Discourse about race and politics in the United States has been driven in recent years more by moralizing than by careful analysis or strategic considerations. It also depends on naïve and unproductive ways of interpreting the past and its relation to the present. I’ve discussed a number of the political and intellectual casualties of what we might call this Great Awokening, among them a tendency to view the past anachronistically, through the lens of the assumptions, norms, and patterns of social relations of the present.
That inclination has only intensified with proliferation of notions like Afropessimism, which postulates that much of, if not all, the history of the world has been propelled by a universal “anti-blackness.” Adherents of the Afropessimist critique, and other race-reductive thinkers, posit a commitment to a transhistorical white supremacy as the cornerstone and motive force of the history, and prehistory, of the United States, as well as imperialist and colonialist subjugation in other areas of the world. Most famously, The New York Times’ award-winning 1619 Project, under the direction of Nikole Hannah-Jones, asserts that slavery and racial subordination have defined the essence of the United States since before the founding—a brand of ahistorical moralizing that is now being incorporated into high school history curricula.
Yet, as I have argued, the premise that subordination to white supremacy has been black Americans’ definitive and unrelenting experience in the United States is undone by the most casual observation. As just one instance, I recall a panel at an early 1990s conference on black politics at Harvard Law School, organized by the school’s black student group, on which a distinguished black Harvard Law professor declaimed—with no qualification or sense of irony—that nothing had changed for black Americans since 1865. Until recently, this obviously false contention could make sense as a rhetorical gambit, indeed one that depended on its falsity for its effectiveness. It was a jeremiad dressed up as an empirical claim; “nothing has changed” carried a silent qualifier—that whatever racial outrage triggered the declaration makes it seem as though nothing had changed. This kind of provocation pivots on the tacit rhetorical claim that the offense it targets is atavistic—but in order for it to gain any significant traction, it requires that we understand that things have changed to the extent that such offenses should no longer be condoned, accepted, or taken in stride.
Saturday, December 26, 2020
Discourse About Race
Adolph Reed Jr. at The New Republic: