The recent death of New York University law professor Derrick Bell, a tenacious black champion of "critical race theory," and a recent report that the Supreme Court may take up a new challenge to affirmative action on campus both mark the decline of racial "identity politics" and "diversity" strategies that preoccupied America before 9/11 and the current economic and political crisis.
Not even racism's raw eruptions against the first black President or its grinding ubiquity in the lives of countless non-whites (especially young black men) caused the crisis that's gripping this country. And not even the staunchest anti-racist activism, necessary though it surely is, will get us out of it.
Racism will only become more virulent if Americans fall back into distracting themselves from the real crisis by raising either barriers of white racism or banners of a defensive black and Latino racial pride. The truth, clearer now amid growing economic inequality, is that even as some "diversity" champions have draped great American universities in a brilliant raiment of "diversity" in order to redress their centuries of sexism and racism, they've also been busy transforming those colleges from the crucibles of civic-republican virtue and leadership training that they once were into the career-networking centers and cultural galleria that they now are for a colorful global elite that answers to no polity or moral code.
"Diversity" won't solve that problem, because no skin color necessarily betokens a progressive culture, as you might think from reading the colleges' brochures and activists' journals. Neither putting up white-racist barriers nor waving non-white racial banners (often on top of new racial barriers that are erected by the defiant and defensive) can protect anyone from the economic and cultural upheavals that lie ahead.
That hard truth hit me in Zuccotti Park last Tuesday when I picked up a newspaper bearing the banner headline, "Occupy Wall Street," thinking, mistakenly, that I was picking up a copy of the protesters' Occupied Wall Street Journal. I found myself reading The Black Star, a rather retro, African-American "movement" paper that had an essay by Alton Maddox, Jr., the attorney of the infamous Tawana Brawley hoax, now urging "the Black community" to "assemble soon to develop" a "working definition of public-affairs programming."
Such appeals held little allure for the (relatively few) black people I saw in the park, most of them young and interacting easily with white peers in the "hand-signal" workshop and the teach-in I visited. They were trying to assemble not "the Black community" but something larger. Although they mightn't have been there at all had it not been for affirmative action in their schools and colleges, they were looking past ethno-racial identity and Professor Bell, who had made a name for himself by asserting that racism is not just inexorable but ineradicable.
In 1989 Bell rocked Harvard Law School by resigning from its faculty because it wouldn't agree to tenure a black woman it had already turned down. He and other critical race theorists also demanded that American courts adjust jury-selection and evidentiary standards to give special weight to the presumed racial wisdom of plaintiffs, defendants and jurors of color.
Supporters of Bell in the tenure dispute -- including a Harvard law student named Barack Obama -- thought he "was keeping alive the spirit of Rosa Parks and other heroes of the civil rights movement," according to the historian James Kloppenberg in Reading Obama. Few think that now, least of all Obama. Not only was he young then, and still finding himself; the country was still finding itself racially in ways neither right nor left understood fully.
Obama's election two decades later would rattle the premises and parameters of both left-leaning champions of identity politics and right-leaning racists. Most voters seemed to be taking seriously Justice Harry Blackmun's wise dictum, in the Bakke affirmative-action case of 1973, that "In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race:" Voters in 2008 certainly took account of race, but in order to get beyond what the romantically multiculturalist left and the still-segregationist right consider "essential" to race: its supposedly ineradicable depth, on both sides of the color line.
Obama's paradigm-rattling election -- and, for feminists, the equally paradigm-rattling insurgencies of the feisty Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell and other Tea Partying assailants of both Hillary Clinton and of Obama -- suggested that although it's still necessary to "take account of race" and sex, we'd better make sure that color-coding doesn't divert attention from swifter, darker currents of greed and exploitation swamping the American republic.
We need to review what champions of identity and "diversity" politics actually accomplished while riding the 40-year-long tsunami of casino finance, corporate welfare, military-industrial boondoggling, and consumer-bamboozling that more of us should have been challenging instead of gaming.
Avatars of racial identity rose to prominence during what I call "the Great Crossover" of the left's and the right's approaches to racial identity in the 1970s. At that time, the slogan of most American conservatives had long been and was still, in effect, "Every group in its place, with a label on its face." It was liberals who were crooning "the Lord is Colorblind" alongside the Smothers Brothers on national television.
But by 1991, when I published The Closest of Strangers, and in 1997, when I published Liberal Racism, conservatives were claiming that the only important color is dollar green, while liberals and leftists were according recognition to almost every self-proclaimed "nationalism" of color or sexual orientation, from the Nation of Islam to Queer Nation.
This crossover was driven partly by conservative opportunism, partly by white-liberal guilt, and partly by some leftists' misdirection of legitimate grievances: Since racism and sexism had been pillars of economic and political exploitation, some leftists imagined wishfully -- or ideologically -- that the victims of that exploitation were the natural, inevitable leaders, or "cat's paw," of the reconfiguration of capitalism or, indeed, of a revolution against it.
