PROPERTIES OF RACE

Snke Zehle

 

I. Does Race Matter? SUNY Binghamton, October 1996

 

Soon after the beginning of the student protests at SUNY Binghamton in October 1996, participants as well as critical spectators debated the scope and significance of the questions the protesters had raised. Among participants and supporters, topics of debate ranged from police brutality and the detrimental consequences of privatizing public universities to alternatives to forms of political representation in which the defeat of minorities is constitutive rather than accidental. Conservative critics, most often publicizing their views in the Heritage Foundation-sponsored Binghamton Review, interpreted this broad range of concerns as lack of a unified strategy and agenda and argued that the protesting "multiculturalists" were demonstrating nothing other than the intellectual and political bankruptcy of their "world view." The starting point for the following attempt at discussing the concepts of "race" and "whiteness" was provided, however, by what I perceived to be a curious commonality between protesters and their critics: "race," it was often said, ought not to become a focal point. Through examples as disjunctive as a recent newspaper article on "black achievement," the role accorded to Native Americans in early debates on immigration restriction, and some of the legal aspects of suburbanization, I hope to suggest that a discussion of "race" employing terms other than those provided by the languages of liberal individualism and cultural pluralism could become the starting point of another, broad-based organizing effort.

Most of the student authors publishing in the Binghamton Review sarcastically interpreted the various educational events, sit-ins, and forums as an irrational attempt at reviving an multiculturalism they believe to have been exposed as self-contradictory and ultimately defeated. According to these writers, the social reality of "color-blindness" and "procedural equality" has rendered race as a term of articulating and understanding social relations hopelessly inadequate and institutional support specific to individual groups other than the universal "we" of a (presumably) larger and more inclusive collectivity unnecessary. On the contrary, the arguments continued, affirmative action, diversity requirements, and other institutional manifestations of multiculturalism constitute a form of minority restitution unjustly imposed on innocent descendants of a culture once, but certainly no longer, insensitive to alterity. While conservative critics asserted that "race" is effectively subsumed under neutral categories of achievement and should therefore no longer direct social analysis, many participants and supporters argued that a race-centered discussion would deflect attention from the multi-ethnic character of their organizing effort. In addition, such a discussion ought to contribute to an essentializing of "race" critical discourses had been working so long to challenge by pointing to the constructedness of such categories.

I wanted to respond to the argument that race has ceased to be an adequate category of analyzing social distinctions not only because it ignores the perpetuation of race-based segregation and discrimination but because it is itself symptomatic of a discourse on race that, paradoxically, does not have to speak about it--a racism without races that nevertheless continues to presuppose and reproduce radicalized categories. All of the following examples illustrate that racial designations continue to differ in their material significance, denoting varying access to resources and thus vastly different chances for meritocratic "performance." What is more, every one of these moments has, I believe, helped establish a notion of "whiteness" that can afford to constantly disavow the material and theoretical presuppositions sustaining it.

The success of referenda demanding that immigration be restricted and affirmative action abolished have confirmed the perception that the parameters within which the discussion of race and whiteness takes place are set mainly in suburbs that are predominantly white and middle-class. Since of the white college students on our campuses come from suburban locations where exposure to "otherness"-racial or economic-has been limited, a discussion of "whiteness" requires some analysis of how it became possible that suburbanites link the expectations of uninhibited social and geographical mobility that appear to inform their political agendas to intrinsic characteristics rather than heavily subsidized transportation systems and housing conditions.

 

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