. To understand how ethnic traits can be essentialized as permanent traits and dispositions one needs recourse to a concept like race. How else could the concept of ethnicity, defined as a cultural rather than biological grouping, be viewed as the grounding for innate traits, unless some biology-like notion of race is operating as a kind of "stealth" foundation for the identity? The category "Puerto Rican" is a classic case of an identity with both racial and ethnic meanings, where the racial meanings—the racist negative attributions—extend beyond similarities of skin color.
There are many such examples of stealth racial arguments, from the "culture of poverty" as an explanatory thesis for the persistence of African-American poverty, to Samuel Huntington's hysteria about the impact Latino, and in particular Mexican, immigration is having on Anglo-Saxon values. Huntington's argument is that Latinos must assimilate—linguistically, culturally, and politically—to Anglo-Saxon culture or democratic values will be in jeopardy. Ominously, he declares that the continuation of Mexican immigration represents "a major potential threat to the cultural and possibly political integrity of the United States."10 "There is no Americano dream," he claims, "There is only the American dream created by Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English."11
Consider the metaphysical assumptions embedded in Huntington's claim that Latinos cannot remain Latinos in any meaningful sense and uphold democratic values, the rule of law, or a work ethic, all of which he defines as antithetical to Latino cultures.12 The category of Latino is thus operating much less like an ethnicity for him and more like a race, with intractable tendencies and dispositions. Mexican identity is so deeply different, even antithetical, to Anglo-Protestant identity that Mexican's must lose their Mexican identity in order to accept and live by the values Huntington attributes to Anglo-Protestant culture, what he calls the "American creed." He does not imagine the possibility of Mexican identity itself adapting and changing (even if we were to accept his premise that it needs to). Such intractability is a hallmark of the concept of race.
Huntington is out to civilize us, and perhaps we should be grateful that he thinks it is at all possible, but it is at the price of self-erasure and historical amnesia. Huntington's proposal is to educate U.S. Latinos in the same manner as Fanon described his own education in French colonial Martinique, where through the inculcation of French language, history, culture and literature, to the exclusion of anything else, the Martinican was made into a sort of "second best" Frenchman. In the colonies there was no place for an unassimilated or independent Martinican identity, and yet the irony was that a black Martinican could never fully assimilate and so remained peripheral, imitative rather than authentic, and therefore suspect. The end result, as Fanon explains, is that "the educated Negro suddenly discovers that he is rejected by a civilization which he has none the less assimilated."13
In all of the cases just discussed—Fanon, Huntington, Grosfoguel and Georas—ethnicity and race mingle. The lesson of Fanon is that French ethnicity is essentially white and cannot be black. The lesson of Huntington is that Mexican ethnicity is really a race: it is unchangeable and has set features that have to be left behind because they cannot be reformed. Both of these lessons support the claim of Grosfoguel and Georas that at least some ethnic categories are racialized, subjecting all members of the group to racial essentialism.
What does this merger of race and ethnicity indicate in regard to our two questions about the social ontology and moral significance of differences within racial and ethnic categories? It suggests, oddly, that some ethnicities experience racism. This would mean that the difference that ethnicity makes within a race (as in Afro-Puerto Rican or Jamaican) may not always remove or decrease racism because racism is attached to the ethnicity itself. Such a locution requires an account of racism that would not make all racism supervenient on anti-black racism, but that would understand racism as the idea that essentialized traits are traceable to a variety of physical features or to genealogical origin.14 Two important caveats here: not all Latino ethnicities, obviously, are racialized in the way that "Puerto Ricans" are in New York, and it is also obvious that Afro-Puerto Ricans must experience a multiple onslaught of anti-black racism in combination with this specific anti-Puerto Rican racism.