The most fervent champions of identity politics, including Bell, other critical race theorists, Afrocentrists, and ideologically or guilt-driven white supporters, wound up in a cul de sac, recapitulating some of the very divisions and resentments that had perpetuated blacks' exploitation and isolation. Like Maddox and his colleagues in the Brawley case, they carried Justice Blackmun's dictum way beyond just "taking account of race" and toward re-valorizing and re-institutionalizing it: "I am excluded; therefore, I am."
What's not so often pondered is that they soon got a lot encouragement from capitalist managers and strategists who were only too ready to help make "rainbow" identity politics seem not just colorful but comfortable. All you had to do, it seemed, was drop some shared civic-republican standards and convictions, the kind that once restrained the very casino-financiers and executive corporate-welfare queens who have proliferated and preened right alongside multiculturalism itself.
Activists who got lost in celebrating ethno-racial differences didn't notice that when Spike Lee's movie Do the Right Thing trumpeted the slogan "Fight the Power," the Power black militants talked about fighting was really a "moving target," as Forbes Magazine ads bragged in the 1980s: It was an organism so protean, supple, and absorptive of racial and sexual identities that it turned some racial and sexual flag-wavers into its own best performers and hucksters. The moving target raised those pennants of racial and sexual identity atop colleges whose "liberal education" is increasingly market-driven and defined.
I doubt that Martin Luther King, Jr. foresaw this new way of capitalizing on racial differences when, in 1963, he characterized American guarantees of liberty as a "promissory note" that blacks had finally come to cash. "We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt," he'd added, putting both liberal integrationists and conservative apostles of free markets on the line not just politically but, as his metaphor suggested, economically.
King certainly understood the importance of exploitation by economic class as well as by race and gender; he died while leading a trans-racial Poor People's Movement and defending sanitation workers in Memphis. But I imagine than the man who envisioned little black children and little white children holding hands would have regarded the identity politics of both a Louis Farrakhan and a corporate "diversity" consultant as at best a distraction, if not a bridge too far from the actual bank of justice.
"But don't you believe in diversity?," a mystified-looking student asked me at Harvard's Kennedy School several years ago as I aired these concerns. A diversity adept would have called my questioner "Asian;" his diction and dress suggested he'd grown up in America. I answered him with a civic-republican challenge: "In the spirit of diversity, tell me three things you'd like me to assume I know about you, given only that I can see that you're 'Asian.' [I finger-signed quote marks around the term.] Say I'm an admissions officer, a professor, or a journalist who'll report our conversation to the world. What assumptions would you like me to act on?"
We all laughed a bit awkwardly, because most people wouldn't want someone like me assigning a public value to their racial appearances and affinities, especially if that might limit a distinctively American freedom to find yourself by leaving your ethno-racial baggage aside, or affirming it less than mystically or fatalistically.
The historian Robert Wiebe wrote that in America no one can tell you your ethnicity; only you can do that, and often only after much introspection, even if you're presumed black by others. Obama said as much in Dreams From My Father, and many considered his election a vindication of that very American understanding of freedom.
The contrary institutionalization of identity politics, however benign in intent, has served too often as the moving target's accelerant and ornament. It has made ethno-racial identity a commodity that even the more fortunate can trade on as they "find themselves" in those collegiate career-networking centers and cultural galleria. Older, more venerable racial and sexual counter-cultures of endurance, defiance, and memory, tempered with love, are transformed into over-the-counter cultures that distract those who consume them from figuring out what's happening to opportunity in America as companies that are ecologically green, gay-friendly, or gloriously diverse climb onto the global casino-finance, corporate-welfare, military-industrial, consumer bamboozling wrecking ball.
Few of us can or would return to an old ethno-racial counter-culture without faking it. We'd probably be better off countering today's over-the-counter culturization of racial identity by letting go of the angels and the demons of racial and sexual identity.
For conservatives, that might mean ending their effusive embraces of talented people of color who serve as eloquent apologists for laissez-faire capitalism when it becomes laissez fail. Any true patriot of the American republic should be able to tell that global capitalist tsunamis are degrading the republic's wellsprings and sovereignty
Liberals and neo-liberals who've done well by surfing those tsunamis, and so aren't all that serious about restraining or channeling them at any great cost to themselves, sometimes try to ease their consciences by turning the achievements of the civil-rights movement into moralistic, tokenistic gestures against racism and sexism. These often end up deepening the inequalities that now divide more blacks from blacks, and women from women, even as they keep on dividing blacks from whites and women from men.
Gestural, tokenistic "diversity" of the kind we've too often indulged and, indeed, embraced only reconciles people of all colors into the increasingly degrading war of all against all. Pasting Barack Obama's (or Fareed Zakaria's) face on the global wrecking ball doesn't humanize it.
For three centuries, blacks' struggles to belong to and redeem the American republic have woven the most powerful epic of unrequited love in the history of the world. But Obama's ascent to the presidency has shown how insufficient, though necessary, those struggles are to saving the republic from undertows even darker and swifter than racism itself.