Further, the merging of race and ethnicity (of which I give more examples in chapter 10 of Visible Identities: Race, Gender and the Self), suggests that we should seek the operative meaning of identity terms, and not simply their conceptual or abstract meaning. That is, although "Puerto Rican" is a nationality and an ethnic term of identity, operationally, it signifies race in a way that is not the case for all other ethnic terms, such as "French" or "Danish." Part of the causal story behind this operational tie to race may be traced to the history of terms such as "culture" and "people," terms that stood in for what we think of as ethnicities today but which were demarcated as genealogical groups in the past with common ancestors and a common geographical location and common traits. Thus, before the biological conception of race emerged (some say, with Kant) with an explanation of the intractability of traits, cultural identity groups carried the weight of these claims of inherence.
Now let me return to the Grosfoguel and Georas study for a different, and what might seem, an opposing argument. Their study also looked at the relations between Jamaicans and African Americans in New York, which were initially very close: they lived in proximate neighborhoods and Jamaican immigrants relied at first on "African American social networks for job opportunities..."15 Yet ultimately Jamaicans avoided the "labor market marginalization of African Americans" and "were successfully incorporated into the host labor market in well-paid public and private service jobs...[and] are currently portrayed by the white establishment in New York as a model minority."16 Such success was made possible by the fact that the post-1965 immigration from Jamaica generally came from a "more educated and skilled" sector of the population, including "professionals, managers, secretaries, administrative personnel, and skilled workers..."17 Their accent also provided a distinguishing mark giving them some distance from "the negative symbolic capital of African Americans."18 Grosfoguel and Georas thus argue overall that, "The Jamaican's community's strategy was to emphasize ethnic over racial identity. The fact that Jamaicans were not subsumed under the categorization 'African American' avoided offsetting the positive impact of their skilled background."19
Here we have a different lesson about difference: that ethnic differences can help some groups to alter their class or labor market position and to offset anti-black racism. Perhaps Jamaican ethnicity is still being racialized, but in a different way than non-Caribbean African-Americans are racialized.
Of course, the empirical studies of Grosfoguel and Georas that I've cited (which are only a small part of their larger empirical work) are meant to be more illustrative than conclusive. How far can we generalize from the case of Jamaicans in post-1965 New York? Certainly, their success in altering their class position in New York may not be replicable in every part of the country, say, just to make a wild guess, Mississippi. This would again need empirical study, but in some contexts anti-black racism may simply trump every other group or individual feature. Also what is clearly important in this case study is the class status of this particular immigrant generation, without which the difference of accent alone may well have been insufficient to maintain an ethnic distinction in the eyes of white or non-black employers. But what can be claimed from this study is that some black non African-Americans are able to develop and maintain a distinct identity at least in some contexts, thus making it possible for them to be generalized (or essentialized) differently, for example, as having a higher skill level or a different "work ethic." In this way they might be able to temper their experience of anti-black racism.
I believe that it is also important that black non-African Americans do not figuratively invoke by their very presence the history of US slavery, which can elicit a host of white guilt and shame responses to the memory of this lengthy state sponsored mass atrocity that has obvious after-effects in the economic position of African Americans today.20 Fanon argued that such guilt responses to the reminder of mistreatment often lead to racism as a psychic strategy to assuage and absolve guilt. So for this reason, also, a reason that has nothing to do with the intentional choices or practices of any immigrant group, black non-African-Americans may experience reduced reactions of racist hysteria.
I want to underscore the contingency of this lesson about the differences that ethnicity can make, and acknowledge that sometimes, as the Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima cases painfully illustrate, such ethnic differences make no difference at all. (The Wen Ho Lee case is another interesting case to study, because there racialization trumped education, cultural assimilation, and class21).
So I have at this point provided both confirmation and complication of the claims that ethnicity makes a difference within a race and that race makes a difference within an ethnicity. Grosfoguel and Georas show both that ethnicity can offset or at least alter the form of some racisms, though their study would indicate that ethnicity alone may be insufficient to accomplish this unless class and education advantages are also present. But their work also complicates the very distinction we might make between ethnicity and race, showing how ethnicities can also become nearly indistinguishable from race.
The only general conclusion we can make at this point is that even further fine-tuning of our social ontologies will need to be made if we want to get to the morally and politically significant differences. In other words, ethnic differences within a given race may or may not make morally significant political differences in the amount of racism a group is subjected to, depending on the presence or absence of other factors. Having an ethnic identity itself, then, does not necessarily mean that one has escaped racialization. Black non-African Americans may escape the extremities of anti-black racism, or they may face specific forms of it that are just as extreme, such as anti-Puerto Rican racism in combination with anti-black racism. To identify morally and politically significant differences within a racial group, such as differences that would impact racism and social discrimination, the presence of the category of ethnicity by itself is insufficient.
II. Differences and Solidarities
I will take up the complicated relationship between ethnicity and race again in the final section of this paper through an analysis of Richard Rodriguez's concept of "brown." But first, I want to explore the issue of cross-ethnic and cross-racial relations further by approaching it from a different direction, a direction from which we might discern some practical solutions.
In a small and non-random discussion with union organizers and leaders, I was given the following picture of organizing and contract negotiating among a wide racial and ethnic range of health care workers across the state of New Jersey, involving primarily hospitals and nursing homes.22 In many workplaces, as well as in larger public domains, there exist what seasoned organizers call 'communities of solidarity.' These communities of solidarity share a high level of trust among members, a sense of what political scientists call 'linked fate,' and a more or less well defined common political agenda. Communities of solidarity may engender, and be engendered by, organizational networks that operate similarly to the way in which we understand kinship systems to operate: by enhancing communication, sharing useful information, providing support of various kinds, and spreading ideas.
In many workplaces, communities of solidarity do not spontaneously cross ethnic lines. Hence, in order to build an alliance between communities of solidarity among different ethnicities in the African, Asian, or Latin American diaspora, for the purpose, e.g., of an organizing drive or a contract battle or a strike, union organizers must find ways to build that solidarity in similar ways that they must build solidarity between white and non-white workers. In any given struggle, a decision has to be made collectively about which issues will take priority: which issues will launch a strike, for example, or which issues will become the centerpiece of an organizing drive. These issues include things like wage scales for different sectors of the work-force, rules about how internal transfers can be applied for, and specific work-rules on different types of jobs that can lead to discipline and dismissal. Because the work-force is so often segmented into jobs in ways that line up with race, gender, and ethnicity, the arguments over how these issues will be prioritized often involves conflicts across communities of solidarity.
Efforts to create solidarity and coalition between various ethnicities can obviously appeal to shared experiences, for example, the shared experience of anti-black racism among black ethnicities, or of anti-immigrant prejudices among immigrants. But they also must overcome a variety of antagonisms between nationalities as well as anti-immigrant prejudices, linguistic chauvinism, and anti-black racism across groups. Alliances and conflicts do not always line up on one axis or another, but vary. For example, immigrant workers sometimes buy into the racist stereotypes of African Americans, whether they themselves are light or dark-skinned. Immigrant workers may, like the Jamaicans Grosfoguel and Georas studied in New York City, try to position themselves as better than African-Americans, in order to gain economic and social advantage, and this may lead them to oppose the prioritizing of internal transfers.23 Domestic (that is, U.S.) ethnicities sometimes will side with management to support rules that restrict the use of any language other than English in the workplace, rules that fine and otherwise penalize workers who occasionally speak in their first language. Domestic groups may also resent the common request among immigrant workers to make four-week vacations a contract battle, which the immigrant workers see as a necessity so that they can return home to visit their family, including even their children or spouses.
Despite the variety of the conflicts, it is clear that nonwhite immigrant workers face an intersectional form of discrimination: they face racism as well as prejudice against perceived "foreigners" as well as colonialist attitudes about their countries of origin as well as restrictions on their right of speech if they speak Creole, French, Spanish, Tagalog, or any other language than English. They thus experience an intersectional version of oppression that combines and puts into play several axes of first world chauvinism and divisiveness.
Employers, of course, often can and often do exacerbate such divisions. For example, nursing home and hospital employers sometimes bring in Filipina nurses from overseas, paying them at a different and higher wage rate and moving them more quickly into nurse manager positions. Employers may also initiate severe restrictions on language use, and build solidarity across labor and management lines on the basis of nativist preferences. They may, and often do, create ethnic based hierarchies in the workplace. But arguably, these employer-initiated actions would not work if there were not already various kinds of divisiveness and chauvinisms among workers that the shop stewards and union leaders must challenge and make a concerted effort to overcome.
These workplace examples show that ethnic differences do make a difference within racial categories in the creation of communities of solidarity and for the purposes of political mobilization. Although I have mentioned the problems of chauvinism it is also clear that the obstacles that organizers encounter in their efforts to create alliances across communities of solidarity are sometimes the natural result of the way in which experience and objective positioning in the segmentation of the labor force have an impact on trust and understanding. Why should Dominican nurse aids have solidarity with white male skilled tradesmen, who often dominate the maintenance positions in hospitals and nursing homes, or trust that the tradesman will be able to understand the conditions of work for a nurse aid if elected to the bargaining committee? It is not simply ingrained chauvinism that is at work here in creating obstacles for solidarity, but also natural lines of demarcation based on life experience and work experience.24
These examples suggest that we should be skeptical toward the claim that immigrant groups are always or even generally better off than domestic groups. In some cases immigrant groups can make solidarity with white racism, while in other cases they will be subject to a cross-racial alliance based on first world chauvinism. So the distinction that Waters might want to make would need to be drawn differently if the intent is to mark differences in the intensity of oppression (which may not be her intention). Rather than assuming that immigrants will always leapfrog over domestic groups, we need to study the intersectional oppressions immigrants face in order to assess and compare experiences of racism and discrimination. To combat divisiveness, in fact, we should all consider the ways in which U.S. nationalism, what we used to call "Great Nation Chauvinism," is affecting and infecting the contemporary efforts, in the labor movement as well as elsewhere, to achieve equality and fairness and civil rights for all.
This is not to say that domestic U.S. minorities have no disadvantages vis-a-vis immigrants or foreign nationals. I well remember a dinner of the APA Committee of Hispanics/Latinos where we went around the room counting how many Latinos in the philosophy profession of us were born outside the U.S. versus how many were U.S.-born Latinos: the ratio was something like 8-1. For a variety of reasons that have to do with class as well as nationality, the foreign-born sometimes have significant advantages. But when class advantage does not exist, nor educational advantage, nor a difference in racialized identity, as is true for many recent immigrants poor nations, there is little leapfrogging and in fact, class status tends to move downward, not up, because the U.S. does not recognize degrees and skills cannot transfer without a proficiency in English. The overall point here is that, just as all domestic minorities are not equally oppressed since there are variations of class and visible appearance (especially for Latinos, lightness), so too all immigrant groups are not equally advantaged over them for the same reasons.
Clearly, differences within categories of identity can have moral and political relevance. But the complication is that we need a complex grid with multiple axes to understand those "differences within," rather than a single yardstick by which differences can only be marked as "more" or "less than."
Black, white, and brown all over
As a way to further complicate the grid of comparative racisms, I want to look at the comparative claims about black, white, and hispanic identities that Richard Rodriguez advances in his latest book, Brown, which has the ambitious subtitle: The Last Discovery of America. Rodriguez sees himself, I suspect, as the H.L. Mencken of the Latino community: the lone iconoclast exposing the shibboleths and illogic of our time in essay form. Like Mencken, Rodriguez takes his iconoclasm and isolation as a badge signifying intellectual independence and integrity; thus he likes to recount with humor and evident pride the many rebuffs and attacks he experiences from Latinos who attend his lectures around the country. Also like Mencken, Rodriguez mistakes conservatism for common sense.
Rodriguez's argument looks on the surface to be an argument in favor of maintaining the complexity of ethnic specificity in any schema of identity, as indicated by his sarcastic rendering of the census takers quoted in the beginning of this paper. He also insists that brown is irreducible to either black or white, a claim which goes some way toward maintaining specificity against the racial reductionism of the black/white binary. But as I will argue, his real thesis is one of alarming simplicity.
The ostensible thesis of the book is that "the future is brown." What he means by this is that an honest retelling of the racial story of the U.S. and an honest acknowledgement of where the U.S. is heading will show that, in both cases, brown dominates. Rodriguez explains that this is not because Latinos are becoming the "largest minority," a phrase he rightly finds oxymoronic, but, rather, because hispanics (as he calls us) are brown, because black people are really brown, and because the facts of erotic attraction will mean that eventually everyone will become brown. On the one hand, this thesis must remind us of José Vasconcelos, Franz Boas and the contemporary theorist Randall Kennedy, all of whom argued in one way or another that the "problem of race" will be resolved through a cross-racial coupling that eliminates racial differences and creates new hybrid peoples with familial connections in every direction.25 However, Rodriguez's claim actually reminds me more of Francis Fukuyama's book, The End of History and the Last Man, which dreams of a final and absolute end to social change and revolutions.26 Where Fukuyama thinks capitalism is bringing an end to ideology and thus ideological clashes, Rodriguez hopes the browning of the U.S. will bring an end to race, to racial conflict, and to our "obsession" with difference.
Rodriguez makes two other claims, besides the intermarrying claim, that he thinks lend further support to this hope. The first is that Hispanic identity is based on the illusory belief that past historical attachments will continue to prevail in the future. He says "Hispanicity is culture. Not blood, Not race. Culture, or the illusion of culture—ghost-ridden. A belief that the dead have a hold on the living."27 Since Hispanic identity has no racial or "blood" essence, he suggests that it is based in culture, but the culture one had before coming to the Anglo-dominated world of the United States. However, Rodriguez believes that cultural assimilation is both desirable and unavoidable.28 Thus, Hispanicity is without foundation and bound eventually to deconstruct.
Rodriguez's assumption here is that hispanic or "brown" identity has no racial basis because it is the product of heterogeneity and is essentially variable. He is correct, of course, that Latinos come in every possible race. However, the racial variety within hispanicity—or its lack of racial foundation—does not actually entail a transcendence of considerations of what he quaintly calls "blood." If we adopt Angelo Corlett's genealogical definition of Latino identity, in which latinidad is based on a familial relationship that can be traced to Latin America, then latinidad is not reducible to a cultural practice that anyone can adopt but is an unchosen category of identity based on blood ties. Corlett's account has the virtue of explaining how racial variety can coexist with a biologically based identity: through genealogical and geographical rather than racial reference points.
Rodriguez does not consider this possibility. He presents our options as a mutually exclusive choice between invoking racial commonality or acknowledging the amorphousness of history. Since there is no real Hispanic culture that meaningfully incorporates all Hispanics, he holds the category as metaphysically corrupt, although he acknowledges its current political (though socially constructed) reality. To illustrate this idea, Rodriguez uses the faded and indistinct connotations that the color brown signifies as a metaphor for the state of Hispanic identity. "Brown confuses," he claims; it is "a color produced by careless desire, even by accident."29 Brown represents a "complete freedom of substance and narrative."30 Thus, in saying that the future is brown, he is suggesting that in the future, there will only be, in his words, this muddy sign of decomposition, the color of fog, of maggots and faded celluloid.31 The color of nothing substantial.
Brown is thus used by Rodriguez in the same way that Derrida used the concept of differance, as that which cannot signify but can only disrupt the attempt to stabilize meanings or establish reference. Black and white are distinct, firm, and substantive, but brown is accidental, careless, unsubstantial. Here, Rodriguez is maintaining the idea that hybridity cannot have definite form, that the combination of strains can only be a dilution, not a new form in itself. But why must brown be a sign of decomposition, no clearer than fog, unless one assumes that combinatory identities cannot have any integrity unto themselves. In reality, many sorts of "brown" or hybrid identities have become self-standing, substantive cultural forms, with collective meanings and specific histories, such as Mexican, Nuyorican, or Chicano identities.
Rodriguez makes interesting contrasts between white and brown, on the one hand, and between brown and black, on the other. When explaining whiteness, Rodriguez refers mainly to white self-constructions or self-understandings. "White" identity, he tells us, "is an impulse to remain innocent of history",32 whereas "Brown marks the passage of time." This is because brownness is a visible reminder of a history of erotic encounters. Whiteness, by contrast, reveals that there is nothing truly interesting in one's history, in the sense of erotic boundary-crossing, so one might as well ignore it. Now on the one hand, Rodriguez makes clear that he doesn't really buy this white claim of ahistoricity, and he makes fun of the metaphorical bleaching and occasional acid baths that whites must resort to in order to absolve their memories and empty their history.33 But he then turns around and voices a surprising admiration for this feckless attempt to escape, on the grounds that it furthers the "freedom to become" which is "the freedom to imagine oneself free."34
Here we might be reminded of Nietzsche, for whom strategic forgetting is a necessity of the will to life. Rodriguez seems similarly to believe that forgetting is required for self-transformation. Thus he gives whites a certain amount of credit for forgetting, as an impulse that has good effects even if its motivated by cowardice or denial. The idea, however, that forgetting will enhance the possibility of self-transformation is open to debate. Isn't it more likely that forgetting will limit self-transformation, by removing important motivations (the desire to avoid abusive histories)? Can the ability to be free to think and act differently really require a pathological denial or a repudiation of one's forbears?
Rodriguez thinks blackness also involves a denial, but one he shows no sympathy for, not even the amused sympathy he shows for white denials. He argues that African Americans are really brown, that is, the product of black and white relations. He realizes that their reasons for not wanting to acknowledge their brownness are different from whites: with different motivations and different political effects, more understandable and less morally troubling. (Who wants to acknowledge the paternity of a rapist?) But it is similarly, Rodriguez insists, a denial of the truth of history. He then says "The last white freedom in America will be the freedom of the African American to admit brown. Miscegenation. To speak freely of ancestors, of Indian and Scots and German and plantation owner. To speak the truth of themselves. That is the great advantage I can see for blacks in the rise of the so-called Hispanic." He also adds, amazingly, "What I want for African Americans is white freedom. The same as I wanted for myself."35 In this book, which is his third, Rodriguez exemplifies the same desire to shave off the color of his skin as he admitted to in his first memoir of childhood, Hunger of Memory.
By the end of Brown, Rodriguez presents the reader with a mono-racialist futuristic vision which is actually identical to a non-racialist future, the sort of imaginary color-blind world that some whites still believe they live in. On Rodriguez's account, brownness is both more true than anything else and, to repeat, wholly unsubstantial. So in the end, Rodriguez's "brown" is really just a form of whiteness in drag since it aims to deny the legacy of history that remains in cultural identities, as well as the specific substance of racial identity, and it lends credence to the ideal of color-blindness. Where blackness irresponsibly denies truth, and brownness signifies only the lack of substance, whiteness, as it is lived and imagined, represents freedom and the possibility of self-determination. Although his ostensible thesis is that the future is brown, Rodriguez's real thesis is that the future will be, and should be, white.
Rodriguez's real aim in Brown is not sociological as much as it is psychological: his aim is help us toward an imaginary refiguration of the powerful symbol of race. Brownness is merely a stage in that process: by deflating the substance of race, it leads to a lightening—or whitening—of the burden of race. There are many inconsistencies in his reinterpretation of the historical narrative of racialization (e.g. the fact that he both rejects and embraces racial denials, and the fact that he both defends and erases brown identity). But these inconsistencies do not constitute a flaw but an aid to his real goal, which is to muddy the definitions of race so much that the categories lose their intelligibility.
However, where does this really take us? The boundaries between groups and between group concepts can be vague and arbitrary without losing their operational force. The Nazis tried very hard to objectify Jewish identity and to develop technical instruments by which its presence could be detected even in the absence of self-disclosure, visible physical signs, or any genealogical information. They failed in this task, yet nearly succeeded in genocide nonetheless. Human variability does not admit of either clarity or precision, yet it structures our social relations and causes, or excuses, oppression. And miscegenation has not always led to an elimination of categories of difference, as much Latin American history reveals, but more often to their proliferation into more variegated maps with hierarchies intact.
So what can be learned from the debate over ethnic differences within the category of blackness and from Richard Rodriguez' ruminations on brown identity? Several observations can be made. Perhaps most obvious is that we are living through a cultural moment of profound transformation in the way our society thinks about, conceptualizes, and categorizes racial and ethnic identities. The black/white binary is undergoing deconstruction, the assumed homogeneity of blackness is undergoing transformation, and the way in which Latino identity relates to either ethnicity or racial categories is up for debate. Obviously, the epiphanies people are having about the complexity of all these categories are not equally shared: some groups have been thinking and living these complexities for some time, while others are new to the whole discussion. Yet the fact that the current moment is one of debate, transformation, and no small amount of confusion means that perhaps philosophers might make a real world difference if we can use our skills to help clarify the options.
A second observation is that the weight of old ideologies can be seen pulling heavily on the attempts at new thinking and new categories. Rodriguez may look as if he is queering brownness, or using brownness to queer race, and thus providing a sophisticated new take on the postmodern fluidity of identity formations. However, what I have tried to show in my reading is that white supremacy still structures his aesthetic. Whiteness as the freedom to forget the past, and to ignore its effects on the political economy of the present, is the only ideal he can imagine. But this is not an equal opportunity ideal. I would also suggest that the sort of concern about who is benefiting from affirmative action that motivated the first half of this paper—the concern that would circumscribe reparations within a nationalist framework that stops at the border—is also weighed down by old ideologies. As the theorists in Latin American studies have been stressing, globalization as a transnational political economy is hardly new but is more than 500 years old, and we need to develop transnational rather than national accounts of economic enrichment, identity formation, as well as moral and political responsibility. Nonwhite third world peoples coming to the United States out of economic desperation have a long and complicated historical tie to the United States government and multi-nationals; very few are genuinely new to the adverse effects of this orbit of power.
What I ultimately want to argue for, then, may appear to go against the grain of much common sense thinking, but I think it is our best plan. What I want to argue for is identity proliferation, which is what some people see as analogous in its harm to nuclear proliferation. Wouldn't it be better, some think, to stem the tide of identity categories, if not immigration, and adopt either a racial eliminativism or some pan-national or otherwise amorphous category like "brown" under which we can all be subsumed? No, not while our labor markets are still stratified by race, ethnicity, nationality, and gender, and not while the global culture wars continue to heat up. To understand the complexities of global identities and global markets, we need specificity. Analysing and accounting for the specificities of our complex differences in no way entails an increase in conflict but should enhance our ability to see more clearly where we need to negotiate and compromise and thus how we might more effectively make common cause.
Rodriguez thinks that the metaphysics of difference is hopelessly muddy, that the political effects of naming our differences always undermine justice, and therefore we should all become neutral, meaning brown, meaning white. He is not alone in thinking this way. Yet in the real world, communities of solidarity will continue to grow organically, demarcated by misplaced chauvinisms at times, but also based on real and not only imagined shared experience. The task of the organizer is not to convince everyone that neither race nor ethnicity are real, but to show precisely and accurately how, precisely because of their very identities, workers have in some cases common enemies and common problems and can thus make common cause. Perhaps we philosophers can help.
1 Sara Rimer and Karen W. Arenson, The New York Times, June 24, 2004.
2 Richard Rodriguez, Brown: The Last Discovery of America, (New York: Viking Press, 2002), p. 105.
3 This method would not work for all of the kinds of entities that ontologists concern themselves with, and I don't believe it even works fully for gender, but it does work with ethnicity and race.
4 Such an approach as I am advocating for here is developed extremely well by Paul C. Taylor in his Race: A Philosophical Introduction, Malden, MA.: Blackwell, 2004.
5 See esp. "Toward a Phenomenology of Racial Embodiment" in Race edited by Robert Bernasconi (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001), 267-283; and "Against Post-Ethnic Futures" Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol. 18, No. 2, 2004, 99-117.
6 See e.g. Appiah's arguments in Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race, co-authored with Amy Gutmann, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996, pp. 97-99.
7 See e.g. Maria P.P. Root's anthology, The Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders as the New Frontier, Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1997.
8 See Patricia J. Williams, Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997; Robert Gooding-Williams, "Race, Multiculturalism and Democracy," Constellations vol.. 5, no. 1; (March 1998): 18-41; Charles W. Mills, Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.
9 Ramón Grosfoguel and Chloé S. Georas, "The Racialization of Latino Caribbean Migrants in the New York Metropolitan Area" CENTRO Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Vol. 8, Nos. 1&2/1996, p. 195. Grosfoguel has emerged as one of the leading analysts of migratory identities within colonial contexts; hence my reliance on his analysis here. See also Migration, Transnationalization, and Race in a Changing New York, edited by Héctor R. Cordero-Guzmán, Robert C. Smith, and Ramón Grosfoguel, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001; Colonial Subjects: Puerto Ricans in a Global Perspective by Ramón Grosfoguel, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003; and The Modern/Colonial/Capitalist World-System in the Twentieth Century: Global Processes, Antisystemic Movements, and the Geopolitics of Knowledge edited by Ramón Grosfoguel and Ana Margarita Cervantes-Rodríguez London, Praeger, 2002.
10 Samuel Huntington, Who are We? The Challenges to America¹s National Identity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), p. 243.
11 Huntington, p. 256.
12 Within a few weeks of the publication of Huntington¹s book (March 2004) on the threat Latinos pose to "American democracy," the Associated Press reported that Mexican workers employed by U.S. companies within the United States are four times more likely to die in work-related accidents as U.S. born workers. These death rates have been rising faster than their population increase, to a peak of 420 in the year 2001. The AP reported also that the main causes of this inflated work-related death rate are, first, the Mexican workers' 'third world' work ethic and, second, the flagrant disregard for safety laws by the companies that hire them. So much for the superiority of Anglo-Protestant cultural values and respect for the rule of law.
13 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks translated by Charles Lam Markmann (New York, Grove Press, 1967), p. 93.
14 I develop the beginnings of such an expanded account in chapter 11 of Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self, Oxford University Press, 2006.
15 Grosfoguel and Georas, "The Racialization of Latino Caribbean Migrants in the New York Metropolitan Area," p. 197.
20 Native Americans also invoke guilt responses, and in some locations Mexicans may as well.
21 See the discussion of Lee's case in Frank Wu, Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White New York: Basic Books, 2002.
22 Obviously, this is not sufficient evidence for conclusive results, but suggests some of the questions that should be addressed in a more adequate sampling.
23 Allowance of internal transfers—where a janitor, for example, can apply to become maintenance man—are critical tools in overcoming racism. It is easier for a person to be hired into a facility as a janitor than as a maintenance man, and if internal transfers are not encouraged that person may remain at the lowest job rung for their entire work life.
24 Some of these ideas are discussed in "Is Organizing Enough? Race, Gender and Union Culture" by Bill Fletcher, Jr. (former Education Director of the AFL-CIO) and Richard W. Hurd (Director of Labor Studies at Cornell University), New Labor Forum 2000.
25 See José Vasconcelos, The Cosmic Race, translated by Didier T. Jaén, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979; Randall Kennedy, Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption, New York: Random House, 2003; and Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940. Vasconcelos is the only one in this group who does not argue in favor of hybridity on the grounds that it will reduce or even eliminate racism, but he does argue that the future will be dominated by superior hybrid rather than inferior "pure" identities.
26 (New York: The Free Press, 1992).
27 Rodriguez, pp. 128-129.
28 I discuss this aspect of his claim in Visible Identities forthcoming with Oxford, chapter 7.
29 Rodriguez, p. xi.
30 Rodriguez, p. xi.
31 Rodriguez, p. 36-37.
32 Rodriguez, p. 139.
33 Rodriguez, p. 140.
35 Rodriguez, p. 142.